Saturday, January 29, 2011

More Revkin

I'm not sure how good a use of my (spare) time it is that I spend between half an hour and a couple hours a day with the debate on the Revkin blog, but that is where the science and policy problem I'm most interested in is most usefully discussed.

I like re-posting my comments here though, because otherwise this work and writing is quickly lost to the blogosphere. Here, I'll be able to find it again when I need it.

This is my latest, in response to this post on environmental communication.


I'm still mulling over Mr. Clark's prescription, and am not completely done thinking about it yet, but two items that I partly disagree with stand out.

One is that climate or sustainability education can work, in certain circumstances, even with a hostile or apathetic audience. This is my day-to-day, so I have some experience. Almost every working day I teach one or two hours of a college class in basic sustainability. There's a mix of students. Roughly a third are criminal justice majors and moderately conservative. Another third are future non-climate scientists and applied scientists and middling politically. A remaining third are either future climate or energy wonks or moderately green in general and mildly activist. The class is required for all majors.

The outcomes are essentially that they can understand the science, whether they agree with it or not, and can write about their preferred solutions, even if their preferred solution is "I still don't see the problem here."

If we stick completely to the science facts and to "discovery" and socratic pedagogy, forming our own hypotheses as we go and testing them against the available data, using raw climate data and statistics right there in class, essentially re-doing some of the science, and always carefully stating the null hypothesis (or logical opposite or giving both sides of the argument, depending on whether it's a science question, a logic question, or political angle of sustainability we're discussing) and letting the data settle the matter on each major question, eighty to ninety percent of students come away understanding climate science moderately well, to the point where they can pass an objective test on the science and write about their own preferred solutions in a short paper.

If, after learning the science, they're still unconvinced, students can still get a good grade, even an "A," by passing the objective test on the science knowledge, and stating in their essay the reasons why they're unconvinced.

I should probably mention that solutions are part of the class, and we discuss nuclear power, "clean coal," and natural gas as well as the usual renewable and efficiency ideas.

I would concede that this takes an enormous amount of patience for both professor and students, particularly in getting students to be even-handed and withhold judgment. On both sides. There certainly isn't time for this kind of work in mainstream media or politics.

The other partial disagreement I have is not with Mr. Clark's notion to shift the debate to energy. I agree with that. But some of the respondents' ideas about which energy solutions are viable seem biased against solar and wind viability. Both are viable, as part of a mix of energy solutions that are complements, not alternatives.

This is related to the "base load" problem. Solar can't make base load, but it can make peaking load one day in two or two days out of three and so reduce electrical generation fuel needed by up to a third or perhaps more in combination with other measures such as storage or electrical vehicles. There still needs to be redundant stand-by capacity, but the cost of the solar capital is offset not by the cost of standby generation capital but by saved generation fuel. As long as the solar capital plus operating cost/watt is less than the fuel cost/watt, then this makes business sense. This threshold is already crossed in our sunniest states, although subsidy is involved. But the price of modules continues to drop, so the subsidy can be removed soon.

Wind can make base load, as a recent NREL study and European experience has demonstrated, but there still needs to be standby capacity. Again, the cost of wind power capital is measured not against the cost of other generating capital but against fuel saved. The total build-out capacity is a combination of economics and wind geography. I don't think turbine prices are going to drop like solar prices are. we seem to have hit some kind of flat spot in turbine costs. Then it boils down to the quality of the site and the competing price points. With subsidy and/or high fossil fuel cost, more wind generation sites are viable. Without subsidy and/or high fossil fuel cost, far fewer sites have enough wind to pay for the turbines and make an ROI. The current target is 20% of generation, and I think this remains realistic in terms of the resource, but meeting the target will require us to use offshore sites.

A .pdf slideshow with reference to the NREL study is at this web site here, under Michael Milligan the author:

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