Posts tagged ‘solar’

Global Warming Updates

I have not been blogging climate much because none of the debates ever change.  So here are some quick updates

  • 67% to 90% of all warming in climate forecasts still from assumptions of strong positive feedback in the climate system, rather than from CO2 warming per se (ie models still assuming about 1 degree in CO2 warming is multiplied 3-10 times by positive feedbacks)
  • Studies are still mixed about the direction of feedbacks, with as many showing negative as positive feedback.  No study that I have seen supports positive feedbacks as large as those used in many climate models
  • As a result, climate models are systematically exaggerating warming (from Roy Spenser, click to enlarge).  Note that the conformance through 1998 is nothing to get excited about -- most models were rewritten after that date and likely had plugs and adjustments to force the historical match.

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  • To defend the forecasts, modellers are increasingly blaming natural effects like solar cycles on the miss, natural effects that the same modellers insisted were inherently trivial contributions when skeptics used them to explain part of the temperature rise from 1978-1998.
  • By the way, 1978-1998 is still the only period since 1940 when temperatures actually rose, such that increasingly all catastrophic forecasts rely on extrapolations from this one 20-year period. Seriously, look for yourself.
  • Alarmists are still blaming every two or three sigma weather pattern on CO2 on global warming (polar vortex, sigh).
  • Even when weather is moderate, media hyping of weather events has everyone convinced weather is more extreme, when it is not. (effect explained in context of Summer of the Shark)
  • My temperature forecast from 2007 still is doing well.   Back in '07 I regressed temperature history to a linear trend plus a sine wave.

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Solar Update

The economics of large-scale solar projects still don't work without massive subsidies and mandates that consumers pay above-market rates for solar power.

Congratulations to Nature Magazine for Catching up to Bloggers

The journal Nature has finally caught up to the fact that ocean cycles may influence global surface temperature trends.  Climate alarmists refused to acknowledge this when temperatures were rising and the cycles were in their warm phase, but now are grasping at these cycles for an explanation of the 15+ year hiatus in warming as a way to avoid abandoning high climate sensitivity assumptions  (ie the sensitivity of global temperatures to CO2 concentrations, which IMO are exaggerated by implausible assumptions of positive feedback).

Here is the chart from Nature:

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I cannot find my first use of this chart, but here is a version I was using over 5 years ago.  I know I was using it long before that

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It will be interesting to see if they find a way to blame cycles for cooling in the last 10-15 years but not for the warming in the 80's and 90's.

Next step -- alarmists have the same epiphany about the sun, and blame non-warming on a low solar cycle without simultaneously giving previous high solar cycles any credit for warming.  For Nature's benefit, here is another chart they might use (from the same 2008 blog post).  The number 50 below is selected arbitrarily, but does a good job of highlighting solar activity in the second half of the 20th century vs. the first half.

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Want to Save The Ice in the Arctic?

I wrote below about Chinese pollution, but here is one other thought.  Shifting Chinese focus from reducing CO2 with unproven 21st century technology to reducing particulates with 1970s technology would be a great boon for its citizens.  But it could well have one other effect:

It might reverse the warming in the Arctic.

The reduction of Arctic ice sheet size in the summer, and the warming of the Arctic over the last several decades, is generally attributed to greenhouse warming.  But there are reasons to doubt that Co2 is the whole story.   One is that the sea ice extent in Antarctica has actually been growing at the same time the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking.  Maybe there is another explanation, one that affects only the northern hemisphere and not the southern?

I don't know if you have snow right now or even ever get snow.  If you do, find some black dust, like coal dust or dark dirt, and sprinkle it on a patch of snow.  Then come back tomorrow.  What will you find?  The patch of snow you sprinkled in dark dust melted a lot in comparison to the rest of the snow.  This is an albedo effect.  Snow takes a while to melt because it reflects rather than absorbs solar radiation.  Putting black dust on it changes that equation, and suddenly solar radiation is adsorbed as heat, and the now melts.  Fast.  I know this because I run a sledding hill in the wintertime, where snow falls on a black cinder hill.  The snow will last until even the smallest patch of black cinders is exposed.  Once exposed, that small hole will grow like a cancer, as it absorbs solar energy and pumps it into the surrounding ground.

By the way, if you have not snow, Accuweather.com did the experiment for you.  See here.  Very nice pictures that make the story really clear.

So consider this mess:

china_pollution_ap971430398958_620x350

Eventually that mess blows away.  Where does it end up?  Well, a lot of it ends up deposited in the Arctic, on top of the sea ice and Greenland ice sheet.

There is a growing hypothesis that this black carbon deposited on the ice from China is causing much of the sea ice to melt faster.  And as the ice sheet melts faster, this lowers the albedo of the arctic, and creates warming.  In this hypothesis, warming follows from ice melting, rather than vice versa.

How do we test this?  Well, the best way would be to go out and actually measure the deposits and calculate the albedo changes from this.  My sense is that this work is starting to be done (example), but it has been slow, because everyone who is interested in Arctic ice of late are strong global warming proponents who have incentives not to find an alternative explanation for melting ice.

But here are two quick mental experiments we can do:

  1. We already mentioned one proof.  Wind patterns cause most pollution to remain within the hemisphere (northern or southern) where it was generated.  So we would expect black carbon ice melting to be limited to the Arctic and not be seen in the Antarctic.  This fits observations
  2. In the winter, as the sea ice is growing, we would expect new ice would be free of particulate deposits and that any new deposits would be quickly covered in snow.  This would mean that we should see ice extents in the winter to be about the same as they were historically, and we would see most of the ice extent reduction in the summer.  Again, this is exactly what we see.

This is by no means a proof -- there are other explanations for the same data.  But I am convinced we would see at least a partial sea ice recovery in the Arctic if China could get their particulate emissions under control.

Update:  Melt ponds in Greenland are black with coal dust

 

A Typical Clean Energy Boondoggle

Master Resource looks at the California Valley Solar Ranch

In a realistic appraisal of the CVSR we should note the following:

· An investment of $1.6 billion 250 MW breaks down to an extravagant $6,400,000 per megawatt.

