The Elf Queen, the Sun and the Tower of Tomorrow  

Posted by Big Gav

Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton are taking charge of the Sydney Theatre Company and announced that their first priority is to make the venue green.

Apart from promises of passion and commitment, the only concrete plan articulated by the pair was to make the STC "green". "We intend to initiate discussions with companies with the aim of making the building self-sufficient, to green the building. We are talking solar panels, rainwater, the works," Upton said. "This would ideally generate enough power to do a whole season off the grid. This would be the first theatre company in the world to do that."

The couple have also been seen around town at the recent marches as part of what Grist called "the fellowship of the warming".
Of the thousands upon thousands who acted on International Day of Action on Global Warming, Galadriel Ms. Blanchett may have been the hottest elf protester of them all. But when it comes to convincing Aussie PM John Howard, Cate isn't enough. Though if she'd taken that ring from Frodo ...

Technology Review has an article on the potential of solar concentrating photovoltaics - Cheap, Superefficient Solar.
Solar-power modules that concentrate the power of the sun are becoming more viable.

Technologies collectively known as concentrating photovoltaics are starting to enjoy their day in the sun, thanks to advances in solar cells, which absorb light and convert it into electricity, and the mirror- or lens-based concentrator systems that focus light on them. The technology could soon make solar power as cheap as electricity from the grid.

The idea of concentrating sunlight to reduce the size of solar cells--and therefore to cut costs--has been around for decades. But interest in the technology has picked up in the past year. Last month, Japanese electronics giant Sharp Corporation showed off its new system for focusing sunlight with a fresnel lens (like the one used in lighthouses) onto superefficient solar cells, which are about twice as efficient as conventional silicon cells. Other companies, such as SolFocus, based in Palo Alto, CA, and Energy Innovations, based in Pasadena, CA, are rolling out new concentrators. And the company that supplied the long-lived photovoltaic cells for the Mars rovers, Boeing subsidiary Spectrolab, based in Sylmar, CA, is supplying more than a million cells for concentrator projects, including one in Australia that will generate enough power for 3,500 homes.

The thinking behind concentrated solar power is simple. Because energy from the sun, although abundant, is diffuse, generating one gigawatt of power (the size of a typical utility-scale plant) using traditional photovoltaics requires a four-square-mile area of silicon, says Jerry Olson, a research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, CO. A concentrator system, he says, would replace most of the silicon with plastic or glass lenses or metal reflectors, requiring only as much semiconductor material as it would take to cover an area the size of a typical backyard. And because decreasing the amount of semiconductor needed makes it affordable to use much more efficient types of solar cells, the total footprint of the plant, including the reflectors or lenses, would be only two to two-and-a-half square miles. (This approach is distinct from concentrated thermal solar power, which concentrates the heat from the sun to power turbines or sterling engines.)

"I'd much rather make a few square miles of plastic lenses--it would cost me less--than a few square miles of silicon solar cells," Olson says. Today solar power is still more expensive than electricity from the grid, but concentrator technology has the potential to change this.

Technology Review also has another very interesting article on solar energy called "Silicon and Sun" - this one looking at new ways to build cheaper, more efficient solar cells by taking inspiration from sea sponges - the "biomimicry" approach to engineering.
In his beachfront office overlooking the Santa Barbara channel, Daniel Morse carefully unwraps one of his prized specimens. An intricate latticework of gleaming glass fibers, it looks like a piece of abstract art or a detailed architectural model of a skyscraper. But it's actually the skeleton of one of the most primitive multicellular organisms still in existence--a species of marine sponge commonly known as Venus's flower basket. Morse, a molecu­lar biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wants to know how such a simple creature can assemble such a complicated structure. And then he wants to put that knowledge to work, making exotic structures of his own.

The lowly sponge has come up with a remarkable solution to a problem that has puzzled the world's top chemists and materials scientists for decades: how to get simple inorganic materials, such as silicon, to assemble themselves into complex nano- and microstructures. Currently, making a microscale device--say, a transistor for a microchip--means physically carving it out of a slab of silicon; it is an expensive and demanding process. But nature has much simpler ways to make equally complex microstructures using nothing but chemistry--mixing together compounds in just the right combination. The sponge's method is particularly elegant. Sitting on the seabed thousands of meters below the surface of the western Pacific, the sponge extracts silicic acid from the surrounding seawater. It converts the acid into silicon dioxide--silica--which, in a remarkable feat of biological engineering, it then assembles into a precise, three-dimensional structure that is reproduced in exact detail by every member of its species.

What makes the sponges' accomplishment so impressive, says Morse, is that it doesn't require the toxic chemicals and high temperatures necessary for human manufacture of complex inorganic structures. The sponge, he says, can assemble intricate structures far more efficiently than engineers working with the same semiconductor materials.

The crystalline-silicon solar cells that currently dominate the photovoltaic market are expensive--so expensive that the energy they produce costs several times as much as energy generated by fossil fuels. One reason is the high price of their raw materials. Silicon is extremely abundant on earth, but it doesn't exist as a pure element; instead, it's bound up with oxygen and other elements--in sand, for example. Making pure silicon requires a lot of energy.

