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Opium: The unlikely poster child for renewable energy

On 27 July 2020, Justin Rowlatt, Chief Environmental Correspondent of BBC News, published an article with the headline: What the heroin industry can teach us about solar power.

I missed that, but a month later found it reported in an issue of Zac and Jesse’s amusing and informative blog called “Now You Know.” about issues related to electromobility and renewable energy. This particular episode of the blog was called: Solar Panels: Proof is in the Poppies where they highlighted the findings reported by Justin Rowlatt.

Solar Panels for sale in Afghanistan: stacked three stories high. Image courtesy BBC News

So what’s the story here?

In 2013, the first Afghan farmer used solar panels to power a pump that brought water up to the surface from 100 meters below ground. Prior to that, his only alternative had been diesel pumps. Pumps ran on dirty diesel that fouled his motors and caused frequent breakdowns, in addition to intermittent supply. Running on solar power was clean and free, the pumps worked reliably, and the farmer was able to grow 2 or even 3 crops a year, in addition to increased yields per crop. The following year, a few panels were available for sale in local markets. Since then, the sale of solar panels has taken off in the province, with 67,000 arrays counted in Helmand Valley alone in 2019. The negative effect of this bounty is that opium output has more than doubled in the intervening years.

If only we could see that kind of exponential growth of renewables in rich countries, the world’s environmental outlook would not be the bleak picture it is today. But there is a surprising amount of misinformation in the educated, industrialised world. This is partly due to the existence of powerfully entrenched corporations that jealously guard their own turf and discourage innovation. The second negative factor is the advertising industry that has spent decades fine-tuning their ability to spread the message of their paymasters, however detrimental to the planet. Time to take a leaf from an Afghan farmer’s book on energy, if not for choice of crops.

Reposting from Electrifying: All-Time Highs for Renewables in 2020

As the blog ELECTRIFYING noted this week: Renewable electricity generation has hit all-time highs in the first half of 2020. And this despite the slowdown in utility scale renewables installations as a result of Covid-19. Read more at the link to the original posting below.

Renewables have seen all-time highs in the first half of 2020

What we need to do now (Book Review)

Chris Goodall (environmentalist, economist and businessman) has published a book in 2020 on recommended steps for a zero carbon future. In 12 concise and easily digestible chapters he outlines steps to be taken to achieve (or even exceed) the UN goal of stopping greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although specific to the UK, the straightforward proposals in the book could easily serve as a blueprint for any country around the world, regardless of where they stand on the spectrum of greenhouse gas emissions intensity.

The opening chapters deal with green energy generation to power local and regional grids, then move on to housing and transport. The chapters on transport deal with ground, air and shipping transport, three sectors that might need different fuels, depending on technological developments currently in their early stages; battery electric vehicles (BEVs) for ground transportation, hydrogen used with fuel cells for shipping, and liquid synthetic fuels for aviation. There are potential breakthroughs in the offing for each of these solutions and, of course, unforeseen developments in battery technology could mean that energy density is high enough for BEVs to power ships and airplanes as well as cars, buses and trucks. With so much potential waiting in the wings, this is an exciting time for new technologies, despite the looming threat of runaway climate change that can annihilate patterns of living we’ve developed over the past century.

There is a chapter devoted to fashion and its climate impact, as well as one on the carbon footprint of buildings, specifically in concrete production, and fossil fuels in heavy industry. There are known low-carbon solutions here, and the main problem is changing established production norms, the long lifetimes of existing physical infrastructure, and changing the mindset of the large corporations that own these industries.

Food production and forests have great potential to (one) reduce emissions and (two) absorb more CO2 respectively. Finally, it’s the economist’s turn to ask: how will all these changes be paid for? The straightforward answer is through a carbon tax that captures the environmental cost of the fuels used. However, experience has shown that the implementation of this straightforward answer is anything but. There are powerful vested interests to be overcome, not to mention the expense of retraining workers made redundant by obsolete industries.

Two chapters at the end of the book deal with direct air capture of CO2 and geo-engineering solutions. Each of these have their champions, but in my opinion, direct air capture (by industrial means) would never be cost-effective for a simple reason. The technologies that are sophisticated enough to make direct air capture cost-effective would also be good enough to lower emissions to the point where the technology is no longer needed. A sort of negative Catch-22. As for geo-engineering, the scales and money required for this effort would be best spent on researching and implementing technologies that lower emissions in the first place, rather than trying to decrease their effects. Secondly, there are too many unknowns associated with such large scale engineering projects. History is replete with examples of engineering hubris. The second half of the twentieth century saw countless predictions that “science would solve all problems” and “plentiful nuclear energy will provide power that is too cheap to meter.

