Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Renewables and compromises, Intermission: Energy Density and Power Density

So I want to get to the obvious next steps in the world of renewables: solar, wind and tide. Don't get excited though because before I do I have to introduce you to a couple important topics in any discussion of renewable energy: the difference between power and energy. The reason I need to do this is that in order to talk about the strengths and limitations of various renewable energy technologies we need to understand the difference between power density and energy density.

Energy is defined as the ability to do work. It is power integrated over time. Power is the rate at which work is done (energy is transmitted). The difference is that energy can be stored/transmitted while power cannot. The reason I make this distinction is that confusing the two is so surprisingly easy. I do it all the time. In the SI system energy is measured in joules and power is measured in joules/sec which is called a watt. In the units we are used to seeing 1 Megajoule (MJ) can generate 0.28 kilowatt hours (kWh) (source Wikipedia). 

So why am I wasting your time talking about power versus energy? Because our society is power-hungry and we supply that power using energy sources. In order to power our appliances, hospitals and automobiles, we need energy. Ultimately all our energy is sourced either from the sun (solar energy, biological and fossil fuels - which represent historical solar energy stored in chemical form), from the earth (geothermal and radioisotopes) or from physical phenomena (gravity, wind and tide). You probably think I missed hydro, but hydro is simply the effect of gravity on water. Technically, both hydro and wind are partially derived from solar (and we will ignore raw chemical power) because for the purposes of this discussion we are not going that deep.

So now that we understand the difference between energy and power we need to understand energy density. Energy density is defined as the amount of energy stored in a unit of mass or volume. The thing that makes fossil fuels so attractive to our society is that they represent a very dense energy source. Ignoring radioisotopes, fossil fuels represent one of the most energy dense power sources out there. The reason that fossil fuels are so energy dense is that mother nature has done the all-important job of converting solar power into this easily transportable power source. Consider that gasoline has an approximate energy density of 45 MJ/kg. Natural gas has a higher energy density (about 56 MJ/kg) but due to its form (it is a gas) its use is limited to places where it can be shipped via pipelines, also its density in its natural form is much lower (its per liter energy density is much lower than gasoline  0.036 Mj/L versus 37 Mj/L). Alternatively, it can be liquified (LNG) but the cooling process uses a lot of power and the product must be transported in specially equipped rail cars/transport trucks/transport ships.

Wait, wait, I hear some of you suggesting that hydrogen is a better power source than fossil fuels, but I would beg to differ. Hydrogen is extremely energy dense 142 MJ/kg but unlike fossil fuels we have to input a tremendous amount of power to create that energy. In order to get hydrogen in a form that can be combusted it must be converted from a source material (like methane or water). That takes a major input of power, which typically comes from whatever power grid in which the hydrogen generation unit is located. When coupled with a nuclear power plant (which produces power regardless of demand) hydrogen is a useful fuel but most of the time hydrogen is a lot more trouble than one would expect. See the attached link for a detailed discussion (hydrogen article).

When it comes to renewables the issue is power density. Most renewable power sources are very diffuse (they have a low power density). An article prepared by Robert Wilson of provides some useful numbers, specifically, he reports that solar, the highest density renewable, has a theoretical power density of up to 200 W/m2 but that the best solar collection systems seldom do better than 20 W/m2 (in desert solar photovoltaic farms). The further north (or south) you go the lower the theoretical maximum, and thus the lower the resultant systems. A truly exceptional visualization of this is presented by David Mackay at As for the remaining renewables, the best biofuels can achieve about 2 W/m2  while wind can achieve a maximum of about 3 W/m2. As Dr. Wilson points out, since Germany and the United Kingdom consume energy at a rate of approximately 1 W/m2 in order to supply either country with power using wind they would need to cover half of their total land mass with wind turbines which is not a realistic option in a country with cities, farms and forests. Similarly, no combination of biomass, wind, solar and tide has the power density to supply a developed country like Germany with its entire power supply. At best a countries like Germany and the United Kingdom may be able to supply a proportion of the power they need through these sources while importing power and energy from other areas/regions. Germany does this through the importation of wood pellets and also uses offshore wind (which effectively expands its power base) and supplements it all with fossil fuels (notably coal). For political, not scientific, reasons the Germans have forsaken nuclear which in a world of climate change represents the least carbon intensive power source out there. 

Portability is a particularly important feature for energy products. Airplanes and transport ships need energy dense power sources that are relatively light. Batteries can store tremendous amounts of energy but at a very steep cost in weight. Thus a battery powered car is a possibility but a battery powered jumbo jet is not. The problem with solar, wind and tidal power is that they are not sufficiently portable. The power is typically generated at a distance from where it is consumed, but that is a topic for another post.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fukushima "fallout": issues in reporting scientific research in the popular media

I had other articles planned but a news report just popped up on my twitter feed that just begs to  discussed in the context of issues in reporting scientific research in the popular media. The article appeared in our local paper under the title: Fallout from radioactive Fukushima rising in west coast waters. The article represents an attempt to describe the results from an original research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Smith et al. but suffers from the writer's difficulties relating (or issues with) the scientific data; the inability to get the paper's author on the record to clarify the science and a poor headline.

