Thursday, 16 July 2009

Whistling in the wind

It is hard to know where to start when discussing the government's new "low-carbon" energy plan, it is so full of internal contradictions and downright nonsense. But I have to pick somewhere so I'll start with the presumption that the world is warming. This ties in nicely with the announcement made last week that some international talking-shop or another is determined to keep global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius above the level of some time around 1750. There's a bit of slack built in already, the earth has political permission to get warmer provided it doesn't get too warm. So from that starting point my initial observation is that a bit of warming should reduce energy consumption because there will be less of a need to heat our homes and workplaces during the chilly months. There, we have reduced our "carbon footprint" already and it hasn't cost a bean.

Where do we go from there? I know, let's see how they plan to generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide. The headline measure is windmills. I am not sure whether these are the same windmills to which they committed £100billion just a few months ago but I presume they are. The intention is to build about 7,000 new windmills by 2020. I've got news for them. It's 2009 already so they only have ten years and five months, 125 months. So that's 56 windmills per month or the best part of two a day every day for more than ten years. Are we really expected to believe that this will happen? Given enough people, materials and money any number of anything can be built pretty quickly, but even so this task strikes me as impracticable.

And what if it does happen? That's where the real fun and games arise. Windmills can only produce electricity when the wind is blowing. When it is not blowing they often have to be kept turning to prevent the blades buckling in the sun (because the size of the things means the three blades will catch unequal amounts of energy from the sun and will buckle unless they are rotated to keep exposure roughly equal). So they will need to take electricity from the grid when they need to be rotated and there is insufficient wind to perform the task.

When the wind is turning the blades electricity will be generated but at present there is no efficient way of storing that juice, it can be fed into the grid and a coal/gas/nuclear plant can be turned down or it can be drained away to earth if there is no call for it. Yet the wind can stop just as quickly as it starts, so there must always be conventional back-up generators to fill the void. Some of these can be turned on and off reasonably quickly but they use a lot more fuel that way compared to running pretty much constantly. Any saving of fossil fuel use through having windy electricity being fed into the grid is ameliorated by the additional fuel consumption and wear-and-tear of the conventional plants. And there is always a bottom line. The bottom line is that we must maintain sufficient conventional generating capacity to provide all our needs because it can never be known how much will come from the windmills.

Coal-fired generators are included in the plan. The government has kindly agreed to allow these provided they are fitted with mechanisms to capture a lot of the carbon dioxide they produce before it floats into the air. What a splendid idea. Or it would be if such mechanisms existed. Some are being trialled at the moment but they are a long way from being usable on a large scale. And all of them require power which means more fuel must be used to generate the same amount of electricity.

So, the plan is to construct an unattainable number of windmills at an unaffordable cost in order to provide an unreliable supply, whilst maintaining conventional generating capacity but not using it efficiently and making it less fuel-efficient when it is used.

Only central planning can come up with such a scheme.

Technological advances might well find ways of storing spare electricity, I would certainly expect that to happen because history shows engineers to be able to find solutions to such problems. Yet no one can say when a solution will be found and there is certainly no guarantee that it will be before 2020. As and when it does happen, windmills might have a serious part to play but even then they can only generate so much power, we are a very long way from windmills being able to make more than a marginal contribution to our electricity needs.

So why is this ridiculous plan being put forward? Ostensibly it is because of fears of catastrophic global warming. Did you spot the adjective I slipped in there? Catastrophic. A bit of warming or a bit of cooling is neither here nor there, even the doomiest of doom-mongers don't argue that small changes will be harmful to anyone other than those who like the cold. You might think that before embarking on a hugely expensive and inefficient exercise the government would take a look at whether the evidence of risk justifies the expense. Those who believe in the catastrophic man-made global warming scenario argue that current evidence of no measured increase in actual average temperatures over the last decade does not undermine their hypothesis. Those who don't believe in it cite the last decade as strong evidence that the hypothesis is incorrect. For the purposes of what I have to say today it really doesn't matter which, if either, of those sides is correct. The simple fact is that the government did not re-assess the evidence before launching the new plan. To say the least, their approach is slipshod.

