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Sunday, November 8, 2009

The climate change sceptic

OK, so you are a climate change sceptic. So am I. Have you heard about exposure. No I'm not talking about streaking across a football pitch or being out in the snow without a parka on. I'm talking about what a rock climber/mountaineer calls exposure. Let me give you an example.

First example. You are out with your 10 year old and you take him to a nearby climbing club where he can try bouldering. There is a really difficult pitch he tries. If he falls there is a thick mat a couple of feet below him.

Second example. You are high in the mountains. You are on a very easy path - almost like a sidewalk with your 10 year old skipping along ahead of you. The only problem is that there is a 2000 foot drop on either side just off the path. Which of these situations makes your testicles pull right up into your chest.

The bouldering situation has virtually zero exposure. The mountain walk, huge exposure. The consequences of a slip are not to be countenanced. Climate change is like that. If climate change is a reality, the consequences are enormous and it will effect your 10 year old in just about as disastrously as slipping off the path.

Further more, If we are to believe the scientists who study climate change, sudden catastrophic climate change is not some remote unbelievable happenstance such as aliens coming to earth and wiping us out. We know from various records that rapid severe climate change has happened in the past. The signatures are in rock strata ice cores and ocean bottom mud cores. A couple of pretty relatively mild ones are also contained in our culture in the form of the medieval warm period and the little ice age. The end of the last ice age was another quite severe sudden climate change and it  ended a blink of the eye just 11,000 years ago.

We have sufficiently sophisticated science to know that there are good reasons to believe that we could cause rapid catastrophic climate change. We know, for instance that there are huge reserves of clathrates (methane ice) both in the frozen lands of the Northern Hemisphere and in the mid depths of the oceans of the world that only need a little warming to start them disintegrating. A little warming and they will release their methane at a rapid rate, accelerating the warming and releasing more methane etc. We know that methane is a far more powerful green house gas than carbon dioxide. It could be that it is too late to stop them being released as there are already indications that the tundra is melting and releasing its methane*.

*Since writing this article an item in New Scientist reported that 250 methane seeps have been detected on the ocean bottom around Spitsburgen.

We also know that ice and snow reflect most of the incoming energy from the sun and that open water absorbs most of this energy. If the Arctic ice melts, the heat budget of the world is going to be strongly and suddenly changed. Already,it is reported that the Arctic ocean has heated up about 3 degrees. If the ice disappears as predicted, most of the solar radiation falling on this ocean in the summer, 24 hours a day, will cause a rapid further rise in temperature. Clathrates which have been accumulating on the bottom of the Arctic ocean since the Ermian interglacial, 125,000 years ago will start to break down.

Despite all these logical arguments none of us can be sure that a sudden catastrophic climate change is in our near future. We can not be sure that our release of Carbon dioxide is causing climate change and we can't even be sure that through some as yet undiscovered chain of cause and effect that we may not be about to go into a new ice age. However whatever you believe with regard to climate change, there are some things which are certain unrelated to climate change. In no particular order:

* The EROEI* for new oil discoveries is declining. *Energy returned on energy invested ratio. With early oil discoveries it took the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil to discover, refine and deliver to the petrol station the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil. Now the ratio in the US is around 3:1 and in Saudi Arabia 10:1. Tar sands with advances in production techniques run now at about 5.8:1 (calculating using only direct energy inputs) and the ratio falls (gets worse) sigificantly if you include the true energy inputs). It is clear that that oil is becoming more difficult to find and more energy consuming to bring to the petrol station.

Incidentally, the EROEI for wind turbines is about 20:1

*Peak oil has been reached in many countries. For instance: USA-1970, Indonesia-1997, Australia-2000, UK-1999, Norway-2001, Mexico-2004. Combining all oil producing countries together we have arguably already passed global peak oil production. Peak oil for any country or for the world is only apparent a few years after it has been passed so we will only be wise in hindsight.

*P10's, the carbon particles of less than 10 micron size are serious health hazards. They are produced by internal combustion engines and by the burning of a wide range of fuels in cooking fires. They exist in the air of all countries but are particularly prevalent in Asia, especially where there are high densities of internal combustion engines crowded together into cities and people cooking with wood and kerosine.

