Solving secondary problems first

10 08 2018

Can you run a self-driving car on a desert island?

Of course not: There are no roads; and there is no fuel for the car.

Why do I mention this?  Because the received narrative around climate change and so-called “peak oil demand” is that new technologies like electric self-driving cars are going to ride to our rescue in the near future.  This is a nice fantasy; but I would draw your attention to the fact that while we still have roads, along with much of our infrastructure they are falling apart through neglect.  Without the enabling infrastructure, the proposed new technologies are going nowhere.

Energy, meanwhile, is a far greater problem.  Globally (remember most of the food we eat and the goods we buy are imported) 86 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels – down just one percent from 1995.  Renewable energy accounts for nearly 10 percent; but most of this is from hydroelectric dams and wood burning.  The modern renewables – solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy – that so many people imagine are going to save the day account for just 1.5 percent of the energy we use.

Modern renewables are a kind of Schrodinger’s energy because they are simultaneously replacements for (some of) the fossil fuel that we are currently using and the additional energy to power all of the new technologies that are going to save the day.  And rather like the benighted feline in Schrodinger’s experiment, so long as nobody actually looks at the evidence, they can continue to fulfil both roles.

Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of not having sufficient energy to continue growing our economy, it is psychologically discomforting even to ask why energy costs are spiralling upward around the world, and why formerly energy independent countries are resorting to difficult, expensive and environmentally toxic fuel sources like hydraulically fractured shale or strip mined bitumen sands.  This, perhaps, explains why so many people focus their attention on solving second order problems – something psychologists refer to as a “displacement activity.”

An example of this appeared in today’s news in the shape of an Australian attempt to revive hydrogen-powered cars.  In theory, hydrogen (which only exists in compounds in nature) is superior to (far less abundant) lithium ion batteries as a store of energy to power electric vehicles.  Crucially, unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, hydrogen cell electric vehicles do not need to be recharged, but can be refuelled in roughly the same time as it takes to refuel a petroleum vehicle.  And, of course, hydrogen vehicles do not require tax payers and energy consumers to foot the bill for the upgrade of the electricity grid needed for battery-powered cars.

hydrogen car

The drawback with hydrogen is that it is difficult to store.  Because hydrogen is the smallest atom, it can gradually corrode and seep out of any container; especially if it is compressed into liquid form.  It is this problem that the Australian researchers appear to have solved.  Using a new technology, they have been able to store hydrogen as ammonia, and then convert it back to hydrogen to fuel their cars.  As Lexy Hamilton-Smith at ABC News reports:

“For the past decade, researchers have worked on producing ultra-high purity hydrogen using a unique membrane technology.

“The membrane breakthrough will allow hydrogen to be safely transported and used as a mass production energy source.”

Unlike batteries, which have only succeeded imperfectly at replacing lightweight vehicles, hydrogen is already used around the world to power much heavier vehicles:

“Hydrogen powered vehicles, including buses, trucks, trains, forklifts as well as passenger cars are being manufactured by leading automotive companies and deployed worldwide as part of their efforts to decarbonise the transport sector.”

Step back for a moment and you will see that this is, indeed, a displacement activity.  Insofar as humans are currently imagining a far more electrified world, then there is a competition to be won on the best form of energy storage.  And there are good reasons for believing that hydrogen is a more versatile battery than lithium ion (which also has a tendency to burst into flames if not stored properly).  However, this competition is predicated on the highly unlikely possibility of our having a large volume of excess energy in future.

Currently, almost all of the hydrogen we use is obtained by chemically separating it out of natural gas.  Using electrolysis to separate hydrogen out of water is simply too expensive by comparison.  But gas reserves are shrinking (which is why fracking is being promoted) and are already required for agriculture, chemicals, for heating and cooking, and for generating much of the electricity that used to come from coal.  Given the Herculean efforts that were required to install the modern renewables that generate just 1.5 percent of our energy, the idea that these are about to deliver enough excess capacity to allow the production of hydrogen from water is fanciful at best.

And that’s the problem.  Until we can secure a growing energy supply both hydrogen and lithium ion cars are going to end up on a global desert island.  One where there is insufficient power and unrepaired infrastructure.  To make matters worse, climate change dictates that the additional power we need in future cannot come from the fuels that currently provide us with 86 percent of our energy.  And, of course, whatever we end up substituting for fossil fuels will have to provide sufficiently cheap energy that the population doesn’t rise up and produce something a great deal worse than Brexit or Donald Trump.

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Money trees are magical; energy trees are not

9 08 2018

Another excellent post from the Consciousness of Sheep……..  a bit anglo-centric, but easily applies to anywhere not least Australia.

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Equating money with wealth is among the most dangerous delusions currently afflicting humanity.

This is, perhaps, understandable given that so few people now have access to money in the quantities needed to improve their lives.

Government, meanwhile, effectively lies when it points to the various pots of money that it has allocated to this or that infrastructure, entitlement or service.  This is mendacious because money from central government is allocated as a block grant to local government and other public bodies.  In total, these public bodies lack the income to fund their legal responsibilities.  As a result, money that was theoretically allocated to provide for such things as mental health beds, fixing potholes and a host of other discretionary activities is actually deployed in firefighting the collapse of mandatory services like child welfare or social care for the elderly.