· The Solar Ranch covers 1,500 acres.

· The CVSR is projected to produce 482,000 MWh per year, implying an operating capacity factor of around 22%.

· Given a reasonable appraisal of the value of 482,000 MWh per year, it is not possible that the solar panels will be able to provide a return sufficient to pay back the $1.6 billion investment within their functional life (not even close), even when ignoring annual operating and maintenance costs. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost (see Updated CSVR Cash Flow).

....

A much more viable alternative to a solar generation facility, although not the only one, is a plant using natural gas. A natural gas combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) facility capable of 250 MW would have required less than one-fourth the capital investment, would be capable of making four times the electricity per year at 88% capacity factor, and would fit on a single acre.

Also, a CCGT facility could have been located closer to the point(s) of actual use of the electricity, and could provide dispatchable energy which could be increased or decreased as demand fluctuates; something the solar facility is incapable of providing.

So why is this project even happening?  Because most of the project was funded by a taxpayer-gauranteed loan.  And then many of the players got direct subsidies and tax breaks.  And finally the electricity from the project gets bought at an above-market subsidized rate.

 

Irony

It turns out that the US is one of the few industrialized nations to meet the terms of the Kyoto protocols (reduce CO2 emissions to 1997 levels) despite the fact we never signed it or did anything to try to meet the goals.

Thank the recession and probably more importantly the natural gas and fracking revolution.  Fracking will do more to reduce CO2 than the entire sum of government and renewable energy projects (since a BTU from natural gas produces about half the CO2 as a BTU form coal).  Of course, environmentalists oppose fracking.  They would rather carpet the desert with taxpayer-funded solar panels and windmills than allow the private sector to solve the problem using 50-year-old technology.

Update On My Climate Model (Spoiler: It's Doing a Lot Better than the Pros)

In this post, I want to discuss my just-for-fun model of global temperatures I developed 6 years ago.  But more importantly, I am going to come back to some lessons about natural climate drivers and historic temperature trends that should have great relevance to the upcoming IPCC report.

In 2007, for my first climate video, I created an admittedly simplistic model of global temperatures.  I did not try to model any details within the climate system.  Instead, I attempted to tease out a very few (it ended up being three) trends from the historic temperature data and simply projected them forward.  Each of these trends has a logic grounded in physical processes, but the values I used were pure regression rather than any bottom up calculation from physics.  Here they are:

  • A long term trend of 0.4C warming per century.  This can be thought of as a sort of base natural rate for the post-little ice age era.
  • An additional linear trend beginning in 1945 of an additional 0.35C per century.  This represents combined effects of CO2 (whose effects should largely appear after mid-century) and higher solar activity in the second half of the 20th century  (Note that this is way, way below the mainstream estimates in the IPCC of the historic contribution of CO2, as it implies the maximum historic contribution is less than 0.2C)
  • A cyclic trend that looks like a sine wave centered on zero (such that over time it adds nothing to the long term trend) with a period of about 63 years.  Think of this as representing the net effect of cyclical climate processes such as the PDO and AMO.

Put in graphical form, here are these three drivers (the left axis in both is degrees C, re-centered to match the centering of Hadley CRUT4 temperature anomalies).  The two linear trends (click on any image in this post to enlarge it)

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And the cyclic trend:

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These two charts are simply added and then can be compared to actual temperatures.  This is the way the comparison looked in 2007 when I first created this "model"

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The historic match is no great feat.  The model was admittedly tuned to match history (yes, unlike the pros who all tune their models, I admit it).  The linear trends as well as the sine wave period and amplitude were adjusted to make the fit work.

However, it is instructive to note that a simple model of a linear trend plus sine wave matches history so well, particularly since it assumes such a small contribution from CO2 (yet matches history well) and since in prior IPCC reports, the IPCC and most modelers simply refused to include cyclic functions like AMO and PDO in their models.  You will note that the Coyote Climate Model was projecting a flattening, even a decrease in temperatures when everyone else in the climate community was projecting that blue temperature line heading up and to the right.

So, how are we doing?  I never really meant the model to have predictive power.  I built it just to make some points about the potential role of cyclic functions in the historic temperature trend.  But based on updated Hadley CRUT4 data through July, 2013, this is how we are doing:

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Not too shabby.  Anyway, I do not insist on the model, but I do want to come back to a few points about temperature modeling and cyclic climate processes in light of the new IPCC report coming soon.

The decisions of climate modelers do not always make sense or seem consistent.  The best framework I can find for explaining their choices is to hypothesize that every choice is driven by trying to make the forecast future temperature increase as large as possible.  In past IPCC reports, modelers refused to acknowledge any natural or cyclic effects on global temperatures, and actually made statements that a) variations in the sun's output were too small to change temperatures in any measurable way and b) it was not necessary to include cyclic processes like the PDO and AMO in their climate models.

I do not know why these decisions were made, but they had the effect of maximizing the amount of past warming that could be attributed to CO2, thus maximizing potential climate sensitivity numbers and future warming forecasts.  The reason for this was that the IPCC based nearly the totality of their conclusions about past warming rates and CO2 from the period 1978-1998.  They may talk about "since 1950", but you can see from the chart above that all of the warming since 1950 actually happened in that narrow 20 year window.  During that 20-year window, though, solar activity, the PDO and the AMO were also all peaking or in their warm phases.  So if the IPCC were to acknowledge that any of those natural effects had any influence on temperatures, they would have to reduce the amount of warming scored to CO2 between 1978 and 1998 and thus their large future warming forecasts would have become even harder to justify.

Now, fast forward to today.  Global temperatures have been flat since about 1998, or for about 15 years or so.  This is difficult to explain for the IPCC, since about none of the 60+ models in their ensembles predicted this kind of pause in warming.  In fact, temperature trends over the last 15 years have fallen below the 95% confidence level of nearly every climate model used by the IPCC.  So scientists must either change their models (eek!) or else they must explain why they still are correct but missed the last 15 years of flat temperatures.

