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Climate Hustle

The Key To Slowing Global Warming

Posted on 10 January 2018 by Riduna

We all know that global warming is causing climate change characterised by increasingly severe weather events which damage property, destroy food crops and is likely to have catastrophic effects with multi metre sea level rise later this century. Strong winds and floods, forest fires and droughts are more common and cause damage which, each year, is more expensive to repair and may eventually be beyond repair.

We also know that the prime cause of global warming is human activity involving the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – to meet our energy needs for transport propulsion and electricity generation. At the same time, we are actively engaged in destruction of carbon sinks – forests and woodlands, warming oceans - in order to meet the needs of a burgeoning population, while also increasing the number of methane producing animals and crops such as cattle, chickens and rice.

Most of us realise that if we are to avoid catastrophic events in the future – or indeed survive as a species on this planet – we must, at the very least, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What has to be done?  It’s simple. Reduce and eventually stop burning fossil fuels, the major source of greenhouse gasses, and do so as rapidly as possible. We recognize the need to plant trees to replace those cut down and to modify our diet by replacing meat with other similar tasting nutritious products enabling reduction of animal herds and their emissions. Yet action taken globally is just the opposite of these measures.

There are two approaches to curbing use of fossil fuels: (a) make them more expensive by imposing a carbon tax on them and (b) provide an alternative renewable energy source which is cheaper, cleaner and more readily available.

A Carbon Tax

There are several problems with the first approach, the most significant of which are:

Participation: Although every country burns fossil fuels only 42 or 15% of 195 U.N Member Countries have any form of carbon tax. Those that do not have a carbon tax include Russia – a major emitter - most African nations and many Central, South American and Asian countries.

Application: Even when imposed, a Carbon tax is not always applied to all parts of a country. Japan is classified as having a Carbon Tax, even though it is only applied to the Greater Tokyo Area.

Tax Rate: The rate applied varies from country to country and in no jurisdiction does it appear sufficient to reduce emissions on its own. In some countries (Zimbabwe, South Africa) the rates are so low, they are totally ineffective and revenues tend not to be used to promote clean energy technology.

Exemptions: The tax is not uniformly applied to all sectors of the economy that produce carbon emissions. Several countries exempt their export sectors from the tax in order to maintain a trade advantage. Others only apply it to a single product, e.g. petrol or electricity generation but not both.

Oversight: There appears to be no international agency responsible for monitoring and reporting on the use/lack of use of a carbon tax by each country or its effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions globally.

Another problem is that a Carbon Tax penalizes users of fossil fuels, including the largest individual users, businesses. Producers and retailers of goods and services will pass those increased costs on to their customers and this can have an all-pervasive inflationary effects throughout the economy. Because of this its introduction is resisted by many countries and half-heartedly applied by others, making it ineffectual as a means of reducing fossil fuel consumption and not applied at all by a majority of countries.

There is no independent agency with responsibility for reporting on the way in which a carbon tax is applied or monitoring its effectiveness in reducing the emissions of individual countries. Consequently, there is no uniformity in the way such a tax is applied, no CO2 emissions reduction targets set and no uniform reporting of the extent to which they are achieved. As a result, emissions continue to rise and in 2017 are approaching 37 Gt/annum.

Clean Electricity

The second approach is to replace fossil fuels – used by every country - with energy generated from renewable sources - solar, wind, thermal, tidal and hydro, all of which are free. Solar and wind are available in all countries while thermal, tidal and hydro are available to most others. All offer an alternative to the use of fossil fuels, though at present, only thermal can assure continuity of supply sufficient to meet the growing, though fluctuating demand for electricity for domestic, industry and transport use.

In 2017 the cost of renewable energy continued to fall with wind energy in the USA as low as $20/mWh, solar thermal dispatchable falling to around $50/mWh with grid-scale photovoltaic below $40/mWh compared to existing coal-fired generation at $40/mWh and new coal fired generation at $60-$70/mWh.

