Monthly Archives: January 2015

Lily Pads On The Pond

Before I start, I just wanted to note that economist Richard Tol is conducting a survey on science and related topics here: , which I mention because of the title of this post.

One of the preliminary questions in his survey is something I use in defense of solar. Solar power is routinely attacked by skeptics as a niche provider of power, which is certainly true.

But, if lily pads grow on a pond by doubling the area they cover every day and it takes 48 days to cover the pond, how much area is covered by lily pads on the 47th day? (Sorry, Richard–hope I didn’t blow your survey.) The answer is 50%, of course.

Solar power is the lily pad of energy.

The amount of energy it provides today could best be described as an asterisk, the reason other totals don’t add up to 100%. In the United States in 2014 it produced 0.4 of the roughly 100 quads Americans consumed that year. The amount of solar energy used in the world is so small that it doesn’t even show up in totals of renewable energy produced worldwide–it’s still an asterisk.

In most of the world solar power is more expensive than almost any other type of energy you can think of and must be subsidized by government or charity to be even taken seriously.

Worse, it is an intermittent source of energy–things like night really have an impact on solar. To a lesser extent, so do clouds. And when the sun is shining brightly and a panel produces more electricity, if the grid doesn’t need it at the moment, where do you put it until you do need it? (Roy Scheider was misquoted. What he actually said was ‘We’re going to need a bigger battery.’)

And yet I am convinced by looking at the data that solar power will be the energy source that we will be depending on in the future.

Solar power keeps getting less expensive. In the U.S., one of the most expensive markets for solar (we pay those rooftop installers pretty well), prices for installed residential solar systems declined 11% over the course of 2014. The cost for commercial installed systems declined by 14% in 2014. And prices globally are dropping significantly as well.

This significant improvement in the price performance curve isn’t exactly new:



And it isn’t expected to stop any time soon.

Jan. 30, 2015 “Putting a new kind of photovoltaic material on top of a conventional solar cell can boost overall power output by half. Researchers at Stanford University added a type of material known as a perovskite to a silicon solar cell, validating an idea for cheaply increasing the efficiency of solar power that was first proposed several years ago.”

Way up above I wrote that solar provided only 0.4 quads of the energy Americans consumed last year. What makes that number interesting is the fact that in 2013 the figure was 0.2.

Globally, analysts expect another typical year for solar–growth of about 20%. That’s not 50%–the lily pad analogy is never perfect–but installations of solar did double in 5 years worldwide. While dropping in price by more than 70%.

Critically, for free market enthusiasts who seem almost horrified at the success of solar (okay, that’s an exaggeration), solar power is winning in the marketplace even though it is (for the moment) more expensive than alternatives. This is because there are more signals in the market than price. Many people who can afford solar are also environmentally conscientious and wish to use green energy. Many NGOs and charities are pushing solar into regions where conventional electricity cannot go. Many governments that wish to lessen their dependence on imported oil are happy to switch subsidies from fossil fuels to solar (and wind, of course).

Postscript: Solar won’t really win in the marketplace until the issue of storage is settled. Consumption of energy is not limited to sunny daylight hours, so we need better batteries. That will be my next topic.

Future Plans For This Blog and The Lukewarmer’s Way

I’ve been posting quite a bit since I un-retired around the first of the year, and much of what I’ve been doing is to try and catch up with figures published since I went dark and to take a closer look at CO2 emissions and concentrations.

When I get done with that I’m going to re-visit themes such as internal variability within countries regarding energy consumption, try to configure a sane fuel portfolio for major emitting countries and wait as patiently as I can for the spring release of the DOE International Energy Outlook.

For my companion blog The Lukewarmer’s Way,  want to look more closely at NGO messaging, something I think has been a major factor in preventing reasonable dialogue and intelligent action. That should take me through February for The Lukewarmer’s Way.

I also need to make time to clean up my blogroll. Link rot is there and it is evil.

