Matt Ridley’s Ninth Test (Warning: Rant Follows)

Now, doggone it, Lord Ridley–your ninth test for the validation of policies to combat climate change stumbled upon an area in which I actually claim to know a bit of the current state of the art (See here, here and here).

So when you write:

“Indeed I will need persuading that dashing to renewables can cut
emissions rather than make them worse; this is by no means certain given
that the increased use of bioenergy, such as wood or corn ethanol,
driven by climate policies, is indeed making them worse.

Meanwhile shale gas use in the USA has led to a far greater cut in emissions than any other technology, yet it is opposed every step of the way by climate 

I call foul. Fortunately, if this is a teachable moment I can actually persuade you that renewables can cut emissions. But first I need to correct some of what you write.

And it isn’t even a correction, which makes me even more frustrated with you. The increased use of bioenergy has been a policy mistake and, while it hasn’t increased emissions much if at all, it hasn’t helped. Our current best efforts in bioenergy have not been good enough and we should in all probability cease subsidizing ethanol in the U.S. and let Brazil use their sugar cane for it instead.

But bioenergy is the least of all renewables and focusing on it and biomass and wood is artful misleading by omission and I expect a helluva lot better from the author of The Rational Optimist. If you want to talk renewables you will have to bring your A game, not a few snide sentences accompanied by a chart.

Usually I have this fight with the most alarmed of activists who point at the paltry production of their favorite renewables and use it as an excuse to advocate either draconian caps on emissions or some well-hidden scheme to retard energy consumption in the developing world. I never thought I would see this argument coming from you–and you put it under the Lukewarming label?

You are arguing that we should throw out the baby because of lack of economic productivity.

In 2010 the world used 523 ‘quads’ (quadrillion btus-for explanations of the metrics see here for BTUs and here for quads).

Of those 523 quads, 52 were produced by renewable energy. Of those 52 renewable quads, 50 were produced by hydroelectric power. Renewable energy is new and is not more than an asterisk in global totals.

However, renewable energy is growing at the same rate and for the same reasons as computer processing power did starting 40 years ago–incremental improvements throughout the logistical supply chain from production to distribution to installation. The two current champions, solar and wind, are making giant strides.

Here’s a look at solar:

Emanuel Sachs MIT

And here’s a look at wind:


Here’s a look at hydroelectric power:


Hydroelectric power is the workhorse and solar and wind are the up and coming sources of renewable power. (I wish we could have a sane discussion about nuclear power, cogenerated power and waste-to-energy, but not today.) We can leave aside for now the local solutions of geothermal, the not-yet-ready for primetime wave power and solar powered satellites.

These three will generate a significant portion of the world’s power. They will reduce emissions.

And it won’t show up in the tables because energy demand is growing so fast–something you surely know. It’s quite possible that power from renewables will double by 2050 and yet fall as a percentage of the total, simply because demand is growing so quickly.

But dismissing renewables because bioenergy hasn’t worked out is like saying man will never fly because of early failed experiments. You’re better than that, Lord Ridley. You need to show it.


88 responses to “Matt Ridley’s Ninth Test (Warning: Rant Follows)

  1. Tom,

    Lord Ridley lives in the UK. The maximum potential UK on-shore wind generation is 0.5×10^12 W, and this provided the entire country is covered by turbines cheek to jowl. By coincidence, current UK energy usage is also 0.5 x 10^12 W (a figure that will double if UK energy use eventually matches US consumption). FYI, here is a map showing current UK wind-farm proposals,

    To put this in some kind of context, the UK government has struggled even to persuade our citizens of the need to free up enough land to provide housing for our children. If you live here, then the idea that wind turbines will play more than an bit-part in reducing UK emissions is both laughable and frightening. Granted, the situation regarding solar is a tiny bit better :-).

  2. Tom,

    I am not going to argue that Matt’s ninth test could have been worded differently, but I will argue that your response is also off base.

    The relevant question is not about renewable capacity the question is about renewable dispatchable power. When a ratepayer flips the switch they want to use power. Your graphs of solar and wind capacity do not address that issue. Hydropower is dispatchable but limited. The graph of hydropower is mis-leading because it suggests that increases in that resource can continue when there are geographic limitations to where you can put dams that will eventually limit how much power is available.

    The total cost of utility-scale renewables from intermittent and diffuse wind and solar resources has to include the additional costs of both storage and additional transmission necessary to provide the same amount of dispatchable power as a fossil-fueled facility to make the comparison appropriate. Then add in cost over time and incorporate the fact that the observed operational life times of utility-scale renewable facilities is close to half that of a fossil plant to make the cost comparison complete. If you want to throw in negative externalities of fossil then don’t forget to add positive externalities for those locations that currently do not have reliable electricity.

    The lukewarmer science issue is the sensitivity to GHG concentrations. The policy question is whether the higher sensitivity impact arguments have encouraged inappropriate renewable energy development. Based on that, let me change the argument slightly. “Indeed I will need persuading that dashing to wind and solar utility-scale renewables at this time is not misplacing resources that could ultimately be better employed by developing better technology and a more fossil fuel-effective approach to providing electricity to the billion people who do not have access to it today”.

    • Hi Roger,

      Sorry if you think I’m off base. Renewables are delivering real energy–about 10% of the world’s primary energy comes from renewable sources. Obviously most of it comes from hydroelectric, but an increasing volume of delivered and dispatched energy comes from wind and solar power.

      Solar really does not need storage and, if properly integrated, very very little in the way of spinning backup. It delivers its peak at the same time that consumption peaks, and the sun’s availability is far easier to predict than the wind.

      Remember that the goal for renewables is not to replace 100% of fuel sources for electricity generation. The goal is 30%, rising somewhat after that if we in fact move to a smarter grid and find storage for wind power.

      Solar is my choice for renewables. Wind is an alternative that must be thought through before planting pylons in the ground. But solar is in fact a growing solution for providing electricity to those who do not have access, partly through Rural Electrification Programs.

      • Tom,

        Thanks for your response. Point number is that I think the debate about energy futures goals is the one society should be having not whether Sandy was caused by global warming. I think we are disagreeing about the scale of renewables expected.

        I bring that up because your renewable targets are different than the ones I am dealing with. New York State has a climate action plan goal of an 80% reduction of CO2 from 1990 levels by 2050. Environmental activists who have commented on that plan think that it is possible to do that without using nuclear power. Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. has produced reports showing how that could be done ( Search, for example, for Beyond Business as Usual: Investigating a Future without Coal and Nuclear Power in the U.S.

        When you look at their numbers (you are welcome to a Kaya Identity analysis of mine), the wind and solar PV penetration rate necessary is 37% across all sources for energy. For electrical generation the penetration has to be over 45%. Those numbers are very far from anything that is reasonable to expect for New York State.

        I think we agree that solar’s greatest opportunity is to flatten the peaks in developed countries and skip the need for as much central generation in undeveloped countries. Importantly it is not only the diurnal peak but also the annual peak load where solar is useful. High energy demand days are very hot or very cold and both conditions are associated with high pressure systems where we expect sunlight but don’t expect wind. Furthermore, solar thermal applications have great potential. More research on the best approach for those applications would be very useful.

        The problem with wind is that the alternative has been pushed without much thought. That has come to the detriment of what we really need for a renewable “solution”.