To lower the costs of solar cells, researchers have looked for ways to cut down on the amount of silicon they use. Some have turned to less expensive thin films made from cadmium telluride or copper indium diselenide. Extremely thin layers of these new semiconductors can absorb the same amount of light as thicker slabs of crystalline silicon. Morse's fabrication technique could be an inexpensive way to make such thin films; in addition, the nanostructure that his method produces is particularly well suited for absorbing light and converting it into power.

Yet another Technology Review article on solar power looked at using layers of silicon quantum dots to create ultra-efficient silicon solar cells.
Scientists who work with solar cells are constantly looking for ever-more-efficient materials and engineering approaches that are better able to convert sunlight into electricity. Now, researchers at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, have completed the preliminary steps in making an all-silicon structure that can, in theory, eke out nearly twice the electricity that traditional silicon solar cells--the industry's mainstay--can.

To maximize efficiency, Martin Green, lead researcher on the project and professor of photovoltaic- and renewable-energy engineering, and his team are developing a multilayered silicon system that converts varying wavelengths of sunlight into electricity. Each layer is tuned to collect light at a certain wavelength, says Green.

Multilayered systems--commonly used by NASA to power satellites--have been studied for years. Currently, these systems can operate at an efficiency of about 30 percent. By comparison, the best single-layer silicon cells in research labs have an efficiency of 25 percent. However, the multilayer cells are often made from stacks of exotic semiconductor materials composed of gallium, indium, phosphorous, and arsenic. These materials, Green notes, are expensive and not practical to mass-produce on the scale that's necessary for solar power to compete with other sources of power generation.

So, Green and his team turned to silicon--inexpensive and abundant, but traditionally bypassed when making multilayered solar cells--to see if they could control the material's electronic and optical properties so that it could absorb different wavelengths of light.

One last article from Technology Review (which ranks up there with The Energy Blog as a news source for energy related technologies), this one on BP Solar and their conservative approach to solar power - sticking with silicon but looking for efficiency gains via different manufacturing approaches.
It's boom time for solar power, as a rising tide of startups tout various approaches--from organic thin films to concentrating light with holograms--for harvesting energy from the sun. But amid the flurry of nascent technologies, BP Solar, a 30-year-old subsidiary of oil giant BP, is betting that old-fashioned silicon still holds the most potential for cost-effective solar power in the next decade.

In its latest move, the company has developed a solar module--a collection of solar cells--using a new silicon-manufacturing approach that the company says drives down the cost of generating solar power. The new technology boosts power production 8 percent without a price increase, the company says. BP Solar will begin production of these modules by mid 2007.

Technology Review caught up with Lee Edwards, president and CEO of BP Solar, to ask about the new technology and other efforts at the company.

Technology Review: You say your new silicon prototype--which you call Mono2--increases efficiency of your solar cells without increasing the cost. What is Mono2?

Lee Edwards: Over the next 10 years, BP Solar believes that a silicon-based cell technology will continue to drive cost efficiency. This announcement of the Mono2 approach to creating the silicon wafer was driven by an acknowledgement of the two different types of silicon available: monocrystalline and multicrystalline. Monocrystalline silicon makes for high efficiency, but it's relatively expensive, and the solar-power industry competes with the microprocessor industry for this type of silicon. Multicrystalline is cheaper, but it is lower quality. Mono2, broadly speaking, gives the same electrical-efficiency benefits as monocrystalline wafers but uses a multicrystalline casting approach that is less expensive.

TR: How does it work?

LE: In the traditional multicrystalline manufacturing, you basically put a bunch of rocks in a ceramic crucible, heat it to 1,500 degrees C, let it sit there for a day, and cool it slowly. You get a block of silicon, but the crystal structure is random. Some people say it's more visually appealing because of the way light reflects off it, but each one of those grain boundaries creates a barrier to electron flow. The beauty of our technique is that we've found, in our protected intellectual property, a way to essentially get a single crystal using another approach. The details are proprietary, but it's a combination of metallurgy and the process that allows us to do it.

TR: What's the efficiency or cost-per-watt benefit?

LE: When we say "efficiency," there are two components to it. There are some who love to advertise their cell-conversion efficiency, so you'll see 19 or 20 percent efficiency quoted. That is the amount of sunlight that hits the surface that is converted to electricity. When we talk about efficiency within BP Solar, it is the dollar-per-watt cost to convert sunlight into electricity. The Mono2 module can produce 8 percent more power for the same price as a module made from multicrystalline silicon modules on the market today. This decreases the price per watt.

On the subject of The Energy Blog, Jim has some commentary on the Solar 2006 conference I referred to the other day (and which Jeff Vail criticised in his post that I linked to).
John Addison reporting on the Solar Power 2006 conference in the Cleantech Blog had this snippet of information on the growth of the solar PV industry.
SunPower is approaching a 23% efficient PV (previous post). This helps it take business from typical 17% efficient PV. Dr. Richard Swanson, CEO, SunPower gave the conference good reason to expect continued high growth. He pointed out that in 1975 solar modules cost $100/watt. By 2002, the cost had fallen to $3 per watt. The industry learning curve of 30 years has been consistent – each time that production doubles, cost drops 81%. Dr. Swanson expects $1.40 per watt by 2013 and 65 cents per watt by 2023.

