Centralist vs. Decentralist

Reducing CO2 emissions means undertaking bold steps

Small scale de-central WWS [1] energy sources are not economically viable.
We need to change a lot of habits.
We must commit to the large undertaking of a WWS [1] global switch.

In 1895 Svante Arrhenius wrote about his findings that CO2 absorbs infrared light (aka heat) in the atmosphere. Arrhenius was the first person to predict that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other combustion processes were large enough to cause global warming. To find out about the Earth’s climate in earlier times scientists drill holes in the Arctic and Antarctic ice and take out ice samples from these deep bore holes. In the ice they can analyse the climatic conditions at a certain period and this research led to  two findings:

1. Global temperature is highly correlated to levels of both CO2 and methane

2. Overall global temperature trends in the last 10,000 years showed decreases, meaning a new ice age was predicted for the future.

This was regarded as quite reasonable even up to the 1970’s when books about a coming ice age were published.

Due to the long term cooling trend of the Earth climate it was quite reasonable to state that the atmospheric heating due to climate change could be beneficial. Well, let’s have a look.

The original CO2 Levels in (for example) 1895 when the industrial revolution was already underway (and was mainly steam/coal powered) were 280 ppm CO2 (280 parts per million). In the 70’s a group of scientists came up with the finding that the CO2 level should not increase above 350 ppm, as this level would resemble a stable co2 level above the ice age trend. Well today we are at 403.5 ppm and the increase is about 3.6 ppm in one year. The fact is that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are not „controlled“ by humans in order to stabilise the temperature at a comfortable level. The levels of CO2 increase are due to rapid burning of fossil fuels and that at an ever increasing rate.

(source: multpl.com)
CO2 emissions in 1000 tons per year (source: multpl.com)

The media messages about climate change only repeat the notion that we are somehow in control of the situation. The Kyoto Protocol was the first global attempt to reduce CO2 Emissions down to 90% of the 1990 levels by 2015. It failed. Then in 2009 the Copenhagen Accord made some sort of compromise claiming that an increase of global temperatures of 2°C was somehow acceptable and it was to be easily achieved by cutting emissions. It also failed. In 2015 we saw another contract, signed in Paris that claims there is some sort of control in place to now keep global temperatures below 1.5°C above the base line. Well you guessed it – this will fail again.

It is from today’s standpoint absolutely impossible to stop climate change at 1.5°C. In the four years from 2012 to 2016 the global average temperature rose by 0.05°C in one year. Currently we are at 0.91°C. The current trend will have reached 1.5 °C in just 10 years and if we take the carbon budget that was calculated by the IPCC for staying below 2°C (1000 Gt) that budget will be used up in 25 years time. There is absolutely no chance at all in this world that we can bring CO2 emissions down to zero in 10 years time. No way. No. Never. It has not been done in the last 50 years and it will not be done in the next 10 years.

We can discuss the carbon budget – there is currently only a German Wikipedia page on it here as the idea of such a budget mainly came from the German Potsdam institute for climate impact research. If we accept that such a budget exists, it will be used up in around 25 years. The notion of such a budget is disputed here and as some natural CO2 emissions exist that are increasing (wild fires and soil decomposition releasing CO2) – therefore it is not sure if 25 years are left for us.

The increase in CO2 in the atmosphere from 2015 to 2016 was 3.5 to 4 ppm, the highest annual increase ever. See the Keeling curve for more details.

Then why is everybody repeating this 1.5°C story if it is unrealistic ?

It would not make any sense to tell you because you will not believe me; but tragically, as global civilisation is based on endless consumption (and no-one should stop consuming because when too many people stop consuming the entire global economy will go up in smoke), meaning the extinction of the planet and life as we know it is based on the assumption that perpetual (capital) growth and continued consumption is desirable.

It can even be shown that the global economic system is not designed to stop growing or even shrink.

For that reason alone all the people on the planet have to be deluded that climate change is something „we are in control of“ and it is OK to consume more – where in reality it clearly is not.

So when we are talking about sober information we must talk about some more issues here:

The IPCC’s predictions about climate change for the remainder of this century includes a technology called „CDR“ (Carbon Dioxide Removal). It claims that there will be a technical solution to somehow remove CO2 from the atmosphere, bringing it down to a level of 350 ppm (what really is a reasonable value), as it was predicted in the  1970’s. OK, what can we do with the 35 Gigatons of CO2 that we release every year ? Can we somehow store it underground? Sounds possible but improbable, as the storage situation has to be stable for even longer than the storage situation for nuclear waste – nuclear waste decays but CO2 is stable for all eternity.

