System LCOE and minimizing GHG avoidance costs

Recent references on full life cycle costing of electricity generation options – including accounting for intermittency and integration costs.

Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future is Not Wind or Solar Power Analysis of Brookings paper by Charles Frank

This paper examines five different low and no-carbon electricity technologies and presents the net benefits of each under a range of assumptions. It estimates the costs per megawatt per year for wind, solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, and gas combined cycle electricity plants. To calculate these estimates, the paper uses a methodology based on avoided emissions and avoided costs, rather than comparing the more prevalent “levelized” costs. Three key findings result:

First—assuming reductions in carbon emissions are valued at $50 per metric ton and the price of natural gas is $16 per million Btu or less—nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle have far more net benefits than either wind or solar. This is the case because solar and wind facilities suffer from a very high capacity cost per megawatt, very low capacity factors and low reliability, which result in low avoided emissions and low avoided energy cost per dollar invested.

Second, low and no-carbon energy projects are most effective in avoiding emissions if a price for carbon is levied on fossil fuel energy suppliers. In the absence of an appropriate price for carbon, new no-carbon plants will tend to displace low-carbon gas combined cycle plants rather than high-carbon coal plants and achieve only a fraction of the potential reduction in carbon emissions. The price of carbon should be high enough to make production from gas-fired plants preferable to production from coal-fired plants, both in the short term, based on relative short-term energy costs, and the longer term, based on relative energy and capacity costs combined.

Third, direct regulation of carbon dioxide emissions of new and existing coal-fired plants, as proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can have some of the same effects as a carbon price in reducing coal plant emissions both in the short term and in the longer term as old, inefficient coal plants are retired. However, a price levied on carbon dioxide emissions is likely to be a less costly way to achieve a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

The Optimal Share of Variable Renewables. How the Variability of Wind and Solar Power Affects Their Welfare-Optimal Deployment

This paper estimates the welfare-optimal market share of wind and solar power, explicitly taking into account their output variability. We present a theoretical valuation framework that consistently accounts for output variability over time, forecast errors, and the location of generators in the power grid, and evaluate the impact of these three factors on the marginal value of electricity from renewables. Then we estimate the optimal share of wind and solar power in Northwestern Europe from a calibrated numerical power market model. The optimal long-term share of wind power of total electricity consumption is estimated to be 20% at cost levels of 50 €/MWh, about three times the current market share of wind; but this estimate is subject to significant parameter uncertainty. Variability significantly impacts results: if winds were constant, the optimal share would be 60%. In addition, the effect of technological change, price shocks, and policies on the optimal share is assessed. We present and explain several surprising findings, including a negative impact of CO2 prices on optimal wind deployment.

 System LCOE/ What are the Costs of Variable Renewables? by Falko Ueckerdt, Lion Hirth, Gunnar Ludere

Levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) are a common metric for comparing power generating technologies. However, there is qualified criticism particularly towards evaluating variable renewables like wind and solar power based on LCOE because it ignores integration costs that occur at the system level. In this paper we propose a new measure System LCOE as the sum of generation and integration costs per unit of VRE. For this purpose we develop a conclusive definition of integration costs. Furthermore we decompose integration costs into different cost components and draw conclusions for integration options like transmission grids and energy storage. System LCOE are quantified from a power system model and a literature review. We find that at moderate wind shares (~20%) integration costs can be in the same range as generation costs of wind power and conventional plants. Integration costs further increase with growing wind shares. We conclude that integration costs can become an economic barrier to deploying VRE at high shares. This implies that an economic evaluation of VRE must not neglect integration costs. A pure LCOE comparison would significantly underestimate the costs of VRE at high shares. System LCOE give a framework of how to consistently account for integration costs and thus guide policy makers and system planers in designing a cost-efficient power system.

How to find reliable, evidence-based medical information

The image of a handsome doc doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the medical information!

There is so much health and medical information on the Internet that it can be dangerous to start searching for guidance on some concern that you have. If you are in a big hurry to find evidence-based information start here:

The Cochrane Collaboration: this is a first stop for many physicians who need to check on what is the current best evidence-based information based on Systematic Reviews.

A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making. (See Section 1.2 in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions.)

If you need more, visit CAPHIS, the Consumer and Patient Health Information Section of the Medical Library Association. CAPHIS maintains Top 100 List: Health Websites You Can Trust. We have downloaded the whole database for easy reference. If you are a US or Canadian resident and you need a medical library, see Find a Library.