The final chapter, entitled “What can we do ourselves,” is more important than most people realize. On the one hand, individual actions do count and “little drops make an ocean.” But a second, little regarded effect of “little drops” will be the most important. Whether we live in democracies or dictatorships, ultimately, governments are guided by the cumulative wisdom of the governed. And in any nation where the overwhelming majority of its citizens practice sound environmental stewardship, this mindset will be inexorably transferred to the leadership as well.

We all know that leadership counts. We all realize intuitively that we get the leadership we deserve. So ultimately, logic stands on its head and we are forced to admit that we, the people, are the leaders who have to show our leaders the way.


Coal Knew! A 21st Century Tale

Here’s a story for the dwindling number (I hope) of climate change skeptics who still look forward to business-as-usual, or more-of-the-same as a blueprint for the rest of the 21st century. A HuffPost report in November reveals that, way back in 1956, the coal industry accepted the reality of global warming and did not feel threatened by it (the problem lay one generation in the future!). The same is true for the oil industry, according to a spate of lawsuits brought against it by various groups and several US States. In December 2019, Exxon won a major climate change lawsuit brought against it by the state of New York, but there are many more on the way.

The remarkable thing here is that the science of impending climate change was uncontested as long as the threat to the profits of fossil fuel corporations lay decades in the future. Here is the paradox at the heart of the debate about climate change. In the early days of global climate modelling, in the 1970s, the models were relatively unrefined and scientists themselves did not stake strong positions based on the results of their own models. Additionally, the majority of scientists subscribed to the myth that science has to be neutral in order to serve as an impartial referee that floated above the discussion, distributing facts where necessary. In reality, the discussions on the ground were becoming messy. The science began to be disputed as the soon as the deadline for meaningful action neared. Powerful polluters, mining companies, oil corporations, muddied the waters (both literally and intellectually) with arguments that played on statistical uncertainty to kick the decision a few decades down the road.

Fridays for Future logo

Meanwhile scientists sat back and redoubled their efforts, striving for ever greater accuracy in their models. They reasoned, logically, that once their results achieved greater accuracy, people would come round to their point of view. But that is not the way the world works. It has little place for logic and reason. So they toiled on, with ever more dense reports of double- and triple-checked facts and innumerable citations. Meanwhile the world went on guzzling gas and emitting CO2, methane, and worse. This is the point when the world drowns in despair or A MESSIAH APPEARS. Lo and behold! We have our unlikely messiah. Hundreds of thousands of school children, young people. Their face is that of Greta Thunberg whose single-minded focus has made her the global symbol of the movement.

Make Climate great again

If we look at simple facts, solutions to the problem are much more doable than we think. Elon Musk is mocked for saying that 10,000 sq. miles of the Nevada desert covered in solar panels could produce all the energy requirements of the United States. He’s right of course, but this is only intended as an example of scale. It wouldn’t be safe or desirable to have the entire nation’s energy needs produced at a single source. The following is a better example. An engineer acquaintance, Klaus Turek, calculates that in the case of a temperate country like Austria, just 0.391% of its surface covered with solar panels is sufficient to meet its electricity requirements. That works out to about 328 sq. km. for the whole country. The area covered by buildings is 2.4%, however (2,013 sq km approximately). Therefore, just 16% of the currently available roof space would be sufficient to cover all of Austria’s current electricity needs, with plenty left over for expansion.

Are You Choking on Carbon? #MeToo

I recently read of efforts by a young Swiss duo, both engineers, whose company, Climeworks, sucks CO2 out of the air and carbonates water, injecting the water underground into basaltic rock. To its own surprise, Climeworks finds that the gas converts to solid carbonate forms underground in a couple of years. So is this a stable way to remove greenhouse gases from the air? There are other uses for captured CO2 of course but the quantities are minuscule compared to global emissions. So the pundits talk of capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it in underground caverns or pumping it under pressure into the depths of the ocean. Why isn’t there more talk among technologists of reducing emissions, instead of accepting emissions as a given and figuring out ways of converting them at great cost to benign forms?

A friend recently commented on efforts to remove atmospheric CO2 and store it underground. It’s like swallowing gas, he says. You know what happens when you have too much gas. You either fart or burp, or both. Accumulated internal gas is painful and you wouldn’t do it to yourself, so why do they want to do it to the earth? Do they know what will happen when the earth farts? So why don’t we plant trees instead?

