Book Review: “Solar” by Ian McEwan

Oct 04 2014

Link to Amazon Kindle edition.

I found this in this Amazon list of global warming fiction, which in turn I found at this post in the Facebook Climate Change Fiction group.

This is another excellent global warming novel. As well it should be. The author has his own Wikipedia page and has been featured on a list of the greatest 50 British writers since the war by The Times. So he was well established as a successful writer when he published “Solar” in 2010. The book has its own Wikipedia page as well.

In preparing this novel, he had the chance to speak to climate scientists John Schellnhuber and Stefan Rahmstorf. It shows in how the characters talk about global warming. While much of this book is satire, the parts about the scientific basic of global warming are well informed and close to reality. Rahmstorf says in his review that he would be tempted to steal a speech in the book almost verbatim. Plagiarism is a compliment, even when not actually done.

My favorite line from this novel:

“Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”

That one line sums up an important conflict for everyone interested in mitigating the disaster of global warming. The main character (a Nobel Prize winner professor called Michael Beard) is discussing his desert solar energy project with his business partner, Toby. Toby says he needs global warming for their business plan to succeed. In his words:

“If the place isn’t hotting up, we’re fucked.”

But Beard has great news:

“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change”

And Beard delivers more of these excellent news, all major catastrophes, in the following sentences.

Obviously, there is a problem with calling “a third of a million people a year dying” “good news”.

The only good thing about early damages from the global warming disaster is that they help to bring the message out, as a warning of the much greater misery ahead.

But it sure makes global warming activists look bad that, by the logic of things, they look like they are rejoicing in Hurricane Sandy or some similar extreme weather event.

Beard has some problems in his personal life. Women. Overeating. Failure in simple things. Quite a lot of the space in the novel discusses them.

Obviously, the failure to keep a healthy diet is one good metaphor when talking about global warming. We need to emit less carbon, and Michael Beard needs to reduce his overeating.

But in that novel he is unable to do so. While he understands the need for starting a diet, as well as the need to do something about the cancer growing on his hand, he is unable on an emotional level to actually follow through.

One of the stories in this book is summarized with the words “unwitting thief”. Beard sits in a railroad compartment. He wants to eat some snack from a bag he just bought at the station and is annoyed at the guy on the other side reaching into the bag and helping himself to some of the contents.

Only after he has got off, he finds his bag of snacks still in his coat pocket, and finds out that he has been the one stealing.

An absent-minded professor like Beard is an excellent choice for a character in this tale. He uses it in one of his speeches, but fails to come up with a convincing way to turn this into a global warming metaphor.

My idea for this: The bag with the snack is not Beard’s, and all the fossil fuel is not ours. We are stealing it from later generations, if we just eat along without ever putting any stored energy back into the reserves.

Anyway, I liked this a lot.

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Another Smil Mistake

Oct 01 2014

Craig Morris writes another  long debunking article pointing out some mistakes in something Vaclav Smil wrote about the German Energiewende.

Morris points out more than five errors. But there is also is this extraordinary claim by Smil:

The levelized cost of German photovoltaic electricity is easily four times that of coal-based generation.

Let’s do some fact-checking.

Right now, the feed-in tariffs for solar are between 9.16 and 13.05 cents Euro (since today, depending on the size of the project).

Since Smil wrote “easily”, we’ll take the lower figure (9.16) and divide that by four to get 2.29 cents for coal-based generation in Smil’s alternative universe.

In reality, the latest study quoted at the relevant German Wikipedia page gives cost for new coal between 6.3 and 8.0 cents.

This is important. The biggest success of the German feed-in tariff system was to bring prices down. Which will help deploying solar faster everywhere.

The basic premise of Smil’s article is wrong as well. Of course opponents of the transition to renewable energy in Germany like the INSM losers have noticed this and tried to make hay from this particular talking point.

The only way to avoid this problem with a feed-in tariff would be to approve lower surcharges for low income households, as there are already exceptions for industry and railways.

But that would make the system even more complicated, which is really not warranted for the couple of Euro a month the average household actually pays in surcharge costs.

The last time I wrote about Smil here was under the headline “Smil mistake“, pointing out a simple error in one of his books. This is another one.

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The Hammelburg Story

Sep 29 2014

This story is showing in German right now at the website of Hans-Josef Fell, the former Green member of Parliament who was one of the authors of the German feed-in tariff.

It is about the experience of the small town of Hammelburg. It has a population of around 11,000.