The above shows that renewable sources are cheaper than new coal-fired generation and that the cost of solar is fast approaching that of existing coal fired power stations and is likely to be less by 2020. In Australia, where 75% of coal fired power stations are fast approaching their use-by-date(1), it is no longer commercially viable to replace them with fossil fuel generators. A similar situation exists in many other countries dependent on coal fired power.

Wind generation is already cheaper than burning fossil fuels and the cost of generating electricity by solar voltaic and solar concentrator technology is rapidly falling as its use increases. To ensure that electricity supply from renewable sources is both adequate and reliable, development of higher capacity and cheaper energy storage for quick and sustained release to the grid or major consumers during periods of sudden disruption and short term increase in demand, is essential.

This development is also essential to enable increased range of electric vehicles (EV’s) and reduction in their cost to the point where they are cheaper to own and operate than vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines. When this occurs - and it is likely within the next 5 years – there will be rapid and sustained uptake of EV’s for domestic, business and industrial use, expected to result in a decline in demand for and use of oil-based fuels, possibly by 50% by 2040 or sooner.

The singular difference between the two approaches, imposing a tax to discourage use of fossil fuels and replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources is that the former imposes an additional burden while the latter offers an incentive in the form of financial relief. Given the choice, nations and consumers will always resist additional costs but embrace measures which reduce their costs.

Energy Storage

Ability to reduce the cost and increase storage capacity of electricity is key to rapid displacement of fossil fuels as the source of generating electricity since it enables:

  • Solar and wind generators to provide dispatchable energy, making them a reliable alternative to use of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
  • Grid stability by both rapid and sustained discharge from storage facilities.
  • Use for transport propulsion providing high range and low cost will rapidly displace use of oil and its derivatives.

With the limited exception of solar concentrator facilities, solar and wind generators can only supply electricity when the sun shines and the wind blows. To meet demand, these generators must have capacity to produce and store electricity for release to the grid and consumers 24/7.

To this end, large scale storage may best be provided by pumped hydro where water is pumped to an elevated level using surplus energy generated when the sun shines/wind blows. Water is then released to spin a turbine during hours of darkness or calm, ensuring continuity of electricity supply. Most countries have numerous sites suitable for such schemes.

 

 The largest lithium-ion battery storage facility in the world – built by Tesla at Jamestown, South Australia in 2017 - 2017 - has already demonstrated its importance as back-up for the Grid. Photo: Neoen. 

The facility has a total generation capacity of 100 megawatts, and 129 megawatt-hours of energy storage. The facility is capable of going from zero to 30MW (and vice versa) in 4 seconds and is able to ensure grid stability. Its capacity and versatility is expected to put downward pressure on electricity prices.

Grid-scale battery technology allows small but very rapid responses of less than 1 second to changes in grid stability, as well as providing much larger discharges for a limited period.

Vehicles of all kinds now propelled by oil-based fuels will, over the coming decade be replaced by motors fuelled by battery stored electricity. Technology advances have already increased the capacity of batteries enabling the building of road vehicles with a range of up to 500 km. However, battery costs, now around $140/kWh, need to fall below $100/kWh before the cost of electric vehicles (EV’s) can be priced at or below comparable vehicles propelled by fossil fuels.

When this occurs, likely before 2023, uptake of EV’s will be both rapid and sustained, displacing diesel, petrol and other oil-based fuels now used. Market forces will ensure that this change occurs. Given the choice of a fossil-fuelled vehicle or a cheaper to own and operate, equally reliable EV, consumers will buy electric.

Conclusion

As the effects of global warming increase (fires, severe storms, property loss, crop failures, floods), pressure will grow for all countries to adopt and apply financial measures (a carbon tax) which effectively curb CO2 emissions. There can be little doubt that financial measures can achieve this – but not the way they are currently applied. To overcome shortfalls described above, an international authority with responsibility for reporting annually on the effectiveness of financial measures and the performance of each UN Member Country, would appear to be needed.

