Flannery and engineering solutions to climate change

In a speech on May 19th, Tim Flannery reportedly proposed, as a last-ditch solution, the mass depositing of sulphur into our atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the earth, thus counter-acting the greenhouse effect of increased amounts of CO2 in the air.

The speech so far seems to have mainly attracted short and negative responses from Australia’s blogosphere (see Andrew Landeryou or Graham Young) though Robert Merkel gives him some credit for at least running the ‘our doom is approaching’ message here.

Two issues in that speech merit careful consideration. One is the set of reasons that climate scientists like Flannery now have to be more alarmist than they were 5 years ago, and the second, more important issue, is that we are finally getting some eminent non-economists who are starting to become aware of the political and economic realities of this world and are starting to take this on board in their public pronouncements regarding climate change management. Below both issues are explored in detail.

The reasons for greater hyperbole amongst climate scientists are interesting and I agree in principle with Don Aitken that concerned citizens should try as best they can themselves to try and get on top of these issues rather than just take them on faith, so below is my attempt at getting on top of the ‘new worries’ (a nice interview on the options, again by Flannery, is here).

One source of increased anxiety is the fast melting of the North Pole. Whilst this wouldn’t increase sea levels, it is the case that water reflects less sunlight than snow and hence having sea at the North Pole rather than snow and ice would further accelerate global warming. What is convincing about this argument is that it appears that a melting of the North Pole hasn’t happened in the last million years, which means it apparently isn’t the case that this is something we have already experienced on a regular basis in human history. What bothers me a little about this argument is that this development is often mentioned in the same breath as the possibility that the Northern Gulf Stream would come to a halt, making Northern Europe much colder. Would that mean a re-freezing of the North Pole and less Global Warming I then wonder? Anyway, I suppose it on balance seems a strongly plausible possibility that makes me interested in the next reports on the North Pole. If this year, which is apparently quite a cold year, sees a record freezing of the North Pole we can sleep easier on this one.

The second source of greater worry amongst these climate scientists is the whole business of masses of methane locked at the bottom of the ocean in the forms of clathrates that would release itself if the oceans would hot up enough, leading to a dramatic increase in the amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This historically appears to have been associated with temperature jumps of up to 10 degrees! My understanding of this possibility was that it would take a couple of degrees increase in the temperature of the ocean floor to kick-start this cascade, which can’t happen in a hurry because it takes a long time for the ocean floors to heat up, but once it is in motion is almost impossible to stop because of the strong effect on global temperatures of the sudden release of methane. This has happened in the past and the earth apparently does recover from it, but there’s no doubt that a sudden increase in the temperature by 10 degrees would be hard for agriculturale to adjust to overnight. This appears to be the main mechanism climate scientists worry about when they worry about a ‘trigger’ temperature beyond which the worlds’ climate changes much more rapidly than hitherto. I guess on this one the main question outstanding is how much warmer the ocean floor has to get for the cascade to take place and how long it would take to reach that trigger at current trends. I haven’t seen an authoritative answer on that one, but there might be one.

The final reason for increased anxiety appears to be a negative feedback effect of increased CO2 in the atmosphere itself on the aridity of key regions, mainly the Amazon. The usual scenario is that the world will wittness more rain in total because with higher temperatures comes higher amounts of ocean evaporating into clouds. Also, the usual argument on more CO2 in the atmosphere is that this is effectively a fertiliser that makes plants grow faster with less rain needed. Both effects combined would normally be thought of as increasing agricultural production and, on balance, welcome developments. But now there is this negative scenario that has to do with precisely this fertilisation effect: if plants can get the CO2 more easily out of the air, they breath out less moisture (the way they ‘get’ CO2 is by ‘giving’ water). For the Amazon this means that less water is soaked up by the trees and then released again into the air. The water just runs away into the rivers without being re-absorbed into the atmosphere and falling down somewhere else again as rain. In this way, even though there would be more rain near the coast and trees would need less water, it is possible that far upstream there is much less rain such that trees there start dying off, leading to less rain downstream too such that we’d end up having rainforests only near the ocean but not far into the South American interior like we see at present. This rain feedback effect appears to be very important for the Amazon system, to the extent that it is even thought possible that the Amazon might turn into a semi-desert. In itself, the collapse of the Amazon is not an immediate threat to human civilisation even though it’s an obvious disaster for biodiversity. But it would mean a massive amount of additional CO2 being released and not re-absorbed, hence again leading to a feedback loop towards greater warming.

All three of these seem eminently reasonable arguments with logical chains of thought. The last one is a little bit of a ‘theoretical’ possibility in the sense that the strength of the feedback loops in the Amazon are very hard to empirically establish, let alone model the impact of changes on it. Yet I see no inherent reason to distrust the science on this and hence if Flannery and co tell me these things are about to happen then I give it a reasonable chance they indeed will happen.

Then onto the issue of solutions.

