Being Dumb Cost-Effectively

Environmentalists, Progressives, climate change advocates and the Green New Deal Proponents are determined to back fossil energy out of the US energy budget. The Green New Deal would like us all to believe that the energy system can get to zero CO2 emissions by 2030 and rely on renewables, except hydropower and nuclear. A more realistic estimate comes from Professor Joshua Goldstein’s book, A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow which estimates that pursuing renewables at a pace matching Germany decarbonize “would take 150 years”.

Advocates show no concern that its cost has been estimated to be as high as $15 trillion nor do they give any consideration to cost-effective power generation. Further, since China, India, and developing countries, along with many others, are not making serious efforts to reduce their emissions, this radical program would have virtually no effect on atmospheric CO2. concentrations.

US CO2 emissions peaked in 2005 and have been going down since, although there was a spike in 2018. Technology is allowing us to use fossil energy more efficiency and an abundance of natural gas is leading to a shift from coal. The trend in decarbonization is not new and did not require government regulations or mandates. Jesse Ausabel of Rockefeller University has document that the U.S. economy decoupled from carbon during the 1940s, long before congressional hearings about it.

The pursuit of zero emissions is based on a hypothesis that CO2 emissions are having a detrimental climate effect even though empirical observational data makes that hypothesis questionable. None the less, state legislatures and Congress are pursuing a costly and questionable energy policy to substitute wind and solar for more reliable and less costly power generation.

Wind and solar in addition to being intermittent, take up tremendous amounts of land. Producing all of our electrical power with them would require the equivalent of several New England states.
EIA data on the levelized cost of electricity—LCOE—tells an important story. Solar depending on whether it is thermal or PV ranges in cost from $34-$188 per MWh and wind depending on whether it is onshore or off ranges from $30 per MWh to $168. In the case of both solar and wind, there is the need for back up for periods of cloudiness and no or low wind. Back up increases costs. Nuclear on the other hand ranges from $89 to $97 MWh.

The MIT Technology Review in an article on carbon free electricity included the following quote from Jesse Jenkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, “You don’t confront a crisis with a limited tool set…You throw everything you’ve got at it.” That means that nuclear has to be an option. Those who do not subscribe to the climate orthodoxy may see these options as a choice between dumb and dumber. At least with nuclear, there is a proven technology and R&D has continued to advance it. The two biggest hurdles are cost and public phobia.

Professor Goldstein points out that with over 60 of nuclear experience, the only nuclear related fatality was the Chernobyl accident which was the result of Russian incompetence. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Fukushima were hyped by nuclear opponents in ways that simply added to public fears.

Nuclear energy is a long way from being cost competitive with natural gas for power generation but progress is being made. The development of small and medium sized reactors might be one way to respond to nuclear’s high capital cost and public fears. But in the long run, nuclear is not going to be widely accepted until it can be convincingly demonstrated to be as safe or even more safe than alternatives.

One small reactor is called NuScale. It is designed to generate just 50 megawatts of power, a fraction of the power generated from installed reactors. But being small means that it contains much less fuel and could be operated with a much lower risk. As a modular unit it can be built in a factory and shipped by truck. Power plants could activate one reactor at a time to generate the revenue need to purchase the next one.

While the nuclear industry attempts to gain greater public acceptance, it also needs to find ways to lower costs and reduce construction time. It should look to South Korea which has developed a world class nuclear industry and demonstrated that it is possible to bring projects to completion on time and on budget. According to Professor Goldstein, South Korea “has built 10 of its reactors based on the same design, … (and) produces nuclear power at or below fossil-fuel prices.”

Nuclear can also serve as a critical link in the further decarbonization of energy. Jesse Ausabel points out this is the natural consequence of technological development. In a paper– Density –, Ausabel points out, that the shift “to natural gas and nuclear power …together with relentlessly rising efficiency and changing industry composition, will carry us to a low-carbon economy in another 50 years or so. … The global energy system has been evolving toward hydrogen but perhaps not fast enough, especially for those most anxious about climate change.” Nuclear plants in addition to generating electricity can make hydrogen on the scale needed to meet our electric power needs.

Irresponsible Political Rhetoric

The Green New Deal (GND) is receiving a lot of attention; in part because of the outlandish statements by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or AOC as she is referred to by the media. To paraphrase what Mark Twain is supposed to have observed, it’s not all the things she doesn’t know that bothers me; it’s all the things that she knows that just aren’t so. In her case, she might be excused because of youthful immaturity and her judgment being clouded by her passionate exuberance. Others are just being politically irresponsible.

But she is not alone in her ignorance of how the world works or of the economic consequences of her ideas. The actual size of the Green New Deal Movement is unclear but it is made up of a lot of young activists who have gotten the attention of the progressives in the democrat party who now parrot its ideology.

It’s platform on energy wouldn’t be taken seriously if a lot of progressives were not also promoting Medicare for all at a cost of $32 trillion over 10 years. The GND energy plank calls for zero emissions of CO2 by 2030. To achieve this goal, GND calls for a dramatic expansion of renewable power to achieve 100% of national power demand from renewable sources. According to EIA, fossil fuels provide 63 % of our power needs while renewables, as defined by GND provide 8%. To be clear, its definition of renewables does not include hydroelectric or nuclear power which currently provide 27%.

The cost estimates of converting our power generation system to renewables is staggering. One estimate from NextBigFuture puts the cost at $15 trillion. Other estimates are in the range of $5 trillion but that is just to reach the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in 2050. All estimates should be taken with a grain of salt because the radical nature of this transformation cannot accurately capture all of the costs of scrapping the current generation system and manufacturing and installing the renewable replacements on a forced timeline.

