The fossil fuel industry has taken a very cavalier bet that China, India and the developing world will continue to block any serious effort to curb greenhouse emissions, and that there is, in any case, no viable alternative to oil, gas or coal for decades to come.
Both assumptions were still credible six years ago when the Copenhagen climate summit ended in acrimony, poisoned by a North-South split over CO2 legacy guilt and the allegedly prohibitive costs of green virtue.
At that point the International Energy Agency (IEA) was still predicting that solar power would struggle to reach 20 gigawatts by now. Few could have foretold that it would in fact explode to 180 gigawatts – over three times Britain’s total power output – as costs plummeted, and that almost half of all new electricity installed in the US in 2013 and 2014 would come from solar.

One of those few who did was Bjorn Lomborg. Who actually predicted it back in the 1990s. And boy didn’t people shout at him about it.

It’s really terribly fucking simple. The best economic forecast is that tomorrow will be much like today, plus or minus a tad. Next year will be very much like this, plus or minus a tad.

So, if we want to see what the future is going to be like our simplest, and often most accurate, forecast is just going to be that things will bumble along much as they are. No, not that everything will be the same: but that the underlying rates of change will carry on much as they have been.

A useful and reasonable forecast for the 21 st century is therefore that it will be much like the 20th (hopefully, minus the wars and communism which did so much to blight it). GDP will continue to grow at about the same rate, technology will march forward at about the same rate, fertility will change at about the same rate, energy usage per unit of GDP will decline at about the same rate and so on and on. It is this which gives us the A1 family of scenarios in the SRES, the economic models on which all climate change science is based (with updates to the RCP scenarios). And this tells us that the world will be a pretty nice place. We’ll abolish absolute poverty and so on. And whether or not climate change is a problem depends on what energy sources we use to propel this world.

As Lomborg (and the writers of some of the scenarios within the A1 family) has pointed out, let’s also project the increasing efficiency of solar and other renewables forward in the same manner. What’s the price drop in the 20th cent? That’s what it will be in the 21st. And the lovely thing is that this is exactly what is happening. In the 1990s Lomborg was predicting that solar would become properly price comparable to coal in the 2020-2025 time span. That’s what we think will happen now too. All this effort has changed very little indeed.

And that price drop is also contained within the A1 family. Assuming that tech advances in the 21 st as it did in the 20th then we get to A1T. And climate change isn’t a problem because we have a lovely rich world, poverty is abolished, and we don’t use much coal or oil because other things are cheaper.

Far from no one predicting this, this is actually what was predicted. And it’s also, a priori, the most believable of the predictions that were made. Because it’s just a straight line extension of the underlying processes in the already extant economy and society.

It’s this, and this alone, which makes so much of the climate nonsense nonsense. Because the analysis of why it was happening also noted that the processes to reduce it to being a minimally important problem were already baked into the very society being analysed.

A1FI would be a very bad outcome. A1T would be a lovely one. All anyone should ever have asked is how do we make sure we get to A1T? And upon asking that question we get to Lomborg’s answer. It’s the one that is going to happen anyway so don’t worry.

Sure, I overstate my case a tad, but only a tad.

43 thoughts on “Sigh”

  1. Yet the energy industry is still banking on ever-rising demand for its products as if nothing has changed. BP is projecting a 43pc increase in fossil fuel use by 2035, Exxon expects 35pc by 2040, Shell 43pc and Opec is clinging valiantly to 55pc. These are pure fiction.

    Funny that those with skin in the game are investing billions of dollars based on “pure fiction”, but those who are stumping up nothing whatsoever are worth listening to.

    I have found that it is usually worth listening to those who have the most to lose, not those who risk nothing while carping from the sidelines.

  2. I know that at least one of the supermajor oil companies commissioned an internal report a few years ago that essentially agreed with you
    – wind is, and always will be, pointless balls
    – tidal is potentially interesting but we really don’t understand the chaotic processes in the open sea enough to build wave-power generation that doesn’t get torn apart by unexpected waves
    – solar will be cost competitive within a decade which means four things
    a) generation will become utterly commoditised and so making panels will be a scale and cost game
    b) there will be massive electricity grid disruption as the engineering basis of current designs (lots of local consumption, few major sources) gets subverted by microgen
    c) the power business then becomes a storage and real-estate play
    d) the use of fossil fuels for heat, light and transportation will disappear (not overnight as there’s a significant investment base to be replaced) and the oil industry then reshapes itself to supply petrochemicals and plastics (meaning that gasoline and diesel become even more of a zero-value waste product than they are already)

  3. Or we could go with the whole climate change nonsense and call it nonsense and put forward the theory that CO2 has no causation or correlation to increased temperatures. It could be that we are doing loads of stuff to try and stop something that is an event caused by stuff that has no connection to humanity’s energy use.