The solution to this for many in the political sphere is to loosen the purse strings.  Quite correctly, they identify the central flaw in the pronouncements of duplicitous politicians like Theresa May and Phillip Hammond; who tell us that “there isn’t a magic money tree.”  Because… well… actually, yes there is.  It’s called the Bank of England.  And were politicians to instruct it to do so, it can spirit into existence as much new currency as it likes.

The conventional way in which central banks spirit money into existence is via the issuance of government debt.  Government issues a bond (called a Gilt-Edged Security in the UK) which is auctioned to a closed group of banks and financial institutions.  The central bank then spirits new money into existence and uses it to buy these bonds back.  That new money then enters the economy via the financial sector.

This, of course, is no more than tradition.  There is nothing to prevent the central bank from conjuring new money out of thin air and then distributing it directly into the bank accounts of every citizen.  Indeed, this is one of the points made by those who favour some form of Universal Basic Income as an alternative to the UK’s overly bureaucratic and increasingly ineffective social security system.  The reason that money is not created in this way is simply that channelling it through the banking and financial system favours the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the wider population.

Midway between the current practice of handing new money to the already wealthy – who get to enjoy it before inflation devalues it – and channelling it directly to the people, is the proposed creation of a national investment bank.  Whereas feeding new money to the already wealthy serves only to inflate asset bubbles in unproductive areas like property, fine art and collectibles, an investment bank could provide funding for national infrastructure development.  This, in turn, would provide new jobs as well as enhancing the productivity of the economy as a whole.

The only requirement of any of these forms of currency creation is that the government removes sufficient money from the economy through taxation to prevent inflation running out of control.  Herein, however, is the problem that has vexed governments down the ages.  Exactly how much money does the government need to remove from the economy to prevent inflation?

The current practice of giving new money to the already wealthy requires very little government action.  The central bank practice of raising interest rates is considered sufficient.  This is because, like taxes, debt repayment is a means of removing currency from the economy.  Just as banks create new currency when they make loans, so currency is destroyed when loans are repaid.  When the interest rate rises, an additional proportion of the currency in circulation has to be destroyed in order to pay the higher charge.

Once governments start moving new currency directly into the economy – either through investment banks or direct transfers to people’s bank accounts – taxation has to be adjusted accordingly in order to prevent the money supply growing too high and causing inflation.

The problem is that just as central banks cause financial crises by raising interest rates beyond the point where creditors begin to default; governments have a habit of causing crises by allowing too much new currency to be created.  It is all too easy for politicians – who need to get re-elected – to promise new investments in popular services – without thinking about the impact of that new spending on the broader economy.  In the 1970s, the impact of this kind of currency creation was so great that governments around the world handed control of their money supply to the banking sector; and passed legislation and entered into treaties (like Maastricht) that forbid direct government money printing (states are permitted to bail out banks, but not businesses or citizens).

The inflation of the 1970s is explained in economics textbooks as being the result of profligate governments playing fast and loose with their national economies.  The difficulty with that explanation, however, is that exactly the same money creation policies kick-started the greatest economic expansion the world has ever seen.  The post-war Marshall Aid programme which printed new dollars into existence in order to rebuild the shattered economies of Western Europe and Japan, together with the spending programme of Britain’s Labour government (which didn’t receive Marshall Aid), paved the way for the twenty-year boom 1953-73.  With western growth rates similar to those claimed by modern China, states using newly created currency to invest in and grow the economy became the economic orthodoxy for three decades.

If the supposed relationship between money printing and economic growth and crisis is beginning to sound like a false correlation to you, it is because it is.  It is what I refer to as “the Keynesian paradox.”

Having witnessed the austerity, depression and eventual rise of fascism in the aftermath of the First World War, economist John Maynard Keynes argued that the big mistake made in 1919 was for governments to return to the economic orthodoxy of the pre-war years.  This had resulted in austerity policies at home and the imposition of reparations on the defeated enemy.  What Keynes argued for was close to what the US delivered in 1945, when it realised its best protection against the Soviet Union was a prosperous, interconnected western bloc.

Keynes’ proposition was straightforward enough: if you give newly created money to a wealthy person, they will exchange it for some form of unproductive asset – a house, a piece of art, a vintage car, etc.  If, on the other hand, you give the same new money to a poor person, they will spend it all more or less immediately – on necessities like food, rent, fuel and clothing.  In this way, new currency distributed to the poor would quickly circulate around the economy; stimulating growth.

Keynes was correct in terms of money flows but wrong about growth.  Indeed, there was a period in European history – the years following the colonisation of the Americas – when a sudden influx of new money (in the form of the gold and silver shipped back to Spain) had exactly the opposite effect.  Without the influx of precious metals from the Americas, the Hapsburg Empire might have gone on to become the United States of Europe.  Instead, it experienced a prolonged and ruinous period of inflation that resulted in internal revolt and division.  In effect, the sudden influx of precious metals had the effect of devaluing the gold and silver (and money based upon it) already in circulation; manifesting as rapidly rising prices across the economy.

