Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/27/climate_change_thorium/

Save the planet: Stop the Greens

Climate change is a serious problem, but the solutions are a joke

By Tim Worstall

Posted in Science, 27th April 2011 11:23 GMT

Comment I find myself in an uncomfortable position over this climate change thing. I've no problem with the existence of man-made climate change, no problem with the idea that we ought to do something about it. But what we are actually trying to do about it seems bonkers, counter-productive even. So how did we get into this mess?

To start with I'm entirely happy to accept the output from the IPCC: the globe is warming, it's all us doing it. Perhaps I shouldn't be happy to do so but that's a very different argument. Similarly I'm happy to accept that the possible outcomes are sufficiently terrible that we really ought to do something about it.

Again, perhaps I shouldn't be but just, if you don't accept either of those two, bear with me anyway. For what really confuses me about what's going on is that even if we do accept those two points, what we're actually trying to do about it all doesn't seem to solve the problems identified.

I've argued at length, elsewhere (even in a book), that the very IPCC assumptions about the economy that are used to prove that we do have this climate problem that we must do something about, also show us that globalisation is part of the cure. So why are all those using the existence of climate change to tell us we must change our ways insisting that we must reverse globalization in order to do something about it?

Similarly, we can show that market-based economic systems encourage innovation more than planned economic systems. And we're pretty sure that innovation, new sources of energy and the like, are what we need to beat climate change. So why are so many insisting that we need a planned economic system to beat climate change?

But that's matters general. We've had, just recently, a number of bits and pieces which show that the solutions which are being pushed on us aren't quite what we really want. They seem to come more from some ideological playbook that I've not as yet read.

Take for example the Muir Trust's recent report on wind power. The takeaway point from this is that it simply doesn't work at any large fraction of the energy supply system. Put to one side the costs, the efficiencies, and consider the variability. It's well-known that peak power demands in the UK come on cold winter's days.

Yet just such cold winter's days are associated with high pressure areas over the UK: they themselves meaning no wind. So we seem to be spending a huge amount on an electricity supply system that will provide no electricity just when that's what we want: electricity. And yes, this "no wind" can and does go far enough that every single damn windmill in the entire combined Kingdom produces no power at all at times. In fact, they can consume power as a system, power needed to keep them ready to go when the wind does pick up.

Why so many windmill windbags?

Thus, in the absence of a storage system, populating the country with windmills just won't work. So why are we doing it?

On the other hand, we've also just been told that there's vastly more natural gas around than we thought there was. This shale gas thing. Now that will work: natural gas is lower in emissions than coal (higher than hydro, wind or solar of course), we can build the plants quickly, it's a domestic fuel, it hits pretty much all the right buttons.

Further, it will actually work, work in the sense of providing us with the power we need and desire when we actually need and desire it. But I'm actually seeing people arguing that we can't shouldn't use gas because it will stop us from investing in windmills. Which, when you think about it, is probably true: building something that works will indeed prevent us from building something that doesn't.

But why is there this huge attachment to something, windmills, that isn't going to work?

Subsidy-suckers always seem 'just about' to be cost-effective

I've also been hugely confused by the arguments being put forward by the solar PV industry. Now this is something I know enough to be dangerous about, my day job involving supplying the weird metals required to build such things. (Just one little amusement for you. We're told that solar PV is local, very good local is. But they don't tell you that gallium and germanium from China or Russia is needed to dope the silicon versions, or that the vast majority of the world's tellurium for the Cd/Te type is processed in the Philippines... indeed, actually collected from the world's copper mines by a near global monopolist, II-IV Corporation. Very local such a globalised trade and monopoly is ...)

We're constantly told that solar PV is going to be grid equivalent (ie, cost the same at the point of use as getting coal produced 'leccie from the grid) very soon now. Indeed, the more the speaker is a PV booster, the sooner that date seems to be. So, err, why are the subsidies needed? Modern industry just doesn't turn on a sixpence, if we've built up the momentum needed to get solar PV to being economic in some three (no, really some claim this) years' time, then this is going to happen whether or not today's installations get five or 10 times the current retail cost of that 'leccie.