      • Hi Roger

        Those aren’t really ‘my’ renewable targets–they’ve been published for decades now. As for environmental activists thinking that they can do it without nuclear or coal power, I suppose it’s technically feasible in the sense that you can actually move a car without fuel, if the road is smooth and your horse is strong.

        Cogent points you make on solar. And I’d love to see your Kaya identity analysis, as I’ll be posting on Kaya, Kuznets, Jevons and the energy ladder some time soon.

      • Oh–and if you think the debate should be about energy choices, you might actually prefer my other blog, 3000 Quads, which is dedicated to the subject.

      • Send your address to roger dot caiazza at gmail dot com

  3. I’m not anti-wind, but the only numbers that matter is how much energy produced that gets to the end customer and how much it costs.

    “Installed capacity” is a useless number, it is the same as gauging a fossil fuel plant by the inert chemical energy available in the fuel. It is misleading. Wind is notoriously low in the actual energy produced (25%?), so i think it is proper to only use these numbers.

    Unreliability matters. The sun goes down every day. These are very serious limitations that just can’t be swept under the rug. You can’t be globally competitive in an energy intensive industry if you get your power from these renewables. These industries will simply move elsewhere (China) where energy is cheap. And chances are they will be powered by cheap exported US coal. Does this solve anything?

    The answer is to make renewables cheap and reliable. It’s hard. But until it’s done then the economics will prevent mass adaption. RPJ’s iron law is a lot stronger than wishful thinking.

    I disagree with supporting nukes is “too hard”. It’s entirely political, and the argument here is it is “easier” to build a system based on sporadic expensive energy sources. While it’s true that the left refuses to slay this decades long sacred cow, it is also seen by the right as a lack of seriousness from the greens in policy prescriptions. The cynical among us use this irony as prima facie evidence that global warming is a Trojan horse for progressive policies.

    • Hi Tom–I pretty much agree with everything in your comment. But getting delivered energy stats from wind is actually tougher than it should be, obviously becaus capacity looks bigger. I guess it’s an object in the mirror or something.

      Wind does deliver a lot of energy. It’s been horribly mis-sited in the UK and several other places. They started off wrong–it should be closely coupled with hydropower and sited correctly.

    • And chances are they will be powered by cheap exported US coal.

      US Coal exports to China collapsed in the 3rd quarter of 2012. The French imported more US coal then the Chinese.

      Click to access t7p01p1.pdf

    • Tom, the real output of wind is more like 2% of installed capacity.

      • Hi Tom, somewhere else you challenged my 2% statistic and it has taken me some time to track down the source.

        The scientific paper is paywalled at this location:

        This is the abstract from SEPP, The Week That Was Feb 9,2013:

        The Australian Experiment:
        When challenged about the failure of a wind farm to produce electricity when the winds fail, a favorite response of the wind promoters is that if sufficient farms are built over a broad are
        a then the entire system will produce even if the winds fail on a few
        farms. The amount of excess capacity needed never seems to enter the discussion. It is important to remember that the electrical grid operator (distributor) must balance electricity output with consumption within fairly tight tolerances, or the entire system fails.
        Australian Tom Quirk provided TWTW a reference to a paper in the peer-reviewed British journal, Energy and Environment, that describes a study of the production from 21 farms spread out over the grid for eastern Australia which is described as, geographically, the largest, most widely dispersed, single interconnected grid in the world. Unlike many studi es, such as the ones by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) which relied on computer models, this
        study relies on hard data.
        The results are grim, but not unexpected. The study focuses on the
        year 2010, which was, apparently, not significantly different from other
        years. The study uses an unusually low standard of 2% of installed capacity for the Minimum Acceptable Level (MAL) . It relies on data provided by the grid operator that covers average power output over five minutes. Shorter time periods are preferable and instantaneous output is ideal.
        For 2010, the entire fleet (the combined output of all wind farms) failed to produce 2% of installed capacity 109 times. The longest period was for 70 minutes. One wind farm, described as typical, failed 559 times in the six months. The longest period was for 2.8 days. Not only does the entire fleet fail frequently , but also it fails throughout the year. Clearly, such performance would be unacceptable for any traditional method of generating electrical power.
        After analyzing the data, the authors state that wind cannot be used for base load, the daily minimum requirement, and that the installed capacity of required back-up must be at least 80% of installed wind farm capacity. In eastern Australia the required back up is open cycle gas turbines (basically jet engines) which far less efficient than
        closed cycle gas turbines. But the closed cycle systems cannot react sufficiently quickly to variation of wind power output.
        Further, the open cycle turbines must be operating constantly on stand-by mode, wasting energy when the electricity is not needed.
        Wind power promoters, and their supporting politicians, are leading the public into an expensive wind trap.

      • There are several ways to come up with a “%” for a wind mill. When I worked for NASA, they measured the average energy produced as a percentage of wind energy going through the cross sectional area of the turbine. There were assumptions and approximations made about the wind. With the largest horizontal axis turbines we tested, we rarely got over 4%. There were small vertical axis designs that got over 20%.
        If you read Mike Mellor’s post carefully, it refers to how often the turbines don’t exceed 2% of rated capacity. The rated capacity is more of a legal number than scientific. The people who design these mega turbine parks are not interested in selling electricity, they are designed to take advantage of subsidies.
        For the record I think that wind energy is viable, but the people who could have made it succeed were put out of business by the way the subsidies were written.

      • Thank you marty. T Boone Pickens isn’t a fool and if he’s investing in wind, he expects to make a profit. As you say, the way the subsidies are written, Pickens gets paid even if the wind parks don’t generate a single watt, because “production” refers to erecting the wind turbines, not to producing electricity. It’s a guaranteed can’t-lose investment.

  4. Tom,

    I do think that Matt Ridley is correct with his diagnoses as to Wind power in the UK context.

    The UK doesn’t have a lot of hydro resource to load balance wind power.

    If we use a 2 parts hydro to 1 part wind optimum ratio…then Europe is well past too much wind.

    The UK is a ‘winter peak’ country…which makes using solar as a method for ‘peak shaving’ kind of fool hardy. I.E. They have to make a capitol investment to meet winter peak…and solar doesn’t contribute much in the winter.

    Yes…it’s endlessly irritating that various advocates and opponents of various technologies endlessly attempt to extend localized advantages or constraints globally.

    • Hiya Harry

      Ridely was writing in a global context. You are correct about the UK. A proper portfolio approach to the UK’s situation would probably consist of reviving nukes and subsidizing ground source heat pumps.

      Different strokes and all…

      • That’s Ridley’s point, you’re just saying it in a nicer way than he is. Why, after 20 years of climate activism, have the activists pushed the UK to build a “portfolio” that doesn’t reduce emissions? He’s saying that the decision to do it wrong has a very real cost- in money if you care about money and in time wasted in not pursuing effective portfolios if you care about the urgency of the need.
        The fact that the activists don’t care about the money or time wasted – otherwise, why would they push for more waste – is a point worth considering when evaluating whether activists care about CO2 emissions. And if they don’t, why should Ridley? When they do, his point nine will be addressed.
        I read his paragraph about the U.S. as pointing out that a strategy that actually reduces emissions is opposed by the climate concerned and the point about bio-fuels as reinforcing the age-old complaint about green activists that they seem to care little for the unintended consequences of their actions. The short version- if this is the most important issue of our time, 20 years is plenty of time to begin to act like it.

