Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Our Planet - Part 3 Nuclear

This post continues with the series on Our Plant discussing energy and climate change. If you have not seen the previous posts on climate change and Germany's green energy policy then you may want to read these first. For this post I want to pay particular attention to possible solutions to produce cleaner energy for the 21st Century. There is a focus on nuclear energy, an energy source that has fallen out of favour with many people at the moment but a source that myself and many others see as offering great potential and realistically at this point in time the only way to obtain a plentiful and clean source of energy.

Energy is the lifeblood of any developed society. Electricity is all around us and has created a world of wonders, a life of luxury that we would have once only dreamed of. As the century progresses our needs for more energy in particular electrical energy, is going to increase more and more. China and other developing countries in south east Asia and India will continue getting more prosperous and consequently demand more energy, China continues to build a new coal power plant every week. If we are serious about removing our dependence on fossil fuels then that means using electric transport which will put a colossal strain on our current power needs along with increased energy usage in our domestic homes despite all the energy saving technology over the past 20 years. It means replacing our gas boilers, cookers and hobs with electric power and all of these are high wattage items.

In the previous post I made a brief remark that nuclear should be the fuel of choice which goes against the mainstream opinion that believe wind and solar will be our baseload energy sources. I'm not dead against these alternatives but as my previous post points out there are many fundamental issues with these technologies and in comparison to nuclear they are in my opinion uninspiring. When we talk about power generated by coal, gas, oil, solar all involve chemical reactions by getting energy from the electrons of the atom. Hydroelectric gets its power from gravity, wind in effect is solar energy a by product is wind that moves particles around. Nuclear is the only one that involves getting energy by manipulating the actual atom. An atomic reaction produces a million times more energy then a chemical reaction. The source of all life on our planet, the sun, is one large nuclear reactor. Its able to generate so much power, power levels we can't begin to comprehend by manipulating matter at the atomic level. Not only only does Nuclear have so much energy potential it can generate energy on demand. It is also a "clean" energy emitting no CO2 and very little in terms of construction costs. Despite its reputation its also the safest form of energy and I will elaborate on this point later. That may seem completely wrong but when you actually crunch the numbers it really is true. There is no energy which is 100% safe, all sources have risks. Lastly a majority of climate scientists believe nuclear is the only current option we have at trying to reduce CO2 emissions. Past environmentalists, who were once hostile to nuclear such as George Monboit or past members of Greenpeace are now accepting nuclear as the only option. With such a wide range of supporters there must be something about the energy source to garner support from all walks of life.

How do we get energy from Nuclear? Theres two methods, one you split the atom known as fission the other is where you fuse atoms together known fusion. Fusion is what powers our Sun, unfortunately it is not something we have been able to master and all attempts have resulted in having to put more energy in then the energy we got out of it meaning its just theory now. We know it works as our sun does it all the time, we just haven't worked out how to do it in a controlled and efficient manner (the sun uses its huge gravity to do the process, we have to use other artificial means). The other, fission, is what I wish to focus on. This has worked for decades and is a proven source of energy. It involves splitting an atom and the heat from such a reaction is used to heat water which generates steam, which drives a turbine which in turn is connected to an electrical generator that spins at very high speed. Its all standard stuff apart from the splitting atoms part to generate the heat. In conventional plants its by burning coal or gas in a chemical reaction to heat the water.

Another point to consider before I go any further is a quick discussion of radiation. We are constantly bombarded by radiation every day. We get it from the sun, from rocks even our partners when we sleep. We even eat it, bananas for example are packed full of radiation. It is all around us yet our bodies can handle such dosages. They key thing to remember is the concentration of the radiation. Of course getting next to a nuclear reaction would be too much, but a small leakage that is dispersed in the ocean may be so insignificant as to be only a small fraction compared with background radiation. Not all radiation is deadly as we will see despite what many artistic writes may say.

Nuclear Safety Myths

One of the first topics to tackle is the incorrect fallacy that Nuclear is the most dangerous form of energy. There have been three major accidents during its 60 years in use, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukisima. The fact that most people know all these accidents shows how reliable nuclear is when you compare it to all other forms of energy. Thousands of people die from coal mining each year, gas explosions happen all the time killing hundreds, oil rigging accidents are common, hundreds die from the installation of solar and wind, which also kills many animals that either fry or get chopped up by the respective energy forms. Hundreds of thousands of people died in China back in the 1970's when a hydroelectric damn collapsed. If we look at the three accidents of Nuclear by comparison the worst was Chernobyl. If you read up about the accident its as comical as it is tragic. The power plant installation broke all nuclear conventions at the time but as it was within the Soviet Union was not subject to the same international build standards. The fire occurred when the operators decided for whatever reason to do some experimental tests and once the core began to overheat rather than declare an emergency instead argued among themselves as what to do. Once a fire crew was dispatched they didn't even have the correct clothing in order to protect themselves from the radiation. Many would later die from such high dosage levels. For the initial few days the Soviet authorities decided to deny there had been any issues to the international world, rather than get on and evacuate people from the nearby areas. Of course the world could detect the increased levels of radiation by various means.

This was the worst Nuclear accident on record and yet despite all this the only people who died as a direct result were the workers involved in the immediate emergency. There has been no significant evidence of locals who have been adversely effected by the radiation nor the animals. In fact since the area has been evacuated the nearby area is now a rich ecosystem with animals thriving as humans no longer live there. There are no mutant animals and so on. If we look at Three Mile Island, despite all the dramatic news reports no one actually died from the radiation of the accident. There were more people who suffered from the stress of worrying about what might happen rather than what did happen. Again it took decades to clean up the reactor and the area but no one died from radiation or had health effects caused by it.

Fukushima daiichi occurred in 2011 during the record breaking earthquake and the resulting tsunami. While such a disaster killed thousands of people, the media and environmentalists were focusing on the nuclear power plant. Despite all the high drama there have been no fatalities from the radiation or the accident as stated by popular mechanics supported by other scientific literature and people who decide to look at the facts rationally. There were a total of two workers who got radiation burns when their boots leaked. I'm sure this was not pleasant however these injuries were cosmetic and will have no long term health effects. Various blogs have been full of downright lies on the accident. Pictures of sharks with cancer have been exposed as taken before the accident - and yes sharks naturally get cancer regardless of nuclear power. Pictures of starfish with what at first sight seem to have to many legs and get posted as "mutants of the sea". Again these starfish are a known species and pictures of the exact same ones were available before the accident. There was a map that supposedly showed a radiation heat map all around the Pacific when in fact it was a heat map of the tsunamis wave size. Then we have quotes saying that million of Becquerels have been leaked and continue to be leaked. Large numbers are used to scare readers, however due to the short half lives of many of leaked elements or the fact it has all been diluted by the sea has meant the actual dosage of radiation is negligible. So many fallacies, you can go through them but many are complete fabrications. They are all driven by political motives with an aim of trying to discredit nuclear power in order to push energy sources such as wind and solar which in fact kill people year on year. Of course I must be a shill of nuclear energy or some other conspiracy theory that people come up with. All I do is just look at the facts and form a rational view in what I see.

Nuclear is the safest energy on record. An analogy in transport would be an aeroplane. We all know that flying is one of the safest forms of transport. In ratio terms its safer then cars, motorbikes, trains, peddle bikes even walking you have more chance being run over and killed. But yet many have an irrational fear of flying and whenever an accident occurs we see it on the news. Its because they are so rare they get lots of media coverage. Can you imagine if we reported car accidents like this? We would need a dedicated half an hour program every day to just run through all the accidents. With all this hysteria nuclear has been neglected for decades. Similar to planes people focus on the worst case scenario rather than years of robust energy generation.

Engineering is Hard

As a software engineer I know from first hand experience there is no such thing as a perfect solution. Coming up with working solutions is thoroughly enjoyable experience however it is a very time consuming and laborious process. From a high level theory always seems simple. I mention this as many comment on energy production as though it is some simple process. They talk about wind power as just been this free form of energy with no costs and no compromises. As my previous post explained there are all kinds of engineering problems of trying to use wind power to deliver reliable, robust and inexpensive energy. When someone tells you there is a simple solution and its some big oil or nuclear conspiracy that is stopping the technology don't believe them. Don't believe them as engineering and businesses have already looked at other sources and realised all the complications behind the alternatives.

To illustrate the complexity of engineering there is a popular phrase "its not rocket science". Its a phrase that has been associated with what seem like simple tasks and a hint for the person to get on with it. However rocket science is actually not all that complex, in a nutshell it involves putting a couple of fuels together and combusting the mixture. Its the engineering that's the complex part, the part that took decades to perfect to the point that we could fire humans up in rockets. The basic function of cars has not changed for over a century now. You put air and fuel in a chamber, compress it then ignite it. But the engineering that has gone into that over the years to make it reliable, safe, efficient and robust is astounding. Its a similar story with planes, who like cars were once considered a death trap. With decades of constant engineering they have now become one of the safest forms of transport. Not only is engineering a long and hard process but it involves trade offs. Rockets burn huge amounts of fuel are terribly inefficient, contain lots of highly flammable hydrogen fuel that is stored under compression (correction 26/11/2016, its in liquid state) however all of this is used as its the only engineering solution we could come up with at the time to escape earths gravity. Nuclear is often viewed as an unacceptable solution as it deals with potentially highly radioactive materials where the risk will never be justified. However the same people wrongly turn to sources such as solar and wind viewing these as perfect solutions when in fact there are all sorts of engineering headaches that come with those options, not least we don't know how we can power a developed economy on them solely in this current timeframe. With nuclear however we know we can. We know they can scale, can produce lots of energy and can do it all day with relative safety.

