Saturday, 22 June 2013

A dash for wood and wind - two medieval technologies, and "picking losers"

My headline is quoting Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, FRSL, FMedSci, DL, better known to us proles as Matt Ridley, author of "The Rational Optimist" and other worthy reads. Greenie Watch has posted a speech he made in the House of Lords on 18th inst. I disagree with John Ray, the brain and fingers behind Greenie Watch, on a few topics, but I'm mostly in either agreement or sympathy with his sentiments. On this occasion, he has chosen not to comment on the speech, and I follow his lead; any comment is superfluous.

Viscount Ridley: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in coal-mining on my family’s property, as detailed in the register, but I shall not be arguing for coal today but for its most prominent rival, gas, in which I have no interest.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for her courtesy in discussing the Bill and welcome the fact that the Government have grasped the nettle of energy policy, especially on the issue of nuclear power, after the deplorable vacuum left by the previous Government. However, I am concerned that we are being asked in the Bill to spend £200 billion, mainly on the wrong technologies, and that we will come to regret that. We are being asked to put in place a system that will guarantee far into the future rich rewards for landowners and capitalists, while eventually doubling the price of electricity and asking people to replace gas with electric space heating. That can only drive more people into fuel poverty.

We have heard a lot about the needs of energy investors and producers. We have not heard enough about consumers. If the industry gets an 8% return on the £200 billion to be spent, just two offshore wind farms or one nuclear plant would be declaring profits similar to what British Gas declares today. That will be an uncomfortable position for the Government of the day.

The Bill is a dash for wood and wind—two medieval technologies—and it is twice as big as the dash for gas of the 1990s. Between 6 and 9 gigawatts will have to be built a year for the next 16 years, compared with 2 gigawatts a year during the dash for gas. I am not sure it can be done, let alone affordably. In the case of biomass, the only way we can source enough is by felling trees overseas. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, Drax will soon be taking more than 40 trains a day of wood pellets from North America. That is not energy security.

Under the Bill,
“‘low carbon electricity generation’ means electricity generation which in the opinion of the Secretary of State will contribute to a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases”.
Shades of Humpty Dumpty: a word means just what I choose it to mean. We are being asked to pretend that the most carbon rich fuel of all, wood, is not a source of carbon. According to Princeton University, trees used for biomass electricity generation increase carbon dioxide emissions by 79% compared with coal over 20 years and by 49% over 40 years, even if you replant the forest. We are through the looking glass.

Offshore wind, meanwhile, is a risky technology with a track record of engineering problems, sky- high costs, disappointing lifespan and problems of decommissioning. At the moment, we generate less than 1% of total energy, or 6% of electricity, from wind, despite all the damage it has already done to our countryside and economy. We are to increase that to something like 30% in just a decade or so, may be more if nuclear is delayed. It is a huge gamble, and if it fails, the only fallback is carbon capture and storage, a technology that has repeatedly failed to meet its promises at all, let alone affordably, a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell.

Even if this wood and wind dash is possible, under the contract for a different system proposed in this Bill, while better than the renewable obligations that preceded it, the subsidy to renewable energy will quadruple by 2020. That is only the start. On top of that, there are system costs for balancing the unpredictability of wind; transmission costs for getting wind from remote areas to where it is needed; VAT; the carbon floor price; not to mention the cost of subsiding renewable heat and renewable transport fuels. Hence, at a conservative estimate, the Renewable Energy Foundation thinks that we will be imposing costs of £16 billion a year on our hard-pressed economy for several decades.

Why are we doing this? We are doing this because of four assumptions that were valid in 2010 but, as my noble friend Lord Lawson pointed out, are no longer valid to the same extent. First, we assumed we would not be acting alone, so we would not damage our competitiveness. Instead, not only is there no longer a Kyoto treaty, but China is planning to build 363 coal- fired power stations; India 455. On top of that, the European trading system has collapsed to less than €5 a tonne of carbon. Our carbon floor price is more than three times that: £16 a tonne, rising to £32 a tonne in 2020 and £76 a tonne in 2030. Acting unilaterally in this way does not save carbon emissions. It merely exports them and the jobs go with them. Northumberland’s largest employer, the aluminium smelter at Lynemouth, has closed with the loss of 500 jobs, almost entirely because of carbon policies.