The IPCC is likely to take the latter course.  Rumor has it that they will attribute the warming pause to... ocean cycles and the sun (those things the IPCC said last time were irrelevant).  As you can see from my model above, this is entirely plausible.  My model has an underlying 0.75C per century trend after 1945, but even with this trend actual temperatures hit a 30-year flat spot after the year 2000.   So it is entirely possible for an underlying trend to be temporarily masked by cyclical factors.

BUT.  And this is a big but.  You can also see from my model that you can't assume that these factors caused the current "pause" in warming without also acknowledging that they contributed to the warming from 1978-1998, something the IPCC seems loath to do.  I do not know how the ICC is going to deal with this.  I hate to think the worst of people, but I do not think it is beyond them to say that these factors offset greenhouse warming for the last 15 years but did not increase warming the 20 years before that.

We shall see.  To be continued....

Update:  Seriously, on a relative basis, I am kicking ass

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When Environmentally Sustainable Actually Was Sustainable

Many of your know that my company operates public parks.  So I see a lot of different approaches to park design and construction.  Of late I have been observing a trend in "environmental sustainability" in park design that is actually the opposite.

The US Forest Service has built more campgrounds, by far, than any other entity in the world.  For decades, particularly in the western United States, the USFS had a very clear idea about what they wanted in a campground -- they wanted it to be well-integrated with nature, simple, and lightly developed.  They eschewed amenities like pools and playgrounds and shuffleboard.  They avoided building structures except bathroom and shower buildings.  The camp sites were simple, often unpaved with a table and fire ring and a place for a tent.  They used nature itself to make these sites beautiful, keeping the environment natural and creating buffers of trees and natural vegetation between sites.   I have never seen an irrigation system in a western USFS campground -- if it doesn't grow naturally there, it doesn't grow.

This has proven to be an eminently sustainable design.  With the exception of their underground water systems, which tend to suck, they are easy to maintain.  There is not much to go wrong.  The sites need new gravel every once in a while.  Every 5-10 years the tables and fire rings needs replacement, hardly a daunting task.  And every 20-30 years the bathrooms needs refurbishment or replacement.  The design brilliance was in the placement of the sites and their integration with the natural environment.

Over the last several months, I have been presented with plans from three different public parks agencies for parks they want to redevelop.   Each of these have been $10+ million capital projects and each one had a major goal of being "sustainable."   I have run away from all three.  Why -- because each and every one will be incredibly expensive and resource intensive to operate and of questionable popularity with the public.  Sustainability today seems to mean "over-developed with a lot of maintenance-intensive facilities".

What each of these projects has had in common are a myriad of aggressively architected buildings - not just bathrooms but community rooms and offices and interpretive centers.  These buildings have been beautiful and complex, made from expensive materials like stainless steel and fine stone.  They have also had a lot of fiddly bits, like rainwater collection and recycling systems and solar and windmills.  They have automatic plumbing valves that never seem to work right.  The grounds have all been heavily landscaped, with large lawns that require water and mowing, with non-native plants that need all kinds of care.  Rather than a traditional sand pad for tents they have elaborate wooden platforms.

The plans for these facilities are beautiful.  They win awards.  In fact, I am increasingly convinced that that is their whole point, to increase prestige of the designer and the agency that hired them through awards.  But they make no sense as a recreation facility.  In 10 years, they will look like hell.  Or sooner, since one agency that is in the process of spending a $22 million bond issue on 5 campgrounds seems to not have one dollar budgeted for operation and maintenance.

These things actually win awards for sustainability, which generally means they save money on one input at the expense of increasing many others.  One design  got attention for having grass on the roofs, which perhaps saved a few cents of electricity at the cost of having to irrigate and mow the roof (not to mention the extra roof bracing to carry the load).  I briefly operated a campground that had a rainwater recovery system on the bathrooms, which required about 5 hours of labor each week to keep clean and running to save about a dollar of water costs.

Classic Partisan Thinking

Kevin Drum writes

On the right, both climate change and questions about global limits on oil production have exited the realm of empirical debate and become full-blown fronts in the culture wars. You're required to mock them regardless of whether it makes any sense. And it's weird as hell. I mean, why would you disparage development of renewable energy? If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy instead of digging up every last fluid ounce of oil on the planet?

I am sure it is perfectly true that there are Conservatives who knee-jerk oppose every government renewable energy and recycling and green jobs idea that comes along without reference to the science.  But you know what, there are plenty of Liberals who knee-jerk support all these same things, again without any understanding of the underlying science.  Mr. Drum, for example, only recently came around to opposing corn ethanol, despite the fact that the weight of the science was against ethanol being any kind of environmental positive years and years ago.  In fact, not until it was no longer cool and caring to support ethanol (a moment I would set at when Rolling Stone wrote a fabulous ethanol expose) did Drum finally turn against it.  Is this science, or social signalling?   How many folks still run around touting electric cars without understanding what the marginal fuels are in the electricity grid, or without understanding the true well-to-wheels efficiency?  How many folks still run around touting wind power without understanding the huge percentage of this power that must be backed up with hot backup power fueled by fossil fuels?

Why is his almost blind support of renewable energy without any reference to science or the specifics of the technologies involved any saner than blind opposition?  If anything, blind opposition at least has the numbers on their side, given past performance of investments in all sorts of wonder-solutions to future energy production.

The reason there is a disconnect is because statists like Drum equate supporting government subsidies and interventions with supporting renewables.  Few people, even Conservatives, oppose renewables per se.  This is a straw man.  What they oppose are subsidies and government mandates for renewables.  Drum says he has almost limitless confidence in  man's ability to innovate.  I agree -- but I, unlike he apparently, have limitless confidence in man's ability to innovate absent government coercion.  It was not a government program that replaced whale oil as an illuminant right when we were approaching peak whale, it was the genius of John D. Rockefeller.  As fossil fuels get short, prices rise, and people naturally innovate on substitutes.  If Drum believes that private individuals are missing an opportunity, rather than root for government coercion, he should go take up the challenge.  He can be the Rockefeller of renewable energy.

