WaterInTheWest: technical solutions to California’s water crisis

Stanford’s NewImageWaterInTheWest program is an important resource for anyone wishing to study technical solutions to the California water crisis. E.g., consider the possibility of artificial groundwater recharge?

Now in its third year, the current drought reminds us that California’s water supplies are limited. Calls are growing louder to enlarge dams – or build new ones – to expand the state’s water storage capacity. But far less attention is given to a cheaper but less visible option – storing water under our feet.

Groundwater storage represents both a practical solution to the state’s additional water storage needs and a tool to help manage groundwater more sustainably. Groundwater levels are continuing to decline across the state, not just from California’s current drought, but from decades of chronic overuse. Augmenting water supply through recharge into aquifers presents a cost-effective way of increasing the availability of groundwater for the inevitable dry times ahead.

There are so many water-related resources that I won’t attempt to summarize. Go to the WaterInTheWest site, explore. Then you will be better-equipped to address the really-big challenge: political change. 

We know from Economics 101 that any less-than-infinite water supplies will be squandered unless water is fully priced at its economic value (i.e., marginal cost equals marginal value). My understanding of the political challenge is that agriculture was given nearly-free access at the beginning of the water infrastructure development. The farmers are politically powerful enough to (so far) defeat every market-pricing initiative. Since agriculture consumes 80% of CA water we know that fiddling with household consumption is another “feel good” policy. Once California water consumers have to pay market prices, then technical solutions like artificial groundwater recharge become financeable.

That political change is possibly more difficult than getting US, EU, China, India, and Brazil to agree to a harmonized carbon tax. So the chance of a sensible CA water policy solution is approximately zero until things get seriously bad: perhaps when there are crop failures and people dying because they no longer have adequate access to sanitation and clean drinking water. That seems to be how democracies make unpleasant changes – at the cliff edge, or over the cliff.

CCS: If we can capture the CO2 affordably, do we have to store it on the moon?

VeloxoTherm

Since 2007 Canadian startup Inventys Thermal Technologies has been developing carbon capture technology based upon a new honeycomb activated charcoal adsorbent. They claim their “VeloxoTherm™ process is less than one-third the cost of existing post-combustion CO2 capture technologies and will finally enable the widespread adoption of enhanced oil recovery and carbon sequestration.” That’s USD $15 per tonne – but doesn’t include any of the cost of transport and storage to implement CCS (or enhanced recovery, the primary current market for CO2).

Existing pilot scale carbon capture from flue gas installations are expensive and energy intensive, with industrial scale installations expected to add 40 to 50% to LCOE of coal-based electricity.

Ucilia Wang‘s article describes recent Series B round financing that I read as indicative they may be on to something that could be close enough to affordable to get some adoption.  Chevron Technology Ventures joined the B round for an undisclosed amount. Steven Chu, former US Energy Secretary, joined the board in Dec 2013. That’s another indicator that there is something here. Given a carbon price of $25/tonne CO2, let’s hope that this process proves to be scaleable and “affordable”.

But where will utilities be allowed to store the captured CO2? Nuclear waste is produced in very small athletic-field scale volumes, and is safe to store in available geological formations – as well as perfectly safe to manage in dry cask storage at central repositories (think stadium-sized parking lots). I would be happy to have either one in my neighborhood. But to be useful as a GHG emissions strategy, CO2 storage involves volumes that are so large that the public is going to have real trouble grasping the scale. Unlike nuclear waste, there is comparatively larger risk of future CO2 leaks. Radioisotopes decay back to the level of the original rocks, only about 300 years for 4th generation nuclear waste. This CO2 needs to be “imprisoned” forever.

Will the NIMBYs and BANANAs ever allow these giant CO2 repositories on Earth? Or do we have to ship it to the Moon?

Roger Pielke Jr. on FiveThirtyEight and his Climate Critics

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Keith Kloor published an interview with Roger to discuss the Twitter-storm and blog-o-gale that blew up when Roger offended the climate-hawks by publishing on FiveThirtyEight a summary of his academic publications on disaster losses.

The attacks on prof. Pielke came from the usual suspects, but this time elites such as Paul Krugman and Obama advisor John Holdren piled on. The fragments that crossed my desk were examples of “non-contact criticism”. By that I mean they ignored Roger’s published work (including Congressional testimony, blog posts and public appearances). Instead the attacker applied the demon-label of “climate denier” and then proceeded to shred various straw man positions that Roger has never argued.