More recently, excessive money printing (in order to inflate away reparation debt) in Germany resulted in the runaway inflation of 1924 that helped propel Hitler and the Nazis onto the world stage.

This is the Keynesian Paradox.  An economic policy (Marshall Aid) that patently kick-started the largest economic boom in history, also created the inflation of the sixteenth century and the stagflation of the 1970s.

Might this suggest that there was some deeper factor common to sixteenth century Europe and the 1970s that was absent or opposite to conditions in the late 1940s?  What else happened in the 1970s?  The world experienced a major oil shock as US reserves were no longer sufficient to regulate global oil prices.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, global oil production grew exponentially; fuelling the boom.  That came to an end in 1973:

World oil production exponential-linear
Source: The Oil Drum/COS

In the period since 1973, oil production has continued to grow; but growth has been linear.  The result is that the rates of growth enjoyed in the west between 1953 and 1973 are never coming back.  Indeed, much of the oil we are adding to the mix today is expensive; giving it a much lower value to the economy than the oil being produced in the aftermath of the Second World War.

One of Keynes’ contemporaries – English Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy – understood this far better than Keynes:

“Still one point seemed lacking to account for the phenomenal outburst of activity that followed in the Western world the invention of the steam engine, for it could not be ascribed simply to the substitution of inanimate energy for animal labour. The ancients used the wind in navigation and drew upon water-power in rudimentary ways. The profound change that then occurred seemed to be rather due to the fact that, for the first time in history, men began to tap a large capital store of energy and ceased to be entirely dependent on the revenue of sunshine…

“Then came the odd thought about fuel considered as a capital store, out of the consumption of which our whole civilisation, in so far as it is modern, has been built. You cannot burn it and still have it, and once burnt there is no way, thermodynamically, of extracting perennial interest from it. Such mysteries are among the inexorable laws of economics rather than of physics. With the doctrine of evolution, the real Adam turns out to have been an animal, and with the doctrine of energy the real capitalist proves to be a plant. The flamboyant era through which we have been passing is due not to our own merits, but to our having inherited accumulations of solar energy from the carboniferous era, so that life for once has been able to live beyond its income. Had it but known it, it might have been a merrier age!”

The economic expansion that Soddy correctly attributed to the fossilised sunlight locked up in coal deposits was to be multiplied a hundredfold by the oil-based expansion that followed the Second World War.  And indeed, had we known that it was oil rather than one or other version of politics or economics that was responsible for our brief period of prosperity, our age too might have been merrier.

In this, the sixteenth century Europeans might have had something to tell us; because they also experienced an energy crisis.  Given that this was a period when economies ran entirely on renewable energy, there is a corrective here too for those who imagine that returning to some pre-industrial idyll might be our salvation.  Sixteenth century Europeans chopped down their forests at a much faster rate than the trees could be regrown.  As historian Clive Ponting notes:

“A timber shortage was first noticed in Europe in specialised areas such as shipbuilding… In the 1580s when Philip II of Spain built the armada to sail against England and the Dutch had to import timber from Poland… Local sources of wood and charcoal were becoming exhausted – given the poor state of communications and the costs involved it was impossible to move supplies very far.  As early as 1560 the iron foundries of Slovakia were forced to cut back production as charcoal supplies began to dry up.  Thirty years later the bakers of Montpellier in the South of France had to cut down bushes to heat their ovens because there was no timber left in their town…”

Creating new currency – in this case the new precious metals from the Americas – into an economy that has outrun its energy supplies could only result in inflation because without sufficient energy there could be no economic growth.  Only when new sources of energy – in this case, coal from the Severn Valley – can be brought into production does the economy recover and a new round of economic growth begin.

When western states printed new currency into existence to rebuild their war-torn economies in the years after 1945, they did so while almost all of the planet’s oil deposits were still in the ground.  Much of the new currency was invested into economic activities that required oil for manufacture and/or transportation.  That, in turn, meant that a proportion of the new currency found its way into the accounts of the big oil companies; who used it to open up the vast oil reserves around the planet.  It was this cheap, abundant reserve of oil that allowed for massive currency creation without generating inflation.  It was precisely at the point when money creation overshot oil production that the inflation of the 1970s set in.

Fast-forward to the very different world of 2018: World production of “conventional” crude oil peaked in 2005.  The resulting inflation – followed by the inevitable interest rate rises – triggered the worst financial collapse in living memory.  Oil production is still, just about, increasing; but only at great expense.  Low quality and expensive oil from fracking, tar sands and ultra-deep water is keeping the economy going; but only at the cost of obliging us – businesses and households – to devote a greater part of our income to energy (either directly or through the energy embodied in the goods and services we purchase).

Unlike money trees, there is nothing magical about oil (which, a handful of electric cars aside, still powers almost all of our agricultural, industrial and transportation vehicles and machinery).  Even now, there is more oil beneath the ground than we have used so far.  But most of what is left is going to stay in the ground simply because it is too expensive (i.e. it requires too much energy) to extract.