The most positive thing about Flannery’s speech is that he is starting to explicitly think of climate engineering as the way forward. This is a very helpful and welcome development, even though he still qualifies it in terms of ‘last-ditch solutions’ and ‘unknown risks’. As I have argued for a long time here and elsewhere (here and here for instance), the only politically feasible solution to climate change is the type of climate engineering that can be unilaterally implemented. World-consensus type arrangements that require serious sacrifices by many of the world’s poorest countries are pipe-dreams that are so politically unrealistic that it’s amazing they ever made it onto the agenda in the first place. The free rider problem in consensus solutions is so obvious that any child can see it won’t happen without some kind of world police which in turn is not free of its own worries (see here).

I sincerely hope that Flannery’s new-found realism will generate a serious debate amongst engineers as to the cheapest and least risky possibilities for reducing the world’s temperatures. It would be great to see them presenting their various plans to us. Perhaps someone will propose a fleet of reflective balloons? Others might venture we should make coal-powered stations dirtier rather than cleaner to get at additional dimming? Perhaps another can think up a space reflector?

I am quite ready to believe most of the existing plans (and none of the ones I mention above are new) will be shown to be infeasible, silly, extremely costly, and even more dangerous than global warming. But having them in the open allows a proper debate about what we can actually do and hence gives an avenue for real hope. That is far preferable to the rain-dance we currently seem to be doing around emission trading schemes.

Just to drive home once more how utterly politically unrealistic it is to expect us to seriously reduce greenhouse emissions in short time-intervals: whilst the federal budget promised paltry expenditures into fossil-fuel reduction schemes of the order of a couple of hundred million, the Queensland government in the same month unveiled a plan for 5 billion dollars to build great tunnels in order to accommodate MORE fossil fuels to be burnt by cars. That plan, by the way, is bad economics for other reasons (i.e. the public-private partnership scheme which basically means over-pricing in the future). But the point here is that this plan is just one of many infrastructure plans that are predicated on the expectation of more carbon transport needs in the future. Also, the pre-election plan to spend 100 million in Brisbane on new bike lanes seems to have quietly left the table after the election.

Hence anyone who watches the hand of government rather than its mouth can’t fail to notice that we are getting ready for more carbon consumption, not less. Indeed, the federal opposition’s post-budget plan to reduce excise on fuel should be read for what it is: a political judgment that the majority of Australian voters care much less about global warming than the amount they have to pay at the pump. Call me a market-economist, but I tend to take such policy-market signals seriously as indications of the true preferences of the population. It is really refreshing to see a climate scientist who starts to openly think about actual solutions, however uncertain and risky they are, rather than just kicking the dead horse that was and is Kyoto and its stable-mates.

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32 Responses to Flannery and engineering solutions to climate change

  1. Paul: you’re buying into the mistaken assumption that there aren’t cheap, largely invisible engineering solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

    There are, it’s just that there’s a lot of bulldust coming from both from the John Roskams and the Bob Browns of this world who claim that we have to make massive sacrifices in living standards to combat climate change.

  2. In any case, carbon trading will make SFA difference to the price of petrol in the short term.

    A carbon price sufficient to drive adoption of renewables and gas (or nukes) over coal, something in the order of $50 per tonne, will only push the price of petrol up about 10 cents per litre.

  3. Paul Frijters says:


    you say “Paul: youre buying into the mistaken assumption that there arent cheap, largely invisible engineering solutions to reduce carbon emissions. ”

    really? That would be very interesting and I’d love to hear them, especially if they can be implemented unilaterally. My understanding of all the usual contenders for the title of ‘quick fix solution’ (geothermal, burrying carbon, re-pumping CO2 into old fields, stimulating ocean plant growth by iron ore, etc.) is that they either dont matter enough in the scheme of things (i.e. there’s not enough CO2 you can actually pump into an old oil field), are almost useless for baseload energy generation (such as wind or tidal wave), are far too costly (sun), dangerous and costly in its own way (nuclear), create greater problems than they solve (ethanol), or are still very preliminary and infeasible at present (geothermal). I thought the most efficient carbon sinks were plants and its not trivial to bury enough of those to solve things in a hurry. Any real new change in these basic assessments would be illuminating.


  4. Ken Parish says:


    I don’t agree that the prospects of nuclear energy are necessarily as problematic as you suggest (and I suspect Robert Merkel will support me). Fast breeder reactors, “pebble bed” reactors and a range of other new generation reactor technologies seem to have promise. Moreover, tight control of distribution, reprocessing and storage of nuclear fuel and waste by the wealthy nations which are developing these technologies can overcome most of the objections of the anti-nuclear lobby, especially given the potentially drastic consequences of doing nothing as you outline them, and the distinct lack of other immediately viable alternatives. However, as with geothermal, they’re not yet anywhere near a stage that would allow large scale commercial deployment.