      • Maybe I’m nicer than Lord Ridley 🙂

        I wonder if 20 years is long enough. Took a lot longer to get other movement goals moving–civil rights, anti-eugenics, even conventional environmentalism. They all took more than 20 years and had plenty of wrong turns and false starts on the road to victory.

  5. “…you will have to bring your A game, not a few snide sentences accompanied by a chart.”

    You just described the entire list Tom. He has no “A game”, or even a C game for that matter. It’s a ten point list of assertions, sans basis. It’s clear that he’s motivated by his world-view, economically driven, not by the science.

    • Hiya Jim

      Actually I think there is a qualitative difference in what he writes, perhaps due to ease of access of readily available material for the different subjects.

      I have no objection to approaching climate issues from an economic perspective–as long as it’s clearly labeled as such and acknowledges that there are subject areas not completely amenable to treatment by economic analysis.

      I honestly don’t think he worked very hard or very long on this. As I’ve said, The Rational Optimist was not only good, it was researched. I think he may have just dashed this off.

  6. In Sweden we have a lot of hydro-energy, about half, we have a lot of nuclear and we have some heating of homes with bio fuels (no coal and no gas). We have started to heavy invest in wind power, not one sensible person understands why. But anyway, In Sweden nuclear cost around 15 öre/kWh, Hydro cost around 5 öre/kWh and wind power (on land) cost around 60-80 öre/kWh. Why at all use wind? I can not understand it, it is too expensive! (sorry for my bad English, I do as good as I can…).

    • Hi Henrik

      Sometimes my English looks like Swedish, so don’t worry if you make the occasional mistake. I think that over the past decade some countries and companies have experimented with wind power. It will be interesting to see how long the experiments continue.

      • But the problem are when people from nowhere says, you can combine wind with hydro. But you can not (at least when you consider Sweden) because if you do you will put the Swedish companies out of business and then you will larger problems then environmental ones. You say “the experiments continue”, I think that is a bad thing to say, you could instead take care of children, elderly people, healthcare and so on. But you see it as an experiment, but the experiment are done on real humans in a real environment. For me that is not experiment, that is real life, with real money!

    • In the US at least, there are plenty of places where wind is cheap enough, particularly once you include a mild carbon tax ($12-20/ton) on coal power.

      In addition, wind and solar are making much faster technological strides compared to coal, nuclear, or hydro. The prices will continue to drop. I think 30% worldwide is probably a reasonable goal.

      An overlooked aspect is that there is still massive progress being made in batteries and capacitors. Spotty renewables need these much more than hydro/nuclear/coal do, so there’s room for an upside surprise in how practical these renewables turn out to be.

      • That’s the thing–renewables are very much a ‘horses for courses’ type of thing. You actually have to consider geography and current climate before plunking down the potential solutions.

      • An overlooked aspect is that there is still massive progress being made in batteries and capacitors.

        Please point me to a battery technology that is in
        1) Full scale production
        2) Hasn’t existed for at least 40 years.

        wind and solar are making much faster technological

        One of my high school buddies designed wind turbine blades after graduating college. That was in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s. They haven’t changed since.

        Please elaborate on ‘what is new’ in wind turbine technology.

        In the US at least, there are plenty of places where wind is cheap enough

        Where? Please show your math.

        Use regional costs and don’t forget to include transmission costs, cost of backup and the costs of ‘stranded’ renewable assets. I.E. In the Pacific Northwest we throw away hydro power in favor of wind power because existing hydro is not eligible for tax credits and we are currently spending hundreds of million upgrading our coal plants because sometimes we don’t get wind or rain…which just leaves us with coal.

        I’ll even help…cost data put together by the (Pacific) North West Conservation Council

      • Battery technology has been stalled for decades. The financial incentives have been there from the beginning, if you can design a production worthy better battery, you will need dump trucks for all the cash you will make. Li-Ion was the latest step up. They barely have this tech under control.

        There has been lot of announcements of breakthroughs from academia and they inevitably never make it to market.

        Doesn’t mean it won’t happen next week, but the assertion there has been vast progress here is not supportable. Check your car battery, look at a car battery from the 1970’s. Seem familiar?

      • Concur with you and harry on this. Build a better battery and you’ll need mousetraps at the door to fend off eager suitors.

      • Windchaser, I was an early advocate of wind energy, and I am heartsick every time I look at one of these mega turbines. If you are interested in pursuing wind, here is some advice.
        1. Don’t buy windturbines from companies that make their real money by servicing nuclear reactors or selling conventional power plants.
        2. Stay small. There are no economies of scale in wind energy. Anybody who thinks there is doesn’t understand basic boundary layer theory.
        3. Think of a clever way to solve the storage problem at the end point. Connect wind power directly to uses which are ok with an intermittent source.
        4. Look at vertical axis designs from the 70’s and 80’s especially the Savonius and the Wilson design from Corvallis.. They outperformed the horizontal axis turbines in real world tests. They are cheaper to build and much easier on birds.

        AND I’M SORRY HARRY, the present designs have little in common with anything from the 70’s or 80’s.

        I wrote a lengthy post on this for Tom’s old blog. I don’t want to repeat it.

      • “One of my high school buddies designed wind turbine blades after graduating college. That was in the late 1970′s/early 1980′s. They haven’t changed since. “

        They’ve changed massively in the last 30 years. Blades are 3-6x as long, because the blades are stiffer and lighter, which directly contributes to the overall efficiency of the turbine. Stronger blades comes from improvements in carbon fiber technology, which was in its infancy in the 70s. There have been similar improvements in generators, rotors, etc.

        For reference, GE currently sells turbines with capacities between 1.5 and 4.1 MW. The first full-scale commercial wind farm had turbines with capacities of ~100 kW. Overall costs, excluding subsidies, are about 20-35% of what they were in the ’80s.

        Please point me to a battery technology that is in
        1) Full scale production
        2) Hasn’t existed for at least 40 years.

        Bit of a strawman, don’t you think? A technology’s age doesn’t tell you how quickly it’s been growing: CMOS has been around for 40 years, yet we’ve seen incredible advances in computing power in that time. So battery capacity has been increasing at about 5%/year, and there are plenty of reasons to believe this will continue.
        But I know less about battery costs & technology than about capacitors, and I can assure you that there have been huge improvements in the last 40 years. Off the top of my head, I can rattle off a half-dozen high-k capacitor materials that weren’t around then, or that have made huge improvements since. Without these advances in electronic materials, no iPads, no cellphones, no hybrid vehicles, etc.
        There’s a lot more to these new devices than just the transistor, y’know.

        “In the US at least, there are plenty of places where wind is cheap enough”…

        Where? Please show your math.

        It’s not hard. A $20/ton tax for CO2 works out to ~$0.02/KwH (for coal), which is about the same as the current federal subsidy for wind. Ergo, ditching the subsidy and adding the carbon tax would leave wind in about the same position vs coal as now.

        I must say, I’

      • Bunk. Wind is and will be garbage power. There are no clever ways around wind either not blowing or blowing too hard.
        You can paint all of the pretty word pictures in the world. The fact is wind power is hideous on the landscape, undependable inherently and expensive always.
        Solar has the problem of not working when it is cloudy or dark.
        And it occupies vast amounts of landscape to work on anything like a power plant scale.
        Both at best operate at small variable fractions of their rated capacity and require full backup from dependable sources.
        Tossing around assertions like ‘modest carbon tax’ as if that will over come physics is silly.