Alternative energy sources do not really exist, other than by sleight of hand.  Most often, this is done simply by conflating electricity with energy.  But the crisis we face is primarily a liquid fuel crisis.  As such, the electrical energy generated by a wind turbine or a nuclear plant is irrelevant.  What has actually happened has nothing to do with ending our use of fossil fuels.  Rather, states around the world have turned to alternative fossil fuels – coal and gas – together with renewables and nuclear to free up the remaining extractable oil for use in industry, agriculture and transportation.  Oil consumption, however, continues to rise, because without it growth would end and the mountain of debt-based currency would collapse around our ears.

This brings us back to the money question.  There is a growing belief that the solution to our problems will come in the form of a switch from austerity economics to an expansionary policy based on distributing newly created currency via investment banks and/or universal basic incomes.  This, however, is highly unlikely to succeed until or unless we find a means of massively increasing the energy available (at the point of use) to the economy to counteract the decline in affordable oil that is beginning to emerge (replacing unaffordable oil with unaffordable renewables doesn’t really count).

Politically, the demand for an end to austerity is becoming irresistible.  We already see its manifestation in Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populist (right and left) parties across Europe.  Around the world, the people have put the elites on notice that they will no longer tolerate an economy in which a tiny handful of kleptocrats continue to accumulate wealth via a rigged financial system while everyone else sees their standard of living plummet.

The mistake, however, would be to assume that simply printing currency will solve the problem.  Without useable energy to back it up, new currency is worthless.  Its only role is to steal a fraction of all of the currency already in circulation.  This may have small benefits if channelled to ordinary people, since it will be the accumulated currency of the wealthy that is devalued the most – a kind of hidden tax.  But the ensuing price increases are far more likely to be experienced by those at the bottom of the income scale; as their ability to pay for necessities is rapidly eroded.

The crisis of our age, then, is not to pick the fruit of the magic money tree; but to discover the location of the magic energy tree whose fruit has fertilised the money tree for the past 250 years.  Sadly, that magic (fossilised sunlight) energy tree has shrivelled with age.  We may never see its like again.





Sustainability lost…….

30 07 2018

Two weeks ago, I left my cocoon in Geevo and flew to Queensland for the first time in over two years…  and no, I will not be driving back in another ute!  Glenda was supposed to join me in Tasmania around now, but, as they say, life puts paid to the best laid plans, and her mother now aged 94 had a fall, breaking her wrist and fracturing her pelvis, never a good idea at such a ripe old age.

My flight was delayed for over an hour, and I didn’t arrive in Brisbane until past 11PM, then Virgin put my luggage on the wrong carousel, while my son was waiting outside to take me to his new place he shares with his partner and one other in a new apartment near the river. I’d heard all about this apartment, especially the bit about going from student poverty to working man riches…. but the view is so stunning, I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all a dream! I never thought I’d think of our son as “how the other half lives”!

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He might as well enjoy it while he can I guess, they have to live somewhere, and it’s sited unbelievably close to public transport.

I brought the cold weather with me it appeared, my first morning there was the coldest Queensland had experienced in a very long time; mornings were actually several degrees less cold in Geeveston, though of course it never warmed up to 20 degrees at the Fanny Farm.

The hustle and bustle of “the big smoke” always shocks me after the quiet life in Southern Tasmania, even though I lived in Brisbane for decades, and I of all people should not be shocked after writing reams about the unsustainability of our civilisation…. but it nevertheless brings it all home to me.

What was also brought home to me is the unsustainability of keeping old people alive, using world best practice technology of course….. This is, like population, a very ticklish issue that nobody talks about. I’m almost thirty years younger than my mother in law, and I have already come to grips with the fact my days are numbered, even if they are not quite as numbered as hers, but the amount of resources, money, and energy spent on keeping her alive for what may not be more than three months is staggering…….

How anyone measures what is or is not appropriate to keep a very old person comfortable is anyone’s guess. Can anyone even pass judgement? We do what we do, as my old friend Bruce once said to me, because we can. It’s how I flew up at short notice. Speaking of noticing, airfares have gone up 50% since last time I did this….

The flurry of activity since Betty’s return from hospital is amazing. A new ramp that probably cost $3000 has been built so her wheelchair can accommodate the single step difference between the house floor and the ground outside. We’ve had physios, occupational therapists and a social worker call to assess the situation. Tomorrow, ‘a builder’ is coming to install a hook for Betty’s shower, presumably so she can be showered sitting down….. and I have no idea who’s paying for all this.

A couple of days ago, she suddenly became quite ill, an ambulance was called, and I had to follow it all the way to Nambour Hospital (and of course return), a 100km trip. Luckily, she was transferred to Noosa which is just ten minutes away, but all the same, the amount of driving I am currently undertaking as the nominated driver is amazing. It’s a good thing Glenda’s little car runs on the smell of fumes because this amount of driving is easily four times as much as I am used to!

Trained as I am by my INTJ personality to only see the amount of energy and resources needed to achieve these results, I feel like I have actually flown to a different planet. Then there’s the traffic…..  and it’s not just me, friends I have since spoken to agree that congestion around Noosa is definitely on the up, and every second car is a SUV…. This place used to be a sleepy village, but no more.