    Moreover, it is said that there are ways in which some of the newer solar power technologies are capable of being harnessed to produce (effectively) baseload power by utilising a range of technologies to store the energy produced by solar arrays (e.g. as heat or hydrogen fuel) while the sun is shining and then using it to generate power at night. However, again the technologies to be used for such storage are still in development and unlikely to be available for large-scale commercial deployment for at least a decade. Obviously they won’t be cheap even then, but I guess it depends on what price is put on carbon emissions as to whether such technologies become commercially feasible. If the costs of alternatives (including doing nothing and adopting engineering solutions like space reflectors etc) are themselves very high (as they may well be), then solar might yet be one of the better options.

    We certainly should keep an open mind about all these possibilities, which is where I think your post is invaluable in challenging the complacent and tunnel-visioned assumptions of most of the participants in this debate (on both pro- and anti- global warming sides).

  5. Joe D says:

    What bothers me a little about this argument is that this development is often mentioned in the same breath as the possibility that the Northern Gulf Stream would come to a halt, making Northern Europe much colder. W

    AFAIK this situation will lead to dramatic fluctuations in temp over relatively short periods before the system equilibrises – not good for civilisation, cf latest books by Jared Diamond, Brian Fagan and Tim Flannery (none of whom by the way are climate scientists but that shouldn’t detract from the serious message that they convey very well).

  6. Paul Frijters says:

    Hi Ken,

    thanks for the encouragement.
    Like you, I am willing to assess nuclear based on its merits, but I though safe storage was one of the things that made nuclear expensive and that at current prices, carbon is still a lot cheaper than nuclear for base load energy. Where I perhaps am more skeptical than you is that I dont think it is possible to set an artificial ‘world carbon price level’, i.e. the free riding will thwart any attempt to rig the market and artificially have a higher price for carbon than the market price. Then the alternatives have to prove themselves in competition with carbon (oil, coal, brown coal, gas, peat, ethanol, and all the rest of it). Another source of skepticism I have is that many forms of transport seem to really only be possible with carbon, air trafic in particular, and that these forms of transport are increasing rapidly in use. This seems to me to limit the degree to which carbon can be substituted as a fuel by alternatives.
    However, I think we agree on the main thrust that the debate needs to centre around engineering solutions and needs to face up to the unlikeliness of solving the free-rider issue with world-consensus solutions.

  7. Paul Frijters says:


    I see your point, but I am not too bothered by local strong fluctuations in climate because food and people can be transported relatively quickly around the world, as recent experiences with cities (where virtually everyone relies on food transported in) and Australia (with close to half its current population coming from abroad) shows. A fast global increase of 10 degrees, now that’s where it becomes hard to see how the usual adjustment mechanisms could cope.

    Flannery not a climate scientist? What on earth have you got to achieve nowadays to be classified as one of those? Where is the official list? He certainly is invited all over the world to speak as an expert on it and his bio reads to me like being an expert in it. Do you need a peer-reviewed paper in, say, the journal of Climate Change, to count as one?

  8. NPOV says:

    I would say that just because governments in Australia have been doing a wonderful job of preaching the need to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously putting vast amounts of funding towards projects that will inevitably increase them, it’s not necessarily the case that other governments around the world can’t show a bit more genuine leadership. Continental European nations (the EU-27 group) collectively now have their emissions something like 8% below 1990 levels, and while a certain amount of this is due to the collapse of several Eastern European economies, and of course off-shoring of energy-intensive industry to China, it’s still generally the case that European governments have managed to avoid policies that effectively encourage increases in emissions.

    However, ultimately it will come down to China and India. If there is no real indication that either nation is not prepared to steer away from the high-emissions growth path they’re currently following, then geo-engineering solutions are inevitable.

  9. Paul Frijters says:


    sorry for not having seen your post at LP. It seems we are broadly in agreement, though I of course dont feel qualified to say what the political affiliations were of those who called you a ratbag and those who liked you. Are we heading towards Club Troppo concensus on this? A scary thought….

  10. NPOV says:

    BTW, anyone wanna wager on how long it is before a Hollywood movie set in 2100 reveals a yellow sky looming over the obligatory half-submerged Statue of Liberty.

    Although, I do wonder if there really is good reason to suppose that so little sulphur that high in the upper atmosphere would actually cause a significant colour change, or that it would be particularly yellow.

  11. Paul: if you’re interested in nuclear power and the waste issue and can get a copy, try the book “Power to save the world” by Gwyneth Cravens.

  12. JC says:


    Furry little interventionist countries like France and Sweden produce the bulk of their power through nuke. And I suspect the drop in Euro emissions accounting has been achieved through fudging the books and cheating with the possible exception of the UK and Ireland.

    Rob Merkel:

    youre buying into the mistaken assumption that there arent cheap, largely invisible engineering solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

    What are they? Outside of nuke, there doesn’t seem to be anything available that produces baseload without dis-economies of scale. Furthermore nuke is also very much dependent on the regulatory costs associated with upkeep as well as disposal

  13. Not all fossil fuels are created equal. Combined-cycle gas emits roughly 60% less emissions per megawatt-hour of electricity than current brown coal.

    Shutting down Hazelwood and switching to combined-cycle gas would cut Australia’s CO2 emissions by 3%. Within 3 years or so. Multiply that by the rest of Victoria and South Australia’s brown coal baseload capacity and you’re talking pretty serious cuts.