Before I go into the next generation of nuclear plants I'd like to state that no technology is ever safe. Just like the examples above, rockets, planes and cars were all considered highly experimental and unsafe. It was the engineering that went into them that made them robust and safer and with self driving cars, planes automated by computers they are still getting safer. If we have a look at electricity itself we don't consider it dangerous despite the fact thousands of people around the world are badly injured and killed every year by it. During the initial commercialisation of it there was the AC/DC wars in which Tesla and Edison went head to head on which power people should use. Edison famously electrocuted an elephant in order to try and prove that AC was too dangerous putting high voltages down the lines and there had also been a number of deaths associated with its installation. DC power which was a safer alternative was considered impractical due to engineering challenges. Electrical engineers realised DC would require very think wires to carry the current over lower voltage lines. It would require power sources to be nearer to consumers in order to deliver the power. There was also the problem of power loss. All of this would make it prohibitive in terms of cost and practicality to the end consumer. We could have banned AC due to health concerns but instead consumers and businesses took that risk and we are all better for it. All the risks and dangers with electricity exist but though various safely measures be that correct insulation of wiring to the simple switch board in your house or the common plug (which is a great piece of engineering - see video below - the end joke also illustrates an engineering tradeoff) we have learnt to make and use electricity reliably and relatively safely. Entrepreneurs are trying to do the same with nuclear power.

Nuclear startups

Nuclear has got a reputation as being the most dangerous energy sources, when in fact the numbers show it to be the safest. However engineers have decided to make nuclear even more robust and safe, coining the term passive failover whereby in the event of something abnormal occurring the plant can correct and fix itself without human involvement. Most of the nuclear plants in existence are whats known as first and second generation plants. Third generation have just begun being discussed and built and people are looking at forth generation plants. Many people see the next generation as far superior. Some of the features include passive safety whereby no power is required for them in order to shutdown and where engineers are now modelling disaster scenarios that will "never happen" but building features to deal with those situations. Micro-reactors and factory assembly are being explored in order to reduce the costs of energy. One of nuclears largest costs for many plants is the fact that they are built as one off designs. If you standardise this you can bring down the upfront costs. Then if you could build smaller reactors investors would have to put in less capital and take less risk in order to see a return. The political climate doesn't help with various Governments at a whim deciding to shut down nuclear plants, its no wonder investment has been so lacking. Simpler fuel cycles and sources of more abundant fuel such as Thorium are being discussed. Even plants such as the travelling wave reactor discuss the possibility of using spent nuclear waste as fuel to generate electricity stating we have hundreds of years of energy sat in waste sites. This also includes no enrichment process making it simpler and more cost effective.

There are a number of startups who are exploring nuclear one such startup is terrapower a firm that has the backing of Bill Gates. He's backing nuclear fission as he's looked at all the options for power and believes that can be the cleanest, most practical and potentially the cheapest source of energy. There are other startups who are trying to explore fusion such as Helion. We have yet to crack it and it may be a problem that takes many decades but still its good people are having a go (however for the past 40 years its eternally been 5-10 years away, we are still waiting). Theres a host of other startups who are exploring nuclear and trying to innovate based on its proven model to produce reliable stable baseload electricity. Of course all the above requires engineering effort and may prove hard when it comes to actually moving from theory to practice. On paper people can say all sorts of things its only when someone actually begins to build it, does all the detail come to the surface. On paper rocket science looks easy, but to engineer it is another matter.

Nuclear Costs

A common criticism of nuclear power is it costs too much to produce compared with the alternatives. It is true that nuclear does cost more than fossil fuels be that coal or gas (not so with wind and solar as they get a lot of government subsidies) to produce electricity but a lot of the costs go towards factors I have discussed such as ad hoc design, huge upfront costs and risks due to political interference. I'm not going to say that one day nuclear will make metering electricity pointless (as was once predicted back in the 1950's) however I believe that the potential for nuclear to not only be cost efficient but also very cheap is there we just need to explore it more. Consider that in the current generation of nuclear plants in use only around 1-2% of the fuel is used to actually produce electricity the rest is wasted or we loose energy just because we haven't figured out a way to produce a more efficient and controlled reaction. Point is if someone was to get a modest increase to say 3% then thats a 50% improvement right there and there are people looking into this. Nuclear has also been neglected for 40 years and there has been little investment or research into improving it. All that has changed recently as more people have become interested in it once more by looking at the practical problem of moving beyond fossil fuels.

Wind and Solar

I mentioned the workings on solar and wind in my last post with particular focus in what the German authorities had done. Both technologies continue to improve (so does gas, oil, coal etc) but the question is, have they improved to the point where they can make a practical difference. My thoughts are wind will never be able to scale what so ever to meet our needs or ever be practical. Every installation requires its own generator and its very hard for example for these to be installed in residential areas to generate any power. Solar on the other hand has more potential. I believe both technologies from a national grid perspective make no sense just because of the sheer amount of land and battery storage a utility company would require to deliver stable baseload power. However there are people trying to deliver it on a domestic level. A lot of people have roofs so putting passive solar panels on there can be done and people have been doing it for decades. Problem is its never been very practical (especially here in the UK). Tesla, a company who is known for their electric cars has recently launched their solar roofs and the powerwall 2 as a domestic option for "clean" energy.

I picked the video above as there is a critical viewpoint on it, if I would have picked the original keynote speech from Elon Musk it would have seemed that all the problems have been solved. Theres a number of other issues with all this. Obviously Tesla is based in the sunshine state of California. If Solar can not pay for itself there then it has no chance anywhere else in the world. As I've previously mentioned solar panels and batteries wear down over time and the initial upfront cost is not for life. With the above solar roof there is all sorts of technical differences compared with normal roofs. With residential roofs they generally have no issues for decades with little maintenance. With a solar roof I can imagine many maintenance issues with them over time. Lets just look at initial costs. The powerwall is estimated to sell for $5.5K, you will then need to pay someone qualified to install it, estimates for such a specialised piece of equipment is say around $1K. Then you need to re-roof your house with these new tiles and wire them all in. This is not going to be cheap lets say $15K for labour and materials (no idea, however these solar cells won't be cheap and you will need a specialist installer). Straight away you are talking $20K. Now my current electric bill is around £400-500 a year (you can see where these numbers are starting to fall down). Now in order to just break even I would need at current prices and a current dollar to pound value of around £16K, it would take around 32 years to make my money back. However it gets worse because in reality a solar roof on my house is not going to provide energy without still using grid energy, I mean in winter I will be practically getting nothing from all this configuration here in the UK. So in reality we are looking at a longer timeframe. Then there is the fact that the battery only has a 10 year warranty and as we know will need replacing at some point, the solar cells do not generate as much energy over time as they degrade, thus needing replacement. In order to maintain operational efficiency I will need someone to clean my roof (I do DIY, but never roofs - too dangerous for me). Then there is the fact that I don't plan to stay in my current house longer than 10 years never mind 30 as I plan to move up the housing ladder at some point. I could take my powerwall with me but I can't take my roof. What about if I moved into a listed or protected building? What about if I moved to a flat in an urban area? What about scaling all of this to urban areas where people live in flats with many residents but limited roof space or offices for that matter?

Now an objection may be that you can pump unused electricity to the grid in the summer months. This is plausible and some saving can be possibly made here. However if say 50% of people get such a system whereby in the summer they pull no electricity from the grid and instead sell it back, then due to this along with the fact that baseload energy will still exist then the price for power would go to near zero as this is just basic supply and demand (thus meaning people in effect could not sell their power). However in winter months those 50% on solar would get little power from their solar systems and would no longer be able to sell back to the grid, in fact they would now consume power from the grid. Its a similar story to the Germany example in the last post. What would happen is we would still need all the same number of nuclear/gas/coal plants in order to cover the dark cold time of winter. We would have a dual grid, only if domestic solar put the price of electricity to zero in the summer months then the utility companies would need to compensate for this loss in revenue. They could use more temp staff through the seasons but would still need a core workforce to maintain and operate the plants all year round. This would obviously raise baseload prices as in order to make a return on the initial build of the plants would need to charge more for electricity to make it a worthwhile endevour. I see more potential in the batteries themselves, for example households could use them to even out the load they put on the grid at peak times, thus meaning less need for excess baseload power.

Fundamentally it boils down to this, I like most people want someone else to deal with the complexities of generating electricity. I just want it delivered to me, when I want it, wherever I may live. Even if the numbers could break even (long way from anywhere near that) I like the simplicity of my current setup. Want to move - simple I just move, I don't need to maintain anything or worry about minimising electricity usage in order to try and recoup the money I have sunk into such a setup. I think what Tesla are doing is great. Its human ingenuity, offering solutions rather than a bunch of people lobbying politicians to try ban something or confiscate wealth. But I just believe the above scenario will not work in the timeframes required, especially for somewhere like Britain. Even Elon Musk admits we will still need baseload power (think about the winter months conundrum above, solars Achilles heel). Think about everyone having electric cars, their heating being electric? Both use cases draw huge amounts of energy, solar and batteries in your home can only scale so far. Despite his preference for solar he does say nuclear is far better than gas or coal as its carbon neutral and very reliable. I believe the whole home solar solution above sounds romantic to many, almost in touch with nature (despite it containing lots of modern technology). In reality the mining operations of the batteries have a real impact on our landscapes and emit pollution, the solar panels require more energy to make and again we need to mine raw materials. There is no such thing as a "green" energy source.

