Tuesday 30 June 2020

Lurid Energy Nightmares

The first version of this post appeared on our good friend Sackerson's excellent blog ...

An important line of thought in energy matters is how coal transformed the entire world by being a very dense (and fairly convenient) form of energy.  Oil is even better.  (Google ERoEI for quantified approaches to these thoughts.)  Cheap coal and oil were the basis of industrial civilisation, and cheap electricity the basis of the modern way of life.  Oooh-errr, missus: isn't "green energy" going to be of much poorer ERoEI, and much more expensive? ... and hence, the end of civilisation as we know it? 

When allied to the obvious observation that activist "greens" are generally ignorant to the point of causing despair; and those that aren't daft romantics are often outright malcontents (sometimes anarchists and sometimes malevolent & motivated anti-capitalists) - oh, and add China to the mix, because they ain't falling for this crap but we are! - there's scope for some fairly apocalytic visions.  Oooh-errr, missus ... 

For a well-written example of this thesis my attention was drawn by the good Sackers to a piece by one John Constable, a name that will be familiar to those who get their kicks from the often rather peculiar output of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. His article is here.  Now I understand this "intellectual" line of thinking, and it's always nice to have something theoretical to worry about: but he's been eating too much cheese and I'm deeply skeptical of his argument, on three immediate grounds:
  • ad hominem: Constable is a deep fellow but always leaves the indelible impression he's pursuing an unacknowledged agenda 
  • "Attempting to reverse this process by returning much or all of the energy system to low density flows means handing over to those who control the renewable energy sector the majority of the potential for change available to our society.  The political implications of this are terrifying, and not even public ownership of those resources could avoid the concentration of power and constriction of human freedom that would result." 
  • he's dramatically (and, given his considerable knowledge, wilfully) wrong when he talks about "low density flows" as if that's anything remotely new ** 
Well, it's true Rebecca Long-Bailey (when shadow energy minister before GE2019) planned to hand the whole thing over to local authorities (the irony! when you see what a cock-up they make of their energy endeavours), right down to the level of parish councils and even "local communities ... of around 200 homes"; and of course all workers in the sector to be unionised.  To which preposterous package I'd be very hostile indeed.  But that ain't going to happen - anywhere. 

So whom does Constable imagine has been controlling the energy system** up until now (in the open-market era, i.e. post 1990)?  The nearest UK candidates are, in broad coalition, (a) National Grid (b) Ofgem (c) HMG.  The CCC helps a bit and snipes a bit, from the sidelines: other related quangos are either more helpful (being more closely directed by government and industry) or more snipey (being "greener").  Similar in most countries.  With most aspects of detailed development / delivery / execution outsourced to private companies (and/or municipal utilities in some countries), small and large (EDF is an egregious counter-example, but doomed in its present form).   Any serious signs it's about to be handed over to Greta?  What does she know about constructing anything more weighty than a tweet? 

No: as I keep saying here: net zero carbon has gone completely mainstream now (since 2019, specifically, in my assessment).  So - it's in the hands of the engineering companies, the traditional energy companies (who ain't volunteering to go the way of the dinosaurs any time soon) as well as a rash of really creative newer engineering / technology companies, and the banks.++  Right now I'm working on a project for a gigantic "traditional polluter" whose products are vital for our way of life, whose efforts to go green up until last year were next to nil, and who now are throwing their best people into really bold schemes to go zero carbon!   And when you see real, competent people working these Big (very big) Problems, constructively and productively, it makes the idea of "handing things over to parish councils" look utterly, utterly absurd.  And despite RL-B's talk of the unions taking a controlling stake in all this, whose side do you think a practical GMB man is on?  (Or Kier Starmer?)   For reasons both of jobs, and keeping the lights on, nobody in the real world will do anything other than let the big corporates do what they're doing. 

Now: will our 2050 energy end up being more expensive?  Not sure: there are some very simplistic a priori arguments in the air on this one.  Yes, there are huge upfront capital costs - but right now, that's surely going to be spent on Something Big, on Keynsian grounds at least, so it might as well be building clean & useful stuff.  (Plus adaptation / mitigation, of course - a key part of the 2019 breakthrough-to-mainstream.)  And the beauty of wind and solar is that once the (substantial, but fast declining) capital expenditure has been taken care of, the operating costs are wholly unburdened by the fuel costs that dominate "conventional" energy.  (Don't fret about the details like grid balancing, over which Mr Constable frequently hyper-ventilates - and I used once to worry myself a few years ago.  It's just an engineering problem: the Grid is very good at it; lots of clever people are beavering away at it - and the costs of all that will fall, too.) 