I also feel like I have lost control of what I eat. I haven’t managed to find a decent loaf of bread yet. Everything I buy is cheaper than what I’m used to, but it’s all wrapped in plastic…. and I hate it. I’ve even put on two kilos since largely going off my high protein diet to fit in with everybody else and eating cake and biscuits with visitors celebrating the old lady’s 94th birthday……

But I had to do this, my poor wife is carrying quite a burden, and she needed the moral support, and by doing things around the place to keep the show running, she has more time to spend nursing her mother……

Since leaving Geevo, the weather has been doing its Tasmanian winter thing, lots of rain, mud everywhere, unlike here which is just like a Tasmanian summer; it’s unlikely I would have been able to do much around the farm anyway. Plus it stops me working on the house before my concrete reaches maximum strength… and building roofs in the rain is problematic at best.monster house

While here, I watched some stupid TV show about “Extreme Homes” that featured Far North Queensland houses, all so far over the top I was stunned….  but one in particular stood out.  Here I am, feeling guilty about the 80 m³ of concrete I have now poured into Mon Abri, and this place comes up boasting, wait for it, 15,000 m³ of concrete……. I’m actually really really hoping it’s misreporting, and that maybe it was tonnes (each m³ of concrete weighs 2.5 tonnes). This monster house has apparently no timber whatever in it and is capable of withstanding category 5 cyclones. With 18kW (!) of PVs on its roof, the program classified it as zero energy house……. never mind the fact that this much concrete would emit nearly 20,000 tonnes of CO2 or 2000 years worth of emissions from your average Australian.

When stupidity like this is spread on TV to people who will certainly believe it, what chance have we got? This will make more and more people, probably, aspire to building some similar monument to unsustainability…..

world on fire

Meanwhile, the Earth is burning, or where it’s not burning, it’s flooding, like Japan which just finished dealing with floods and landslides and is now facing a severe typhoon….

climate variability.jpg

This diagram of how the climate statistics are changing just came up in my news feed. It pays to understand standard distribution curves I guess, but it’s a good explanation of what we’ll be facing in the future.

I may stay in Queensland for another two weeks, but any longer will make me go mad. At least in Tassie I can sort of pretend I won’t be affected, and stick my head back in the sand. Everybody else is doing it….

 

 





The Receding Horizons of Renewable Energy

15 07 2018

Another excellent article by Nicole Foss…  also known as Stoneleigh.

Renewable energy is best used in situ, adjacent to demand. It is best used in conjunction with a storage component which would insulate consumers from supply disruption, but FIT programmes typically prohibit this explicitly. Generators are expected to sell all their production to the grid and buy back their own demand. This leaves them every bit as vulnerable to supply disruption as anyone who does not have their own generation capacity. This turns renewable generation into a personal money generating machine with critical vulnerabilities. It is no longer about the energy, which should be the focus of any publicly funded energy programme.

nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

Stoneleigh: Renewable energy has become a topic of increasing interest in recent years, as fossil fuel prices have been volatile and the focus on climate change has sharpened. Governments in many jurisdictions have been instituting policies to increase the installation of renewable energy capacity, as the techologies involved are not generally able to compete on price with conventional generation.

The reason this is necessary, as we have pointed out before, is that the inherent fossil-fuel dependence of renewable generation leads to a case of receding horizons. We do not make wind turbines with wind power or solar panels with solar power. As the cost of fossil fuel rises, the production cost of renewable energy infrastructure also rises, so that renewables remain just out of reach.

Renewable energy is most often in the form of electricity, hence subsidies have typically been provided through the power system. Capital grants are available in some locations, but it is more common for generators to be offered a higher than market price for the electricity they produce over the life of the project. Some jurisdictions have introduced a bidding system for a set amount of capacity, where the quantity requested is fixed (RFP) and the lowest bids chosen.

Others have introduced Feed-In Tariff (FIT) programmes, where a long-term fixed price is offered essentially to any project willing to accept it. Tariffs vary with technology and project size (and sometimes inversely with resource intensity) with the intention of providing the same rate of return to all projects. FIT programmes have been much more successful in bringing capacity online, especially small-scale capacity, as the rate of return is higher and the participation process much less burdensome than the RFP alternative. Under an RFP system accepted bids often do not lead to construction as the margin is too low.

The FIT approach has been quite widely adopted in Europe and elsewhere over the last decade, and has led to a great deal of capacity construction in early-adopter countries such as Germany, Spain and Denmark. In Canada, Ontario was the first north American jurisdiction to introduce a similar programme in 2009. (I was involved in negotiating its parameters at the time.)

Renewable energy subsidies are becoming increasingly controversial, however, especially where they are very large. The most controversial are those for solar photovoltaics, which are typically very much higher than for any other technology. In a number of countries, solar tariffs are high enough to have produced a bubble, with a great deal of investment being poured into infrastructure production and capacity installation. Many of the countries that had introduced FIT regimes are now backing away from them for fear of the cost the subsidies could add to power prices if large amounts of capacity are added.