  4. “The future is so bright, you need sunglasses at night.” – GC

    You are lucky in the UK. Over here in America, the sun only shines brightly a few hours a day.

  5. That’s a good summary by Flatcap Army.

    the use of fossil fuels for heat, light and transportation will disappear

    Except for aviation. I don’t think even the most swivel-eyed loon is predicting battery powered A380s any time soon.

  6. Yup, I’d agree with most of what Flatcap Army said, plus Tim Newman’s comment on aviation. I’d add that most heavy vehicles (HGVs, tractors, compactors, etc.) will stick to fossil fuels for a long time. Probably shipping too.

    Not sure about generation and/or storage becoming localised. It’s always cheaper to maintain one centralised generating station than a million domestic units. For years now consumers have had the option to buy domestic CHP boilers, which are guaranteed to reduce electricity bills. Yet take-up has been minimal because of high up-front costs and concerns about reliability. There’s no point saving £400 a year only to waste it all on maintenance & repair costs.

  7. There was some research made the news about six years ago about battery charging. It had long been assumed that the amount of time it takes to charge a battery is down to inherent physical limits, but one group decided to ditch the assumption and investigate it, and discovered that constructing a battery in the right way can actually cut the charging time by orders of magnitude. They were talking about recharging a phone in seconds, or an electric car in a few minutes.

    Still doesn’t seem to have been commercialised. Anyone here know whether anything came of it — or whether it was debunked, perhaps? If it’s true, it’ll be one of the great inventions of all time.

  8. The decisive factor is physics.

    ‘… new electricity installed in the US in 2013 and 2014 would come from solar.’

    Disingenuous – ‘installed’ electricity is not generated and supplied electricity. And the folk who write/say these things know this and intend to deceive.

    Solar costs of electricity are based on (anticipated reducing) capital cost; fossil fuel on variable consumption costs plus capital costs.

    That is comparing apples and oranges. Panel costs will come down so £ per kW make it ‘cheap’ compared with coal or gas, except the unit of consumption is kWh and a 10kW solar panel at night yeilds zero kWh.

    The capital cost of a solar installation really is irrelevant if there is no sunshine.

    The cost of solar has to include the cost of consumptiom from backup fossil fuel and/or nuclear, plus their capital cost, to keep the lights on when the Sun don’t shine.

    Solar cannot provide continuous base load or respond to peak demands at times of low light, nor can it feed the grid at off peak times when the light is strong because it will unbalance the grid.

    Solar/wind are only viable if the energy they produce can be stored. The only practical method now is hydro and creating enough reservoirs would be expensive, energy intensive and practically difficult.

    Talk of ‘smart grids’, interconnectors, and superconducters simply ignores the physics.

    The whole renewables nonsense is like fitting sails to a cruise liner and pretending running costs are just the capital costs of the sails whilst ignoring the cost of engines and motor fuel when the wind is not blowing or not blowing in the right direction.

    It is curious that the preferred ‘solution’ to a problem which involves climate and thus chagning weather conditions, involves generation methods most vulnerable to weather conditions.

    .

  9. Andrew,

    > It’s always cheaper to maintain one centralised generating station than a million domestic units.

    I’m afraid this is an erroneous use of the word “cheaper”. You are comparing an actual cost paid by actual monolithic power companies to a hypothetical cost calculated by adding together the individual costs paid by individuals. The former figure, being a real bill, matters; the latter, since it is actually paid by no-one, doesn’t. Not when making spending decisions, anyway.

  10. When Tim W goes off-grid in sunny Portugal and runs his laptop and domestic appliances from solar panels and batteries I might begin to believe this solar nonsense. Looking out of my window in the UK at a grey, overcast sky, I suspect that solar power is not a realistic generation option here and is highly unlikely ever to be so.

  11. @Tim Newman – oops, yes, planes obviously. But aviation fuel demand is a fraction of gasoline/diesel consumption (world jet fuel demand is about 5 million barrels per day, whereas the EU alone consumes 12 mb/d of gasoline)

    @diogenes – efficiency of solar is picking up remarkably; I’m no bongo wielding hippy but the UK will become very reliant on solar in our lifetime, and technology will accomodate it. Huge (and I mean HUGE) issues will arise in higher latitudes where life can’t be sustained without energy input and I suspect fossil fuels of one sort or another will play a big part for ever.

  12. What John B said.

    The time of peak electricity demand in the UK in winter is around 6pm GMT when the contribution of all the installed solar in the UK is zero. It really doesn’t matter how cheap your solar panels are, you’ll still have to buy power from fossil fuel or nuclear generators and those generators will need to be available 24/7/365.

    And let us repeat: Even if the worst case predictions of the climate catastrophists are real, the Climate Change Act and all the ‘sustainable’, ‘renewable’ energy nonsense will not make an iota of an iota of difference to the climate.