Relative strengths of major greenhouse gases. Image courtesy IPCC

Planting trees is a solution. An average tree sucks up 25 kilos of carbon per year. Humans emit 30 to 40 gigatons of CO2 every year. Let’s say emissions are kept at 30 gigatons a year. Thirty billion tons. That’s… let’s see, forty trees take up one ton per year, so multiply 30 billion by 40… so you get 1,200 billion. That’s 1.2 trillion trees per year just to break even!

How many trees are there on earth already? I found a BBC report of a 2015 Yale University study that estimates the number of trees currently on earth at 3 trillion. That’s 3,000,000,000,000. Since atmospheric CO2 concentrations are going up steadily, the situation would be much worse without these 3 trillion trees. So we still have to suck up the additional 30 gigatons a year, or else reduce emissions. If we take 7 billion to be the global population, leaving aside the old, the infirm and the very young, that leaves around 3 billion people of tree planting age worldwide. In order for 3 billion people to plant 1.2 trillion trees per year, each one will have to plant 400 hundred trees per year.

Persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Image courtesy IPCC

Can (and would?) 3 billion people plant 1.2 trillion trees in a year? Of course not. But if even 10% of that number were to plant 10% of the target, we would be well on our way to doing what we need to do. Is this realistic? Quick answer: No. So is there a quick fix? Yes. Eat less meat. Depending on the type of feed, a cow produces 70 to 120 kg. of methane per year. Remember, methane as a greenhouse gas is 23 times more potent than CO2, so cutting down on meat is a quick way to reduce emissions. And it has the added benefit of freeing up pastureland for tree planting. So now we’re beginning to get a handle on things.

If we pump huge quantities of CO2 underground and undersea, the earth might fart (so to speak), with unintended consequences. But cows already fart on an ongoing daily basis, emitting considerable quantities of methane, so eating less meat is a relatively painless quick fix. And then there are lots of concomitant steps that are in the process of hesitantly being implemented, like switching to public transportation and electric cars. And, oh yes, the most environmental step the world is taking is the #MeToo movement! Let’s write that on our foreheads as a reminder to the world. Education and empowerment of women is the fastest way to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save our planet.

Climate Action Tracker

The Climate Action Tracker posts regular progress reports on how well various countries are doing to adhere to the Paris Agreements. It tracks emissions from 32 selected countries and the list of the good, the bad, and the ugly is quite surprising even to this seasoned watcher.

Only two countries are on track to fulfil the Paris goal, of limiting emissions to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees C; Gambia and Morocco.
The second best choice made in Paris was, if not 1.5 degrees, then at the least 2 degrees C. Just 5 of 32 countries meet this target. Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and Philippines. All of the remaining 25 countries fall into the category of emitters that will lead to a world of 3 degrees warming or more. See the original list here.

Of course this predicator of doom and gloom relies only on official government policies. The reality on the ground may be a bit different in many of the countries on the list. For example, despite their governments, a few cities, power companies and private individuals already find it cheaper to produce unsubsidised renewable energy, a trend that will speed up, just a cell phone sales did in developing country markets worldwide.

See this author’s page on Amazon.com to read more of his work

Breaking News – the news is broken

Most media outlets seem to operate under the principle that bad news is good news or alternatively, good news is not news. They may be right, in terms of profitability. But they are definitely wrong, in terms of the collective well-being of humanity. This blog is not dependent on readership or advertising revenues, so it can afford to print good news without fear of losing its readership. So here for a start is good news from the energy front.

Floating solar photovoltaic facility outside Nagoya producing power for Apple supplier. Image: courtesy Clean Technica

All of the electricity used by two of the world’s largest corporations, Apple and Google, were from renewable sources by the end of 2017. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that each of these companies uses more electricity than many small nations, not least to power immense data centers scattered around the world. So now, if you have worries about the amount of personal data Facebook & Co. are collecting about you because of their opaque terms of usage, rest assured that they’re not polluting the planet in the bargain.

But seriously, there’s lots of impressive news in the energy area alone. Here’s a chart, courtesy of National Resources Development Center, showing how prices have come down for major clean energy technologies.

