Category Archives: electricity

Al Gore makes himself difficult to defend

With this absurd speech.

… I’m proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It’s not the only thing we need to do. But this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America.

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

For reasons I still haven’t grasped, it’s nearly impossible to write about climate change in a mainstream setting without having denialists pop up and, among other things, accuse you of taking orders from Al Gore. (My friend and Ottawa Citizen colleague Kate Heartfield remarked on it a little while ago.) Or, for reasons even more obscure, “Algore,” like he’s a biomechanical replicant of a former vice-president with a model and make instead of a person with a regular name.

But anyway, the criticism usually revolves around the idea that Gore is a crank, full of pie-in-the-sky ideas about someday we might live in a paradaisical vision of windmills and solar panels, not useful proposal for what we might actually do right now in the world we actually live in. Or, alternatively, that he’s a doomsayer whose obviously absurd prophecies of planetary doom are beneath any rational consideration.

Either line of criticism is so disconnected from the reality of Gore’s message, and the manifestly reasonable tone of his main vehicle An Inconvenient Truth, that they’re difficult to engage.

Then he goes and says something like that America should be carbon-neutral in its electricity generation by 2018. And he compares it to the U.S. space program.

On July 16, 1969, the United States of America was finally ready to meet President Kennedy’s challenge of landing Americans on the moon. I will never forget standing beside my father a few miles from the launch site, waiting for the giant Saturn 5 rocket to lift Apollo 11 into the sky. I was a young man, 21 years old, who had graduated from college a month before and was enlisting in the United States Army three weeks later.

I will never forget the inspiration of those minutes.

I wasn’t alive for them, so maybe I can’t fully comprehend the power of the moment he’s talking about, but this strikes me as a dangerously false parallel. The Apollo program, as ambitious as it was, was essentially about making it possible for a few people (astronauts) to do one thing (walk on the Moon) once. More often if possible, but once would meet the challenge. Gore is talking about changing the way everybody does everything, for always. (Clive Crook makes a similar argument here.)

Someone whose public credibility is as fragile as Gore’s is — on a rising curve but certainly not secure — and so important to the movement he argues is key to the continued viability of the planet Earth as a home for humanity, should treat it with a little more care.

From Crook:

Does he even mean it? “I see my role as enlarging the political space in which Senator Obama or Senator McCain can confront this issue as president next year,” he says. Translation: I advocate the impossible so that the possible becomes more probable. Fair enough, one might say. But propaganda in a good cause is still propaganda, isn’t it?

Ah. So it’s strategic nonsense.

Look. It’s not happening, no matter who gets elected. Building a new wind farm, a small one, takes two years, and there’s a shortage of gear and qualified people to install and maintain it. You can’t fix that in a decade (see the difference between an accomplishment for the few and a fundamental change for the many, above). It’s so far from happening that it’s difficult even to take the idea seriously. You can’t.

It’ll be all the denialists talk about for the next year, pointing and laughing, and for a change they’ll be right.

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Learning from each other

Solar Panels used as Parking Shade

(Photo credit: "Solar Panels used as Parking Shade," Flickr/Great Valley Center Image Bank")

Alex Steffen of WorldChanging muses (after a conversation with Cory Doctorow) on just how suburbs and exurbs hard-hit by expensive energy could be rebuilt into (greater) self-reliance:

What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition (which largely destroyed knowledge) in reverse, a crusade of open sharing, or as Cory promptly dubbed it, the Outquisition.

Here’s the fledgling Outquisition website.

I share the optimism about human ingenuity that is WorldChanging’s bedrock premise, and my libertarian inclinations lead me to love the idea of individuals and communities learning to do for themselves, rather than relying on large-scale systems — governmental or corporate — to sort out the hard stuff for them. A talented society is a resilient society.

The preachiness is a bit of a put-off, though, the idea that the suburbs are a kingdom of the damned who need to be shown the light by people from “the comfy bright green cities.” Most people in cities don’t know how to grow anything much or wire solar panels or filter rainwater for drinking any more than your typical suburbanite does, and the suburbanites have the advantage, mixed though it is, of generally having more land.

I suspect city folk will need to hire more than a few experts from “climate-smacked farm communities” to show them how a few things are done.

Defining the energy problem

John Robb sums it up.

Our current global energy burn rate is 16 TW (terawatts), which is up from 0.7 TW at the turn of the 20th Century. … It’s very likely, given a judicious evaluation of the data, that this demand will double to 32 TW by 2025 (even with a global 1-2% decline in usage per $ of GDP due to efficiency improvements).

The bulk of the energy we feed this burn rate with is from stored solar — essentially, energy delivered from the sun millions of years ago and stored inside the earth’s crust. The problem we face with stored solar is that it is reaching production limits (particularly crude oil). In combination with this rapidly increasing demand, we will face a never ending series of price increases (occasionally mitigated by demand destruction) for stored solar energy as oil, natural gas, and coal deplete in series.

Who built the electric car?

Marc Gunther updates entrepreneur Shai Agassi’s still-quite-plausible plan to bring electric vehicles to the masses:

How does the business work? Essentially, by exploiting what Agassi argues are the cost advantages of electric cars over vehicles powered by gasoline and, yes, you read that right—he says it’s significantly cheaper to operate an electric car than a gas-powered one, particularly with oil priced at more than $110 a barrel. (The economics work with much cheaper oil, too, he says.) The low-cost advantage for electric cars is even greater in Europe, he says, where gas prices are the equivalent of $7 to $9 a gallon.

