Sunday, February 28, 2010

thesis idea: geographic diversity of renewable energy

One of the common claims about renewable energy is that geographic diversity is the saving grace. The wind will always be blowing and the sun shining somewhere. And this is true - to a point.

Earlier this winter, the UK had an uncommonly strong snow storm that was accompanied by several days of cold with little wind. Their nationwide wind energy output went to virtually zero. I don't know of any statistics about their solar power, but it seems reasonable to assume that a few inches of snow would pretty effectively reduce solar energy output to near zero as well. Meanwhile, the cold weather lead to peak load conditions. If the UK relied on wind or solar power to meet any portion of the nationwide peak load, they would have had to take extraordinary measures (like brownouts or rolling blackouts) to keep the lights on. And do this at a time when doing so would cause the greatest harm to the population.

So, geographic diversity of renewable energy production has to be greater than can be found in the UK if we are going to make the power system rely on it. Barring the invention of very large scale energy storage, no amount of wind and solar energy (or smart grid or conservation) will ever be sufficient to meet basic power system reliability criteria in the UK. They will always have to have a non-intermittent power system in place that can serve 100% of the peak load independent of the weather.

The thesis paper's goal would be to determine roughly how much geographic diversity is necessary and possibly to use this as a way to question the wisdom of renewable energy development zones (like the wind energy development zones in West Texas).

It is a very important question for the future of wind and solar power. If the UK wanted to meet the goal of reducing their CO2 emissions by 80% by way of building wind and solar energy, a significant fraction of the 20% of emissions left would have to be consumed by the back-up power system that needs to be kept in place and running on standby ready for severe weather events that only happen once every 50 years.

The solution, of course, is to use excess energy production to fix CO2 into methane (or some other easily stored fuel) and to use it in natural gas peaking plants, but that is the subject for an entirely different type of thesis paper.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

sociology of climate science

A quick thought experiment: If climate scientists were infinitely intelligent, would their results be any more useful for policy?

My claim is "no."

And the reason is because of a selection bias for people who enter the field and sociological influences.

If scientists where infinity intelligent, they’d still be herd animals like the rest of us. If the herd is going in one direction, only a small portion of the population will choose to go the other way. This theoretical herd of infinitely intelligent scientists will apply their intelligence to mock them.

To my mind, the best scientists are borderline autistic (a la big bang’s Sheldon). These people can abandon their own ideas with no thought to social consequences.

And herein lies the problem with the "save the world" sciences (social work, environmental science, climate science, etc). They inadvertently select for people who want to save the world: people who are both highly socially aware and who have chosen their field because they see it as a way to bring positive change.

Being socially aware is a hindrance in science because it makes it harder to bear the scorn of the herd when you disagree with them.

Choosing a science as one's path in life based on the hope to be able to help humanity is a hindrance because it means that if it turns out that there actually isn't anything wrong (that there is no danger to save humanity from) is a form of failure to achieve one's hopes. Additionally, it'd likely mean the eventual loss of one's funding, since climate science without anthropogenic global warming is pretty boring.

So, no I don't think greater intelligence or capability would be remotely useful, but a little bit of impartiality would go a long ways.