We could break up the CO2 and turn it into pure Carbon, then bury it under the ground (where it was before we started to burn it). OK, but we will need the energy that we obtained from that carbon in the first place a second time to reduce the CO2 to Carbon. It is possible with fusion power but we would need thousands of fusion plants just to do this.

A more realistic approach could be to significantly increase the Earth’s green biomass a process called “global carbon cycle rebalancing” but you guessed it: It is a gigantic task!

And last but not least the IPCC has been simulating the behaviour of the Earth’s large, naturally existing carbon stores (which are of no use for humans). These are frozen methane stores below the sea bed (mainly in the Arctic) and in the permafrost near the Arctic Circle (Google for „Clathrates“ or “Clathrate gun hypothesis”).

The problem is that when we heat up the atmosphere, we risk that these methane stores will release very large amounts of methane. Methane is a very strong greenhouse gas, stronger and more damaging than CO2 by a factor of 150. The release of the Arctic methane is a real possibility and grows ever more possible the more we exceed across 2°C of warming. This is called a „self reinforcing feedback“ as the methane will heat up the Arctic significantly and thus release even more. It is considered opinion that such a feedback loop could drive the Earth’s temperature well above 4°C over the base line. But that is not that severe a problem as all the methane will be decayed to CO2 in 15 years or so. But you can be sure that at 4°C what we know as agriculture will not be possible on a global scale as all the known weather patterns will go „crazy“.

These systems are very complicated to model so the IPCC just leaves them out.

You are right: It is a very severe threat and it is completely left out of all IPCC reports.

You can be sure if the right people knew about this they would freak out – as you might have done just now. Unfortunately our civilisation is not prepared to manage many angry people on the streets that is why it must be communicated on all channels that the situation is somehow under control.

Well, to really get control of the situation, we must really take very bold steps in a very short time frame. Most people in the world are not aware of these facts. They see a solar panel being installed on the roof of the local kindergarten and they say „ah, at least there is some progress“. In reality there is no progress at all!

There has been a significant build-up of WWS [1] energy sources in the last 15 – 20 years.

Currently the „WWS [1] energy part“ of world energy production is somewhere around 2% of the total. Global energy use is growing at 2.3% annually.

The annual increase in energy use is greater than all the WWS [1] that have been built in the last 20 years combined!

Most of the noise about impressive gains in WWS [1] power is based on “installed capacity”. The growth in capacity is meaningless, though, if the capacity is not producing energy that we can do work with [Energy fundamentals]. Due to the fact that WWS [1] are not working all the time, the sum of all work that they can deliver to society is minimal as you can see in this graph. The growth in the red area (WWS [1]) has not even lead to a decrease in the growth of the blue area – all other fuels). We can say that at most WWS [1] has only helped to increase the overall growth in erergy consumption! That trend can only be countered with the highly effective WWS [1] power system that INTRENEX proposes.

(source: Gail Tverberg)
(source: Gail Tverberg)

To see what this means we will take a closer look at Germany as the German society has been at the forefront of building up a WWS [1] future.

First we must put these things into perspective:

The global coal fired energy production is about 6000 GW (Giga Watts), equals to roughly 5000 plants the size of a large nuclear power plant. In total it amounts to some 10,000+ plants, but that is of no significance here. The first 6 countries in the list of carbon dioxide emitters have a total of 60% of all global emissions. When we bring down these large emitters to a reasonable level, we will have done a lot. All other countries only contribute at a very small fraction. Germany only emits 2.5% of global carbon dioxide and they have done an exorbitant amount of work to get rid of that!

So let’s have a closer look at the German „Energiewende“

The German Energiewende is a term coined following the Fukushima disaster and it means the decommissioning of all nuclear power plants in Germany and building up WWS [1] to the scale of 60% by 2030, and to something like 85 to 90 % by 2040. Germany wants to solve two problems at once: switching to WWS [1] and turning off existing nuclear power plants. It can be seen, however, that Germany cheated somehow and installed a huge number of new coal fired power plants within the last 10 years.

The following graph shows how far the current buildup of WWS [1] in Germany has come today:

(source: Fraunhofer ISE)
(source: Fraunhofer ISE)

As a society the maximum available power is not important. Important is how much work can be gained per year following a certain investment (that society has to bear). It can be shown that wind power in Germany has not much more than 2000 full load hours and PV energy only has 950 hours.

So despite all the money being invested in WWS, Germany is not able to deliver more than ¼ of total energy required. The costs for this buildup have been enormous as the Germans wanted to bring up a new industry for WWS [1] but failed. Most of the PV cells today are being manufactured in China and the largest wind power company is in Denmark (Germany has managed to keep a lot of wind power factories in the country but pays a lot for that).