That's good news for the future, but I hope production grows at a higher rate or it will be an even longer time than I anticipated before solar power becomes an economical source of power for everyone. If the silicon producers can't grow any faster, then the CIGS industry will take over. Nanosolar is building its first commercial scale factory, to begin operation in 2007, which it claims will be the worlds largest, (what about Sharp?) with an annual capacity of 430 megawatts. Other CIGS producers; Innovalight, Konarka, Miasolé, HelioVolt, and Daystar are all expanding their production.

The Energy Blog also reports that Israeli company Solel is to build 3 plant producing 150 MW of thermal solar power in Spain.
Solel Solar Systems, Ltd., a world leader in solar thermal technology for solar systems and central power plants for clean electricity, announced that an agreement has been signed with Sacyr-Vallehermoso, a large Spanish infrastructure concern, to build three solar power plants in Spain with a total capacity of 150MW and at an estimated overall value of US$890 million. Within the frame agreement, Solel's scope of supply for all three projects is estimated at around US$500 million.

Also at The Energy Blog - posts on a process for converting low rank coal into several more useful power sources (all still high carbon emitters) , the first IGCC power plant in the UK, improvements in sugar cane yields, and update on the Makah Bay AquaBuOY wave energy pilot project and some more on ultracapacitor company EEStor.

ADam from Energy Bulletin had some interesting comments on Jeff Vail's post on the EROEI of solar PV that I mentioned earlier - in particular on how EROEI is calculated:
Pimentel has been ridiculed for considering the energy cost of the grain the farmer eats in his ethanol calculations, however we really do need to consider such things and more, as you say. I enjoyed your article but have a few comments, some a bit speculative...

1) Before he died, Howard Odum, calculated an EROEI of less than 1 for solar PV, however we can see with hindsight that he over-estimated the energy costs of administration and maintenance. New thin film methods are more efficient with materials also. Sergio Ulgiati, one of Odum's most prominent followers has recently computed a much more positive EROEI using Odum's emergy methodology. I don't know if the study has been published yet -- but I'm trying to find out, and will publicise it on if it's out. I think Odum used price-estimated energy costs, but also built databases based on more refined, but equally whole-economy methods. So probably Ulgiati's study does not suffers from the criticisms of other research you mention. Which isn't to say case closed, but definitely an important study. There's also this very good round up of current research here:

2) Your 1:1 figure would have massive uncertainties.

I think there's an inevitability with the price-estimation method that you include all sorts of current energy wasteful methods of producing things, some of which we might be able to lean-up by an order of maginitude when energy prices really go up.

However energy is underpriced in todays economy. So does overestimate of potential energy requirments, balance out with the underestimate coming from underpriced energy? I don't know! Maybe it more or less does...

3) EROEI only has meaning when researchers set system boundaries and make them clear. The price-estimated method has wide system boundaries, however it would also externalise most environmental costs (and undervalue energy inputs) just like the market does.

However, to rephrase your point, the alternative accounting methods which attempt to add up each material input and transporation cost etc, have smaller system boundaries, because you can't count everything. They reach much more optimistic sounding figures, but only within this context. The researchers set boundaries too small to be meaningful except perhaps to the manufacturer, not very meaningful to the society at large perhaps.

The boundaries issue also addresses Janene's point. We need to set some boundaries to get a figure other than 1:1. Direct sunlight falling on the PV is not considered an energy input in the equation. We're trying to calculate how much energy already in the human economy has to be invested. Another energy input we wouldn't include in this calculation would be the geological energy required to make the materials.

4) Important differences exist between an EROEI of 10:1 and an EROEI of 2:1 or 1.1:1. Imagine a hypothetical solar PV powered national economy, where the panels achieve an average EROEI of 1.1:1, within a whole-economy system boundary. In this economy 10 out of every 11 energy expenditures in the economy would by invested back into the solar PV manufacturing industy, and its supporting service industries. The rest of the economy combined - the arts, law, food, leisure, science, other manufacturing, etc would be about 1/11 of the overall economy in energy terms in total! Charlie Hall estimates that an EROEI of something in the ballpark of 6:1 would be necessary for anything like 'civilisation' to survive. (I assume he means with whole-economy systems boundaries).

Jeff himself has another post up on the same topic. I'll note I'm not a Star Trek fan, but I quite like the "Roddenberry" tag (its better than "techno utopian" and such like anyway). I'll also note "Free Range Organic Human" is a truly excellent name for a blog.
As my last two posts illustrate, I'm in a bit of a rut on the potential for photovoltaics to solve all of our problems. It would be overly simplistic to boil this argument down to "Roddenberrys" vs. "Doomers," because those terms (the former of which I just coined, so bear with me) seem to only address irrational behavior by individuals at either extreme end of the techno-optimism spectrum. There is a very genuine debate underway in what I consider the more moderate middle of this spectrum. Two people whom I enjoy reading, and who's writing I respect, are on either side of my personal view of this, but both within the "reasonable" zone: Big Gav from Peak Energy (leaning towards Roddenberry), and Ted Heistman from Freerange Organic Human (leaning towards Doomer).

