US coal imports don’t offset emissions reduction from coal to gas switching

Alex Tremblath takes a hard look at the data. Robert Wilson rebuts Greenpeace on the same question:

Greenpeace's analysis is demonstrably wrong, and the comments made by Lauri Myllyvirta on Twitter suggests he should learn some basic facts before rating analysis that would get at best a C if submitted as a GCSE assignment. Unfortunately journalists who should no better reported his analysis with no outside comment. This happens too often with unrigorous reports by NGOs.

To figure out what wind is replacing all you know to look at is the marginal fuel. Any electricity come from a wind farm will replace whatever is on the margin.

In Britain it appears that wind farms currently displace gas 1-1. That was the conclusion that Chris Goodall came to after analysing recent output data (and written up in the Guardian alongside Mark Lynas). After looking at the numbers myself the arguments seem robust, though peer reviewed research has yet to be done, as far as I know. The marginal fuel has overwhelmingly been gas recently, so wind really just displaces gas.

In the US things are more complex, because there are an array of regional grids. The paper below (possibly paywalled) provided estimates of the marginal fuel mixes in the key regions (see their table 1).…

Some wind heavy places almost have gas exclusively as the marginal fuel. In Texas it is 84% gas. Others such as the midwest are more likely to have coal as the marginal fuel. But it is clear that the marginal fuel is more likely to be gas than coal.

This shows that Greenpeace's naive assumption that wind displaces coal 1-1 is not based on reality.

Americans pay a high price for Internet

…The reason the United States lags many countries in both speed and affordability, according to people who study the issue, has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.

“It’s just very simple economics,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies antitrust and communications and was an adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. “The average market has one or two serious Internet providers, and they set their prices at monopoly or duopoly pricing.”

When New America ranked cities by the average speed of broadband plans priced between $35 and $50 a month, the top three cities, Seoul, Hong Kong and Paris, offered speeds 10 times faster than the United States cities. (In some places, like Seoul, the government subsidizes Internet access to keep prices low.)



Liebreich: Germany’s self-inflicted nuclear disaster

Fact #1: Fossil Fuels continue to dominate global energy

Michael Liebreich, Chairman of the Advisory Board – Bloomberg New Energy Finance on the contradictory energy policy of Germany’s Energiewende. Following is a short excerpt from a long VIP comment on the global lack of progress on decarbonization: 

While Japan’s nuclear woes result from the Fukushima natural disaster, Germany’s are wholly self-inflicted. In 2011 Angela Merkel reversed her former determination to prolong the life of Germany’s nuclear fleet, quickly shutting eight of the country’s 17 reactors and returning to the previous policy of full nuclear phase-out by 2022. This left fossil generation’s contribution to the German electricity system largely unchanged until at least 2020, and possibly 2025. Combined with the collapse of the EU-ETS carbon price and a flood of cheap coal being squeezed out of the US by the glut of shale gas, and the result is Germany burning more coal and generating higher emissions.

Anyone who promotes the Energiewende as Germany’s solution to climate change needs to understand that it is first being used to retire Germany’s zero-carbon nuclear fleet, and only when that has been completed will it start to squeeze fossil-based power off the grid. Germany has given nuclear retirement a higher priority than climate action, pure and simple.

To anyone not ideologically anti-nuclear power, this is a manifestly wrong-headed policy. The arguments about nuclear waste and proliferation hardly apply to existing nuclear power stations. The problems are real, but they are not worsened by continuing operation. Nor are they mitigated by early shut-down. They may be powerful arguments against building nuclear capacity in new countries, but are poor arguments in the case of Germany or Switzerland.

The fact is, as I showed in the statistics I presented in my BNEF Summit keynote in April 2012, nuclear power is far safer than coal-fired power generation. Deaths per TWh are around 15 times lower for nuclear power than for coal-fired power in the developed world, and 300 times safer than coal-fired power in China. And this is including the impact of Three Mile Island, Sellafield, Chernobyl and Fukushima, but before taking into account the appalling toll inflicted on the wider population by coal-driven air pollution and smog. The tsunami that hit Fukushima killed nearly 16,000 people; however, so far no one has been shown to have lost their life as a result of the nuclear disaster.

So much for those countries that have – illogically and to the detriment of the climate – decided to shut their nuclear fleet prematurely. What about the countries that are pushing ahead and replacing aging nuclear plants? (…snip…)


New York charter school gets results from teacher incentives, pay, supervision

This Gates Foundation funded study is encouraging. 