The main problem of WWS [1] is their intermittency: there is little wind in summer and little sun in winter.

summer energy production in Germany 2016
summer energy production in Germany 2016
winter energy production in germany 2015
winter energy production in Germany 2015

(Source: agora Energiewende)

The buildup of Photovoltaics in Germany (40GW at an average price of 2000 Euro/kW) will in the end cost the Germans 80 billion Euros.

German wind energy subsidies are so high that for a kWh of offshore energy German consumers have to pay between 14 and 19 €ct/kWh. These wind turbines do not produce more than 3000 full load hours as the North Sea areas on the German coast simply do not have strong enough winds for the entire year and the area available to build offshore wind turbines in German coastal waters is not very large. The current significant increase is not sustainable in the long term.

You can immediately see that from society’s economic standpoint as much energy as possible must be delivered at the cheapest price possible to provide the largest net energy gain, and allow other work to be done. For society as a whole the installation of photovoltaics in the area of Germany makes absolutely no sense! It is a complete waste of capital! Germany can do it as it has a strong economy but in a few years time it will suffer from a weak global economy as resource depletion takes its course. Then the Germans will be left with a huge amount of capital being spent on very expensive technology in very uneconomic places.

Why has this been done ?

Again this is where the human factor comes into play. When it comes to energy availability humans are hard wired to manage their energy inputs at a local level.

When humans were hunter-gatherers it was important to settle in an area where the majority of food required on a regular basis could be obtained within a small area. Walking too far away from a known environment included the risk of not finding enough food and starving. That risk is explained in the Bible when Moses took his people to walk through the desert. This leads to the following human behaviour:

1. Humans do not want to take too much changes at once

2. Humans do not want to risk their supplies to unknown suppliers

This is why a small country house with a garden and a PV supply on the roof is such a pleasant vision for most of the people that want to transition away from fossil fuels, and that is why they can not accept a large scale international connected grid of WWS [1] energy sources as the best possible solution. Such a system is so large that the temporary intermittence of WWS [1] is smoothed out by regional differences in weather patterns.

This can be dubbed as the „Centralists versus the Decentralists struggle“

In Germany and most of the other European nations, the Decentralists have taken hold of the political process. The Politicians like this approach because it does not include international negotiations, it does not change the current structures too much and it helps some people in the WWS [1] field become rich from subsidies paid (the lobbyists).

The problem with this is that in the overall view this process leads to very high energy prices. The energy infrastructure has to be well „oversized“ due to the very high impacts of intermittency caused by regional weather patterns. It is not clear whether this decentralist approach can hold for much more than 60% of the energy produced by WWS [1] in one country. The buildup of WWS [1] had to be slowed down (EEG2017) due to the rapid increase in costs. In the end society will not have enough net energy available to do other work based on the amount of capital being spent. This is currently not a problem as Germany still has quite a lot of fossil fired power plants. But it is important to note that despite the huge buildup of WWS [1] in Germany, Germany did not significantly reduce its CO2 emissions.

(Source: Umweltbundesamt)
(Source: Umweltbundesamt)

There is another problem with the WWS [1] in Germany that no one likes to talk about.

The subsidies for WWS [1] have lead to a situation where every WWS [1] energy producer is allowed to „dump“ their produce onto the grid. The operator of the grid has to ensure that the grid’s frequency and voltage remain stable (they are both related to each other, as explained here). This means that while large quantities of energy might suddenly come offline (due to wind changes or clouds) a lot of conventional energy is continually required just to make sure there is enough spare capacity at all times. This leads to these adverse effects:

The German wholesale electricity price is for most of the time below the cost of production for the fossil fuel producers on the one hand, and very cheap for large scale consumers on the other. Producers solve that problem by selling energy to other countries (where it disrupts the markets in other countries) or face going bankrupt in the long run. The large scale consumers though, profit from the low prices and have no incentive to save energy. This is a large part of the reason why CO2 emissions in Germany did not go down despite the large buildup of WWS [1]. A WWS [1] energy producer does not have the responsibility to deliver energy at a stable rate to ensure that efficient net resource planning is possible.

The only way to resolve all of these problems now and fast is to build an international grid to connect the best locations of WWS [1] in the Northern Sahara and Russia to the European grid, and then to exchange the energy being produced on a large distributed area so that the intermittency problems will be smoothed out. Similar solutions need to be applied in China, Australia and America. It has been shown that this is possible with current technology and at a price much lower than the prices being paid at the moment in all of these countries.

An onshore wind turbine with 2000 full load hours in Europe is not the best use for society compared to the same wind turbine on a better location that runs at 4500 full load hours. A photovoltaic cell with 950 full load hours in Europe is not as useful for society as a solar power plant in the Sahara which operates for about 6000 full load hours in a year.

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[1] WWS: wind, water, sunlight