A further aspect of the plan is worth mentioning. It seems that they want to compel people to utilise energy-saving measures in their homes and work places. We already see this in the current Building Regulations that require a newly-built property to meet strict energy efficiency targets before the work will be certified and the property becomes marketable. Usually these targets can only be met by the installation of cavity-wall insulation or the use of insulating boarding on internal walls, in either case combined with double-glazed windows. It seems likely that they will extend the Building Regulations to ensure that double-glazing and wall insulation have to be added even where work of a non-structural nature is undertaken.

There is a precedent for this in the regulations about noise insulation between flats. Originally noise insulating flooring (which is nothing more than inch-thick chipboard with a layer of hard rubber) had to be fitted only when a new block of flats was being built. Then they extended it to conversions of single dwellings into one or more flats, and now the installation of nothing more than a new bathroom is viewed by some Councils' Building Control departments as triggering the need to replace all flooring so as to provide effective sound insulation between one flat and the flat below. I expect the same creeping process to apply to double glazing and the insulation of walls.

The reason I mention this is that the cost of the work is almost always far in excess of the saving in heating bills. Decent quality double-glazing of a modest home can easily cost between four and five thousand pounds whilst saving only a few pounds a year in heating costs. Wall insulation might only set you back a thousand or two (including the cost of redecoration) while also saving very little. Say these measures save £150 a year, itself somewhat unlikely for a modest property even with electricity and gas costing what they do today, it would take almost thirty years to recoup insulating costs of £4,000. Maybe the windows and wall insulation will last that long or maybe they won't, no one can tell. What we can tell is that people will be forced to fork-out a lot of money on a pure gamble whether they will ever get a benefit from it.

At every stage of this plan one thing is clear. The costs are enormous whilst the benefits are purely speculative. Actually, one other thing is clear. Even if catastrophe will strike through substantial further emissions of carbon dioxide, those emissions will happen anyway. Nibbling-away at the 2% or so of global emissions originating from the UK is utterly futile while China and India today, and Brasil, Mexico, South Africa and others tomorrow, use coal to provide them with energy to give them a small leg-up in their attempt to match the standard of living we currently enjoy.

The whole thing is a futile and unaffordable farce.


Mark Wadsworth said...


Roger Sowell said...

Well put, Mr. FB.

We here in California are suffering from our state's version of this farce, known as AB 32.

The grandiose title of the act is Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

Chris said...

Never mind global warming. Oil and gas are imported, so we will have to pay through the nose when supplies not longer keep up with demand.

It would make sense to find a way to turn our coal into electricity cleanly. I like the idea of using coal-eating bacteria to produce gas without mining.

Anonymous said...

There sure seems to be a disconnect between what's claimed is necessary and what's possible.

Since Chris has mentioned it Mr FatBigot, have you any opinions on peak oil? Britain's production has been declining for some time now.

Andrew W

Alex Cull said...

Well put, the FatBigot. Also don't forget the 13 ageing oil, coal and nuclear power stations the EU insist we shut down in six years' time. Things are about to get rather... interesting.

TheFatBigot said...

I've read much about AB 32 Mr Sowell, it is a complete nonsense of a law.

As each of its economically crippling tentacles has taken hold the effect on "greenhouse gases" has been less than promised, so new measures have been proposed which also cost a lot and deliver very very little.

As far as I can see, it is a pointless exercise in self-flagellation.

TheFatBigot said...

Mr Andrew, as far as I can tell "peak oil" is merely one example in a long list of doomsday predictions about the ability of natural resources to provide comfort for human beings.

For as long as I can remember: (i) oil will run out in 10 years' time and/or (ii) the costs of extracting oil will be too expensive in 10 years' time. These predictions have been made by one doom-monger or another for the last fifty or more years.

What happens in the real world is that we find ways of using oil more efficiently while developing alternative energy sources at the natural pace of the research and experimentation involved.

No doubt the day will come when oil and coal are no longer needed because other methods of generation will be adopted and will make coal and oil uneconomic fuels. When that day will arrive cannot be known, but it has far more to do with the ingenuity of scientists and engineers than with any number of governmental diktats.

Mild Mannered Welshman said...