(…snip…) The typical teacher in New York with five years’ experience makes between $64,000 and $76,000. The charter school, known as TEP, would pay much more [$125,000 Ed]. But in exchange, teachers, who are not unionized, would accept additional responsibilities, and the school would keep a close eye on their work.

Four years later, students at TEP score better on state tests than similar students elsewhere. The differences were particularly pronounced in math, according to a new study from Mathematica Policy Research. (The study was funded by the Gates Foundation.) After four years at the school, students had learned as much math as they would have in 5.6 years elsewhere:



The gains erased 78 percent of the achievement gap between Hispanic students and whites in the eighth grade.


The results are important in part because TEP also appears to have sidestepped some common concerns about charter schools. They didn’t expel or suspend students out of school in the first four years. There is no evidence that the school encouraged problem students to leave or transfer on their own. And the students who attended were roughly as likely to be low-income, and to have had similar levels of academic achievement before they arrived. They could still differ in other ways — they could have more involved parents, who get them into the charter school lottery, for example — but TEP doesn’t present some of the obvious factors that help explain other charter schools’ success.

More details…

The gluten-free contagion



Another good piece of journalism by Michael Specter writing for the New Yorker Magazine What’s So Bad About Gluten? Yes, that’s the same Michael Specter who wrote the excellent expose of Vandana Shiva [I'm a card-carrying anti-Shiva activist].

People seem to be afraid of an increasing range of things, and gluten anxiety has grown until it seems to be the hot new ingredient to avoid.

Why? We know that about 1% of the population has Celiac disease – which means truly dangerous gluten intolerance. There is some evidence that the incidence grew since the 1950’s to that 1% level. Since the chemistry of wheat is unchanged the implication is the cause is environmental. But the gluten panic isn’t about Celiac disease – it seems to be largely self-diagnosed quite possibly just a popular myth.

Here’s a couple of excerpts from Michael’s essay that will give you some hints:

Myhrvold wasn’t in town that day, but I caught up with him later. He is highly opinionated, and delights in controversy; saying the words “gluten-free” to him was like waving a red flag at a bull. “When I was a kid, I would watch National Geographic specials all the time,’’ he told me. “Often, they would travel to remote places and talk to shamans about evil spirits. It was an era of true condescension; the idea was that we know better and these poor people are noble, but they think that spirits are everywhere. That is exactly what this gluten-free thing is all about.” He stressed that he was not referring to people with celiac disease or questioning the possibility that some others might also have trouble eating gluten. “For most people, this is in no way different from saying, ‘Oh, my God, we are cursed.’ We have undergone what amounts to an attack of evil spirits: gluten will destroy your brain, it will give you cancer, it will kill you. We are the same people who talk to shamans.


Peter H. R. Green, the director of the celiac-disease center at the Columbia University medical school and one of the nation’s most prominent celiac doctors, says that the opposition to gluten has followed a similar pattern, and that it is harming at least as many people as it is helping. “This is a largely self-diagnosed disease,’’ Green said, when I visited his office, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “In the absence of celiac disease, physicians don’t usually tell people they are sensitive to gluten. This is becoming one of the most difficult problems that I face in my daily practice.”

He went on, “I recently saw a retired executive of an international company. He got a life coach to help him, and one of the pieces of advice the coach gave him was to get on a gluten-free diet. A life coach is prescribing a gluten-free diet. So do podiatrists, chiropractors, even psychiatrists.’’ He stopped, stood up, shook his head as if he were about to say something he shouldn’t, then shrugged and sat down again. “A friend of mine told me his wife was seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety and depression. And one of the first things the psychiatrist did was to put her on a gluten-free diet. This is getting out of hand. We are seeing more and more cases of orthorexia nervosa”—people who progressively withdraw different foods in what they perceive as an attempt to improve their health. “First, they come off gluten. Then corn. Then soy. Then tomatoes. Then milk. After a while, they don’t have anything left to eat—and they proselytize about it. Worse is what parents are doing to their children. It’s cruel and unusual treatment to put a child on a gluten-free diet without its being indicated medically. Parental perception of a child’s feeling better on a gluten-free diet is even weaker than self-perception.”


FODMAPs, an acronym for a series of words that few people will ever remember: fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Not all carbohydrates are considered FODMAPs, but many types of foods contain them, including foods that are high in fructose, like honey, apples, mangoes, and watermelon; dairy products, like milk and ice cream; and fructans, such as garlic and onions.