In 1993, the local electricity provider decided to pay 2 German mark per kWh for solar electricity, up to a capacity of 15 kW, and finance that with a surcharge of 0.0015 mark (about 0.o7 cents Euro). A private company was founded and investors came up with 210,000 German mark (around 100,000 Euro). They installed solar panels and got their feed-in tariffs.

At the time, Hans-Josef Fell had high hopes. He thought in 1996 that Germany might be able to reach a whopping 80 MW a year if that principle of a feed-in tariff was extended to the whole country.

The actual success of this model was better by close to two orders of magnitude. It is interesting to look back and see that 80 MW a year was something people would value as a high number.

Now the solar panels at Hammelburg have worked for 20 years. And they are expected to work for at least another 20 years.

That’s another point worth noting. Solar panels are not going away once they are paid for (after twenty years). Those couple of kW in Hammelburg are among the first that celebrate such an anniversary. But they won’t be the last.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what that means for the price of solar electricity (hint: it is much lower than what you’d get if you assume only 20 years of operation).

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Book Review: Star’s Reach, by John Michael Greer

Sep 28 2014

Link to Kindle version.

This is one of the best global warming fiction books I have read.

It is set in what is left of the United States a couple of hundred years in the future. All the fossil fuel is burnt, all the ice is gone, sea levels are much higher, and there is not much left of modern technology.

People walk long distances to travel, or ride horses if they are rich.

The main character Trey is a “ruinman”, which is the profession of going into old buildings and trying to find scraps left over from the collapse of civilization. Mostly metal.

And the story is a quest for “Star’s Reach”, which is the most famous ruin yet not found by anybody. Every ruinman’s big dream is to get a piece of this dig.

Eventually Trey finds the Star’s Reach. And he finds that humans have successfully communicated with multiple alien races too far away to ever actually visit, or have them visit Earth.

One interesting point was that in those communications, some of the aliens mentioned the “usual mistake”, which seems to be burning all the fossil fuel. And some of the alien civilizations are even worse off than humanity as a consequence of that usual mistake.

The humans are not off too bad. They disapprove of burning fossil fuel (there is a scene where someone is buried alive for burning some natural gas). But their society is functioning. People can walk the roads without being robbed. The ruinmen are organized in guilds and have excellent relations with each other. People have a great time every year when the rains start falling, with lots of parties.

One of the characters wants to make sure that the old errors are not repeated. And much of society is wired against the ways of the old civilization.

I am not quite sure that there is a need for that. If all the fossil fuel is burned, it will take millions of years to form again, and it will be impossible to repeat the “usual mistake”, even if there were no objections.

All in all, this is a rather optimistic view of the future after the carbon party is over.

The story proceeds in a non-linear way. The order of pages and the order of things happening in the story is not the same. It jumps all over the time line. It is as if the author, who holds the title of “archdruid”, was writing the book in the order of the things he wanted most to write, and didn’t bother to change the order back to a linear progression once he was done with that.

But that worked rather well for me with this book. I may want to try this myself for one of my next novels.

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New “Power to Gas” Technology

Sep 28 2014

The way to go for large-scale storage of renewable electricity ispower to gas“, which means making hydrogen from water. Germany can store up to 200 TWh with the existing gas infrastructure, much more than the around 30 TWh needed in a 100% renewable electricity scenario. And hybrid wind power plants with the ability to store energy over hydrogen are already starting up.

Most existing projects are wind parks. But now SPIEGEL reports about a new technology for solar “power to gas”.

Researchers have developed a solar cell that is able to directly split water. It does not produce electricity in a first step and splits the water in a second step, but only has one step. Just like plants’ photosynthesis produces carbohydrates directly, this solar cell will produce hydrogen directly.

It beats photosynthesis (efficiency of about one percent) by a large margin, converting already 12.3% of the solar energy into hydrogen energy, even at this early prototype stage. And this solar cell uses no expensive materials, which means it will be even cheaper than photovoltaic solar cells.

In the short term, this will solve the remaining storage problems with a 100% renewable grid even cheaper than already existing alternatives. In the long term, this will replace oil.

Oil is ancient biomass. When storing the energy, the efficiency was only about one percent. Then it took millions of years and random geological processes to actually create the oil.

It is obvious that there is no way this could be competitive, except for the fact that we are burning oil that is already in the ground. Which can be done exactly once for each barrel.

Once peak oil becomes downhill oil and then gone oil,  making our liquid fuel ourselves as opposed to burning through the reserves will be the only alternative anyway. It took 5.3 million years to build up the fossil fuel humanity burns in one year. There is no way this is sustainable.