Another fine post, Mr.B. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the brouhahah with regards the temperature anomaly trends for last month? There seems to be a divergence between UAH/RSS and NOA and GSS. If I am honest, I get mightily confused when they start talking sine reduced arcs and algorithm breakpoints and I inevitably end up reaching for some strong alcoholic beverage. Somebody seems to be pissing around with the data though. My garden thermometer has been hovering between 16-18C as an average for the last 3 weeks. I’ve barely seen the big fiery ball in the sky in the last two weeks and it’s been chucking it down like rain is going out of fashion. I wish our handlers would make up their minds about whether we are going to fry or freeze to death. I need to prepare my doom-stead for the heat and cold and sea level rises before the zombie hordes descend after peak die off due to us consuming all the oil and gas and preferably before we hit peak liquids or peak fertilizer or maybe peak phosphorus or peak uranium or peak food or peak wood and definitely before we get big mirrors in space.

Rob Farrington said...

Going off at a tangent a little, but I remember reading an article claiming that oil wasn't a fossil fuel at all, and that Russian scientists had discovered that it was produced abiotically.

Now, this might be complete rubbish for all I know - I confess that my knowledge of chemistry isn't nearly up to the task of understanding the processes (allegedly) involved.

Anyway, by the magic of Google, here are a couple of articles dealing with the subject:

Is there anyone who knows far more about the subject than me, who can shed any light on this? Is this true because...erm, it's actually true, and not just because I read it on the intarwetubenet and would like to beat greenies over the head with it?

Anonymous said...

Rob, I suggest you use that intarwetubenet thingy to study both sides of that debate, here's a starting place:

Mr FatBigot, until recently I haven't heard People claiming oil will run out in ten years, 20 years has been the standard time frame from doom-mongers that I'm aware of.

In large part your position relies on the assumption that what's true of the past must be true of the future, and the longer a past situation has existed the longer into the future it'll continue to exist, a bit like a 90 year old arguing that his chances of lasting another 30 years are better than those of a 30 year old because hey, that's only 1/3 of what he's already achieved!

Today we have a situation in which people expert in the oil industry are claiming peak oil within 10 years, or even that we may have seen global peak production 12 months ago.

Also please note that peak oilists don't claim oil is running out as such, they argue that a peak in flow rate, as a result of geological and engineering realities is inevitable, early peakists believe it's immanent, late peakists not so immanent.

This graph shows the countries that have past their Hubbert peak:

If we take the US example of peak oil, the volume of US oil discoveries occurred about 30 years before production peaked, globally the rate of discoveries peaked in the mid '60's at nearly 60 billion bbl/yr, since then the volume of discoveries has declined and is now at less that 10 billion bbl/yr - far below that necessary to replace consumption.

People will argue that new technologies have improved recovery rates - and they have - but new mining technologies don't create oil, and most of the improvements in technology have increased the speed of extraction rather the recovery ratios, which stubbornly remain around 35% across all oil fields.

I don't dispute that alternatives to oil are possible, though I strongly doubt any other than those that are known and being worked on now exist, and none of the proposed alternatives have all of oils availability, energy density, ease of storage and ease of use attributes.
My worry is that by assuming oil supply will meet demand until alternatives are on stream we risk a situation in which there is an energy crunch during the transition that could cause a vicious downward economic spiral.
Eventually after such events things balance out, the dust settles, and life goes on, (perhaps with the planet needing to support a few less people). There's no law of nature or economics that protects us from the nasty events of such a transition period.
As with all thing, the supply of good information, understanding that information and the will to act on that information is essential, we shouldn't rely on faith that "things will be ok because they have to be, all right?!"

Andrew W

TheFatBigot said...

I'm not quite sure that it matters whether oil is or is not a fossil fuel, although I had read of the suggestion that it isn't. I suppose it might mean it is not in limited supply if it is formed by some process that doesn't require millions of years to expire before a leaf can be put in your petrol tank.

So far as making provision for oil running out or becoming uneconomic, we can do that already by using nuclear. All that is required is to drum some sense into the heads of the knit-your-own-tofu brigade.

Anonymous said...

Mr FatBigot, While I share your confidence in nuclear and your scepticism of wind, I find it interesting that others, perhaps with more expertise in energy production, seem a have the opposite view:

Kind regards,
Andrew W

neil craig said...