In order to really understand the issues, you have to read the original paper. Happily for you, I have done that for you and will summarize: the Smith (et al.) paper presents the results of a survey. Surveys form the most basic research reports. They allow for the collection of baseline data to either test hypotheses or to get enough information to develop hypotheses. Most importantly, in this age of research needing to show a "purpose" or a "link to a private sector partner" they are notoriously hard to get funded. Yet surveys are absolutely necessary if we want to build our understanding of our world. In this case the research hook was the Fukushima reactor release. The research involved sampling seawater at various locations, depths and times across the Pacific in order to establish cesium isotope concentrations in the seawater. Cesium isotopes are used because, thanks to the half-life of the isotope, 134 Cs represent a clear human "fingerprint" of contamination from the nuclear release at Fukushima. The article then takes the results from the survey and uses it for global circulation model calibration. To explain, after the release, various modeling exercises were carried out and estimates of rates of movement of the plume were generated. The results presented in the paper help demonstrate that most of the models were insufficiently conservative and also uncovered some interesting features of global circulation patterns in the Pacific. The article represents a technical success and its only downside is that in order to justify its hook it included an attempt to relate the results of the survey to levels of radioisotopes in food fish, specifically the Bluefin Tuna.

Relating radiation risks to the public is an inherently challenging task as most non-scientists have been trained to fear radiation and few have a sense of naturally occurring background radiation levels. The classic xkcd radiation dose chart is a useful tool to relay this information, in doing so it helped introduce the "Banana Equivalent Dose". For those of you not familiar with the unit, bananas are rich in potassium which has a radioactive isotope 40K. Thus bananas are mildly (and I mean really mildly) radioactive. This level of radioactivity has been calculated at being about 14 - 15 Becquerels (Bq) per banana.If you assume that an average banana weighs about 125 g, bananas have a level of approximately 115 Bq/kg (wet weight). Since we feed bananas to babies it provides a clear "safe" level of radioisotopes for discussions. After saying all this I can get back to the Smith (et al.) paper, which in an attempt to relate their findings to human health spend their final paragraph establishing that Bluefin tuna exposed to the plume are expected to reach a whopping 6 Bq/kg from 134 Cs from Fukushima. That is to say about a 5% banana equivalent dose?

Let us return to the newspaper item. Let's start by saying that the article is very poorly served by whoever wrote the headline. I have been told many times that writers do not get to write the headlines for their articles but someone has to take responsibility when a headline writer does such an egregious job. The headline starts by misusing a term from the report: "fallout". The word has a lot of baggage and the Smith (et al.) paper explicitly distinguishes between the Fukushima plume and radioactive fallout, but don't tell that to the headline writer. This headline immediately sets the reader in the wrong direction. This misdirection is continued in the first paragraph which manages to frighten the reader by (accidentally?) conflating nuclear reactors (scary) with a "nuclear plume". The plume being "nuclear" in that radioactive  134 Cs in seawater marginally exceeds the detection limit (and historic background levels) while not being at all risky. The concentrations of 134 Cs are so low that in order to get readings for the survey, methods more detailed than those used in Health Canada testing methodologies were required (which means not just safe but incredibly safe).

The article itself is a real mish-mash. The writer repeatedly assures readers that the plume does not represent a risk to human health but does so in a less than convincing manner. In particular there is a  liberal, but inconsistent, use of quotation marks throughout the article. Sometimes quotation marks are used around a somewhat technical terms like "Fukushima signal" sometimes they are used correctly around direct quotations from the paper “an unequivocal fingerprint indicator of contamination from Fukushima,” but they are also used around common words like "are critical" and "background" which I view as classic scare quote mode. Consider the following line from the article:

The level of Cesium-137 in the water is far below levels seen in the 1960s and 1970s from nuclear weapons testing and “well below Canadian guidelines for drinking water quality,” they say. 

I may be wrong but the quotation followed by the "they say" essentially tells me that the writer does not believe what she is writing. The report continues this way until the end which reassures readers one more time, but since research indicates that a large proportion of people reading an article don't get to the end, the extra reassurances were likely missed by many/most readers.

I cannot say for sure whether the writer does or does not believe the paper (or possibly the press release) but access to Dr. Smith would have helped the article tremendously. I have read that the federal government is restricting reporter access to researchers. If they did so in this case then it certainly backfired. Instead of providing an informed researcher who could provide helpful analysis, press-friendly quotes and less technically analogies, the writer had to rely on a dry paper designed to appeal to a technical audience. Science of this quality deserves to be supported by a measure to ensure it is explained to the public effectively and not mistranslated because the one person best able to explain it to the public is not available to do so. Instead, for the next couple weeks people will be discussing the "not dangerous" "nuclear plume" that definitely does not threaten our seafood supply or the health of West Coast residents.

In reading the research paper and the ensuing newspaper article it is easy to see the pitfalls associated with informing the public about useful science. The journal put out a press release because the paper is of clear interest to the technical audience and even readers like myself might have missed it (the journal is a general interest one not on my reading list). Unfortunately, by not providing someone to speak to the paper, the reporter tasked with reporting the paper was left on her own. At that point it falls to the luck of the draw. If the reporter covering the beat has the knowledge to translate the research then the public may be well served. Unfortunately, due to the nature of modern journalism, very few journalists have the knowledge-base to effectively translate scientific papers in numerous disciplines to the public. At that point we get articles like this one that appear to honestly attempt to inform the public but don't always get the job done right.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

On renewables and the need for compromise Part IV: biofuels - just bad or really bad?

