Comments by Roger Brown Subscribe

On Wind Power Challenges In Pacific Northwest


You write:

"My basic problem with this concept is that you have to work too hard against the grain of what nature is conveniently giving you--power that aligns fairly well with the day-centered demand patterns of our economy--to force it into supplying long after the sun goes down."

The problem is that we have been working against the grain of nature for two centuries by building an economic system built on the consumption stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels. Even hydro electric energy, which is the only renewable energy source which is making a sigifcant contribution to global supplies, has effective energy storage, and so can be used for load following. If nature conveniently supplies us with enough stored gravitational energy in the form fissionable isotopes then the party may continue for a while longer. If not then we may have to learn to live with the grain of nature.

By the way what other technology besides nuclear do you see as a candidate for supplying night time electricity in a post-fossil fuel world?

June 4, 2010    View Comment    

On Wind Power Challenges In Pacific Northwest


I agree that in the present environment of relatively cheap coal baseline power, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will sell stored solar energy at night. However, in the long run coal is going to go away, and if you believe in the potential dangers CO2 emissions then it is desirable that coal should go away faster than would be required short term economic considerations. I am not claiming that stored solar is the right solution, but it is at least a physically possible solution.
June 3, 2010    View Comment    

On Wind Power Challenges In Pacific Northwest


You write:

"For years I subscribed to the idea that storage was the killer enabler for renewables, until a couple of years ago someone whacked me upside the head and pointed out that the cheapest power was likely to be stored first, regardless of source.  An Aha! moment.  Doesn't mean that storage won't benefit renewables significantly, particularly when off-peak wind is so cheap it has nearly a negative cost, as I have read happens in ERCOT at times.  However, it does suggest that other than dedicated buffering to allow for dispatchability, solar is the least likely power to be stored, because it's still the costliest in terms of LCOE and should be worth more sold directly into peak or mid-peak as generated."

I do not really understand this comments. If CSP is more expensive than other forms of electrical generation and short term cost drives the economics of energy production, then there is no reason why a single CSP plant should be ever built. The reason they are being built is because a belief exists that the long term costs of fossil fuels are going to be very high, so that it is worthwhile to subsidize CSP in the short term. The economic correctness of this decision can certainly be questioned, but once the choice to make subsidies has been made, I see no reason why the energy from this source is less likely to be stored than any other.

With respect to wind energy it is more likely to be stored because of the high cost of the direct storage of electrical energy relative to thermal energy. However, the same cannot be said with respect to nuclear energy; If thermal energy storage works for CSP I see no reason why it would not work for nuclear energy as well. This option is one possible way to deal with the issue of nuclear load following. You could run the fuel assembly continuously and store energy thermally for use in load following.
June 3, 2010    View Comment    

On Wind Power Challenges In Pacific Northwest

David you write:

Osha's contribution to this "conversation", with his "open mind" was to say everything I said about nuclear power, except for the fact that nuclear power is a low carbon energy source, was not true.  When someone says this to me, I take it they are calling me a liar.  I don't call this engaging in conversation with an open mind.  

The essence of a debate  is calling into question the validity of an opponent's assertions. If such doubts are not allowed debate cannot take place. If Osha had said "I don't believe a word you say because I know that you are a habitual liar." then you would have legitimate grounds for complaint. As the case stands your indignation is the most perfect evidence of a closed mind that I can imagine. 

June 2, 2010    View Comment    

On Krugman explains environmental economics

Lou Grinzo writes:

"To be sure, Krugman says that we need to use a market-based solution, which I think is undeniably true"

I am not sure what you mean by a market based solution, but I personally see serious problems with captital markets which, in my view, must inevitably be growth based.

Here is an analogy for our economic system. A group of people live in a house which they are constantly expanding in size, and at the same time they are increasing the luxuriousness of its appointments. This expansion of size and luxury is a competition. Whoever adds the most value to the house gains the largest right to consume economic output such as clothes, food, medical care, toys, expensive recreational activities, etc. both now and in the future. If the rate at which you are adding value to the house falls too far below the average you will either be thrown out into the street or restricted to living in a tiny poorly furnished room with restricted access to medical care, luxury items, recreational amenities, etc. No end to this competitive increase in the size and luxury of the common dwelling is ever anticipated.

Solutions which maintain the competitive accumulation paradigm treat symtoms, not causes. If we are destroying tropical forests in the process of making beautiful furniture for our homes we can try to add the future cost of deforestation to the price of the furniture. If we are emitting GHGs in the process of heating and lighting our homes we can try to add the future costs of climate change to the price of fuel. And so forth. However, if we refuse to abandon the goal of continously increasing the size and luxury of our homes then such market based actions are merely delaying tactics.