Postscript:  By the way, it is absurd and disingenuous to equate opposition to what have been a series of boneheaded government investments in questionable ventures and technologies with some sort of a-scientific hatred of fossil fuel alternatives.  I have written for a decade that I long for the day, and expect it to be here within 20 years, that sheets of solar cells are cranked from factories like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia.

Solar False Advertising

I saw this at Flowing Data -- this is apparently a chart prepared by some sustainability group at MIT to map solar potential of different sites in Cambridge, MA

Look at all the sites marked "excellent".  I have news for the brilliant folks at MIT.  Even the best, flattest roof facing south in Cambridge, MA still rates a "sucks" for solar potential. (source)

Even with massive state and Federal subsidies, those of us who live in the bright red areas find that roof-top solar PV is still an - at best - marginal investment with very long payback times.  We all hope to change this in the future, but there is no way a city like Cambridge with approximately half the solar insolation we get in AZ is going to have "excellent" roof top solar PV sites.

If You Just Loved The Solyndra Technology...

...you will love this too.  Solyndra used cylindrical solar cells nested inside a u-shaped mirror to concentrate sunlight to get more power per square inch of solar cell.  The problem is that all that extra shaping and mirrors added cost, and only made sense if solar cells were expensive.  After all, if solar cells are cheap, if one wants 20% more output, it's easier to just increase the solar cell area by 20% than to add all the concentrator rigmarole.

Well, dreams die hard, and here is the latest idea -- spherical concentrators.  These things have huge spheres and tracking motors, all for a 35% increase in efficiency.  Methinks that just adding 35% more PV cell area is going to be cheaper, but this could well be yet another flytrap for Obama Administration officials, who are to sexy-looking new technologies like a degenerate wagerer at the track is to a hot tip.

Lessons From the Corporate State

In my younger, more naive days, I would have drawn the following lesson from this story:  "Never create a business plan predicated on subsidy checks from the government.  They may stop at any time."  I still think this is mostly true, as FirstSolar is finding out.  But my sense is that a range of folks from GE to Kleiner Perkins still get their checks.  So one may cynically rewrite the rule: "Never create a business plan predicated on subsidy checks from the government unless you are confident you have the political connections to guarantee and expedite the payments."

It seems like local solar company perfect power tried to feed at the government trough without actually having sufficient clout in the corporate state.  Bad idea

About 100 Arizona homeowners who paid $4,500 up front for solar-power systems fear they may never get their rooftop panels after being left waiting for months by the installation company.

Angry homeowners are demanding their systems or refunds. The company, Perfect Power Solar, is blaming the delays on federal government red tape.

Perfect Power owner Lynn Paige said the company has cash-flow problems because energy grants that were supposed to provide substantial funding of the solar systems aren't being approved quickly enough. She pledged to deliver the systems or refund all customers by the end of the year.

Treasury officials would not comment on the situation. Government e-mails sent to Paige suggest Perfect Power's grant applications were incomplete. In them, officials point to problems with submissions and warn of potential denials.

Industry experts and owners of other solar companies in Arizona said that the grant program is fraught with risks for solar companies and that some built business models based on future payments from the government without the financial reserves to cope with delays. They describe the situation as a high-tech gamble that some companies lost.

Residential solar-power systems cost $15,000 to $40,000. The Section 1603 grant program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, offered developers cash to offset 30 percent of the costs. Although the program was not available to homeowners, some companies tapped the grants to sell residential solar systems as leases. A company would install and own the system, then lease it to a homeowner.

Program rules required developers to complete installations before they could apply for reimbursement. But funding was not guaranteed, and even after systems were built, the government delayed approval of some applications and denied others.

If this was one of Kliener Perkins' companies, for example, Ray Lane would just call the White House and get his money released. If your solvency depends on continued flow of taxpayer cash, you better have the clout to keep the money flowing or you are likely to get hosed.  Bureaucracies tend to have default answers of "wait" and "no".  Those are the answers average people without pull are going to get.  The "yes" goes to those who cut through the red tape from the top.  These yeses, like the ones to Solyndra, only make it more likely everyone else get the "no" answer, as the agencies need to show they are being particularly diligent to offset the impression of sloppiness they get from the Solyndra-type cases.

Retroactively, the company's leadership has figured this out, that to survived at the government trough, they have to go political

Paige has asked customers not to file complaints or talk to the media about problems the company is facing.

"It has been very unhelpful ... that a few customers have chosen to write very negative letters to the BBB," she wrote in a May e-mail to customers.

Instead of filing complaints, Paige said, customers should write to Arizona U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl to request their help in freeing up the government grant money and to pressure the Treasury Department....

That month, the BBB revoked Perfect Power's accreditation and gave the company an F rating. The company had 16 complaints filed against it the past year. The registrar shows four open complaints against Perfect Power; a fifth complaint was listed as settled or withdrawn.

Forget about the customers.  Let's just focus our attention on our two Senators.

I Like to Hear This

In the past I have been critical of First Solar, like I have most solar companies, for having business models that were almost entirely dependent on huge government subsidies, particularly in Europe.  When these go away, the businesses start to crash.

I have not had time to dig into their financials to look for shenanigans, and to parse out how much is still dependent in some way on either direct subsidies of solar projects or incentives that cause utilities to buy solar electricity at above market rates, but First Solar reversed their large losses to a profit in the last quarter.  I am not sure if this is BS or not, but I like this attitude if true:

The company's cost per watt is the lowest in the industry, but it increased slightly during the quarter, to 72 cents per watt, because of the under utilization of its factories. If the factories had run more, the cost would have gone down, officials said.

Hughes said First Solar is making headway on its plan to target regions of the world with ample sunshine and a need for electricity, where solar power can compete without subsidies that make it cost-effective when compared with traditional energy sources.