At the end of the day, the information available suggests to me that the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) for photovoltaics is less than or about equal to 1:1. If I'm wrong, and it is more like 10:1 and will steadily rise indefinitely with futher research, then a strong case for "Star Trek" optimism (and hence "Roddenberrys") can be made. There is no doubt in my mind that improvements in photovoltaics will be made--the real question is whether the return on these investments in technology (in complexity) will provide linear returns, or whether they will be subject to diminishing marginal returns. Here is a recent project from the Solar 2006 convention in San Jose last month:
SunPower is approaching a 23% efficient PV. This helps it take business from typical 17% efficient PV. Dr. Richard Swanson, CEO, SunPower gave the conference good reason to expect continued high growth. He pointed out that in 1975 solar modules cost $100/watt. By 2002, the cost had fallen to $3 per watt. The industry learning curve of 30 years has been consistent – each time that production doubles, cost drops 81%. Dr. Swanson expects $1.40 per watt by 2013 and 65 cents per watt by 2023.

This Dr. Swanson of SunPower is making the case for a kind of "Moores Law" for improving solar panel efficiency. Is this really a linear decrease in cost? Right now there is about 5300 MegaWatts of installed PV capacity worldwide. The US alone currently generates on average over 1,000,000 MegaWatts of electricity (just electricity...this won't power a hydrogen fuel scheme). So existing PV would need to double eight times in order to just match the current US electrical generation. If, per Dr. Swanson's linear decrease in cost projection is true, after eight doublings in capacity PV cells would cost 0.005 cents per watt. You could build enough PV to power the entire United States for $5,095. Something tells me that the reality is not linear! No, the reality is most likely best expressed by some form of logistics curve, such as the diminishing marginal return curve suggested by Joseph Tainter:

There is, in fact, some evidence that PV technology is already at the peak of the diminishing marginal return curve (C2,B2). Sunpower, the same company where Dr. Swanson extolls the historical decreasing cost of photovoltaics, recently made this press release:
...Overall, these changes result in a 43 percent increase in power, said Julie Blunden, vice president of external affairs at SunPower. Each panel can generate 315 watts of electricity and will have roughly the same cost per watt as the existing line, she said.

When you improve "efficiency," but the cost of doing so keeps the cost per watt stagnant, then you have peaked on the diminishing marginal returns curve.

I think the concentrator techniques I mentioned earlier may change the overall EROEI figure for PV solar, but perhaps I'm missing something (and maybe keeping all the mirrors correctly aligned is more complex than I imagine, and the Tainter effect will once again prevail).

My enthusiasm for all things solar isn't just PV related - there seems to be a lot of scope for power generation from the thin film / ploymer solar technologies that are emerging (which are much less mature than PV) and simpler techniques like thermal solar power in its various forms - each of which seem to have a greater EROEI than PV. Jeff notes that there is also much energy to be reaped from passive solar designs.

Jeff also made a comment about doomerism in his "Elegant Technology" article ("Every now and then I get the sense that some people see me as a “doomer.”") that I may have partly prompted with some of my recent anti-doomer ranting. I'd like to clarify that when I'm complaining about doomerism I'm talking about irrational proclamations that peak oil == collapse of industrial civilisation, with no further argument entered into (as per the nut at TOD who was abusing Odo, which was the event that got me started - and I'm glad to see that Prof Goose is trying to bring the quality of the comments threads at TOD back up to their earlier standards).

I don't have any problem with well reasoned arguments about the possibility of collapse per se (in fact the subject is one that interests me a lot, as long time readers would know) and I don't view this as doomerism (I tend to call it collapsism instead) as long as the person making the argument is willing to rationally evaluate new facts and theories as they come to hand.

On a related note, I was reminded of Jamais Cascio's long ago post about apocaphilia when I read this this post from Sarah Pullman of De Smog Blog:
o, last night was the WorldChanging Book Launch here in Vancouver. It was well-attended, though a quick survey of the blogosphere reveals mixed opinions about the evening.

The highlight for me was probably the after-party at Six Acres (which I learned was the original size of Vancouver, back in tha day). Interestingly, I ended up talking with Alex Steffen (editor of WorldChanging site and book) about Kunstler and his ideas. I was somewhat relieved to hear Alex (who is a very well-informed guy) say that while he thinks Kunstler is bang on in his assessment of the problems and the situation (basically, suburbia was a really bad idea), he's not sold on his predictions for the future. He's a little more optimistic than Kunstler is, and thinks we have a moral obligation not to tell people that we're screwed and will never pull ourselves out of disaster in time.