    Switching domestic electric hot water heaters to gas, heat pumps, or solar will probably knock off a similar amount. That’s mandates to happen in the next few years.

    While I don’t like how it’s been done, the phase-out of incandescent bulbs will probably knock off another 1-2%.

    A switch from conventional concrete to this stuff? Maybe another 1%.

    Getting rid of resistive electric heating and getting serious about insulation retrofits? Another 2-3%.

    A percent here, a percent there, and it starts to add up pretty soon :)

  14. JC says:


    gas is too expensive and too precious to burn up.

  15. JM says:

    Ken at 4: “Fast breeder reactors, pebble bed reactors and a range of other new generation reactor technologies seem to have promise. ”

    Fast breeder reactors have never worked (other than as sources of weapons grade material), neither have pebble bed economically.

    Pebble bed used to be called “gas cooled” and is not new. The germans had an experimental one in the mid 80’s but it broke (there are very fine engineering tolerances involved) and they couldn’t get it to work reliably. They abandoned the attempt.

    At the moment there are about 6 start ups hawking pilot projects around the world, but no-one’s taken them up on their offers yet.

    Far from being promising, these “new generation technologies” are not new, do not work, have not been commercialized and can’t get a market.

    “However, again [baseload solar] are still in development and unlikely to be available for large-scale commercial deployment for at least a decade.”

    Sorry, you’re wrong. They’re being tendered for right now. Try these two links



    The second project is for delivery in 2012

  16. JM says:

    Ken you might also want to look at this: http://seekingalpha.com/article/57510-concentrating-solar-power-the-new-baseload-kid-on-the-block

    Quote from the article:

    “On Tuesday, Emerging Energy Research [EER] released a study on CSP (this is a link to the press release’s PDF – the actual study must be purchased). EER argued that CSP is now the fastest growing utility-scale alternative energy source after wind, and expects US$20 billion to be poured into the sector over the next 5 years.”

    $20 billion in 5 years sounds pretty significant to me.

    BTW – great exposition Paul. I haven’t seen many other people mention calthrates and the Amazon, and you’ve done a bang-up job. Thanks.

    I’d just add one comment about the Amazon. There is an additional fear that as rainfall drops, the forest will turn into a sort of savannah and be much more prone to fire. The resulting fires release large amounts of carbon captured in the trees.

    This effect – lower rainfall, more fire – is apparently already being observed in the Amazon.

  17. Bernd Felche says:

    Flannery’s talking a load of rubbish, trying to incite urgency into a non-event by digging up an old, previously dismissed idea of Paul Crutzen’s. It is not feasible to devise an Engineering solution for something that is not well understood.

    Ozone deletion by sulphates.

    Climate change is a natural thing. A 10-degree change in temperature is unlikely to occur “quickly”. It would take 10’s of thousands of years; as demonstrated by the length of warming out of past ice ages. It is safe to assume that we are in an inter-glacial period.

    In the nearly 2 centuries since the Little Ice Age, the temperatures appear to have crept up (quite irregularly) by 0.7 degrees C. We do not know how much of that warming is anthroprogenic, much less how much of it has been caused by a tiny increment in CO2.

    It’s the cooling that’s more rapid; as the nett radiative area of Earth out to space is larger than that which receives nett radiation. Thermal inertia, largely that of the oceans, governs the weather and climate. The oceans transport the bulk of thermal energy around the globe; a little more slowly than air, but at much higher concentration.

    The present “break up” of the arctic ice cap is the seasonal “spring melt”.

    Regarding nuclear power:

    The J

  18. JC says:

    Scientific American thinks solar will supply a good portion of US energy needs by 2050.


    There’s a bubble like price action in anything solar based on the US stock market.

    First Solar has a market cap of $24 billion

  19. JM says:


    There’s so much wrong with your comment – nearly every word in fact, that I won’t quote from it, I’ll just respond to your major points.

    On your own figure of 0.7C/century a 10C increase would take only take 1400 years not 10’s of thousands. That rate of increase has never been seen before so I think we can be confident that it is not entirely natural. The fact that the actual rate without mid-century aerosols is actually about 1.7C is simply cause for elevated concern. The other fact that we will be in enormous trouble long before we get a 10C rise, is of even more concern.

    Your entire paragraph starting “It’s the cooling … ” is incoherent and while I think I understand the argument you’re trying to make, you are wrong.

    It is irrellevant that the earth has a night side and a day side. Perhaps if we were living on a body without an atmosphere – such as the moon – you would have an argument. The earth is – in normal circumstances – in thermal equilibrium with it’s environment (the sun and space) and maintains a stable temperature due to the greenhouse effect.

    What we now have is a large – not tiny by any means – increase in CO2. From about 270ppm 100 years ago to almost 400ppm now. At least 30% in other words. That is not tiny.