Lastly, new-media startup VOX has a page that seems to fulfill the VOX promise of current, accurate information on a topic: Stop Googling your health questions. Use these sites instead.  This page is produced by Burden of Proof:

a regular column in which Julia Belluz (a journalist) and Steven Hoffman (an academic) join forces to tackle the most pressing health issues of our time — especially bugs, drugs, and pseudoscience thugs — and uncover the best science behind them.

Belluz and Hoffman do a nice job explaining why you won’t want Dr. Oz but you do want Cochrane Collaboration. They also have a useful page on Study Design, where you can read a tutorial that will help you assess the daily “health headlines” (if you must read them). I like their chart:

NewImage

Uber shares their data feeds with host cities


Click to embiggen

This is a very good move for Uber: it costs the company very little to share their data feed with each city where they operate. That data is hugely valuable to the city management. And it is a perfect way to incentivize cities to welcome rather than fight Uber’s presence.

(…snip…) As we have grown, so has our ability to share information that can serve a greater good. By sharing data with municipal partners we can help cities become more liveable, resilient, and innovative.

Today, Boston joins Uber in a first-of-its-kind partnership to help expand the city’s capability to solve problems by leveraging data provided by Uber. The data will provide new insights to help manage urban growth, relieve traffic congestion, expand public transportation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

(…snip…) This data can be utilized to help cities achieve their transportation and planning goals without compromising personal privacy. By helping cities understand the way their residents move, we can work together to make our communities stronger. Smart Cities can benefit from smart data and we will champion municipal efforts devoted to achieving data-driven urban growth, mobility and safety for communities.

Will competency replace traditional “seat time” qualifications?

“It’s scary for faculty,” Dr. Reilly says. “There’s a continuing sense that students can and do draw on so many sources of information that are now available at their fingertips. They don’t need to come to the monastery for four years and sit at the feet of the monks.”

“Now, I’m an old English professor who taught the Joyce course here at Madison two years ago,” he says. “The idea that you can’t understand Joyce unless you take it from Reilly three hours a week — that we faculty own the knowledge and anyone who’s going to be well educated has to get it from us — the world has changed so much that that’s no longer true.”

I’ve been following one of the leading innovators in Competency-Base education: Western Governors University. WGU was founded by a consortium of 19 states in 1997, offering a complete degree program based on assessments (not seat-time). Incoming students can have any accumulated credit hours evaluated for equivalency credit at WGU. At the time of writing of this NYT article there are now five US institutions offering Competency-Based degrees.

And it obsessively tracks metrics like this one: 95% of employers say WGU grads are as good as or better than those from anywhere else.

On average American teacher training programs are unspeakably bad. They serve as cash cows to subsidize the rest of the host school (US teachers must have a ‘ticket’ from one of these places). And they produce teachers who have had no training in the craft of teaching. But WGU appears to be an exception:

The best preparation program in the country for future high school teachers, according to new US News and World Report rankings, happens at an online university you probably haven’t heard of where students don’t take any classes.

The Western Governors University’s number-one spot surprised even the National Council on Teacher Quality, the advocacy group that worked with US News on the rankings. The high marks are not, however, a surprise to the nonprofit online university’s many fans — one of whom is President Obama.

Stanford’s Open Learning Initiative receives Gates Foundation grant


OLI Instructor Learning Dashboard [one of class level panels]

Thille explained that she considered three main resources through OLI: “What a student can do with their computer, what they can do with their peers, and what a student can do with an expert.” She also highlighted what she believes to be the key question in developing the program.

“What are the affordances and limitations of each of those resources and how can we blend them to create the best learning environment for that student at that point and time?” Thille said.

Very interesting — the Carnegie Mellon-developed Open Learning Initiative (OLI) has expanded to Stanford. Candace Thille, who founded OLI at CMU in 2002, has moved to Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The Stanford project “is one of seven educational technology programs to split a $20 million fund from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” The Foundation has published an excellent 7 minute video that explains how OLI works for both instructors and students: Gates Foundation-The Open Learning Initiative.

Excerpts from the Stanford announcement:

OLI is an online educational platform that enhances classroom learning through digital modules that provide feedback to instructors. Students use the modules to learn and engage with material in an interactive online environment, while activities examine each student’s understanding of key concepts. The instructor uses the data from the platform to design the class and focus on important areas.

(…snip…) Originally, OLI focused mostly on assessing the cognitive process of learning. Since it has come to Stanford, the goal has been to build on its foundation while also exploring theoretical models and psychological assessments. Teams of disciplinary experts, learning researchers and software engineers build environments that can support classrooms anywhere that aim to provide the same experience as a top institution.

“The team designs these interactive environments, and the environments both support the learners but also collect the data to refine the learning environment,” Thille said.

The grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will specifically go towards a module for an introductory statistics course, chosen for its high-enrollment and high-variability. Thille and her colleagues are building upon an existing statistics course and are integrating OLI into another online platform called edX. They will also be enhancing the environments with social-psychological interventions. Ultimately, the module will be used in thousands of classrooms across the nation.

Partners at other institutions offer faculty expertise for content development and use trial modules to gather data and improve strategies. These institutions include universities and community colleges in Maryland, North Carolina and California. The platform is designed to assess students’ specific sub-skills pertaining to larger concepts that they learn in the class, and design teams pool data to focus on refining less effective aspects of the online courses.

OLI also emphasizes the openness of every education environment it develops: Anyone can access its content. The program aims to lead the way in integrating technology into education. The enhanced statistics course which is already being taught at Stanford, and more courses will soon follow.

When Will Liberal Arts Colleges Take Advantage of the Open Learning Initiative?

NewImage

(…snip…) In a recent study by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, about half of liberal arts professors said blended learning was inferior to the purely face-to-face kind; only 11 percent said it was superior. At the same time, more than a third said blended education was of equivalent quality to face-to-face. So, technically, the majority of liberal arts professors thought the blended version was as good as or better than the kind they have been delivering for centuries.

The good news is that 11% of liberal arts profs appreciate that advances like OLI can dramatically enhance learning. The not-so-good news is the 89% who think the status quo is OK. However, the better news is that the focus on learning is sharpening. Example: the encouraging news that Stanford has joined with CMU to advance both OLI content and technology.

So far I’m not having much success identifying the US liberal arts colleges that are making good use of the OLI work or similar learning technologies. Though the article is two years out of date, this Inside Higher Ed survey looks at what a couple of high visibility colleges are doing.

Online learning is no longer foreign to traditional universities, where courses formerly held in large lecture halls are migrating to the Web. But at residential liberal arts colleges, whose appeal often lies in the promise of small classes and regular face time with professors, online education has had a harder time gaining a foothold.

That could soon change. Several top-rated liberal arts colleges have begun experimenting with online course modules. Professors at those colleges hope the technology, which tutors students in certain concepts via artificially intelligent tutoring software in lieu of static textbooks or human lecturers, will help level the playing field for academically underprepared students while giving instructors more flexibility in planning their syllabuses.

(…snip…)

“It is not our model — we’re more into human interaction,” says Cassidy, the Bryn Mawr provost. “But the data were persuasive.”

The “data” include multiple studies by researchers at Carnegie Mellon suggesting that when students are taught an introductory statistics using OLI course, in concert with human instruction, they learn the material as well or better than in a normal lecture course — but in half the time. More recently, researchers at the nonprofit Ithaka S+R found that a socioeconomically diverse sample of students at six public universities performed as well via a “blended” model of statistics education that replaced some seat time with independent work on the OLI platform.

The goal at Bryn Mawr is not to shorten the semester, as might be the case at a community college looking to speed the rotation of the academic calendar for revenue purposes, or to satisfy a completion-agenda push to increase graduation rates. And the college has no plans to build a large online operation on top of its bricks-and-mortar campus. “Fundamentally, we’re secure with our model” of small-scale residential education, says Cassidy.

But Bryn Mawr’s foray into using online course modules hints at the online learning tools that might have a place in the liberal arts. Joey King, the president of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, had not heard of any cases where liberal arts professors were integrating OLI modules or similar technology into their syllabuses. But he said that Bryn Mawr’s leadership and pledge to support similar projects at peer colleges might catalyze the spread of new, “blended” approaches in that sector.

“In this community it’s kind of the norm that somebody will take the lead and just do it,” says King, “and, once it’s easy, people find it more compelling as far as picking it up at other institutions.”

Faculty at liberal arts colleges might be more amenable to accepting help from robo-tutors than instructors at other types of institutions, King added. Such technology often spurs anxieties among instructors that the institution is gradually supplanting them with teaching machines. But the liberal arts colleges’ value proposition still hinges on the presence of human professors. According to Spohrer, 100 percent of Bryn Mawr faculty members who used the technology said they plan to use it again.

Please let me know if you have references/studies of liberal arts colleges that have made significant progress modernizing their learning processes.

 

A Global Quorum for Fee & Dividend?