As Tara Patel wrote recently for Bloomberg:

EDF’s Solar ‘Time Bomb’ Will Tick On After France Pops Bubble:

To end what it has called a “speculative bubble,” France on Dec. 10 imposed a three-month freeze on solar projects to devise rules that could include caps on development and lowering the so-called feed-in tariffs that pay the higher rate for renewable power. The tariffs were cut twice in 2010. “We just didn’t see it coming,” French lawmaker Francois- Michel Gonnot said of the boom. “What’s in the pipeline this year is unimaginable. Farmers were being told they could put panels on hangars and get rid of their cows.”…. ….EDF received 3,000 applications a day to connect panels to the grid at the end of last year, compared with about 7,100 connections in all of 2008, according to the government and EDF.

Stoneleigh: The policy of generous FIT subsidies seems to be coming to an end, with cuts proposed in many places, including where the programmes had been most successful. The optimism that FIT programmes would drive a wholesale conversion to renewable energy is taking a significant hit in many places, leaving the future of renewable energy penetration in doubt in the new era of austerity:

Germany:

Half of the 13 billion euro ($17.54 billion) reallocation charges pursuant to Germany’s renewable energy act was put into solar PV last year. The sector produced about 7 GW of electricity, surpassing the 5-GW estimate. The government deemed the industry boom as counterproductive, pushing it to reduce subsidies and narrow the market.

The Czech Republic:

In an attempt to get hold of what could be a runaway solar subsidy market, the Senate approved an amendment April 21 that will allow the Energy Regulatory Office (ERÚ) to lower solar energy prices well below the current annual limit of 5 percent cuts. At the start of 2011, the state will now be able to decrease solar energy prices up to 25 percent – if President Klaus signs the amendment into law. Even with a quarter cut, the government’s subsidies for feed-in tariffs remain so high that solar energy remains an attractive investment.

France:

The Ministry of Sustainable Development is expected to cut the country’s generous feed-in tariffs by 12 percent beginning September 1 in an effort to rein in demand and curb spending, according to analysts and news reports from France.

Italy:

Incentives for big photovoltaic (PV) installations with a capacity of more than 5 megawatts (MW) will be slashed every four months by a total of up to 30 percent next year, said Gianni Chianetta, chairman of the Assosolare industry body. Incentives for smaller PV installations will be gradually cut by up to 20 percent next year. One-off 6 percent annual cuts are set for 2012 and 2013 under the new plan, the industry source said.

The UK:

The U.K. government signaled it may cut the prices paid for electricity from renewable energy sources, saying it began a “comprehensive review” of feed-in tariffs introduced last year. Evidence that larger-scale solar farms may “soak up” money meant for roof-top solar panels, small wind turbines and smaller hydropower facilities prompted the study, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said today in an statement. A review was originally planned to start next year.

The move will allow the government to change the above- market prices paid for wind and solar electricity by more than already planned when the new prices come into force in April 2012. The department said it will speed up an analysis of solar projects bigger than 50 kilowatts and that new tariffs may be mandated “as soon as practical.” “This is going to put the jitters into some market segments,” Dave Sowden, chief executive officer of the Solihull, England-based trade group Micropower Council, said today in a phone interview.

Portugal:

The Portuguese government has announced that it will review the existing feed-in tariff mechanism following calls that the subsidies are excessive and contribute to the increase of electricity prices to final consumers.

Ontario

Initial enthusiasm among ratepayers for the scheme is flagging in the wake of perceived links between the FiT and increased energy prices. The FiT passed into law in May 2009 as part of the Green Energy Act, which aims to promote the development of wind and solar generation in the province. With provincial elections slated for 6 October next year, the opposition Progressive Conservative Party is threatening to substantially revise and possibly even scrap the FiT should it win. Even if it the subsidy scheme were to be revoked, the legal implications of rescinding the over 1500MW in existing FiT contracts would be highly problematic.

Stoneleigh: Spain is the example everyone wishes to avoid. The rapid growth in the renewable energy sector paralleled the bubble-era growth of the rest of Spain’s economy. The tariffs offered under their FIT programme now come under the heading of ‘promises that cannot be kept’, like so many other government commitments made in an era of unbridled optimism. Those tariffs are now being cut, and not just for new projects, but for older ones with an existing contract. People typically believe that promises already made are sacrosanct, and that legal committments will not be broken, but we are moving into a time when rules can, and will, be changed retroactively when the money runs out. Legal niceties will have little meaning when reality dictates a new paradigm.

Spain:

Spain’s struggling solar-power sector has announced it will sue the government over two royal decrees that will reduce tariffs retroactively, claiming they will cause huge losses for the industry. In a statement, leading trade body ASIF said its 500 members endorsed filing the suit before the Spanish high court and the European Commission. They will allege that royal decrees 156/10 and RD-L 14/10 run against Spanish and European law. The former prevents solar producers from receiving subsidized tariffs after a project’s 28th year while the latter slashes the entire industry’s subsidized tariffs by 10% and 30% for existing projects until 2014. Both bills are “retroactive, discriminatory and very damaging” to the sector. They will dent the profits of those companies that invested under the previous Spanish regulatory framework, ASIF argued.