So I have threatened you all with a post on biofuels for a while and I suppose it is time to actually give it to you. A quick look at the post title gives you a hint of my personal take on the topic, but a take unsupported by fact is a prejudice and I try not to be prejudiced so let me explain the basis for my opinion.

Before I go into details, I will point out once again that I am very much a pragmatist on many topics but am something of a sentimentalist with respect to preserving nature. Some people believe that "man was given dominion over nature"; I am not one of those people. I believe that nature has an inherent value and that the preservation of ecological diversity is a duty of humanity. A pragmatist would point out that some of our most important medical advances were based on compounds refined from ecological inputs but I would argue that even if we never got another drug from the rainforests, preserving their existence and genetic diversity is a duty humankind owes the planet. My initial education was in the field of ecology and I recognize that the preservation of habitat is one of the most important ways of protecting ecosystems and genetic diversity. So while I readily admit that on the surface biofuels sound promising "fuel that grows itself" "a great use for wood wastes" etc.. as I will describe herein, biofuels place too much stress on our environment for the gain they may provide in fighting climate change, their production pulls too many calories from the human food chain resulting in human misery and in many cases the productions of these biofuels actually exacerbates climate change. 

The sad part is that in almost every case biofuels start out sounding like a good idea. The argument goes that biofuels made from waste biomass can give power without incurring an environmental cost and would be carbon neutral. The problem is that there is only so much waste biomass out there and power plants need a steady source of fuel. So in almost every case power producers need to rely not only on waste biomass but on virgin materials. As described in the linked Economist article, in Poland  and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand and in Germany, wood makes up 38% of non-fossil fuel power consumption.So where is this wood coming from? As described in the web posting at FSC-Watch in the southern US, NGOs have shown that the biggest US pellet producer, Enviva, is sourcing a high proportion of wood from the clear cutting of bottomland hardwood forests – some of the most biodiverse temperate forests and freshwater ecosystems worldwide. As for Canada we export about 1.3 million tons of wood pellets (, most of it from boreal forests, to Europe every year. As for being "carbon neutral", boreal forests grow slowly and model simulations reported in the journal Climate Change indicate that harvest of a boreal forest will create a "biofuel carbon debt" that takes 190–340 years to repay. So boreal forest wood is carbon neutral as long as you wait 3 centuries or so. To put it in perspective, in order to provide power for the factories and electric cars in Europe, Canadian and US forests are being cut down, often at an unsustainable rate, resulting in the destruction of valuable habitat and loss of ecosystem diversity. What is most ironic is that the power used by Greenpeace in Europe to fight the "tar sand's" theoretical destruction of boreal forests is provided by the cutting down and grinding up of actual Canadian boreal forests.   

So we have now established that power from biomass is a case of good intentions gone awry let's look at ethanol in fuel. So much has been written on the topic that I will only present some highlights here. In the US they have a requirement for ethanol in fuel. This has resulted in pulling corn (the biggest source of US ethanol) out of the food chain. Specifically, as recounted in Forbes, in 2000 over 90% of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock, many in undeveloped countries, with less than 5% used to produce ethanol. In 2013, however, 40% went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock, and only 15% was used for food and beverage. Put another way, enough calories to feed 500 million people were pulled out of the human food chain to run our vehicles? Let me say that again so it sinks in, the ethanol the US burns in its cars each year would feed 500 million people. The same Forbes article points out that Brazil is clear-cutting almost a million acres of tropical forest per year to produce biofuel and shipping much of the fuel all the way to Europe. The net effect is about 50% more carbon emitted by using these biofuels than using petroleum fuels. As for the argument that the ethanol helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a recent article in Science disputes that point. The article points out that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings in greenhouse gases, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years (so it will be carbon neutral in 167 years or so). The same article indicates that biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. Another article in Science indicates that converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.

I don't have the space to discuss palm oil here but suffice it to point out that an article at Ensia reports that in 1985, Indonesia had less than 2,500 square miles of palm oil plantation, 20 years later, they covered 21,621 square miles, and by 2025 the Indonesian government projects plantations will cover at least 100,000 square miles. As reported in another article at Ensia a typical palm oil lagoon (a necessary component of the oil palm extraction process) has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars. Since there are upwards of 1000 of these plantations in Indonesia we are talking the equivalent of 220,000 passenger cars a year, this is in addition to the palm oil plantation's biofuel carbon debt of almost a century.

Going back to my introduction, I care about maintaining the integrity of our shared ecological inheritance. Biofuels, when used in the manner they have been used to date, are destroying that inheritance. Each year hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests in South and Central America and Southeast Asia are being clear-cut or burned in order to free up space for the production of these supposedly "carbon neutral" fuels. Yet these fuels can only be considered carbon neutral if you look at them in century timescales. Unfortunately, very few organisms live lives marked by century timescales. In order to survive climate change, ecosystems need resiliency and the destruction of habitat reduces resiliency and increases the likelihood of ecological collapse in degraded ecosystems. Moreover, moving the calories used in biofuels out of the human food-chain has resulted in food scarcity, increased costs for food and a reduction in the availability of inexpensive food available for food aid. Once again well-meaning, but scence-blind, activists need to be educated on what their slogans are actually accomplishing, because it is neither ecologically sustainable nor does it decrease Tyndall gas concentrations in our atmosphere.

