Debunking 3 doomster stories about energy & climate

Summary: An oddity of US political debates is that both Left and Right lie like rugs. See three fun but telling falsehoods from a comment yesterday. They express widely held beliefs about energy use in America. They hide some good news.

Clear vision

The first falsehood

“Nonsense. …Your claim – that we are advancing into a low emissions future – is false.”

This is breathtakingly wrong, but easy to believe based on what we read in the news. Let’s look at it in steps, by the numbers.

Energy intensity is energy use per unit of GDP, a measure of the efficiency with which we use energy. It has been improving (decreasing intensity) in the US since 1950 (see the EIA). It has been improving globally since 1990: down 40% in the US, down 1/3 in the world. See this interactive graph showing the trend for nations and the world.

Carbon intensity is the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy used. It has been dropping since 1970 (per the EIA). The power sector’s carbon intensity was stable at 60 kg CO2/MMBtu for decades, then began to decline after 2006. By 2016 it had fallen to 48 kg CO2/MMBtu (down 20%). the carbon intensity of transportation has also begun to slowly decline. The electrification of vehicles in the next few decades will accelerate that decline.

US carbon intensity by sector per year

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As a result of these two trends, America’s CO2 emissions peaked in 2007, and they have fallen since then (see VOX, and see Wikipedia). The other developed nations are following us at various speeds. For more about these trends, see McKinsey’s April 2019 report: “The decoupling of GDP and energy growth.

US CO2 emissions by source, by year

A second fun falsehood

“Electric cars are inferior to gasoline cars, and can only be rammed down our throats by force.”

Electricity is a far cheaper source of energy than gasoline. And electric vehicles (EVs) are much more efficient:  combustion-powered motors max out at 40% efficiency while electric motors can run at 90%. As for storage, EVs will work just fine for many people. My wife has never driven 200 miles in a day. Many commercial vehicles that work in urban areas can function with today’s battery loads.

The speed with EVs replace gas/diesel vehicles depends on how quickly they drop in price, which depends on the volume sold (which depends on their price). Most new technology rides down the price-volume curve. Raytheon sold the first commercial microwave oven in 1947; it cost $28 thousand in 2019 dollars. In 1967 Litton sold the first countertop microwave oven; it cost $3800 in 2019 dollars. (See this history.) Now they are $50+ and everybody has them.

EVs will not drop in price as drastically as did microwave ovens. But they could eventually become as cheap to buy as gas/diesel cars, and perhaps cheaper over their full operating lifetime.

A third fun falsehood

“James Hansen said wind and solar are ‘fairy tales and Easter bunnies.’”

This is a popular Right-wing story, a misstatement of what climate scientist Hansen said in a 2011 essay.

“Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

Hansen tells us what should be obvious. Today we rely on a diverse array of energy sources. The components will change over time, but there is no magic bullet existing or under development that will provide “all” or even most of our energy. Certainly not solar and wind.

First, both are in use without subsidies in many areas. We have and always have had diverse systems of energy production. These are just new additions. They are not magic bullets – because there are no magic bullets. Second, Hansen did not say anything like that. He said in his essay that they could not replace fossil fuels.

Be skeptical of forecasts

The energy and climate policy debates are driven by predictions. Sometimes about immensely complex and poorly understood dynamics. Hansen’s essay gives an example of why we should be skeptical of forecasts. Energy use is a relatively simple thing to predict compared to climate change. Yet even top experts have a terrible record at predicting prices and quantities, even over modest time horizons. See Hansen’s update through 2009 of a graph in his entry to the growing genre of climate doomster lit: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

orecasts of US Energy Consumption - Hansen 2011

Conclusions

Despite the screams of climate doomsters, having little basis in science, we are not on the fast track to climate armageddon. We are making progress and will continue to do so. Depending on as yet unknown factors, we may or may not face extreme climate change in the mid- to late 21st C.

Falsehoods by both sides are chaff in the public policy debate, preventing agreement on common-sense measures to accelerate the shift to high efficiency and less pollution energy use, and lower carbon sources of energy. There is insufficient evidence at present for the drastic measure of the Green New Deal, and far better uses for the money. Our schools are a mess, especially where they are most needed (e.g., in inner cities and rural areas). The oceans are being destroyed. You can list other urgent needs for funds.

Clear sight of the facts. Open debate, without the poisonous smears used (successfully) today by climate activists. These tools will work for us, if we have the will and wit to use them.

