Energy and Modern Civilisation

The decarbonisation myth – a reality check for the teals

Modern societies would be impossible without mass-scale production of many man-made materials. We managed to live until the 1990s without smart phones and social media. But we could not enjoy our quality of life without the provision of many materials required to embody the myriad of our inventions.

Four materials rank highest on the scale of necessity: cement, steel, plastics and ammonia.

The world now produces annually about 4.5 billion tonnes of cement, 1.8 billion tonnes of steel, nearly 400 million tonnes of plastics and 180 million tonnes of ammonia.

Ammonia deserves the top position as our most important material as its synthesis is the basis of all nitrogen fertilisers and, without their applications, it would be impossible to feed nearly half of today’s nearly 8 billion people. (Feeding three out of five Chinese people depends upon fertiliser derived from ammonia.)

Plastics are a large group of synthetic organic materials whose common quality is that they can be moulded into desired shapes. They are now everywhere: computers, furniture, upholstery, but are now almost indispensable in healthcare and hospitals.

Steel is the most widely used metal in modern civilisation, from skyscrapers to scalpels. Nearly all other metallic and non-metallic products we use have been extracted, processed, shaped, finished and distributed with tools and machines made of steel. No mode of today’s mass transportation could function without steel. The average car contains 900 kg of steel, and we produce 100 million vehicles a year.

Cement is the key component of concrete and without it there could be no bridges, tunnels, roads, dams, runways and ports. The world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century.

These four materials are not readily replaceable by other materials. We will need much more of them in the future. Their mass-scale production depends heavily on the combustion of fossil fuels, making them major sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

As for future needs, high income countries could reduce their fertiliser use as could the two heavy users, China and India, but Africa, the continent with the fastest growing population, remains deprived of fertilisers even as it is already a substantial food importer. Any hope for Africa to have a greater self-sufficiency in food rests on increased use of fertiliser.

More plastics will be needed for expanding medical (ageing populations) and infrastructural (pipes) uses and in transportation (aeroplane and high-speed train interiors).

Steel consumption has to rise in all low-income countries with underdeveloped infrastructure and transportation.

Much more cement will be needed to make concrete as affluent countries fix decaying infrastructure (dams, roads and aviation) and low-income countries expand cities, sewers and transportation.

Moreover, the transition to renewable energies will demand huge amounts of steel, concrete and plastics as we build wind turbines and solar panels.

Fossil fuels remain indispensable for producing ammonia, plastic, steel and cement.

Ammonia manufacture uses natural gas as the source of hydrogen and as the source of energy needed to provide high temperature and pressure.

85% of all plastics are based on simple molecules derived from natural gas and crude oil, and fossil fuels also supply energy for the manufacture of plastics.

Production of steel starts with the smelting of iron ore in blast furnaces in the presence of coke made from coal and with the addition of natural gas, and the resulting cast-iron is made into steel in large basic oxygen furnaces.

Cement is produced by heating ground limestone and clay shale in large kilns, long inclined metal cylinders heated with low quality fossil fuels, petroleum coke and heavy fuel oil.

Global production of these four indispensable materials claims about 17% of the world’s total energy supply and generates about 25% of the world CO2 emissions originating from fossil fuels.

Replacing fossil fuels in the production of these four materials will be far more difficult and costly than generating more electricity from renewables. Eventually, new processes will take over – but currently there are no alternatives that could be deployed immediately. Their development will take time.

Manufacture of ammonia and smelting of steel could both be based on hydrogen rather than on natural gas and coke. But they can’t be done with nuclear. It will take some time before we could produce hundreds of millions of tons of green hydrogen derived from the electrolysis of water by using wind or solar electricity although it could be done with electricity from nuclear energy. The best forecast is that green hydrogen will supply 2% of the world’s energy consumption by 2030, far below the hundreds of millions of tons that will eventually be needed to decarbonise ammonia and steel production.

Decarbonisation of cement production can only go so far by using waste materials and biomass. New processes must be developed and commercialised to make cement CO2 free.

Similarly, there is no simple way to decarbonise plastic production. The measures will range from plant feedstocks to more recycling and substitution by other materials.

Furthermore, new highly energy-intensive material dependencies are emerging (eg, the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines) but electric cars provide the best example. A typical lithium car battery weighing about 450 kg contains about 11 kg of lithium, nearly 14 kg of cobalt, 27 kg of nickel, more than 40 kg of copper and 50 kg of graphite – as well as about 181 kg of steel, aluminium and plastics. Supplying these materials for a single vehicle requires processing about 40 tons of ores and, given the low concentration of many elements in their ores, it necessitates extracting and processing about 225 tons of raw materials. And what will be needed to dig up and process these raw materials? Steel machines driven by diesel fuel.