Those places include Australia, India, the Middle East and other regions, he said.

That would be terrific.  I would love to see a solar boom driven by real economics and not taxpayer largess.

What is a Green Job?

Turns out the guy who gasses up a school bus has a green job.

When Bureau of Labor Statistics Acting Commissioner John Galvin balked on what qualifies as a green job under the agency definition, Issa responded, “Just answer the question.”

“Does someone who sweeps the floor at a company that makes solar panels -- is that a green job?” Issa asked.

“Yes,” replied Galvin, who also acknowledged that a bike-repair shop clerk, a hybrid-bus driver, any school bus driver and “the guy who puts gas in a school bus” are all defined as green jobs.

He also acknowledged that an oil lobbyist, if his work is related to environmental issues, would also have a green job.

It gets better.  Apparently, when I worked at the Exxon refinery in Baytown, TX, I had a green job:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states a green job is either: a business that produces goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, or a job in which a worker's duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources

I have never encountered an industrial engineering job anywhere that was not concerned with having their processes use fewer natural resources.

I would argue the greenest of jobs are held by oil and other commodity speculators and traders.  They ensure that prices at all times accurately match our current understanding of the scarcity of each resource.  Without these accurate pricing signals, all efforts to properly invest to use more or fewer of these materials would be impossible.  Just look at the "success" of investments like Solyndra that were made irregardless of these market pricing signals.

Engineering Intuition and The Media

I don't really want to ridicule Kevin Drum here for thinking out loud.  I really hate partisan Conservative and Liberal team-politics blogs, but I read a few to stay out of the echo chamber, and Drum is smarter and incrementally more objective (a relative thing) than most.

But this is really terrible, awful engineering intuition:

These two things together reminded me about an energy factoid that's always struck me as slightly odd: virtually every form of energy seems to be almost as efficient as burning oil, but not quite.

For example, on either a power/weight basis or a cost basis, batteries are maybe 2x or 3x bigger and less efficient than an internal combustion engine. Not 50x or 100x. Just barely less efficient. And you see the same thing in electricity generation. Depending on how you do the accounting, nuclear power is maybe about as efficient as an oil-fired plant, or maybe 2x or 3x less efficient. Ditto for solar. And for wind. And geothermal. And tidal power.

I'm just noodling vaguely here. Maybe there's an obvious thermodynamic explanation that I'm missing. It's just that I wouldn't be surprised if there were lots of ways of generating energy that were all over the map efficiency-wise. But why are there lots of ways of generating energy that are all surprisingly similar efficiency-wise? In the great scheme of things, a difference of 2x or 3x is practically invisible.

First, we have to translate a bit.  He mentions power to weight ratios for batteries in the second paragraph.  In fact, batteries have terrible power (actually energy storage) to weight ratios vs. fossil fuels, much worse than 2-3x for energy storage per unit of weight or volume.  That is why gasoline is still the transportation energy source of choice, because very few things short of plutonium have so much potential energy locked up in so little volume.  But I will assume he is comparing an entire electric drive system compared to a gasoline drive system (including not just energy storage but the drive itself) and in this case the power to weight ratios are indeed closer.

But here is the problem:  in engineering, a 2-3x difference in most anything -- strength, energy efficiency, whatever -- is a really big deal.  It's the difference between 15 and 45 MPG.   Perhaps this is Moore's Law corrupting our intuition.  We see electronic equipment becoming twice as powerful every 18 months, and we start to assume that 2x is not that much of a difference.

But this is why Moore's Law is so much discussed, because of its very uniqueness.  In most fields, engineers tinker for decades for incremental improvements, sometimes in the single digit percentages.

The fact that alternative energy supporters feel like their preferred technologies are just so close, meaning they are only 2x-3x less efficient than current technologies, explains a lot about why we skeptics of these technologies have a hard time getting through to them.

An Amazing Hypothesis: Supernovas and Earth's Climate

A reader sent this abstract of a Henrik Svensmark study with a one word caption:  Wow!  I agree.  The notion that "local" (and by local, we mean unimaginably far away) supernova affecting the Earth's climate is certainly creative.  Haven't even read the thing so certainly not buying it yet, but it certainly is an amazing hypothesis.

Observations of open star clusters in the solar neighbourhood are used to calculate local supernova (SN) rates for the past 510 Myr. Peaks in the SN rates match passages of the Sun through periods of locally increased cluster formation which could be caused by spiral arms of the Galaxy. A statistical analysis indicates that the Solar system has experienced many large short-term increases in the flux of Galactic cosmic rays (GCR) from nearby SNe. The hypothesis that a high GCR flux should coincide with cold conditions on the Earth is borne out by comparing the general geological record of climate over the past 510 Myr with the fluctuating local SN rates. Surprisingly, a simple combination of tectonics (long-term changes in sea level) and astrophysical activity (SN rates) largely accounts for the observed variations in marine biodiversity over the past 510 Myr. An inverse correspondence between SN rates and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels is discussed in terms of a possible drawdown of CO2 by enhanced bio-productivity in oceans that are better fertilized in cold conditions – a hypothesis that is not contradicted by data on the relative abundance of the heavy isotope of carbon, 13C.

I was initially very skeptical of Svensmark's work attempting to link cosmic rays to cloud formation, with that affect acting as an amplifier (in terms of warming and cooling effects) of changes in solar output.  I must say that over time, that work has survived replication effects pretty well.

Update on the EPA's Electric Vehicle Mileage Fraud

I have written several articles (here and here) outlining why the EPA's method of giving electric cars an equivalent or eMPG is outright fraudulent.  I calculated for the average driver, for example, that the Nissan Leaf's 99 eMPG was actually closer to 36.  Why?  Well, in the EPA's methodology, the science-based Obama administration pretends the 2nd law of thermodynamics does not exist.  Specifically, they assume perfect conversion of the chemical potential energy in fossil fuels to electricity.  They also assume zero transmission losses.  To rework the calculation, I actually used a Clinton-era Department of Energy methodology called well to wheels.