Hydrogen vs Electric Cars

I've assumed that we will use electric cars going forward, however a lot of people tout hydrogen as an alternative. The only thing going for hydrogen is that it can potentially be a very dense storage of energy and can be pumped into cars like existing oil can, meaning less range worry such as with electric cars. However once you start to examine the engineering difficulties with Hydrogen it becomes a non starter. Elon Musk, usually a moderate speaker has harsh words for Hydrogen and in an interview basically dismissed it as useless. We currently have an electricity network, with hydrogen we would need to build one. Hydrogen is highly corrosive and escapes over time. Its so hard to store it can actually escape through steel atoms themselves. For example if you had a car with a full tank of hydrogen and left it for a month by the time you went back most of the fuel would have just escaped the tank. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in our universe, unfortunately its not a naturally occurring element and if it exists on its own it quickly escapes our atmosphere. The most common way to get it is to extract it from water but you have to break it from its bond with oxygen. The classic technique is to use electrolysis which of course requires electricity. However most of hydrogen is actually obtained by extracting it from methane gas and breaking the hydrogen bonds but here's where the irony is; this isn't clean, it releases all sorts of greenhouse gases as a by product of the process (even the electrolysis method is silly, it wastes clean water, water that is a precious commodity around the world and is hugely expensive hence why methane gas is preferred). Hydrogen is not a source of energy like say gas, its an energy store. So once you go to all the effort to extract it and somehow contain it, then ship it, you then have to use it. Why not just send the electricity straight to the car? It makes no sense, its a completely un-environmental solution and solves nothing.

How do we move away from Carbon Based Energy?

It will be human ingenuity on an individual level. We need to try many ideas and different technologies. We've spent billions on wind power and in my opinion we should abandon it. Its never going to work. Solar is interesting but it will never scale for all our needs, even people pursuing solar such as Elon Musk admits this. What we need is nuclear. It powers the stars and has the potential to be an abundant source of energy. We don't need a revolution we just need steady incremental improvements over time and a greater understanding of it. I believe thats why Bill Gates has picked nuclear fission rather than fusion. He's picked something that can meet our energy needs and builds on top of a power that does generate real power in the real world. What he's trying to do is take it to the next level; bring down costs; make it even safer and make energy abundant for us all. Elon Musk is also trying to incrementally improve electric cars for example. He has convinced many investors through voluntary actions to sink billions into Tesla and its still making consistent losses. Why? Despite what people tell you about free markets many are not in it for the money. They are in it to change the world for the better and have the freedom to try new and exciting things even if that means they loose money. Bill Gates has openly said he doesn't plan to make money from his energy investments, he just wants to try solve what he thinks is a big problem that needs solving. The above may seem mad but thats how a lot of engineers work, they like making things and solving problems.

Despite various Government initiatives to get us all to use bikes, public transport or use electric cars which had an image problem we all stuck to our petrol cars. Point to point transport is going no where and Elon Musk recognised this therefore he gave consumers what they wanted, a car based on electricity that had the performance of a conventional petrol car. He created a brand as good as any other, a brand people want to buy and a electric car with the performance of a super car. There's lots to do to bring down the costs and Tesla are hemorrhaging money as we speak but at least they giving people a viable alternative rather than us all resorting to bikes. There are many more entrepreneurs and engineers who are trying to solve the above. People will solve climate change, not politicians all they will ultimately do is hold up the process. Nuclear regulations dictated by Governments are that bad in the West that Bill Gates has gone to China to try out his companies new ideas. Politically active people try to shut down this one power source, the only one we know of that can actually do the job and provide us all with reliable energy. Governments are trying to shut it down like in Germany; for someone like me who has crunched the data its infuriating to watch. For years Governments squandered billions on public transportation programs, programs to get us to use bikes and so on yet there have never been more cars on the roads. Meanwhile markets just accepted people will continue to use them and have tried to actual bring tangible solutions to the table. They have made them emit less CO2, made them more efficient and now private companies like Tesla are making electric cars desirable. Markets have made car sharing applications and are now creating self driving cars, thus ultimately requiring less of them to be built and giving everyone point to point transportation regardless of income or ability. Governments in Europe on the other hand created all sorts of tax breaks for Diesel cars which turned out to be a far worse pollutant than the original petrol ones they were intended to replace. 20 years ago in the UK there were next to no new diesels being bought, now over 50% of new cars are diesels thanks to Government policies. Various climate treaties are signed, most of them are just photo opportunities for world leaders to feel good about themselves. No solutions are proposed and quotas are broken in many cases with no repercussions for those who signed them. It's left to private companies, engineers and startups to work out how we can make appliances more efficient, how we can use alternative power sources.

How do we move away from Carbon energy? Give engineers and entrepreneurs the freedom to create solutions. We need to move away from the politicisation of climate change, which includes both the right and left virtue signalling with one another. But I won't hold my breath for that. Instead the quiet ones among us will just have to crack on with what we believe needs to be done. As the saying goes "If you build it, they will come". Actions speak louder than words.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Our Planet - Part 2 Energiewende

I started this series with a discussion on the arguments for and against Anthropogenic Climate Change. My view is that it is real, backed up by the majority of scientific evidence that supports the fact we are warming the planet by emitting CO2. If we accept this premise then the next question is what do we do? The first point to understand is the problem is above politics. It is a failure of both Government policy and Free Markets to come up with a solution, its represents a limit in our knowledge of how to generate power. What I want to examine in this post is proposed solutions that revolve around so called "Green" energy; wind, solar in particular. For the past 40 years this has been pushed and pursued with the aid of Government subsidies and funds in an attempt to move away from fossil fuels to such alternatives. So far they have not succeeded. I'd like to discuss the recent German model of Energiewende, where the country has set out to reduce its CO2 emissions and move to a low carbon energy policy.

For a number of years now the German Government has pursed a policy to replace its Nuclear and fossil fuel power plants with power obtained from wind, biogas and solar. Many in the public see wind and solar as inevitable replacements and believe the only reason they are not already widely used are because "big oil" is in cahoots to stop it taking off. Not only are these energy sources fairly useless but they are not as green as people make out and can never sustain a developed economy on their own.

The first thing to mention about these technologies, in particular wind and solar, is there is a natural phenomenon on the planet called night time. There are also times when the wind just doesn't blow and it just so happens that both these events can happen simultaneously. Imagine in the winter months at peak time around 6-8pm, people coming home switching on TVs, ovens, computers, lights and so on. Now imagine the wind is not blowing. No one will be watching Coronation Street tonight. Now this is an obvious flaw with these power sources and only an idiot would argue another case (I have seen a presentation when someone showed a perfect graph of solar covering daytime with wind peaking during the night. It was like a piece of North Korean propaganda). Many will know this already however there are many other subtle problems that the German Government has encountered. They have encountered so many that most people believe the "Green" energy transition should now be halted and abandoned.

One thing Germany decided early on was to close all its nuclear plants (in a later post I will come back to nuclear but I will make one point now. Nuclear is the only option we currently have to solve climate change and its potential as an energy source is huge). Now nuclear unlike wind and solar is stable and concentrated. What I mean by that is we can predictably generate a fixed amount of electricity day and night, cloudy or sunny. It also generates a lot of power from a single power plant. Its what's known as a baseload power plant. As listed above when we don't have sun or wind or we have both but not quite enough to meet the current demand then we need reliable baseload power in order to ensure the power doesn't go out. We are talking about refrigeration of our food, critical medical procedures, equipment we depend, lights so we can see at night to make our streets safer and so on.

Germany decided to turn to gas and coal in order to provide their baseload power to cover periods when wind and solar didn't meet demand. If this is starting to sound a bit strange as their end goal is to reduce CO2 theres plenty more twists in the story. Now gas and coal, like nuclear can start up on demand and are reliable. Germany in fact has lots of gas and coal plants, many of which when the wind and sun are shinning are not used as much, however at night and with no wind, there must be enough redundant stations in order to provide power. In other words what we have is a dual grid with twice as much power stations as Germany needs.

In order to build as much wind and solar the German Government created generous subsidies. So generous that when power is generated by such sources the grid must accept the power for an artificially low price. In fact the Government pays for electricity when there is no real demand for it. If you google you will see headlines such as "They sold the wind power back to the grid for a negative amount". Many in forums believe this is how effective renewable's are, there is a free lunch and its big oil that has stopped such innovation. The reality is rather different. The price they talk about is not the retail price that you or I pay, its the wholesale price that various energy companies pay, like the price a supermarket pays for milk will be different than what you pay for it in the shop. What happens is the people who own the wind power dump the energy on the grid that is not needed. They don't care as the Government still pays them a fixed amount regardless of if it will be used or not. Its then up to the energy companies to take this as loss, or eventually pass the bill onto the consumer. They pay others to take the energy off them to dispose off. This is nothing new either. Nuclear has the same phenomenon. It can't be easily be ramped up and down to track demand, so power is still generated at constant rate. Consequently in quiet periods owners of nuclear will sell the power for a loss to the grid and make it back at times of demand. Its one of the many reasons nuclear is more expensive then Gas and Coal, it can't scale up/down with demand as well. So there is no "free energy" (I will come back to consumers price, suffice to say German energy prices are some of the highest in Europe). Later I will go into detail what happens with this excess energy, when going through the intermittent issue.