But let's suppose, as seems possible, that Chinese coal+wind+solar beats western hydrogen+wind+solar+batteries on cost.   So what?  Globalism is over!  We ain't gonna be buying our stuff from them on the same scale anymore, anyway.   Are we ..? 

** the whole point about the gas industry is that methane is INCREDIBLY low in energy density, (even when you freeze it to put it in ships, it's still quite poor) - but an exceptionally useful form of energy.  And so, highly specialised infrastructures (physical, financial and commercial) have long since been established to cater for this.  In many respects (although the technical analogies aren't easily mapped for non-scientists), the electricity situation is even more extreme.   Neither of these massive industries are in the hands of the Green Blob.  Anywhere.  Whatever daftness sometimes surfaces in the legislation under which they conduct their resolutely practical business.

++ OK, yes, and a bunch of chancers, con artists and would-be 'war profiteers' at the margin


dearieme said...

I object on aesthetic grounds. Bird-choppers are ugly bloody things whereas an oil refinery smells gorgeous.

Sackerson said...

I suppose that the financial incentive will make the energy industry responsive to the people, like supermarkets and unlike governments. So long as governments don't skew the financial incentives; and provided governments guard against externalisation of costs.

Raedwald said...

The comrades really don't understand Localism, do they?

The whole point of devolving the design and delivery of services is to increase economic efficiency, not to reduce it. Few goods or services are natural monopolies, and the sweet spot (in terms of regulation, not necessarily ownership) will always lie somewhere between SW1 and the Parish, and it will vary depending on whether or not there genuine economies of scale.

Here, water and sewage are most efficiently delivered at a hyper-local level; our 7 micro sewage plants serve 900 dwellings and the cost is very substantially less than a London resident pays.

Electricity flouts EU energy competition requirements - the sole consumer energy provider in the state, KELAG also owns the state network provider Kärnten Netz. Given local conditions, nothing else makes sense. And as is usual in a liberal democracy the larger and more monopolistic / oligopolistic the supply, the more onerous the regulation.

Folk here buy into Green energy in a big way - KELAG switched to a 100% green as the default domestic source about a year ago, 85% from Hydro, 10% wind, 3% Biomass and only 2% solar and biogas. Few read the small print; only 51% of the green supply is from Austria; the rest is from Norway and Finland. So a marketing triumph, anyway. Still, it allows people to feel virtuous whilst the real cheap green energy starts to come on stream.

Elby the Beserk said...

Meanwhile, well known Green and AGW activist, Michael Shelleberger, repents of his sins and says three Hail Marys.


"On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I would like to formally apologize for the climate scare we created over the last 30 years, says Michael Shellenberger @ Forbes [pdf link].

Climate change is happening. It’s just not the end of the world.

It’s not even our most serious environmental problem."

That's Mike's career down the pan...

microdave said...

"The whole point about the gas industry is that methane is INCREDIBLY low in energy density"

It's still many times better than Hydrogen, which the "Net Zero" proponents want us to use instead. And it's a damn sight safer to store as well...

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but re Dom Cummings advising civil servants that 'only the paranoid survive', it's a pity he didn't take his own advice when heading for Durham. He must surely be aware that a large number of wealthy and influential people (some in the Conservative Party) want him out of his current role, and should conduct himself on the assumption that pretty much everything he does inside and outside of #10 is being monitored by enemies.

Nick Drew said...

microdave - "It's still many times better than Hydrogen, which the "Net Zero" proponents want us to use instead. And it's a damn sight safer to store as well...

My point is this. If you'd taken coal / oil as your baseline before natgas came along, you'd be saying exactly the same about natgas

and electricity is worse! (in fact you can hardly store it all, yet)

these are "just" technical challenges!

Anonymous said...

Be fair, ND. NatGas and electricity are both great static sources of power, whereas coal and still more oil are portable.

The tachnical challenge of hydrogen will be fun. There's a reason why the launch systems were LOX/kerosene. Mind, I hadn't realised that most upper stages have been LH2/LOX for decades.



Nessimmersion said...

I've no objection to any research into powrr generation or storage.
What I object to is continuly having to subsidise inefficient methods of production through green subsidies while troughers like Gummer continue to hreemwash the system.
Currently all wind and solar do is efficiently transfer money from poor pensioners trying to keep themselves warm to landowners and energy corps.
The argument about using surplus windpower to generate hydrogen from water is nonsense on stilts as well, completely ignoring the marginal costs involved.