For More Information

Ideas! See my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about doomsters, about The keys to understanding climate change, and especially these…

  1. About RCP8.5: Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!
  2. How climate scientists can re-start the public policy debate about climate change – test the models!
  3. Follow-up: more about why scientists should test the models.
  4. Let’s prepare for past climate instead of bickering about predictions of climate change – Doing something is better than nothing.
  5. Focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.
  6. Updating the RCPs: The IPCC gives us good news about climate change, but we don’t listen.
  7. The Extinction Rebellion’s hysteria vs. climate science.
  8. Daily stories of climate death build a Green New Deal!
  9. Why we do nothing to prepare for climate change.
  10. Listening to climate doomsters makes our situation worse.

To help us better understand today’s weather

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr., prof at the U of CO – Boulder Center for Science and Policy Research (2018).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

21 thoughts on “Debunking 3 doomster stories about energy & climate

  1. Editor, one of the things that can confuse the analysis is the effect of offshoring. That is where energy intensive industries, like steel or cement or electricity production, are done in another country so that doesn’t show against your own data. I do not know how much energy USA imports this way, but Google indicates about 20% of the steel comes from overseas., The effect is probably not large, but it is there and it will distort the figures somewhat.

    Yes, the change from old coal fired electricity production to that from GTs, supported by cheap gas from fraccing has been a huge success story. That needs more promotion. It is not renewables that are shuttering the steamers, it is gas wells.

    According to this, USA imports about 75% of its steel
    https://www.trade.gov/steel/countries/pdfs/imports-us.pdf

    And $1.5B worth of cement, with the biggest supplier Canada!
    http://www.worldstopexports.com/cement-imports-by-country/

    That is a lot of carbon in just two products.

    I am not picking on the USA. The EU countries do this to a lot greater extent. It is just to show that the effect of trade and offshoring ca be quite distorting on the data.

    1. Chris,

      “one of the things that can confuse the analysis is the effect of offshoring”

      The evidence is pretty clear that this is not the case, including the data you provide.

      • Improvement of energy intensity is global. See the interactive map cited.
      • Carbon intensity has improved in the commercial and power sectors, as well as industrial.
      • The largest, by far, change in CO2 emissions has been in the power sector. The industrial sector’s emissions are flatish, and rising since about 2009.

      The graph you provide of steel imports since 2005 shows no trend. The current level is below that of 2008. So an increase in steel outsourcing has not been a factor since 2008 – when most of the improvement in other factors occurred. I’ll bet that the same is true of cement, although the report you cite shows only 2018 imports – but no historical data.

  2. That graph from Storms of my Grandchildren is interesting and new, thanks for including it!

    I’ve thought a lot about why people think about apocalypses and binaries; the old, “if we don’t drastically change thing in X months or X years, it will become a titan and there is only a choice between enormous drastic measures and accepting our doom.” When of course sometimes there are massive abrupt step changes, but also there are just incremental improvements which add up.

    1. SF,

      I suggest seeing these campaigns as programs to mold public opinion. Our rulers believe that fear is the most effective tool. It has worked well for them for over a century, more effectively over time. Either they’re getting better at this, or we’re becoming more gullible. Perhaps both.

  3. “And electric vehicles (EVs) are much more efficient: combustion-powered motors max out at 40% efficiency while electric motors can run at 90%.”

    But the production of electricity from fossil fuels is at best about 55% (combined cycle natural gas) and by the time you account for transmission losses and charge/discharge efficiency an electric is likely no better than a hybrid. Except that they can use energy from sources other than fossil fuels, a potentially very significant advantage.

    “The speed with EVs replace gas/diesel vehicles depends on how quickly they drop in price, which depends on the volume sold (which depends on their price). Most new technology rides down the price-volume curve. … EVs will not drop in price as drastically as did microwave ovens. But they could eventually become as cheap to buy as gas/diesel cars, and perhaps cheaper over their full operating lifetime.”

    I think that is not likely since material costs are very important for batteries. Those are not as susceptable to learning. But plug-in hybrids might be as cheap or cheaper, have most of the advantage of full EVs and preserve the advantage of conventional cars.

    1. Mike,

      (1) “the production of electricity from fossil fuels is at best about 55% ”

      That efficiency of electric gen is not relevant to this discussion of operating costs. Whatever the efficiency, what matters is that electricity is a much cheaper fuel than gas or diesel. The next stage is comparison of electric motor vs. internal combustion efficiency. Result: the EV has cheaper fuel AND higher efficiency. This gives EV some advantages, should EV prices fall substantially.

      (2) “I think that is not likely”

      The history of tech is unexpected decreases in prices. Massive sums are being spent on battery R&D. You appear to believe you know more than those scientists and engineers. It’s not my field, but I’ll bet on them.

  4. “That efficiency of electric gen is not relevant to this discussion of operating costs. Whatever the efficiency, what matters is that electricity is a much cheaper fuel than gas or diesel.”