These subsidies also have other unintended consequences. German started with gas and coal but as it has become so unprofitable to run these plants in the face of mounting Government subsidies for wind and solar Germany has turned to whats known as "Dirty" coal. Gas proved so expensive to run and cleaner forms of coal proved tricky so Germany now has a lot of cost effective power plants emitting all sorts of pollutants in order to avoid its power grid collapsing. Originally when Germany was using more gas power they had to import much of it from Russia. Russia liked selling the Germans so much gas that they decided to extend the life of some of their old nuclear reactors. So the German policy of not using nuclear actually enabled the Russians to use some old ones instead.

So what about if we just store the energy from wind and solar that we don't use? Well for a start we are already subsidising the heck out of wind and solar in all countries, its costing the German taxpayer hundreds of billions of Euros to just allow these sources to operate. To store the power we are talking a whole new set of numbers. No one knows of a way to economically store vast amounts of energy in the form of batteries or some other storage (water, air, hydrogen) to power a whole country. We can do a battery for a car but for 80 million homes? Plus there is a bigger point often missed here. If you are seriously suggesting batteries then you need to understand that batteries are not green or good for the environment, especially at this scale and with current technologies. We know transmitting power down power lines cause power loss, but storing onto batteries causes more loss meaning we need more power plants to generate the same power. Batteries also don't last long. They need replacing constantly, think of your phone or laptop. Batteries are not green, they require huge mining operations using all sorts of toxic processes and metals. The CO2 footprint just to mine and refine these metals is extensive, then to do this every 5-10 years for replacement, then to do this on a scale of 80 million homes? Its fantasy thinking. Its not economic and its not good for the environment which is the whole point in going to all this extra effort. There's a lot of research going into batteries, which is great, however the improvements required are of many factor's, not just in storage capacity but in price which makes it a very hard challenge.

I've only briefly listed the intermittent nature of Wind and Solar which consequently requires a stable baseload power source to back it up however the indeterminacy brings up another set of issues. Wind for example in every installation has its own power generator. We have no full control of each generator unlike traditional power plants. The wind could drop in certain areas and the grid has to power up gas quickly for example. The power could surge with a sudden gust of wind and the grid would need to deal with excess energy. The German power grid is in a state of Chaos, its a miracle it doesn't have more downtime. Engineers have to push excess power to neighboring countries, in fact they have done this so much recently that the Czech Government has now started to push back stating its causing them issues. If there's a lack of power then there can be blackouts with no power at all. Objections will be that we can predict the wind with new technology but that only gets you so far. With the windmills dispersed over vast areas and at any point a sudden burst of wind can cause a sudden torrent of power. Ironically if there is too much wind then the windmill will shut down completely with no warning. This is to ensure it doesn't blow over or ruin the gears that feed the generator. This happened recently in South Australia when a storm hit. Its still under discussion what caused the blackout, however it is clear the wind power was generating lots of power then all of a sudden shut down. For an electrical engineer this is a complete nightmare to all of a sudden loose all that power and have to boot us gas and coal plants at the drop of a hat. Of course this puts tremendous strain on the grid and transmission lines. Having 10-20% of your power with current wind and solar technology is fine, but any more than this creates big problems for delivering reliable energy on a national scale.

If you read the mainstream news headlines such as "Germany got 120% of its energy from renewables" you will be led to believe that we have cracked renewable's (despite all the above underlying problems) and wind along with solar can power a developed economy. Like with all headlines the devil is in the details. What usually happens in instances like this are when the Wind blows in the middle of night when there is very little electricity demand or when there is a warm summers day in the middle of the day and not at peak demand. As discussed this is natural for the energy sources as they are erratic. Most of the time wind and solar operate well below their installed maximum capacities. When someone states a windmill can produce 3MW of electricity in reality it will on average only achieve 10-20% of this. That's because most of the time we don't have blustery conditions and sometimes there is no wind at all. Similar stats apply to solar, in Germany the electricity generated from solar is negligible during Autumn and Winter months. Another point to bear in mind is that over time the generators in wind degrade and loose performance due to them being mechanical and they can degrade quite dramatically. In conventional power stations which are in a central accessible location there are engineers constantly on site to tune the various generators. In wind however that can sit 100 foot in the air or out at sea, it requires a lot of heavy machinery to go out there and tune the generator, in many cases you need to haul the thing down and take it back to a warehouse and swap it out completely. All of this requires more energy.

So far I've only gone through technical challenges but I'm now going to take point at solar and winds so called "green" credentials. A couple of points to begin with. For some reason solar and wind are somehow mistaken for new and cutting edge technologies when in reality they are not. They are both older than nuclear, we have known about solar for over a 100 years and wind for centuries. Another claim to dismiss is these technologies are not 100% safe compared to all other forms of energy generation. More Americans have died trying to install solar panels then people that have died from the production of nuclear energy. In fact only three people died in the US from nuclear and it was in the early sixties when working on an experimental plant due to a partial meltdown. Wind kills many rare birds and both technologies require huge amounts of raw materials due to their diluteness. These materials in many cases are mined which are dangerous jobs in itself.

On the materials side each wind assembly uses hundreds of tons of steel, contains a generator with half a ton of neodymium magnets, a rare earth metal which is mined in China with appalling disregard for human life and the environment. The concrete base of a single wind installation requires hundreds of tons in order to ensure it can survive the "gale force winds" that we are assured will happen at night when solar goes offline. The plastics that are involved in construction are made from oil (in case you didn't do basic chemistry and believed wind to be so green that their cases were fabricated from mother nature). Parts are shipped from all over the world using fossil fuels, its assembled using huge machinery that rely on oil. Due to their disperse nature they then need huge amounts of transmission lines to connect them all up, again using lots of materials. When all setup they will then generate around 10%-20% of their potential energy (what a waste of an un-environmentally friendly generator). Over time their gearboxes wear out or breakdown, requiring a crew with huge trucks and cranes to come and fix them. Generators will need replacing/fixing over time as they generate less and less energy again requiring a large crew to come out remotely with heavy machinery. Its a similar story for solar, lots of mined material go into the manufacture and over time they loose potential power generation. 

The Reality - CO2 Output
There a lot of factors that contribute towards a nations CO2 emissions. Was there a mild winter, have oil prices gone up or down, has a new energy efficient law come into play and so on. Depending on what years we look at, for example 2009 to 2015 CO2 levels didn't change. During 2010 to 2013 CO2 emissions went up during the Energiewende, so all this is open to interpretation. However we do know that Germany has used all the best sites for wind and solar, have spent billions on many such installations and yet the CO2 levels have not moved in any meaningful way. I would argue that we should have seen dramatic downtrends already occurring as all the renewable sources are now online but we haven't. Instead Germany looks set to miss its CO2 target by 2020 unless they change direction. Even then the target was set as a 40% drop since 1990, for 20 of those years until 2010 they didn't have Energiewende and yet saw steady falls in emissions due to cleaner and more efficient technologies. Since Energiewende the CO2 levels have stagnated within a range. Some argue the small variances each year are signs of success others argue its shown its failure. I'd argue if Germany had used Nuclear they wouldn't need Coal or Gas and emissions would have fallen very dramatically. All these numbers don't take into account the CO2 that is emitted to install and build all these disperse and numerous wind and solar plants. CO2 emissions were falling prior to wind and solar just due to more efficient market products such as cars that run on a better economy or lower power TV's which use LEDs and so on.

The Reality - Fuel Poverty For Millions
Not only did the Government fail to reduce CO2 emissions but in the process has driven millions of its citizens into fuel poverty. Germany now has some of the highest electricity prices in Western Europe, on average three and half times more expensive then the US. Vulnerable elderly people can't keep the heating on, others simply don't use electricity as they can't afford to. CO2 has not dropped off, despite for many their personal consumption has fallen. Its become such a farce that people have started to resort to burning wood and there are now regular occurrences of people stealing wood. Trees act as a CO2 sink yet Germany has restored to cutting them down (also done for biomass fuel) and burning them, creating ever more emissions and dirty air pollution.

In summary its like one big wind up, only it really did happen and is still ongoing. Not all Governments are pursuing the same strategies and many countries are now learning the right lessons from Germany. For example China are investing big in Nuclear and are on board with the majority of experts that this is the direction we need to take. Its politically easier there then many Western countries. Unfortunately in the West we have many anti-nuclear supporters who show no rational thinking and seemingly just object to nuclear because they associate it with nuclear weapons. As its been politicised for 40 years now, nuclear has been neglected in favour of the so called "Green" technologies listed above. This is the problem when all power and decisions are centralised. We have a monolithic entity that wastes hundreds of billions of Euros, it takes this through the form of taxation and concocts a policy that not only subjects many to fuel poverty, causes power chaos but barely reduces (can also be argued, increased) CO2. We have people here in the UK who believe we should follow the example of Germany, such as my old school friend Owen Jones.