Austerity bites:

The government announced soon after that it would introduce retroactive cuts in the feed-in tariff program for the photovoltaic (PV) industry in the context of the austerity measures the country is currently undergoing. According to this plan, existing photovoltaic plants would have their subsidies cut by 30%, a figure that would go up to 45% for any new large scale plants. Smaller scale roof installations would lose 25% of their existing subsidy, while installations with a generating capacity of less than 20 KW would have 5% taken from their tariff.

Spain is too big to fail and too big to bail out:

Spain has been forced to cut back on solar subsidies because of the impact on ratepayers. But Spain’s overall economy is in much worse shape and the subsidies for feed in tariff are threatening to push the country into bailout territory or, at lease, worsen the situation should a bailout be needed.

FIT and Debt:

The strain on government revenue is in part due to the way Spain has designed its feed-in tariff system. Usually, this type of subsidy is paid for by utilities charging more for the electricity they sell to consumers, to cover the cost of buying renewable energy at above-market prices. Therefore no money is actually paid out of government revenues: consumers bear the cost directly by paying higher electricity bills.

In Spain, however, the price of electricity has been kept artificially low since 2000. The burden has been shouldered by utilities, which have been operating at a loss on the basis of a government guarantee to eventually pay them back. The sum of this so-called ‘tariff deficit’ has accumulated to over €16 billion (US$ 20 billion) since 2000. For comparison, Spain’s deficit in 2009 was around €90 billion (US$ 116 billion) in 2009 and its accumulated debt around €508 billion (US$ 653 billion).

Stoneleigh: Ontario threatens to take the Spanish route by instituting retroactive measures after the next election. For a province with a long history of political interference in energy markets, further regulatory uncertainty constitutes a major risk of frightening off any kind of investment in the energy sector. Considering that 85% of Ontario’s generation capacity reaches the end of its design life within 15 years, and that Ontario has a huge public debt problem, alienating investment is arguably a risky decision. FIT programmes clearly sow the seeds of their own destruction. They are an artifact of good economic times that do not transition to hard times when promises are broken.

Ontario

The outcome of an autumn election in Ontario could stunt a budding renewable energy industry in the Canadian province just as it is becoming one of the world’s hot investment destinations. If the opposition Progressive Conservatives win power on Oct. 6, the party has promised to scrap generous rates for renewable energy producers just two years after their launch by the Liberal government. That could threaten a program that has lured billions of dollars in investment and created thousands of jobs.

The Conservatives, who are leading in the polls, have yet to release an official energy manifesto. Even so, the industry is privately voicing concern, especially after the party said it would scrutinize contracts already awarded under Ontario’s feed-in tariff (FIT) program. “They are going to go through the economic viability of the energies and review all of the past contracts … I think that is going to cause a lot of delays, a lot of problems and a lot of risk to Ontario,” said Marin Katusa, chief energy analyst at Casey Research, an investor research service.

George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian in the UK, provides an insightful critique of FIT programmes in general:

The real net cost of the solar PV installed in Germany between 2000 and 2008 was €35bn. The paper estimates a further real cost of €18bn in 2009 and 2010: a total of €53bn in ten years. These investments make wonderful sense for the lucky householders who could afford to install the panels, as lucrative returns are guaranteed by taxing the rest of Germany’s electricity users. But what has this astonishing spending achieved? By 2008 solar PV was producing a grand total of 0.6% of Germany’s electricity. 0.6% for €35bn. Hands up all those who think this is a good investment…. .

As for stimulating innovation, which is the main argument Jeremy [Leggett] makes in their favour, the report shows that Germany’s feed-in tariffs have done just the opposite. Like the UK’s scheme, Germany’s is degressive – it goes down in steps over time. What this means is that the earlier you adopt the technology, the higher the tariff you receive. If you waited until 2009 to install your solar panel, you’ll be paid 43c/kWh (or its inflation-proofed equivalent) for 20 years, rather than the 51c you get if you installed in 2000.

This encourages people to buy existing technology and deploy it right away, rather than to hold out for something better. In fact, the paper shows the scheme has stimulated massive demand for old, clunky solar cells at the expense of better models beginning to come onto the market. It argues that a far swifter means of stimulating innovation is for governments to invest in research and development. But the money has gone in the wrong direction: while Germany has spent some €53bn on deploying old technologies over ten years, in 2007 the government spent only €211m on renewables R&D.

In principle, tens of thousands of jobs have been created in the German PV industry, but this is gross jobs, not net jobs: had the money been used for other purposes, it could have employed far more people. The paper estimates that the subsidy for every solar PV job in Germany is €175,000: in other words the subsidy is far higher than the money the workers are likely to earn. This is a wildly perverse outcome. Moreover, most of these people are medium or highly skilled workers, who are in short supply there. They have simply been drawn out of other industries.

Stoneleigh: Widespread installed renewable electricity capacity would be a very good resource to have available in an era of financial austerity at the peak of global oil production, but the mechanisms that have been chosen to achieve this are clearly problematic. They plug into, and depend on, a growth model that no longer functions. If we are going to work towards a future with greater reliance on renewable energy, there are a number of factors we must consider. These are not typically addressed in the simplistic subsidy programmes that are now running into trouble worldwide.