Until all energy used to extract and process ammonia, steel, plastics and cement comes from renewable energy or nuclear energy, modern civilisation will remain fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels for production of these indispensable materials.

The current plans of the National Electricity Market and Energy Security Board

According to the Australian (27 April), Anne Collyer has more than 20 years’ experience advising governments and private institutions in the energy sector. She is the double chair of the Australian Energy Market Commission (which is the rule maker in the National Electricity Market and advises governments how to develop energy markets) and the Energy Security Board (which was established to implement the recommendations of a review on the future security of the National Electricity Market).

Collyer describes the transition to renewable energy as “like a speeding car hurtling down the runway beside a “half-built aeroplane” that we need to finish constructing and jump aboard before we run out of tarmac.”

This imagery is revealing and alarming. She sounds like she is some sort of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider undertaking a glorious adventure. Is this the right attitude for anyone to display in planning any major project, let alone our future electricity needs? If this is how decarbonisation of our economy is being planned, it is a high risk, dangerous undertaking likely to result in unintended consequences, blackouts and even fatalities. Why on earth would you rush to close a reliable electricity generation system before you had a system that was just as reliable ready to replace it?

Any renewable energy system must account for the possibility that renewable energy won’t deliver the energy required at different times. Because it won’t.

Renewables advocates and investors keep wrongly claiming renewables are cheaper than coal and gas. That would only be true if you were happy with an unreliable power system.

The National Electricity Market’s current design is deliberately stacked against coal while renewables suppliers are not paying for the storage technologies or the network expansion their product will need to provide reliable renewable power. Coal-fired power stations that keep the grid running all night need to run 24 hours a day but cannot compete at five-minute bidding intervals in the market during the day, against renewables that don’t work at night.

The Energy Security Board believes Australia needs an enormous expansion of the national power grid. Their solution for dealing with unreliable renewable power is, first of all, by having a lot of transmission lines to add renewable capacity and to use different weather patterns across the network. Power generated in different regions and states can be fed to areas where wind and solar is underperforming on a particular day. This means Australia will build far more renewable generation capacity than it needs and far more transmission lines than fossil fuels need, just to make renewables reliable. Australia will then need to add tens of billions in storage technology for nights and cold winters. The extra transmission lines and the storage capacity will be paid for by the taxpayer, not by the generators of the wind and solar power.

Renewable energy enthusiasts have had decades to prove so-called energy storage is able to provide such reliability and backup at the scale required, for the duration required and economically. They have been unable to do so. And even if it existed, would investors finance such capacity on the off chance that they can generate some revenue? Perhaps, but only if they could charge a fortune to cover periods when their electricity couldn’t be sold, thereby blowing a hole in the argument that renewable energy is cheap.

When people are afraid, under time pressure and thinking of worst-case scenarios, they tend to make stupid decisions. Our survival instinct honed over 100 thousand years worked very well in a dangerous world where we were prey but, in today’s relatively safe world, it means that our ability to think analytically can be overwhelmed by fear and an urge to make quick decisions and take immediate action. This often results in unnecessary stress and poor decisions.

To control this urgency/blame/fear instinct, we should take small steps. To make good decisions, ask for more time and more information. Insist on the data, but make sure the data is relevant and accurate. Beware of predictions about the future and insist on a full range of scenarios, not just the best or worst case. Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side-effects will be and whether and how the idea has been tested. Step-by-step practical improvements, and evaluation of the impact, are less dramatic but usually more effective.

The grand solar minimum

Moreover, thanks to the present grand solar minimum we have time to resist the urgency instinct, which makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger, that is revealed in Anne Collyer’s imagery.

Grand solar minima occur when several solar cycles exhibit lesser than average activity for decades or centuries. Professor Valentina Zharkova, of Northumbria University in the UK, has discovered the presence of not only 11-year solar cycles but also of grand solar cycles with durations of 350 – 400 years. During grand solar minima, there is a significant reduction in the sun’s activity which reduces the earth temperature. The most recent grand solar minimum occured during the Maunder Minimum (1645 – 1710) which led to a decrease of the average terrestrial temperature by 1.0 – 1.5°C. Professor Zharkova has proven that the sun has entered a modern grand solar minimum that will last from 2020 to 2053 and will lead to a significant reduction of temperature, like during the Maunder Minimum. During this modern grand minimum, she expects to see a reduction of the average earth temperature by up to 1°C.