Most people have no trouble digesting FODMAPs, but these carbohydrates are osmotic, which means that they pull water into the intestinal tract. That can cause abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. When the carbohydrates enter the small intestine undigested, they move on to the colon, where bacteria begin to break them down. That process causes fermentation, and one product of fermentation is gas. In Gibson’s new study, when the subjects were placed on a diet free of both gluten and FODMAPs, their gastrointestinal symptoms abated. After two weeks, all of the participants reported that they felt better. Some subjects were then secretly given food that contained gluten; the symptoms did not recur. The study provided evidence that the 2011 study was wrong—or, at least, incomplete. The cause of the symptoms seemed to be FODMAPs, not gluten; no biological markers were found in the blood, feces, or urine to suggest that gluten caused any unusual metabolic response.

In fact, FODMAPs seem more likely than gluten to cause widespread intestinal distress, since bacteria regularly ferment carbohydrates but ferment protein less frequently. Although a FODMAP-free diet is complicated, it permits people to eliminate individual foods temporarily and then reintroduce them systematically to determine which, if any, are responsible for their stomach problems. FODMAPs are not as trendy as gluten and not as easy to understand. But, biologically, their role makes more sense, Murray says.

Michael Specter happens to be a dedicated whole wheat baker. Based on what he learned researching this story, he says he has dumped his vital gluten additive in the trash. ” I have returned to baking whole-wheat bread the way it is supposed to be made: water, yeast, flour, and salt. I will try to live without the magic wand. But I am certainly not going to live without gluten. That just seems silly.”

Risks from low levels of ionizing radiation

This is a guest post by physicist Jani-Petri Martikainen @jpjmarti, proprietor of PassiiviIdentiteetti
(This post first appeared on Passiiviidentiteetti October 26, 2014)

This is one branch of the referenced Twitter discussion. 

There was a brief, but interesting discussion in Twitter about risks from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation. Among pro-nuclear people this discussion erupts with some regularity. For some background there is this really clear discussion by @kasilas which you should read. The thing is that some (I suspect mostly people with engineering background) dislike LNT (linear no threshold) assumption in radiation protection. They say that below a dose of about 100 mSv it doesn’t have observational support and therefore one should not talk about “risk” below some threshold. Such risk is speculative and just gives ammo to anti-nuclear crackpots. On the other hand experts in radiation biology and protection gather around the “party line” and tend to see LNT, if not perfect, then at least good enough and certainly better justified than supposed alternatives. The sane on both sides nevertheless conclude that whatever risk model we use for low doses, the risks will  be small compared to many other risks we face on a routine basis. Both, by and large, hold the opinion that radiation from nuclear power is not an important public health concern relative to more pressing concerns.

Figure 1: Discussing hormesis and how it relates to LNT

Figure 1: Discussing hormesis and how it relates to LNT

I think this discussion is interesting not so much from the scientific perspective, but mainly from the sociological perspective. I suspect that engineering types dislike going through the trouble of minimizing all sources of exposure as much as possible while knowing that it adds to costs and that this work has no observable consequences. They feel that they could be working on much more important things. Radiation protection people on the other wish to protect scientific standards and probably feel a civic duty to maintain and built public trust on experts. Playing fast and loose with radiation risks might undermine that work. They dislike fear mongering by anti-nuclear folks as well as nonchalant attitude to small doses expressed by some pro-nuclear people. They are the doctors trying to keep inmates from running the asylum. (Although this task is complicated by the fact that only pro-nuclear folks have the courtesy to loiter close to the asylum. Antis have always been running free.)

Personally I have sympathy for both sides of this discussion, but I think this is fundamentally not a scientific question, but a question of public perception of risks and how that relates to policies. Due to decades of misinformation many people have fundamentally wrong perception of radiation risks. When we start by saying that radiation dose, no matter how small, poses a risk, we do not question that underlying default setting. We might then continue telling how this risk is nevertheless tiny, but many people have already tuned out. And in any case people are very bad at evaluating risks so they are more than likely to compress the message to “radiation BAD”. The conspiracy minded among the public will of course go even further. When official tells them small amount of radiation has risks, they will conclude that it is in fact deadly and the level that is really safe will be something much much lower. As the safety level is thus adjusted downwards possibilities for exceeding those “safe levels” multiply and the sense of danger will probably go up rather than down. Of course this is a complex issue. If on the other hand we say that the risk is not there, some will simply decide that you are not credible and tune out immediately. You have to adjust your message in response to craziness on the other side and hope they will gradually move to a sensible position. But does anybody know, how nuanced accurate discussion actually influences people whose opinions are at the start of the discussion bizarrely off base? Such discussion certainly is preferable with people whose opinions are more or less sensible to begin with, but with others? I am really not sure and would love to learn of some research on this topic.