The second assumption behind the Bill was that the cost of gas would rise, thus making the cost of energy rise anyway. The Committee on Climate Change said recently in a report that:
“Consensus projections are that gas prices will rise in future”.
This remark has been described by the utilities team at Liberum Capital as “genuinely amazing” in the light of recent events. Now that we know that gas prices have plummeted in the United States to roughly one-quarter of ours, thanks to shale gas; now that we know that Britain probably has many decades worth of shale gas itself; now that we know that enormous reserves of offshore gas near Israel, Brazil and parts of Africa are going to come on line in years to come; now that we know that conventional gas producers such as Russia and Qatar are facing increasing competition from unconventional and offshore gas; now that we know that methane hydrates on the ocean floor are more abundant than all other fossil fuels put together and that the Japanese are planning to explore them; in short, now that we know we are nowhere near peak gas, it is surely folly to hold our economy hostage to an assumption that gas prices must rise.

We will need the gas anyway. The intermittent nature of wind means that we will require increasing back-up and we cannot get it from nuclear because it is not responsive enough to fill the lulls when the wind drops. Far from replacing fossil fuels, a dash for wood and wind means a dash for gas too, only this time we will have to subsidise it because the plants will stand idle for most of the time and pay a rising carbon floor price when they do operate. Having distorted the markets to disastrous effect with subsidies to renewables, we are now being asked, under the capacity market mechanism, to introduce compensating countersubsidies to fossil fuels.

The third assumption was that the cost of renewables would fall rapidly as we rolled them out. This has proved untrue and, indeed, as the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies has shown, the cost curve for renewables inevitably rises as the best sites are used up, not least in the North Sea. I am told by those who work in the offshore wind industry that, at the moment, the industry has every incentive to keep its costs up not down, as it sets out to strike a contract with the Government. They will not have to try very hard. Even at low estimates, offshore wind is stratospherically expensive.

The fourth assumption on which this Bill is based was that the climate would change dangerously and soon. Once again, this assumption is looking much shakier than it did five years ago. The slow rate at which the temperature has been changing over the past 50 years and the best evidence from the top-of-the-atmosphere radiation about climate sensitivity are both very clearly pointing to carbon dioxide having its full greenhouse effect but without significant net positive feedback of the kind on which all the alarm is based. The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, and the noble Lord, Lord Stern, both mentioned Professor Myles Allen and they will be aware, therefore, of his recent paper, which found significantly reduced climate sensitivity. If that is the case, the dash to wind and biomass may well continue to do more harm to the environment as well as to the economy for many decades than climate change itself will do.

However, leaving that on one side, as my noble friend Lord Lawson said, the argument against subsidising wind and biomass does not depend on a benign view of climate change. It stands powerfully on its own merits, even if you think dangerous climate change is imminent. In 1981, my noble friend Lord Lawson, ignoring the prevailing wisdom of the day, as he sometimes does, decided against the predict-and-provide central planning philosophy and instead embraced the idea of letting the market discover the best way to provide electricity. The result was the cheapest and most flexible energy sector of any western country.

We have progressively turned our backs on that. Under this Bill, the location, the technology and the price of each power source is determined by one person—the omniscient Secretary of State. Recent occupants of that position have an unhappy history of not making wise decisions. Remember ground source heat pumps? They do not work as advertised. Remember electric vehicles? They have been a flop. Remember biofuels? They have caused rainforest destruction and hunger. Remember the Green Deal? Must we go on making these mistakes?

We have returned to a philosophy of picking winners, or rather, from the point of view of the consumer, of picking losers. Not even just picking losers, but hobbling winners, because of the obstacles we have put in the way of shale gas. America has cut its carbon emissions by far more than we have, almost entirely because of shale gas displacing coal. By pursuing a strategy that encouraged unabated gas, we could halve emissions and cut bills at the same time. Instead, I very much fear we will find we have spent a fortune to achieve neither.

Where Have all the Real Scientsts gone? Wise words from John A. Knauss

Who on earth is John A. Knauss? He was an oceanographer and was NOAA administrator between 1989 and 1993. It was his foresight which ensured that the effects of the intense El Niño of 1997-8 were adequately measured and analysed.

He added a foreword to a book which I have, written by Bruce C. Douglas and others titled "Sea Level Rise: History and Consequences", published in 2001. Its 270-odd pages are well worth a read if you're interested in a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the mechanics of the tides, and measurement of them. I'll try and find a download link and insert it here. I'll reproduce his foreword without comment apart from saying that he strongly emphasises the problem of uncertainty in understanding and quantifying the effects of the many factors which influence sea level measurement and prediction. One particular sentence of his stands out and is worth quoting right at the start.

