Category Archives: Science

Researchers demand more research!

The UK government’s former chief scientist, David King, a man who back in 2004 correctly identified climate change as a more serious threat than global terrorism has co-authored an article in today’s FT. In it, he argues that we need an Apollo/Manhattan style project to bring the cost of solar electricity below that of any fossil fuel by 2025. Now, solar power has been experiencing a hilariously steep cost reduction, halving in the past two years alone, a continuation of a long trend of exponential decrease in solar prices. Those of you who watch Parks and Rec may be as delighted as I was to learn that this history follows Swanson’s Law. Those of you who don’t watch Parks and Recreation, go watch some P&R.

So solar costs are falling. They’ve now fallen low enough that in sunnier parts of the world, solar PV already is cheaper than grid electricity. The graph above (adapted from Bloomberg New Energy Foundation) shows how the falling cost of solar will lead to more and more countries reaching this situation (anywhere above the line has solar cheaper than grid electricity). That’s not something David King is disputing, what he wants is for additional progress on electricity storage and distribution technology to match this and bring the cost of round-the-clock solar power (including storage and distribution) down below that of grid electricity. I presume, although it was not stated that this is also expected to provide 24-hour power year round. The ‘ambition’ was to have 1 GW of commercial, unsubsidised, round-the-clock solar in cities in Europe, Asia and America by 2025. I’d hardly call this ambitious. Every time anyone has set solar a target it has been steamrollered, absolutely smashed into tiny pieces.

In this particular case, the opportunity for a second emerging clean technology trend to make this a reality has been ignored; electric vehicles. What is an electric car if not a battery on wheels? There is good evidence from the US where electric vehicles have been making relatively good progress to show that the demographics of people who have been (relatively) early adopters of residential PV in states like California and Colorado are the same as those of people who will get in early on electric cars. They are, put simply, nerds like me (only richer). They tend to be highly educated, quite technical and to have both an understanding of the harm human consumption of fossil fuels is doing to our global environment and the financial resources to do something about it.

There are problems with electric cars as storage and perhaps the largest and most obvious is that cars will get unplugged and driven about. This is a problem because there is a rush hour. A large proportion of the electric cars on the grid will be removed at the same time and leading up to this time, the cars will have to be charged adequately to meet their expected daily requirements and a little more. Similarly, there is a fear that synchronised behaviour will also cause problems in the evening with the assumption that people will plug their EV in when they get home, causing a massive spike in power demand. I actually don’t buy this one, the technology to defer charging until electricity demand is lower overnight is basically good to go. The short story of what I’m trying to say is that the existing pattern of electricity use is informed by our activities but also by how our electricity is supplied. With ever evolving uses of ICT, we can help smooth the shift that will be required as we change where our electricity comes from to reflect the fact that new renewable energy sources don’t offer the same flexibility to deliver electricity when it’s needed as traditional fossil fuelled generation.

I seem to have digressed a little into electric vehicles as distributed storage, the point I wanted to make was this:

Solar electricity without storage or overnight capability is already cheaper than grid electricity in some places and is becoming so in more places. The way to make solar with storage for 24 hour operation cheaper than fossil fuels is not to spend more money, time and effort on primary research but to continue to ramp up installations. As scale increases, costs come down and as the market gets bigger the case for R&D within the industry becomes increasingly attractive.

Some one is wrong on the Internet!

This was the end of an email I got about the story that as far as peer-reviewed journals are concerned, nobody’s arguing about climate change.

This was my response which I’d like to share…

The sad thing is, in some sense, they’re not wrong (the people arguing against climate change).
If you accept that climate change is caused by burning (very old) dead things, and that the risks posed by it are severe enough to do something about (i.e. you can follow the analysis stemming from highly calibrated global climate models), there can be no effective solution without strong government intervention.
So either, you are wrong about climate change, or you are wrong to believe that government is inefficient, all taxation is immoral and if we just had less pesky government everything would be better. It turns out when faced with a heavy duty body of peer reviewed science the implications of which are that your world view is untenable, it can be easier to go after the science rather than give up your long held beliefs (incidentally, the time we’ve had to wait between AR4 and AR5 is the longest since the IPCC started doing reports for the UN which, presumably has to be because they are bending over backwards to make it totally bulletproof).


Genuine Skepticism.

A week or so ago, the Berkeley Earth project published a preliminary report on their findings as relates to land surface temperature data.

I think it is a wonderful example of how science works. The group of scientists, led by Richard Muller, that conducted this work were suspicious about claims made about the increase in average global surface temperatures since pre-industrial times.

They were not disputing that the numbers in the records were not going up, but that the methods used to derive those numbers were perhaps subject to some systematic errors. Their first cause of suspicion was that cities are warmer than the countryside. This is an issue with the temperature record because many of the weather stations that feed into most climate datasets were established in the countryside, just outside of towns and cities which over the decades and centuries have grown to surround and envelop the surrounding countryside and its weather stations. As an example, here are two maps of London showing how much it has grown (look at the Thames for an idea of scale).

London in the 1820s (British Library)

So this growth of cities might have made it look like temperatures are going up when actually all that’s happening is that weather stations are coming under increasing influence of their host cities.

The other thing the Berkeley Earth team thought might be going on is that the records have systematic errors. Temperature measurement equipment has improved alot over the past 150 years. As weather stations upgrade their equipment, they might find that the old kit was systematically reading too low or too high. At the times where the equipment is changed over for different (hopefully better) devices, the old data has to be tweaked to make the records with the old kit line up with what those measurements would have been if the new kit had been there all along. This isn’t cheating, it’s not a dastardly trick on the part of climate scientists, it’s just something they do to give themselves a consistent dataset across time. The problem was that these tweaks to the existing climatological datasets were not applied automatically according to carefully crafted algorithms but by human researchers who could perhaps be making the data look how they want it to look, not how it really should look.

So the Berkeley Earth guys (with some of their funding from heavyweight fossil fuel bods) got enough data and enough computing power together to make a much bigger dataset that takes account of these growing cities and inconsistent records phenomena. They wanted to know if one or both of these effects were at play in the climate records to see if there wasn’t as much climate change as we keep hearing or even any at all.

What the data they produced actually showed was remarkably consistent with what the consensus view on climate change: Getting on for 1 degree C of average global surface temperature rise on pre-industrial levels, almost certainly attributable to human activity (i.e. deforestation and especially burning long dead things).

It is to their enormous credit that the scientists who conducted this work have published and publicised it. It is a fine example of how science is supposed to work. You see what others have done, you are maybe not convinced they’ve done things right and think you have a better method that could maybe lead to a different conclusion, you go away and try your method and you accept the results of your analysis.

Now if only we could get the same kind of scientific rigour out of the guys who gave them money…