A post revisited — Investment in energy research

A post revisited — Investment in energy research

This post on the remarkable level of investment in energy R&D in the US was written in September 2011. It is not my intent in these retrospectives to play the ‘I told you so’ card but given the egg on the faces of the current and recent Australian governments over energy security, it is pretty hard not to.

Did politicians really think that we have coal, oil and gas and so the job was done?

Emission notwithstanding, did they just sit back and let the end of life for major coal-fired power stations be someone else’ problem?

Well in Australia they did. In America too I suspect. Trump is not pulling the Paris pin because he is a climate sceptic, he’s keeping coal going so that, at least on his watch, the lights stay on across America. Nothing will kill your voter base faster than blackouts attributed to poor planning.

So here is what Alloporus thought in 2011 about energy R&D…


Investment in energy research

In the US Federal research funding into energy is $3 billion. This figure includes investment into oil, coal and gas as well as solar and other alternative energies.

Then there is a further $5 billion invested by the private sector for a total of $8 billion in an industry worth $1 trillion a year; making investment in R&D only 0.8% of revenues.

Apparently $8 billion pays for about 9 days of military involvement in Iraq – pretty scary and perhaps something they might look at when considering reducing budget deficit, but I digress.

The point here is that 0.8% is woeful. Any company that spent less than 1% of revenue on R&D would not last long. Given that energy is so critical to economic performance and given that we have reached peak oil and will eventually run out of coal and gas too, 0.8% seems irresponsible.

And then there is a huge global movement that believes we must tackle climate change by reducing emissions from greenhouse gases.

What should the investment be? In successful economies upwards of 3% of GDP is allocated to R&D, which is roughly $430 billion. This amount must cover many sectors but energy security should be worth at least 5% of the available budget or an order of magnitude more than the current allocation.

We are kidding ourselves if we think that energy security can be achieved when we invest peanuts.


There is money to be made from energy. There always has been. I bet that the first hunter-gatherers who figured out through trial and error how to transport fire with them as they wandered were revered and feared. The thinking and testing that went into creating and catching a spark to start fires was, well, gold to the people who mastered it.

The smart individuals who put a wheel into running water or threw a lump of coal onto the campfire might also have made a relative bob or two.

So it’s not about the returns. It is that it is future money. The power stations cornered the market for a period long enough to scorch the space for new investment. If end of life is 30 or 50 years away there is no market for anything else until then. There is no need to look forward as energy is secure.

This lack of foresight might just be our undoing.

Is the world changing?

Is the world changing?

Love him or loath him, infamous climate scientist Dr Michael Mann recently made an important point about Donald Trump’s rhetoric on bringing manufacturing industry back to make the US great again.

On the America Adapts podcast Mann suggests that to achieve such a goal, manufacturing in the US must embrace the energy revolution. Implying factories running on fossil fuel energy will not be competitive in a global market.

The only way a fossil fuel based industry would be competitive is if there were trade restrictions and tariffs to keep them competitive. This makes Trump’s anti-trade agreement gambit a typical business bully approach to finding a competitive edge that, in this case, US manufacturers would not have.

The evidence is that the energy revolution is well advanced. All over the world technologies are maturing rapidly to deliver distributed clean energy. It is realistic to believe the many mayors and governors that claim carbon neutrality for their towns and jurisdictions when their constituents are all up for a Tesla wall.

Today’s first graders, who will consume a fair amount of electricity in their lifetimes, may not know or care, but most of that energy will not come from a coal-fired power station.

This change from fossil fuel to alternative energy and the accompanying shift from centralised to distributed generation is exactly the one that was needed to tackle the climate issues Michael Mann is so passionate about. Only it is happening because it makes economic sense and not because of a limp international agreement made in a Japanese city or from late night breakthroughs in Paris.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The change is happening certainly. Only it is happening because the technology is becoming commercially competitive. So competitive in fact, that a US president is elected on the back of rhetoric to prop up his countries uncompetitive energy system and hold on to the past.

Does all this mean that the world is changing? Not really. Those first graders, who will spend more of their lives looking at a screen than the trees, may notice more wind farms and will drive an electric car they plug into ports on the street to share the energy captured from the roof at home. But they will also be fiercely competitive and, just like their parents and grand pappy, rely on markets to deliver their lifestyle.

They will work, eat, sleep, and procreate with their mobile device never more than an arm’s length away. They will earn money and use it to pay for their data plans. Not much will be different…

Unless, just maybe, perhaps, possibly…

All this distributed energy makes everything easier, and the system changes. If stuff gets cheaper and cheaper, maybe value is recognised in what people do and not what they have.