Why is the volume of the oceans increasing? Do not expect to find an unambiguous answer in this book.
... and this:
We now believe that the ocean volume has been increasing since the middle of the 19th century at a rate equivalent to raising sea level almost 2 mm/yr, a rate considerably faster than that for the previous thousand years, although how much faster is subject to some uncertainty. That this increase in the rate of sea level rise began well before the rise in our mean atmospheric temperature of recent years gives pause to those who wish to assign its cause to anthropogenic-driven global warming.
I'll repeat my title question - where have all the real scientists (including him) gone?

Foreword to "Sea Level Rise: History and Consequences"

This book describes both clearly and in detail the complexity behind the deceptively simple subject of sea level rise, a topic of considerable scientific interest and increasing economic importance. The concept of sea level rise is quite straightforward. Some 97% of all the water on Earth is now in the oceans; most of the rest is found in glaciers, much of it in Antarctica and Greenland. Some 20,000 years ago at the peak of the last ice age, much more water was in ice and the sea level was more than 100 meters lower than it is today. The glaciers began to melt, the oceans began to fill, and the shorelines were pushed back as the sea level rose. The process continues, and the results are obvious. Archaeologists don aqua-lungs and explore the ancient port of Alexandria. Closer to home and more recent in time, St. Clements island in the Potomac River was a heavily wooded 160 hectares when first occupied by Virginia colonists. Today, some 350 years later it is about 16 hectares and has little in the way of vegetation. Pictures of battered beach houses and hotels eroded by waves after a particularly vicious winter storm moves up the east coast of the United States are a regular feature of our television news.

In the early 1980s when the issue of global warming first grabbed the headlines, I was in Washington as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One of NOAA's tasks is to predict the tides and maintain this nation's vast array of tide gauges. What effect, I was asked, will global warming have on the change in sea level? It was embarrassing to admit that we really could not say much more than is in the above paragraph. Yes, sea level has risen in the past; we assume it still is rising, but uncertainty remains about how fast it has been rising recently, and thus we are not in a very good position to estimate how fast it might rise in the future. As this volume attests, there continue to be a number of perplexing issues. There is still uncertainty in some areas, but we do know so much more, not just about the changing volume of the ocean, but about yearly and regional variations in sea level and the reasons for them. Even more exciting, the technology now available suggests that we will soon know very much more.

We now believe that the ocean volume has been increasing since the middle of the 19th century at a rate equivalent to raising sea level almost 2 mm/yr, a rate considerably faster than that for the previous thousand years, although how much faster is subject to some uncertainty. That this increase in the rate of sea level rise began well before the rise in our mean atmospheric temperature of recent years gives pause to those who wish to assign its cause to anthropogenic-driven global warming.

Tracking the changing volume of the waters of the ocean, as distinguished from measuring local sea level, is not a simple task. Many traps lie in wait for the unwary, and not long ago many who had examined the problem were skeptical that we would ever achieve useful quantitative information. It has not been easy. Do not expect to examine a half-dozen years of local tide gauge records and derive a useful value. First, at least a 50-year record is required, because there are year-to-year changes (some of which we under-stand, but a number of which we do not) which are likely to bias records that are much shorter. Second, and often more difficult to resolve, the land bordering the sea also moves up and down. In much of Scandinavia the local sea level is dropping because the land is rising (several millimeters a year in places), continuing to rebound from the heavy weight of the glaciers removed several thousand years ago. But isostatic adjustment in those areas formerly under the ice requires some form of viscoelastic compensation in those areas away from the former ice sheets. For example, even if there were no change in the volume of the oceans, we now believe that the sea level would be rising along the east coast of the United States at about 1.4 mm/yr because that is the rate the earth is sinking in this part of the world. As a consequence the actual rise of sea level in this region is nearly double that caused by the change in the ocean volume.

Why is the volume of the oceans increasing? Do not expect to find an unambiguous answer in this book. Perhaps it is the melting of the last of our major ice fields. That is certainly what many believe, but we do not have sufficient information about the volume of ice on either Greenland or Antarctica, let alone its rate of change, to give an unambiguous answer. Perhaps the ocean is getting slightly warmer. If it is, then seawater will expand, and the volume of the ocean will increase although its mass will remain unchanged. An increase of the average ocean temperature (top to bottom) of only a few hundredths of a degree per year is all that is required to raise the sea level a couple of millimeters per year, but we do not have the kind of historical ocean temperature records to either prove or disprove such a possibility.