      • I don’t agree, Hunter. I think wind has a cloudy past and a promising future. We just didn’t get it right the first time around. And that’s never happened with anything else, has it?

        Solar works just fine–and it will work better in the future. I really think you’re wrong on this one.

      • I really can’t see how anyone can say that battery tech has stalled over the last few decades. The progress hasn’t been fast, but it’s not stopped, either.

        But the real problem with battery tech is that you’re actually talking about dozens of different technologies and applications. Depending on whether you’re emphasizing cost, weight, size, lifetime, capacity, or charge/discharge speed, you’ll need a completely different product with completely different characteristics. What makes a good battery for consumer electronics differs from a vehicle battery differs from batteries/capacitors for load-leveling applications for renewable energy. And while each of these markets is plenty large a breakthrough won’t quite give you the buckets of cash that you guys are probably expecting.

        It’s like saying that a breakthrough in “vehicles” would make you rich, but you can see that we already use an incredibly diverse mix of boats, trains, planes, and automobiles to get ourselves and our products around.

        Anyways – for renewable energy, you need two things:
        (1) Fast load levelling, to smooth out spikes in wind/sun power generation on timescales of seconds to minutes, and
        (2) Really slow levelling – really, energy storage – if you ever wanted to scale up wind or solar to be the base power supply.

        #1 has made tons of progress lately, and like I said, it shares a lot of overlap with other areas of electronics that have advanced lately. OTOH, #2 has done not as well, though there are plenty of different battery technologies in the pipeline that hold a lot of promise, and the area is getting a lot more attention than it was 10-20 years ago.
        For neither of these applications is weight or size very important, so taking a superficial glance at car or consumer batteries doesn’t really tell you much about how the technology has progressed. For a solar farm, you might literally have several tractor-trailers full of batteries on the site, but these aren’t going to look anything like the batteries that you put into your laptop.

        And of course, there are other ways of storing big amounts of energy that we haven’t talked about: Artificial hydro, flywheels, etc.

  7. Sorry Thomas (and Windchaser)
    But Harrywr is right on the nail. But if anything it is worse than he alludes to.

    If there has been a “technological improvement” in wind it would show up in the capacity factor. In the UK (and I suspect else where) this wanders around 25% depending on the windiness of the year. No measurable “technological improvement” has shown up in the CF since UK national CF records started in 1999.

    The explosion in wind turbine deployment is solely dictated by massive subsidy. (200 – 300% normal generation cost in the UK) If the subsidy was removed the whole scam would collapse overnight. Without the massive subsidy wind turbines are financially unviable. They are NOT a practical solution to energy generation.

    Wind energy vs wind speed obeys a cube law. If you. 1/2 speed you get 1/8 energy. So the dismally low wind capacity factor actually overstates their generation capability. They rely on infrequent high energy (high wind) events to inflate the CF. MOST of the time they are producing well below the pathetic CF. This also means they are even more “energy” intermittent than the wind speed is intermittent.

    Nothing is going to get better about this. There is no magic bullet or secret widget that is going to allow wind turbines to break the laws of physics. Wind turbines are locked into a subsidy culture and can never break free.

    The whole wind farm illusion is a result of wishful thinking, political expediency and corporate greed. It is a resource hog that prevents the adoption of truly beneficial energy production techniques and stymies research.

    The sooner we see the back of this lunacy the better.

    • Billothewisp,

      What does capacity factor have to do with improvements in cost? The two aren’t related that much. (Except insofar as you need load levelling and other forms of power to compensate for wind intermittency, but those all go into the final cost of wind power). Much of the cost of wind comes from the cost of the turbines relative to how much power they output.

      Ultimately, the most important thing about wind power is its total cost, which has most certainly come down significantly. Secondary considerations would include externalities (noise pollution, bird deaths), but these are minor compared to many other forms of energy generation.

      Mind you, I’m no big wind fanatic (despite my handle). I don’t like subsidies, and don’t want the government in the business of picking-and-choosing which industries succeed. But I’m just looking at the facts here: Solar and wind have both improved dramatically in the last 30 years. There’s no way around that.

  8. “particularly once you include a mild carbon tax ($12-20/ton) on coal power”

    I agree that if you artificially increase the cost of a cheaper alternative, you become more cost competitive. Another successful method is to make your product less expensive. Consumers would vote for the latter nearly 100% of the time.

    • Well, on this I differ with you–I think formally acknowledging the negative externalities of CO2 emissions would be a useful act and more than a gesture.

    • Externalities is a bit tough to nail down. They exist. While there are things like the cost of medical coverage for smoking related diseases where a number can be somewhat measured and added as a sin tax, with climate it is not so clear.

      I’ll be more than up front about the lack of trust I would have of anyone associated with the green movement computing this number.

      There is whole host of things that have externalities. Ice cream. McDonalds. Fast cars. Guns. A system where every item’s vaguely computed secondary effects are calculated into the purchase price and then redistributed to deserving parties is unworkable in my opinion. Let’s see, subtract loss of worker productivity after death from social security benefits he did not receive minus…

      With climate you are attempting to bill for unspecified future damages today. A bit of a tough sell.

      • Well, you’re probably right, especially for those who don’t see it as a problem in the first place.

        But didn’t sin taxes on alcohol and nicotine start to climb when a) more people swore off the stuff and b) governments recognized a potential source of income?

        Maybe a carbon tax will get more support when more people are using less of it.

      • Sin taxes might not be a good example here. Your a) and b) are not entirely concurrent events. Increases in tax – partly in a revenue grab, partly as health measure – drive people to quit smoking and drinking. The legal versions, anyway. Our provincial governments here in Canada are refreshingly honest about this approach.

        We will emit less co2 when we are punitively taxed for it. It won’t happen the other way around. I don’t think this is necessarily bad given the problems you discuss in your blogs. But like Tom Sharf, I would have just about zero trust in the determination of the ‘negative externalities’. This currently is an area rife with politics and belief, not science and dispassion. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

      • Hi kch, you’re probably right on both points. However I think discussion of this is fairly important as the alternatives to carbon tax are moving ahead and I don’t want this to slide out of sight.

        I don’t mind if the world collectively says ‘no’ to carbon taxes–I do want us to remember they exist as a mechanism and there is a fairly robust theory as to why they might be an effective tool.

      • Thomas –

        If the world doesn’t collectively say ‘yes’ to a carbon tax it becomes simply a means of transfer of wealth, jobs and emissions from one nation to another – and in the long run, no elected politician will back that.

        So it’s good to keep in mind, but unless everyone is on board I think it would be better to expend energy on the potential ‘no regrets’ policies that can be effective at a national level – expansion of nuclear power would be at the top of my list.

      • Hi kch–I don’t really think the world has to sign on–just the top 5 emitters would be enough to take care of it. I too would like to see the expansion of nuclear power become a higher priority, however.

  9. “I wonder if 20 years is long enough.”
    Depends on if there is an urgency question. I would say that 20 years was long enough for you- and many others- to conclude that the UK picked the wrong horse. Ridley’s point was that, to be taken seriously, the movement has to be trusted to stop picking the wrong horse. That trust doesn’t exist because the movement insists on picking the wrong horse even when they know it’s wrong.

