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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

Nikola vs. Tesla

Growing up in a country where English was the language of higher education, I inherited an Anglo-centric view of most developments in science and technology. For example, thinking about the history of printing, the names of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton came to mind. When I mentioned Caxton to a German friend, they looked blank, having only heard of Gutenberg. Six hundred years before Gutenberg and Caxton, however, there were nameless Chinese monks who used carved wooden blocks coated with ink to print Buddhist texts. Subsequently, movable metal type was used in both China and Korea, two hundred years before Gutenberg’s printing press.

Language matters! The point was driven home to me when I travelled in Central Europe in the 1970s and came across a book. Lightning in his hand: the life story of Nikola Tesla. I read about his discoveries and inventions and thought, it couldn’t possibly be true. Most of these were Edison’s discoveries. The light bulb. The generator. Alternating current. Wrong on all counts apparently. Edison merely perfected the lightbulb and was a savvy marketer. He was also not above using dirty tricks to discredit competition. He is said to have publicly electrocuted dogs and cats with alternating current (ac/which we use today) to prove that his direct current was safer than Tesla’s ac. All this happened in the late 19th and early 20th century. For an amusing take on Nikola Tesla’s many accomplishments compared to Edison’s, see Why Tesla was the greatest Geek who ever lived.

In the 21st century, there’s a face-off between two companies that both borrow the great Serbian genius’s name. Nikola and Tesla. Tesla, as some of you might know, became the most valuable car company on the planet this week, based on market capitalization, overtaking Toyota.

Image courtesy Transport & Environment via Clean Technica

Nikola Motors is far less known, and aims to compete head-to-head with Tesla’s electric semi, a heavy duty battery electric vehicle slated to appear in 2021. Nikola claims its trucks, powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell, will provide driving range comparable to a diesel truck. They say that pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will have to compromise either on range or haulage capacity, simply because of the weight of its batteries. Nikola has no sales and no revenue, yet has achieved market valuation of $34 billion in 2020. Hmm! Why is there no end of people willing to bet their money against Tesla?

On the other hand, Tesla has a brilliant track record of achieving seemingly impossible goals, its cars outperforming every other electric vehicle on the road today, and it already has several prototype semis on the road. CEO Elon Musk reiterates at every opportunity that he relies on first principles of physics to base technology choices and manufacturing decisions. The above image, courtesy of the non-profit Transport and Environment (via Clean Technica), seems to support his opinion, that producing hydrogen with current technologies to run vehicles on electricity produced by a fuel cell just does not make economic sense. Many engineers at Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, BMW and Mercedes disagree with Musk and are putting a chunk of their considerable R&D resources into FCEVs* using hydrogen. None of them seem as yet to have prominent plans to roll out extensive hydrogen charging infrastructure so this indicates a future for FCEVs as niche products in the coming two decades.

All the legacy automakers are in a bind because of Tesla’s rapid roll-out of increasingly attractive and popular electric models. They face a triple whammy, locked in to their traditional supply chains, with highly qualified and experienced ICE workforces who need to either be retrained or made redundant, and confronting dramatically decreased car sales in 2020. Post-Covid, the only automotive growth segment seems to be in EVs.

A case can be made for FCEVs in the case of heavy duty, long-range transport vehicles that only need point-to-point charging infrastructure rather than a widely distributed one; think cargo ships, passenger ferries, trains. Aircraft powered by hydrogen? I don’t know whether the concept will take off (pardon the pun), although Zero Avia has short haul aircraft that run on hydrogen fuelled electricity. Whatever the case, the sooner we come off conventional ICEs, the better for our planetary future.

*FCEV – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
**ICE – Internal Combustion Engine

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.

FOSSIL FUELS ARE FOR DINOSAURS – Aviott John

The Hydrogen Economy

The hydrogen economy may be only a decade away, or more. Some people think that battery electric vehicles will replace combustion engines in the interim. Whatever the case, there are exciting new developments happening in the world of hydrogen. Here’s a shared post from the blog Electrifying entitled Hydrogen – unleash the beast.

 

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.

From Testosterone Economics to Doughnut Economics

I’m currently reading a book by Kate Raworth called “Doughnut Economics.” In it, the author pleads for a rethink of the traditional growth model of an ever-expanding economy to one of equitable development, keeping planetary boundaries in mind, and ensuring redistribution of resources so that the most disadvantaged in society are also looked after.

In the traditional testosterone model (my own term) of economic growth, the rich prosper while the rest of the population benefit from the trickle-down effect of an expanding economy. Trickle down is a euphemism for the rich pissing down on the rest, thus validating the term piss-poor long after the expression came into use. I have examined the disastrous effects of testosterone based decision-making in two earlier blog posts: in 2015 (Golden Skirts vs. Testosterone in the Financial World), and in 2018 (Leadership Hope for a Warming World). Another reflective piece, published on this website in 2018, is related to the topic of the current post (Three Score Years and Ten: Planetary Health and your Lifetime).

Kate Raworth – Doughnut Economics

It’s clear now to all but the most self-absorbed amongst us that we’re already consuming much more than the planet can sustainably provide. If Mother Nature and the earth’s resources were assumed to be a bank account, then we’re no longer living off the interest alone but are drawing down its capital. Since 1971, the Global Footprint Network has calculated Earth Overshoot Day for each year. In the website’s own words:
The Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of the year that Earth’s bio-capacity suffices to provide for humanity’s ecological footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global consumption of Nature’s capital. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s bio-capacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:
(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day. (EOD)
In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day was calculated to have happened on 1 August. In 2004, the overshoot fell on 1 September! By this calculation, the last time mankind was truly sustainable was in 1969 or 1970 when overshoot day fell in a subsequent year!