    But it isn’t. Gasoline provides about 127 MJ/gal or 35 kWh/gal. A gallon of gas costs about $2.00, plus taxes. So that is equivalent to $0.06/kWh. Average U.S. retail electricity price is about $0.10/kWh.

    An electric car gets about 3 miles per kWh, so about $0.03 per mile. That is better than the $0.04 per mile for a good hybrid. But nothing like the factor of 3 or better claimed.

    1. Mike,

      No more about this here, please. It’s nice that you disagree with the experts. Please argue with them.

      “Gasoline provides about 127 MJ/gal or 35 kWh/gal.”

      Again you’re using the wrong metrics. Comparing costs of fuel refers to mpg, not the energy content of the fuel.

      “But nothing like the factor of 3 or better claimed.”

      Again you are confused. “Factor of three” refers to engine efficiency, which is only one of many components to miles per gal or kw.

      No more of this.

  5. News from Ontario, Canada. The problem is that Ontario continued to build Industrial Scale wind and solar, even though Ontario’s Professional Engineers warned that emissions would actually increase.

    Reference: “Ontario’s Electricity Dilemma – Achieving Low Emissions at Reasonable Electricity Rates”. Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE). April 2015.
    https://www.ospe.on.ca/public/documents/presentations/ontarios-electricity-dilemma.pdf

    Page 15 of 23. “Why Will Emissions Double as We Add Wind and Solar Plants ?”

    – Wind and Solar require flexible backup generation.

    – Nuclear is too inflexible to backup renewables without expensive engineering changes to the reactors.

    – Flexible electric storage is too expensive at the moment.

    – Consequently natural gas provides the backup for wind and solar in North America.

    – When you add wind and solar you are actually forced to reduce nuclear generation to make room for more natural gas generation to provide flexible backup.

    – Ontario currently produces electricity at less than 40 grams of CO2 emissions/kWh.

    – Wind and solar with natural gas backup produces electricity at about 200 grams of CO2 emissions/kWh. Therefore adding wind and solar to Ontario’s grid drives CO2 emissions higher. From 2016 to 2032 as Ontario phases out nuclear capacity to make room for wind and solar, CO2 emissions will double (2013 LTEP data).

    – In Ontario, with limited economic hydro and expensive storage, it is mathematically impossible to achieve low CO2 emissions at reasonable electricity prices without nuclear generation.

    1. Richard,

      “In Ontario, with limited economic hydro and expensive storage”

      That’s not correct in two ways. First, Ontario Power Generation provides half of the electricity to Ontario, and one-third of that comes from hydro. Niagara Falls and many smaller power stations. Hydro is their cheapest source of power. Second, their Niagara Falls power plant has a large pumped storage reservoir.

      Wind and solar

      This is a big problem: politicians and activists designing engineering systems. Wind and solar are valuable contributions (under suitable conditions) to grid power, but only up to 5% – 20% (the higher numbers usually require an upgrade to a “smart” grid). That’s valuable, roughly the same magnitude as hydro. But beyond that, they create problems in large grids (they’re ok in small grids connected to big ones, like Denmark’s).

      The need for a back-up source of power for wind and solar has been known to the public since the great energy expert Robert Hirsh wrote “Electric Power from Renewable Energy: Practical Realities for Policy-makers” in December 2002’s The Journal of Fusion Energy. But it is still often ignored in articles claiming wind and solar are cheap cheap cheap.

  6. Larry,

    Thanks for the timely article. I used it today to respond to this letter to the editor on the local:

    “Won’t debate climate change anymore (letter)”

    The debate on climate change is over. I refuse to waste time arguing with those unwilling to accept that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence and climate change-related events happening every day are proof that a climate catastrophe is already upon us. Are you a climate catastrophe believer?

    Midwest farmers unable to plant crops this year because of record rainfalls and flooding are believers. Victims of massive hurricanes such as Maria, Michael and Harvey believe. Harvey dumped 64 inches of rain on some areas, while Maria’s rainfall rate was close to a world record. This is a trend we can expect to continue and worsen as our oceans continue to warm.

    Europe is in the grip of a record-setting heat wave. On June 29, France experienced a high temperature of 114 degrees. Europeans believe. Right now, more than 2 million Somalis face starvation because of climate catastrophe-induced drought and famine. They believe.

    Scientists watching polar ice disappearing, ocean levels rising, coral reefs dying and global temperatures rising believe.

    The U.S. Department of Defense warns of global unrest brought on by mass migrations of millions displaced by the developing catastrophe. They believe. The world’s religious leaders speak of a moral obligation to combat climate change. They believe.