Why not learn from Germany with an interventionist industrial policy, creating hundreds of thousands of renewable-energy jobs to fill in the “missing middle” of properly paid, secure jobs?

As well meaning as he may be this is the problem when people can lobby or obtain power that means they can dictate a whole nations energy policy. He's not done his homework, has no experience of energy matters but its people like him who shape a counties direction. Some German people in the renewable sector lobbied politicians, predominately centre-left organisations put pressure to go this route, despite all the contrary evidence with experts stating nuclear has far more potential and is far more practical in solving CO2 emissions. What we need are many projects all happening in parallel with each other in an attempt to move to a low carbon fuel. Not like what Germany has done, which is shut down Nuclear and put all its eggs in one basket in the intermittent wind and solar technologies with all their inherent problems. 

In the last post I will detail why it will be human ingenuity and freedom that will come up with solutions to our energy problems. It will be many different people who all at the same time will be trying many different approaches to try and solve the CO2 problem.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Our Planet - Part 1 Climate Change

Global Warming. The Green Energy Revolution. Pollution. Save the Planet. Climate Crisis. There's a lot of people interested in energy and the impact of climate change so I decided to write my op-ed in a series of posts with my take on the whole issue. I'm going to cover many issues, is anthropogenic climate change real? What are Governments to do? Is the world going to end? Is it a crisis? Is humanity doomed and is it too late? Will Wind and Solar be our saviors? What about Nuclear? I'm going to take a rational view of it all and will leave the drama to others. If you like good stories, conspiracies or artistic interpretations then please stop now because you will be disappointed with the rest of the article.

One of the first subjects I wish to tackle is Climate Change and whether it is influenced by the recent activity of humans. This will help define future articles. Historically we know that the Earths Climate has been erratic for millions of years through scientific research, undergoing ice ages and warm periods. There have been various factors that have contributed towards these changes. We know that the energy emitted by the sun has varied over time, in fact it has slowly been getting warmer for millions of years. We know the Earth rotates the Sun on an irregular orbit that varies every 800 years or so. We also know that our atmosphere; be that water vapor, CO2 or other gases have influenced its temperature. Also the albedo of earths surface is a great factor, how much light radiation is absorbed or emitted. The main point to illustrate is that the climate of our planet is complex. Many factors have contributed towards its changing climate.

The real question many want to know is how much of a role does CO2 play? Unfortunately climate change has been poiliticised by both the right and left. One groups denies that CO2 plays any role and believe climate change and the recent warming observed on Earth is a conspiracy to enable government to take over our lives. On the other hand groups of people have decided that the recent global warming would spell imminent disaster and have exaggerated the claims of the recent warming. According to Al Gore the Arctic should have gone by now and sea levels should have submerged half our land mass but alas nothing near that has happened. I will come back to the politisation of climate change, suffice to say it is diluting the opinion that really matters, that of scientists who dedicate their lives to this field of study. Public opinion has been tragically informed by politics and peoples personal agenda, not the scientific evidence.

So what is the evidence? Well to cut short before I go into all the details CO2 is one of the causes of climate change and is heating our planet. People are impacting climate change by burning historic stores of CO2 and emitting it into the atmosphere. Anthropogenic Climate Change is real and I will detail why that is the case.

The first fact to get out of the way is does CO2 heat up the planet. Since the 19th Century, scientists have known that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and have proved it is. What does this mean? You ask most people who are 100% sure of what climate change is I bet many still can not simply explain how CO2 causes warming. In a nutshell its where sunlight travels through our atmosphere, initially it travels at a wavelegth that is not absorbed. When it hits our planets surface heat is emitted at a different wavelength and bounces back towards space. At this wavelength it is now in a range where CO2 can absorb its energy and in effect trap heat, like a blanket on a bed. This process is undisputed and every scientist is in complete agreement with how this works. If anyone disagrees that CO2 can not trap heat then they haven't looked at the science and are pushing a political belief.

The real disagreement comes in how much of a part CO2 plays in heating up our planet, so lets take a look at some of the arguments. Unlike many proponents of global warming in the general public who follow it blindly without actually understanding any of the arguments I will take on some of the common objections against climate change. It is by no means a comprehensive list but I do want to tackle some of the main objections.

"We haven't had warming for the past 15 years"
This is a common argument used, however if we look at the data and some other factors that effect temperatures we can explain this myth. First if we look at the points at time the data is taken with the high in 1998 and the low around 2013. It just so happens that 1998 was a very warm year globally while 2013 or there abouts was a cool year. Many factors effect global temperatures and 1998 was a year when the solar cycles and the el nino/la nina effect went into full effect to heat the planet. Science has explained this and we know from its findings that the sun has a solar cycle where sun spots will be more potent in some years then others. The el nino/la nina effect explains how the seas surface temperatures can greatly effect temperatures on the planet. Along with these factors places like China and India have undergone huge industrialisation which has resulted in an increase in pollutants such as aerosols in the upper atmosphere that have reflected much of the Suns heat. However even with all these factors the temperature still hasn't gone down as we would expect. They have been stable and I now believe all these factors will go into reverse and we will see raising temperatures over the next 10 years. In 2015 and 2016 it already looks like the trend is reversing with temperatures on the rise.

Scientists look at long term trends and moving averages and don't cherry pick data points on certain years to support their theories. The data points above are like someone taking a relatively warm day at the start of February and then a relative cold day at the end of the February that has a lower temperature and concluding that we will not get summer this year as the trend has gone down. Just like our short term weather system is complex and thus hard to predict we know over the long term it will get warmer as the year will goes on. There will be lots of short term fluctuations but it doesn't mean the scientific theory of seasons has collapsed. Just like taking a couple of data points a decade apart doesn't mean the warming trend has revered.

"I've noticed no warming"
Just because you think the planet isn't getting warmer doesn't mean anything when we look at the various measurements. Many have sensationalised Climate Change to say we will have tropical weather here in the UK or will be living in water-world or the seas will boil soon. Most of this is just click bait as changes in global temperatures are a slow process. The recent changes have been very fast by historic standards, however most of us will not notice a couple of degrees warming over 50-100 year period.

And just because it currently appears to be a slow process doesn't mean this trend won't accelerate. Once temperatures get warmer then feedback loops can develop. As the seas warm it in turn warms up our planet and also releases CO2. As the ice caps melt then the Planets albedo of the surface absorbs the suns heat rather than reflecting it. As more CO2 builds up in the atmosphere more heat becomes trapped causing more heating and feeding back on other cycles. There are many other factors that complicate the process meaning we are unsure how fast temperatures will continue to rise.

"The Antarctic ice is increasing"
Scientists can again explain why the ice in the Antarctic appears to be increasing. Whats really happening in fact is that the ice and snow on land is melting. The ice on land is fresh water and as it goes into the sea it dilutes the salt water in the sea thus lowering its freezing point causing more of the sea to freeze due to this factor. However Scientists know this apparent "gain" in ice and snow is only short term. Once most of the ice and snow has melted on land then net ice will begin to retreat as the sea water becomes more salty once more thus lowering the freezing point. This point also ignores the other two significant ice sheets in Greenland and the Arctic which are melting faster and on net, the ice and snow is decreasing more than the antarctic is increasing.

"Greenland ice is increasing"
Like many of these myths, there is a nugget of truth. On the high parts of Greenland the ice and snow is increasing however on lower land the ice is melting and disappearing, again at a greater rate, thus on net its disappearing.

"We are going to have an Ice Age"
As recent warming trends have been suspended for the past decade or so, many media outlets and non scientific commentators have stated that we are on the cusp of a new ice age. But the Scientists do not agree, in fact many of them predicted this current pause. Many actually thought temperatures would fall, the fact that they haven't or not in any meaningful way means the warming we are getting is very real. As explained above climate is complex; Solar cycles, sea currents, pollution all have an affect (there are many other factors, our climate is complex). All are now reversing and with CO2 the planet will resume its rise in temperatures.

"Periods in our planets history were warmer"
While it may be true a lot of those periods were when we were not around. The so called "Medieval warming period" has been exposed as data manipulation. Basically someone took a temperature graph of the past thousand years or so and compared it to now and concluded that temperatures were warmer. The only problem with the graph is they took the current point in time to be 1950 basically ignoring some of the most dramatic warming of the later part of the 20th Century.

"Scientist are pushing a flawed theory to save face"
If this were true then what we are really saying is that science is no different to religion in that it has a dogmatic approach to the real world and ignores new facts and data that come to light. Examining history illustrates that Science is the complete opposite. It encourages critical thinking and enables individual free thought. There isn't a democratic process that wins out or theres some "shady" conspiracy theory of a "science establishment". Good ideas win out regardless of the persons background or past writings. When Albert Einstein published his 1905 Special Relativity paper many in the science community rejected it. Here was a patent clerk who in his own free time wrote a paper that dared to question 250 year old Newtonian Mechanics. I mean the guy wasn't even part of a physics department. So why was it accepted? Because great scientists read it and agreed with the calculations and mathematical proof that was presented. This in turn then was proven through later scientific experiments and observations and we now know that Newtonian mechanics generally works, however once matter approaches the speed of light we need Einsteins modifications to help explain what happens.