Given my background I was (of course) thinking that isn’t this kind of similar to importance of quantum mechanics? We live in an imperfect world where most people do not need Planck’s constant in their daily lives. This natural constant is at the heart of quantum mechanics and indeed our world be inexplicable without it. (In fact some of those who actually need it in their daily lives, define their units in terms of it so that for them Planck’s constant has a value one. Being so down to earth and organic they even call such units “natural”.) However, as a practical matter it doesn’t make sense to incorporate the effects of Planck’s constant into building codes or environmental impact assessments etc. Most people will find it easier to just set Planck’s constant to zero and as a practical tool that is usually perfectly OK, even though it is fundamentally wrong. In fact, if we were to do the opposite, the risk of a backfire would be large. People would not know how to deal with Planck’s constant in practice and if asked about its magnitude they would be off by a large amount. (If we were to give them some additional information such that “Planck’s constant is related to the energy of  particles of radiation”, many would probably increase the value of the constant even more.)

Given the horrendously wrong public perception of radiation risks, I often feel they would be better served if their default settings were based on the idea of zero risk. This is fundamentally wrong, but it is less wrong, in a practical sense, than their current perceptions. Once the lowest order term has been correctly established we could start adding nuance and even move to discussion of such regimes where radiation risk is actually large. Nowadays people start from fears of cities attacked with nuclear weapons and then we expect them to make a reasonable extrapolation of risks into their daily lives. For most people I don’t think that will ever happen. On the other hand, I do not know how that more sensible starting point can be established in practice. Currently people pickup nonsense from NGO:s and media already as children and accurate information gets drowned in the noise.

[The Twitter discussion follows, Ed]:

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 3:33 AM


According to LNT-influenced guidelines, cancer risk starts to increase at 100mSv, right? Is that an annual dose, or some other duration?

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/24/14, 3:40 AM


@millysievert No, 100 mSv is where increased risk has been observed, but that is due to lack of data, not that 100 mSv is a “limit”.

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 3:41 AM


@andersorbom No, I understand that, just trying to find it if that assumption is made on an annual dose or some other duration.

Casey (@cthorm)

10/24/14, 4:48 AM


@millysievert @andersorbom LNT considers “dose”, not “dose rate,” while dose rate is actually what matters.

Casey (@cthorm)

10/24/14, 4:50 AM


@millysievert @andersorbom “accumulation” has no support in the data. Hormesis is observed, biological processes repair slow damage.

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 4:55 AM


@cthorm @andersorbom Thank you! Looking up ‘hormesis’ now, knew I’d have to do it at some point…

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/24/14, 4:57 AM


@millysievert Or don’t, it’s basically the “cold fusion” of radiobiology. Motivated reasoning and wishful thinking.

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/24/14, 5:01 AM


@andersorbom @cthorm Now I don’t know what to believe…

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/24/14, 5:08 AM


@millysievert Believe unbiased trusted sources and the scientific mainstream, not either pro- or anti- activists and fringe researchers.

Janne M. Korhonen (@jmkorhonen)

10/24/14, 6:13 AM


@andersorbom @millysievert My heuristic: scientific mainstream is more often right than wrong,and only very rarely totally wrong.

Janne M. Korhonen (@jmkorhonen)

10/24/14, 6:14 AM


@andersorbom @millysievert My take after reading quite a bit: LNT model might overestimate cancers but radiation may cause other damage too.

Steve Darden (@stevedarden)

10/25/14, 7:55 AM


@jmkorhonen Where is your personal comfort level for annual exposure. E.g., 100mSv/yr? @andersorbom@millysievert

Amelia Cook (@millysievert)

10/26/14, 12:00 AM


@stevedarden @jmkorhonen @andersorbom Exactly what I’m trying to figure out! A good question, I’ll put it to more knowledgeable people.

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/26/14, 12:05 AM


@millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen I’m sorry but “comfort level” is just a weird way to think abt it. You shld minimize dose, period.

Jani Martikainen (@jpjmarti)

10/26/14, 3:46 AM


@andersorbom @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen Actually,I disagree.There are risk levels that are too low to worry about. 1/2

Ben Heard (@BenThinkClimate)

10/26/14, 10:24 AM


@jpjmarti @andersorbom @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen Minimising dose beyond evidence of harm leads to costs, creating greater harm

Anders Örbom (@andersorbom)

10/26/14, 10:32 AM


@BenThinkClimate @jpjmarti @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen Weighing risk & benefit does nt req denying risk, and that’s all from me.