  10. Tom,
    Please point out that the effective amount of wind power is actually ~8% – 24% of installed capacity, and that the curve of production is actually ranging variably (as the wind blows, lol) from 0% to about 80%.
    Solar, as I look out the window at the second or thrid day in a row of cloudiness in Houston, is going to be similalry constrained, I bet.

  11. @Windchaser,

    Sorry $20 ton CO2 tax doesn’t equal the wind subsidy. The main reason substantial wind is being built is not the renewable energy credit. The main reason is the Regional Green House Gas Initiatives.

    I’ve done the math on this. in Washington State 85% of our electricity is already ‘not fossil’…but someone decided we should have 20% renewable not counting existing hydro and nuclear. (Basically means we have to throw away exising non-fossil generation)

    The Fuel Cost in Wyoming, Montana and for those tied into the generating capacity in Wyoming and Montana is about 1 cent/KWh.. If you add a $20/ton CO2 tax you will add about 2 cents/KWH.

    That makes a fuel cost of generation of 3 cents/KWh.

    The last I checked…due to the ‘regional renewable energy’ initiative wind power was selling into the grid at 9 cents/KWh.

    Sorry 9 cents for wind vs 3 or 4 cents for coal doesn’t make wind cheaper in the PNW.

    It doesn’t even come close.

    In order for wind to be competitive in the US with a $20/CO2 tax you need to have US eastern seaboard coal prices with Rocky Mountain and Plains States wind quality or you have to mandate that a certain percentage of the electricity has to be generated by wind or solar.

    • Harryw2, I want to say that I’ve seen literature showing wind to be on par with coal (with a carbon tax), but a quick Google search couldn’t find it, and I don’t have time to dig deeper at this moment.

      I’d honestly be quite surprised if wind wasn’t on par *anywhere* in the US with coal, as there are some great spots where wind blows pretty constantly, even on the east seaboard. But I suspect that you’re also right, and that wind is overbuilt relative to where it should be.

      I don’t favor subsidies, so if wind isn’t competitive without them, /shrug. Oh well. If “we” decide that we want to decrease our carbon emissions, it’s far more efficient to enact a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, and let the market decide how best to use the carbon, rather than the government subsidizing particular industries like ethanol or solar or wind. That’s why guys like Greg Mankiw or Glenn Hubbard (Romney’s economic advisors) favor a carbon tax. The market is a far better arbiter of how to use some allotted amount of carbon emissions than the government.

  12. The new buzzword in the climate debate is EROEI, or Energy Returned On Energy Invested.

    Wind, surprisingly, has a relatively high EROEI of 18, in theory.

    That’s about twice as high as an old-generation nuclear plant.

    But the EROEI calculation for wind assumes 20% of installed capacity. In practice wind struggles to deliver 2%.

    Because wind power is intermittent, to cover the base load you would need some sort of storage, whether of a chemical or hydro nature.

    The energy offtake to drive the storage would reduce wind’s EROEI to below zero.

    This is not rocket science, it’s basic arithmetic using the same plus, minus, multiply and divide you learned in third grade.

    I won’t even mention recent revelations that the efficiency of wind turbines falls off sharply after 10 years.

  13. Tom

    Please get your facts right.

    You say: “Renewables are delivering real energy–about 10% of the world’s primary energy comes from renewable sources. Obviously most of it comes from hydroelectric, but an increasing volume of delivered and dispatched energy comes from wind and solar power.”

    Not true.

    “In 2010 renewable energy accounted for 16.7% of total energy consumption. Biomass heat accounted for 11.4%, and hydropower 3.3%.”


    Add in biofuel and bioelectricity and biomass accounts for 12% of world energy. That’s four times hydropower.


    So you are wrong that “bioenergy is the least of all renewables and focusing on it and biomass and wood is artful misleading by omission and I expect a helluva lot better from the author of The Rational Optimist. If you want to talk renewables you will have to bring your A game, not a few snide sentences accompanied by a chart.”

    And no, frankly, from comments like this, I do not find that you are “nicer” than me. “A few snide comments”? I make no snide comments about people. You do here.

    And yes my GWPF paper was written for a UK think tank and is addressed mostly to the UK policy response, though many of its lessons apply elsewhere.

    If you want a “teachable moment” please read this article:

    “For all the furore that wind farms attract, bioenergy is a much bigger drain on the public purse than wind. Bioenergy currently supplies 83 per cent of all renewable energy used in Britain, while wind, solar, hydro, tide, wave, geothermal and heat pumps manage just 17 per cent, or 1 per cent of total energy. About half of that bioenergy is from waste incineration, sewage and landfill gas. The rest comes from timber or crops. The uncomfortable truth is that more than four-fifths of all “renewable” energy involves burning something.

    If you mention biomass crops to an environmentalist, he or she will usually agree they are a bad thing—for reasons I will come to—but claim that they have little to do with the green movement, being driven instead by American electoral politics. (Iowa, a key state for presidential candidates to win early support, benefits from subsidies when the maize grown there is turned into ethanol.) Inconveniently for this thesis, the amount of Britain’s primary energy supply from biomass (3 per cent) is about the same as America’s (4 per cent).

    It was not US politics that caused a subsidised wheat ethanol plant to open on Teesside in 2009 (and then close in May because the smell was a nuisance and the wheat price had become too high). As Robert Palgrave of Biofuelwatch says: “In America, bioenergy’s supporters stress energy security; here the big driver has been climate change and in particular the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive.”

    Whether they admit it or not, the green movement caused this policy, the sole justification being to address climate change. Yet bioenergy is not just doing nothing to help cut carbon emissions— like wind; it is actually making the problem worse.

    Here is why. A carbon atom is a carbon atom, wherever it comes from. Oxidise (burn) it and you get carbon dioxide. That is true whether it is in a hydrocarbon (like coal, oil or gas), a carbohydrate (like sugar in sugar cane or starch in maize), or a lipid (like oil from palm oil). Roughly one-third of the atoms we oxidise to liberate energy are carbon and two-thirds hydrogen. (Oxidised hydrogen is better known as water.)

    As Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University has calculated, wood has a higher ratio of carbon to hydrogen (10) than coal (1), oil (0.5) and gas (0.25). Burn wood and you make 40 times more carbon dioxide for each unit of energy than if you burn gas. It’s the worst thing you can do in carbon terms.”

    Sorry, Tom, but after this “rant” you have lost quite a bit of my respect.


    • Hi Matt

      Obviously I’m sorry to lose a fan, but this may well be the day for it as other readers might be offended to hear I’m a big Obama fan and lib Dem (different from your Lib Dems…)

      The discrepancy from our totals of primary energy contributions come from my removing from the totals the mass of wood and dung burned by the poorest of the world as primary fuel. I should have noted that and I’m sorry. However, the conflating of dung and branches with 4th generation biofuels in not really the right way to analyze the contribution of biomass overall so I think it’s the right way to look at it.

      As for British composition of renewables, while I’m a big fan of waste-to-fuel, most international campaigners for renewables wouldn’t even allow it on the menu. There are a lot of definitional issues on a country-by-country basis and consistency has never been the strongest quality of environmental campaigners. When REN 21 leads off with the number of jobs created in renewable energy you know that they’re not measuring things correctly.