Here’s hoping.

Sounds crazy #5 | Carbon price forecasts

August 2013 is silly season here in Australia. We have a federal election in just a few weeks time and the inevitable merry-go-round of vacuous media grabs and absence of policy debate is upon us. It is actually rather depressing as the main parties jostle to hog the middle ground to spend money they don’t have whilst no one else can come up with anything better than “vote for me”.

It is also rather absurd. On the rare occasion when media do delve beyond the rhetoric, or for some unknown reason you dig yourself for evidence to help make a voting choice, what emerges are gems like this pre-election outlook from Treasury.  Somehow the economic boffins that work for the ministry have managed to predict that the carbon price that in Australia is currently fixed at $23 will first fall to $6.20 in 2014/15 [fair enough as the start of the flexible price period when the domestic scheme is pegged to the EU market has been brought forward a year] and then rise to $18.90 by 2016/17 reaching $38.0 by 2020.

Now we should remember that this is what is supposed to happen to a carbon price. The whole idea was that to ensure steady emission reduction the carbon market is capped so that supply is squeezed over time causing prices to rise. A rising price on carbon would encourage energy thrift and starts to make clean energy sources economically viable with the net effect of lower emissions. Except that the political will to set, stick to and steadily lower the cap has been conspicuously absent.

Alloporus borrowed a graph of the historical carbon price in the EU published by Point Carbon and appended the Treasury projections.

It looks like this:

CarbonPriceProjections

As regular readers will know Alloporus is no economist, but whilst $20 seems possible, $40 by 2020 is hugely over-optimistic. It would require a significant step change around 2015 to reverse a market that has a t best been steady but mostly fallen. Such a change would need considerable and coordinated global political will to achieve. No single nation would stick their neck out that far [probably why the Australian government linked the domestic scheme to the international market so as to neatly sidestep the pressure to go it alone].

Then consider that by 2020 we will have seen price shocks in oil [and possibly coal too] that, even if temporary, will have the required effect on emission reduction without the need for a separate policy. In other words fluctuations in energy needs in response to inevitable pulses in the global economy will allow the modest emission reduction targets to be met most of the time.

Of course politically it is best if the carbon price is low, but for any cap-and-trade policy to be effective the price needs to rise steadily. Alloporus suspects that the carbon price forecast from Treasury sound like some middle ground plucked from the ether for political expedience.

The craziness here is that a lot of money has been spent and committed to deliver emission reductions — a ‘clean energy future’ as the policy was tagged. Except that the cap-and-trade approach chosen only works if the price of permits [the carbon price] rose steadily over time. And this required that the market was manipulated buy controlling permit and offset credit supply. Now that governments have shied away from that part of the plan, the whole policy falls over and monies spent on free permits for exposed sectors and, in the case of Australia tax threshold adjustments and cash payments to households, turn into welcome handouts that have no impact on emissions at all.

$38.0 by 2020 is what they would like it to be, except wishful thinking cannot make it so. You actually have to implement the policy.

Carbon farming | when to rant and rave

carbon farming farmland

The other day I received an invitation from the Australian government’s Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education to a forum with the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee (the DOIC). This is the committee that approves carbon accounting methodologies for the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) scheme that was touted as providing Australian farmers with the opportunity to earn carbon credits from land management change.

The invite was keen to point out that “there are now 16 methodologies available for farmers and landholders to undertake carbon offsets projects” and that “The CFI is a ground-breaking scheme offering Australian farmers and landholders the opportunity to earn carbon credits while potentially achieving environmental and productivity benefits”.

What to do?

My first rational thought was not to go. Why should I spend my own funds and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions by travelling from Sydney to Melbourne to attend a 2 hour discussion on a policy that so far has delivered nothing that a farmer could actually use. The 16 approvals to date are for methodologies related to capture of landfill gas [that most landfills had the infrastructure to do anyway], various approaches to growing trees that you cannot cut down, and avoided emissions from a few specialist activities such as piggeries. These have nothing to do with the bulk of real-world farming practices.

My instinct, however, was to attend and at some point in the proceedings stand up and bellow at the top of my lungs a string of obscenities to vent my frustration at what has been a slow and hugely inefficient process of bureaucratic numbness — not to mention the unnecessary reinvention of a wheel already fashioned by international carbon offset schemes.

Unfortunately such actions would only give me temporary relief and would be be swiftly followed by long-term personal damage. Even writing down my thoughts in this post is probably not very smart.

So instead of the rage filled rant, I will reply to the invitation politely saying, “unfortunately I am unable to attend”.