The nearer the horizon for that price point, where solar PV will be installed as a matter of choice, the less the argument for subsidy. For it's the subsidies we paid a decade or more ago that have accelerated the industry to this point: yet the near term economic switching point is used as the clinching argument for why we should have whacking great subsidies for the next 20 years.

Why?

I can't help feeling that we're in the grips of that great political problem, somethingmustbedoneness. Climate change is real so something must be done. This is something: windmills and spraying money at solar. Therefore we must spray money at windmills and solar. This isn't unusual in politics at all, but given if we accept the first premise, that climate change really is a problem we must do something about, shouldn't we hope for rather better?

My suspicion is that there have been various people around who wanted us to go for local energy systems, low-level energy consumption, whether climate change was or is a problem. And when political attention turned to the thought that it is such, they were the only people actually ready with a plan. So that's what we've got locked into doing.

Take this exchange for example, from George Monbiot:

Last week I argued about these issues with Caroline Lucas. She is one of my heroes, and the best thing to have happened to parliament since time immemorial. But this doesn't mean that she can't be wildly illogical when she chooses.

When I raised the issue of the feed-in tariff, she pointed out that the difference between subsidising nuclear power and subsidising solar power is that nuclear is a mature technology and solar is not. In that case, I asked, would she support research into thorium reactors, which could provide a much safer and cheaper means of producing nuclear power? No, she told me, because thorium reactors are not a proven technology. Words fail me.

To subsidise one uneconomic and unproven technology but not another, both equally capable of solving the problem supposedly under discussion, non-carbon (or rather low-carbon, there are no non-carbon systems) energy generation, well, there's at least a soupcon of a suspicion that the choice there is being made on ideological, not practical grounds.

That there's a bandwagon being leapt aboard. We might even posit that large scale thorium usage would lead to lots of cheap power and that a devotee of a localised, near peasant, lifestyle like Ms Lucas would prefer there be no solution rather than one which allows the continued existence of a large scale industrialised society. Perhaps I'm being unkind here but that is what it seems like.

In that day job with weird metals recently I've had a couple of questions about those thorium reactors. One was from a very senior indeed venture capital type who was wondering why no one was seriously researching them? Or making plans to build them? My response was that there are, in India and Russia at least, serious people doing exactly that, but here in Europe there was a lot of political opposition to the very idea.

OK, why? Well, umm, however strange this might sound, there really are a lot of people, or perhaps just a few very vocal people, who think that more energy, in and of itself, would be a bad idea. If thorium (or space based solar, or fast breeder, or fusion) ever really worked on an industrial scale it would blow apart their ideal of that William Morris style Arts and Crafts society. Thus they don't even want people investigating such systems, let alone proving that they will work.

The other question was from a journalist on these subjects who asked, well, if thorium does work, where will it all come from? To which the answer is in the beginning at least, from the same ores we dig up to make the magnets that make the windmills work. Rare earths extraction is always polluted by thorium and what to do with that is a right pain. But those Indians doing their reactor research might solve that. For a third conversation was with one of the grand-daddies of the UK rare earths industry. Their thorium no longer gets sent off for disposal. They're stocking it until someone needs it to fill a reactor.

But despite being, to a limited extent, an insider in some of these markets, I really cannot understand why we're doing what we are doing on a public policy level. I just don't get why we're pumping tens, possibly hundreds, of billions into technologies like windmills, which we know won't work, to solar which doesn't need subsidies any more, but not willing to put money into other interesting things which might work, like thorium just as one example.

Unless, of course, I'm right in that what we should do about this problem has been hijacked by those who don't in fact want to solve this single, particular, problem of requiring low carbon energy generation but who want to use this agreed upon problem as a means of imposing their vision of the desirable lifestyle upon the rest of us. And so we go with solutions which won't in fact work because they desire that the problem not be solved, but that we should accord with their instructions upon how society should be.

Which is all rather depressing really: rather the end of the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution.

Another, even more depressing, way of putting it is that the greatest barrier to our being able to solve climate change is in fact the Green movement. For they won't let us do what might actually solve it, they insist that we pursue course of action which simply never will work, like those bloody windmills. ®