Monday, January 1, 2018

Climate change revisited- a New Year special

It’s one of the most talked about issues, but views remain polarised. On one hand the vast bulk of scientists in the field are said to think that greenhouse gas emissions from past, current and proposed human activities in energy production and use (as well as from farming and land use), threaten to constrain future human and ecosystem health and even survival. So we have to stop adding carbon dioxide (and methane) to the atmosphere- which for example, centrally, means no more fossil fuel burning.   On the other hand, there are those who say that it’s all phoney and alarmist, or at least marginal, based on dubious computer models and/or misinterpreted or spurious data. Even worse are the ‘green’ remedies that are proposed- they wont work and will undermine global economies. 
Let’s take the science first. Here is a useful summary of the IPCC’s agreed position- actually produced by the usually climate-contrarian Energy Matters group:
Although the IPCC is careful to stress the uncertainties, it does offers some pretty solid  conclusions, and in general they seem to he hardening as more data  is collected and more analysis is carried out and debated:
Indeed, while some say the climate models are not reliable, it seems even early ones were in fact quite good:
Certainly the warming pattern seems clear and strong: see this neat animated chart:
However, there remain disagreements about how confident we can be about the conclusions and the overall approach used- though these days we hear less overall climate change denial, or rival explanations for it- nicely seen off by this Bloomberg assessment:    
Nevertheless, some contrarians (and in this case the US Energy Secretary) still sometimes say that, while warming may exist, we’re not looking in the right place for an explanation:   
Other says that, while there may be climate effects, they vary and have recently slowed- the so called ‘warming pause’. While explanations for that vary, a majority view seems to be that warming has continued but mainly in the oceans: and Certainly the data looks quite convincing:
The point being that an air temperature rise pause or slow down does not necessarily undermine the central overall warming case: Indeed some say the pause was never real: Certainly, the effects of warming  continue e.g. the ice cap data seems ever more dire:   and
Given the evident solidity of the science, some scientists have tired of the endless debates and have gone for bold, essentially political and emotional, statements: ‘We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible, Trump’s actions could push the earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulfuric acid. Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent if we act now. By denying the evidence of climate change & pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world for us and our children’.Prof. Stephen Hawking:
That didn’t go down well in some circles: ‘Venus has about 220,000 times as much CO2 in its atmosphere as does Earth’ and we’ve only seen a 50% rise here so far.
However, as the debate has polarized, some scientists in the USA especially, evidently feel desperate: and perhaps it is not surprising that the claims about possible out- comes have become more extreme: e.g.: with  the media running increasingly apocalyptic reports: Some see this sort of thing as counterproductive:
And it may be unnecessary: the data suggests that climate change is accepted as reality by many people- even in the USA: Though the views of the current US leadership may be a different matter!
While clearly there are bitter political feuds going on in the USA and elsewhere over the wider climate science issues, at the practical level the main disagreements are often more about what to do in response to climate change, when proposals for change begin to hit vested interest groups and communities. The US under Trump is digging in on coal! Most of the rest of the world want renewables, and that is happening.  There are some technical and strategic arguments which can muddy the water. In the short term some say cleaned-up coal and gas (with CCS) is the only realistic option. That’s seen by some opponents as mainly a delaying tactic, although some do have hopes for CCS. Similarly for nuclear, either fission (increasingly dubious) or longer term fusion (still very uncertain). Others think that things are so bad that we will have to accept what look like potentially dangerous geo-engineering ideas: and
There is a debate about what can be achieved given the current political situation: But most progressives think that we need to move as fast as possible with renewables and energy efficiency - and that this can work to save the planet to everyone’s benefit long term. We just need the political will to do that.
Given this view, the climate debate may seem tiresome, and to get in the way of ameliorative technological and policy progress. However, it can’t be ignored. Indeed, that could be a bad idea. After all, if nothing else, it is wise to always check out deviant views- that’s how good science works, through challenges. Some may see the climate science as now ‘done’ and irrefutable, but it’s just conceivable that some new interpretation of the data, or new data, will emerge from the debate, or there may be unexpected changes in climate and Greenhouse Gas interactions, which will mean that a rethink is needed. Indeed, some adjustments have already been proposed:
But that’s just about timing – we may have a bit more time than we thought.
There will be more challenges, although the technical quality and credibility of some of them can vary, as can the politics behind them: and
However, although we can probably ignore some crazy views, like Trumps assertion that climate change was invented by China, we should not be not about shutting down debates- even if they seem overly political or unscientific. The reality is that science (or interpretations of it) and political views do interact, and not always productively.  And it is probably impossible to stop that and indeed trying to do so may be undesirable- it is how dogmas get established, but it is also how they get challenged- we always need dissent.
Of course there have to be limits. We need the best science we can get, open to challenge and constantly tested, but we can’t keep arguing over the basics for ever. Given the overall apparently mostly consistent upward trend in temperatures and the weight of evidence on impacts, arguably we can’t afford to ignore the potential implications. Or delay attempts to respond. The latter is clearly what some contrarians want- they seem implacably opposed to change. Willful obstructionism may persist even in the case of response options which could beneficial even if climate change turns out to be less of a threat that most think. For example, most of the responses to climate change will also deal with the air pollution crisis hitting some newly industrializing countries. Responses to that are getting urgent.
The Global Warming Policy Forum recently portrayed the climate debate as a reflecting ‘Manichean paranoia,’ a term used by the late US statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski to describe a worldview in which your opponent is considered to be malign and willfully ignorant, whereas your own side is noble and uniquely enlightened. Well maybe, but the deeper reality may be that the climate debate is really just a front or a proxy for more fundamental disagreements about which way to go- centralised corporate fossil-based energy technology, and perhaps nuclear, versus decentralized/green energy. That’s certainly a recognisable battle and one that looks like it’s being won by the latter in many situations, as pollution worries grow and renewables get cheaper and boom globally. No wonder the GWPF and its ilk now spend so much of their time trying to undermine renewables. 
Although the Trump regime seems to be taking it well beyond that:  and some arguably remain beyond the pale in their denial:

Perhaps the best that can be done in the circumstances is to continue to publish the science results: And to challenge nonsense when it appears: - 723d43856189 While getting on with renewables. And hoping for changed views from the likes of Trump:

Friday, December 1, 2017

How not to win – on wave energy

Wave energy was once talked up as the next big thing- and something the UK could excel at. It had the best wave resource- much of it off Scotland. And it had the technological lead, with Stephen Salter’s pioneering ‘Nodding Duck’, Wavegen’s success with  prototype shore-line devices, and some government support- all then crowned by the apparently world beating Pelamis ‘wave snake’ and Oyster ‘hinged clam’ devices.  
To move things along, the UK invested heavily in full-scale ‘open-sea’ test facilities, including EMEC in Scotland (opened in 2004) and WaveHub (established in 2010) in Cornwall and device teams from around the world were invited the UK to test their ideas. These sites include dock facilities and electricity grid connections. EMEC also offered ‘nursery’ sites (e.g. EMEC’s Scapa Flow) for testing of earlier stage, part-scale prototypes in less hostile conditions. WaveHub partnered with FabTest, a nursery test site situated near Falmouth. All seemed set for accelerated development. There was talk of a 10% or even 20% UK electricity contribution, ultimately…
However, things did not go to plan. Indeed, the plans seem to have been faulty. As novel technologies, the wave devices all needed financial support to get established- R&D funding initially and then some form of market enablement backing.  But what was offered was not enough and was poorly targeted, with regularly shifting targets. A new report on the UK wave energy programme from Imperial College and Strathclyde University notes how multiple attempts were made to provide support, but none succeeded due to the poor design of the support schemes. They were overly concerned with limiting the expenditure and getting costs down quickly.
Those with long memories may recall the spat that occurred in the 1980s when the incoming Conservative government cut R&D funding for wave energy and its later reinstatement by a Labour administration. More recently, it has been the handling of the market enablement programme that has led to significant problems.  A case in point is the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund (MRDF) which, from 2004, offered £42m for tidal current turbine and wave energy projects. However, it required projects to have proven themselves at sea at commercial scale for 3 months. No one was likely to build something speculatively in the hope of obtaining funding later! None tried. Only MCT’s Seagen tidal project made it through to the 2ROC/MWh of operational support then being offered to tidal current and wave projects under the Renewables Obligation- and MCT didn’t use the MRDF. No wave projects got through.
In 2008, the Renewables Advisory Board rather lamely said ‘The MRDF is fundamentally a sound scheme.  It, in itself, is not a failure, but the R&D process has failed to supply the technologies that the MRDF was established to support.’  So the scheme was fine but the technology wasn’t ready! As a bit of a botch, the government did then introduce an interim £22m Marine Renewables Proving Fund, to make projects viable for the MRDF, but that too failed to attract any takers.
The current situation is not much better. Wave and tidal stream projects are eligible for CfD support, and were even guaranteed a protected 100MW tranche @ £305/MWh in the first CfD round, but none were able to take this up and the protected slot was removed in the second CfD round. Tidal steam projects, like the big Meygen scheme in Pentland Firth, have gone ahead with their own money, EU support and/or demonstration grants, but wave energy mostly trails behind at the R& D stage, with funding being cut back. Although, in 2013, the Scottish government offered £13m in support for two larger projects, they didn’t go ahead, with Pelamis and Oyster both going bust. The Scottish government rescued some of the staff, setting up a residual programme, but at present the focus is on R&D and small system testing and development. Some of this looks promising e.g.: the 1MW Wello Penguin on test at the Orkney EMEC site, with EU funding: However, overall, although new ideas continue to emerge, costs are still high, R&D funding is falling, further EU funding for UK work looks uncertain after BREXIT, and the prospects for the immediate future in the UK do not look good- although the EU does have a continuing programme.
Could it have been done better? Given the harsh maritime environment, the technology has proved hard to develop, with several very visible disasters (e.g. the sinking of the 2MW Osprey in a storm off Scotland in 1995) and costs have remained high. But in theory, a properly funded programme might have helped things move along more successfully– if the focus had not always been on getting to low costs quickly. There is a new CfD round  planned for 2019 with ‘less established technologies’ being eligible. It seems unlikely, but wave energy might be one of them, despite the high cost.   
Would it be worth it? Well, the UK wave energy resource is very large, with the winds that blow over the Atlantic creating huge swells.  The resultant wave energy, in effect stored wind energy, persists for some while after the winds have died down, so using it avoids some of the variability problems of wind. But it may take more time to develop viable extraction technologies.  Tidal stream systems, operating on the regular back and forth tidal ebbs and flows in the relatively calm undersea environment, are easier options, although the tidal steam resource may not be as large as that for wave energy. Though for the moment, that’s where most effort in the marine renewables field in the UK and elsewhere is focussed, along with  growing interest in tidal lagoons. There are some surviving tethered buoy-type wave projects around the word (e.g. OPT in the USA and CETO in Australia), and some in the UK (e.g. Seatricity and Searaser) and more may emerge. However, while niche markets may exist for small wave projects in remote locations, and wave energy development is far from dead in the water, for now, with budgets tight, sadly the full, vast, global wave resource seems beyond capture on any significant scale. 
‘Lost at Sea or a new wave of innovation?’ - /share/view/sfa07a0e490740cea
Some wave technology hopefuls:
Seatricty: (UK)