      What I think is snide (but am willing to apologize for if it is instead based on ignorance) is your conflation of all biomass and treatment of it as one entity in your calculations. Some recent innovations in biomass are indeed net contributors to the fight against CO2 emissions–ranging from ethanol from Brazil (but not the U.S.) to wood pellets in Scandinavian countries and France, to the research (if not the production) in 4th generation biofuels.

      Now let me be clear about your essay overall. First, I’m a huge fan of your book The Rational Optimist and a faithful reader of your weblog of the same name. This essay you wrote for GWPF is not of the same caliber as the work in your book and your blog. I have no objection to the GWPF–I would cheerfully write for them if they asked. I have no objection to your approach–there’s plenty to criticize in the work of environmental activists and I’ve done more than my share.

      And there are valid points to be made on this issue, ranging from sensitivity, where you were strongest, to impacts, where you were not.

      My criticism is not that you were hugely wrong. My criticism is that your work is not of the same caliber as other work of yours that I have read. I don’t believe you did your homework on this one.

      When I was in my 40s and basically despairing of modern writing, a series of books really opened my eyes and fired me up–Guns, Germs and Steel, The Singularity is Near, Post Capitalist Society (what a great discovery!) and The Skeptical Environmentalist. Your book The Rational Optimist, much more recently, had something of the same effect on me. Thank you for writing it, whatever your opinion of me. Now dammit, why didn’t you put the same level of effort into this essay?

      It’s not that there is no case to be made from the POV you adopted in this essay. It’s that you didn’t make it.

    • I apologize, Matt, but I have a bit of a hard time following your argument against biofuels.

      Put simply: The carbon in wood came from the atmosphere. The carbon in gas or coal comes from the ground. If we are concerned about increasing atmospheric CO2, it’s pretty easy to see that CO2 which is recycled from the atmosphere is going to have less of an effect than C that we dig up and burn.
      In other words, burning biofuels means that we’ll plant new forests or crops to produce next year’s biofuel, and these will absorb the emitted CO2, tit-for-tat. But we don’t plant more forests to make up for burned gas or coal.

  14. The growing grassroot opposition to windpower here in the US (and it is happening in the UK, I hear) is documented in a number of posts here:

    Peter Huber argues that fossil fuels are environmentally superior to renewables, all considered:

    “The greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy per pound of material that must be mined, trucked, pumped, piped, and burnt . . . . Extracting comparable amounts of energy from the surface would entail truly monstrous environmental disruption . . . . ‘Soft’ energy sources [in comparison] are horribly land intensive.

    The greenest possible strategy is to mine and to bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green.”

  15. If you read my Prospect article, Tom, you would find answers to the new points you now make — chiefly, the suggestion that third world wood is different from first world biofuels. Countries like the UK and the US are (a) importing wood and woody waste from the poor south, which encourages poor southerners to cut down trees either for their own use or for export; (b) refusing to aid coal plants and other fossil fuel projects which also encourages poor southerners to burn wood and cook over smoky fires that give their kids respiratory problems; (c) helping to raise food prices by turning food into motor fuel, further encouraging forest destruction and carbon dioxide release in the poor south. Why is the Dominican republic so much greener than Haiti? Chiefly because it subsidises propane as a cooking fuel to stop people cutting wood. And by the way, Brazilian biofuel looks better than American in terms of carbon balance mainly because it involves a lot of cheaper labour. So I do not accept that my homework was as poorly done as yours. I am not angry about this, but you have singularly failed to say something sufficiently persuasive to pass the tests I set out. I remain open to persuasion but it will take better arguments than these.

    As Indur Goklany has written:

    “If one believes that developed countries have a moral and ethical obligation to deal with climate change, that obligation cannot, and should not, be met through aggressive emission reductions at this time – ‘cannot’ because the planet is already committed to some climate change – and ‘should not’ because the threats that climate change would exacerbate can be reduced more effectively, not to mention more economically, through focused efforts to reduce vulnerability or through broader efforts to advance economic development. Any such obligation is best discharged through efforts to reduce present-day vulnerabilities to climate-sensitive problems that are urgent and could be exacerbated by climate change.”

    • Hi Matt

      Well, first–I’m pleased you’re not angry. And I like Indur a lot. I think he has many interesting things to say. I’ve been saying many of the same things for years.

      I’ve been railing against the inclusion of 3rd World wood with 4th gen biofuels since 2010, so it’s not news to me–but your primary energy totals for biomass do include both. Modern biofuels, including ethanol from Brazil and the U.S. are another ‘asterisk’ source of energy.

      As for making more persuasive arguments, I’d be happy to extend my remarks if you’d like to participate. Would you like to do so in the individual posts regarding your arguments or lump them all together? As I feel the same way about the individual parts of your GWPF essay, we could expand our arguments as appropriate. I’d bet money that we’d end up in violent agreement on most issues.

  16. Here are the basic realities about ‘new’ popular renewables (wind especially, but also solar PV) and renewables in general (including hydro and others).

    Both wind and solar PV require another power source that is dispatchable to provide balancing to deliver useful electricity. The more easily the balancing power source can be quickly varied the better it will be in the balancing role. The balancing source (the best is simple cycle natural gas plants but other gas plants and coal are used as well) dictates how much CO2 emissions are affected, not wind’s presence. Balance wind with natural gas to displace coal and you get about one-half the emissions. This is achieved by the gas plants not wind. Yes, the wind electricity component offsets the gas plant’s electricity contribution, but the gas plants operate so inefficiently in minute to minute, 24/7 (when wind is blowing) that the emissions (and fuel consumption of course) are about the same as if the gas plants were operating alone. Ask KEMA about this, although they do not readily acknowledge their report on this.

    Use hydro to balance wind and you gain no reduction in emissions because all you are doing is reducing the contribution of another low emissions source. Further there are limits to the ability of hydro to balance wind. Denmark exports most of its excess wind electricity to Norway/Sweden which in combination is about 75% hydro electricity generation and represents about 35 times the wind generation of Denmark. Even with this very large hydro/wind ratio, Norway/Sweden notably reduces the Danish wind exports in wet years when reservoirs are full.

    You cannot compare costs of dispatchable and non-dispatchable (wind and solar PV) on a levelized cost basis (per unit of electricity). I believe I have convinced the DOE/EIA about this and their latest annual energy report shows these in separate tables and acknowledges the lack of apples-to-apples comparisons. The other costs of balancing and unique-to-wind (especially) grid additions, both in local collection of the highly dispersed resource and the increased transmission requirements to distant markets, must also be considered. There is no getting away from the high costs of wind and solar for these reasons and also in wind’s case, because of the short wind turbine lifetimes (I would not even bet on 20 years as many do).

    For the foreseeable future, say 50 years or more, renewables in general (especially wind, solar PV, hydro and biomass) are incapable of meeting any worthy amount of our energy needs due to very low (1) power density (the most important measure because of the power component coupled with land area requirements), (2) energy density (by weight and volume) and (3) energy concentration (by area). Power density has only been touched on by most observers of energy matters, but it is fundamental to assessing energy resources and uses. Vaclav Smil has introduced this to MasterResource viewers (Google Smil and power density – oh heck, here it is ), and it will be further developed in an upcoming post later this month.

    Simply put renewables do not have any real role to play in the helping to meet global energy needs, except perhaps in a very limited way in true distributed generation applications, where the electricity produced is largely used locally. In this case solar technology has the most promising outlook, but superior energy conversion technologies and storage will be important to this.