  13. where you can’t rely on hydro, anyway – places like Norway have the topography to generate more than they need very readily, which explains the Swedish industry that exists to smelt bauxite into aluminium using v. cheap hydro power

  14. “we really don’t understand the chaotic processes in the open sea enough to build wave-power generation that doesn’t get torn apart by unexpected waves”
    But we do know the energy content of waves. Worked out back in the 70s (Jerry Purnell) There’s enough on the East coast of the USA to power Boston.

    @Whoah there, SQ2, on fast recharge batteries. If you can get all that energy into a mobile phone battery in seconds, you’re likely to be able to get it out in seconds. There’s more energy in a phone battery than a shotgun cartridge. You want that going off in your pocket?

  15. Pournelle.
    Mistypes, not ignorance. Like I know how to spell Niven.
    I can remember them exposing The Great Global Warming Scam before The Great Global Warming Scam. Proper SF…

  16. @BiC – you’d be surprised; even ten years ago the Germans were calculating that an area of the Sahara big enough to generate all of Europe’s power demand would be 600km square; technology has moved on a long way since then…

  17. Can beat that Mr Flatcap.
    A little arithmetic showed the old coal fired station, down on the Kent coast – the incident sunlight, on the ground the place covered, was about equal to the power it generated.
    But unfortunately, like the Sahara, Kent gets nights.

  18. @FA

    You might need 600sq/Km at midday on midsummers day…

    How much would you need between sunup an 11am…?

    …or between 2pm and sundown…? You know, that pesky rising in the East and setting in the West habit the sun has…?

    How much do you need in Winter when the sun is much lower…?

    How much do you need to just store chemical energy in (incredibly inefficient) batteries to be converted back to electricity to fulfil overnight demand…?

    Not to mention of course the difficulties involved in transferring it from the places where the sun shines reasonably reliably to say, Glasgow…

  19. Unless there’s an unforeseeable breakthrough providing an order of magnitude improvement in power storage (which we can definitely foresee can’t be achieved using electrochemical batteries), most transport (apart from city runabouts) in 100 years will be powered by combustion, almost certainly of hydrocarbons (because that gives us the best energy density). The hydrocarbons needn’t come from dead dinosaurs of course; assuming we have access to lots of energy from other sources, we could make our own from water and CO2.

  20. BTW Cyprus is using 517MW at the moment…

    We are reliably informed by a solar panel optimist on here that you can get 100W per sw/m…

    So, Cyprus alone would need right now 570,000 sq/m of panels to fulfil the instantaneous demand – let along storing energy for tonight…

    Oh, and it is pissing down at the moment so output would be zero anyway…

  21. > Unless there’s an unforeseeable breakthrough providing an order of magnitude improvement in power storage (which we can definitely foresee can’t be achieved using electrochemical batteries), most transport (apart from city runabouts) in 100 years will be powered by combustion, almost certainly of hydrocarbons (because that gives us the best energy density).

    Hundred-year tech predictions are almost never true, and I would be astounded if this were the exception. As Michael Crichton put it, if you’d asked people in 1900 what our big environmental problem was going to be in 2000, they’d have said it’d be figuring out what to do with all the horseshit.

    Anyway, “powered by combustion” is a bit vague. The question is, to what extent? There’s already been a rather nice prototype built of a car with electric wheels and a small ICE. The ICE runs at maximum efficiency to recharge the batteries. The thing has BMW-beating performance and uses minuscule amounts of petrol. No idea why Tesla decided to go full-electric instead of adopting that model. Possibly marketing; maybe bloody-mindedness.

  22. @FA

    As I pointed out, that would be an ideal midsummer, midday requirement…

    For the rest of the year you would need considerably more…

    Currently wee are using 551MW and it is dark (wind has collapsed to 11MW)… so on top of however many more sq/km you would have to provide because it is winter and the panels produce considerably less than 100W/sq/m you would need the night time storage capacity…

    And if you have ever visited Cyprus you would note that those bits that are not mountains or water storage are farmed… Would we plan to cover farmland in panels and if so, what would we eat…?

    Oh, and there is of course that problem of the panels becoming inefficient with increases in temperature so when it is 45C in summer they don’t produce 100W anyway…

  23. There’s already been a rather nice prototype built of a car with electric wheels and a small ICE. The ICE runs at maximum efficiency to recharge the batteries.

    That’s how diesel submarines work! Those enormous dumper trucks you see on mines, too. Their wheels are turned by electric motors, with the engine driving a generator.

  24. Oh, and there is of course that problem of the panels becoming inefficient with increases in temperature so when it is 45C in summer they don’t produce 100W anyway…

    The efficiency would drop even further as they get dusty. I’ve been involved with the installation of solar panels on a remote piece of kit we had floating offshore Nigeria (one of these) and we had a problem with them getting dusty*: they need to be cleaned fairly regularly. Okay, cleaning solar panels isn’t a huge problem – until you have thousands of square miles of them in places without much water.