Nessimmersion said...

Spelling apologies, smaller mobile than usual.

Nick Drew said...

Nessimmersion - Paul Homewood (notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress) is a very fine fellow, and I go with his very last point (that it'll be steam reforming that gets the hydrogen show on the road)

but he's behind the curve on the rest - another classic case of apparently sound a priori reasoning based on last year's facts

things are moving faster than he knows, and with very clever, practical people spending their own money and thinking very cunning thoughts: e.g. combos of solar + H2 + H2 storage (cheaper than electricity storage), etc etc

this is not nuclear fusion or pixie-dust we're talking about: it's basic chemical engineering with all the benefits of serious R&D still to come, being as this has only just started in earnest

AND as I've said before, with truly massive incentives to solve the (many) problems involved - else the staggering amount of sunk costs in the natgas industry need to be written off

What I object to is continuly having to subsidise ...

well, as LT readers know, I'm with you 100% of the way on that

so - how many people thought we'd be seeing unsubsidised solar farms being built as early as 2020? or unsubsidised offshore wind (which is coming soon)? And if the govt ever relaxes onshore wind planning regs, you'll be hard pressed to farm a cow for unsubsidised renewables taking over the land

and yes, the intermittency is a big issue: but overcapacity was always the Grid's solution to everything and that's what's going to happen

Always remember my prime case study: After Piper Alpha, "everyone assumed" the additional costs of safety imposed by the Cullen Inquiry would kill the North Sea dead. A priori reasoning, see? it's logical, innit.

What happened? Three big (but not revolutionary) advances in technology (horizontal drilling, bigger floating cranes (!) and better remote control) and the industry switched overnight from massive manned platforms that had to be assembled offshore,to much smaller, not-normally-manned, modular platforms built on the quayside, installed in a single lift

Result? Costs CRASHED, North Sea renewed on a a huge scale

You gotta get these lessons under your belt

Nessimmersion said...

ND, it still smells like a boosters dream.
Its not just Paul Homewood and the GPWF who have a more rational grasp of the costs involved. Solar PV only makes sense in UK if certain conditions are met, high FIT, inverters last for 35 years( good luck with that one) and the panels do not suffer from entropy / need cleaning.
I also think that your view in the N sea is somewhat rose tinted, the UK N Sea has seen a general decline in investment and is not an attractive home for investment compared to Norway given costs of regulatory compliance.
See https://pressat.co.uk/releases/new-research-uk-solar-pv-returns-up-to-65-but-only-until-fit-closes-cb3b3134abf898d86c0e46cc829ebbd9/

Nick Drew said...

My NS story is 35 years old !

To repeat: the incremental tech advances TRANSFORMED the industry

The solar industry, as you prob know, is based on 20 year asset life

But yes, of course, beware boosters & BS. Best test is - whose money are they spending? Right now, it's their own

Nessimmersion said...

Yes, mu N Sea story is worked in it for 30+ years so well aware of the regulatory capture that has spread under the guise of safety.
To repeat, I am always dubious when something appears too good to be true.
At the moment boosters seem to be anticipating lots of lovely govt monkey being splurged on various green projects, so are pre positioning for that.
Best quote I've seen recently is:
"In a hotly contested race, this side of fusion power, Net Zero is a real contender for mankind’s stupidest idea since 1648.

– Perry de Havilland"

Nick Drew said...

but this is a business (+ politics) blog!

we're reporting on what's actually happening. And I'm here to tell you, right now H2 is happening, as dynamically as any new business trend ever was

estwdjhn said...

How much of the wind investment is driven by the curtailment money hosed at traditional base load to get it to turn off every time the wind blows?

If all producers to market are equal, and people are building unsubsidsed wind, great. If we've just slanted the table so much against conventional producers that the cost of gas fired electricity has reached the cost of wind, I'm much less impressed.

Given that last time I worked it out, it was theoretically economically viable for me to generate my domestic electricity with a gas engine run off natural gas in the garden (it only had to be 14% efficient) I have my doubts.

rwendland said...

Interesting effect on geopolitics perhaps if PV&H2 take off. A gander at the IEA map shows that China (Himalayas & Gobi), Pakistan, Chile, Peru and Namibia are the most efficient places in theory for this industry. Egypt, Libya, Turkey & India not bad. And of course Saudi Arabia & Iran. Desert-like places (low or high) near the equator basically. Interesting that Sahara is not shown as great - maybe wind and dust are problematic.