The the rational alternative to the competitive accumulation as the basis of domestic economy is obvious. If the house is a comfortable place to live, then there is no need to expand it any further. Instead its occupants should concentrate on keeping the house in good working order with a minimum expenditure of resources. They should share the work of maintenance and share the benefits of having a comfortable place to live. If maintenance work does not occupy all of their spare time then they should seek psychic income in other activities than the accumulation of material wealth. If they want to introduce an element of competition into such activities because competition is the spice of life then let them do so. The end.

I realize, of course that the practical details of implementing such a cooperative plan on a society wide level are not trivial. Perhaps the often repeated claim that human nature won't allow such cooperation is correct, although my impression is that this assertion is largely a mindless repetition of dogma rather than the result detailed logical reasoning.

I will not attempt to describe in detail my thoughts about how cooperation can largely (but not entirely) superseed competition for a large portion of our economic efforts, because I do not think that any real audience exists for such speculations. I will mention that I think that it is possible that money and two of its traditional functions could be preserved in such a system. The two functions than can be preserved are:

1. A practical utility for facilitating economic exchanges.

2. An information system to aid the intelligent direction of economic effort.

The function of money that cannot be preserved that of a store of value. The only real store of value is the economic community and the resource base which supports it. The atomized pursuit of security through the accumulation of financial markers by individual economic actors is antithetical to any attempt of preserve the true sources wealth.

April 8, 2010    View Comment    

On Free Markets, Energy Policy & The Easter Bunny


I cannot fault your logic. I just don't happen to believe that option C (Develop energy sources that can be mass produced that produce safe clean unlimited energy at a cost well below the cost of burning coal.) is going to happen any time soon. Futhermore, no matter how great our technical prowess, sooner or later we are going to have to face the consequences of our committment to expanding sales volumes as the primary measurement of human welfare. Maybe the day of reckoning can be postponed for generation or two (I personally doubt it), but it cannot be delayed forever. If you are asking me to promulgate a 'practical' plan to transition from an economy based on the competitive accumulation of consumption rights to one based creating sustainable community wealth, I cannot do it. Plenty of experience has shown me that introducing physical practicality into such discussions is pointless; People will resolutely cling to absurd fantasies of technological miracles before they will admit that the social status quo cannot be preserved. I am sure that the Roman and French aristocracies were absolutely convinced that any attempt to interfere with the with their economic priviledges was 'impractical'. But guess what? Human desires for continuation of familiar and comfortable sytems of priviledge are not always granted.

April 8, 2010    View Comment    

On Free Markets, Energy Policy & The Easter Bunny

Bill Hannahan writes:

"Actually I am agnostic on anthropogenic climate change. I think we are conducting a global climate experiment that should be ended."

And follows up with:

"We should develop sources of energy that are cheaper than burning coal regardless of the climate issues."

So the second sentence of the first quote should really read: I think we are conducting a global climate experiment that should be ended as long as it doesn't cause us any economic pain. This attitude is kind of like being bitten by a stray dog and saying to to the doctor afterwards, "You can treat me for rabies as long as you guarantee I will not suffer any pain or discomfort." What level of risk is required before you accept painful treatment? If it is 95% certain that the dog was not rabid are you going to blow off the shots? The issue with GHG emissions is level of risk, not unswerving religious faith vs agnosticism..

April 6, 2010    View Comment    

On TCASE 8: Estimating EROEI from LCA

Here are some comments about the relationship of net energy to the economics of energy production. I will use a specific example of two fossil fuel reservoirs with different values of EROEI which I assume to be constant througout the lifetime of the reservoir. This assumption of constant EROEI is not realistic, but it will help to illustrate a conceptual point about the economics of energy production. Reservoir A has EROEI=20 and reservoir B has EROEI=2. Reservoir B has a total energy content which is 1.9 times greater than reservoir A. The reason for this peculiar choice of relative size is that it insures that both reservoirs will deliver the same amount of useful or net energy over their lifetime.

I will further assume that both reservoirs are very large and will not be depleted for many decades into the future. In our typical short-sighted human way we choose not to worry about what will happen when the reservoirs become depleted and simply concentrate on trying to maximize economic output in the short term. Which reservoir is economically superior and by what margin?

Even though reservoir B contains the same amount of net energy as reservoir A we have a sense that it is econmically inferior because we will have to work harder to produce the same amount of useful energy, so that the energy obtained is more expensive. The question is whether this excess expense can be quantified in terms of the energy balance alone.