    So we are not in normal circumstances. We are living on a planet that is reaching a new thermal equilibrium, only being slowed by thermal inertia such as that provided by the oceans. The earth is warming, and it is not due to natural causes.

    At the same time we are increasing the CO2 concentration. We are making the problem worse.

    Regarding nuclear power.

    Yes there were political considerations in Germany, but three facts are pertinent

    1. Nuclear power has always required government support, so politics is relevant.

    2. Few pebble bed reactors have ever been built. Two in Germany which were both closed after technical failures. One small experimental one in China. The baseload reactors China is currently building are traditional water cooled ones, not pebble bed.

    3. While the market has not provided support to nuclear without large government subsidy, it has provided commercial installations of solar and wind, which are now appearing in baseload scale.

    Personally, I think the market is right on this one, but if you think differently I have no problem in you taking a stake in commercial nuclear and I wish you all the best.

    Oh and can I ping you on this, which if I’m interpreting it right is one of the more dishonest statements I’ve seen in this debate:

    “The present break up of the arctic ice cap is the seasonal spring melt.”

    This statement only makes sense if ‘present’ means ‘this summer’ and not this era. This interpretation is lent force by your use of the phrase “spring melt”. You are technically correct, but the turn of the seasons is not climate change, and your statement is irrelevant and misleading.

    The extent of the arctic ice cap has been decreasing for around 20 years, and last year fell off a cliff.

    Climate change is real. Time to get on the bus and start discussing solutions.

  20. Bernd Felsche says:

    On your own figure of 0.7C/century a 10C increase would take only take 1400 years not 10s of thousands.

    Read again. It was 0.7 degress in TWO centuries.
    Your projection can only hold if nature behaves linearly. It doesn’t.

    Most of the heating since the LIA has occurred in two “jumps” lasting just a few decades. So the observed short-term rate of increase is much greater than 0.7 degrees C/century. It cooled between two of the intervals. And it’s not gotten any warmer over the past decade. Through all the fluctuations, CO2 appears to have increased monotonically. At a fairly constant rate on a century scale; despite the highly variable anthroprogenic output of CO2 over the same period.

    The increase in CO2 to present levels cannot all be attributed to anthroprogenic influences. Primarily because we don’t know how much of the observed change is a natural fluctuation.

    CO2 is a minor trace gas and a minor greenhouse gas. Water vapour is much more significant. It is far more variable in time and location than CO2. It provides well over 90% of the “greenhouse effect”.

    CO2 might actually be relevant were it not for free convection in the atmosphere. Most of the slight delay in heat transfer resulting from the presence of trace amounts is negated by the resulting increase in free convection of air being warmed. The closer the warm air to space, the greater the radiative loss.

    Keep in mind that these are all estimates of temperature. The closing of many ground stations over the past 30 years appears to have skewed the surface temperature records. Remote-sensing by satellites would appear to be the only “reliable” method (once we sort out the technology) for getting an average temperature. Even then, it doesn’t tell us an awful lot about the total enthalphy in the climate system; because most of that is within the oceans.

    The Arctic ice cap has previously diminished significantly. Even in the past century where towards the end of the 1940’s, the Northwest Passage was considered navigable by suitable shipping. The North-East passage has been navigable for decades. Various decadal oscillations of Pacific and Atlantic currents appear to contribute far more to polar melting than air temperature.

    Calling my statements “dishonest” is ad hominem.

    There is no evidence to support the “hypothesis” that this spring breakup is related to anthroprogenic CO2. The spring melt is a natural event. We don’t know how much of it is a natural variation. Just because one can measure a variation doesn’t mean that anthroprogenic influences are significant. Pointing to it being the spring melt is not irrelevant.

    You also need to check the maximum extent of the ice caps at the respective poles during their winter. The Arctic ice cap was back to “normal” just a few months ago. Antarctic ice is the most massive since satellite observations began; which admittedly is not a long time.

    Civilizations have previously dealt with climate change; with varying degrees of success. It’s not been necessary to be able to predict climate change in order to deal with it intelligently. Technology has allowed us, as a species, to cope well with most changes other than ice ages. Mild ice ages such as the LIA led to famines and epidemics. We have the technologies available to deal with climate change like that, though the wealth to distribute it widely enough is being squandered by tilting at windmills.

    Keep in mind that the baseline “normal” temperature of 0.7 degrees cooler would put us into a Little Ice Age. I don’t regard those conditions as being desirable.

    How is

    Its the cooling thats more rapid; as the nett radiative area of Earth out to space is larger than that which receives nett radiation. Thermal inertia, largely that of the oceans, governs the weather and climate. The oceans transport the bulk of thermal energy around the globe; a little more slowly than air, but at much higher concentration.


    The Earth is not in “equilibrium” with surrounding space. The Earth doesn’t have a stable temperature.

    It is irrellevant that the earth has a night side and a day side.

    A large area of the Earth in daylight has nett radiation to space. What keeps it warmer is the thermal mass; the stored heat in the climate system. At any point in time, only the truncated hemispherical surface intersecting with an internal cone of about 50 degrees angle has nett radiation; depending on local albedo and emissivity. That projected area moves over the surface during the day, driving “weather” as the energy gained therein tries to escape to colder parts.