The reduction of the earth’s temperature during the next 30 years caused by the grand solar minimum can offset for three decades any signs of global warming. It gives us 30 years to replace reliable coal-fired electricity generation with reliable nuclear powered electricity generation.

Outsourcing electricity generation to private enterprise

The provision of reliable electricity 24/7 is crucial for our society to exist. It is even more important than defence, as without electricity, defence is impossible.

We don’t outsource our defence to private enterprise and nor should we outsource the production of reliable electricity to private enterprise.

The 24/7 reliable coal powered electricity industry should be renationalised by governments and run by them at the lowest cost possible until such time as they can be replaced by lower emissions producing forms of electricity generation. In particular, by nuclear power which generates no emissions whatsoever.

Reliable electricity is so vital that control of this essential public service cannot be left in the hands of private enterprise where it is subject to the whims of amateur idealists like Michael Cannon-Brookes or “green” businessmen chasing the no-risk options of heavily subsidised renewables favoured by rigged energy markets.

If we close our reliable coal-fired electricity generation without replacing it with other sources of electricity generation which are just as reliable, we are heading for blackouts, like the one in Texas in February 2021, when 4.5 million homes and businesses were left without power for several days and at least 245 people were killed directly or indirectly.

In 2020, unreliable, intermittent renewable sources provided 25% of Australia’s electricity but much less of the country’s total consumption of energy. That’s because coal, gas and oil enable transport via air, rail, road and sea. They also heat homes and offices and are essential inputs for agriculture and mining production and the manufacture of countless things. Many and various activities, which are essential to modern life, consume vast quantities of energy – of which intermittent renewables supply little.

Solar panels and wind turbines currently generate a growing, significant, but still minor percentage of Australia’s electricity, but little of its total supply of energy. During the next decade or more, that’s likely to remain the case – and thus significant decarbonisation in this broader and more fundamental sense is hardly certain to occur.

The example of Germany

One of the world’s most aggressive and costly energy transitions – Germany’s since 2000 – has managed to boost wind’s and solar’s share of power generation to about 40%. Yet that has merely dented fossil fuels’ predominant share of total energy consumption (from 84% to 76%). Given these trends, how can anyone credibly assert that Germany can “go net zero” by 2030? Or even by 2050? And if it’s very unlikely that Germany can, then which major nation could? Even among the alleged leaders of the transition – not to mention China and India – fossil fuels rule. According to Emeritus Professor Vaclav Smil, a “green revolution” has always been, is now and, in the years and even decades to come, will remain a mirage.

To compensate for the intermittency of wind and solar power, Germany relies on Russia to supply it with natural gas. The folly of this policy has been demonstrated by the war in Ukraine. Germany does not have energy security and continues to pay Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy which Russia uses to pay for its invasion of Ukraine.

We are a fossil fuel civilisation whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years.

Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has delivered immense benefits to humanity.

Unreliable, intermittent renewables like wind and solar don’t power entire societies today; and it is reasonably clear – even in “leading” nations like Germany – that they’re not going to do so anytime soon.

There are currently 440 nuclear reactors in 31 countries in the world providing all-weather, 24-hour, zero emissions energy to generate electricity. A further 56 are under construction and a further 96 are in the planning stage. Had nuclear energy formed the core of Germany’s approach, its transition away from fossil fuels would not only have been far cheaper, it would have been quicker and with a guaranteed result.

Climate alarmism

Climate alarmists espouse the false and irresponsible idea that global warming poses an immediate existential risk for the world.

Government and UN press releases and summaries do not accurately reflect the IPCC reports themselves. There is some consensus on some issues but not at all the strong consensus on catastrophic outcomes climate alarmists and the media promulgates. Distinguished climate scientists are embarrassed by some media portrayals of the science.

Climate change is real and partly man-made, but according to the IPCC, the total impact of unmitigated climate change would be equivalent to less than a 4 per cent hit to global GDP annually by the end of the century. Global GDP should be around 450% of what it is now by 2100. Do the maths. If we do nothing (which I am not advocating), our descendants in 2100 will still be 432% wealthier than us.

Trillion-dollar decisions about reducing human influences on the climate must be informed by an accurate understanding of scientific certainties and uncertainties. The effects of restricting energy consumption will be worse than the effects of global warming.

The people of NSW are swapping the remote possibilty of some hypothetical, unspecific, scientifically unsupported “climate catastrophe” in the latter half of the century, say 30 to 80 years hence, for the almost certain social and economic catastrophe of widespread blackouts after 4600 MW, or more than 50% of NSW’s electricity generation output, is removed, following the closure of Lidell power station in April 2023 and Eraring power station in 2025, just 3 years away.