So here is something I thought I would never write:  It turns out the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with me.  Apparently they have used a similar methodology to rework electric vehicle MPGs based on the fuel mix of the power in different cities, rather than an average national fuel mix as I did it.  I am not sure how they did the analysis - did they use average fuel mix or the marginal fuel, and if the marginal fuel did they assume the marginal fuel at night or during the day?   For example, certain California cities look good with solar use but that does not do anything for typical night time car charging.

Anyway, the problem is hard and I could quibble with how they did it.  But the results are telling - everywhere they looked, even in the hydro-powered Pacific Northwest, the eMPG they got was lower than that of the EPA's.  And in many cases much lower.

If corporations were using the EPA's eMPG methodology, they would be busted by the FTC for false advertising.  It's time to fix this calculation so Fisker Karma drivers can't continue to fool themselves into thinking they are doing something positive for the environment.

Some Potential Good News on Solar

This is terrific, if true.  My fear, of course, is they are getting subsidized through a back door somewhere, but if they really think they can make subsidy-free solar work financially, that's awesome:

Two German solar energy developers are planning to build photovoltaic plants in southern Spain that will earn a return without government subsidies.

Wuerth Solar GmbH & Co. intends to build a 287-megawatt plant in the Murcia area for 277 million euros ($363 million), according to the regional authority. Gehrlicher Solar AG said it plans to develop a 250-megawatt solar park in the Extremadura region for about 250 million euros.

The projects, about three times larger than any European solar plant, may be the first that don’t rely on feed-in tariffs and compete with wholesale power prices. All plants in the region so far depend on fixed premium rates for solar power, which can be several times higher than wholesale prices.

Spain suspended the tariffs on Jan. 27 as part of government austerity measures, threatening the survival of the industry. Tariffs for large-scale solar were set at 121 euros per megawatt-hour. Developers now look to build plants without this support, helped by falling equipment prices.

Where Did Those First Solar Subsidies Go? $32 Million went to their Failed CEO

It would be impossible to trace all the ways taxpayer money ends up in the coffers of solar manufacturers like First Solar.  Most of First Solar's money has been made selling panels in Germany to solar plants that, by law, can rape electricity customers with prices 10-15x higher than the market price for electricity.  First Solar also benefits more directly from direct subsidies, loan guarantees, "retraining" subsidies and even government Ex-Im Bank loans to sell panels to itself.  While First Solar vehemently denies it is a subsidy whore, it is telling that when Germany began to cut its solar feed-in tariffs, First Solar's stock price fell from over $300 to around $20.  Just watch day to day trading of First Solar stock, it does not move on news about its efficiency or productivity, it moves on rumors of changes in government subsidies.

Let's look at one subsidy.  In 2010, the Obama administration gave First Solar a subsidy of $16.3 million, ostensibly to help open a new plant in Ohio.  But it is interesting that this private company, which apparently could only raise the $16.3 million it needed by taking it by force from taxpayers, had plenty of money to pay its CEO.  In the 13 months leading up to its $16.3 million taken from taxpayers, First Solar paid its new CEO $29.85 million!  

Rob Gillette, the ousted CEO of First Solar Inc., earned more than $32 million in compensation from the struggling company for his two years of service, according to a regulatory filing Wednesday.

Gillette came to First Solar from Phoenix-based Honeywell Aerospace in October 2009 and was fired by the Tempe-based solar company's board of directors in October 2011....

Most of his compensation came in the three months of 2009 that he worked, when his total compensation, including salary, bonus, stock and options awards and other perks, reached $16.55 million. In 2010 his total compensation was $13.3 million, and last year he earned $2.46 million, which consisted of $763,000 in base salary and a $1.7 million severance.

Yep, they can't scrape up $16.3 million of their own money for a factory but they can find $30 million to give to an unproven CEO they eventually had to ride out on a rail.

By the way, I don't know Mr. Gillette, but I was once an executive at Honeywell Aerospace for several years.  I can tell you that it's a great place to find an executive who is focused on process to manage large complex organizations in a relatively stable business where manufacturing, logistics, and schmoozing large buyers is important.  It is a terrible, awful place to seek an executive for a fast growing business that needs to rapidly shift business strategies and where grinding through the process gets the wrong answer 12 months too late.

U. of Rochester Solar Table -- 3,846 Years To Break-even

Professor Rizzo was keen that I check out the $12,000 solar picnic table at University of Rochester

Most kids use this to hook up their laptops.   Here are a few assumptions

  • 3 hours of use per day (heroic, I am pretty sure it is less than this)
  • 65 watt draw from one laptop
  • 160 days with sun (Rochester is apparently in the top 10 US cities for number of heavy cloud days)
  • 10 cents per kw-hour

This means the table would produce 31,200 W-hr per year or 31.2 KW-hr per year.  This yields an annual electricity savings of $3.12, giving the table a payback time on its investment of 3,846 years.  If one assumes a cost of capital anywhere north of 0.026% per year, then the sun will go dark before this table pays itself off.

Thanks to the U. of Rochester Hamilton [sic] Society

I want to thank Professor Mike Rizzo and members of the University of Rochester Alexander Hamilton [sic] Society for having me up to speak last week.  I had an awesome time touring campus, some quality pub time with some of the students, some really good donuts, and then a speaking engagement followed by literally hours of questions and discussions.  Here are some of us out the next day hiking the waterfront (Professor Rizzo is fourth from the right).  This is at a "lighthouse" which I had expected to be some sexy Maine-type thing but turned out to be a 3-foot wide steel column with a blinking red light on top.  We are on one of the breakwaters at the mouth of the Genessee River as it pours into Lake Ontario.

Professor Rizzo teaches four economics courses, including a couple of the introductory survey courses, and many students go out of their way to take all four, even if they are not even in the department.  The group had an incredible vibe, the kind of student-professor learning group we all thought would be typical of college but most of us seldom actually encountered.  It reminded me of Dead Poet's Society, except with economics rather than poetry and without the suicides.

