Climate change: what do we know for sure, and what is less certain?

March 2nd, 2014

In another post inspired by my current first year physics course, The Physics of Sustainable Energy (PHY123), I suggest how a physicist might think about climate change.

The question of climate change is going up the political agenda again; in the UK recent floods have once again raised the question of whether recent extreme weather can be directly attributed to human-created climate change, or whether such events are likely to be more frequent in the future as a result of continuing human induced global warming. One UK Energy Minister – Michael Fallon – described the climate change argument as “theology” in this interview. Of course, theology is exactly what it’s not. It’s science, based on theory, observation and modelling; some of the issues are very well understood, and some remain more uncertain. There’s an enormous amount of material in the 1536 pages of the IPCC’s 5th assessment report (available here). But how should we navigate these very complex arguments in a way which makes clear what we know for sure, and what remains uncertain? Here’s my suggestion for a route-map.

My last post talked about how, after 1750 or so, we became dependent on fossil fuels. Since that time we have collectively burned about 375 gigatonnes of carbon – what has the effect of burning all that carbon been on the environment? The straightforward answer to that is that there is now a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was in pre-industrial times. For the thousand years before the industrial revolution, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was roughly constant at around 280 parts per million. Since the 19th century it has been significantly increasing; it’s currently just a couple of ppm short of 400, and is still increasing by about 2 ppm per year.

This 40% increase in carbon dioxide concentration is not in doubt. But how can we be sure it’s associated with burning fossil fuels? Read the rest of this entry »

How did we come to depend so much on fossil fuels?

February 23rd, 2014

This is another post inspired by my current first year physics course, The Physics of Sustainable Energy (PHY123).

Each inhabitant of the UK is responsible for consuming, on average, the energy equivalent of 3.36 tonnes of oil every year. 88% of this energy is in the form of fossil fuels (about 35% each for gas and oil, and the rest in coal). This dependence on fossil fuels is something new; premodern economies were powered entirely by the sun. Heat came from firewood, which stores the solar energy collected by photosynthesis for at most a few seasons. Work was done by humans themselves, again using energy that ultimately comes from plant foods, or by draught animals. The transition from traditional, solar powered economies, to modern fossil fuel powered economies, was sudden in historical terms – it was probably not until the late 19th century that fossil fuels overtook biomass as the world’s biggest source of energy. The story of how we came to depend on fossil fuels is essentially the story of how modernity developed.

The relatively late date of the world’s transition to a fossil fuel based energy economy doesn’t mean that there were no innovations in the way energy was used in premodern times. On the contrary, the run-up to the industrial revolution saw a series of developments that greatly increased the accessibility of energy. Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding the energy debate

February 12th, 2014

This semester I teach an optional course to first year physics students at the University of Sheffield, with Professor David Lidzey, called The Physics of Sustainable Energy (PHY123). This post explains why I think the course is important and some of what we hope to achieve in it.

The prosperous industrial society we live in depends, above all, on access to cheap and plentiful energy. Our prosperity has grown as our consumption of those concentrated energy sources that fossil fuels provide has multiplied. But this dependency is a problem for us; burning all those fossil fuels has materially altered the atmosphere, this has changed the world’s climate and this climate change is set to continue and intensify. We need to put our energy economy onto a more sustainable basis, but at the moment this transition seems a long way away, and the energy debate doesn’t seem to be progressing very fast. The aim of our course is to give physics students some of the tools needed to understand and contribute to that debate.

So what do you need to know to understand the energy debate? Read the rest of this entry »

Going soft on nano

November 25th, 2013

An interview between me and the writer Eddie Germino has just been published on the transhumanist website/magazine H+, with the title Going Soft on Nanotech. In it I discuss what I mean by “Soft Machines”, and make some comments on the feasibility of some of Drexler’s proposals for radical nanotechnology. I also make some more general points about how I see the future of technology, and say something about the Transhumanist and Singularitarian movements.

Any visitors from H+ magazine wishing to find out more about my thoughts on K. Eric Drexler’s views on nanotechnology will find this recent post – Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler and me – a good starting point.

The UK’s innovation deficit and how to repair it

October 30th, 2013

I’ve written a working paper about the long-term decline in the research and development intensity of the UK’s economy, which has just been published on the website of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute here. It brings together many of the themes I’ve been writing about on this blog in the last few years. Here is its introduction.

Technological innovation is one of the major sources of long-term economic growth in developed economies. Since 1945 countries like the UK have enjoyed a remarkable run of sustained growth and improvement of living standards, associated with the widespread uptake of new technologies – cars and aircraft, consumer goods, computers and communication devices, effective new medicines, all underpinned by the development of new materials, chemicals and electronics. Now the UK is undergoing its deepest and most persistent period of slow or no growth for more than a hundred years. Is there any connection between this growth crisis and innovation – or lack of it?