We might try using the input energy required to produce a given amount of useful or net energy output as a measure of cost. For reservoir A the input of 1 unit of energy produces 19 units of net energy. For reservoir B we must input 19 units of energy in order produce 19 units of net energy. Therefore we might be tempted to say that energy from reservoir B is 19 times more expensive or, conversely, that reservoir A is 19 time more efficient in its use of input energy. The factor of 19 is proportional to EROEI-1 which I call NEROEI since it is the ratio of net energy output to energy input.

However, we must be cautious about accepting NEROEI as a measure of the economic efficiency of energy production. Properly speaking the production of energy has no energy "cost". This somewhat surprising statment can be supported by considering the production of some resource other than energy. Suppose that I wish to open a new platinum mine that will produce X tonnes of pure platinum every year. Extracting a tonne of platinum requires a lot energy. This energy must come from one of two places: Either some energy producer must dedicated extra production resources to extracting and delivering this energy, or some other economic process must give up energy. In either case the overall economy incurs a cost as a result of delivering this energy to my platinum mine.

However, if I intiate a new energy producing enterprise which has a positive energy balance (EROEI>1) then every bit of energy which I consume I reproduce, plus some extra. Therefore no energy producer is required to provide extra output. No other economic process has to sacrifice energy; On the contrary, since I am a producer of net energy some other economic process can consume the extra energy which I provide. Naturally one must subtract the input energy from the gross output energy to calculate the net benefit of energy production, but the "energy cost of producing energy" is an oxymoron.

On the other hand, although as a producer of net energy I do not take energy away from other economic processes, I do take away other resources. Producing energy requires labor and capital equipment (which may at least partly be regarded as embbeded labor). Some energy production processes may consume fresh water (e.g. oil shale production, water cooled CSP in the desert, etc). The production of biofuels may remove farmland from the production of food. And so forth. The opportunity cost of all of the finite production resources that are diverted from other economic processes into energy production is the real cost of producing energy.

One can define the cost efficiency of energy production as the ratio of net energy (gross ouptut - input) divided by the opportunity cost of the production resources that are diverted from other economic processes. In the case of indiviual resources one can define the resource efficiency of net energy production as the net energy divided by the quantity of resource diverted (e.g. hours of labor, cubic meters of water, hectares of farm land etc.). If one assumes that the opportunity cost of the diverted resources is always proportional to the input energy then one can use NEROEI as a proxy for the cost efficiency of energy production. But it is only a proxy. The assumption of universal constant of proportionality between input energy and total resource cost is almost certainly incorrect. The resource efficiency of energy production is a more fundamental economic conception than NEROEI. For example if water supply issues become sufficiently critical, then we may decide to convert some fraction of our thermal power plants to air cooling even though lower NEROEI results. In this case we would be trading off water use efficiency against some some other resource efficiency.

I could say more on this subject (obviously I have wasted too much time thinking about it.), but I suspect that anyone who started to read this post already dozed off several paragraphs ago, so I will end my comments here.

March 9, 2010    View Comment    

On Storm Clouds on the Clean Tech Horizon?

"Governments should thus treat deployment as a strategy for accelerating cost-reductions, not reducing emissions, since the latter would require subsidy levels that governments and publics have shown little willingness to support. Driving cost reductions must be the explicit purpose and primary design of deployment policies and achieving consistent reductions in the unsubsidized cost of clean energy technologies must be the metric that rationalizes deployment investments."

The main thrust of this argument is that clean energy deployment must be consistent with continued economic growth or popular support will fail as the economic reality of oil depletion is rammed home. I agree. The world is filled with zombie morons who regard economic growth the same way they regard bread, potatoes and rice: i.e. as a staple of everyday life that is never going to change. This attitude is pure nonsense. If someone announced their intention of consuming exponentially greater amounts of calories over their entire lifetime, the stupidity and destructiveness of this plan would be instantly recognizable. But for the global economy the same insight is rejected. We can accumulate exponentially greater quantities of markers in the financial system forever without depleting the resource base or damaging the biosphere which support us. This is the dominant cultural delusion of our civilization which must be destroyed before a truly intelligent method of realizing human potential can be developed.

March 4, 2010    View Comment    

On Do climate sceptics and anti-nukes matter? or: How I learned to stop worrying and love energy economics

"In the developed world, there is general recognition of the energy and climate problems, but little real political incentive to do anything meaningful about it (at least in the short term). There are, however, many minority (but influential) special-interest groups trying to block or stymie change. Now, environmental well-being is ultimately very important to these societies, as is steady economic growth and maintenance of high standards of living, but they also (think they) have the luxury of making choices that balance these priorities against more nebulous or philosophical concerns."