I didn't realise the 2C rise was from 1750 rather than today. 1750 was during the Maunder Minimum when there were no sunspots & by a completely inexplicable coincidence, we had a century of the coolest weather in human history (or prehistory since the last ice age).

If there were large amounts of abiotic oil that would multiply our reserves to an ungeuesable amount & there is certainly some. However, while the evidence for it is far greater than for catastrophic warming I wouldn't want to bet the farm on it.

Roger Sowell said...

Peak Oil and unicorns have one thing in common...both are mythical. see

Furthermore, US oil production is growing, something that completely falsifies Peak Oil alarmists. A quote from Oil&Gas Journal (in turn quoting API (American Petroleum Institute)):

" US crude oil and condensate production, meanwhile, grew 3.4% to an average 5.29 million b/d in 2009’s first half from 5.12 million b/d during the comparable period a year earlier, according to API.

“New fields came on line offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and onshore in the Bakken shale of North Dakota,” Felmy said. Production grew despite a more than 12% drop in Alaska during June related to maintenance of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, API noted. "

Anonymous said...

Surely this grandiose scheme could provide employment for thousands of ecoloons. They could be stationed on wind farms and when the wind drops, they just blow out the hot air they love to spout in the media.

Anonymous said...

Mr Sowell: "Peak Oil and unicorns have one thing in common...both are mythical."
Mr Sowell, please take a look at this graph:

and this: one:

Now could you explain why you are right, and just about everyone involved in the oil industry is wrong?

Or perhaps by "mythical" you mean "something that hasn't actually happened yet"?

Andrew W

Anonymous said...

I quite like this bit from Freddy Hutter:
"Today's forecast Peak Rates range from Sadad al Husseini's 86-mbd (2011) to the EU's WETO-POLES model's 113-mbd (2038). The spread of 27-mbd has diminished from 48 just five years ago. The pessimists have been upward revising their forecasts an average 1.2-mbd/yr, while the optimists have in turn been dropping by 3.3-mbd/yr. Trivia alert: continuing this unholy methodology indicates that in time they should come together shortly and both agree to a Peak of 93-mbd in 2016. Monitoring of the merging will continue!!"


Roger Sowell said...

Andrew W,

It may surprise you, but not everybody in the "oil industry" thinks alike. I happen to be in the oil industry. Many, many people agree with me, as evidenced by the sheer lack of investment in crude oil futures.

If Peak Oil were real, wouldn't it make sense for thousands and millions of investors to put their money where their belief is, and buy up crude oil futures at low prices today, to sell them at fantastic profits later? Why is that not happening?

I believe my views are spelled out pretty well on this site:

If you have already read about Peak Oil and Unicorns, move on down to Peak Oil Not a Big Deal, and the others.

Peak Oil is a scare tactic designed to keep oil prices high and spur investment into oil wells; also to spur investment into alternative energy forms; both before the oil "runs out."

Many others have cried "Energy Shortage" or "Peak Oil" over the decades. Every time it was a lie. Other minerals also have a version of it, for example, iron ore. When the Mesabi Range was depleted, many feared that Peak Iron had occurred -- obviously it had not and did not and will not.

There is also no water shortage, no natural gas shortage, nor a permanent shortage of anything else. Every molecule that ever existed on Earth is still here, (except for a few in outer space, and a few that were altered in nuclear reactions).

I repeat myself, but the only thing that keeps oil prices high is restricted access to known oil reserves. This is a position articulated often by major oil companies, not by me alone.

Anonymous said...

Roger, there are five reasons that spring to mind for oil futures not going through the roof:
1. Timing, When is it going to happen? Sometime between now and 2030 would be my guess.
2. Investors are naturally conservative by nature.
3. While petroleum geologists are convinced, many lawyers, economists, and investors aren't despite the facts available to them, for example in your unicorns post you ignore sites concerning oil production realities and instead link to sites on prices, why? Production realities don't suit your position.
4. There is the possibility of alternatives to oil being brought on stream before an energy crunch occurs, that happening doesn't mean peak oil won't happen, it means peak oil happening and being coped with.
5. While people talk about oil prices going to $200 or more the reality is that such an oil shock, like other oil shocks, will cause economic contraction, which will reduce oil demand. Because petroleum products are so central to the global economy and substitution in many uses not easy the economy is sensitive to oil prices like it is to no other commodity.