    The Earth stores and indeed generates a small amount of heat from its own nuclear decay. Weather is a result of the lack of equilibrium. The climate system which we observe is subjected to constant, variable perturbation which aren’t limited to direct solar effects but also side effects such as the ostensible variable charged particle cloud nucleation effects.

    Greenhouse gases have very little to do with the quasi-stable temperatures that can be observed. Thermal stability has to to with the energy stored and how it is able to move. Hence the enthalphy and other thermal properties along with transport of heat largely by convection and conduction make the largest contribution to Earth being “nice”.

    The initial assumptions about the extent of the greenhouse effect dealt with the Earth as being a uniform, non-rotating, stationary, massless black body surrounded by a solid envelope of atmosphere. Allow the Earth to rotate about an inclined axis, orbiting the sun on a sort of elliptical path; give it (thermal) solid mass and the necessary greenhouse effect becomes much smaller. Then change it not being a iuniformly black body. Very much harder to figure out how much greenhous effect is left to try to match it to the “observed” average temperature.

    Then add some water and a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere with free convection under gravitational and rotational influences. The greenhouse effect becomes impossible to calculate.

    It is pure folly to try to fix a system which one doesn’t understand.

    Here’s half a million dollars if you can prove that humans are causing climate change.

    Re nuclear power:

    1. Nuclear power has always required government support, so politics is relevant.

    Your previous article would have led somebody to believe that pebble-bed technology had insurmountable technical difficulties:

    The germans had an experimental one in the mid 80s but it broke (there are very fine engineering tolerances involved) and they couldnt get it to work reliably. They abandoned the attempt.

    The did get it to work reliably. Your statement was false and you did not make it clear that there was a political drive to shut down all nuclear power in Germany, in part as a knee-jerk to Chernobyl.

    High-temperature, gas-cooled pebble-bed reactors are inherently safe in operation. They are not as cheap to operate as other types. Which explains why other types have dominated the market so far. If there’s another type of reactor that’s inherently safe, then tell me.

    Re alternative energy:
    E.On, one of Europe’s major energy providers, has in the past supported co-generation and producing its own power, primarily from wind turbines. You should at least read their annual reports of 2004.

    In 2003, Germany again led the world in wind energy use thanks to the Renewable Energy Act (EEG). At the end of 2003, wind power plants with a total installed capacity of around 14,350 Megawatts (MW) fed German electricity grids. Of this, the greatest proportion at around 6,250 MW was connected in the E.ON control area.

    For technical reasons, the intensive use of wind power in Germany is associated with significant operational challenges:

    Only limited wind power is available. In order to cover electricity demands, traditional power station capacities must be maintained as so-called “shadow power stations” at a total level of more than 80 % of the installed wind energy capacity, so that the electricity consumption is also covered during economically difficult periods.

    Only limited forecasting is possible for wind power infeed. If the wind power forecast differs from the actual infeed, the transmission system operator must cover the difference by utilising reserve capacity. This requires reserve capacities amounting to 50 60 % of the installed wind power capacity.

    Holstein and Lower Saxony are precisely the places where the grids have now reached their capacity limits through wind power. At present, just under 300 km of new high-voltage and extra-high voltage lines are being planned there in order to create the transmission capacities required for transporting the wind power.


    Simultaneous wind power infeed was maximum 4,980 MW, equivalent to just under 80% of the installed capacity.

    The average fed-in capacity was less than one sixth of the wind power capacity installed in the yearly average.

    Over half the year, the wind power fed-in was less than 11% of the wind power capacity installed in the yearly average.

    The 2005 Report adds

    According to grid studies by the Deutsche Energie-Agentur (dena), wind power capacity in Germany is expected to increase to 48,000MW by 2020, around a threefold increase since 2004.

    The possibility of integrating this generation capacity into the supply system remains to be seen. There is a need for considerable changes to the extra-HV grid alone, of around 2,700km. These measures will affect the whole of Germany, not only coastal areas.

    Heavy government subsidies to encourage alternative energy have been reducing and are set to disappear in the near future in Germany. The ribs are showing on the piggy-bank.

  21. Bernd: show me a grid-connected wind turbine built anywhere without large amounts of explicit or implicit government support – an MRET, a feed-in tariff, etc. etc. The only place they’re cost-competitive without that is windy remote islands where they’re competing against diesel.

  22. NPOV says:

    Robert, I’m not sure what your point is here, but show me a grid-connected power supply of any form without large amounts of explicit or implicit government support – military protection of oil tanker routes, subsidisation of health costs associated with coal mining, etc. etc.

    I can’t see why wind turbines wouldn’t be cost competitive in areas without easy coal access. And they’re becoming increasingly so as turbines get bigger and sturdier and the costs to manufacture them reduce. Further, once a proper price is put on the pollution from coal-fired plants (to better reflect its genuine long-term costs), there’s every reason to believe wind will be cost competitive without any form of special treatment.