There may be better data on why humankind's activities of the last half century should be driving sea level lower. We have a good record of the number of dams built in the last half century and the amount of water they control. These dams change the historical flow of water from land to rivers and on to the ocean, and one can make educated guesses whether this should either increase or decrease the rate at which water reaches the ocean. Apparently, the largest single effect is the loss of water from behind the dam which leaches out of the bottom and back into groundwater. This water never makes it to farmland, homes, or industry, nor does it evaporate, later to fall as rain. This water completely bypasses the ocean. A strong case can be made that the rate at which the volume of dammed water is increasing, and thus the rate at which this water is bypassing the usual cycle, is equivalent to a decrease in sea level of possibly many tenths of a millimeter per year.

The rate of change of sea level varies from year to year and place to place. Evidence of past El Niños can clearly be seen in the long-term tidal records of San Diego and San Francisco. Year-to-year changes in the intensity of the wind-driven circulation in the North Atlantic are captured in the yearly changes in mean sea level recorded by tide gauges along the U.S. east coast. With the significant increase in tide gauge accuracy, not the least of which is the removal of the earth movement problem with the availability of GPS, one can expect tide gauges to contribute to an ever-increasing array of geophysical problems.

And finally, if sea level continues to rise, if it is indeed rising at a more rapid rate now than it was a century ago, and if, as some suggest, that rate of rise will increase as a consequence of global warming, what effect will this rising sea level have on society? To those who live in the Ganges delta of Bangladesh, on coral atolls in the Pacific, or below sea level in The Netherlands, this subject holds special interest. One estimate has some 100 million of us living within one meter of sea level. I expect they will be among those most interested in the latest news on this subject.

John A. Knauss

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Sea-level in Australia and the Southern Oscillation Index

I've read a fair bit about the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) over the years, about how much ENSO (El Niño/La Niña Southern Oscillation) affects sea-level in the Pacific. I've noted effects, particularly the El Niño "dip" in the western and central Pacific, and the corresponding "spike" in the east (especially the US Pacific shore). However, my impression was that it was just the extremes, El Niño and the less-well defined La Niña that had any real effect on Pacific sea-level. Before I continue, it's worthwhile quoting what Australia's Bureau of Meteorology has to say about the SOI; it's succinct and informative:
The Southern Oscillation Index, or SOI, gives an indication of the development and intensity of El Niño or La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean. The SOI is calculated using the pressure differences between Tahiti and Darwin.
Sustained negative values of the SOI below −8 often indicate El Niño episodes. These negative values are usually accompanied by sustained warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, a decrease in the strength of the Pacific Trade Winds, and a reduction in winter and spring rainfall over much of eastern Australia and the Top End. You can read more about historical El Niño events and their effect on Australia in the Detailed analysis of past El Niño events.
Sustainted [sic] positive values of the SOI above +8 are typical of a La Niña episode. They are associated with stronger Pacific trade winds and warmer sea temperatures to the north of Australia. Waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become cooler during this time. Together these give an increased probability that eastern and northern Australia will be wetter than normal. You can read more about historical La Niña events and their effect on Australia in the Detailed analysis of past La Niña events. 
The ENSO Wrap-Up includes the latest 30-day SOI value, as well as other information on indicators of El Niño and La Niña events.
 The graph below shows monthly values of the SOI in recent years.

On the following page they have links to data tables; Wanting to create a spreadsheet of monthly SOI values (from 1876!) I was dismayed to find the table to be structured as years down and months across. However, using Excel's Copy and Paste-Special/Transpose functions I was able to do it, laboriously year by year. Here's the result for 1959 to May 2013. The reason for the not-so-obvious start year will become obvious very soon.

SOI index 1959-2013    Data source: BOM

I've added a 25-month (2 year) centred moving average to smooth out the spikes without suppressing the signal. A 13-month MA would seem to be more appropriate, but gives too "lumpy" a trace; a 37-month MA smooths just too much. Like Goldilocks' porridge the 25-month MA is "just right".