Jani Martikainen (@jpjmarti)

10/27/14, 2:19 AM


.@andersorbom @BenThinkClimate @millysievert @stevedarden @jmkorhonen I was left wondering……

Janne M. Korhonen (@jmkorhonen)

10/27/14, 9:06 PM


@jpjmarti @andersorbom @BenThinkClimate @millysievert @stevedarden Abandoning LNT politically impossible.Better fight battles we can win.

Jani Martikainen (@jpjmarti)

10/27/14, 9:11 PM


@jmkorhonen @andersorbom @BenThinkClimate @millysievert @stevedarden Yes,LNT is not the problem.Misguided perception of risks is the problem

Steve Darden (@stevedarden)

10/27/14, 11:25 PM


@jpjmarti Yes, so what can we do to correct mis-perception of risk? @jmkorhonen @andersorbom@BenThinkClimate @millysievert

N Nadir on bubonic plague — we picked the wrong policy there too

N Nadir said this so well I would like to quote an excerpt:

A nuclear power plant is an investment in the future, the main benefits will accrue to our children, our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It's very clear that as a culture, we couldn't care less about the future.

I believe nuclear energy is the only form of truly sustainable energy and I would argue that a complaint about what might happen should the world economy collapse when the observed effects of dangerous fossil fuels without the collapse of the economy are disasterous, is inherently absurd.

But as much as I know nuclear energy is the only moral form of energy that exists, I do not expect it to be allowed to succeed as it might do, any more than it wasallowed to do what it might have done. One is a fool if one underestimates the power of fear, the power of ignorance.

I use this analogy a lot, because it sticks in my mind is seems dead on: Many lives might have been saved from the bubonic plague if people merely cleaned up the garbage on which rats fed. The actual means to address the crisis was not that however; it was prayer.

With nuclear energy we might clean up the garbage. But that won't happen. What will happen is just more prayers to the sun God while the devil within all of us burns ever more quantities of coal, oil, and gas, until the last molecule of CO2 that can be squeezed into the atmosphere issqueezed into it.

Source: a comment on Energy Collective.


China Studying Carbon and Coal Caps for Next Five-Year Plan

I’m seeing increasing optimism that China’s leaders are incrementally implementing climate-positive policies. These are policies that violate Roger Pielke Jr.’s “Iron Law”. While I’m reading the current 5 Year Plan, and going through my notes on policy hints, I found this June Bloomberg piece which closes with these comments on possible carbon taxes as well as coal and carbon caps.

At the moment, while the ETS is being piloted, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) is also studying the possible implementation of carbon taxes. Yang Fuqiang said the National Development and Reform Commission favors the ETS system and the MOF the tax system, but it is uncertain which will be the leading policy in the end.

According to the CNS report, He also said nonfossil-fuel-based sources are expected to reach 15 percent in 2020, to reach 20 percent to 25 percent in 2030, and to hit 33 percent to 50 percent of the energy mix by 2050 in China.

Text of a speech by He given at a Low Carbon Development Forum at Tsinghua University in March shows he is in favor of setting caps on coal consumption and carbon emissions beyond the carbon intensity targets that have already been set, to “give stronger binding targets to promote the transformation of the current economic growth model,” but He did not suggest any policies had officially been set by the central government for the next planning period.

Transforming the Electricity Portfolio: Lessons from Germany and Japan in Deploying Renewable Energy

Brookings held the captioned event to launch a new policy brief (download PDF). I listened to the audio podcast while cycling Saturday. There is also a transcript available.

When I study the Brookings graphic showing the fossil increases in Germany and Japan it makes me really sad. But the majority of citizens are happy that the hated nuclear is dead or dying.

I think Germany is driving their economy off a cliff. As RE penetration increases their generation costs will go convex. Germany is already around 27% RE, with “greens” talking about going to 100% as fast as possible. But the man on the street thinks this is all grand. It is political suicide for a politician to propose reversing the anti-nuclear Energiewende.

To my surprise the Brookings scholars speaking at the event do not seem concerned. E.g., they quote a new NREL study proposing a pathway to 80% RE. Among the “lessons learned”:

Implications for the United States:

Policymakers must work to build a baseline consensus on national energy objectives and then develop and implement consistent, durable and clear policy mechanisms to achieve those objectives

The U.S. needs to elevate environmental goals as part of its overall energy objectives—in particular addressing climate change through reduction of greenhouse gases—and link these environmental goals to economic and national security issues

Renewable energy needs to be considered a national asset, with the capacity to balance multiple objectives

Brookings is a big place. Evidently it's possible for the RE group to be unaware of other Brookings research just published in May this year “The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies” Charles Frank, summarized in the blog Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future is Not Wind or Solar Power.

This is a placeholder for a longer post when I have time to write it. Check out the audio or transcript and the brief. What do you think?