I'm not sure where I stand. Sometimes, I must admit, I'm kind of pessimistic... but somehow that doesn't usually lead me to despair. I mean, even if we're going to hell in a handbasket, I actually still enjoy being in this world and sharing it with the many beautiful people in my life.

I should mention that I definitely didn't do justice above to Alex's thoughtful perspective on the situation. I'd love to hear what others think about The Long Emergency? Has anyone read it?

And on another related note, Jason at Anthropik has a collapsist evaluation of us solar power obsessives called "Sermon to the Sun worshippers". Better watch out the sun god doesn't strike you down Jason (Anthropik has always been an interesting site but the quality of content - and the site design - seems to have improved a lot over time)...
Constantine's conversion to Christianity, or so the story goes, began with a vision in 312, prior to the Battle of Milan Bridge. Constantine supposedly saw a cross in the sun, and heard the words, "in hoc signo vinces" ("in this sign, conquer"). After painting his soldiers' shields with chi-rhos, Constantine won the battle against Maxentius and became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. What is less well known is just how popular Constantien was with various sun gods—his first encounter was with Apollo, and later, Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, an aspect of Mithras. Of course, sun worship is as ancient as it is universal, and certainly well-placed: the sun is the ultimate source of energy for all life on earth. However many steps removed we might be, we all live on solar energy by other means.

So, it's only natural that latter-day sun worshippers would turn again to the Unconquerable Sun to solve the energy problems that currently loom over us. After all, the petroleum that we currently use in such quantities is a fossil fuel, energy stored by ancient plants and animals that ultimately came from the sun, a kind of bank for storing up what Thom Hartmann called The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. As Thomas Edison once told Henry Ford, "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that." Today's sun worshippers tell us that photovoltaics will allow our civilization to continue along with its status quo as polluting fossil fuels will be replaced with clean, renewable solar energy, such as the case Travis Bradford presents in Solar Revolution.
In coming decades, solar energy is going to become the dominant energy source on the global market. This is true irrespective of possible increases in the price of fossil fuels; irrespective of possible global warming regulations; irrespective of government subsidies; irrespective of possible future technological advances. Even given conservative assumptions about all those factors, the tectonic forces at work in the global energy situation make solar's dominance inevitable.

Proponents of solar energy have pointed out that covering just 2% of the earth's land surface would produce enough photovoltaic energy to replace the electricity use of the whole world. Of course, this is an unbelievably terrifying thought. While fossil fuels provide limits to growth that cap human civilization's destructiveness at about its current level, Jevons Paradox has turned every technology that has ever been aimed at preserving natural resources into a greater consumer, not lesser. Schemes to reduce the amount of land needed for farming, for instance, have often been justified in terms of providing more land for "wilderness," but they invariably result in less "wilderness," because land use becomes more efficient. As we know, civilization is always compelled to grow. If today's energy needs can be met with just 2% of the earth's land surface covered in photovoltaic cells, why not support 13 billion people with 4%? Or 26 billion with 8%? Collapse remains inevitable even in this case, but whereas before the limits to growth were set by relatively benign problems like peak oil, now the limit is much higher—the point at which so much of the earth's surface is covered in PV cells that we cause cascades of plant extinctions simply for lack of sunlight, and cut off the food chain at its base. The plan to replace our current energy usage with photovoltaics is, on the surface, the ultimate worst case scenario; it could be the deus ex machina that will allow us to delay collapse once again, but that delay is the first one to preclude any chance of survival for the human species. Indeed, it raises the terrifying prospect of the end of all multicellular life on this planet.

This an example of reasoning about collapse that I like - maybe peak oil isn't a true "limit to growth" (which is my tentative conclusion), but that doesn't mean collapse won't happen eventually. Of course, than you need to begin the analysis of "will human population continue exponential growth ?", "will the 'solutions' for peak oil mean we hit another limit - like global warming - even harder ?" and "what other limits come into play and do they result in collapse or a steady state of some sort ?". Its not a simple problem to fully understand...

TreeHugger has a link to an article in Fortune on Bill "Cradle to Cradle" McDonough's latest building design - the tower of tomorrow.
It sounds like Walt Disney (I loved Tomorrowland) but Bill has done it again- reinvented the office tower. Sez Bill in Fortune Magazine: "The building of the future will not just sit on a lot. It will be productive. From solar panels that produce power to tree-filled terraces that recycle water, the building will work, quite literally, from the inside out.

How distant is this prospect? Hard to say. All the technologies mentioned are "state of the shelf": That is, they already exist, although not all are economically practical. But architecture and design are crafts for the long term. This tower shows the way urban centers can get closer to nature - and in the process keep neighborhoods and cities vibrant and healthy."

TreeHugger also has an article on how to green your heating - one area where efficiency gains can make a big difference to your overall energy consumption.
Consider that roughly two-thirds of a home’s annual energy use goes toward space and water heating, that in most American homes, winter heating is responsible for sending nearly four tons of greenhouse gases into the air each month, and that as much as half of all the energy used in the home is wasted. Efficient heating is starting to sound pretty good about now, no? Heck, we haven’t even mentioned the political implications of heating oil. Below, TreeHugger has compiled some tips to cheaper, greener heating, all of which are driven by the two fundamentals of a treehugging life—being more efficient, using less, and doing it in style.