*There can be no doubt that we are running out of oil at a rapid rate and coal at a slower but significant rate. Lets look at measures which will ensure us a source of energy long into the future and while we are at it, lets concentrate on measures which will reduce the emissions of Carbon dioxide just in case climate change is a reality. Fortunately many measures we can take which solve the first also solve the second.

First it is a no-brainer that we should put wind turbines in any location where the wind allows. Allowing NIMBY's to block the construction of wind farms is insane. With the exception of solar-electric panels, energy generation by wind has to be about the most ecologically benign form of energy generation ever invented. Yes, you get some bird kills and if you live too close, you may be able to hear them (although they are getting ever quieter and their sound is often masked by the russle of leaves when the wind is blowing). Ironically in areas such as New Zealand where we are worried about the survival of a rare daisy or threatened snail, wind farms can be positively benefical. Once there is a commercial enterprise on a ridge, there is money available to fence in the whole area and eliminate stoats, rats and cats and weed out foreign species of plants. Each wind farm ridge can become an ecological preserve to gladden the heart of the most ecologically conservative preservationist. Instead we allow them to block wind farms. If they continue to succeed and if NIMBI's rule world wide, the various things they are trying to preserve will likely go extinct due to climate change anyway. Wouldn't that be a giggle.

Secondly, all levels of government have to come to the party. There is a huge amount governments can do, primarily by waving their cut, to encourage the uptake of all forms of renewable energy. Without a government bleeding off profit at every turn, many renewable energy projects would cost half as much with the commensurate improvement in the financial viability of these projects. Of course, reasonably priced, sustainable energy would encourage enterprise which would increase the government take. It would create a source of tax revenue so that the MP's could afford to clean the moat.Link

Thirdly, we can put in smart grids which provide price incentives to the consumer such that the grid is demand balanced to a large extent by the customer. At the same time, smart grids should allow a fair profit for the small generator and for the large power company so that the system is in the interest of both. A system which is punitive to any one of the interested parties is doomed to fail.

Fourthly, we can encourage the uptake of electric cars and especially cars which are simple, very well engineered, durable, inexpensive and easily repaired. If you want the car with all the bells and whistles, no problem but you will have to pay for it. The Volkswagen/Deux Cheveaux/Model T Ford of electrics would make a huge contribution to a sustainable future.

Lets put in measures which make us independent of the fossil fuel purveyors of the world and at the same time take out an insurance pollicy, just in case Climate change is a reality.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Legislation for Electric Cars

New Zealand may not be amongst the top countries in electric car technical innovation* but that in no way stops us from introducing the best legislative framework to encourage their uptake. The best time to enact such legislation is right now when there are virtually no electric cars on our roads and the government has not become addicted to a new revenue stream.  The government could gently nudge us toward electric cars and hence away from fossil fuel cars.

* Since writing this blog, Tesla has released all its patents to the world.  If we wanted to, we could produce the affordable electric car (lets call it the Kiwi)

The benefits of a large uptake of electric cars in New Zealand are far too evident to need rehashing here so right into the legislation. At the end of this blog is an Appendix listing the benefits of replacing our fossil fueled cars with electrics.

There are a number of measures which can be taken. Most of them don't involve dipping into the public purse. Institute all of them and we will be the leaders in the world in electric car uptake just as Germany is the leader in the uptake of solar panels. Such measures include:Italic

1. Wave GST (sales tax) on the purchase of electric cars. This will reduce the price of an electric car by a ninth. The uptake of electric cars is in our National Interest.

2. Do not impose road taxes on electric cars. Here there is no need to do anything. Simply desist from doing anything. There will be no use of gasoline and hence no gas tax and of course no diesel road miles. Avoid the temptation at-all-costs of finding some innovative way of taxing electric cars. Remember this is in the interest of New Zealand as a whole (see appendix below). If you can't resist putting on a road tax, wave it for 20 years from the date of purchase of the vehicle. The uptake of electric cars is in our National Interest.

