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The Climate Show #29

Posted on 21 October 2012 by Gareth

This is a re-post from Hot Topic.

This week The Climate Show brings you an all news special. We have wet summers for Europe, permafrost warming delivering a methane kick, La Niña driving floods that make sea level fall, a glacier calving in Antarctica, mammoths and sabre tooth tigers — all delivered with Glenn and Gareth’s inimitable panache (!).

Watch The Climate Show on our Youtube channel, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, listen to us via Stitcher on your smartphone or listen direct/download from the link below the fold.

Follow The Climate Show at The Climate Show web site, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Global collaboration to produce a show that would have been impossible just a few years ago, without Skype and broadband internet. A Kiwi in England talking to a Pom in Kiwiland just shows how small our modern globe has become, powered by high carbon electricity.

    When oil becomes expensive due to scarcity and the shortage cripples heavy transport, coal mining and gas extraction will become uneconomic and this wonderful technology we all enjoy will come to a shuddering halt. Very sad.
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  2. Electricity doesn't have to come from high carbon sources, Doug.
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  3. Doug H

    Does energy efficiency, renewables, etc mean the death of things like this. I think not. In an energy constrained world doing good things that use less energy will start to take precedence over doing good things that take more energy.

    I could jump in my car and travel 100kms down the road to visit a friend. Or I could visit with them on-line for a fraction of the cost.

    In an efficiency constrained world,the Internet will be one of the great survivors
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  4. Dana, Glenn, thanks for your positive replies.

    In my 'average Joe' opinion, the chances of renewable base-load power taking over any time soon are very slim. The technologies may already exist, but authority to invest lies in the hands of Big Oil, Big Gas and Big Coal. When I see Shell or BP making serious attempts to bring renewable base-load electricity to the consumer, I may change my opinion.

    The genius of the internet is that it knows no borders, with sites and consumers in every corner of the globe. Will that continue, under a tightened energy regime? Will server farms continue to hum unabated, all over the world, when electricity becomes a luxury commodity? Will the infrastructure continue to be maintained, let alone improved, when petrol (gasoline) and diesel are rationed, limiting the deployment of linesmen and their trucks?

    I will be getting my electricity from photo-voltaics and a small wind turbine well before then, so my home network will still function, but will the rest of the internet continue to provide reliable service? For that matter, will I be able to afford new equipment as my existing components reach their 'use by' date? All the items in my home network rely upon plastic components: will plastics still be affordable, when fossil oil reserves become depleted?

    Of course, this is a 'glass half empty' view. Perhaps some unheralded solution to our energy needs will be invented tomorrow, by some bright spark with a physics degree and a soldering iron. I am waiting with bated breath.

    One source of power that has interest to me, is geothermal. New Zealand uses geothermal energy to generate electricity, but their source of heat is relatively close to the surface. I have read of a technique which involves drilling down to where the rocks are hot, then pumping water down the hole and using the heat to create steam to spin a turbine. If this proves viable, it could work almost anywhere, couldn't it? Why couldn't this generate electricity 24/7/365?

    I am planning for the worst, while hoping for the best.
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  5. Managin our energy will happen as society creeps forward on climate change. The xprize competition showed that personal transportation could be improved dramitically.

    http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2010/09/x-prize_winner_100-mpg_car_tha.html

    Instead of gas, this can be converted to electric. As these cars become millions now the utility has a base of electric storage.

    This is the where we can put people back to work for the next 50 years.
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  6. Doug H,

    I think Internet-based technology will only become more attractive and more widely used as energy becomes more expensive, because it remains much cheaper than the alternatives.

    I, personally, have avoided tens of thousands of kg of CO2 emissions over the past few years due to instances where I've been able to use Skype and Webex for teleconferencing rather than flying. I still do a lot of flying, but the trend is one-way, especially as high-speed Internet becomes more widespread.

    Telecommunication and computing are very energy efficient compared to the alternatives and continue to become more so. A single server farm might use a lot of power in total, but it's also doing a lot of work and doing that work more and more efficiently.

    Regarding geothermal electricity: it is attractive in certain locations, like parts of New Zealand, the US, etc., but unfortunately in most areas is too diffuse to be economically feasible.

    Regarding "base-load power": I wish people would stop using that term as a synonym for "power that is reliably available on-demand". The former is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the latter. It's an implementation detail that arises from a desire to achieve the latter with a mix of technologies of different properties as cheaply as possible.

    Some technologies have a low marginal operating cost but a high capital investment cost. Coal and nuclear fit into this category. It is most cost-effective to run those at close to maximum capacity as much as possible. Quite often, those same technologies also find it difficult to quickly change output, so there are technical reasons as well as economic reasons for trying to do this.

    Conversely, some technologies have high ramp rates (i.e. can change output quickly), low capital costs, but high running costs. Gas turbines are in this category. Why would we use them if they're expensive to run? Because demand fluctuates wildly and we need to meet the gap between the near-constant output of the other generating technologies and the fluctuating demand from the consumers.

    If you have a technology that you want to run at close to 100% capacity 24/7, but demand fluctuates by a factor in excess of 2:1, then you can't use that technology to satisfy 100% of peak demand because it won't be running at close to 100% capacity during periods of low demand.