Friday, December 26, 2014

On renewables and the need for compromise, Part III: Geothermal redux

So after preparing my first post on geothermal energy and the need for compromise, I was challenged by the Executive Director of DeSmogCanada who asked "Who has actually opposed geothermal? I haven’t heard any backlash". My response was muted as my work schedule precluded me doing a detailed response but now that the Christmas break is upon us let's illuminate the problem for the purposes of those who don't seem to get what I am talking about.

As I discussed in my post, exclusive of the tenure issue (which clearly still needs to be addressed by government) two issues need to be addressed prior to any program to enhance the development of geothermal resources in British Columbia: enhancing the ability to do intrusive testing to identify locations for geothermal facilities and creating transmission line access to connect the geothermal resources to the power grid. Early in 2014, the British Columbia government proposed a tool to address these two bottlenecks. The tool was an update to the Park Act: This update provided a legislative mechanism by which both the geotechnical studies and expansions to the power transmission grid would be facilitated. Does anyone want to guess how the environmental movement viewed the bill? Here are some highlights:

West Coast Environmental law:

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society:

The Straight:

The Vancouver Observer:

The Tyee:

and even the Executive Director's own, Desmog Blog Canada :

I could go on, but you get the picture. Virtually every progressive media outlet and environmental group in BC came out against the idea. Certainly the move would marginally simplify the process of developing pipelines in BC, but anyone familiar with the process knows that inter-provincial pipelines are a federal jurisdiction and the federal government doesn't need to consult with the Province to run a pipeline through a provincial park. A second complaint was the potential for oil and gas drilling? This environmentalist response appeared to be purely reflexive and another example of the science-blind nature of the opposition in BC. Anyone who has spent any time looking at resource maps of BC will recognize how ridiculous this concern is. Oil and gas in BC is almost exclusively found in the Peace District and as my post pointed out, most of the parkland in question is not in the Peace but rather in southern mountains. The geothermal map from my earlier post shows that this represents the hot zone for geothermal energy. The government in their press release even suggested that geotechnical studies (absolutely necessary for geothermal) were one of the major reasons for the revision but for the progressives, if the Liberals wanted it, then it must be bad and it must be opposed. But don't worry, because they (the progressives) really support geothermal, just don't suggest a rational and practical method to develop the energy source in BC.    

So I've started with geothermal, but let's look at another case of cognitive dissonance on the renewable energy front. Everyone agrees that as renewables go, hydro is one of the greenest and lowest carbon sources out there. I am conflicted on the Site C Dam proposal but have no such conflicts on run-of-the-river projects which seem like an obvious way to provide clean, localized power.

Once again, run-of-the-river is loved until someone tries to develop a facility. It would appear that run-of-the-river is good unless an investor makes money: the facility needs to connect to the power grid: or it just "threatens rivers":
I must say the biggest example of congnitive dissonance is the suggestion that there is no "compelling need for it" . Yes, you read right, the same people who want to wean us off fossil fuels; want us to move to electrical vehicles and alternative energy sources; do no want us to develop a readily available power source that would provide a means to address the electricity needs because there is no immediate "compelling need" for the power?

Ask yourself, if reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels is a necessary goal, shouldn't we be able to drop our partisan blinkers and work together towards achieving that goal?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On renewables and compromises Part II Rare earths in renewable technologies

In my first post on renewables I wrote about geothermal energy and the compromises we need to make in order to make geothermal energy a reality in BC. As everyone knows, geothermal isn't the only type of renewable energy available to us and it isn't the only one that requires some compromises.

As an environmentalist I care that we maintain the quality of our local environment but I also have another concern: ensuring fairness in environmental outcomes. We live on a finite planet which we share with other peoples and species. I find it intensely hypocritical when a NIMBY says, I want the fruits of this technology but I am uninterested in putting up with the issues associated with its production and distribution. With this in mind I would like to talk about the dirty little secret of the renewables industry: rare earth elements.

Rare earth elements or rare earth metals (usually I just call them rare earths) consist of a set of 17 chemical elements at the bottom part of the periodic table. More specifically, they consist of 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. The rare earths share a number of similar chemical properties and while they are called "rare" that is just with respect to other more common elements. In fact rare earths are fairly abundant. In Canada we have large deposits of rare earths in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Alberta,Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador (

So why are rare earths so important? Well they are the elements that have allowed us to develop all these incredible renewable energy technologies. Neodymium is the "magic" ingredient that makes high-power permanent magnets a reality. Lanthanum and cerium are what make catalytic converters work. Your cell phone, your LCD screen, your hospital's PET scanner all depend entirely on the existence of rare earths. To be clear, we are not talking about traces of the stuff either. A single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 megawatts) typically contains 600 kilograms of rare earth metals ( European Parliament researchers have established that major deployment of photovoltaic cells and wind turbines may have a serious impact on the future demand of 8 significant elements: gallium, indium, selenium, tellurium, dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium and terbium ( (admittedly some of those are not rare earths but are mined in similar mines/geologic formations). According to a study by MIT researchers, dysprosium demand could increase by 2,600% over the next 25 years and neodymium demand could increase by as much as 700%. Both materials have exceptional magnetic properties that make them especially well-suited to use in highly efficient, lightweight motors and batteries. (

So accepting that rare earths are critical to the continued development of renewable technologies, what does this have to do with compromises and environmental fairness? Well the issue with rare earths is that when they do show up in quantities/quality suitable for mining they are very hard to refine and the refining process is a very energy intensive and a very messy affair. Refineries include huge acid baths, produce sulfur gases, need tremendous temperatures and have waste streams that include radioactive isotopes and other components of environmental concern. Needless to say, we don't have any of these industrial sized refineries in North America or Europe. The vast majority of the planet's refining capacity for rare earths is in China with a small facility in California (Molycorp) and new capacity being developed (consistent with our desire to make others pay the environmental costs for our goods) in Malaysia.

If North American and European countries are really interested in renewable technologies then it is up to these countries to carry some of the environmental freight associated with these technologies. Asking lesser developed countries to deal with the negative consequences of the mining and refining of rare earths is the ultimate in hypocrisy. We ask for clean technologies but refuse to get our hands dirty in the process. We possess the best regulatory and technical abilities in the world but leave this environmentally risky technology to countries with lax environmental standards and little or no government oversight. The arguments I hear are that companies are not willing to invest in countries with strict regulatory requirements, but if there is one area where government support would appear necessary it is the development of rare earth capabilities. Like Swan Hills in Alberta which, while controversial, addressed a serious environmental need so do we need a rare earth refinery in North America and in a perfect world another in Europe. As for my friends in the environmental industry, once again we need a willingness to compromise. If you want wind energy, advanced photovoltaic solar and advanced battery technologies and don't want to been seen as hypocrites then get behind the drive to win the social license for rare earth mining, refining and research.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: "Moving Back to the Land" and the 100 Mile Diet

When I socialize with my environmental friends one of the most common themes is their dream to move “off the grid” and live off the land. This idea of moving to a neo-Walden and experiencing a Thoreau-like existence seems to be a common theme amongst my environmental friends and apparently I am not alone. In his 1992 book “Green Delusions” Martin Lewis wrote about the new “Arcadians”. The term was used to describe environmentalists who wanted to go back to a simpler time and live off the land. 

Unfortunately, what these Arcadians don’t seem to understand is that with our modern population numbers, living off the land is simply not ecologically sustainable. Ultimately as the human population has continued its presumably logistic growth towards some ultimate peak the result has been a squeeze on the ecosystems necessary to maintain a human presence on planet earth. Regardless of how you feel about global warming/climate change/etc… you should want a planet that is fit for human habitation and that means leaving room for non-humans to thrive and survive. Moreover, I would argue that functioning, healthy ecosystems have an intrinsic value exclusive of human needs. We are caretakers of this planet and allowing nature its rightful place is, in my opinion, a base requirement that humankind owes the planet. 

Now imagine a world where the 2 million people in the Metro Vancouver area all moved to self-sufficient homesteads. Consider what our suburban lifestyle has done to our natural spaces and now consider what it would look like if each one of those lots was an acre or two and filled with personal-farms? Forget about the Agricultural Land Reserve we would have small inefficient farms occupying every wild space to the Rocky Mountains and don’t even get me started on environmental Kuznet curves and how our current quality of living actually results in improved environmental outcomes.  

Serious environmental scholars understand that the best way to preserve nature is actually to get the majority of our population into cities where we can reduce per-capita energy costs through mass transit, shorter travel distances for supplies and shared heating/cooling in energy-efficient high-density housing. The more spread out your community, the less likely that centralized services like sewer, water and gas are possible and the more expensive the cost to maintain the services. We worry about our groundwater quality now, imagine what it would be like with personal farms on septic fields covering the entire Fraser Valley.  

Another theme in the environmental community is the idea of eating locally with the biggest fad being the 100 mile diet. From an environmental perspective regional self-sufficiency in food is a loser. Large-scale farming, with its ability to maximize crop yields and thus reduce land needs, is a necessity in a world of 7 billion souls. Anyone really interested in this topic should read The Locavore’s Dilemma by Desrochers and Shimizu. They comprehensively deconstruct the environmental arguments for the 100 mile diet and the concept of “food miles”. 

The activists point out that the food then needs to be moved by ship or airplane but Desrochers and Shimizu point out 82% of the estimated 30 billion food miles associated with U.K.-consumed food are generated within the country, with car transport from shop to home accounting for 48% and transport to stores/warehouses representing 31% of food miles. As for carbon dioxide equivalents, as Tasmin MacMahon notes in Macleans: Research from the U.K. comparing local tomatoes with those imported from Spain showed the U.K. tomatoes, which had to be grown in heated greenhouses, emitted nearly 2,400 kg of carbon dioxide per ton, compared to 640 kg for the Spanish tomatoes, which could grow in unheated greenhouses. Those of you in BC will remember the uproar when the local greenhouses were forced to deal with air quality regulations and what that meant for profitability of the farms. 