3. Allow the use of KiwiSaver (pension) funds to purchase an electric car just as is done for a first home. Owning an electric car is the same as getting a pension, except the pension starts immediately at the date of purchase, not at age 65. This is because the cost per km of driving an electric is about a third of the cost of driving a petrol car even when you charge your batteries at the full daytime rate. Note here that the Prius has come up with a solar roof retrofit that gives about an added 10km per day in the sun. An electric car with all surfaces covered by solar panels would likely get about 30km extra for a day in the sun. A driver doing reasonably low road miles would never have to fill up again. The saved money can either fuel the economy directly by daily purchases of other products or go into savings which also power the economy through investment. Electric cars are in New Zealand's national interest.

4. Ensure that there are absolutely no import taxes, stamp duties etc. on electric cars. We don't produce our own electric cars so there is no industry to protect and once again, fight against the temptation to collect money for the government from electric cars. Remember that replacing our fleet of fossil fuel cars with electric vehicles is very much  tada tada tada........... You get the message.

5. Do some bargaining with the manufacturers of electric cars for good prices. Promise them all the government business if they will give good prices. Have all government employees who get cars as part of their package, driving electrics. Reticulate government parking lots with charging points where you plug in, swipe your credit card and fill up your batteries. (see Project Better Place).

6. When there is a fair penetration of electric cars in the national fleet, institute the system they have in Canada in many places where a special lane is set aside for cars with two or more people in the car. In our case make the special lane for two or more people in an electric car.Link

7. As you take over and upgrade the railways, set up a system whereby you can piggy back your electric car on the train for a reasonable price like you do on the ferry, for long trips between towns. Get some of the rail cars that ply the Chunnel. They are already set up for this. Modify as necessary and then manufacture our own. Make sure you can charge your car on the train so you have a full charge when you reach your destination. Put the cherry on the top and electrify the trains as well and we will really be on our way. Put wind turbines along the easement of the railways wherever technically feasible, especially on scenic routs used by overseas tourists. They will love it.Link

8.  Start negotiations with VolksWagen to manufacture the Bulli here in New Zealand when they have it  sorted out or even:::

9. Hire the best, most innovative, small team of engineers available and start a car industry in New Zealand producing an affordable electric car called, of course, the Kiwi. And why not. What Jackson has done for movies, someone could do for electric cars.

Benefits to New Zealand from the uptake of electric cars.

1. Improved balance of payments. The importation of fuel and lubricants is a large expense to our country.

2. Reduction in green house gases. Surprisingly this is so even if coal is used to generate the electricity due to the efficiencies of large coal plants. It becomes doubly so as a country replaces coal generated electricity with renewably generated electricity.  In the case of New Zealand we already produce half our electricity from hydro, perhaps 20% from geothermal and a bunch more from wind and a tad from solar.   To quite an extent, cars can be charged when electricity is available so we enter the realm of demand balancing rather than supply balancing.

3. Increased profitability of our existing hydro electricity generation plants and of any soon-to-be-built renewable energy plants since, by using demand balancing, excess power can be used to charge electric cars "when available" rather than letting this power go to waste. (Incidentally, power can be fed back from an electric car, when needed, further increasing the efficiency of the whole system.)

4. Cheaper travel. Even when charged at the full daytime rate, it costs about a third as much to drive a km in an electric car than in a petrol car. Remember the main function of government is to look after the good of her citizens, not to look after business. Often measures that serve business, serves the needs of the people but there are many instances where the opposite is true.

5. Reduction in pollution with the reduced emission of oxides of nitrogen, soot and other combustion products. Electric cars will result in reduced public health care costs.

6. Reduction in a our financial obligation under Koyoto/Copenhagen as we use less fossil fuel.

7. Far cheaper repair bills for cars*.

*note a recent small item in the Press reported how European mechanics and car dealers are worried about the advent of electric cars. They realize that it will pretty well put them out of business - much like the harness and carriage makers were put out of business when the motor car replaced the horse.  A DIYer of modest ability should be able to maintain and repair pretty well anything on an electric car.

8. Much longer life for cars (electric motors, by their nature, can be made to virtually last a life time) and hence less mining of minerals, less destruction of the natural environment etc.

9. Possibility of balancing the grid both by charging when electricity is available and even more so by returning electricity to the grid when power is needed.

It is very much in the interest of New Zealand to replace our domestic fleet as quickly as possible so lets be innovative, think outside the box and get it under way.