    OTOH, if you have a technology that can easily be ramped to satisfy peak demand, but is expensive to run, then you don't want to use that technology to satisfy the 40-50% or so of peak demand that you can reasonably assume will be there 24/7, either.

    So the solution is to use the former technology for that "base" load, and the latter technology for load following or (if it's really expensive) peak power generation. It's a consequence of the nature of the technologies available, not a desirable attribute in and of itself. It's better to re-evaluate the nature of each technology and think about the optimal way to combine them than to try to shoe-horn each technology into an existing category.

    As an example, the NREL report I linked to recently noted that at penetration rates of up to 6%, solar PV is actually beneficial because it allows less usage of peaking power generators -- it actually makes electricity cheaper because the power generation that is displaced is precisely that technology that is most expensive to operate.

    Unfortunately, at higher rates, it’s generating so much power at peak times that it actually causes a problem for California's existing power infrastructure because their current baseload generators have difficulty scaling back output, and scaling them back to their minimum output, then adding in wind plus solar PV, actually results in generation greater than the load.

    However, replacing traditional plants with solar thermal plants with heat storage actually increases the penetration ability of PV because one of the key characteristics of the solar thermal plants is that they have higher ramp rates and lower minimum outputs than traditional large thermal plants. The solar thermal plants therefore increase grid flexibility and its ability to accommodate wind and PV, to the extent that a total solar contribution in excess of 50% (PV + CSP) becomes viable.

    So solar thermal plants share some of the characteristics of the technologies traditionally used for baseload power generation (namely high capital costs and low running costs) but are also very flexible output-wise (like hydro). Like hydro, they also have fixed storage capacities, so they aren't a perfect drop-in replacement for coal or nuclear.

    Achieving the goal of economic yet reliable power delivery with large amounts of renewables in the mix hasn't been solved yet, but I'm confident it will be. No one technology will be 100% of the solution but that's not a surprise because no one technology makes sense as 100% of the solution right now, either. And part of the solution could well be demand management -- after all, the recent Productivity Commission draft report found that "capacity that caters for less than 40 hours a year of electricity consumption (or under one per cent of time) accounts for around 25 per cent of retail electricity bills". I think it's also worth noting that those peak hours (in Australia) occur on the hottest days, when solar power is most effective; therefore not only can solar avoid peaking power generation, it can also reduce infrastructure costs because the need to transport that peak power from generators to consumers is reduced.
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  7. JasonB, thanks for the reply.

    I must admit to not being as upbeat as you about the likelihood of a well-mixed energy supply grid, incorporating substantial renewables, being built in the current global political climate.

    I agree that the internet is a useful time and money saver, enabling such trivia as the conversation we are having here. I wonder, however, where national and international energy priorities will be when the rising cost of fossil fuels really bites AND the effects of AGW are starting bite. I'm expecting international tensions to escalate as a result of both of those pressures, possibly causing a review of the benefits of the internet and certainly causing inflationary pressure on the computers and network components my own little node requires.

    I am going to try to shape my demand to work in with what I can supply with PV and wind, although I expect to stay connected to the grid for the foreseeable future.
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  8. Doug H,

    Articles like this will certainly help the political climate.

    I think the costs of improving carbon efficiency by quite a reasonable amount will prove to be far lower than the alarmists (who normally prefer to be known as "skeptics" and who call us "alarmists") fear.

    Some time down the track, once all the low-hanging fruit have been picked, things might get more difficult to reduce carbon further, but if it's a choice between making no effort now in the hope that technological breakthroughs will save the day in the future and making decent efforts now in the hope that technological breakthroughs will bridge the gap in the future then the latter seems a more sensible option.

    It's easy to get depressed when you immerse yourself in the "debate" in the blogosphere, but I think it's important to realise that in the broader population (which is orders of magnitude larger than the "skeptics") there simply isn't the same level of denial. I'm constantly surprised at the wide range of ordinary people I meet -- especially older people -- who not only accept that global warming is real but actively talk about it and how things have changed just during their lifetime. The "skeptics" may have undue influence in the political arena right now but their influence is far less in the general population, and in the long run that's what counts.
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  9. @4 Doug,
    If Google and Facebook are any indication, I think investmnet from internet companies in renewable energy projects will become increasingly common. This is both a self-sustaining and wise investment opportunity. You're right in that servers are huge users of energy, and to insure the continued existence of a profitable enterprise in a world an increasingly expensive fossil-fuel generated electricity, the idea of the internet beign powered by renewable energies, even in the case of "by the internet for the internet", seems enormously attractive.
    A few examples of commitments can be seen here, here and here
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  10. JasonB and DMCarey, thanks for trying to cheer me up "8-).

    Only when the tide of public opinion is behind us will informed decisions by our politicians be possible and ensuring the survival of our civilisation is clearly a political problem. Maybe my cynicism prevents me from noticing a turning of the political tide in countries "informed" by the Murdoch Juggernaut (AKA "The Evil Empire", but I digress). When the Tea Party starts demanding action to save their beachfront homes; when the Australian Liberal Party adopts policies designed to address AGW; when Christopher Monkton The Great (Deceiver) admits he is wrong; only then will I believe appropriate action will be taken. Of course, by then, it will be too darned late, but heck, at least I will be able to say "told you so" to the Viscount and his cadre.
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