We have power systems built on a central station model, which assumes that we should build large power station distant from demand, on the grounds of economic efficiency, which favours large-scale installations. This really does not fit with the potential that renewable power offers. The central station model introduces a grid-dependence that renewable power should be able to avoid, revealing an often acute disparity between resource intensity, demand and grid capacity. Renewable power (used in the small-scale decentralized manner it is best suited for) should decrease grid dependence, but we employ it in such a way as to increase our vulnerability to socioeconomic complexity.

Renewable energy is best used in situ, adjacent to demand. It is best used in conjunction with a storage component which would insulate consumers from supply disruption, but FIT programmes typically prohibit this explicitly. Generators are expected to sell all their production to the grid and buy back their own demand. This leaves them every bit as vulnerable to supply disruption as anyone who does not have their own generation capacity. This turns renewable generation into a personal money generating machine with critical vulnerabilities. It is no longer about the energy, which should be the focus of any publicly funded energy programme.

FIT programmes typically remunerate a wealthy few who install renewables in private applications for their own benefit, and who may well have done so in the absence of public subsidies. If renewables are to do anything at all to help run our societies in the future, we need to move from publicly-funded private applications towards public applications benefitting the collective. We do not have an established model for this at present, and we do not have time to waste. Maximizing renewable energy penetration takes a lot of time and a lot of money, both of which will be in short supply in the near future. The inevitable global austerity measures are not going to make this task any easier.

We also need to consider counter-cyclical investment. In Ontario, for instance, power prices have been falling on falling demand and increased conventional supply, and are now very low. In fact, the pool price for power is often negative at night, as demand is less than baseload capacity. Under such circumstances it is difficult to develop a political mandate for constructing additional generation, when the spending commitment would have to be born by the current regime and the political benefits would accrue to another, due to the long construction time for large plants.

Politicians are allergic to situations like that, but if they do not make investments in additional generation capacity soon, most of Ontario’s capacity could end up being retired unreplaced. Large, non-intermittent, plants capable of load following are necessary to run a modern power system. These cannot be built overnight.

Many jurisdictions are going to have to build capacity (in the face of falling prices in an era of deflation) if they are to avoid a supply crunch down the line. Given how dependent our societies are on our electrified life-support systems, this could be a make or break decision. The risk is that we wait too long, lose all freedom of action and are then forced to take a much larger step backwards than might other wise have been the case.

Europe’s existing installed renewable capacity should stand it in good stead when push comes to shove, even though it was bought at a high price. Other locations, such as Ontario, really came too late to the party for their FIT initiatives to do any good. Those who have not built replacement capacity, especially load-following plants and renewables with no fuel cost going forward, could be very vulnerable in the future. They will be buffeted first by financial crisis and then by energy crisis, and there may be precious little they can do about either one.





The physics of energy and resulting effects on economics

10 07 2018

Hat tip to one of the many commenters on DTM for pointing me to this excellent video…. I have featured Jean-Marc Jancovici’s work here before, but this one’s shorter, and even though it’s in French, English subtitles are available from the settings section on the toutube screen. Speaking of screens, one of the outstanding statements made in this video is that all electronics in the world that use screens in one way or another consume one third of the world’s electricity…….. Remember how the growth in renewables could not even keep up with the Internet’s growth?

If this doesn’t convince viewers that we have to change the way we do EVERYTHING, then nothing will….. and seeing as he’s presenting to politicians, let’s hope at least some of them will come out of this better informed……

Jean-Marc Jancovici, a French engineer schools politicians with a sobering lecture on the physics of energy and the effects on economics and climate change





Earth Battery

2 07 2018

I don’t know how this podcast ever flew under the radar, but it’s ‘must listen to’ material….. two of my favourite peakniks, Chris Martenson and Tom Murphy, discuss our predicaments in the clearest possible way.

The standout for me was Tom calling our fossil fuels sources a gigantic solar battery in which millions of years of solar energy was stored, only to be virtually short circuited to be discharged in what is the blink of an eyelid in geological terms……

 





Well Gosh…….

27 06 2018

 

simon_michauxI just came out of a meeting with two ministers of Finland. One was the Director of Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland. We were to discuss how to develop the battery industry in Finland. They openly discussed concepts like peak oil, hyperinflation, EU currency reset, Break up of EU into something else and the projection that we don’t have nearly enough minerals to make the desired quantity of batteries and solar panels. They even knew what ERoEI was.

Somebody pinch me!!!

Even though I’ve never met Simon face to face, we have become friends over that FB platform and have discovered that we are actually very similar in our senses of humour and outlook for the future…..  Simon is an Australian mining engineer whose work I featured on DTM many moons ago, and is currently working for the Finnish Government in a high power position to determine Finland’s future energy and resources position. The header of this post is by Simon; he posted it on the FB Peak Oil group I follow….. I just had to share it, because it’s obvious that there are plenty of people in goverments (all over the world?) who must know what is going on, and yet do not have the guts to come out and say it like it is.

How much longer will we have to wait before reality makes an appearance in Australia?

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a presentation by Simon on peak mining….