  23. JC says:

    Further, once a proper price is put on the pollution from coal-fired plants (to better reflect its genuine long-term costs), theres every reason to believe wind will be cost competitive without any form of special treatment.


    From a thread at Andrew Norton’s blog it doesn’t seem as though the public think it’s very much although they believe climate change is an important issue. If this survey is an accurate pointer to voter feelings about the subject there isn’t a government that would impose a cost high enough to allow wind to artificially compete with coal.

    But how much extra are people prepared to pay for electricity? Even with their previous answers creating pressure for personal responsibility, and no real cost involved, 28% of respondents said that they were not prepared to pay anything more for clean energy. Another 32% said they were only prepared to pay another $10 a month (or about 10% more if the last ABS expenditure survey is a guide). Only 7% were in the more realistic range of $40 or $50 a month (if we can assume some technological advance and economising in response to higher prices).


  24. NPOV says:

    So? At a retail level, wind electricity is barely any more expensive than Victoria’s super-cheap brown-coal electricity.

    Wind electricity will also certainly become cheaper than coal in many parts of the world within the next few decades, even with as little as a $20/tonne carbon price. That’s not to say that a grid based on 100% wind power is anywhere near being feasible, because there are serious technical issues that arise once wind supplies more than a certain fraction of the total electricity (usually somewhere around 20%), but at least in Australia we’re a long way off reaching that point, and by the time we have, there’s a good chance many of those technical issues will have been ironed out. I really can’t see any justification for Australia building any more coal-fired plants until we hit reliability issues with having too much wind.

    What I particularly like about wind (and renewables in general) is the fact that lots of medium-sized firms can reasonably afford to build fairly small capacity power plants, which should generate an opportunity for lots of competition, and minimal need for government interference.

  25. Bernd Felsche says:


    Remote area power is likely the only practical application of wind and solar power as a supplementary source of base energy requirements. Diesel (or gas) generators (or pumped storage) are still needed in applications where there’s even a small human population.

    Shadow power generating capacity must be provided however, unless whatever needs to be done can be deferred until the alternative energy generating capacity starts generating. For wind power, even in optimal sites in most regions, that’s far less than 50% of the time. Conventional generating capacity must be provided aw well as alternative to ensure availability of energy to consumers. The cost of energy rises accordingly because the shadow station is normally operating; at least at part-load.

    It is generally not commercially viable to add alternative energy generation capacity unless the fuel for conventional plant is very expensive. When wind power can only be “counted on” to deliver 11% of its rated capacity over long periods, wind power becomes a loss-leader. Capital and maintenance costs are significant.

    Germany is lucky because they can buy shadow power from nuclear power stations in France. Norway is lucky when they can accept (at near enough to no cost) the capacity that has to be shed from Denmark’s wind generators when it doesn’t match their regional load, because they use it to pump water back into their hydro-electric schemes.

    Large, inter-connected grids of alternative energy generation are notionally supposed to increase the availability of power, but the technical problems with managing many generating devices of undefined input and an uncontrollable load are not resolvable, even when hundreds of millions of Euros are thrown at the problem. Control systems become intractible.

    Civilization has become technically advanced because of the ready availability of affordable energy. Wind and solar have poor availability. That’s an unreliable source of power to run our civilization. The power probably won’t be there when needed.

    E.On’s reports on the harsh reality of the true cost of wind generation grates against wishful thinking. Anybody who considers investing their own real money in such things should study E.On’s reports and reports from other companies that’ve invested heavily in such things. For Australia; Renewable Energy Certificates need to based on the actual energy generated. As demonstrated; less than 20% of rated output is delivered to the grid.

    The fair price for power bought from wind generation should be about 20% of that from conventional means, simply because of the real need for shadow power generation. At present, conventional power is heavily subsidising alternative energy when they buy such energy at inflated prices.

  26. wilful says:

    What?? You just totally contradicted yourself. You provided good evidence of where interconnected grids of alternative energy are working, and then the very next paragraph say it’s not possible!!

    And by the way, solar has pretty good availability, particularly during peak times.

  27. NPOV says:

    I could just as well say

    “Large, inter-connected grids of fossil fuel energy generation are notionally supposed to increase the availability of power, but the technical problems with managing many generating devices of pollution and an uncontrollable resource usage are not resolvable, even when hundreds of billions of dollars are thrown at the problem.”

    Bernd clearly belongs in the “Man will not be able to fly for at least another 50 years” or “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” camp.

    Wind energy may or may not end up supplying a large fraction of our energy needs in the future, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against it at this point.

    Interestingly some of our greatest minds of the past, including Edison, Einstein (who won a 1921 Nobel prize for work on photovoltaics) and Sagan, seemed to be pretty sure solar power was the future.

  28. Bernd Felsche says:

    wilful; no contradiction.

    Please read again the excerpts and if it’s not entirely clear, the entire reports from which the quotes have been excerpted. Read what the report says. Not what you want it to mean. Wind power only fills 11 to 16% of its rated capacity averaged over 6 to 12 months.