I should stop coming to this website since this kind of nonsense gets my blood boiling, and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. The kind of people who cannot stand to get out of bed in the morning unless they believe that business as usual economic growth will continue for the rest of their lives are not amenable to rational arguments. I will vent my spleen one last time and then leave you people in peace to discuss methods for extending the bridge further over an endless abyss.

Before going further let me make it clear that I am not opposed to nuclear energy, and I agree that most renewable energy enthusiasts grossly underestimate the cost associated with intermittency. Whatever other club you wish to beat me with do not use the club of anti-nuclear bigotry.

There is no physical need for continued steady economic growth in the OECD nations, though, of course, there is a socio-political need because of the structural nature of private finance capitalism. If resource depletion starts to constrain economic production, then continued high demand on energy and other resources by the highly developed nations will put strong pressure on China, India, and other developing nations to use the cheapest, dirtiest means to catch up to us. Only if and when the short terms costs of nuclear are equal to or better than coal will coal be entirely displaced within the context of an economic system where short term composite economic growth is the primary measure of economic 'health'.

If peak oil is near (My belief is that the probability is high that it is already here.) then we are faced with a serious economic problem than cannot easily be solved by a push for more nuclear energy. Almost as soon the electric grid came into being electric motors started displacing heat engines in stationary settings. But after the better part of a century of grid delivered electricity the same displacement has not taken place in transportation because of the technical difficulties involved. My reading of the current effort to electrify transportation is that it is not even remotely close to being economically competitive with fossil fuel powered transportation. I think that if the global economic recovery gathers real strength oil prices will head into the stratosphere again. Unfortunately the easiest way to try to ease the short term pain of oil depletion is to find substitutes which mesh easily with the current infrastructure: i.e. Biofuels, tar sands, coal to liquids, all of which are ecologically unsound. Again our continued "need" for steady economic growth is driving the use of these destructive energy sources.

We do not need steady economic growth. We need to create an economic infrastructure which will maintain human welfare in the long term. Manufacturing more plasma screen televisions and electric sports cars is contributing nothing to the creation of such an infrastructure, and, in fact, is wasting resources that could be used for this end.

Have you ever heard of peak phosphorus? Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on mined rock phosphates which are finite in supply. Scientific American published  an article about this issue a few month's ago. In spite of the fact that Scientific American has largely become a bastion of idiotic "what me worry" techno-optimism they actually sounded reasonably worried about this problem. The reason for their worry is that nutrient recycling is a pretty basic physical process, and it is not easy to imagine some unspecified high tech solution which is going to become cheap just when we need it. What if nutrient recycling requires more labor intensive agriculture? What if nutrient recycling requires a major redistribution of the human population in order to make returning human wastes to the soil more economical? Waiting until the market sends us a signal that we have a problem with phosphorus supply is insanity, and yet it is not on the economic agenda because it has nothing to do with keeping the financial system and the stock market 'healthy' over the next few years.

Our economic efforts need to be directed to some other goal than selling each other more stuff this year than we sold last year, but the social intelligence which would allow such a redirection of our efforts seems to be absolutely non-existent.

February 21, 2010    View Comment    

On Shaken Consensus?

"I'd argue that such a course is at least as worthy of consideration, rather than off-hand dismissal, as a future based on steadily diminishing horizons or civilizational stasis."


I am not really interested in any further attempt to argue you out of your optimism. However, the dichotomy you present between economic growth and civilization stasis or worse is, in my view, a false dichotomy. Ancient Greece was one of the most intellectually and artistically vital cultures that ever existed, but the measure of its productivity was neither the volume of trade nor the volume of manufacturing that it carried out. There is more in heaven and earth that is dreamt of in your philosophy of economic vitality.  



February 19, 2010    View Comment    

On Shaken Consensus?


I have read a number of your posts and, outside of the limits to growth issue, I regard you as one of the most intelligent and open minded contributers to this site. However, on the limits to growth issue you seem completely closed minded to me. You say that you do not have time to respond in detail to mind postings, but in fact you have not responded substantively to a single point that I have raised. In your first response you accused me of operating on unexamined assumptions. I told you what my assumptions were, but instead of explaining why you believe they are wrong or what additional unspoken assumptions that you think I am making you respond with a silly remark like "The trend is your friend until the end." Without a doubt limits to growth is not an issue until it is, but an intelligent person will make some attempt to anticipate the time of its ripening. If you do not want to take time to discuss these issues I will not complain, but in the future you should not issue criticisms of other people thought processes unless you are willing to spend some time and intellectual energy backing up those criticisms.

February 19, 2010    View Comment