In addition to being a popular professor, Rizzo also is a vastly outnumbered campus defender of individual liberty and economic sanity.  I can't tell me how many kids told me they had been converted to the cause of free market economics by Professor Rizzo.

Professor Rizzo is also a constant campus gadfly on cost-benefit sensibility.  Featured in an upcoming post will be a U of R solar charging station that was one of Rizzo's favorite targets.  Which brings us to the issue of the group's name and why I keep writing [sic].  Apparently creating a new campus organization and 501c3 was way too costly, so they just piggy-backed on an existing group, despite the incongruity of the "Alexander Hamilton" name on a group generally dedicated to exploring small government.

I seem to be having some odd problem subscribing to his feed in Google Reader (all I get is Viagra Spam) but his blog is here:  The Unbroken Window.  Update:  I could never get his feed to work for me so I burned a new one on my feedburner account.  http://feeds.feedburner.com/UnbrokenWindow

Another One Bites the Dust

Another solar company which received $2.1 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama Administration has gone bankrupt.  The good news is that it has not spent much of that taxpayer money, and its bankruptcy is probably due more to the bankruptcy of its German parent, which in turn is likely related to the huge cuts Germany has made in its feed-in tariff subsidies.

The big asset possessed by Solar Trust is the Blythe solar project, a planned 1000MW facility that apparently has all of its permitting in place.  The Blythe facility was originally going to be a solar-thermal facility, with adjustable mirrors focusing the sun on a central boiler that would in turn power turbines.   This plan was scrapped last year in favor of a more traditional PV technology, and I know local company First Solar has been hoping to save itself by getting the panel deal (First Solar also has been hammered by the loss of German subsidies).

If we take the cost of this planned 1000MW facility as the stated $2.8 billion (of which 2.1 billion would be guaranteed by US taxpayers), we see the basic problem with solar.   A new 1000MW  natural gas powered electric plant costs no more than about $1 billion.  It produces electricity 24 hours a day.  This solar plant, to be the largest in the world, would produce 1000 MW for only a few hours of the day.  That area of desert gets about 7 peak sun hours per day (the best in the country) so that on a 24 hour basis it only produces 292 MW average.  This gives it a total capital cost per 1000 MW of $9.6 billion, making it approximately 10 times costlier than the natural gas plant to build.  Of course, the solar plant has no fuel costs over time, but solar is never able to close the gap over time, particularly with current very low natural gas prices.

Update:  Apparently the $2.8 billion was just for the initial 484 MW so you can double all the solar costs in the analysis above, making the plant about 20x costlier than a natural gas plant.

First Solar Update

A few years ago I was asked to give a presentation in front of a group of Phoenix business leaders on climate and alternative energy.  I can't remember what particular group it was, but it was some public-private group that was heavily invested in advocating for local subsidies to promote strategic businesses - the sort of local MITI that most large cities have, that has this delusion that they can ramp up the city's growth by focusing public and private investment into a few selected industries (that they select, of course).

I told them that I thought their focus on solar manufacturing was dumb.  First, the whole idea that because Arizona is a good solar market meant that it should have some advantage in solar manufacturing made absolutely no sense.  This only makes sense for products with high transportation costs or a particular input cost that can be gotten more cheaply in one particular area (the location of aluminum manufacturing near cheap electricity in the Northwest comes to mind).  By the same logic all car manufacturers would be located in LA.

Second, I said that the whole solar business was completely driven by subsidies.  If the subsidies were to go away, the heart of the business would go away faster than pets.com.  I specifically mentioned First Solar in a positive context here, saying that though they where wholly dependent on subsidies for their revenues, they at least acknowledged as a corporate strategy they needed to get costs low enough to compete without subsidies.  (Someday, solar will get to that point, I hope, but I am skeptical that current approaches will yield the breakthrough, but that is another discussion).

If you want to understand the financial problems First Solar is having, let me show you four items.

First, from their 2010 annual report:

Geographic Risk. Our solar modules are presently predominantly sold to our customers for use in solar power systems concentrated in a single geographic region, Germany. This concentration of our sales in one geographic region exposes us to local economic risks and local public policy and regulatory risk in German.

This is way back in the notes on page 133.  By the way, I took a whole course in business school on reading financial reports.  Here is the key lesson for those not in the financial industry:  read them from the back.  Skip all the glossy crap at the front, go straight to the notes.

OK, here is the second bit of information.  Here is a world map of solar insolation, which is essentially the total solar energy available to produce power in a location when adjusted for atmosphere, weather, latitude, etc.

See Germany?  I won't insult your geographic knowledge by pointing at it, but much of Germany is in that yellow-green color which, for solar potential, means (in scientific terms) "it sucks."  Let's zoom in, and compare it to the US to get a feel for it (combined from two charts here)

Apparently the better sites in Germany have the same solar potential as ... Seattle!  The sliver of absolute best sites in Germany have approximately the same solar potential as Buffalo, NY.

So we have a company whose fortunes are dedicated almost entirely to selling solar panels into one of the most unpromising solar sites in the world.   Why is Germany buying so much solar?

OK, here is the third bit of information.  For years Germany had enormous feed-in tariffs (mandated above-market minimum prices)  for solar electricity:

The German feed-in tariff scheme has been in operation since 1991 and is regarded as one of the most successful in the world. In Germany, feed-in tariff rates are differentiated according to the source of the renewable energy. Separate tariffs are determined for biogas, biomass, hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind energy sources. The tariff paid for solar generators varies between EUR 45.7c/kWh and EUR 57.4c/kWh, depending on the capacity of the system and other design features. The tariff is greater for generators that are attached to the roof of a building or structure and greater again for generators that are attached to another part of a building. In Germany, the feed-in tariff is paid for a period of 20 years

Note the language from several years ago where "most successful" is determined without references to costs.