So we will need to make our fuel, instead of burning the reserves. One-step hydrogen production from cheap materials is a big deal for doing that.

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Desert Fox

Sep 27 2014

Attribution for the picture: Wikimedia Commons


In my review of George Marshall’s book on global warming messaging, I noted that the usual symbol (polar bear) is actually not suited to the task, according to Marshall. I agree. Polar bears are great when you want people to think about a cool drink. They don’t make much sense on an emotional level if you want to talk about heat.

Marshall notes that, but does not try to show a better alternative. I didn’t either, at the time, but left that for later.

With this post, I propose the desert fox as a symbol.

I got to that choice by searching on Google with “desert cute animal”, for obvious reasons.

The picture above is from the relevant Wikipedia article, the section on keeping them as pets.

That’s good. You can’t keep a polar bear as a pet.

They are the world’s smallest canids, at a length of about 24 cm. That’s good, because people relate to dogs very well (another canid).

Their big ears are there for a reason. That reason is to dissipate heat. Another excellent fit for the “heat” narrative.

They are not only the smallest canids out there, but their ears look like a two bladed wind turbine. They do to me, at least. I may be somewhat unreasonable there.

They also don’t need to drink any water. Their burrowing can cause the formation of dew, and they can take the necessary liquid only from eating prey.

That’s good, since it is a nice symbol for drought, one of the unpleasant consequences of global warming.

I am not sure if this proposal will gain any traction. I for one will start out using it when talking about energy from the desert. As far as I know, the Desertec industrial initiative still has not adopted polar bears as an animal symbol, so there is an obvious void to be filled.

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European Grid 10 Year Development Plan

Sep 27 2014

Dii (Desertec industrial initiative) discusses the latest 10 year plan for developing the European electricity grid of 2014.

They note that some of the projects for connecting Europe to Northern Africa that were included in the last 2012 plan have been dropped. The latest edition aims for one (in numbers 1) interconnection of 0.6 GW, to be ready by 2030.

And they call on ENTSO-E, the European network of transmission system operators for electricity, to reverse these steps in the wrong direction.

They note correctly that Northern Africa has better solar and wind resources than Europe and that therefore it makes even more sense to produce solar electricity there than in Germany.

I agree with that.

And the best way to get those power lines built: Just go ahead and build the capacity in Northern Africa anyway. There is a domestic market for the first couple of decades. Proceed to build the power lines once there is a clear price advantage that makes it profitable to have them.

And while the power lines are not in place, there is always the options of using quicklime for transporting solar energy from Africa to Europe, of using the energy right in the desert to suck up CO2, or to make some silicon.

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Book Review: Don’t Even Think About It, by George Marshall

Sep 25 2014

Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall, link to the Kindle edition.

This review is in the “Global Warming Fiction” section, though it is not fiction. But I recommend reading it for anyone writing global warming fiction.

And anyone concerned about how to improve the impact of global warming campaigning.

I started writing global warming science fiction novels in the first place because Bruce Schneier pointed out what George Marshall did in this book. Again, here is a link to the Youtube video of Schneier’s talk:

The Security Mirage

In that talk, Schneier explains that the ability to accurately assess risks is important for survival in evolution. He uses the example of a rabbit who hears a predator approaching. If he bolts to soon, he will starve. If he bolts to late, he will be eaten.

Humans have evolved in the same environment. That means that visible, present, individual risks with a face and a name like a large predator will impress humans.  In contrast, abstract, slow changes in the environment will not.

I have not found any reference to Schneier in Marshall’s book, but he makes the same point in much more detail and backed up with opinions from many noted experts in related fields like psychology.

So I find confirmed what I already knew. But there is much more.

For starters, Marshall fictionally attributes global warming to the North Koreans. I discussed this yesterday, and he wrote that at the Guardian as well:

The discovery that North Korea has been secretly pumping climate-altering chemicals into the atmosphere in an attempt to destroy agricultural production across the US has sparked an international crisis.

This is an excellent way to show the basic point. Global warming is a problem without the face of an enemy. If this really was some plot to intentionally inflict damage by a clearly defined bad actor, the reaction would be much more decisive than the lukewarm response global warming got until now.

Next up: Marshall shows that some of the symbols used in connection with global warming campaigns are not chosen very well.

For one, the idea of turning of lights for one “Earth Hour” is actually exactly what denial campaigners like to use. They want to paint global warming activism as turning the lights off.