My view is that there’s nothing newly provocative in Roger’s FiveThirtyEight article. It expresses the science behind what we know about connections between global climate change and severe weather events like Katrina. What is new is that Roger was published by a hot new website illuminated by Nate Silver’s fame. The hawks evidently thought “this is too dangerous, to have a scientist explaining to Joe Six Pack why we can’t attribute every tornado to Global Warming”.

I’ve been reading Roger Pielke Jr. for at least a decade – motivated by his research and writing on science policy advice. I learned most of what I know about science policy from his numerous policy blog posts and from his 2007 book The Honest Broker.

Roger’s science policy background prepared him well to contribute to the group of thinkers that produced The Hartwell Paper, which I first encountered in Kyoto Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy. There you will find climate policy ideas appropriate for the real world where politicians and economics operate. Then came Roger’s book The Climate Fix: What Scientists And Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. That’s the book I recommend to associates for training on how to advocate for effective policies. Hint: Kyoto isn’t one of those policies. 

In 2008 Roger joined The Breakthrough Institute, which is populated by other serious people who are focused on changing the world (really). BTI has adopted much of the thinking behind The Hartwell Paper - so not surprisingly several of Roger’s Hartwell colleagues are now working with the institute. E.g., Steve Rayner. And Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva.

Through all this reading I have observed Roger “calling it the way he sees it”. Consistently I have found Roger’s writings to align with what I think is the objective truth cast into pragmatic policy options. 

Kerry Emanuel: An Obligation to Take on ‘Tail Risk’ vs. Alarmism

On the 24 March Econtalk Russ Roberts interviewed John Christy and Kerry Emanuel. Prof. Roberts is very effective at moderating an informal debate like this – he keeps each party focused on reply and rebuttal to the key points. This is far more effective than the usual “debate” where each side essentially repeats prepared talking points, with very little contact with the arguments made by the opposition.

I have been following the writings of MIT prof. Kerry Emanuel for a long time. Besides his climate science expertise, he has been an effective voice for pragmatic carbon policy that includes nuclear power. E.g., on 3 November Dr. Emanuel and three other top climate scientists joined together in an open letter directed to the Baptists in the “Bootleggers and Baptists” coalition that have made it impossible to make any real progress decarbonizing the global economy.

Related posts on Kerry Emanuel’s work are Enviros and climate scientists continue their fight over nuclear power, and Kerry Emanuel: Reddit AMA on climate change and severe weather.

Though I’ve not reviewed the book here, I highly recommend Emanuel’s compact primer What we know about climate change. It is a remarkably short, apolitical and information-dense survey of a complex subject.

In the above-captioned short essay by Emanuel, he takes a similar theme to the Econtalk interview — that to develop effective climate/energy policy we need to focus on the risk management. It won’t be a surprise that I support Kerry Emanuel’s risk framing — because that is how I look at climate policies. I think we need to keep our attention on both mitigation and adaption policy options. Generating more policy options is how we get better results (exactly the opposite of what activists want – which is to limit our options to the activists’ preferred technology/approach).

This is all about risk – and risk appraisal and management are skills that we humans do not manage well at all. 

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to offer recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a current and informed view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe).

Regarding urbanization: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am persuaded that the Charter Cities concept has a chance to evolve into an effective development tool, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

What can we do before it is too late?

This depressing chart is from Roger Pielke Jr.'s Clean Energy Stagnation.

As I’ve been thinking through “what can we do before it is too late?” the easy out is to leave our fate in the hands of China. If current trends continue China, India and their fast-developing brethren nations, will account for the majority of GHG emissions in the next century. China and India are also among the short-list of nations that are actually doing something about decarbonizing.

If the west continues “fiddling while Rome burns”, China will eventually offer to sell us the nuclear machines that will allow us to escape from our folly. Actually, it would be wonderful to wake up tomorrow to read that China has already covered our collective frivolous bums, having just closed a turn-key contract to supply Indonesia with 100 new 25 to 500 MWe nuclear plants. That would mean that Indonesia's fast-growing industrial economy will soon have affordable electricity all over the archipelago.

But do we really want to just give up, and leave the innovation, engineering, production challenges all to China? Surely the west still has something of value to offer? If we do have useful knowhow, then we would be smart to make the best deals with China that we can before the price of our decaying skills drops any further. If we can create a joint-venture cooperative fast-track with China everybody wins, and westerners can make big piles of money. Maybe even get to create some nuclear jobs and skills back home.