It is worth looking more closely at my frustration [and maybe at my copout].

The frustration

I have never been wholly convinced by the global approach to climate change policy.

I accept that 7 billion humans plus 10,000 years of agriculture and 200 years of global commerce have had an impact on the climate system and I know that we need to take some action.

What has always troubled me is the premise of the chosen policy that we can actually fix the damage we have caused simply by reversing our actions. As I have blogged before, King Canute really had a better chance.  That we can take an engineering solution as naive as emission reduction to a problem of this magnitude seems to be a scandalous inflation of our capability.

Does it also mean we going to fix Milankovich cycles by tweaking the tilt of the planet or take on the variation in the solar wind [both major climate drivers]? Craziness.

That said, emission reduction is prudent for two key reasons: 1) it will help economies transition away from fossil fuel energy sources to sources that are cleaner and less likely to run out and 2) in the short run will help make business more efficient. Both of these are important outcomes that have little to do with the climate.

What is missing from the policy is an understanding of the need to adapt to climate change particularly in the way we manage landscapes. Yes indeed, the very landscapes that supply almost all the food and water for all those people.

So for the CFI not to have methodologies that give farmers an opportunity to sequester carbon into soil, to rehabilitate vegetation in grazing lands, and to obtain co-benefits from more sustainable land management practices is a huge failing of the policy. And not least because these actions will also deliver adaptation as the climate changes.

So carbon, and by extension the CFI, is really about creating more sustainable and resilient landscapes and helping farmers leave behind unproductive practices  – and by the way, there is the potential for around 100,000,000 tCO2e per annum on the positive side of the national carbon account.

What is more, should carbon permit price track the international markets and come in below $10 tCO2e, land management practices that deliver carbon sequestration into vegetation and soil as well as avoiding emissions may still be cost-effective. Most land management activities sit towards the left of most cost-abatement curves and so are cheaper per ton of abatement than many of the engineering solutions.

The cop out

So why did I choose not to accept the invitation when it provided a great opportunity to scream and shout?

There is an element of shooting the messenger. Public servants are there to deliver the policy frame not necessarily to create it. It is likely that there are higher political forces that have chosen to slow down policy delivery and to steer away from the farming sector, higher than those charged with delivery.

Attending only to have a shout at the wrong people makes no sense.

There is also a feeling that attending would both validate a process that I do not agree and have little impact, particularly as providing feedback seems to have had little effect in the past. The system is still slow, lacks focus, and technical clarity.

An example from the many challenges faced by methodology developers is that the positive list cannot actually be a list of activities to take care of additionality if each methodology has to prove the validity of an activity already on the list. That negates the whole concept of a positive list approach [one tried and rejected by other schemes] seems to fall on deaf ears.

Ultimately though, I have folded and chosen not to point out the faults but to stay silent.

This does not make me feel any better.

Postscript

Whilst I was drafting this post I received n update from one of the major laws firms with an interest in the carbon market. Their take on the status of the CFI is quite contrary to mine — it seems that everything is dandy. In fact they must be drinking out of a glass so half full it’s overflowing.

If only I still had the energy to talk it up.

97% said their cats prefer it

Its official, 97% of peer-reviewed science papers, that expressed a preference, agree that climate change is caused by human activity.

Academics have surveyed nearly 12,000 academic papers penned by 29,000 scientists. There were 4,000-plus papers that took a position on the causes of climate change and less than 100 of these disputed the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity.

Here is what the lead author had to say about the survey

Call me a cynic but all I could think about was the “8 out of 10 owners who expressed a preference said their cats preferred it” Whiskers ad and how I didn’t believe that either.

And later I imagined what it was like back in the day when every intellectual believed that the earth was flat until some crazy dude decided to sail all the way around it.

And later still I decided that it really is missing the point because it does not matter what the cause is, it is the effects we have to worry about.

 

The climate change action thing

Here’s a thing.

The latest AustraliaSCAN survey suggests that fewer and fewer Australians are in favour of environmentalism whilst more people are saying they are against it. Environmentalism is dead?

Meanwhile the Victorian government has shelved its target to cut GHG emissions by 20% by 2020, put restrictions on wind turbines and given up on a planned ceiling on emissions from new coal-fired power stations.

And further north the new Queensland premier wants to pull out of a $500 million solar thermal project.

Rumour has it that conservative state premiers are considering challenging the Federal carbon tax in the High Court.

So, despite the international brownie points that Australia earns from having legislated for an ETS, the reality is some serious disinterest.

Now let’s take a look at the US – the Kyoto averse country that has been the climate action pariah and one of the main reasons put forward inaction anywhere else.