0.574 Euros per kWh is equal to about $0.75 today and even more several years ago when exchange rates were higher.  Remember this is a wholesale price, and should be compared to a $0.04 to $0.06 wholesale electricity price in the US  (I use US numbers to as its not clear to me Europe has a particularly competitive wholesale market.  The French have some sort of fixed price system set around $0.06).

However one wants to look at it, these are enormous subsidies.  People putting up solar panels in Germany were getting paid 10-15x what a market price for the same electricity might have been.

Finally, here is the fourth piece of evidence leading to First Solar's woes.  In 2010 and 2011 Germany, whose consumers began to balk at paying the highest electricity rates in the world in order to subsidize the method of electrical generation least suitable to Germany, began substantially cutting these tariffs.  In 2012 they will cut them even further:

German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen and Economy Minister Philipp Roesler are set to hold a press conference on Thursday to outline the government's new approach on subsidies. However, the indications are that the cuts will be heavier than the market has been expecting:

  • a 30% cut in the feed-in-tariff (FIT) to 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour for new large solar installations
  • and a 20% cut in the FIT to 19.5 cents for new small plants

The market has of course been expecting cuts in the German FIT system. However, this news is decidedly worse than expected and likely to continue to pressure solar stocks - particularly those such as Yingli (YGE) with a significant exposure to German solar demand.

From a peak of $0.75 per kWh, Germany will now pay $0.255 per kWh for smaller installations, still four times the market price for wholesale electricity but only a third of what they paid during First Solar's boom years.  As I wrote yesterday, Germany was essentially paying $2 for milk from brown cows and $25 for milk from black cows.  This can't be sustained.

If one assumes a wholesale electricity price of 6 cents, First Solar's German customers were getting a 92% subsidy.  Sure, First Solar now faces other problems like Chinese competition and they have shot themselves in the foot on quality, but at the end of the day the only way they can survive is to convince some other government to turn on the taxpayer money spigot to keep them in business.  I am hoping we in Arizona and the US will not be the suckers, but I fear that we will.  One can argue the projects I discussed the other day, including the one where we taxpayers loaned First Solar the money to sell its solar panels to its own subsidiary, are evidence of this.  My guess is that First Solar will be throwing a lot of money and time towards Obama, praying for his re-election.

The Article I Would Write, If I Didn't Have A Day Job

Update:  I found a bit more time to give some more background on First Solar and German feed in tariffs here.

If I had the time, I would love to try to research and list every subsidy recieved by a company like First Solar.  Here are just a few:

First Solar is an Arizona-based manufacturer of solar panels. In 2010, the Obama administration awarded the company $16.3 million to expand its factory in Ohio -- a subsidy Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland touted in his failed re-election bid that year.

Five weeks before the 2010 election, Strickland announced more than a million dollars in job training grants to First Solar. The Ohio Department of Development also lent First Solar $5 million, and the state's Air Quality Development Authority gave the company an additional $10 million loan.

After First Solar pocketed this $17.3 million in government grants and $15 million in government loans, Ex-Im entered the scene.

In September 2011, Ex-Im approved $455.7 million in loan guarantees to subsidize the sale of solar panels to two solar farms in Canada. That means if the solar farm ever defaults, the taxpayers pick up the tab, ensuring First Solar gets paid.

But the buyer, in this case, was First Solar.

A small corporation called St. Clair Solar owned the solar farm and was the Canadian company buying First Solar's panels. But St. Clair Solar was a wholly owned subsidiary of First Solar. So, basically, First Solar was shipping its own solar panels from Ohio to a solar farm it owned in Canada, and the U.S. taxpayers were subsidizing this "export."

But this is just a few of them, even on this deal.  For example, the Canadian solar farm very likely picked up federal and provincial subsidies from Canada, and even more likely gets some kind of subsidized feed-in tariff (meaning that an above-market wholesale rate is paid for its electricity).  This sort of feed-in tariff, which is paid by electricity consumers, is wholly un-transparent and likely makes up the large bulk of solar subsidies.   I know the state of Arizona threw a lot of money at First Solar as well (which is headquartered in the Phoenix area.)

During First Solar's boom years, the company was mainly supported by sales to Germany, probably one of the worst solar sites in the world after perhaps Seattle.  But the German government mandated feed-in tariffs for solar that were five times (or more) the market price for electricity.  It was like saying that, while milk generally goes for $2 a gallon, the government mandated that milk from  brown cows could be sold for $10 a gallon, and what's more, consumers had to buy it.

The House Your Tax Money Built

Post-Modern Science

Would Copernicus and Galileo have been right to lie about the nature of the solar system if that lie prevented the undermining of the Catholic Church, which most everyone at the time felt to have substantial positive benefits?

I think the answer for most of us is "no."  Science is about finding the truth, and the effects of those truths on social and political institutions are what they are.

But we have now entered the era of post-modern science, where writers on scientific ethics now conclude that its OK for scientists to lie as long as they are on the right team

James Garvey, a philosopher and the author of The Ethics of Climate Change has written a defence of Peter Gleick at the Guardian:

What Heartland is doing is harmful, because it gets in the way of public consensus and action. Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland's money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he's undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out.

Post-modernism has been quite fashionable in the social sciences for decades, but this entry into the hard sciences is new and disturbing. For reference, here is the Wikipedia entry on post-modernism

In its most basic form, postmodernism is an intentional departure from the previously dominant modernist approaches such as scientific positivismrealismconstructivismformalismmetaphysics and so forth. In a sense, the "postmodernist" approach continues the critique of the Enlightenment legacy, fundamentally seeking to challenge the traditional practices and intellectual pillars of western civilization just as the Enlightenment challenged tradition, theology and the authority of religion before it.

Postmodernism postulates that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and are therefore subject to change. It emphasises the role of language, power relations, and motivations in the formation of ideas and beliefs. In particular it attacks the use of sharp binary classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial; it holds realities to be plural and relative, and to be dependent on who the interested parties are and the nature of these interests. It claims that there is no absolute truth and that the way people perceive the world is subjective.

"Fake but accurate" is a good example of post-modernist thinking.