As for organic farming, the desire to reduce fertilizer residues in your food is a good thing but the reduced crop yields derived from organic farming is the exact opposite of the methods needed to feed the planet. Moreover recent research suggests that most organic food isn’t appreciably safer and the research is definitive that organic foods are no healthier than food from non-organic farms. Meanwhile, the widespread use of “natural” fertilizers in organic farms can lead to the contamination of groundwater supplies with nitrates and in exceptional cases animal wastes and e-coli. While factory farms have their own fertilizer/waste issues, they tend to be much more tightly regulated and have the financial wherewithal to invest in the most efficient treatment systems. Not to mention that in sufficient quantities/qualities, their outputs can actually have some value on the open market. 

I hate to be a big humbug to my activist friends this Christmas season, but as a pragmatic environmentalist I have to burst their bubbles and crush their dreams. The thought that we can, as a society, move back to the past is an environmental fairy tale and would be an ecological and human disaster of almost biblical proportions.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Modern Environmentalism: Trying to replicate the Clayoquot

In early 1990, I was hired as a research assistant by a pair of Chemistry Professors at the University of Victoria (UVic). One of the professors was also the Chair of the brand new University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies. I served as a research assistant out of the school until 1994 when I was invited to do an Interdisciplinary PhD in Chemistry and Environmental Studies. In 1999, I was one of the very first UVic PhDs with the words “Environmental Studies” on their degree. 

So why am I giving you this back-story? At UVic I was a science grad immersed in a school made up mostly of students uninterested in environmental science preferring environmental history or environmental politics. The fourth year students I helped teach talked of the issues with “toxic” chemicals but, when asked, could not explain how toxicity was established nor could they explain what “CEPA toxic” actually stood for? This was the era of the birthing of the modern environmental movement in BC. When I started working at UVic, Clayoquot had not yet happened. When it did our department was one of the places from which the foot soldiers of the protests were drawn and resources for the protests were sourced. I had a ring-side seat at the time and watched as a devoted environmentalist keen on advancing the cause. At the time I saw a need for both pragmatists and activists in the movement. I saw the pragmatists as the ones to get things done while the activists  scared the government into talking to the pragmatists and the public into accepting concessions. I was very wrong at the time. The activists won the day at Clayoquot while the pragmatists were unable to get anything accomplished. 

The victory appeared to reinforce the activist’s beliefs that working with governments was a fool’s game and that activism without referral to, or the constraints of, democratic decision-making was a faster way to advance the cause. I argued at the time with my friends that a dedicated voting block of activists could influence policy from within established political parties (specifically the NDP) but my colleagues chose a different path. Over the years the movement has become more divorced from mainstream democratic processes and now with their access to the financial support of rich philanthropists and well-meaning individuals they appear to see little reason to be accountable to anyone.

So what has that left us with now? Groups so devoid of oversight that they would desecrate a world heritage site in order to enhance their message. NGO’s so single-mindedly anti-science that they would let third-world children go blind rather than consider the option of Golden Rice. Activists who will block a safer technology (oil-by-pipelines) while doing nothing to address much more environmentally damaging approaches (oil-by-rail). Even President Obama blindly arguing that Keystone is only good for Canada when all Keystone will do is replace oil imports from an enemy bent on destroying the American way of life (Venuzuela) with oil from a reliable ally (Canada). What is more troubling is that the organizations are staffed by the same people I saw as a University TA. We have science-blind activists like whose aim to return the world to 350 ppm can only be accomplished by an immediate decarbonization of our industrial base, presumably coupled with a massive human die-off. How else could they not only stop the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations but actually see it decrease by 13%?

What the children of the Clayoquot seem not to have learned is that the reason they ultimately won was not their tactics but because their cause was right. The logging of the last of the ancient rainforests was a betrayal of our ecological heritage and the protection of this heritage garnered broad public support. Their tactics brought the logging to the world’s attention but the cause was what won them the fight.

The modern environmental movement continues to try to repeat the tactics that won in the Clayoquot. When I talk to these activists the impression I get is that they think the Clayoquot was won due to their tactics. They seem to believe that repeating the tactics will repeat the outcome regardless of the cause being forwarded. In doing so I see them ignoring what got them the win in the Clayoquot: a good cause, sold well. Be it pipelines, coal trains or climate change until they can get a coherent message that they can actually sell to the public, all the tactics of civil disobedience will not get the outcome they are looking for. The people fighting pipelines in BC’s north (Northern Gateway) have made their case; they have mobilized public support around legitimate environmental concerns and thus they will likely win that fight. The people fighting the Trans-Mountain (or frankly Energy East) have not done the leg-work and until they do they will sound like a shrill whistle and will not build the traction they need with the public to actually win this battle.   