His claim depends on a lot of assumptions—that a battery with a sufficient range can be produced for $10,000 or less, that he can bring the cost of renewable energy down by committing to buying lots of it, and that the costs of building distributed networks of recharging points and service stations will not spiral out of control.

If he’s right, the cost of powering the electric car will be about 5 cents a mile. As for a gas-powered car, you can do the math, but fuel costs for a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon with gas priced at $3.75 a gallon amount to 15 cents a mile.

Even so, there’s a problem—many people don’t want to pay an extra $10,000 up front for a battery, not knowing how long it will take for them to get their money back in the form of reduced fuel costs. So Agassi isn’t asking for that money up ront. Instead, he intends to sell his customers the cars for much less than they cost, provided that they agree to long-term service plans that will supply them with electricity, battery changes when needed, replacement batteries, etc. He estimates that he could afford to give people a free car if they agree to sign onto a service agreement for six years.

Earth Hour’s compromises

Citizen reporter Katie Daubs has put together a piece on the moral complexities of tonight’s Earth Hour events. It’s centred on Ottawa, but the questions are of general application:

Organizers acknowledge that turning off the lights won’t save the world. They say their point in killing the lights for an hour is largely symbolic. But it raises the question: When you’re trying to bring new supporters to your cause, how much can you afford to compromise your message to get their attention?

Changing public opinion is daunting. Neither hard-core environmentalists nor those who oppose them are easily moved. The key demographic is the mass in the middle who could be swayed either way. Marketing experts say that asking this group to flip a few switches is a brilliantly simple way to engage them.

Solar-power showpieces

Radically different governments, same principle: spend pots of public money on solar power in hopes of … well, having a lot of economically unsustainable solar power.

In Ontario, the Globe and Mail reports, The Ontario Power Authority is pleased to have signed contracts for 250 megawatts of solar-power systems:

If all those who have promised to install panels follow through with their plans, Ontario will have some of the biggest solar farms on the planet, and an important “green” industry will be kick-started in the province.

Still, the solar-power generation business is essentially starting from scratch. At year-end only an infinitesimal 0.3 MW of sun-generated energy was being sold to Ontario’s power grid. The biggest completed project so far is a series of panels on the roof of the horse barn at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The industry will be “kick-started,” but the contracts call for the providers to be paid 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is about seven times the going rate for electricity in hydro- and nuclear-rich Ontario most of the time. Even in high summer, the spot price for power rarely tops 30 cents a kilowatt-hour. Later in the story, a spokesman for one of the companies involved says 42 cents a kW/h is barely a break-even price for his operation.

So I guess the hope is that this subsidy, for a subsidy it is, will help Ontario-based companies work out some of the kinks in solar-energy generation and move in the direction of the going market prices.

But still — seven times the market price? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on nuclear technology, if energy’s what the government’s determined to spend it on?

AbuDhabi

Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is happily announcing the imminent construction of a Dongtan-style concept town called Masdar City, which is supposed to be a carbon-neutral residence for 50,000.

Abu Dhabi sits on most of the UAE’s oil and gas reserves, ranked respectively as fifth and fourth in the world. Proven oil reserves on their own are expected to last for another 150 years.

But like most oil-producing countries, the UAE also wants to diversify to ease its traditional economic dependency on oil.

The zero-carbon city, part of the wider Masdar Initiative launched by the wealthy Abu Dhabi government in 2006, is also a flagship project of the global conservation group WWF.

Masdar chief executive Sultan al-Jaber described Masdar — Arabic for “source” — as as an entirely new economic sector fully dedicated to alternative energy, which will have a positive impact on the emirate’s economy.

It’ll have transportation pods like Star Trek turbolifts, according to Agence France-Presse, where you’ll be able to walk in and say your destination and it’ll take you there.

Cool. Practical? No. It can function only with massive ongoing subsidies from Abu Dhabi’s oil-drenched economy. That’s the opposite of sustainable.

The government’s giving away free money …

… and hardly anybody noticed (PDF), according to a market-research report the government released.

Canada’s ecoENERGY program offers grants of up to $5,000 for home renovations that improve energy efficiency — new windows, high-efficiency, heating, that kind of thing. I don’t think much of the way the program is designed, but the general idea has merit: energy-inefficiency and climate change affect all kinds of things the government pays for (the health effects of pollution, for instance), and it’s reasonable to try to avoid some of the costs by helping pay to reduce the extent of the problem.

But it only works if people take you up on it, and people will only take you up on it if they know about it, and Environics says the word’s not getting out:

There is a moderate level of awareness of the ecoEnergy Home Retrofit Grant, with three in ten (31%) Canadians and a similar proportion of homeowners (32%) who say they have heard of this program. Awareness is higher among those recalling the radio advertising (60% vs. 25% of non-recallers), although it is unclear the extent to which the advertising led to this higher level of awareness (it may be that those who are aware of the grant were more apt to notice the advertising). In particular, four in ten (40%) ad recallers say they have never heard or seen anything about the Home Retrofit Grant, which may be related to the relatively limited proportion of ad recallers who remember this message from the advertising.

There’s also this fun tidbit:

Canadians are more negative than positive about the federal government’s performance on the environment, with one-quarter (25%) rating it as generally good, compared to four in ten (40%) who rate it as generally poor, and 31 percent who give a neutral rating. Those who recall the recent ecoEnergy Home Retrofit Grant radio advertising are more likely to express a positive opinion, although caution is recommended against assuming a causal link, since it may be that those who are most supportive of the federal government’s performance in this area are also more likely to have noticed the recent advertising. In terms of the federal government’s performance overall and in relation to providing information and services to the public, Canadians tend to give a mixed assessment, neither of which differ significantly by recall of the recent advertising campaign.