Chart from NRDC: click to enlarge

Since clean energy is one of the basic requirements for human development, there’s not much stopping world-wide implementation, is there? Capital for investment? It’s increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few–rich corporations and rich individuals. So are we ordinary mortals totally helpless? No, not at all. But we have to make smart choices as customers. We can enrich our lives, and the planet in the process, by getting off the mindless consumption lifestyle that the glossies would have us aspire to.

In one hour, the earth receives more solar energy than the world uses in one year. Now that’s good news and worth repeating, even if its not new. So why are companies producing more dirty diesel cars and building more fossil fuel power plants? Because switching technologies means moving out of comfortable niches of expertise that would otherwise become useless; it would mean new investments, experimenting with new technologies, and why should they take all these risks when customers are flocking to buy new models anyway? As engine size and horse power of new automotive offerings increase, so do their profits, and they see even less reason to invest in new technologies. It’s only we, the customers, who can break this vicious cycle.

English speaking news readers tend to digest information from an overwhelmingly anglocentric or eurocentric point of view. Hence I was not surprised recently to hear a friend accuse the Chinese of polluting the planet when actually, despite (or perhaps because of) a totalitarian regime, they are doing more to clean up the earth than any other nation. For example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzen alone runs a fleet of 16,000 (yes, thousand) electric buses; more than the rest of world combined. So while air quality in Beijing might be abysmal, this past winter, particulate pollution was 50% less than in the previous year. This from no less a source than the US Embassy in Beijing! One reason for the lower levels of pollution might be that China installed more than 53 GW of solar power in 2017.

The above facts don’t make me an apologist for an autocratic government where power is increasingly concentrated at the top. This is undoubtedly a very worrying tendency, one that is being seen in several other large countries like India, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States. In the US case, its robustly democratic political system has been hijacked by corporate lobbies. Nevertheless there is good news coming from each of these countries, and I will try to highlight these bright spots in future posts.


See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.

A Million Cars at Sea

Ever wanted to go on an ocean liner? Cruise ship advertisements idealise the high life to be had on the high seas. What they never say is how much ships pollute. The average ship runs on low grade oil, which can be likened to a sludge that emits more particulate matter than a million cars; more sulfur than seven million cars. And that’s just one cruise liner!

Several Scandinavian ferries now run on hybrid diesel-electric systems but, as in most advances in electric propulsion these days, China is taking the lead, as a cargo ship with a 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in Guangdong. Ironically, the ship will be used to transport dirty coal!

A new all-electric cargo ship with a massive 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in China

Car makers have a problem. They don’t admit it yet. Or maybe they do admit it to themselves, although not in public. Why should they, when enough people are buying bigger cars? Global car sales in 2017 were close to 90 million vehicles in all categories, including SUVs and light trucks. That’s roughly 1 car for every 77 people. Less than 1% of these were electric. How many more cars do we need? Car companies are powerful entities that are in the business of selling dreams; dreams of freedom, of the joy of the open road, dreams of independence. The irony is that as we buy into the dream, we destroy the very foundation on which our dreams are based.


See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.

Life After IIASA 1975-2013: Five Years On

February 2018 will mark five years after my retirement from IIASA. These five years have been full of new experiences, travel and writing. My wife and I have also attempted during this time to modify our lifestyle to be as carbon neutral as possible. Measures include living without a car, using a bicycle for shopping and public transport for travel where possible. Trips by air are unavoidable in the lifestyle we’ve chosen, and we’ve attempted to offset this carbon by buying solar panels for a farm school in India and a solar farm in Austria, 8 KW in all. These panels will apparently offset around 8 tons annually, but there’s still more to be done.

I first heard about sea level rise in a talk by paleo-climatologist Herbert Flohn at IIASA sometime in the late 1970s. At that time, many of the information requests that the IIASA library received were about global effects of a nuclear winter in the aftermath of nuclear war. Research themes changed quickly; interest moving to carbon dioxide emissions from fossils fuels, global warming, acid rain and stratospheric ozone.

In the intervening years, the reality of human-induced global warming has been accepted by all but the most ideologically blinkered societies worldwide. Travelling through parts of rural India soon after retirement in 2013, I saw repeated instances of people taking actions to adapt to climate change; water harvesting to compensate for unprecedented droughts, reforestation efforts; introduction of organic farming methods and drought resistant crops. I’d like to think that much of the credit for these adaptation and mitigation actions goes to studies by IIASA and other research institutions worldwide; scientific studies whose results filtered down over decades through the media and drew attention to these problems early on. There’s no way to prove this, and some of the water harvesting systems I saw were really ancient structures brought back into use. See more about that here

Efforts in 2015 and 2016 to help establish a rural education and vocation center failed for a very positive reason. The five acres of land (2 hectares) that had been donated to us for school use by a well-wisher is worth approximately € 300,000 (€65,000 per acre at today’s prices). The donated property was fertile agricultural land and classified as such. The local administrative authorities refused permission to reclassify the plot for use as a school and insisted that the land remain in use for agriculture. This was a positive outcome, because one of our reasons for this choice of location of a school was to prevent displacement of the rural population by expensive housing projects that would only benefit urbanites.