The point is Science doesn't care of a failed theory, it is constantly evolving and changing as we understand more of how things work. Now people will say well science has been wrong before it could be wrong again with climate change. It could be, however the overwhelming evidence that science has accrued through hundreds of independent researchers has concluded that humans are causing the recent temperature changes. With the above analogy regarding Einstein, we have now formed classical Newtonian mechanics and if anything would change it would be a slight modification like Einstein did, eg the temperature only rising 0.1 of a degree rather than 0.2 of a degree. The temperature is still going to rise if we go on our current trajectory. All the Scientific papers and writings now conclude the same thing. There are a small number of skeptics as to how much influence humans are having on climate change, however they all agree that CO2 causes warming and agree humans are the main cause in its increase. They focus on other theories; cloud cover, solar activity, evapo-transpiration. However they don't deny that CO2 increases are fine and we can ignore this completely.

If you still believe its a cover up then it would have to involve thousands of independent Scientists all colluding or coming to the same results. It would rely on not one Scientist breaking ranks however again with the Einstein example this simply isn't true. Great thinkers constantly come along and challenge the consensus. Then there is always the persistent myth that because Scientists are funded by Government then if they don't support Anthropogenic Global Warming it must be to protect their funding. In reality the opposite is true, if a Scientist were to "debunk" the narrative of Climate change then they would become an instant celebrity, become eternally famous and charge thousands of pounds for speaking at events. The majority of scientists are skeptical by default, driven by truth and observable facts; not by politics.

"We are facing imminent danger"
The green movements and pro-government type movements don't help the science. Instead of stating clearly that it's a slow process that will take decades for the ice to fully melt at the Arctic and for the temperature to rise a few degrees they dramatise it with stories of imminent collapse. Al Gores infamous film "Inconvenient Truth" (the title has become a complete irony) where he stated the ice caps would melt in the next decade. Well the decade came and went and the ice caps are still here.

It also doesn't help that many of the Global Warming movement can't actually describe the process or points I've raised above. Instead of engaging in a rational conversation they turn it into an emotional blackmail contest or do virtuous signaling of how good they are and other people are just evil or are in the pockets of big oil. When asked what has caused the recent temperature pause, rather than explain the reasons it has almost become a religious conviction with very little rational debate or points that I have listed above. The problem with this style of debate is that its just turned off a lot of people to engage in accepting Global Warming. I used to be a skeptic for this very reason, the fact that you see all these people say we are killing the planet and the world is going to end unless the Government does something to me was just as bad as the conspiracy stories. I ignored all these people however, kept an open mind and went off and read and listened to people who have informed opinions, ie the experts. Not politicians, not the media, not political commentators or social commentators. I went to the people who have dedicated their lives collecting the data and working things out using the rational Scientific method. In truth people with lots to say generally have nothing of use to say. They talk the talk but have no idea of how to walk the walk. People who are do'ers are generally the more retiring, quiet ones who crack on and get things done. So always be skeptical of people with lots to say and try to be a master of all trades; education, hospitals, railways and climate change. These people have never worked or specialised in any field thus have badly informed views. People who work their field for decades are the ones who know whats really going on.

So in recent years the debate has been distorted by politicians, the media and various political activists who are pushing a political agenda. People are told its a conspiracy of Government to increase their powers. Or the planets oceans are going to boil in the next decade. Or CO2 levels are just fine, to the opposite end of the spectrum that CO2 is to be treated as some sort of toxic poisonous substance (remember CO2 is Carbon and Oxygen which are vital for life, its plant food). Each new claim means ever more outlandish remarks are made in order to rebut the other sides story.

I've gone into some of the details on this topic but this is not even scratching the surface. If you are skeptical (as you should always be) then I encourage you to read more on this topic and go out there and find other pieces of information. However be suspicious of media, sensational blogs or political views on the topic. Look at what the Scientists are saying and dig into some select details that they outline.

While Anthropogenic Climate Change is real do not worry. Its going to take many decades to actually cause us grave concern. I also believe people will solve it and overcome all the issues be that from reducing CO2 levels or terraforming and coming up with new technologies to provide us with clean energy. Once a planets stake is at risk then the ingenuity of people will shine through. In future posts I will go into what we can do. Who will solve it? Governments? Entrepreneurs? Scientists? What options do we have? Are there so called green technologies we can use? We do have options that don't involve turning out the lights. We must also bear in mind that fossil fuels are not evil and should not be demonised, they have enabled prosperity like never before. They have allowed us to master our environment and create living surpluses like never before. It has led us on a great path of scientific and engineering discovery by freeing up people from laborious work to concentrate on hard problems. These same people will find alternative energies that reduce our need for fossil fuels and enable further prosperity and if needed will come up with ways to mitigate rises in CO2. In later posts I'll go into more detail.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Privatisation Myths

We're all Capitalists. In that I mean even people who bad mouth Capitalism, people who talk about its supposed inherent evil or how it degrades human beings; even these people don't want to abolish the market economy. They like choice and consumer sovereignty with the ability to buy goods under their own free will. Most people believe markets to be superior to Governments in producing goods and services and accept this supposed "necessary evil". Every once in while along comes a story of how the market has failed to deliver compared with the Government. Recently it has been stories of the Railways, the National Health Service or the prisons in America with the recent news that the US Government has decided to cut back on private prisons. For many people who believe our lives should be controlled by a central Government this is seen as yet more evidence of market failures and that we need more central planning by the state.

Before examining the details of the various cases we first need to define what Capitalism and markets are. In a nutshell they mean people acting under their own free will and co-operating with one another under voluntary actions. There is no force or coercion involved. No one can make you buy an iPhone, rather Apple have to persuade you to buy one. Its our voluntary actions that enable a more prosperous and peaceful society. Under such a system Apple are subject to the rules of the market. If they charge too much for their products competitors can come in and produce similar ones. If their quality suffers then competitors can offer consumers alternatives. If they fail to innovate then other companies that do innovate can steal market share. All these companies actions are judged by individual consumers deciding what goods and services they wish to buy. They decide be it as an ethical decision, an economic decision, a technical decision or hundreds of other reasons on whether to purchase an Apple product. We all have complete sovereignty and autonomy to choose. Likewise the company also has complete freedom in what they produce. This may be good products, it may be bad products, it can be complicated, it can be simple; but consumers will ultimately decide what will be produced. They have the funds to spend freely under their own free will. Companies not only supply consumers with what they currently consume but constantly offer new products in what they believe consumers may value.

So if we look at the private prisons for example how does this work. Private prisons are not private, they are paid for by tax money. Consumers have no say in how prisons should be run, be that laws they can choose to live by or protection agencies or insurance premiums. Instead the Government takes money from the consumer and a few bureaucrats get to spend that money how they see fit. We would all find it absurd if instead of us all paying for our own cars, our own TVs or our own smartphones that we instead got the Government to levy a car tax and we let a few politicians decide what cars they were going to buy everyone. This is exactly what happens in many cases of so called "market failures" or "privitisation failures". There is no market in the first place as there is no consumer. The consumers have been replaced with a bureaucrat who forces consumers to pay a lump sum to them, then the Government worker spends that money as they see fit. In many cases this results in what is known as crony capitalism where businesses no longer operate based on the needs of the consumers but operate to lobby a few privileged politicians as to how to spend the money. Companies have no incentive for example to control costs or raise quality as they are no longer answerable to consumers and are only answerable to politicians so just lobby them. The marketplace has been removed. When Governments do this they remove the power people have and give it to big business and big Government. Capitalism protects the little person as the original definition stated above, all individuals have complete sovereignty and autonomy over their decisions. It's taxation and Government once more that has failed in this so called "market failure".

Another key component is the rules by which market actors work by. For example in the definition of Capitalism above, myself, as a consumer has control of what I deem to be of good value. I may buy a car with no air conditioning as summer may not be too hot for me. I may buy an older car as I don't want to take care of it. I may not buy a sports car and opt for a bland, functional family car as it meets my current needs the best despite it having half the rate of acceleration which I may not value. The point I'm making is consumers decide what the rules are. They determine what is valuable to them. Companies also help define the rules. Maybe they spot a gap in the market and decide to offer something that they believe consumers may want. Like when Apple came up with the iPhone and companies such as Nokia, the then giants of mobile phones dismissed it. Again companies are free to offer whatever they like and consumers ultimately decide if it is good. With the private prisons example companies and consumers don't set the rules, again its the Government that sets the rules. The Government determines who goes to prison, how long they are sent there for, what sort of punishment there should be. They mandate how prisons should operate and what legal means of punishment or rehabilitation are available. Governments have created the record high incarceration rates. They control the laws, the police, the courts and legal system. Companies can't come in and offer alternative prison systems, alternative laws, alternative law enforcement techniques as they have to abide by the monolithic and monopolistic institution which is a Government. Again consumers have no say in this. Only the Government can approve or licence a new product therefore the rate of innovation grinds to a halt. Apple didn't ask permission when they disrupted the mobile phone market they just went ahead and did it.