    Grids with more than a low percentage of alternative energy inputs become unstable. Hence the need to “duplicate” a grid; in addition to providing shadow power from conventional means.

    Wind power is not economically viable, especially where conventional power is readily available.

    Solar power is even less predictable than wind power. PV solar can go from 100% output to 10% in a couple of seconds. Without warning.

    Moreover, I’d like to see where solar power has shown good availability during peak times; i.e. morning and evening. Not only is solar less efficient because of atmospheric attenuation being maximum near sunset and sunrise; shadows from structures, vegetation and clouds provide sporadic, local outages.

    Solar is so diffuse as to be practically useless without some sort of storage. Energy storage costs money as well as diminishing overall efficiency. Storage is never without maintennance.

  29. wilful says:

    Peak spot prices are mid-afternoon on the hottest, sunniest days, at least in this part of the world. Just about when solar is most likely to be producing at peak output.

    Mind you, I’m still reasonably convinced that photovoltaic electricity isn’t the best, cheapest way of generating electricity without emitting greenhouse gases, so this is all a distraction.

    Wind, of course, is part (but only part) of the future story. You say that those crazy danes have to export their wind to Norway to fill up dams, as if this is a bad thing.

    No one has ever said we will be 100% wind power in the future, everyone accepts that there is a natural limit to the proportion of electricity generated by wind. The story there is pretty short and uninteresting. What is interesting is what other alternative generation we should be looking at. Geothermal where possible, lots of other potentials.

    Still, at least you’ve moved on from climate change denialism. I’m no sort of a climatologist, but I do know that the climatologists my taxes support are part of a very robust and well-tested system of scientific discovery. If any of your claims were falsifiable they would have been. Apart from some truly trivial third or fourth order issues (such as PPPs versus exchange rates) there have been basically no credible scientific questions about the theory of anthropogenic climate change in almost a decade (since they got the satellite measurements right). Someone around here could demolish your very extensive post #23 at leisure, if they could be bothered.

  30. Bernd Felsche says:

    Peak period in WA is 8a.m. to 10 p.m.

    See also examples of actual power requirements where summer-time peak loads don’t diminish well after the official peak period, exceeding baseload beyond 11 p.m. on a hot evening.

    That’s the real world. Just like E.On has experienced. The data from real-world experience indicates that wind and solar power are not viable as a substantial part of the electricity supply. Intermittency/availability makes alternative energy sources such as wind and solar are only suitable for niche applications.

    There is a world-wide shortage of silicon for solar cells. It takes a lot of energy to refine silicon. Thin-film cells, made from other materials and capable of similar efficiency are on the bleeding edge, still expensive and not available in volume. Covering an entire rooftop would be necessary to meet the electricity of a typical domestic household. And it would cost quite a bit to operate because of the electrical storage requirements in typical locations.

    As for the Danes giving their electricity away to Norway at substantial, real cost (rotating machinery), while having to purchase coal, oil, gas and nuclear-generated power on the other side of the country…. that sounds like a good economic plan. Now explain to the taxpayers of Denmark why they should be subsidising Norway’s electricity company profits.

    Now explain exactly what is wrong with “greenhouse gas” emissions. Most of the emissions from conventional power generation are water vapour and CO2. Both support biological processes. Plants love CO2; especially at times of drought.

    Nuclear power at best accelerates the evaporation of water. This can have heating or cooling effects on the regional climate; depending on ambient conditions.

    Climate change denialism? Where? I fully accept that climate is changing, and that it has done so in the past. Quite naturally. I remain completely unconvinced that anthroprogenic CO2 has a measurable, significant impact.

    Demolishing my postings: Go for it. But stick to the facts. Assumptions, conjecture and “consensus” are no substitute for facts.

    Nature doesn’t take votes.

  31. JM says:

    Bernd: “Demolishing my postings: Go for it. ”

    Can’t be bothered. I’ve had enough adventures in that recently, and I think most people here are more interested in the economics and feasiblity of solutions than watching two geeks go at each other on technical detail.

    All I wanted to do here was point Ken to some information that he may not have been aware of.

    But if you want to bring yourself up to speed you could do worse than start here. That site is really good resource, it deals with all of the major “skeptic” arguments (and quite a few of the minor ones) in a very fair and objective manner. I recommend it.

  32. Bernd Felsche says:

    JM: You are allowed to think independently on these things. People have died to gain and to maintain that freedom. It seems an awful shame to surrender it simply to feel good for a little while; especially when one considers the pain suffered to regain the freedom.

    The standard (non-)answers will never satisfy questions that have been ignored previously. Questions that need to be answered.

    The first step in solving a perceived problem is to make sure that there is a real problem. Any effort expended in trying to solve a non-exiting problem is not just a complete waste of resources, it also prevents those resources from being deployed to solve real problems.

    This is about conservation.

    And it’s about a sense of proportion. Something that only the real world can provide. It’s not encumbered by our limited imaginations.

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