Blackouts mean no power or water to the house. Refrigerated food spoils in 24 hours. Supermarkets, petrol stations, banks cannot function. All communication is cut off.

We need to reduce the hysteria in climate journalism.

The science states that humans exert a growing but physically small warming influence on the climate. The deficiencies of climate data challenge our ability to untangle the response to human influences from poorly understood natural changes.

The results from the multitude of climate models disagree with, and even contradict, each other and many kinds of observations.

In short, the science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what our actions will have on it.

Any policy should be based on what the science actually says.

The impact of human influences on the climate is too uncertain and very likely too small compared to the daunting cost required to achieve the goal of zero global emissions by 2050. We should make only low-risk changes until we have a better understanding of why the climate is changing.

The many certain downsides of mitigation outweigh the uncertain benefits. The world’s poor need growing amounts of reliable and affordable energy. Renewables, batteries and hydrogen are currently too expensive, unreliable or both.

We should wait until the climate’s response to human influences is better understood, before embarking on a program to drive greenhouse gas emissions out of existence.

Recently, two eminent scientists, Michael Shellenberg and Stephen Koonin, have written books (“Apocalypse Never” and “Unsettled”) which clearly demonstrate that the IPCC Assessment Reports exaggerate the underlying science on climate change. The intention of the IPCC is to scare the world’s population into radically reducing their CO2 emissions to zero by 2050.

Unless nuclear energy completely replaces coal and gas for electricity generation by 2050 and is then used to generate extremely energy-inefficient hydrogen to replace the fossil fuels in our trucks, trains, ships and aircraft, this will not be physically possible.

The only alternative is for the world to return to the standard of living it had before 1890. The virtue signallers of Wentworth and Warringah won’t accept this, nor will the 6.5 billion people in developing countries who are clamouring for more electricity as the antidote to poverty.

How tiresome it has become to observe journalists attributing any storm, flood or bushfire to human induced climate change.

How tiresome it has become to hear lies about catastrophic climate change, completely unwarranted by the underlying science, spread by businessmen seeking to ban more competitive energy technologies and gain subsidies for their otherwise unsustainable energy businesses. Their eyes are firmly fixed on the money they are going to make in the so-called “green transition”.

The 20-year global temperature “pause” acknowledged by leading climate scientists

Fact one. In the 20 years to December 2016, NASA’s satellite temperature measurements show the earth warmed at the rate of 0.06°C per decade, or 0.6° over a century.

Fact two. Over the same 20-year period, atmospheric CO2 increased by 11.3% from 363 ppm to 404 ppm.

Fact three. Over the same 20-year period, the climate models predicted a rising temperature trend of 0.22°C per decade. This estimate is 3.66 times what actually occurred.

Conclusion. The world is not warming at an alarming rate. The climate models are wrong, and greatly exaggerate the influence of CO2 on temperature. It is the climate alarmists who are denying the science.

This graph, drawn from raw data supplied by NASA and sourced from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, plots global monthly satellite temperature measurements for the 20 years to December 2016.

The graph shows that the observed temperature trend over the twenty-year period was an increase of only 0.06 degrees C per decade, or 0.6 degrees over a century. This is hardly alarming. This sort of rise in temperature is not an urgent crisis.

This tiny rising trend occurred while atmospheric CO2 increased by 11.3% from 363 ppm in January 1997 to 404 ppm by December 2016. CO2 has been going up on an exponential curve since 1959 but the temperature of the earth has not gone up correspondingly. Rather, it has been basically flat for the last 20 years. While man’s CO2 may have some slight overall warming effect, the graph shows it is not the control knob of the planet’s temperature.

The graph also shows what the estimated temperature trend should have been, based on the climate models of the IPCC in 2013. Those models predicted a rising temperature trend of 0.22 degrees C per decade over the twenty-year period. This estimate is 3.66 times what actually occurred.

The graph shows the computer models projections of future climate states are exaggerated and are not supported by observations.

The graph also illustrates that natural mechanisms must have a greater influence, and CO2 concentrations a lesser influence, than that claimed by the IPCC on climate change.

When faced with this graph, scientifically illiterate alarmists have no answer.

Climate alarmism uses fear to influence public opinion, beget public funding and draw media attention. It is being used to justify Australia’s current electricity generation policies which are hugely expensive and damaging to its citizens and have absolutely no effect on the world’s temperature or on the local climate.

It is the alarmists who are denying the science.