    • Hi Kent, I’m putting this question to you because you sound pretty knowledgeable.

      Richard A Muller of BEST fame said about 8 years ago, when solar PV technology was less advanced than at present, that a mere one square kilometre of solar would yield the same output as a 1GW nuclear power plant. True or false?

      • This is relatively easy to answer. The upper range of power density for solar PV today is about 9 W per square meter. So a one square kilometer would produce about 9 MW. In energy flux terms, this would yield about 9 MWh per hour. So this is about 400 times less than a I GW nuclear power plant.

        By the way, wind power density is about one-fifth that of solar PV.

        Returning to solar, the total power density of solar radiation impinging on the earth’s surface is about 100 W per square meter, or about ten times that after PV conversion. Assuming 100% conversion efficiency, this would yield a theoretical maximum of about 100 MW. However, I suspect here we are talking about daytime experience only for the total, versus 24 hour, which is what solar PV production is likely based on. This would provide roughly a total of 50 W per square meter over 24 hours, and would result in a 20% capacity factor for solar PV. Play with this some more if you like.

        Power density is one of the least understood, but most important measures of the value of the contribution of energy sources and conversions to human well-being, present and future. Vaclav Smil is an advocate of this as perhaps the most revealing means of their evaluation. For more information Google MasterResource and his name.

        I note you have also commented on EROEI. You might be interested in my MasterResource post on this at . I take reported EROEI in the ‘teens’ for wind to be at the full wind capacity, ignoring the nature-imposed capacity factor. See Tom Murphy of UCSD for this ( ). This square as wind produces about 20% of the time, not 2%.

      • Hi Kent–thanks for dropping by. I’m a faithful reader of your blog and get a lot from it.

      • Last sentence should read, “This squares….”

      • Thomas (I presume)

        Thank you for the welcome. Yes, Rob Bradley has a good blog.

  17. Tom

    “I’ve been railing against the inclusion of 3rd World wood with 4th gen biofuels since 2010, so it’s not news to me–but your primary energy totals for biomass do include both. Modern biofuels, including ethanol from Brazil and the U.S. are another ‘asterisk’ source of energy.”

    But 40% of the entire US grain crop went to biofuels in 2011! if all they produced was an asterisk, that rather makes my point, does it not, that renewable energy can make little dent in carbon emissions, unlike shale gas?

    So I think you are being

    “snide (but am willing to apologize for if it is instead based on ignorance)”.

    Wind chaser, the break-even time for carbon in wood is measured in decades or centuries — see here:'s-mad-biomass-dash.aspx


    • Matt, at the risk of being snide again, you’re rubbishing an entire energy sector because one part of it has failed. And it has failed. Utterly. But hydroelectric is going like gangbusters. So is solar. Wind–well, if you pick and choose your spots it can play a part.

      I wrote my first article against using U.S. corn for biofuels in 2009. But biofuels is not a synonym for renewable energy. It’s a part. It’s the bad part, but it’s just a part.

      • Most of the current biofuels programs are certainly a bad joke, but I wouldn’t write the concept off entirely. We’ll have to see what future R&D in the area can come up with. Especially with DNA modification coming in to play there is still the possibility of great potential there. We should just be concentrating on researching viable technologies rather than mass deployment of non-viable ones.

        Hydroelectric had run its course for a long time due to the limited number of areas where large scale hydro could be deployed and the massive environmental changes caused by creating new ones. However, some of the advances in ‘micro’ hydro are allowing that sector to grow again. However, it will never be able to generate enough to replace fossil fuels.

        Wind and Solar have both dropped below fossil fuel energy costs in various spots around the world, and as the range where that is true keeps growing (both because wind & solar costs continue to drop and because fossil fuel costs continue to rise) I think we are on the edge of a sea change in power generation. Which is good because it is pretty much our only hope of avoiding some of the major problems of AGW at this point (even assuming ‘lukewarmer’ climate sensitivity of 2 C per doubling).

      • I urge you to be more realistic in expressing the costs of wind and solar PV. It is far from dropping below fossil fuel energy costs in electricity generation. Wind is in the order of 3-5 times that of fossil fuel sources.

        You may be erring in a number of ways. First by considering the capital costs only. The cost of producing a unit of electricity generated (per kWh for example) is the important measure.

        If you are in fact looking at information on the electricity generated basis, then you are most likely relying on sources that ignore the reality that such costs (often referred to as levelized costs) cannot be compared between dispatchable (fossil fuel plants for example) and non-dispatchable (wind and solar). Even the DOE/EIA has acknowledged the error of this, I believe after discussions I had with them.

        Further, in calculating the levelized costs, you must consider the realistic plant life for the technologies being evaluated and the financial write-off time period assumptions used. Design specifications aside, I would not bet on very large wind turbines, such as those installed in the last ten years or so, having a plant life of 20 years. The DOE/EIA still uses a write-off period of 30 years.

        Finally, to return to levelized cost considerations, a reasonable comparison basis can be established if you include the cost of balancing power sources necessary to render the short-term (minutes) persistent erratic, and longer term (hours and days) unreliable behaviour of wind and solar electricity production useful. In addition to this there are considerable unique-to-wind/solar grid additions to gather the dispersed energy and deliver it over long distances to markets, the costs of which are considerable and the land use involved quite large as well. This ignores the final distribution costs to facilitate the expensive and unreliable wind and solar supply, including such as smart meters, which serve to provide a screen behind which to hide the increased rates that are needed to support wind/solar, as well as establishing means of “rationing” this vital resource, access to which is vital to our well-being.

        Future wind costs are unlikely to be much less because this is largely a mechanically based conversion process, also limited by Betz’ Law. Solar is a different matter. It has about 10 times the energy flux as wind and substantial room for improvement in conversion technology, but I would not bet on such developments in the near to medium term of many decades. Surprises are always a possibility, but again I would not bet on them.

      • CBDunkerson, I was hoping this area would be one where we could agree, but large hydro is growing like crazy and mini and micro hydro and run of the river hydro are basically stalled. Go to China and tell them the era of big hydro is finished.

      • CBDunkerson,

        “Which is good because it is pretty much our only hope of avoiding some of the major problems of AGW at this point (even assuming ‘lukewarmer’ climate sensitivity of 2 C per doubling).”
        When you make definitive statements like this you lose any credibility you may have had.

    • Matt,

      Thanks for the specific references on the pay back time for the use, or is it misuse, of biomass towards a goal of reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Up until last year the woodpeckers on our property had unlimited pickings. Some of us in America have not seen the benefits of fracking expect to mitigate, to some degree, the increases in our electric bills as we move towards our 33%RES goals. The fuel choice in the rural areas in sunny CA is limited to electrical energy (with it’s costs per kwh going up due to the higher costs associated with the intermittent forms of RE that we are requiring our utilities to install to meet our RES goals), biomass, or propane. Hence the use of wood in the rural areas that do not have access to natural gas is increasing. Last year was the first, in 13 years of residing on my rural property, that folks stopped on the road adjacent to our property to harvest oak limbs that became dislodged during storms. As fire is a bit of a concern for those of us up in the Sierra foothills, I reduced the new load of picking available to the woodpeckers – a few oaks came crashing down after direct lightning strikes. My in-laws are on a fixed income and their electrical energy costs (their sole source of utility provided energy) are going up and up so I harvested the wood for them as they have a wood burning stove.