NewImage

I felt more optimistic for a few seconds after reading James Hansen’s latest Assuring Real Progress on Climate. I won’t spoil your Holiday Spirit by enumerating the reasons my optimism quickly faded. Hopefully you will come back with compelling arguments why this time is different: multi-national negotiations will produce a binding commitment to Fee & Dividend. The main argument:

Alternative 2: Courageous leadership emerges. In this scenario, actions proposed in Lima are adopted, but also plans for a rising carbon fee to come into force once approved back home by a quorum of nations. Quorum is defined so that Protocol initiation practically requires acceptance by either the United States or the European Union and either China or a combination of nations such as India and Brazil. The gradually rising carbon fee would be accompanied by border duties on products from non-participating nations, collected by the importing country, unless the exporting country shows that no fossil fuel carbon was emitted in production of the product.

In Alternative 2 no single nation can blackmail humanity. Once a quorum is achieved, there is a huge incentive for other nations to join, to avoid economic disadvantage and enjoy the economic stimulation. A carbon fee, which would be collected at domestic mines and ports of entry, spurs an economy if the funds are fully distributed to the public. However, the fee becomes a tax and a drag on the economy if a government keeps the funds to expand its programs. Governments are prohibited from returning the funds to the fossil fuel industry as subsidies. Otherwise specific use of the fee is a national prerogative. However, it is noted that equal division of funds among residents tends to address income disparities, providing opportunities for low income people, while spurring essential efforts in conservation, energy efficiency and clean no-carbon energies. Alternative 2 is a challenge, but one that we must fight for with all our strength and intelligence.

I think the economic outcome will be net-positive over a couple of decades. I’m not confident the near term jobs & incomes data will be comforting to politicians who find themselves out of work after implementing a binding form of Alternative 2. What is our best evidence that Fee & Dividend will boost GDP per capita? Over what time frame?

Security’s Wakeup Call

Informed commentary by Ashton Carter (the next US Secretary of Defense) and Yahoo security chief Alex Stamos was recorded in a short security briefing at the Andreessen Horowitz 2014 Tech Summit. My take away from the 30 minute podcast was this:

  • If your organization is targeted by cyber professionals they will get in (this is true of DOD, anybody)
  • You must run your operations with the assumption that the bad guys are already inside your networks

Approximate quotation “The Fortune 500 are the obvious targets. The top 30 of those have the technical capability to deal with cyber threats. The 470 other companies are screwed.” So are, for example, small midwest specialty suppliers, who are being regularly penetrated by the Chinese. It’s so much cheaper to steal their IP than to duplicate their two decades of innovation, trial and error.

On the personal level, if you aren’t using tools like 1Password and whole disk encryption then I have some easy reads for you:

Wade Allison: Why radiation is much safer than you think

Originally man relied for energy on the digestion of food like all animals, but at a historic moment he began to domesticate fire as a source of external energy for lighting, cooking and heating his home. Although this was a dangerous step, it was essential to civilisation. No doubt the environmentalists of those days objected and had a strong case, but they had to accept that the benefits outweighed the dangers, provided education and training in the use of fire was given to everybody including children.

Recently retired Oxford physicist Wade Allison continues helping people understand that radiation risks are radically less than the usual media alarmism. Prof. Allison used this cartoon in his recent video interview, to illustrate the political situation when humans first began to burn fuel outside of their bodies.

Here’s a sample of his science communications:

This is how effective energy policy will happen

James Conca recently wrote Does Our Military Know Something We Don’t About Global Warming?. Therein Jim referenced a Eugene Skolnikoff Foreign Policy essay I’ve not seen before “The Policy Gridlock on Global Warming“. This is an excellent survey of why it has so far proven impossible to assemble political support for non-trivial energy policy changes. It was written in 1990 (!) but remains true today. And my personal priors were nicely confirmed in Jim’s excerpt:

“The central problem is that outside the security sector, policy processes confronting issues with substantial uncertainty do not normally yield policy that has high economic or political costs. This is especially true when the uncertainty extends not only to the issues themselves, but also to the measures to avert them or deal with their consequences.”

“The climate change issue illustrates – in fact exaggerates – all the elements of this central problem. Indeed, no major action is likely to be taken until those uncertainties are substantially reduced, and probably not before evidence of warming and its effects are actually visible. Unfortunately, any increase in temperature will be irreversible by the time the danger becomes obvious enough to permit political action.”

I wonder if a country run more by engineers than lawyers will be able to act sooner than the Western democracies? It’s encouraging that China is making a big investment in advanced nuclear while building Gen III plants about as fast as they can.

Source James Conca, Does Our Military Know Something We Don’t About Global Warming? Many reasons to read the Conca essay. E.g. did you know this bit of history about Reagan, Bush and Thatcher?

At a time when Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush 41, and even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, called for binding international protocols to control greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. Military was seriously studying global warming in order to determine what actions they could take to prepare for the change in threats that our military will face in the future.