For both blogs, I am open to suggestions on topics of interest to readers. Way back when I did a guest series over at Jeff Id’s blog comparing climate blogs–one skeptic vs. one consensus blog at a time. If there’s interest, I could do something along those lines for 2015. Anybody want a side by side comparison of Jose Duarte vs. And Then There’s Physics?

What Drives Human-Caused Climate Change?

When looking at the ways humans cause climate change, it is good to remember that we are talking about more than just emissions of fossil fuels. Humans change the land cover of the planet, planting, cutting down trees, putting up reservoirs and paving over land for roads. We also emit conventional pollution, causing black soot and aerosols that have differing (and debated) effects on climate.

There is one human factor that drives all of this. It’s not technology and it’s not GDP. It’s population growth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) only incorporates global population size and growth into its emissions projections, without disaggregating or differentiating between the emissions levels of different social or demographic groups. Poor people cause climate change by cutting down forests, slash and burn agriculture, burning wood and dung, burning kerosene, etc. There are far too many poor people (that is, more than zero). Rich people cause climate change by using appliances, driving cars, flying in airplanes, building dams. There are far too few rich people (that is, less than all).


Because the IPCC (and folks like Nicholas Stern) don’t treat population seriously when they measure and project climate change and its impacts, their documents are not as helpful as they might be. For example, when Stern did his famous review he used an IPCC scenario that had 15 billion people living on the planet in 2100. This naturally caused him to think we would both emit more CO2 and suffer more from the consequences.

So it’s always a good idea to refresh our view of what is happening with global population. Fortunately, the UN periodically publishes updates to its projections.

“According to the 2012 Revision of the official United Nations population estimates and projections, the world population of 7.2 billion in mid-2013 is projected to increase by almost one billion people within the next twelve years, reaching 8.1 billion in 2025, and to further increase to 9.6 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100 (figure 1). These results are based on the medium-variant projection, which assumes a decline of fertility for countries where large families are still prevalent as well as a slight increase of fertility in several countries with fewer than two children per woman on average. ”

Their high variant yields a projection of 16.6 billion in 2100 while their low variant shows a prediction of 7 billion (rising and then falling over the remainder of the century). You pays your money you gets to pick which variant you believe–or which variant supports your position on issues affected by population.

Fans of population studies (both of you…) will already know that the UN adjusted its population figures upwards in 2010, mostly because fertility wasn’t decreasing as fast in some African and Middle Eastern countries as had been forecast previously. We’ll see.

The UN now says, “At the country level, much of the overall increase between 2013 and 2050 is projected to take place in high-fertility countries, mainly in Africa, as well as countries with large populations such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United States of America. ” Notice who isn’t on their list? China…

We’ll talk about this more in the future, but I’m interested in hearing what people think about the UN’s predictions. I’ll leave you with this quote from a UNFPA publication, Population Dynamics and Climate Change (which is well worth reading, by the way):

“It is impossible to understand and reduce vulnerability without taking population dynamics into account. From acute, climate-related events like storms and floods to long-term shifts in weather patterns and sea level patterns, the impacts only become clear through an understanding of who is at risk, what the risks are to people rather than just to places and how these risks vary within and across populations. Vulnerability is unevenly distributed between men and women and between the young, the middle aged and the elderly.”

Climate Commenter Of The Year, 2014

It’s difficult–but important–to acknowledge quality work from the other side of the fence. It’s a bit easier with blog writers–when I awarded Gavin Schmidt Blogger of the Year a couple of years ago, nobody on the skeptic side even grumbled.

It’s tougher with commenters, as the odds are that you’ve sparred with them more than once.

Respect Your Opponent

But this year’s winner deserves the award. He comments prolifically–but doesn’t spam the same comments across the blogosphere.

He’s (usually) not vitriolic, although like all commenters (including myself when I’m at other venues) he can be a bit acerbic at times.

He’s usually on point–he doesn’t go after personalities very much. His usual tactic–asking for sources from those he opposes–is something we could use a little bit more of here in the climate blogosphere.