Consider this Roger, all oil fields follow a production curve, smaller fields declining after just a few years, large fields after a few decades, clusters of fields follow this trend, production from individual nations are the same, do you seriously think the world as a whole is somehow different?

Andrew W

Roger Sowell said...

Andrew W,

Oil fields do follow a production decline as you describe. They have done so since the first well was discovered. In spite of this, oil production has increased year after year.

Is there something in "lack of access to known oil deposits" that is unclear?

Even if oil production does decline due to any reason (especially lack of access to drilling), the price will only rise in a series of small steps, each time to a plateau for many decades. Tar sands is the first such plateau (which produces oil). Next will be either oil shale, or perhaps photo-synthetic-oil, or coal-to-liquids.

There will not be any oil price shock of $200 or more per barrel, absent restricted access to oil. All that is wild, scare-mongering talk.

If you read what I wrote on The Grand Game, this will be more clear.

Anonymous said...

No Roger, I've got a rough idea what "lack of access to known oil deposits" means, perhaps you could identify these deposits for me, I know there are a few in the US that haven't been utilised yet, but very few, if any, outside the US that are restricted for political reasons, just how big are you claiming these known deposits are? Are they infinite?

Another point Roger, futures markets often get it wrong, was last years price spike predicted by the futures market in advance?

You're right that the tar sands need to be included in the equation - as the EROEI is easily high enough to make them economic, but as I pointed out in my comment at 1:01, it's not a question of whether on not alternatives exist, it's whether we are being pro-active enough in bringing them online, and tar sands are notoriously difficult to utilise quickly.

There are two reason why I'm sceptical about your optimism that stagnant or declining production won't cause serious economic problems for oil importers, firstly demand in the newly industrial nations is increasing at a prodigious rate, secondly so is domestic consumption in many exporting nations, squeezing their export volumes - the population growth rates in most Arab OPEC nations is almost explosive.
Also, you must be aware that prior to the recent decline in production, historical spare capacity was at its lowest level since at least the 70's? And despite every drilling rig available being put to use over the last couple of years, and the improvements in exploration technology, new discoveries - compared to those of the 60's, and 70's, and even the 80's - have been modest.

Andrew W

Roger E. Sowell said...

Andrew W,

You make interesting points. But, Peak Oil is a non-issue to me.

What is really interesting in The Grand Game is photosynthetic hydrogen. That is the game-changer, the show-stopper. Hydrogen will never be used for fuel-cell vehicles in mass production, instead it will be used as a substitute for coal or natural gas in power generation. Then natural gas will be used as CNG for vehicles.

Another really interesting piece of technology is grid-scale electrical power storage, coupled with efficient electric vehicles having long-lasting, light-weight batteries.

Both of those are very likely to occur long before any peak in oil production. Those two technologies are where the action is.

Again, if you believe in your theories that demand for oil products world-wide will escalate dramatically, and production will not keep pace (all those Islamic babies growing up to drive cars, I suppose), then buy some crude oil futures. You should make a fortune. The price is cheap right now, around $89 per barrel for December 2016.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words Roger, you're right in that I should be putting my money where my mouth is, at this time though the immediate needs of family and the mortgage must take precedence over a possible long term wind-fall.

In terms of turning solar energy into electrical energy I would have rated PV, solar thermal, and growing trees to burn in a thermal station ahead of H2, what efficiencies can be obtained with the H2 idea? Does it require a substantial capital investment in clear-roof structures spread over a huge area?

Undoubtedly you know far more about the details than me so I'm being cautious rather than dismissive.

Kind regards
Andrew W

TheFatBigot said...

I've never had so many comments, this is very exciting.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. FB, you know how we attorneys can get it the judge does not impose time limits on arguments.

Seriously, a major breakthrough was announced earlier this week on grid-scale energy storage. If this works as described, the Grand Game has changed.


Roger Sowell said...

Sorry, fumble-fingers here. Should have typed ...can get IF the judge...