The UK is a much less research and development intensive economy than it was thirty years ago, and is less R&D intensive than most of its rivals; this R&D deficit is most prominent in applied research funded and carried out in the business sector, and in government funded strategic research. Innovation can and does happen without research and development as understood in its conventional sense; innovation through organisational change and novelty in marketing, often using existing technology in new ways, can make significant contributions to economic growth. But at the technological frontier the development of new products and processes requires targeted investment of people and resources, and it is the capacity to make such efforts that is lost as research and development capabilities are run down. This loss of innovative capacity is not an accident; it is a direct consequence of the changing nature of the UK’s political economy. In the private sector, a growing structural trend to short-termism driven by the excessive financialisation of the economy, and an emphasis on “unlocking shareholder value”, has led to an abandonment of more long-ranged applied research. The privatisation of sectors such as energy has brought these pressures for short-termism into areas previously thought of as of strategic importance for the state. Together, these factors have led to the systematic liquidation of a significant part of the national infrastructure – both public and private – for applied and mission-oriented research.

Research and development are global activities; the benefits of new technologies developed in one part of the world diffuse across national boundaries, so R&D needs to be considered in a global as well as a national context. The declining R&D intensity of the UK displays in the most acute form a wider problem –
highly financialised market-centred capitalism, while it is it is good at delivering some types of incremental, consumer focused innovation, doesn’t favour more radical innovation which requires larger investments over longer time horizons. We currently are seeing serious global slowdowns in innovation in the pharmaceutical sector and in energy sectors. The former is a particular problem for the UK, because has a strong specialization in the pharmaceutical sector. The slowdown in energy innovation is a problem for everybody on the planet.

The example of energy illustrates why the development of new technology is so important. We depend existentially on technology, to deliver the cheap and abundant energy that our economies depend on, for example. But the technology we have isn’t good enough; the cost of extracting fossil fuels from the earth rises as the most accessible reserves are exhausted, and the consequences for the stability of the earth’s climate of burning fossil fuels become ever more apparent. We need better technologies not just to ensure the continuously rising living standards we’ve come to expect, but also because if we don’t replace our currently unsustainable technologies with better ones living standards will fall.

We should not be fatalistic about a slowing down of innovation in crucial technology areas, either nationally or globally. The slowing down of innovation isn’t a consequence of some unalterable law of nature, nor is it because we have already “taken the low-hanging fruit”. Innovation is slowing down because we have collectively chosen to devote fewer resources to developing it. We need as a society to recognize the problem, recognize that current policy for innovation isn’t delivering, and take responsibility for changing the current situation.

The rest of the paper can be downloaded here.

The UK’s nuclear new build: too expensive, too late

October 21st, 2013

Seven years after a change in UK energy policy called for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built, today’s announcement of a deal with the French energy company EDF to build two nuclear power plants at Hinckley point marks a long overdue step forward. But the deal is a spectacularly bad one for the UK. It locks us into high energy prices for a generation, it yields an unacceptable degree of control over a strategic asset to a foreign government, it risks sacrificing the opportunity nuclear new build might have given us to rebuild our industrial base, and it will cost us tens of billions of pounds more than necessary. It’s all to preserve political appearances, to allow the government to appear to be abiding by its unwisely made commitments.

The UK is committed to privatised energy markets, no subsidies for nuclear power, and is unwilling to issue new government debt to pay for infrastructure. An opposition to state involvement in energy seems to apply only to the UK state, though, as this deal demonstrates. EDF is majority owned by the French Government, while the Chinese nuclear companies China General Nuclear and China National Nuclear Corporation, who will be co-investing in the project, are wholly owned and controlled by the Chinese government. The price of this investment (as reported by the FT’s Nick Butler) is some as yet unspecified degree of operational involvement. It seems extraordinary that the government is prepared to allow such a degree of involvement in a strategic asset by the agents of a foreign state.

The deal will not, it’s true, be directly subsidised by the UK government (except, and not insignificantly, for an implicit subsidy in the form of a disaster insurance guarantee). Instead future electricity consumers will pay the subsidy, in the form of a price guarantee set at around twice the current wholesale price of electricity, to rise with inflation over 35 years.

The quoted price for two European Pressurised Water Reactors of 1.6 GWe capacity is £16 billion. The first of this reactor design to be built, at Olkiluoto in Finland, started out with a price of €3 billion, but after delays and overruns the current estimate is €8.5 billion. So the quoted price for two of £16 billion – €9.45 billion – bakes in this cost overrun and adds a little bit more for luck. How much of this £16 billion will come back to the UK in the form of jobs and work for UK industry? It is difficult to say, because no commitments seem to have been made that a certain fraction of work should come to the UK. Given the fact that the UK government isn’t paying for the reactors, it doesn’t have a lot of leverage on this.

