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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Environmental Progress--The Power to Decarbonize

Figure 1

Environmental Progress has a new study out that I found very compelling.  It's just raw data arranged in a manner that paints a global picture. Critics can't punch holes in it by attacking assumptions chosen because it doesn't have any. In a nutshell, it shows a strong global correlation between nuclear energy use and lower carbon intensity, but no such correlation between wind and solar.

It took some effort for me to understand how the graphic shown in Figure 2 below was derived. To make sense of it I had to drop down into the appendices to look at the data for each country:
In service to transparency, we have reproduced all 68 national carbon intensity of energy charts used in this analysis in our appendix, in addition to publishing the aggregated national charts.
Each dot represents a given country's carbon intensity at a given level of annual nuclear, or wind, or hydro, or solar output. Each data point used to plot the thick curve is a kind of average of the dots at a given annual electricity output for nuclear, or wind, or hydro, or solar. The carbon intensity in countries can grow or retract with the addition or reduction in any given energy source (nuclear, wind, solar, or hydro). In Japan, for example, a reduction in nuclear caused an increase in carbon intensity.

I put my anti-nuclear hat on to find a way to punch holes in the results. Could the different horizontal scales be hiding something? Are plots using the same scale hiding something in the clutter for wind and solar? To resolve those issues I overlaid the nuclear and wind graphs at the same scale and magnified the results to make them more visible (see Figure 1).

I didn't bother with solar because there is so little energy being produced from it. See Figures 2 and 3 to make sense of Figure 1.

Figure 2

Figure 3
As an engineer who also has as a hobby, blogging on energy issues, I live, and breath graphs but these were tough to wrap my head around. I suspect very few energy pundits or peanut gallery commenters out there are going to successfully wrap their heads around them. So, when they pretend to understand them and begin to level nonsensical critiques, readers who also don't understand them will assume the pundit does, and take his or her word for it.

Although the article has a  link to the PDF of the study, the graphs in the article can't be scaled up enough to read. You have to go to the PDF to see the details. I've recreated them here in a format that you can see. Just click on one to initiate a higher resolution slideshow.

From the introduction to the article about ah, the study, by Shellenberger sent via email:
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, governments and private investors spent about as much — $2 trillion — deploying solar panels and wind turbines over the last decade as was spent building nuclear plants over the last 54 years. 
As a result, additions of solar and wind to electric grids in recent years outpaced additions of all other sources of electricity including coal, natural gas, and nuclear.

What has been the impact of all that new solar and wind on reducing emissions? Very little, according to a new Environmental Progress report, "The Power to Decarbonize," which looked at 68 countries since 1965.

Money quotes from the article about the study:

But the analysis [by the Breakthrough Institute] concluded that what mattered most was “standardization, economies of scale, rapid construction and quick installation” of nuclear plants.

KEPCO built nuclear, for example.

Figure 4

Advisor, James Hansen, published a bar chart of “Average annual increase of carbon-free electricity per-capita during decade of peak scale-up” in Science in August last year. (See Figure II 4.) That chart used more recent data than Russell and, generously, combined solar and wind into a single bar. But even then the chart showed the peak deployment of nuclear was up to 12 times faster than the peak deployment of solar and wind.

And finally:
Ten years after my initial forays into this subject area I am more than ever of the view that a future-facing climate policy must be informed by backward-facing energy analysis. The attention given by energy analysts, policymakers, and the IPCC to scenarios ungrounded from history is wildly disproportionate to the attention given to the real world experience of deploying clean energy technologies and their impact, or lack thereof, on carbon intensity and emissions. Given what’s at stake, this constitutes a grave error. Those who insist on ignoring the past, to modify Santayana, should not be allowed to force the rest of us to repeat it.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"--George Santayana

And keep in mind that correlation does not imply causation. Had the study found the opposite, I'd have been one of the first to point that out. All the same, we are also seeing similar bad news trends for retail rates in countries with a high percentage of wind and solar. Wind and solar are caught between unsupportive correlation trends for both emissions and cost. What next?

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