The gentleman’s name is Hank Roberts. I think he very much deserves the award for 2014 Climate Commenter of the Year. I hope that’s at least one thing we agree on this year.

I’ll leave you with one of his most recent comments on Real Climate, where the topic is ‘Thoughts On Ongoing Temperature Trends”.


  • Ah, Victor?

    Victor, did you ever talk to a reference librarian? The questions you ask are good — but asking them of the wind, or typing them into the computer, does not get you the help for which you appear to be crying out.

    Talk to someone near you who understands statistics.

    Please. Otherwise you may — as appears so far — mistakenly convince yourself that ignoramus necessarily means ignorabimus.

    At Azimuth, the topic that Jan Galkowski points to, ends with:

    Working out these kinds of details is the process of science at its best, and many disciplines, not least mathematics, statistics, and signal processing, have much to contribute to the methods and interpretations of these series data. It is possible too much is being asked of a limited data set, and perhaps we have not yet observed enough of climate system response to say anything definitive. But the urgency to act responsibly given scientific predictions remains.


The Present, The Plan and The Fear

Previously I posted on the DOE EIA’s estimates of current energy usage by the 5 largest consumers.  I also posted on what the EIA projects their consumption to be in 2030.

However, long-time readers of this blog will know that way back a few years ago I estimated energy consumption on my own. I felt that both the EIA and its sister organization the IEA were not paying attention to rising energy consumption in the developing world.

What I did was take estimates for GDP rise for future years, look at the energy consumption per capita for countries that currently have achieved that level of GDP, pro-rate the per capita energy consumption for the emerging countries using the UN estimates of future population, and came up with a much higher level of energy consumption. I later did the same for OECD countries and came up with a coherent, if not necessarily correct, global total that shows future global energy consumption to be 3,000 quads in 2075. Hence the title of this blog. For reference purposes, the world used about 510 quads in 2010.

Now, the EIA keeps bumping up their estimate every time they re-do their study, as I pointed out here. But not by enough.

So with that as preamble, here are EIA estimates for current consumption for the five biggest consumers, their projections for the same countries in 2030 and my projections for 2030.

2013 EIA 2030 Fuller 2030
China 124.9 198.9 246.6
USA 119.8 102.3 108.5
Russia 30.6 38 31.65
India 26.9 42.6 84.57
Japan 21.4 23 19.4
Totals 323.6 404.8 490.72

Readers will note that I actually forecast lower consumption than the EIA for Japan and Russia, based primarily on slowdowns in population growth and lower GDP growth. However, the dramatically higher total is due principally to continued growth in energy consumption in China and India.

The EIA predicted global energy consumption would reach 721 quads in 2030. My figures show 952.3 quads.

If I am correct (and I have a standing invitation to anyone who can suggest where I am mistaken) it has implications for global warming. In part because the EIA and IEA are estimating lower totals, planners are not planning for a higher level of energy consumption. This makes it likely that when demand for energy rises it will be met with the cheapest and quickest source available–coal, guaranteeing much higher levels of emissions and a larger contribution to global warming, no matter how low atmospheric sensitivity is.

But we’ll also see other effects. My fear is that many cities in the developing world will start to resemble Beijing on a bad day. And the consequences of that will be even more immediate than global warming.


Costs and Consequences of Transforming Global Energy Sources

Judith Curry and I were discussing the  ‘wicked’nature of addressing climate change. I said I don’t think it’s a ‘wicked’ problem, in that if we decide to reduce our emissions we have all the tools available to us–nuclear power plants, hydroelectric facilities, renewables, etc. I posted about it at my other blog here.

During the discussion I rashly said I would try to quantify the costs of transforming our energy portfolio and that I thought converting to cleaner fuels would cost an order of magnitude less than continuing to burn fossil fuels.

So I’ll try to do so here, but you’ll have to overcome a couple of heroic assumptions on my part if what follows is to make sense.