Comparing the SOI plot with a sea-level plot is easy, but I wondered if I could add the SOI to a sea-level chart in some way. One problem is that the signal is relatively small, and the other is that it varies around a (flat, obviously) zero value. I hit on the wheeze of "magnifying" the SOI signal, and normalising the start of the SOI moving average with the start of the sea-level moving average, incrementing the magnified SOI by the monthly sea-level-trend increment. I tried a factor of 10 for magnification, on the basis that the SOI signal is based on air pressure at sea level, and one hPa change leads to a 10 mm sea-level change (in the opposite direction). My assumption may not have had much maths behind it, but the "porridge effect" operated and it was "just right". Here's the result for Darwin:

Darwin complete sea-level record 1959-2012       Data source: BOM/NTC

I don't now what you think, but I'd call that a rather good correlation, especially over the right-hand half of the chart. Here's one for Fremantle over the same period.

Fremantle sea-level 1959-2013  Data source: BOM/NTC

For both Darwin and Fremantle, note that the recent (since 1994) sharp upward trend has begun a downward reverse, more clearly predicted on the SOI chart which extends to last month (May 2013). The large and broad downward bulge around 1983 corresponds with the intense (some would say most intense on record) El Niño of 1982-3. It shows up well on the 25m MA sea-level plot for Darwin (and most Australian stations), but sea-level rose at Fremantle during that event. All the other El Niños show up on both charts; the broad low during the early 1990s (1991-2 and 1994-5 El Niños, with just 1993 between) and the intense but shorter 1997-8 El Niño. The 2010 El Niño was a more subdued affair.

I think it's clear that the SOI doesn't just affect variations in sea-level, it drives them, at least on the west coast of Australia. In a future post I'll look at other Oz stations for correlation, and where correlation is poor, explore possible reasons.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Damp Data from Down Under - Australian Sea Level Update

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology finally go their act together and published sea-level data (to the end of 2012) at the end of May. Prior to that, the latest data (other than for the newer ABSLMP stations) was to the end of 2010. I've been hard at work updating and expanding my database, and will update my reference page soon. In the meantime, I present charts for the two long-term "poster-children", Fremantle and Sydney. Both much analysed, much discussed, and often misrepresented. A certain Andrea Boretti spent many hours, produced many spreadsheets and charts, wrote many pages, and tortured the Sydney data at length until it confessed that there wasn't much of note going on there - in other words, there was no sign of any significant acceleration in the rate of rise.

In my humble opinion, if your intention is to analyse the rate to identify any significant change, then do just that. There's no need for "sliding windows", spectral analysis, polynomial curve-fitting or anything else. For example, calculate the rate from the start year to a succession of years, e.g. 1900-1910, 1900-1911, and so on to the last year of data. I've made it a standard analysis in almost all of my spreadsheets, and shown examples in a number of posts. While the amount of variation in the long-term rate reduces with the data length, significant year-to-year changes are still clearly represented in addition to longer-period change. Here's the chart for Sydney - I've used a 121-month (10-year) centred running mean. The rate has increased a little from the previous chart's 0.89 mm/year (to 2010).

Sydney, NSW - Sea level 1914-2012  (Data source: BOM)

The plot of the annual rate shows a break in slope at 1997, and a small increase thereafter.

Sydney, NSW - trend in mm/year from date on lower axis.

Fremantle has seen a definite change after 1994 - the running mean shows an uptick after then. This is not surprising, all West and North-West Australia stations show similar upticks, an acceleration in fact; in the Fremantle case after around 40 years of little change, even a slight reduction after the middle 70's.

Fremantle. WA - Sea-level 1897-2012   (Data source: BOM)

The long-term trend plot reflects the change, with a break in slope at 1994, and an increasing upward trend after 1998.

Fremantle. WA - trend in mm/year from date on lower axis.

There are those who would have you believe that nothing of the sort has happened; "situation normal, no change", but the evidence is clear. More on this in a post in preparation. However, the fairly sharp increase in rate over the last couple of decades around the west of Oz and the far-western Pacific in general is matched by virtually no change on the eastern shores - North and South America, and little or no change in the central Pacific. It's quite clear to me that what the satellites have recorded over the last 20 years is fairly accurate - those who would have you believe otherwise never actually compare tide-gauge data for exactly the same period as the satellite timespan. If you've seen such claims, check out what was actually compared - nothing, just a few longer-term charts produced. "See, there's no comparison!" they say, when they've done no comparison whatsoever. More (in detail, with real comparisons) on that in a future post too.