According to the Edison Electric Institute, the US generated 4,017,555 gigawatts of electric power in 2017. EIA has concluded that generating 1 gigawatt of power would require 3.1 million PV panels or 431 utility scale wind turbines. The math is simple and it demonstrates the foolishness of the GND proposal.

It may be that the socialists and progressives who support the GND know that it would totally wreck the economy and are using it as a tool to move public policy further to the left. Independent of whether GND proponents are being Machiavellian or just economically ignorant, their proposals should be exposed for what they are. Proponents should be pushed to explain the costs and economic consequences of their proposals. Radical ideas just don’t go away.

The opportunity cost of not swatting down foolish and irresponsible proposals is that we are not seriously addressing high priority problems in a bipartisan manner.

Bring Back the Office of Technology Assessment

The Office of Technology Assessment—OTA—was created by the Technology Assessment Act of 1972. It was defunded after Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, presumably because the Contract with America called for reducing Congressional spending.

One of Gingrich’s rationales was that members of Congress could talk directly with scientists without a filter (OTA). A nano second of reflection on that reason, if you can stop laughing long enough to reflect makes clear that it is nonsense. What defunding did make possible was opening the door to an army of lobbyists who could bamboozle members without being challenged by internal experts on matters of science and technology. Bootleggers had free rein to align themselves with Baptists by profiting from promoting a variety of “national interests.”

OTA was governed by a board that consisted of an equal number of democrat and republican senators and representatives. OTA provided Congress, at its request, with objective, comprehensive information and options it needed for the issues under consideration. Since it went out of existence, the General Accountability Office (GAO) has expanded its mission to include technology assessments. But GAO is a large organization that focuses on on-going programs where OTA focused on comprehensive longer term technical analyses.

In creating OTA, Congress stated “technology continues to change and expand rapidly, its applications are large and growing in scale; and
increasingly extensive, … and critical in their impact, … on the natural and social environment. It also found that “the Federal agencies … responsible directly to the Congress are not designed to provide the legislative branch with adequate … information, independently developed, relating to the potential impact of technological applications…”. The impact of science and technology have continued to grow in terms of importance and costs to society.

There is no shortage of important topics for which Congress needs informed and objective information. The needs for improved cybersecurity are evident daily. The electrical grid is woefully out of date and needs to be modernized, do advances in nuclear energy make it a potentially competitive addition to our electric power mix, and the scientific rationale for battery electric vehicles and solar/wind power are wanting. Congress and DOD have been sold a bill of goods by contractors on advanced weapon systems. The F-35 costing over $100 million a copy has been judged as failing to deliver “the full Block 3F capabilities (full combat capabilities) and the Navy’s $23 billion Gerald Ford carrier has been described as “a monument to the Navy’s and defense industry’s ability to justify spending billions on unproven technologies that often deliver worse performance at a higher cost.” The same is true of the Navy’s Littoral class vessel which was intended to replace Frigates. After 16 years and billions of dollars, the Navy may abandon the program because its high tech systems don’t work, its turbine propulsion system falls off, and it is highly vulnerable. It would be foolish to assume that only DOD has been captured by the defense complex. Any department with billions of dollars to spend on advanced systems is a ripe target to be exploited.

A strong case for re-establishing OTA has been made by former Congressman Rush Hold—PhD in physics—OTA–who is now the President of the Association for the Advancement of American Science (AAAS). The new Congress should make restoring OTA a high priority; one that should be able to attract bi-partisan support.

Meet the Press is Now Meet the Propogandist

At the start of the last show for 2018, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd proclaimed, dare I say Ex Cathedra, “We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The earth is getting hotter, and human activity is a major cause. Period.

We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. …“The science is settled even if political opinion is not.”

During the time that Tim Russert hosted Meet the Press, it achieved almost universal acclaim as the best news talk shows on TV. It achieved that position because Russert worked very hard in preparing for each show.  Whoever was the guest, whatever was the topic, Russert schooled himself on facts.  He displayed a level of journalist rigor and honesty that is long gone and totally absent in Chuck Todd.As Roy Spencer pointed out Todd set up a straw man because virtually no one denies that climate change is real or that human activities have affected climate.  So, who is Todd talking about?

In saying that the “science is settled”, Todd revealed his ignorance. Someone found a way to make him a shill for the climate orthodoxy.  If he continues down this road, Meet the Press will become just another purveyor of fake news.

There is one thing that is certain.  Either Todd did not read the most recent IPCC work group1 scientific assessment, which is different from the political tome that it released in October, or he did read it but has no comprehension of what it says.

On pages 7 and 14 of that scientific assessment, the IPCC presents two charts—one on extreme weather events; the other on radiative forcing elements.  For both, the IPCC uses subjective probability estimates of high, medium, and low confidence. For extreme weather events, it only has medium confidence that humans are the cause of heavy precipitation and low confidence of human causality for the intensity/duration of droughts and increases in the tropical cyclone cycle.  For radiative forcing factors, it only has medium confidence on the effects of short-lived greenhouse gases, the albedo effect caused by land use changes and solar irradiance, and low confidence in the effect of aerosols on clouds.

If the science was indeed settled, the level of confidence would be much higher.  Also, the estimate of climate sensitivity—the effect on temperature from doubling CO2—would not vary by a factor of 3.Not only does Chuck Todd not know what he is talking about but his comments are sophomoric.  The only interesting question is who or what got to Todd?  Was it his superiors at NBC or was it the Group Think psychological pressures from his social circle?