A great example of this is Netflix. Originally they went to what was then the largest rental movie company in the world; Blockbuster. The founders tried to sell the concept of selling films through the internet however Blockbuster rejected it and sealed their fate. Now Blockbuster is gone because consumers no longer valued their products meanwhile Netflix went it alone and prospered because they met the needs of consumers but didn't have to ask permission from established players. When they did ask for in effect a blessing they were rejected so they just created a service they thought consumers would value and consumers as individuals decided they did like the new model. So in this example if Blockbuster were the Government and had complete control of the movie rental business do you think we would have Netflix now? I highly doubt it as the Government would have rejected the very concept and consumers would have been deprived of the product. A platform that now enables consumers to get their entertainment without leaving their armchair. They pay a flat monthly fee, watch whatever they want, whenever they want, on demand, 24x7.

We can apply all the above to other aspects. If we look at the Private Finance Initiative with the National Health Service what do we have? We take money from the consumer in the form of taxation, the Government then spends this on services they believe the consumer wants. In reality big business then "delivers" healthcare, again under the various Government rules. There is no consumer demand as services delivered are selected by a small number of people in Government. Smaller companies are excluded from such a process as the big providers have monopoly share as only they can lobby politicians. Again its Crony Capitalism (which is a misleading term in itself as there is no capitalism in action here, the term derives from the fact that people falsely believe that this is Capitalism). Worst part is when supposed free market supporters defend such an arrangement. They defend PFI stating private companies delivering public services is a good thing. As a Libertarian and a firm believer in Capitalism I reject such a view as this results in many cases a worst outcome then if Government had just delivered the service themselves. Big business know its taxpayer money and decide to cream off as much money from the Government as possible as they don't have to deal with consumers but only have to butter up a few politicians now and then. As its not directly politicians money they don't care about the deal they strike or if it is in the interests of the consumer. All they care about is a good headline in the newspaper or placating the process to further their own private interests.

Railways are another classic example. People argue for their nationalisation but what exactly are they asking for? The tracks, the signals, the stations, the timetables or the regulations that govern all this? All of that is already nationalised. The only private part are the carriages on the track and guess what? The Government again decides to offer monopoly rights to companies on select routes, basically companies who can offer the most money to operate a line thus excluding smaller more innovative companies. These companies can't compete on an alternative infrastructure for example as they would need buy the land for the routes, build the tracks then make various planning applications with the Government to allow them to do such a thing (Government would just reject this as its competition to their existing monopoly). Meanwhile the Government has all their track maintained and paid for by tax money which is always guaranteed with consumers having a say. Its no wonder the hurdles for a market to offer an alternative is so large. The same people who want to nationalise the railways argue its a scandal that it costs less to get a plane ticket than to buy a train ticket and use this for a case for nationalisation. It barely needs a shred of critical thought to contradict this line of thinking. Airfares are so cheap because last time I checked Governments were not as involved as they are in the railways. It was the deregulation ie getting the Government out of the airline business in the 80's and 90's that made air travel so cheap. In fact Europe now has some of the lowest airfares as companies across the world can compete on many routes. Contrast this with the US where domestic fares for similar distances are around twice the cost in Europe. Why? Because the Federal Government mandates only US based airlines can operate domestic routes. Again its the Government messing things up. No market failure, just a bunch of Government failures.

Capitalism is all about consumers setting the rules. Not Governments, not even businesses. Companies are servants to the public. The above examples are not the first and won't be the last of how people still don't fully understand Capitalism. Capitalism is only when consumers have free control of what goods and services they wish to buy as individuals and have their own money to do so. It also only exists when companies are free from interference from Governments to offer whatever they want to the market. Not following strict Government edicts, or being told what they can and can't do. Capitalism will always lead to more abundance compared with Government Planning, only an intellectual could ignore that. However I'm not even going to debate that aspect. Why private vs public? Its the moral case. Capitalism allows all of us as individuals to decide what we value in our lives. Central Planning gives a few elite bureaucrats that control and will never have your interests at heart. True Capitalism is giving power to the people. Nationalisation is stripping power from the people and giving it to the Political elite. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Venezula another Socialist Humanitarian Crisis

Venezuela is the latest in a long line of Socialist failures but still people around the world keep falling for its ideology. One of creating victims, dividing society into minority groups and promising to give everyone the free and easy life for nothing.

Peoples stupidity of voting for this failed doctrine would be amusing only when Socialism is implemented it's no laughing matter. Children are dying in hospitals where simple procedures are being neglected as the country has become so poor it has chronic shortages in all areas of the economy. This is the reality of free healthcare with no capitalist sidecar to prop it up. No doctors. No medicine. No healthcare. Instead its citizens are given empty promises of its "free for all"; the catch being there is no healthcare. 

Bernie Sanders was recently asked by South American journalists to talk about Venezuela, a country that he once praised yet he had no comment instead going completely mute on the topic. Jeremy Corbyn in the UK who once held up Venezuela as an example for Britain has also remained silent on the issue like so many other left wing commentators. Its no surprise, these people always rely on the public having a short term memory. Back in the 1980's Bernie Sanders was praising Socialist regimes at the time and stating that bread lines were a good thing in the video below. Now of course we know the truth. Boris Yeltsin once visited America and took a trip to a supermarket. It was off the cuff so he could see an "unstaged" normal shop (the Russians were infamous for staging citizens lives for Western visitors to cover the grim reality). What he saw amazed him, he couldn't believe the choice of products that were available, remarking that many of the products available to the normal American was not even available to the political elite in Communist Russia. Yeltsin spent the plane ride home with his head in his hands. He told his advisers we have failed the Russian people in creating such poverty, indeed this became his Eureka moment when he Realised Central Planning wasn't working by simply observing Capitalism in action.

All of Venezuela's problems were avoidable. Yet Socialism is labelled as compassionate. Its labelled anti-greed and anti-corruption. Its falsely believed to be morally superior to Capitalism and more rational. Some even falsely believe it to be more productive, peddling the discredited notion that under a single monopoly provider its more efficient.

Socialism will always have an appeal to people for a number of reasons. Compared with Capitalism its simple to explain meaning it can be understood on all intellectual levels. To solve problems you only need to spend other peoples money. It gives "free" stuff to the majority. It contains fluffy language - togetherness, unity, peoples will - distilling complex economics into simple slogans. However Socialism will never succeed in the long run as actions are always louder than words. While Socialists talk about solving problems Capitalism just gets on and does it. Socialists talk about poverty while Capitalism elevates us all to prosperity that was unimaginable 100 years ago. While Socialists talk about "free" this and "free" that, Capitalism brings down the costs of many goods and services to next to nothing.

Indeed Socialists only actions are creating misery and hardship for all, eventually bankrupting nations. Then who do people call to fix the mess? Thats right; Capitalism. Capitalism will always win out because while most people will never be able to comprehend prices, supply and demand, entrepreneurship, capital goods or a whole host of other market theories they will understand who brings home the bacon. Look at the past 50 years. China has turned to the market, India has never been more market driven, most of Asia 50 years ago was a mess and now its people are warming to Capitalism like never before. Europe was half Communist, even the other half in countries like Britain we had most things under the states control. People no longer have open support of Socialism so new phrases are used, "democratic socialism" or "progressive politics" as the general public have rejected Socialism. Communism was the first discredited term, now Socialism conjures up images of misery and poverty for many here in the West. We are now at the juncture of blurred economics, mixed on a knife edge between capitalism and socialism. If we tip too much towards Socialist policies then it tips back to Capitalism in order to try solve the ideologies previous ills. Sweden bankrupt itself by embracing too much Socialism during the 1960's and 70's and when they went broke during the early 90's they moved the pendulum back to Capitalism. Many of the Scandinavian countries are now rolling back the state to try and solve various issues that have been created by Statism. When Bernie Sanders claimed Denmark was a Socialist Country the Danish Prime Minister promptly came back and said no, Denmark is a market economy. On many measures it is more Capitalist than America (looser employment laws, lower levels of corporation tax, a more robust legal system of private property and a culture more open towards foreign investment to name a few).

Pro-capitalists are supposed to feel guilty yet Capitalism is the very system that has created a historic unknown wealth for us all. The norm of human history was absolute grinding poverty, plagued by starvation at every turn. Now the free market has given us food in such abundance that we have all become obsessed with diets and recreational exercises in order to burn off our excess fat. Our ancestors would not have been able to comprehend such a concept where food has become so varied, so plentiful that we now have to take actions to restrain from over eating. Yet for Venezuela who took the Socialist path, a lack of food is a Socialist reality. Queues, rations, no choice and fighting or stealing for basic necessities. Its estimated that people spend over a day a week queuing for any food they can get which isn't much. Meanwhile I can get food 24x7, order it from the comfort of my armchair and get it delivered to my door and buy far more than I can possibly eat. Socialist Compassion? There is no such thing just the inevitable humanitarian crisis. Capitalism's actions offers genuine compassion rather than Socialism's empty promises of it.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Labour Crisis? What Crisis?

Well in case you have been living under a rock for the past few weeks you would have no doubt noticed that the Labour party are once again imploding on themselves. Brexit appeared like an opportune moment for the Parliamentary Labour Party to oust Jeremy Corbyn, their current leader. One by one his shadow cabinet resigned. It got so bad that an Englishman was appointed to a Scottish cabinet position. With well over three quarters of his MPs signalling a vote of no confidence most leaders would have walked. However this is the Labour party so Mr Corbyn obviously decided to solder on, with David Cameron's last appearance on Prime Ministers Questions comparing his staying put to the Monty Python Sketch of "its just a flesh wound", in reference to the fact he commands no confidence from his backbenchers.