However the effort was not wasted. Since then our local partners have decided to build an organic farm on the land and use the experience gained to encourage the farming practices of communities in neighbouring villages. One function of this farm would be to develop markets for organic produce. We discovered several small companies in the area that offer free midday meals to their workers. They were happy to find a local supply of good vegetables. One enterprising factory owner offered his workers three free meals a day, sourcing all the vegetables from his own backyard. The vegetables he showed us were grown in plastic tubs lined with mats made of nutrient-rich hemp fibers. In fact, the method is so successful that he gives away growing kits free to any of his workers who want one for their own families’ use.

An encounter in early 2017 with a conservationist who runs a hatchery for Olive Ridley turtles on the sea coast near Chennai city led me to Tiruvannamalai, a town 200 km to the south-west. Here is an organic farm school where text-book sustainable living is practiced in the most lively and joyous manner possible. There are around 100 children in the school, ranging in age from 8 to 18. The links below will give an idea of activities at the school.




In addition to organic farming, environmental conservation and education, the school also works with villagers in the surrounding countryside, reforesting the hill that dominates the temple town, planting around 15,000 trees a year. The school’s efforts inspired us (myself and a few friends in India) to help them become energy self-sufficient, adding 5 KW of solar panels to the three they already had. Together with battery backup, the school is now completely independent of the grid. (photo attached).

This activity led me to a thought. If IIASA’s work ultimately inspired these kinds of sustainability acts, what about IIASA’s own carbon footprint? IIASA’s alumni are scattered all over the world. What if we joined together, wherever we are, and worked to offset IIASA’s carbon emissions? Such actions would benefit our own communities, wherever we may happen to live. To kick-start this effort, I’ve decided to fund the planting of 1000 trees in 2018 through the farm school mentioned above. If each tree sequesters 25 kilos of carbon (as a rule of thumb, regardless of species), this would offset 25 tons of the Institute’s annual carbon emissions.

Should this be a formal organized effort? Readers’ suggestion welcomed here. All we would need is a virtual platform where one can document one’s own efforts and have a running tally. Ultimately the goal is to achieve carbon neutrality, not only for the Institute, but also for the communities in which each one of us lives. But, as for so many initiatives, IIASA could be a starting point.

On a personal note, the years since retirement have been very fulfilling. Thanks to my wife’s job, we were able to spend 2 idyllic years on an island paradise near Hong Kong. This provided background material for a work of fiction, Grace in the South China Sea. There are two sequels in the pipeline (The Trees of Ta Prohm, and Heartwood), to appear in 2018. Look for the earlier books and announcements on the Amazon author page here.


See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.

Advice to a Billionaire

Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance calls you one of three Black Swans in the world of energy and transportation this century; the other two being Fracking and Fukushima. You are often compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Iron Man, and shades of Einstein. You have advised Presidents. Heads of state visit your factories to see how they could improve the lives of their citizens. You stepped in without fanfare to donate money and provide power to a hospital in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. You issue audacious challenges to yourself and to others and sometimes miss deadlines, but ultimately deliver on your promises. Thousands, perhaps millions of people, speculate against you in the stock markets, hoping to make a quick profit from your failure. So far, they’ve been disappointed. But you put your money where your mouth is, so for every one of these speculative sharks, there are a thousand eager customers for your products and millions of well-wishers who hope you can help save the planet.

And yet you feel alone and unloved. You search for a soul mate and are willing to fly to the ends of the earth to find true love. You must know that love is like a butterfly. Be still and perhaps it will land on you. There are no guarantees, but the chances are infinitely greater if you cultivate stillness. And while you wait, exchange your loneliness for the wealth of solitude. As Hannah Arendt and Plato observed: Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business.

As the father of five children, know also that their childhood is a precious and finite resource that you could use to your benefit and theirs. Childhood ends all too soon, so help them in whatever way you can to make good choices. You seem to have done so for yourself. In the meantime, millions of people around the world wish you well, as I do.