“97% of all scientists believe in global warming”

Many people who believe in action on climate change base their belief or on the claim that “97% of all scientists believe in global warming”. This belief stems from a 2009 American Geophysical Union survey consisting of two questions sent online to 10,257 scientists. 3146 scientists responded but only 77 of these categorised themselves as “climate scientists” and 75 answered yes to both questions. Not surprising. 75/77 is 97%.

The two simple questions asked whether global temperatures have risen since 1800 and whether human activity was a factor in changing global temperature. Most people would answer yes to both questions, which are hardly contentious.

The survey did not show there is consensus on future dangerous or catastrophic risk or that certain policies must be taken. But this is how the survey has been used by activists and politicians to shut down debate.

The real dilemma we face is: what is the size and nature of the human contribution to global warming and what, if anything, can we, or should we, do about it?

Much has changed since the now discredited survey of 2009 claiming that “97% of all scientists believe in global warming”.

Satellite and balloon measurements show there has been no global warming for 20 years, despite rising CO2 in the atmosphere. This pause has been acknowledged by leading climate scientists.

The number of coal-fired electricity generators being built in the world today

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia has agreed that countries which are responsible for 89% of global CO2 emissions may increase these emissions unabated until 2030, after which they will level their emissions. There are 3,743 existing coal fired electricity generators in the world today and another 1,893 are being built. The European Union is telling the world to cut coal use, but they have 465 existing and 28 planned coal-fired power stations. China is building 1,171 HELE coal-fired power stations to add to its existing 2,363 and India is building 446 to add to its existing 589, because they prioritise providing affordable energy to their citizens, as an antidote to poverty, over fear of man-made climate change. Australia has 24 existing coal-fired electricity generators.

In these circumstances: Is it wise for Australians to spend billions of dollars now trying to cut our CO2 emissions when we know for sure that it will have virtually no impact on global temperatures? If it is okay for China and India to build hundreds of HELE coal-fired power stations, why is it sinful for Australia to build three or four?

To replace the 50-year-old Lidell power station, which produces 2000 MW of electricity (22% of NSW’s electricity needs), with the same coal-fired technology, would cost $1 billion. To replace it with a high energy low emissions (HELE) coal-fired technology would cost $2 billion. HELE plants burn less coal and emit half the carbon dioxide and release less pollutants than traditional plants. To replace Lidell with a nuclear-powered technology would cost $5 billion but there would be no annual expense of coal for a nuclear-powered power station. (For coal-fired power stations, the total cost of fuel is 8% of total generation cost so it does not constitute a major production cost.)

Moreover, the replacement power station could be built on the Lidell site and connected to the existing transmission lines. There would be no need to build the hundreds of miles of extra transmission lines and the excess renewable generation capacity needed to make unreliable renewables, reliable.

A typical wind farm consists of 60 to 70 wind turbines, each 230 m high, which makes them as high as the tallest buildings in Sydney and much higher than the Harbour Bridge which is 175 m high. Each of them has aviation lights which shine 24/7 to keep aircraft from running into them. Wind farms and transmission lines disfigure pristine landscapes.

We have just returned from a two-week road trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina. Although the mountains were a windy area with low population, wind turbines were nowhere to be seen. When we inquired about this, we were told that Americans would not despoil scenic regions like the Blue Ridge Mountains with wind farms. These were located further west in depopulated open plains and deserts where they could not be seen at a distance and where they did not spoil scenic areas.

The maximum size wind generator is 3 MW, which can rarely be attained on a continuous basis because it requires substantial forces of wind. They only generate electricity when there is sufficient wind to drive them. They usually run for 45 – 65% of the time, mostly well below maximum capacity. The peak load electricity in Australia is approximately 50,000 MW. Based on an average generating output of 1.5 MW, you would need over 33,300 wind generators to provide this amount of power at peak capacity. However, wind farms cannot be relied on for baseload power because they are too variable.

Conclusion

I hope awareness of the facts set out above will lead you to clearer thinking about what needs to be done about man-made climate change. We need a much more sophisticated debate. Otherwise, we are going to get knee-jerk policy reactions from uninformed politicians and the uninformed media, who are neither scientists nor engineers, which will cause serious damage to our future freedom and flourishing as a people.

This problem will be solved in the end by scientists and engineers, but we are not listening to them because we lack a comprehensive understanding of how our society works and how it is powered and fuelled. Instead, we are listening to activists like Al Gore who use fear and exaggeration to sell their message.

Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data. Once discovered, it makes people tune out altogether. Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side-effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation. And an acknowledgement that, sometimes, not rushing to do something may be better than doing something stupid.

Geoff Travers

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