John Quiggin has some notes on "amateur climatologist" Andrew Bolt, one of News Corps remant recalcitrant global warming deniers.
Andrew Bolt cites NASA data from the troposphere and stratosphere to show that global warming isn’t happening. He starts with the troposphere and makes what’s now a standard denialist talking point, that global temperatures “peaked in 1998″ (a year of an exceptionally strong El Nino). Of course, until the last few years, denialists were (correctly for once) making the point that you couldn’t attribute all of the exceptional temperatures of 1998 to long-term climate change.

But Bolt’s new ace is the stratosphere, which is actually cooling. The graph here looks pretty convincing. Has Bolt discovered something that all the scientists have missed? Should he be publishing his findings in Nature. Well, no.

As NASA explains here, stratospheric cooling is also the result of human activity. The most important effect is from the destruction of the ozone layer, but CO2 emissions also play a role. Remember that the effect of greenhouse gases is to trap heat. This warms up the atmosphere below (in the troposphere), but reduces it above (in the stratosphere). There’s disagreement over the magnitude of this effect, but the direction is clear.

It would have taken Bolt five minutes with Google to find this out. Does he not know, or not care? Either way, he ought not to have a job with any responsible media organisation.

New Scientist also has a look at the global warming denial industry and who funds it.
Another scientist to suffer the ire of the sceptics was Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. He was attacked after the IPCC assessment in 2001, which highlighted his "hockey stick" graph showing that temperatures began a rapid rise in recent decades and are now higher than at any time over the past thousand years. The sceptics accused Mann of cherry-picking his data and criticised him for refusing to disclose his statistical methods which, they claimed, biased the study to show recent warming (New Scientist, 18 March, p 40). Last year, Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, ordered Mann to provide the committee with voluminous details of his working procedures, computer programs and past funding. Barton's demands were widely condemned by fellow scientists and on Capitol Hill. "There are people who believe that if they bring down Mike Mann, they can bring down the IPCC," said Santer at the time. Mann's findings, which will be endorsed in the new IPCC report, have since been replicated by other studies.

Santer says, however, that he expects attacks to continue on other fronts. "There is a strategy to single out individuals, tarnish them and try to bring the whole of the science into disrepute," he says. "And Kevin [Trenberth] is a likely target." Mann agrees that the scientists behind the upcoming IPCC report are in for a rough ride. "There is already an orchestrated campaign against the IPCC by climate change contrarians," he says.

The "contrarians" include scientists and politicians who are sceptical of the scientific evidence for climate change. Some of those who spoke to New Scientist insist that they are not planning character assassinations, and intend merely to engage in robust scientific debate, not least by challenging the IPCC's status as the arbiter of truth on climate change.

Many of the IPCC's authors, some of whom asked not to be named, say this is a smokescreen. They claim there is an extensive network of lobby groups and scientists involved in making the case against the IPCC and its reports. Automobile, coal and oil companies have coordinated and funded past attacks on them, the scientists say. Sometimes this has been done through Washington lobby groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), whose officers include Myron Ebell, a former climate negotiator for George W. Bush's administration. Recently, the CEI made television advertisements arguing against climate change, one of which ended with the words: "Carbon dioxide, they call it pollution, we call it life." CEI's past funders include ExxonMobil, General Motors and the Ford Motor Company.

Some sceptical scientists are funded directly by industry. In July, The Washington Post published a leaked letter from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), an energy company based in Colorado, that exhorted power companies to support the work of the prominent sceptic Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Worried about the potential cost of cleaning up coal-fired power plants to reduce their CO2 emissions, IREA's general manager, Stanley Lewandowski, wrote: "We believe that it is necessary to support the scientific community that is willing to stand up against the alarmists... In February this year, IREA alone contributed $100,000 to Dr Michaels."

So what is this money buying? For one, an ability to coordinate responses to the IPCC reports. Michaels told New Scientist that a flashpoint in the upcoming report could be hurricanes. Trenberth, who is the head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, has angered the IPCC's critics by supporting the idea of a link between global warming and the intensity of hurricanes. The sceptics insist there is no published evidence to back this up. Trenberth says he is simply putting two established facts together: "Sea-surface temperature is rising because of global warming, and high sea-surface temperatures make for more intense storms."

Past Peak's jokes of the day focus on has-been US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Twenty-three years ago two men shook hands [on screen: a 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein]. No one then could have guessed how closely their fates would be intertwined, or that this week would be kind of a crappy week for both of them. Just days after Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, Donald Rumsfeld was dealt an even crueler punishment — irrelevance. — Jon Stewart

Donald Rumsfeld was known as the architect of the Iraq war. He can feel proud of what he's built, because it's going to last for years and years and years. — Jay Leno

Steve at Deconsumption has been pondering German efforts to prosecute Rumsfeld for war crimes, along with what the topic of conversation could be at meetings between Bush, Ehud Olmert and their respective intelligence chiefs.
Keep in mind that the Military Commissions Act won't carry much weight outside of the U.S. So perhaps Rumsfeld will eventually end up on a few "no-fly" lists around Europe. A nuisance, yes, but's good to be der Fuhrer. [Ed. update: Reader Leo B. let me know that The Nation has just covered the suit, and the piece makes it clear that the Military Commissions Act is itself being used in the case--and with precedent--as evidence of "intent to block prosecution"].