Angela Eagle stepped forward as a potential leadership alternative. I personally would vote for Corbyn over Eagle and thats saying something as I pretty much disagree with most of what Corbyn has to say. I'm sorry but what does she stand for exactly as this video shows I'm not even sure she knows. Then we had Owen Smith. Straight away he has decided to alienate many core Labour supporters who voted leave in Brexit by saying we should have a second referendum, despite the fact that around 70% of Labour Constituencies voted for leave. He needs to win over marginal seats, in fact lets just give away our safe seats with statements like that. He also wants higher taxes, with the re-introduction of the 50% tax rate, despite this not raising more tax and is generally seen as an anti-wealth policy. Its like these people are actually trying to come forward as candidates that are even less electable than Corbyn. Then there was the drama of if Corbyn would appear on the ballot for a leadership election as he no longer had the support of 50 MPs, however by what appears as potential intimidation the Labour National Executive Committee had a public ballot and decided to include Corbyn on the list of candidates. Presumably they were concerned after Angela Eagle had a brick thrown through her office constituency so decided to go for the easy route and I don't blame them. Labour hasn't a chance of forming a Government in their current state, so for all I care for my own personal safety if I was on the National Executive Committee I would have put Pol Pot on the list if it meant avoiding acts of aggression.

Meanwhile we have the perfect storm for Labour in the form of the Conservatives and UKIP. First take a look at UKIP. With Nigel Farage gone, more moderate candidates are stepping up for leadership such as Steven Woolfe. Working class, mixed race, brought up in a council house, lived in moss side in Manchester a place I used to visit as my family had market stalls there. Has a calm, measured manner and takes on a party who has been consistent on immigration, a big issue for many in the Labour Northern heartlands.

If UKIP maintain themselves as an anti-establishment party representing the common person, have sensible polices then they are going to get Labour seats I can see that happening if Labour continue on their current course. Especially if Labour are toying with candidates like Owen Smith. Say what you like about northern people (I'm one) but they are decent people and if Owen Smith goes up there and says "second referendum" this will be a message of I don't care about democracy and what you people think. For years Labour have ignored their heartlands and statements like this is just showing a red rag to a bull. Its like they have learnt nothing from what happened in Scotland (which I'll come onto later). Labour is turning into a party that represents middle class Londoners and Guardian readers and that isn't going to win you elections.

Then we come to the Tories. Out go the Etonians, in come a predominate State School cabinet and Theresa May who is a women. You may think being a women doesn't matter but one of the reasons Thatcher stayed in so long was the fact she was a strong women in a predominately male dominated, privately educated profession. Women and men voted for Thatcher as they liked a grammar school educated women taking on the establishment. I think Theresa May will have the same sort of advantage despite not being my cup of tea. Then we come on to her recent pro-brexit appointments. David Davis was a great choice to head up Brexit, a long time euro-skeptic and someone who is a hardened politician. He's also someone who doesn't care about furthering his career for some short term personal gain over whats best for the country, therefore he has principle in order to carry out Brexit. Liam Fox will be enjoying his role drumming up trade deals around the world and they are all knocking on the door already. These are two people that firmly believe in the Brexit cause, even Nigel Farage said he was far more positive once these appointments were made. Then we had Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary an inspired appointment in my view, contrary to what others think. Sure Boris has insulted people all over the world but he will remedy that. People generally have short term memories and Boris has charm and a wit that will no doubt form relationships. He's also a very popular politician at home who can even swing Labour voters as evidenced when he was the mayor of London. To put him in such a prominent role will enable him to swing voters once an election comes. Along with David Davis and Liam Fox he also firmly believes in Brexit. All May's foreign appointments have been from the Brexit Camp, which in my opinion shows her commitments to Brexit. May has also gone after the middle ground of politics, demonising multi-national companies and going after the working mans vote. She looks likes she is determined to be hard on immigration, again a big concern of many in the Labour core vote, going straight for the oppositions jugular.

I believe the Tories want to get on with Brexit for a couple of reasons. One, it has been a thorn in the party for decades and now if we exit that rift will have gone, unifying the party once more when Labour are split. Two, despite many in the Tories being in favour of remain I don't think they really believed in it and I think they were just looking out for their future potential pensions or just sticking with the status quo. I think many did want to get out of it to heal the parties rift or were not that bothered or believed it to be a huge opportunity for them and for the country. They can now see the potential; making history which all politicians love to do. No one has ever left the EU before, therefore the opportunity to do something completely unique in a political sense is exciting a lot of Tory MPs.

There were suggestions that the Conservatives may call a general election to capitalise on the chaos in the Labour party but this won't happen as its in the Tories best interests not to call one. The chances are Jeremy Corbyn will win the latest leadership challenge as he has the largest support amongst the grass root supporters. This means he will carry on until the 2020 election. Now unless the world implodes then I don't think Labour has a chance of beating the Tories if that is the case. The Tories have so much election propaganda material on him from quotes saying Hamas were his friends, pictures with Sinn Fein and even his own party making damming public statements of him on facebook to name just a few of many. Just the sight of him campaigning will be enough to turn voters towards the Tories and UKIP. The Tories would rather have an easy election win in 2020 and potentially split the Labour party in the meantime or at the least cause divisions that may never heal. Then they will have until 2025, giving May and others 9 years in power. By then Labour may still not be able to recover the ground they have lost, meaning winning the 2025 election may still be a push. Also the Tories don't want an election until Article 50 has been triggered and we have fully pulled out of Europe otherwise the Tories risk losing voters to UKIP. If they make a good job of Brexit they can potentially pull back those ex-tory voters who went to UKIP. If the fears of Brexit never materialise then Tory members who did support remain will begin to see that life outside the EU is perhaps not all that bad, unifying the party even more. I believe all the reasons stated are why Teresa May is so keen to carry out Brexit and do the best that she can.

Before all of the above Labour were already facing a monumental mountain to climb. Remember that in the last election they were routed in Scotland, once their heartlands to third place behind the Tories. How it has changed when many left wing commentators said only a few years back that the Conservatives were "dead" in Scotland and they should give up. It seems they didn't bother to notice what was happening with their own parties issues. They need to win these seats back but how? None of the current candidates can do that. Then we have the boundary changes coming up in the next election whereby urban areas, Labour strongholds, are being unified more as they have lower constituent count then rural areas, thus potentially giving Labour less seats (assuming they can hold onto them). In the recent local elections Labour gained minimal seats, no where near what they need to gain in order to catch up with the Conservatives.

There is also the recent polls. We are well into the Governments term and Labour are polling in a disastrous way compared with the Tories. Even under Ed Miliband you had a bounce where Labour were in front at a similar period of the election cycle, however with Corbyn most polls show them trailing badly. Under every demographic Corbyn is loosing to May. Its amazing how delusional Labour supporters have become. I've seen in forums where they genuinely believe that because polls have been wrong recently that they may be underestimating Corbyns support. I think this is nuts for two reasons. One, the polls put Corbyn and Labour behind by several percentage points. With the recent Brexit vote it was tight by only a couple of percentage points so there was less margin for error. Two, polls in recent history have only been wrong in the favour of the Tory Party, like I mentioned the shy Tory factor back in a 2015 election post. People falsely tell pollsters they will vote Labour but then when they are in the polling booth they vote Conservative. The left don't help this by shouting "Tory scum" and "I wouldn't kiss a Tory" and all their other intolerant chants. Ironically in the same breath many then talk about a kinder politics, tolerance with all sorts of meaningless hashtags on twitter. The most intolerant voters I see are Labour ones. I never hear UKIP, the lib dems or the Conservatives shout "Labour Scum" and so on. Labour are more intolerant than all other parties. They label themselves as liberals yet are some of the most illiberal people out there. Even Angela Eagle has come out recently and said the Labour party is in danger of becoming the "nasty party", however I would argue its been like that for years. As Winston Churchill once said "The fascists of the future will be called anti-fascists". They shut down free speech and are unable to see another persons point of view. But then history has always shown the left to be the least tolerant of political movements, responsible for millions of deaths over the past 100 years. They also show complete contempt for democracy. In the 2015 election where the Conservatives won, rather than accept the vote they said the people had been misled and that it was unfair, indeed they protested in London against the democratic vote. They went to the Conservative party conference where attendees were called all forms of intolerant names, subjected to foul language and had eggs thrown at them. Their crime was a difference of opinion the very principle of freedom, free speech. It was the same again with the recent Brexit vote, disagree with the "progressives" or "liberals" at your peril. People are beginning to have enough of all this and are starting to move away from Labour and look at the alternatives. People are getting sick of being told what to think.

Labour are facing the perfect storm. Will they be able to pull things together? Hopefully. Democracy works best when you have a decent opposition. Maybe they need a heavy defeat in order to pull themselves together once more and get serious as a major political force. Its always the same story with Labour, they only get in power once they move to a Center-Right political position and abandon their Socialist principles. Tony Blair and Harold Wilson won because they out tory'd the Tories. I remember seeing 1970 Election footage, an Election Ted Heaths Conservatives won, with a Labour supporter saying that he voted for the Tories as he felt Labour had gone too far to the right. It was the same with Blair. Until Labour move to the right then they have no chance of forming a Government. History says they will, we just don't know when.