These pressures, combined with market forces and national legislation banning fossil fuelled vehicles, will also put pressure on builders to produce and sell electric vehicles which are superior in terms of price and performance. This is beginning to happen with global electric vehicle sales likely to exceed 1 million in 2017. Sales are likely to rapidly increase and within the next 5 years cause a significant decline in the demand and use of oil-based products.

The transition from fossil fuel generation of electricity to renewable energy sources has already started and is irreversible. After 2020 it is unlikely that any fossil fuelled power station will be built anywhere in the world and, thereafter the use of existing stations is likely to decline with increasing speed. This trend will be enhanced by cheaper, denser and more compact storage of energy, enabling better management of local, national and international grids.

The present state of technology for improved battery storage, on which this transition largely depends, is not fully known since, for commercial reasons, advances in this area are kept secret. What is known is that battery costs continue to fall and their capacity continues to rise, giving more and more certainty it will result in use of fossil fuels ceasing before 2050, possibly sooner.

 

(1) The Retirement of Coal Fired Power Stations.  Engineers Australia submission to the Standing Committee for Environment and Communications inquiry. 10 November, 2016.

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Comments 51 to 58 out of 58:

  1. Riduna @47

    Yes you are right that reserves of bauxite are larger than for lithium. Scientists estimate 200 - 300 years of bauxite left as below. 

    www.youaskandy.com/questions-answers/34-ask-andy-1980/8788-are-we-running-out-of-bauxite-.html

    Of course aluminium is one of the most common materials in the crust, so these are reserves that can be practically mined at reasonable costs. Aluminium can also be recycled endlessly.

    We have plenty of resources for absolutely  huge numbers of batteries for cars and devices. However I still think its hard to see batteries being the main way of storing energy for power stations, because of costs and huge size of such instillations.

    I agree rooftop solar power and home lithium or aluminium battery packs could well  be the way of the future. An acquaintance of mine has just done a full home instillation of solar plus the tesla battery pack, and even now the economics are good. He has a nissan leaf electric car. Centralised power stations may increasingly be a form of backup for decentalised power.

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  2. NorrisM @50

    Thank's for the reference to the Hartley article and the attached nuclear discussion. I gather this is the article? For anyone interested...

    judithcurry.com/2017/12/14/the-cost-of-displacing-fossil-fuels-some-evidence-from-texas/#more-23687

    I assume the extensive and possibly frustrating regulation of the nuclear industry is to do with safety. This is not something that I would want to see compromised, or short cuts taken.

    I would not place absolute reliance on Hartleys views. They are the views of just one person, and the climate issue has become politicised and people have agendas. People need to read a range of views.

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  3. NorrisM @50

    I have had a read of the Hartley article on Curries blog, and also the comments of Peter Lang and Beta Blocker. I have had a quick scan through Peter Langs research article on Nuclear energy and "learning rates".

    This is interesting stuff. Some quick thoughts, bear in mind I only read the material very quickly.

    Peter Lang is clearly a nuclear power fanatic, and makes some rather strange claims about what it can do, for example somehow providing liquid fuels for aircraft. I dont know how thats supposed to work. He is however correct that growth in nuclear power basically stalled in the 1970's, and part of this may have been safety concerns from three mile island, (but then these were real concerns as this came close to a huge disaster). However he is wrong to think safety concerns were the only factor, as Beta Blocker points out.

    Lang is also right to point out that S Korea seeem to have had a better "learning curve" on nuclear energy, and essentially lower current construction costs for plant today. Refer a below for global construction costs comparisons for nuclear power in terms of "learning curves".

    www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421516300106

    However S korea has had problems with quality control and safety (refer "nuclear power in S Korea" on wikipedia)  and is considering canceling all future neclear generation contracts out of safety concerns following the Fukushima disaster as below: 

    www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-nuclear-president/south-koreas-president-moon-says-plans-to-exit-nuclear-power-idUSKBN19A04Q

    So regardlesss of costs and so called benefits of nuclear power, this safety concern constantly becomes an issue, and public views are strong on it. This is understandable, because when nuclear power does go wrong it does so in dramatic and dangerous fashion.