  • The title of this blog is 3000 Quads for a reason. I believe that the world will consume 3000 quads of primary energy in 2075. So the total costs and consequences I will be working towards understanding are of that total, not current usage.
  • I will not be considering any climate adaptation or mitigation costs. If I’m right, this monumental conversion will be a ‘no regrets’ policy that is a logical course of action no matter what happens to the climate.
  • The global economic picture will show most people living (or trying to live) at a standard of living at or beyond today’s levels.

If we in fact consume 3000 quads in 2075, most of it will be generated by coal. The reason is simple–international agencies are underestimating future consumption. Even when they update consumption figures and increase the totals, they are silent about it, not telling planners and investors that the developing world really wants to consume energy at the same level as the developed countries.

A very conservative estimate of the coal that will be burned in 2075 is enough to generate 1,000 quadrillion BTUs of energy. One quad is the energy liberated by burning 38,000 train cars full of anthracite coal. about 30% of global energy consumption is coal today.

Some of the costs of coal have been computed. Let’s look at real costs, the ones climate skeptics and Republicans would grudgingly admit. There are costs that are disputed–the value of human lives lost during mining or due to pollution–that I won’t include because of disagreements on how to value those lives or even measure their loss. Similarly, things like reduction of IQ due to exposure to mercury are speculative about their impact.

From Wikipedia: “In 2009 the National Research Council released a report on the “external costs of coal” caused by various energy sources over their entire life cycle, from extraction to production to use and emissions, effects not factored into the market cost of the fuels. The report Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use was released in October 2009. Requested by Congress, the report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. Putting together a diverse committee of experts including scientists, economists, and geologists, the committee estimated the use of fossil fuels had a hidden cost to the U.S. public of $120 billion in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation. The estimate was derived from monetizing the damage of major air pollutants — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulate matter – on human health, grain crops and timber yields, buildings, and recreation.

The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.”

The OECD estimated in 2012 that global GDP in 2075 will be about $675 trillion USD.

The $120 billion in U.S. costs was associated with 20% of our consumption being powered by coal, close to 20 quads.

Again, if you accept my heroic assumptions above, the (non climate, non-fuzzy) pollution costs from 1,000 quads at $6 billion per quad shows a cost of $120 trillion USD in constant 2005 dollars.

In the U.S. in 2011, nuclear provide about 17 quads of primary energy from 124 nuclear power plants, about .13 quad per plant. For 1,000 quads from the same average output, we would need 7,692 plants, about as many as normal power plants exist today.

In China, Areva just built a nuclear power plant for 3 billion Euros. Assuming that each power plant we built cost that amount, the total cost would be 23.07 trillion USD.

So it’s not an order of magnitude cheaper. Just a lot, lot, lot cheaper.





Changing Forecasts Is A Good Thing–Unless You Don’t Tell Anyone

Because my own forecasts see energy use climbing much higher than the agencies charged with making official predictions on the subject, you would think I’d be happy when one of those agencies revised their forecasts upward. That is, unless you know me… I’m not happy for two reasons. But first, here’s what happened:

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration publishes a document called the International Energy Outlook every couple of years. In it they project future energy consumption, among many other things.

Their predictions have changed for 2030 global energy consumption:

So, on to the two reasons for my unhappiness. First, I don’t think they changed the forecasts by enough. My prediction is total global energy consumption will reach 925.3 quads, based entirely on accelerating consumption in the developing world.


Secondly, I’m unhappy because the DOE isn’t telling anybody about it. The total of their changes–42 additional quads–is an amount of energy equal to the combined consumption of India and Japan last year.

It should be ringing alarm bells for politicians, planners and even those involved in the climate debate.

But the DOE EIA isn’t telling people. Those who looked at an older forecast and haven’t checked the newer one will be operating and making decisions based on out of date information.

That isn’t good. There will be a new version out in the spring of 2015. I hope they are more open about changes in their forecasts this time around.