What’s going on there is:

  • EPA has announced proposal emissions limits on new power plants that would preclude coal-fired plants with carbon capture and storage.
  • US Energy Department set target of 75% reduction by 2020 in the price of solar energy systems to give solar a chance of meeting 14% of energy needs
  • US led the world with clean energy investment of US$56 billion
  • California, the 8th largest economy in the world, is introducing an ETS
  • tax credits of up to $7,500 for electric cars and by 2025 fuel efficiency in new cars will have to be doubled

A few years ago Australians walked across the Sydney harbour bridge for climate change action.

What happened?

Can REDD projects address wildlife poaching?

This question came in a forum on REDD, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, the somewhat controversial mechanism to tackle global warming. The idea is that because greenhouse gas emissions from clearing of land for agriculture makes up around a fifth of anthropogenic emissions, it makes sense to reduce clearing especially in tropical forests that are high on carbon and overall environmental value.

One typical pattern is that forests are first logged for commercial timber. This opens up the forest, makes access and further clearing easier. People move in to grow cash and subsistence crops.

REDD projects aim to substitute the financial returns from clearing with the sale of carbon credits that come about from the avoided emissions when forests are protected. In short local people receive payments for keeping their trees and their forest intact.

When it works there are less anthropogenic emissions, forests are protected, funds become available to help people create local economic development. Neat idea.

Since there are a few REDD projects that seem to be working pretty well in Africa, the question in the forum was about extending the concept to address wildlife poaching as well?

A successful REDD project would also protect wildlife because the financial incentive is to retain the integrity of the forest. Local communities are paid to be custodians of the resource.

A collective will would be enough to significantly reduce poaching so long as three key things happen:

local engagement is real

sufficient financial returns from the sale of carbon credits go to the local communities and

there is some long-term certainty in those financial returns

These are the key success criteria for any REDD project and, if met, then local protection of all the natural resources should follow. At least this is my experience talking to landholders in rainforests of Asia.

People everywhere prefer to live where the environment is healthy, the air is clean, the trees are green, and the wildlife free to roam. Only we need to live. Our priority is for a good life for ourselves and our families that is free from strain, risk and uncertainty. Meet this priority and any amount of environmental protection is possible.

What we have to remember is that throughout human history the forests have been cleared to meet these basic needs. So we are asking a lot to forego the route to development taken just about everywhere.

There has to be enough money in the system to meet the needs over the long haul.

The real challenge is that financial returns on REDD projects are neither certain nor comparable with the usual alternatives. Exactly why is another, long story. But I am sure you can guess the message. If we want to save trees or wildlife we have to pay a reasonable market price.

 

Preparation for change

Solar panels, BavariaThere were times during the recent debate in the Australian parliament on the clean energy futures legislation when leader of the opposition Tony Abbot was sounding forth his hip pocket rhetoric to an empty lower house. The green leather on the government benches was unmoved.

“This is a toxic tax,” he kept saying, “that on the governments own figures will cost the average Australian a years salary by 2020.”

As the benches were unable to respond, his words echoed round the chamber and into the television cameras.

Why would anyone vote for losing 5% of his or her salary? There has to be a good reason. So what is it? Why should there be a surcharge on a gas that is plant food?

As John Mathews puts it in an online article

“The $25 billion charge on the major carbon polluters is really no more than a signal that they represent the old, brown economy, and will have to start to upgrade their activities if they wish to join the green future. The rest of the world, notably China, Japan, Germany, Spain are all putting huge investments into such a green future. It is long overdue that Australia joins them.”

There it is. The answer is that there will be a green future.

In fact it will not be called green, but normal. Future goods and services will be made possible from what are currently alternative fuels, resource conservation will be the norm, and production efficiency will be an industry mantra because consumers will demand it. The Marks & Spencer Plan A will be copied by everyone.

The chatter about the clean energy futures legislation is about the cost of the tax and the slugging of industry with an emissions obligation but the real guts of the policy is preparation for change that is as inevitable as the weather but not about the weather. It is preparation for an economy  that runs without fossil fuels.

Again quoting Mathews,

Everyone knows that what goes into the atmosphere over the next 20 years will be the result of investment decisions taken in Beijing and New Delhi, not in Canberra.”

But also the decisions made in the US, Europe, and yes Australia too, on the speed of the transition away from our fossil fuel dependency. Remember folks, this is really what it is all about.

So it was a great shame that those leather benches weren’t warmed by government MPs countering the toxic tax rhetoric with passionate explanation of how this legislation is a historic step on the road to changing the way things are done… to avoid being left behind.

