Munich Re Continues to Back Desert Based Solar

Oct 18 2014

Says this article at PV-Tech. They cite Munich Re renewable energy spokesman Stefan Straub like this:

“The concept phase is closed and something new needs to be developed. The three main companies that remain in Dii will continue this development as they are industrial companies and project leading companies, which we are not.”

But he added that Munich RE was not done with projects in the region, as it just reinsured Noor 1, one of the biggest solar projects in North Africa, which also happens to be run by ACWA Power, one of the remaining shareholders in Dii. “Of course we still support the idea to have solar power developed in the desert regions,” said Straub.

In other words, it made sense to distribute the cost for writing reports in the “concept phase” widely among interested companies. It makes less sense to do so once the concept is clear and you move on into developing actual projects.

And, as far as Munich Re is concerned, they will still help renewable energy in Northern Africa as part of their business, like with the Noor 1 project.

That’s welcome news. I have Munich Re in my list of global warming stocks (and own some stock of the company) because I like their approach to renewable energy. I might have wanted to change that opinion if I thought their move out of the Dii means that they are suddenly opposed to solar in the Sahara.

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Desertec Setback

Oct 16 2014

Most of the participating companies in the “Desertec industrial initiative (Dii)” have decided not to extend their membership over the end of this year.

After this decision, Dii is left only with the World’s largest electric utility company (SGCC), one of the largest German utilities (RWE), and ACWA from Saudi Arabia. These are still some serious players. Especially the Chinese grid company SGCC has experience with energy from the desert. There is already quite a lot of wind power in Inner Mongolia, and the Chinese are not shy about building the necessary power lines to distribute that power over the whole country.

A large majority of the stakeholders is out. See for example this Guardian article.

Many people don’t understand that the “industrial initiative” was scheduled to run only for three years in the first place, that it has been running already longer than originally planned, that its mission was not to actually build desert power plants, but publish reports on how to best go ahead.

Having the Dii scale back strongly because most of the member companies are leaving does certainly not mean that suddenly it makes no sense to generate solar and wind power in Northern Africa. Of course it does.

It remains to be seen if it makes sense to export much of the desert electricity to Europe a couple of decades from now, once Desertec scales up. The fact that a couple of companies decided that they want to pull out of the Dii does not much to influence that decision in either direction.

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10,000 Generations

Oct 08 2014

The Wikipedia article “Human” says that it’s been 200,000 years since anatomically modern humans developed in Africa.

Taking an average of 20 years for one generation, that leaves us with about 10,000 human generations in our history until now. The last 200 years in which most of the fossil fuel burned until now has been used account for only 10 of those, or only about 0.1 percent.

It is quite obvious that if humans want to survive another 10,000 generations, we need to phase out fossil fuels sooner or later. There is not enough left for even another 10 generations at present consumption rates.

It is an interesting question what percentage of the fossil fuel treasure these 10 generations already burned through. I am quite sure that is is substantially more than 0.1 percent, but I am not able to give an exact figure right now. I may want to come back to that question in a later post.

Anyway, once you look at the big picture (10,000 generations), it becomes super evident that humanity needs to phaseout fossil fuel anyway, even without our little global warming problem.

The only question is how fast that will happen. And, from my point of view (phaseout profit theory), if the fossil fuel companies will deal with the phaseout in a way that makes them money.

Which is to reduce production faster than necessary anyway, so as to increase prices early on in the transition.



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What Excessive Costs?

Oct 05 2014

I disagree with Michael Liebreich, who does not like feed-in tariffs. But in his latest piece for a conservative website, he asks a great question:

Germany may have reached over 25% renewable electricity, but at what excessive cost to its household energy users?

I am not aware of any “excessive costs” of the feed-in tariff system, compared to auction systems favored by Liebreich. That’s because an auction system increases the complexity of the regulation (something Liebreich says he doesn’t like). It increases the risks for anybody brave enough to participate, and, as a consequence, the amount of interest they need to pay their banks. There is the completely new risk of failing to succeed with any bid. There is the completely new risk of having to pay high penalties because the project gets delayed for one reason or another.  So I am far from convinced that feed-in tariffs come with “excessive costs”.

But the nice thing is that we will now see how exactly this will play out. The latest reform in Germany wants to phase out feed-in tariffs and phase in auction systems. We will see if that leads to “less regulation”. And we will see if it will lead to less costs.

I would be surprised if it does.

Anyway, at this point, it doesn’t matter much any more. Costs of solar are down so far (as a result of the German feed-in tariff Liebreich disagrees with) that increasing them somewhat with a less efficient auction model won’t change the big picture any more. Solar and wind energy will continue their explosive exponential growth world wide.

Also, a feed-in tariff system like the German one that makes the rates dependent on installation records actually is a very simple auction model, with a minimum of regulation. If the market goes down below the target rate, the feed-in tariff goes down slower or goes even up again. That means the feed-in tariff is reacting to the market, as opposed to being fixed only by the state.

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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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