How bad a deal is this in monetary terms? The strike price is £92.50 per MWh, falling to £89.50 if EDF goes ahead with another pair of reactors at Sizewell, fully inflation indexed to the consumer price index. A recent OECD report (PDF) gives some idea of costs; for reactors of this type operating in France it estimates fuel cycle costs as $9.33 per MWh, operations and maintenance at $16 per MWh, with $0.05 per MWh needed to be set aside to cover the final costs of decommissioning. Taking these together this comes to a little less than £16 per MWh. This leaves £76.50 per MWh to cover the cost of capital of the £16 billion it takes to build it. Assuming EDF manage to run their 3.2 MW of capacity at a 90% load factor, this gives them and their investors £1.9 billion a year, or a total return of £67 billion, fully protected against inflation, for their £16 billion investment.

How much would it cost if the UK government itself decided that it should invest in the plant? The UK government can currently borrow money for 30-40 years at 3.5%. The fully amortised loan for £16 billion over 35 years would cost £28 billion. Unlike the deal agreed with EDF and the Chinese, these borrowing costs would not rise with inflation. Even without accounting for inflation, the UK Government’s ideological opposition to borrowing money to pay for infrastructure carries a price tag of around £40 billion, that will have to be paid by UK industry and consumers over the next 35 years.

I do think we need a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK, but this model for achieving that seems unsustainable. It’s time for a complete rethink. For more background on why we are where we are, see my last post, Moving beyond nuclear power’s troubled history.

Update at 8.40am 21/10: the Energy Minister, Ed Davey, said on Radio 4 this morning that there was a commitment for 57% of the value of the deal to be spent with UK firms. This isn’t mentioned in the press release.

Update 2, 22/20: The CEO of EDF was reported yesterday as saying that 57% involvement of UK firms wasn’t a commitment, but an upper limit. So I think my original comments stand.

Moving beyond nuclear power’s troubled history

October 17th, 2013

It’s easy to be ambivalent about nuclear power, as my last post illustrated. Nuclear power does provide a low carbon source of energy at scale – if we are serious about decarbonising our energy systems we are going to need a new wave of nuclear power stations, not least to replace an earlier generation of ageing reactors. But nuclear enthusiasts seriously underestimate the scale of the problems that need to be overcome to achieve a large scale expansion of nuclear power. Civil nuclear power has a troubled history everywhere; in Japan consequences of the Fukushima disaster are very much part of current affairs, whose repercussions have spread to countries like Germany. To move beyond this troubled history, to a future in which nuclear power does provide safe and affordable low-carbon energy, we need to understand how this technology got to its current state.

The way in which the technology of civil nuclear power has unfolded was not inevitable; it was the result of the specific circumstances in which it was born and developed. In this sense nuclear power is a great example of the way in which technological trajectories are not pre-ordained; there are many possible paths that nuclear energy could have gone down. What has happened is an example of “technological lock-in” – the particular historical environment in which nuclear power was born put the technology on one particular trajectory, from which it is difficult to make a big jump (as argued in this article by Robin Cowan). This is important because it explains why the current state of the technology is probably not the best place to be given the problems we need to solve.

We can’t understand where we are with nuclear power without appreciating its roots in military technology. Read the rest of this entry »

Nuclear vs Solar

August 13th, 2013

One slightly dispiriting feature of the current environmental movement is the sniping between “old” environmentalists, opposed to nuclear power, and “new” environmentalists who embrace it, about the relative merits of nuclear and solar as low carbon energy sources. Here’s a commentary on that dispute, in the form of a pair of graphs. In fact, it’s two versions of one graph, showing the world consumption of low carbon energy from solar, nuclear and wind over the last forty years or so, the data taken from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

nuclear vs solar lin graph

The first graph is the case for nuclear. Only nuclear energy makes any dent at all in the world’s total energy consumption (about 22500 TWh of electricity in total was generated in the world in 2012, with more energy consumed directly as oil and gas). Although nuclear generation has dropped off significantly in the last year or two following the Fukushima accident, the experience of the 1970′s and 80′s shows that it is possible to add significant capacity in a reasonable timescale. Nuclear provides the world with a significant amount of low-carbon energy that it’s foolish to imagine can be quickly replaced by renewables.

nuclear vs solar log graph

The second graph is the case for solar. It is the same graph as the first one, but with a logarithmic axis (on this plot constant fractional growth shows up as an increasing straight-line). This shows that world solar energy consumption is increasing at a greater than exponential rate. For the last five years, solar energy consumption has been growing at a rate of 66% a year compounded. (Wind-power is also growing exponentially, but currently at a slower rate than solar). Although in absolute terms, solar energy is only now at the stage that nuclear was in 1971, its growth rate now is much higher than the maximum growth rate for nuclear in the period of its big build out, which was 30% a year compounded in the five years to 1975. And even before Fukushima, the growth in nuclear energy was stagnating, as new nuclear build only just kept up with the decommissioning of the first generation of nuclear plants. Looking at this graph, solar overtaking nuclear by 2020 doesn’t seem an unreasonable extrapolation.