Maybe they just didn’t believe it.

Who’s behaviour are we trying to change?

The Australian government has just released its clean energy future legislation, a long awaited climate change policy framework.

In line with other jurisdictions the focus is emission reduction by putting a price on carbon to change behaviours away from dirty, fossil fuel based energy and industry to a cleaner, more efficient economic system. Clean energy futures is an elaborate, and in many ways clever, market based system for the commercial exchange of what amount to licenses to pollute, is transitioned in through a tax on the 500 heaviest emitters.

Hit commercial entities with a cost and, on the assumption that the hit hurts, they will do their upmost to avoid it. They are expected to be rational after all. Some will cop the cost and simply pass it on to their customers. But this will benefit their competitors who choose to become more efficient and change to less carbon intensive activities. So the market will sift the options and favour the cleaner ones. Exactly what is wanted.

In this case $25 billion over 5 years is the hit – evened out it is $1 million a year per entity – and that sounds like it should hurt enough to prompt a change. Some entities will become more efficient, trade to get the best price for what they must pay for and, eventually, transition to clean practices.

So we have a system to change the behaviour of… the 500 heaviest emitters.

Only why do these companies emit? For the majority it is because they supply energy or goods to the market at a profit. In other words they have customers, ultimately us.

In the formulation of the clean energy future policy, the $25 billion raised from emitters will go back to consumers through raising the tax threshold at a cost $15 billion and another $10 billion to support exposed jobs. This is so that should the emitters pass the cost of their permits on to the consumer or cut costs in the form of jobs, it is not too painful for those on the receiving end. Us again.

No collective hurt there. And so no change in behaviour.

Propping up the consumer also eases the pain on the emitters and reduces the incentive to change.

At some point it will be necessary to try and change our behaviours too; or even the most intricate of policy formulations will be a waste of effort and opportunity.

The missing link

Some years ago I wrote an essay entitled ‘What if it’s not emissions’. I was not in denial or even sceptical about climate change, more concerned that we had become fixated with emission reduction as the solution to climate change. So convinced had we become that it was a given that if emissions came down, we would have fixed that awkward problem and all will be well with the world.

My real issue was that we risked putting all our eggs into the emission reduction basket.

Burning landfill site, GaboroneAfter more years of political inaction than seems decent, the Australian government has just released a clean energy future policy on climate change. And, guess what? We still have the same fixation. The proposal is all about emission reduction, initially through a tax on pollution followed by a cap and trade system to make emitting greenhouse gas so expensive that no rational business could afford such behaviour.

It might be about emissions, but the policy formulation sees only a modest reduction target – 5% below 2000 emission levels by 2020. This means in 2020 Australia is pledging to emit 509 million tCO2e in greenhouse gases or 56 million less than it did in 2009.

Only by 2020, even with the proposed intricate emissions reduction policy fully functional, emissions of 679 million tCO2e are predicted.

Actual emissions will increase because the Australian population will grow in numbers at roughly 890 people per day, the economy will grow and so will affluence. Economic growth will require energy to follow the historical trend of a doubling in consumption every 30 years. And although the policy does talk about energy efficiency and alternative sources, the required capacity increase will inevitably be met by traditional means.

Emissions growth will leave a shortfall in the target of 170 million tCO2e or 30% of current emissions. So it would seem that the emissions reduction basket has few eggs.

This again begs the question ‘What if it’s not emissions?

Let us accept what the science tells us and agree that it is emissions that are a significant driver of the current climate warming. What the policy shows is that, rather like American debt ceiling, we cannot quite admit the severity of the problem. And, more importantly, we lack the courage to tackle the problem head on. It is just too hard and too scary.

And this would actually be ok if we hadn’t missed the critical issue in all this.

We have stopped talking about how 7 billion people are going to sustain growth in affluence on a warming planet. We have forgotten about adaptation. Forgotten that we will need to use water wisely, deliver sustainable production on farms, and manage our landscapes when the temperatures change, rains forget to fall, seasonality shifts, severe weather events become more frequent and the sea levels rise.

Less than $1 billion of the $25 billion revenue generated from the carbon tax will go incentive land management through carbon offset projects. They will mostly be Kyoto compliant activities such as permanent tree plantings and flaring methane – just as the international agreement to proceed with a second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol teeters.

There will be money for biodiversity initiatives. Good stuff, but just more of what we have already been doing.

What happened to incentives to revegetate the landscape and put carbon back into the soil? The critical activities that will help us manage that scarce water, produce reliable quantities of food and help save what is left of nature. Missing, presumed dead.

Seems like we should ask again, ‘What if it’s not emissions?