Yes, I think the recent turns of fate have thrown a serious wrench into NeoCon plans for....well, whatever the hell their plans are for. [Ed. update: Congress to stall on approval for warrantless wiretapping until next year] And certainly the agenda for war against Iran is slipping further away from them with every passing day. Indeed, at this point, so long as Ahmadinajad doesn't allow himself to be baited into attacking Western forces, I suspect that every other member of the international community is more than happy to wait until January when the new Congress turns over and American policy might once again place diplomacy above warmongering.

But still, I can't help thinking about this recent slumber-party I reported on in the last post between Bush and (Israeli Prime Minister) Olmert and (Director of National Intelligence) John Negropont and (Mossad director) Meir Dagan. In truth, I'm ready to reverse my long-stated opinion that reason and sanity would ultimately prevail over NeoCon war plans against Iran. I now suspect that reason and sanity are not going to be allowed to sit at the table. And I suspect an attack on Iran will occur within the next few weeks.

After all, what would these guys really have to talk about in an unprecedented meeting between these two Intelligence directors at this pivotal juncture in the Mid-East situation? Withdrawal tactics? Defense preparations? Diplomatic strategies?

Israel official: Strike on Iran possible
"The deputy defense minister suggested Friday that Israel might be forced to launch a military strike against Iran's disputed nuclear program — the clearest statement yet of such a possibility from a high-ranking official."

With the breaking of political ranks in the White House, and in the face of a public which is increasingly willing to question whether people really should be tortured and slaughtered for their "way of life", the chances for the Bush administration to spearhead a pre-emptive strike against Iran have gotten mighty slim indeed.

But how would a lame duck Congress react if it was Israel that launched the first missiles?

Would they continue to ride these changing winds of public opinion and withdraw troops from harm's way in Iraq?

Or might they instead claim that now their hand has been "forced"? And that they must act in "defense" of those troops, geographically sandwiched as they are between two fiercesome aggressors?

It's worth noting as well that Israeli leaders don't play games. They talk the talk, sure. But they also walk the walk. And I believe that they believe that the endgame for them is coming soon, regardless of whether the U.S. is there to back them up or not. So to stand by and watch American forces begin to withdraw from the Mid-East--even if only gradually, and not completely--would likely leave the Israeli administration before the bitter prospect of embracing statesmanship once again over brinksmanship. Is it already too late for the ego of Israeli leaders to reconsider the path of humility?

I have no doubt that it was exactly such questions as the above that were being debated over Cheetos and Mountain Dew during that giggly slumber-party last week in Jerusalem. And indeed, this weekend it's Bush's turn to host the sleep-over:
"Olmert, who was arriving in Washington on Sunday, said he was confident in the U.S. handling of the international standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

..."I have enormous respect for President Bush. He is absolutely committed," Olmert said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show. "I know that America will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons because this is a danger to the whole Western world."

Yes, well...sleep tight kids.


An unusually sobre assessment of solar. I agree that when coal,oil, uranium and gas have run out that we will be solar dependent. If that means every person needs so many square metres of PV panels and so many kwh of energy storage then I don't think it can be done for 6.5 billion people. The Hon. Treasurer has seen the light on carbon trading now he should think about the baby bonus.

Anonymous   says 1:26 PM

Oddly, it's the least technologically advanced nations that are breeding like rabbits: Europe is well below the 2.1 live birth/couple replacement rate needed to maintain a stable population, the US is just a hair under 2.1, China is seriously reconsidering their 1 child per couple policy because they're running out of females, etc. If Malthus were right then these countries, where you can stuff yourself on twinkies and ho-ho's to your heart's content, the birth rate should be off the chart but it don't work that way, do it?

Seems like instead the further we move away from subsistance farming the less desireable large families are so we wind up hacing children almost like pets - nice to have a couple to carry on the family name, but not necessary. It becomes a serious problem for an advanced society to maintain that 2.1 birth rate.

So there's just no downside in converting to solar in the long run. We only need about 4%-5% of the incident sunlight on the Earth to supply all our needs and it's not going to drive us into some insane frenzy to overpopulate. If anything the reverse is true: We'll have to guard against UNDERbreeding ourselves.

Anonymous I think we need to distinguish between the resource adequacy problem and what I call the 'flipping burgers problem'. By that I mean the need for large pools of semi-skilled labour. I think the resource problem is more limiting. Until it sorts itself out we can hire guest workers or devise labour saving ways; example home nursing as opposed to nursing homes. The daily news tells me Australia has enough permanent residents.