Monday, December 15, 2014

On renewables and the need for compromise, Part I: Geothermal

So as I've mentioned previously, I see a next step in the eventual move to decarbonization being the development and implementation of renewables as alternatives. Anyone with an interest in the topic of renewables in BC should spend several hours perusing the EnergyBC website ( It is a great resource for professionals and lay readers alike and represents the investment of hundreds of hours of research by some very bright minds out of UVic. It is a credit to Dr. Whiticar and UVic and should be on every science teacher's list of resources for their students. Since EnergyBC says so much more than I could hope to on the basics and potentials of renewables in BC, I will leave the heavy lifting to them and will stick to detailing issues that I find particularly important or that relate to my particular background. 

So let's start with what I think is the most viable renewable energy source for BC: geothermal energy. Geothermal is a relatively mature technology that has been used all over the world. Once constructed it is pretty close to carbon neutral and for an energy technology is remarkably clean. You would think that an essentially clean, renewable, carbon-neutral energy source would be the belle of the environmentalist's ball. In that you would be mistaken. You see we live in a province where getting anything built is becoming increasingly challenging. We don't just have NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) we have BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). We don't just need a successful environmental impact assessment; regulatory and first nations approvals; and financial agreements, we also need to obtain a "social licence" which no one seems to know how to both get and keep. For those of you not involved in the resources field a "social licence" is not actually a formal licence it is rather a term used to describe the buy-in from local communities and stakeholders that will allow a project to actually proceed. As the Trans-Mountain/Burnaby Mountain protests demonstrated, without a buy-in from local communities and stakeholders even the simplest task (in this case the drilling of two boreholes for geotechnical testing) can become an incredibly challenging and cost-prohibitive activity.

So what does this have to do with geothermal energy? The energy that the Green Party of BC calls a "green tech powerhouse"? Well take a look at this map of the geothermal potential in BC: Now consider this picture of BC protected areas: As you can see our most bountiful geothermal resources are situated right smack in the middle of some of our biggest and most beautiful parks. A further difficulty is that while the map shows big red splotches of rich geothermal potential, all that potential is located deep underground. Unfortunately Mother Nature has not prepared any big "geothermal power here" signs so the only way to find this power is to drill. Exploratory drilling is not a field for the faint of heart or the light of wallet. It is an expensive and time-consuming process. It involves establishing base camps, ferrying in supplies and then lots of hard, expensive, loud and often dirty work. You might spend months and hundreds of thousands of dollars setting up a drill program only to discover that the land isn't right or some underground feature makes exploiting the resource impossible in that area. I won't even go into the land tenure process in BC as we don't have enough space to open that can of worms.

As for the drilling, I haven't even told you the worst part. You see while the initial drilling can be done using good old-fashioned coring technologies, if you want to actually make the geothermal resource available you will need to frack. Yes, I used the f-word. While those of us comfortable with the world of drilling can live with the concept of fracking; a huge community of environmentalist have built their brand by fighting fracking. Now consider what will happen when someone suggests fracking in a National park?

As for the operation of a geothermal plant, well these facilities use tons of water. No I am not being metaphorical, in this case I literally mean tonnes of water. Cooling plants, steam plants, geothermal fluids all this water has to come from/go somewhere and the geothermal water, having been trapped in the hot subsurface, is usually laced with metals and sulfur and is unsuitable for disposal on land. Happily, especially in closed-loop systems, almost all the water can be re-directed back into the subsurface but we are still talking about complicated chemistry here as the metals-laced, high-sulfur water will leave deposits in the piping which will need treatment. Any output from that treatment  process will then need to go somewhere. Even the best closed-loop system will still have some emissions, which in BC are going to end up in our parks. Even the best closed-loop systems also need an external water supply, which in our parks means from nearby lakes, rivers or streams.

To make things worse, since we still don't have the technology to safely transmit power through the air, all these geothermal plants will have to be connected to the power grid through high-power transmission lines. As any biologist will tell you, transmission lines are of particular concern in protected areas. Like any other linear development they increase the likelihood of, and number of, human visitors. They also split ecological communities and form access routes for predators and invasive species.

Cost-wise both the initial installations of the geothermal facilities and the construction of the transmission lines are very expensive and they need almost all their costs paid up front. Before you can generate a penny of revenue or produce a watt of power you need to spend millions on drilling and up to $1 million/km for the transmission lines.

By now you might have noticed that the title of this post includes the word "compromise" and I spent much of my introduction talking about "social licence"; you might ask why? Well as I mentioned earlier, geothermal is actually one of the most environmentally benign of the renewable energy alternatives out there, but even it has some serious drawbacks. In order for geothermal to make a major dent in our energy mix in BC it is going to take a LOT of money and a LOT of goodwill and compromises. These are the types of compromises our friends in the environmental movement have been completely unwilling to make in the past. They want the fruits of the fossil fuel industry but don't want the mess of the fossil fuel industry. They talk the talk on geothermal but have not, to this point, done anything to make potential investors feel comfortable about investing here. If we are going to make geothermal energy work in BC we are going to need to convince a lot of people with very deep pockets to put up huge sums in upfront money to build these facilities. Frankly, given the noise and bluster of the environmental discussion, I cannot see this happening. No amount of consultation seems adequate to build up the social capital necessary to allow CEOs to trust their financial capital on these types of developments. Until the same folks who insist we come up with alternative energy sources actually help pave the way for these developments, they are not going to happen. Given the mess of the last few months on the traditional energy files, no CEO in his/her right mind would invest the time and effort to get an unorthodox energy file up and started.