    Beta blocker makes some good points. I think he is right overall, and  that poor construction management would be a large factor in the expense of construction costs for nuclear power in America. It's presumably also the main reason for slow construction times that routinely go over estimates. I have done consultany work for the building industry, so I hear where he is coming from. However until the management problem is turned around, generating companies won't want to build nuclear power.

    IMO strict safety standards are probably also a factor in costs, but then this is not something that should be compromised.

    The bottom line appears to be that nuclear power can be cheap power, but this is hard to achieve in most countries, and the safety worries are a constant concern.

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  4. NorrisM @ 8

    How has the South Australian Battery pderformed?  This analysis provides the answer.

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  5. Recommended supplemental reading:

    With Donald Trump in the White House, the prospects for fighting climate change have never been any bleaker in the US. Yet there are options available to state governments to move forward with the greening of the economy even without federal support. This point is made crystal clear in two studies produced recently by economist Robert Pollin and some of his colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for the states of Washington and New York. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Pollin explains the significance of Green New Deal programs.

    How to Achieve Zero Emissions, Even if the Federal Government Won't Help by C.J. Polychroniou, Truthout, Jan 17, 2018

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  6. Riduna, could you provide me with your qualifications? (college degree and from where, profesiional position, and/or any awards you have won). I would love to cite this article for an argument I am making, but I will need your qualifications.

    Great article!

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  7. nigelJ,

    It's rather rude to call someone a fanatic for understanding the potential of nuclear power.

    Reactors using water as a coolant and moderator, i.e. every power reactor in the world if I recall correctly, are not the only kinds of reactor designs. I liken them to wood fired steam engines that should really be phased out of use. The vast majority of their construction cost and time comes from the redundancies and physical requirements of keeping water a liquid at nearly 200atm or more and 300c.

    Other designs, such as molten salt reactors, don't have those requirements. This makes them much smaller, much simpler, much faster to build, and therefore much cheaper than water reactors. All safety concerns related to maintaining a giant pressure cooker also disappear. This means they would be even safer than nuclear's already unrivaled safety record.

    Alternative designs are able to be used for producing synthetic fuels because of their much higher operating temperatures. This allows them to serve as industrial heat sources for all sorts of uses, such as ammonia production or synthesizing CO2 into methane, which can be further processed into liquid fuels.

    Safety concerns of nuclear power are grossly overstated, but the general public has no concept of radioactivity. There was a  NOAA map of the Tsunami's wave energy being passed around as a radiation map, but almost no one seemed to notice that the key was in centimeters rather than anything related to radiation. I imagine if you gave most people a geiger counter for a week, they'd have a nervous breakdown.

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  8. Econuke:

    Welcome to Skeptical Science.  You have chosen an interesting subject to hang your hat on.

    Unfortunately, when you introduce yourself with obviously ignorant statements like "Reactors using water as a coolant and moderator, i.e. every power reactor in the world if I recall correctly" the rest of your comment does not seem very convincing.  This Wikipedia article describes existing sodium cooled reactors similar to your fantasy reactors. Some of these were built as power reactors.

    Similarly, a first sentence that insults another poster invites insults back.  If you are polite you will receive polite responses.  

    It is customary at Skeptical Science to link to scientific sources to support your claims.  I noticed that you neglected to link any resources at all in you post.  Try to raise your game.

    You could help us here.   For the past several years I have asked all the nuclear supporters who post here to write an article that describes the usefulness of nuclear power.  Skeptical Science would welcome a well written article citing the scientific literature that supports nuclear power.  Unfortunately, no-one thinks it is worth the effort to write such an article. Perhaps it is because the scientific literature does not support nuclear power.  The article should address the issues raised by Abbott 2011.

    Ask the people of Fukushima about nuclear safety.  Imagining that a technology with no existing pilot plants could help with a problem that demands immediate action is folly.

    I will not address the remainder of your post.  It is well known that nuclear power is uneconomic.  Power from existing nuclear plants is the most expensive power.  New plants cannot be built on time and on a budget.

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