    What about you? Do you believe? If you do, good. We need your help. If not, fine. That is your right. But don’t expect a debate. I have better things to do with the time I have left on this troubled Earth.

    1. This reminds me of something that happened here about a month ago. Climate Emergency had their little protest, bongo drums, off key singing, the works. I guess it was lost on them that they were protesting in a country a third of which is already below sea level. Get a grip.

      1. Rando,

        The Sister act was quite a show, too bad the courts thought otherwise. lol

  7. Larry,

    Thanks for the “Be skeptical of Forecasts” graph and discussion. I had forgotten about the magnitude of BTU’s in Lovins’ soft energy path.

    My 10 year old weed eater, 21.3 cc 2 cycle engine built in Japan, stopped working a couple a days ago. The local repair shops are swamped- it will take 6 weeks before it would make it to the top of the que to see if it can be repaired. Unfortunately U tube didn’t have a video on the issue with my unit. I still have about 2 acers of property to make a bit more fire safe so an alternative is, make that was, needed.

    Luckily for me Popular Mechanics recently evaluated weed eaters, and a few specialist shops are located within 10 miles of our place to try out new models. 20 years ago an electric weed eater wasn’t available, but they sure seem like an viable alternative for urban/suburban environments these days. My cities maintenance department was getting some disposables for their weed eaters at the first shop I visited yesterday. Both shops I visited indicated that for the jobs, tasks I need to complete, the current battery powered units are not fit for purpose. I followed PM’s advice and purchased one of their recommended ICE units.

    It’s amazing how much more work I got done with the more powerful tool (25.3 cc engine) that uses a 15% larger string line in a new head design that is easy to feed and doesn’t clog up like my older unit. The bigger fuel tank was almost too for me as I got close to running out of energy before the weed eater did! Thanks goodness the steep areas are finally done. It took me about 7 hours to accomplish the weed eating task in the north pasture and fence line. I would have been lucky to have accomplished the task in less than 10 hours with the older model. 10 years ago our live stock would of done the job- grazing most of the area down that is. I had enough strength left at the end of the job this morning to roll a few logs down the hill for stacking later in the week.

    A few years ago we started harvesting biomass around the parcel as the price for a kWh in the state is getting rather high. This April the cost was up to 18 cents/kWh for the residential market- this price would of been higher expect for the biannual payout of the climate credit. PG&E credited their residential customers $27.70 for their climate credit this April. Last April the credit was larger. The first climate credit payouts occurred back in April of 2014. That April the Average price paid by residential customers in the state was closer to 10 cents a kWh.

    https://www.popularmechanics.com/home/tools/reviews/g145/the-best-new-string-trimmers-comparison-test/

    (1) http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_5_6_a

    1. kakotoa,

      “20 years ago an electric weed eater wasn’t available, but they sure seem like an viable alternative for urban/suburban environments these days. ”

      They certainly are. I’ve used all electric devices for years: snowblowers, leaf blowers, chainsaws, lawnmowers, weed eaters, and wood chippers. They have improved, and are now fantastic.

      “I still have about 2 acers of property”

      You have a lot of land! In 1995, the median lot for a new single family home sold was 10k sq feet (0.23 acre). It was 8,431 sq feet in 2017 (0.19 acre), and only 9% had lots over 22k sq ft (half acre). Electric yard equipment works fine for most of us. Date from the Census.

      1. Thanks for the “Annual Characteristics of New Housing” link- for some reason I am getting a security error when trying to download a few files.. I’ll try to download the files on my other computer later.

        Our one and only new house was build back in 1984 and it was on a quarter acre as it was on a cul de sac. An electric mower would of been more than enough to take care of the lawn area. It’s hard to believe but I had a manual rotary mower for a short time to trim up the lawn. These days it seems a lot of new homes come with maintenance provided via a homeowners associations.

        Given the amount of time commercial landscapers use their equipment I assume they will be sticking with ICE engines for awhile. I have an electric chain saw (non- battery powered- which has worked ok for many jobs, but I had to get a small ICE one to be able to work up in the back part of the property).

        If it was convenient, and cheap enough to charge up the batteries, I assume commercial landscapers would move towards battery powered equipment too. Yesterday would of been an ideal day for charging batteries at our place. The PV system was very happy as the temperature was low leading to 37 kWh being generated and delivered to our the PG&E revenue meter.

      2. kakatoa,

        A common “rebuttal” to articles pointing out the increasing market share of electric vehicles and appliances is that “electrics are not a magic bullet, perfect for every application.” There are no magic bullets. Just different tools, whose market shares changes with improved tech and different consumer needs.

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