The case for pessimism is made by Roger Pielke, who points out, from the same data set, that the process of decarbonising the world’s energy supply is essentially stagnating, with the proportion of energy consumption from low carbon sources reaching a high point of 13.3% in 1999, from which it has very gently declined.

Of course, looking backwards at historical energy consumption figures can only take us so far in understanding what’s likely to happen next. For that, we need to look at likely future technical developments and at the economic environment. There is a lot of potential for improvement in both these technologies; not enough research and development has been done on any kind of energy technology in the last few years, as I discussed here before – We sold out our energy future.

On the economics, it has to be stressed that the progress we’ve seen with both nuclear and solar has been the result of large-scale state action. In the case of solar, subsidies in Europe have driven installations, while subsidised capital in China has allowed it rapidly to build up a large solar panel manufacturing industry. The nuclear industry has everywhere been closely tied up with the state, with fairly opaque finances.

But one thing sets apart nuclear and solar. The cost of solar power has been steadily falling, with the prospect of grid parity – the moment when solar generated electricity is cheaper than electricity from the grid – imminent in favoured parts of the world, as discussed in a recent FT Analysis article (£). This provides some justification for the subsidies – usually, with any technology, the more you make of something, the cheaper it becomes; solar shows just such a positive learning curve.

For nuclear, on the other hand, the more we install, the costlier it seems to get. Even in France, widely perceived to have been the most effective nuclear building program, with widespread standardisation and big economies of scale, analysis shows that the learning curve is negative, according to this study by Grubler in Energy Policy (£).

What is urgent now is to get the low-carbon fraction of our energy supply growing again. My own view is that this will require new nuclear build, even if only to replace the obsolete plants now being decommissioned. But for nuclear new build to happen at any scale we need to understand and reverse nuclear’s negative learning curve, and learn how to build nuclear plants cheaply and safely. And while the current growth rate of solar is impressive, we need to remember what a low base it is starting from, and continue to innovate, so that the growth rate can continue to the point at which solar is making a significant contribution.

Decelerating change in the pharmaceutical industry

June 13th, 2013

Medical progress will have come to a complete halt by the year 2329. I reach this anti-Kurzweilian conclusion from a 2012 paper – Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency – which demonstrates that, far from showing an accelerating rate of innovation, the pharmaceutical industry has for the last 60 years been seeing exponentially diminishing returns on its research and development effort. At the date of the anti-singularity, the cost of developing a single new drug will have exceeded the world’s total economic output. The extrapolation is ludicrous, of course, but the problem is not. By 2010 it took an average of $2.17 billion in R&D spending to introduce a single new drug, including the cost of all the failures. This cost per new drug has been following a kind of reverse Moore’s law, increasing exponentially in real terms at a rate of 7.6% a year since 1950, corresponding to a doubling time of a bit more than 9 years (see this plot from the paper cited above). This trend is puzzling – our knowledge of life sciences has been revolutionised during this period, while the opportunities provided by robotics and IT, allowing approaches like rapid throughput screening and large scale chemoinformatics, have been eagerly seized on by the industry. Despite all this new science and enabling technology, the anti-Moore’s law trend of diminishing R&D returns continues inexorably.

This should worry us. The failure to find effective therapies for widespread and devastating conditions – Alzheimer’s, to take just one example – leads to enormous human suffering. The escalating cost of developing new drugs is ultimately passed on to society through their pricing, leading to strains on national healthcare systems that will become more acute as populations age. As a second-order effect, scientists should be concerned in case the drying up of medical innovation casts doubt on some of the justifications for government spending on fundamental life sciences research. And, of course, a healthy and innovative pharmaceutical industry is itself important for economic growth, particularly here in the UK, where it remains the one truly internationally competitive high technology sector of the economy. So what can be done to speed up innovation in this vital sector? Read the rest of this entry »

Innovation policy and long term economic growth in the UK – a story in four graphs

May 10th, 2013

I have a post up on the blog of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute – The failures of supply side innovation policy – discussing the connection between recent innovation policy in the UK and our current crisis of economic growth. Rather than cross-posting it here, I tell the same story in four graphs.

1. The UK’s current growth crisis follows a sustained period of national disinvestment in R&D

GDP and GERD

Red, left axis. The percentage deviation of real GDP per person from the 1948-1979 trend line, corresponding to 2.57% annual growth. Sources: solid line, 2012 National Accounts. Dotted line, March 2013 estimates from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility.
Blue, right axis. Total R&D intensity, all sectors, as percentage of GDP. Data: Eurostat.

Read the rest of this entry »