Since this planetary over-consumption was first computed in 1971, we have been steadily increasing our ecological debt, and the interest we’re paying on that mounting debt is measured in food shortages, soil erosion, rising temperatures, increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, biodiversity loss and much, much more. The problem is huge and solutions seem daunting and unreachable to us as individuals. Before we sink into despair, Kate Raworth tells us that there’s plenty we can do as societies to reverse this state of affairs and restore the planet to health. Doughnut Economics, the term she has coined, outlines the solutions that society needs. In the diagram above, the light green space denotes the resources mankind can safely take from the earth while restoring it to health. The dark green lines are the planetary boundaries that have to be respected if we wish to do this. The blue segments are the labels of the various sectors that have to be addressed. The book outlines broad prescriptions to deal with the problems of each of these sectors. In reading through this and other books written in a similar vein, we see that the answer to climate change lies in social change, not in new technologies. Technology alone is useless without the human will to adopt them and to adapt.

So here is the answer to the initial despairing question. What can we do as individuals? There’s plenty one can do. The  EOD website lists hundreds of steps individuals can take to mitigate planetary health. Therein lies our power as individuals. Out of many, one.

Doughnut Economics: Kate Raworth, Random House Business 2018, 384 pp.,

Getting to know Zoe

A quick internet search reveals that the name ZOE means “life” in Greek and is usually a girl’s name, although it can be used for boys as well. A website called “Behind the Name” tells us that the name ZOE was adopted by Hellenized Jews as a translation of EVE. Two early Christian saints of this name were martyred under Hadrian and Diocletian. A few weeks ago I bought the Zoe pictured below. This Zoe has nothing to with saints or martyrdom but it could be one of a tribe that will help a gasping planet to breathe a little easier.

When one lives in a city with well-designed public transport there is little need for a private car, but after hearing a few acquaintances talk about range anxiety and the impracticality of electric cars, I decided to buy one and rent it out on a daily basis. This is intended as a small step to allay common fears and misconceptions about electro mobility. Some of these misconceptions are due to society’s resistance to change; others are spread by petrol heads, addicted to imported oil and oblivious to environmental costs and the thousands of kilometers conventional fuel has to travel before it enters the tank. Contrast this with electricity that is generated much closer to home (or even at home with your own solar panels!), and potentially available at every city street corner. Then there are the car companies with their armies of highly qualified technicians and engineers whose skills will suddenly become obsolete. Instead of powertrains and cooling systems, they suddenly need software engineers to tweak more power out of lithium ion batteries, or optimise charging speeds at various levels of charge, or find ways to enhance the power density of the cells they use. For example currently, the batteries of the BMW i3 carry a charge of 170 Wh/kg compared to the 250 Wh/kg of a Tesla. That’s a 32% advantage in battery weight alone, which translates into range, efficiency and price. And a company like Tesla makes improvements all the time, continuously upgrading even its older cars with over the air software updates. So conventional car companies have a vested interest in maintaining the manufacturing status quo and will produce more affordable electric cars only when more customers demand them.

The Zoe pictured above has a maximum range of 150 km, which translates to somewhere around 120 km in the real world, depending on driving speeds, terrain and temperature. In my fossil-fuelled car-owning days, I usually drove around 50 km a day during the week. On weekends, a jaunt to the surrounding countryside might mean a trip of 200 kilometers. The big surprise driving the Zoe in 2019 was to find that a good network of charging stations already exists around the country and in most countries in Western Europe. The big problem is they are not well marked, even on highways. The various charging points are not necessarily shown on a common app. These are all deficiencies that have to be overcome in the coming months, and I will try and talk to companies about these points. But the bottom line is, if one is willing to do some homework before a journey and map out a choice of charging points along the way, one can cover most of Western Europe emission free. Of course, I hear someone say, but ah, what about the emissions caused by the production of electricity. Good point. All the more reason for Europe to phase out its remaining coal-fired and natural gas power plants and switch to PV, wind and hydro.

Oh, but wind and PV are intermittent! You’ll still need fossil fuelled power to provide a stable base load of energy. This used to be a valid argument, but no longer. Efficient software, smart meters and battery backup can do the job at much lower rates. Additionally, countries like Norway, Spain and Austria are geographically favoured and have enough sites where pumped hydro can do the job at competitive rates. While writing this article I came across an interesting site listing existing pumped hydro storage (PHS) and future potential for six countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Spain).

The above work shows that conditions in various EU countries differ widely due to varying geography, political will and regulatory systems. There are many choices we can make as individuals to lower our carbon footprint. The quickest three steps may be to lower thermostats in winter, switch to a plant-based diet and either walk or use a bicycle for errands within a 5 kilometer radius of the home. If we must drive, then an electric car is not only better for the planet, it costs less to run and maintain in the long-run. The good news is that by now there are used electric car models available for the price of a small used car like the Volkswagen Polo. If you’d like to rent the Zoe pictured above for a day, a week or more, look for it on the car-sharing website at drivy.at and take it out for a spin. You will enjoy the drive.

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.

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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.

 

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