    *The real problem turned out to be a phenomenon seen in Nigeria called “night”. Apparently nobody foresaw this, and so we need to supplement the solar panels with 8 windmills, of the type that go on sailing yachts.

  25. @S2 No idea why Tesla decided to go full-electric instead of adopting that model. Possibly marketing; maybe bloody-mindedness.

    I presume it must be cheaper to have an electric motor powered by batteries than an electric motor powered by batteries powered by a petrol motor…?

    Plus you can take the moral high ground and argue that your batteries will be charged from the magic renewables tree – even if they aren’t…

  26. The efficiency would drop even further as they get dusty.

    Indeed, it is a huge problem here as Cyprus is very dusty…

    A Cypriot friend of mine that was building houses turned over a considerable amount of his land to a solar farm. I remarked that he would have to clean them to keep the numbers up and he didn’t believe me…

    It wasn’t long after before i saw him out there with a hose and squeegee….

  27. > I presume it must be cheaper to have an electric motor powered by batteries than an electric motor powered by batteries powered by a petrol motor…?

    Tesla don’t appear to be going for cheap. They’re also trying to address the range problem by setting up free recharging stations across North America and Europe and now a battery-swap scheme. I suspect a small ICE in each car would have been a lot cheaper.

    > Plus you can take the moral high ground

    Yup: marketing.

  28. “powered by combustion” is a bit vague
    No, it means exactly what it says. The petrol-electric you mention is powered by combustion, but it’s a daft idea anyway since direct mechanical transmission is far more efficient than generating electricity to drive electric motors.
    You’re right that we might have completely unforeseen technology to store electricity in 100 years, but it won’t be based on electrochemical batteries unless everything we know about the physical properties of materials is completely overturned.
    Far more likely that we get compact fusion engines, or Star Trek-style transporter beams.

  29. @Chris Miller
    Would the inefficiencies in transmission be offset to some degree by being able to run the combustion engine at a set/max efficiency rate as opposed to inefficient running for direct combustion, also the amount of traffic and queue time where you could turn off generation of the battery was above a certain level.
    Just curious as it seemed to me this would be a better model (and less complicated mechanically) than the current hybrid systems with two mechanisms that switch between themselves based on conditions.

  30. I thought there were a number of petrol/diesel electric vehicles already on the market – e.g. a Prius, and some Lexus models.

    AFAIK none of them gives the user the option to charge the battery from an external source – I suspect this is because it makes battery management terribly complicated and requiring user input as you need to have the battery flat when you get the opportunity to charge it, but don’t want it flat when crawling in traffic.

  31. @ianb – ur bak 🙂

    must take a little issue however,
    Talk of ‘smart grids’, interconnectors, and superconducters simply ignores the physics.

    better distribuition networks will certainly help with intermittent and distributed sources, trivially as in if wind is strong at one end of continent but calm at the other …
    broad superficial load shedding when supply is low (dishwashers off etc )..
    etc, etc.

    However, there remains the problem that demand is highest in many places when solar gives nothing and wind might be poor – better distribution systems can significantly help, but we will need “big electricity” for the foreseeable … ( i reckon it’ll be big CCGT, perhaps as much as 90% capacity of max load , but smarter distribution might bring that down to 80% )

  32. > The petrol-electric you mention is powered by combustion, but it’s a daft idea anyway since direct mechanical transmission is far more efficient than generating electricity to drive electric motors.

    No, that assumes that you’re using the energy immediately. ICEs have optimum running rates (around the 50mph mark in most cars, I believe). With direct transmission of the mechanical energy to the drive, you very often — mostly, in fact — have to run the engine at non-optimum rates. Pulling away from lights, tootling around town, going up steep hills, throwing energy away by braking, etc. With an ICE-charged battery, you never do any of that: the ICE only ever runs at its optimum. And electric wheels harness energy and recharge themselves every time you brake.

    It’s not about comparing mechanical efficiency in a lab test. It’s about real life.

    http://www.treehugger.com/cars/electric-mini-0-60-in-4-seconds-it-has-motors-in-its-wheels.html

  33. optimum running rates (around the 50mph mark in most cars, I believe).
    max throttle, high revs i think – thus high speed, so low mileage, so fuel inefficient way to make the journey, but engine more efficient at pushing air out of the way.

    If the engine is built with a stead load in mind, it will have a different performance profile from the rather marvellous engines we have in our cars today, it would be much less flexible, but more efficient within its ‘band’, and would want wide open throttle. Might not be at high revs, but that’s a design decision (perhaps to allow engine to speed up for abnormally high loads.).

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