Next, the polar bear symbol. That makes as much sense in the context of global warming as choosing a camel if you were concerned about global cooling.

Marshall doesn’t try to find better alternatives. I will do so right now.

The “Earth Hour” event should be one hour of fun with electrical vehicles and solar panels. People getting together to celebrate all the technology we already have. I don’t have time to elaborate in this post, but the basic idea would be to get a community experience and to turn the lights on brightly and have a party, instead of turning them off.

I don’t know what to do about the polar bear yet. (Update: I propose the desert fox as an alternative).

The most interesting part of this book for me was Chapter 32, titled “Wellhead and Tailpipe”.

He notes that most solutions (like the European Emission Trade System) are concerned with the consumer side, the tailpipe, the gas emissions. In contrast, there is not much discussion about what could be done at the producer’s end, the wellhead.

That’s interesting, because my favorite solution (phaseout profit theory) is addressing the wellhead. I think the owners of fossil fuel could make enormous extra profits by reducing their production voluntarily and see prices shoot up because of reduced supply. I have a category on this blog with over 50 posts discussing that basic idea.

And I learn from that chapter that wellhead solutions are much easier than tailpipe solutions. That’s because there are only very few producers involved. Marshall says only about ten major oil producers. They can all easily fit around one medium sized table and figure out how to reduce production in the most profitable way.

And the next Chapter 33 is titled “The Black Gooey Stuff – Why Oil Companies Await Our Permission to Go Out of Business”.

That was also rather interesting. He cites someone from Shell like this:

The oil industry is not given the permission to make a transition out of fossil fuels. The main reason is that the international agenda is driven by people with political agendas that are unrelated to solving the problem.

After thinking about the issue for about 0.5 seconds, I have decided to give the oil industry the permission to make that transition.

And I think we should give them a permission that is actually worth a lot of money. That is an antitrust exception allowing a coordinated phaseout.

As discussed earlier, the famous Standard Oil antitrust case decided by the American Supreme Court a hundred years ago gives these reasons for antitrust law:

1. The power which the monopoly gave to the one who enjoyed it to fix the price and thereby injure the public; 2. The power which it engendered of enabling a limitation on production; and, 3. The danger of deterioration in quality of the monopolized article which it was deemed was the inevitable resultant of the monopolistic control over its production and sale. (Emphasis mine).

“Enabling a limitation on production” is not a “danger” right now. It is exactly what we need to make happen.

They should love this antitrust exception so much that they might even accept a moderate carbon price of $50 a ton in exchange.


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North Korea Behind Global Warming

Sep 24 2014

Just revealed in the Guardian:

The discovery that North Korea has been secretly pumping climate-altering chemicals into the atmosphere in an attempt to destroy agricultural production across the US has sparked an international crisis.

This is not true. I know better. Global warming, or global meltdown as it should be called more realistically, is caused by the evil alien hypnotist Khalmorot. He hypnotized humanity into burning all that fossil fuel. We couldn’t possibly be so stupid all by ourselves. If we were, we wouldn’t have been smart enough to develop civilization in the first place.

He did that because he needs us in his TV show “Heat Games”. We are heating up the planet so that his alien audience can have a good laugh about us, and the TV program can sell some commercials. I hear that “Heat Games” has excellent ratings, with billions of alien viewers. They need to be entertained, even if it ruins our planet beyond recovery.

This is a secret, so don’t tell anyone. I was able to find it out two years ago and wrote about it here.

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California Desert Plans

Sep 24 2014

Good news from California. AP reports that they have designated 2 million desert acres as appropriate sites for renewable energy projects. Thanks again to Chris Nelder for the link.

That’s 2 million acres out of a total of 22.5 million, or less than 10 percent. There is plenty of desert left for endangered turtles.

I also learned that Google and other operators of the newly opened Ivanpah thermal solar project had a $20 million budget to collect these turtles and locate them elsewhere.

Of course it makes sense to locate renewable energy projects in areas of the desert where there are less turtles in the first place. If they are an endangered species, one would expect them not to show up all over the desert area, leaving some areas more suitable for renewable energy projects than others. And it makes sense to identify those areas, so the developers can save the cost of relocation.

Of course there will be some conservationists who insist that not one acre of desert may be used for renewable energy. They are misguided. Ivanpah will contribute around 1 TWh of clean energy each year, displacing fossil fuel and saving 400,000 tons of CO2 emissions. That is an important contribution to fight global warming, which will lead to massive species extinction on a global scale.


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