So I suppose the question I would like to pose to my friends in the environmental movement is this: what are you going to actually do, besides paying lip service, to actually help get geothermal the push it needs to become a viable part of the energy mix in British Columbia? You have made British Columbia an unfriendly place to invest in resource plays but in order to get off the fossil fuel treadmill we need alternatives and that means making compromises....are you up for it?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

About that climate "consensus" we keep reading about

As described in my last post, I am a “lukewarmer”. That means I acknowledge the scientific principles underlying the theory of AGW. I have little difficulty with the general findings of the IPCC and that anthropogenic sources are responsible for most of the heating observed since 1951. But I also believe that based on the trend of the most recent literature, climate sensitivity will eventually be determined to be at the bottom end of the range reported in the IPCC Working Group I Report. Funny thing though, for the "crime" of expressing this opinion, I have been called a “denier” by the purveyors of the political “consensus” that dominates the on-line discourse in the field.

So I gave in and used the magic word: “consensus”. Up until now I have been talking about the actual scientific consensus. To be clear here, when I talk about the scientific consensus, I am talking about what the IPCC reports and actual climate scientists actually say, not the “consensus” trumpeted in the media by social, political and environmental activists. Why do I distinguish between the two? Well the answer is pretty simple, this thing the activists call the “consensus” has little in common with the actual scientific consensus in the field, as defined by what the IPCC has actually presented in black ink on the pages of its reports. The “consensus” is a political construct created by a band of environmental NGOs and activist organizations. These organizations are made up of well-meaning but essentially scientifically blind [see my previous definition of the term] political activists, social scientists and lay people most of whom are deep in a Dunning-Kruger haze of their own good intentions. Many have read at least some portion of the IPCC Summary for Policymakers. But as those familiar with the process can explain, the Summary document, while initially produced by the scientists, is only approved line-by-line by votes which means that it is a political and not a scientific document. A few of these activists may have read the Working Group I (Physical Science Basis) Summary for Policymakers and virtually none have read (or frankly have the expertise to understand) the actual chapter reports prepared so carefully by the scientific professionals.
The reason this is important is that the actual technical chapters highlight the limitations of the global climate models and highlight why decision-makers should be cautious. One issue I do have with the IPCC reports is that we are presented with levels of confidence which are actually nothing of the sort. For those of us used to seeing error bars; levels of significance based on testing and repetition; and qualifiers in reports much of the field of climate science is frustrating to say the least. The IPCC confidence levels are unsupported by statistical rigour and while they may be correct, are not in the least reproducible. I will acknowledge that they do, at least, represent the best guesses from the author group that prepared the reports. This essentially self-selected group has expertise I cannot match but that being said, they were limited by the information that was used to write their chapters. In the case of climate sensitivity they did not have the most recent technical papers, since the cut-off for inclusion in the Working Group I report was March 2013. The balance of the newer papers have added to the weight of evidence at the lower end of the IPCC range.

Based on the trend of the most recent literature, I expect that the science will settle in the 1.5 oC – 2.5 oC range. So what does that mean? It means that in order to avoid serious consequences in the future we need to identify a path to decarbonizing our power and transport systems. But what else does it mean? Well, if the models predicting low sensitivity (i.e. less than 2 oC per doubling) are correct then the atmosphere can tolerate substantially higher carbon dioxide concentrations than if the sensitivity is higher (say 6oC ). In the lower case maybe mitigation can be used to reduce societal/ecological stress while we work our way towards a goal of stable atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (where emissions essentially equal deposition). If it turns out to be 6 oC plus per doubling, then not only had we better ban all coal plants tomorrow, it is unlikely that we can avoid serious ecological damage/cataclysms as we deal with a + 6oC - +10oC world, because even if everything goes perfectly in Lima we are on a path to a doubling plus before we can get this thing in hand.

As I said, were I confident that this alarmist “consensus” was reliable I would argue that immediate responses were necessary and damn the expense. However, I believe that the lower end of the scientific consensus will win out and that means it is time to consider the Precautionary Principal. Wait there is another of those magic terms. I don’t mean the “Precautionary Principal” used by activists to ban all development and scientific advances. I mean the real Precautionary Principal as expressed as Principal 15 in the Rio Declaration which states:   

"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Yes, you read that right; the actual Precautionary Principal includes a qualifier for cost-effectiveness. The activists pretend that line is not there as they look to mandate massively intrusive and completely unworkable ideas on an unwilling populace without demonstrating their effectiveness or addressing major concerns. Consider the first few rounds of this game: the Chicago carbon exchange went belly up, tradable carbon credits ended up being scammed world-wide, ethanol requirements for fuel have taken much needed calories out of the global food chain and activists are talking about preventing developing countries from getting the energy needed to pull their populaces out of poverty. I don’t have time for all this now but I suggest you read up on “environmental Kuznet curves” to get a feel for where I am going. That being said, I want to invest heavily in renewables and I happen to live in BC where our carbon tax has slowed down the production of CO2. Given that history, I think it might be a good next step still we need to get societal buy-in to get the right combination of ideally low carbon power for each region and that means a debate as to what represents "right” for each region, but that is a topic for a future post.