      Over the last century and a quarter the folks who have lived on my parcel (actually the same house) decided to adapt a few new fangled alternatives to the old way of doing things. A laundry room went in about 1980- a bit late I know but the previous owner was getting a bit annoyed about having to schlep dirty clothes from the house to the carriage house (now it’s called a garage) where the new fangled electric washing machine was located. My wife and I appreciated the location of the laundry room when we purchased the property as it came with another great invention an electric dryer. Every time I pay $.34 kwh (on it’s way to $.50) I wonder why the previous owner didn’t invest in some infrastructure to pipe propane from give or take 50 feet away to the new laundry room to take advantage of benefits of propane as the fuel to operate the dryer and a small hot water tank. Actually, it didn’t take me to long to figure it out. The price for a marginal kwh of electrical energy back then was $.12 or so. It is kind of odd that I am considering spending lots of our wealth to switch to a propane dryer. From a carbon footprint perspective it makes no sense for me to do this, but from an economic sense it likely will make sense. My utility, PG&E, is concerned about meeting multiple priorities as denoted by their Vice President Ms Burk . From my perspective they have missed the mark as far as “Reasonable Cost” goes.

      Unfortunately, the great hope of energy efficiency, isn’t going to help in our situation as our property and it’s structures have hit the law of diminishing economic returns as far as EE goes, similar to what the Palo Alto utility district has brought up to the powers that be in my state-

      ” At the August 11 workshop, NRDC repeatedly quoted the cost of EE at 2¢/kWh. This is a misleading number. Based on the SB 1037 reports submitted by CPAU in the past three years, the levelized cost of EE, as expressed by the total utility cost divided by present value of net lifecycle EE savings, has increased steadily, from 2.9¢/kWh in 2008 to 6.4¢/kWh in 2010. Looking forward, as new lighting standards take effect and other low-cost efficiency measures reach saturation, the cost of EE will continue to increase.”

      On the bright side of things at least the cost of providing more of my own energy has gone down which makes the option of a bit more self generation of useful forms of energy (via an addition to our 6.12 Kw PV system, or wood harvesting) a viable alternative. I am not ready to make any investment decision yet as I am still trying to understand how our AB 32 goals of greenhouse gas reductions, via our cap and trade program, will impact my costs for the various fuel choices available to me over the next few years….

      As far as unintended consequences go I found it amazing that a tree trimming service in my area wanted to know if we wanted a truck load of wood chippings last week. Another first for my area. With our rather high fuel costs here in the foothills and the never ending increases in disposal fees for green waste at the local transfer station the local arborists, tree trimming services, homeowners, vineyards, orchards, etc. don’t know what to due with the stuff. I expect the amount of burning of the green waste will increase in my area and/or the cost to have it chipped and removed will being go up even more. My transfer station sends green waste down to the underutilized Sacramento land fill. It will take a few years from now before they figure out that the gas available from their “green” landfill operations is less then what was planned for..

  18. Conrad Dunkerson

    Bob writes:”When you make definitive statements like this you lose any credibility you may have had.”

    Hi Bob. For the record, what YOU wrote above is a definitive statement. What I wrote, with its conditional “pretty much” clause, was not. However, don’t worry about this costing you any credibility.

  19. Tom wrote: “CBDunkerson, I was hoping this area would be one where we could agree, but large hydro is growing like crazy and mini and micro hydro and run of the river hydro are basically stalled. Go to China and tell them the era of big hydro is finished.”

    China is developing a modern energy infrastructure for the first time. Do you see big hydro “going like gangbusters” anywhere in the already developed world? Or imagine that China will somehow be able to continue adding more large scale hydro power indefinitely?

    No, big hydro is inherently limited by geography. There are only so many places in the world that it CAN be developed. Of those, about 25% already have been and about 50% likely never will be due to environmental concerns. If development were to begin on all of the remaining ~25% right now then by the time they were online they’d be able to raise hydro to maybe about 35% of electricity generation… assuming most transportation still ran on fossil fuels by that point (less if we go significantly electric by then).

    Medium and small scale hydro can be deployed much more widely and with much less impact. They are not as economically lucrative, but if you want to talk about hydro providing a significant portion of our total energy generation then they are the only game in town… and usage of both is growing in the developed world.

    • CBDunkerson, I can only suggest you consult a map of the globe. The developing world is quite large, actually. According to WWF Global there are 1,600 large dams under construction. Yup, most of them are in the developing world. The UN estimates that only one-third of potentially exploitable sites have been dammed, although those in the developed world can be said to have been damned. There are over 845,000 dams in the world, most quite small. Most don’t have enough of a head to justify expensive and efficient turbines. The technology for run of the river dams and micro dams is still too expensive, so they’re in a resting phase for the moment.

    • “Medium and small scale hydro can be deployed much more widely and with much less impact. They are not as economically lucrative, but if you want to talk about hydro providing a significant portion of our total energy generation then they are the only game in town… and usage of both is growing in the developed world.”
      If you mean the only game in the USA, then I agree with you. I think that we should give more attention to these small scale hydro linear parks that I see being proposed. Where they take a damaged river and add some small combination hydro dams, then a multuse trail and what else.
      But on a global scale, there are a lot of big damns under construction, so I would agree with Tom there.

      • I should add that if you compare small scale hydro to industrial wind it’s still a winner.

      • I agree that there is ‘a lot’ of large scale hydro being deployed in developing nations. I’m just saying that it is relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. We CANNOT solve our energy problems with this kind of large scale hydro. Power production from such will likely peak at MAYBE 5% of total power generation (i.e. not just electrical) around 2030. It will never be anything but a niche player because there simply is not enough of it.

        Solar, wind, nuclear, and small / medium hydro are (in that order of available energy) our only options for replacing fossil fuels with current technology. I suspect solar is going to move to the forefront over the next couple of decades, but technological breakthroughs in other areas could change that. It DOES seem likely that we will have switched away from fossil fuels for everything except niche applications long before 2100… hopefully early enough to limit the damage from AGW.

      • Hmm. Gee. What other source of energy is there that doesn’t emit CO2? Hmm. Gee.

    • The ecological effects of hydro are disastrous, because much of the stored water is diverted in order to expand agricultural land use. Dams also silt up a lot faster than you’d think. Speaking with my conservation hat on, yes I favor hydro over wind/solar but only with strict limits on the amount of water offtake for agriculture.

  20. Pingback: Sunday Walk Around The Climate Park | The Lukewarmer's Way

  21. “What other source of energy is there that doesn’t emit CO2?”

    There are dozens. Just not ones that produce ENOUGH energy.

  22. I just got a message from the CEC on an upcoming meeting-

    “Notice of Staff Workshop on the Cost of New Renewable and Fossil-Fueled Generation in California

    California Energy Commission staff will conduct a workshop to solicit stakeholder and public input on preliminary estimates of the installed and operational costs of new utility-scale renewable and fossil-fueled generation facilities in California. Commissioners from the Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission may attend and participate.

    March 7, 2013
    10 a.m.
    1516 Ninth Street
    First Floor, Hearing Room A
    Sacramento, California
    (Wheelchair Accessible)

    Please see the notice for complete details about the workshop, available at:

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