Anonymous   says 5:58 PM

One useful feature of solar thermal is its ability to store energy, and thus be available as a source of intermediate as well as peaking power. As solar PV and wind generating technologies become more prevalent, solar thermal's load balancing capability becomes more valuable.

Reuel Shinnar and Francesco Citro's research on solar thermal is posted at the Clean Fuels Institute. I recommend Solar Thermal Energy: The Forgotten Energy Source and Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy Mix.

In "Decabonization," Shinnar and Citro report estimates of solar thermal electricity retailing at 10.4 cents US per KWh near term and 8.6 cents US per KWH in the future. That compares to 22.5 cents US per KWh for solar PV at present, and 7 cents US per KWh projected for the future.

By my calculation, using the SEGS system in the Mohave desert as a reference, a 3300-acre (5 sq. mi.) solar thermal installation will generate 1 GW. And the Energy Blog article you quoted says "The 'Solel 6' collector increases overall yearly production of electricity by 30% compared to original SEGS collectors," which implies that a proportional reduction in acreage may be possible. That would put acreage demand between standard and concentrating solar PV.

The discussion of acreage demand for solar leads me to wonder what the acreage demand is for, say, an equivalent amount of electricity derived from coal. Anyone seen any estimates of that?

I haven't yet seen a full life cycle analysis of solar thermal, but this industry white paper claims an energy payback period of five months.

--Laurence Aurbach

Anonymous   says 7:12 PM

Gav, this later comment (and some long ones from 'Alan') from the Jeff Vail thread on solar is worth some thought.


Anonymous said...
I think you are trying so hard to find fault that you are missing some basics. PV systems are not energy sources or fuel. That would be sunlight. The hardware is the collection and utilization infrastructure. Every thing that humans do includes a lot of that kind of overhead. So what?

Secondly human energy is something we have to expend to stay healthy and alive. Is it better spent at the PV plant or at the gym on a stationary bike? Whats the EROI on growing carrots in the garden? It takes the expenditure of human energy to survive. If it takes an hour to prepare a meal that we eat in 15 minutes we don't roll over and die instead of eating because it is too ineficient.

Third the price of items has almost nothing to do with value. The price of crude oil went up 3 dollars per barrel within a couple of days of the US election. Oil and natural gas prices have doubled, tripled and quadrupled at times. How can that kind of volatility reflect anything rationally linked to value. The whole notion of supply and demand pricing makes any argument for using price as an energy index look like nonsense. It also totally ignores the other important qualities of any energy option. Burning coal, gas and oil at the rates we have (made possible by low cost which reflects high EROI) is destroying the very planet we need to survive. An alternative that is much cleaner is worth a great deal more. And then there is the higher cost of extremely high efficiency in buildings, vehicles etc. It is worth a great deal if it drastically lowers environmental impact.

Using high EROI numbers for oil and gas as the gold standard by which to compare other options implies that we will find something as good to replace fossil fuels. That is likely an impossible dream. It's that logic, and the lethargy it has enabled, that has allowed us to continue chatting about these obscure things for the last 3 decades instead of using the remaining time we have access to this high energy fossil fuel windfall to rebuild our infrastructure into something more sustainable. We won the lottery when we stumbled onto these fossil energy stores. It will always look too hard to have to go back to work earning a living until we use up the last lottery check and find ourselves on the street.


8:04 AM

Thanks everyone for the comments.

John - I'm not so certain 6.5 billion people can't be provided adequate energy from renewable sources (a mix of solar, wind, ocean, geothermal and biofuels), especially if we focus heavily on efficiency. I'll do a detailed post looking at this one day.

Lawrence - thanks for pointing out the load balancing aspect of solar thermal - I hadn't considered that benefit of it.

Shane - I agree with the commenter at ATOP that price based estimates of EROEI seem dubious - but I find the whole emergy thing a bit confusing once you start looking at the bigger picture - if you take every energy input into account I'd actually expect EROEI for almost any fuel source to tend towards 1 (look at the industrial base required to support the US military that enables access to middle eastern oil - if you work out all the inputs that go into creating that I'd bet even Saudi oil doesn't have such a high EROEI after all)

Anonymous   says 6:17 PM

I agree with your sentiment about emergy... I got the impression that that was what some of the posters were trying to get at.

What do you count and in what units. It makes all the difference.

Is the security infrastructure counted in assesments of Nuclear (or the workers diets)?

One thing I noted on a visit to Ranger is that the entire site (and Jabiluka) is powered by diesel. Darwin is ~300 km away. Everything is trucked or flown in.

To do an EROEI on this site... do we inlcude the construction of the roads?


I've seen this problem referred to a few times (there is a thread on it at Energy Resources at the moment) - basically once you count everything in society that supports creating any energy infrastrcuture, the EROEI number tends towards 1.

Only a society that is very energy unintensive would break this relationship. An obvious example of this is an economy that mostly focusses on services, not products...

(or Jay Hanson's "society of sloth", of course - a society which doesn't do much of anything).

Even if PV solar has an EROEI of 1 - we are at least banking energy squandered today into a form that lasts for 30 years - which is better than burning it up in bog cars or whatever...

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