Deploying all of the advanced nuclear designs is the best way I know to select out the best tools to end energy poverty while protecting the planet. Consider such as TerraPower, FHR, IFR, MSR, LFTR, PB-AHTR. Reading that short list of innovations – it is so obvious that America hasn't the social capability to deploy even one of them. In the current political state, the Yanks just cannot do it. Given the political will, the Brits, French and Swedes could work together to make a big contribution. Otherwise the energy future belongs to Asia.

That's fine with me – what is important is to see coal plants being replaced by nuclear everywhere. More posts on nuclear cooperation worth China…

 

James Hansen: World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature

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If you’ve not yet read James Hansen’s latest letter I encourage you to do so. I hesitated to write anything after reading it – I didn’t want to write something inflammatory. Most of this will be familiar to those who have been thinking about climate and energy policy. Still, Dr. Hansen’s words are heavy with the frustration that we all feel. Following is an excerpt regarding the enormous cost of the worst US policy decisions:

Nuclear scientists were ready in 1976 to build a demonstration fast nuclear power plant. However, the project was stopped by President Jimmy Carter in his first State-of-the-Union message. Research continued at a low level until 1993 when President Bill Clinton delivered an intended coup de grace, declaring “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.” Clinton was caving in to a quasi-religious anti-nuke minority in the Democratic Party, whose unrealistic “belief” was that diffuse renewable energies could satisfy all energy needs.

R&D on advanced technologies, including thorium reactors with the potential to ameliorate remaining concerns about nuclear power, was stifled, seemingly because it was too promising. Powerful anti-nuclear forces had their way with the Democratic Party. “Green” organizations had indoctrinated themselves in anti-nuclear fervor, and their intransigence blinded them to the fact that they were nearly eliminating the one option for abundant clean electricity with inexhaustible fuel and a small planetary footprint.

The enormity of anti-nuclear policy decisions would be difficult to exaggerate. It meant China and other developing nations would have no choice but to burn massive coal amounts, if they wished to raise their living standards. It meant our children and grandchildren faced near certainty of large climate change. None of the developing nations and none of our descendants had any voice in the decision.

I cannot blame President Clinton. We scientists should have made clearer that there is a limited “carbon budget” for the world, i.e., a limit on the amount of fossil fuels that could be burned without assuring disastrous future consequences. We should have made clear that diffuse renewables cannot satisfy energy needs of countries such as China and India. It seems we failed to make that clear enough.

The United States, as the leader in nuclear R&D, had an opportunity not only to help find a carbon-free path for itself, but also to aid countries such as China and India. Indeed, such aid was an obligation. The United States had already used its share of the “carbon budget” and was beginning to eat into China’s.

Perhaps our leaders, and certainly the public, did not really understand the implications of decisions made more than two decades ago. But there can no longer be such excuse. If we do not now do what is still possible to minimize climate change and eliminate air pollution, will it not be a crime against future generations and nature? Will it not be a crime of one people against another?

(…snip…)

I have been promoting intensifying nuclear power cooperation with China to accelerate China’s substitution of nuclear for coal; to bring forward the date of “China’s last coal plant”. Dr. Hansen is pressing hard for the same goals:

What the United States should do is cooperate with China and assist in its nuclear development. The AP- 1000 is a fine nuclear power plant, incorporating several important safety improvements over existing plants in the United States, which already have an excellent safety record. There has been only one serious accident among 100 reactors, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and it did not kill anyone. However, further advances in nuclear plants beyond AP-1000 are possible and the large demand in China allows rapid progress and building at a scale that can drive down unit cost.

China has initiated nuclear R&D programs, including cooperation with American universities and firms. Cooperation with our universities and the private sector could be expanded rapidly, and areas of relevant excellence persist in some Department of Energy Laboratories despite inadequate levels of support. Training of nuclear engineers and operators in the U.S. could help assure safe operations during a challenging period of rapid expansion. Benefits of cooperation in technology development can eventually circle back to United States industry and utility sectors as cost effective power plants are perfected.

I won’t say enjoy World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature, but please do share.

Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley

As we try to understand what is really going on in China’s advanced reactor developments, one of the sources has been Mark Halper @markhalper. Mark covered the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 (ThEC13), held at CERN in Geneva last November China eyes thorium MSRs for industrial heat, hydrogen; revises timeline

From Mark’s reports I learned that one of the presentations was by a key figure, Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. Hongjie is the director of what China dubs the “Thorium Molten Salt Reactor” (TMSR) project. One of his slides is shown above, presenting an overview of the TMSR priorities (left side) and the timelines. Happily the Chinese are also focused on the process heat applications of the PH-AHTR (hydrogen to methanol etc.) and the huge benefits to a water impoverished region like China. The Chinese are demonstrating systems-thinking at scale.

There are two Chinese MSR programs:

  • TMSR-SF or solid fuel, which looks to me to be very similar to Per Peterson’s PB-AHTR program at UC Berkeley
  • TMSR-LF or liquid fuel, which I gather is similar to popular LFTR concept.

Both designs are derivative of the Weinberg-driven Oak Ridge (ORNL) molten salt reactor program (that was cancelled by politicians in the 1960s). I understand the PB-AHTR to be most ready for early deployment, which will lay critical foundations for the liquid fuel TMSR-LF (LFTR) implementation a decade or so later. UC Berkeley’s Catalyst magazine has a very accessible summary of the PB-AHTR program.

Mark Halper reported from the Geneva Thorium Energy Conference. The 

I proposed a few days ago a China – OECD cooperation to fast-track deployment of nuclear instead of coal. Fortunately, the Chinese and several of the US labs and universities seem to have figured this out without my help. This is probably all detailed somewhere online, but I’ve not been able to find it so far. These are the parties to the China – US cooperation:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Washington

I apologize to anyone I’ve left out.

 

Three climate scientists examine recent slowdown (or ‘pause’) and online science communication

The recent slowdown (or ‘pause’) in global surface temperature rise is a hot topic for climate scientists and the wider public. We discuss how climate scientists have tried to communicate the pause and suggest that ‘many-to-many’ communication offers a key opportunity to directly engage with the public.

I recommend “Pause for thought” in Nature Climate Change. This very short essay by Ed Hawkins, Tamsin Edwards and Doug McNeall is ungated, after free registration. You can get a preview of the technical overview by studying the two following charts carefully. You’ll need to pay attention to the chart key underneath – there is a lot of information compressed into the two panels.

 

Observed global mean surface air temperatures (HadCRUT433, solid black line) and recent 1998–2012 trend (dashed black line), compared with ten simulations of the CSIRO Mk3.6 global climate model, which all use the RCP6.0 forcing pathway (grey lines). The grey shading represents the 16–84% ensemble spread (quantiles smoothed with a 7-year running mean for clarity); the ensemble mean trend is around 0.20 °C per decade. Two different realizations are highlighted (blue), and linear trends for specific interesting periods are shown (red, green, purple lines). a, The highlighted realization shows a strong warming in the 1998–2012 period, but a 15-year period of no warming around the 2030s. b, The highlighted realization is more similar to the observations for 1998–2012, but undergoes a more rapid warming around the 2020s. Note also that this realization appears outside the ensemble spread for 9 out of 10 consecutive years from 2003–2012.

The charts and discussion illustrate a central truth of climate science – the results are often only understood in a framework of statistics. The pretty, clean projected temperature curves that we see in the media are heavily smoothed over many runs of multiple models. That presentation conceals the natural variability that is part of the challenge of understanding, then testing hypotheses against observations. It is similar to the agonizing process at the Large Hadron Collidor (LHC) as the teams tried to develop enough data to tease out a sufficiently confident identification of an anomaly corresponding to the Higgs.

If you have a specific question about the authors’ presentation, you can ask the scientists directly on twitter. It is uncommon for authors to reveal their twitter handles in a paper, so please don’t make them regret the open door!

I recommend two other articles in this Nature Climate Change series:

1. Heat hide and seek [PDF] Natural variability can explain fluctuations in surface temperatures but can it account for the current slowdown in warming? The authors offer an excellent summary of the more promising current research, including particularly the variability in heat distribution such as

  • El Niño/Southern Oscillation
  • Pacific Decadal Oscillation
  • Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation

2. Media discourse on the climate slowdown where I learned among other things that the biggest recent media spike seems to be in Oceania – where we are presently (cruising). Australia has been suffering from a severe drought – that no doubt generates increased interest in climate.