Adversarial Electricity Portfolios

Controlled demolition of a tall smokestack.
Controlled Demolition. (CC-BY-SA Heptagon via Wikimedia Commons)

Can we construct adversarial electricity portfolios made of new zero-carbon resources that undermine the profitability of specific existing fossil plants? Some version of this is already happening, but it’s incidental rather than targeted. The economics of existing coal and nuclear plants are being eroded by flat electricity demand in combination with cheap gas, wind, and solar. Economical storage and dispatchable demand aren’t far behind. But how much faster would the energy transition be if we actively optimized new energy resources to undermine the economics of existing fossil generation?

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In Good Company: A Look at Global Coal Reserve Revisions

In my last post, I recounted some of the indications that have surfaced over the last decade that US coal reserves might not be as large as we think.  The work done by the USGS assessing our reserves, and more recently comments from the coal industry themselves cast doubt on the common refrain that the US is “the Saudi Arabia of coal” and the idea that we have a couple of centuries worth of the fuel just laying around, waiting to be burned.  As it turns out, the US isn’t alone in having potentially unreliable reserve numbers.  Over the decades, many other major coal producing nations have also dramatically revised their reserve estimates.

Internationally the main reserve compilations are done by the UN’s World Energy Council (WEC) and to some degree also the German equivalent of the USGS, known as the BGR. Virtually all global (publicly viewable) statistics on fossil fuel reserves are traceable back to one of those two agencies. For instance, the coal reserve numbers in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) 2011 World Energy Outlook came from the BGR; the numbers in BP’s most recent Statistical Review of Energy came from the WEC.

Of course, both the WEC and the BGR are largely dependent on numbers reported by national agencies (like the USGS, the EIA and the SEC in the case of the US), who compile data directly from state and regional geologic survey and mining agencies, fossil fuel consumers, producers, and the markets that they make up.

Looking back through the years at internationally reported coal reserve numbers, it’s surprisingly common to see big discontinuous revisions.  Below are a few examples from the WEC Resource Surveys going back to 1950, including some of the world’s largest supposed coal reserve holders.  In all cases, the magnitude of the large reserve revisions is much greater than annual coal production can explain.

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graphing parking

Graphing Parking is a site dedicated to visualizing the wonkery laid out in Don Shoup’s tome The High Cost of Free Parking.  It maps out visually the requirements that different cities have for parking associated with various land uses all over the country.  Occasionally they make sense…. but generally, it’s a random city destroying mess.

Cars and Robust Cities Are Fundamentally Incompatible

A writeup by The Atlantic Cities of a paper in the Transportation Research Board journal of the National Academies looking at the effects of parking on the vitality of urban centers.  It’s found that the detrimental effects of dedicating urban real-estate outweigh the potential benefits of making it easier for drivers to access your central business district.  Those cities that stopped adding parking to their urban cores after 1980 were found to have more jobs and higher incomes on average than those that continued adding parking.

Has Rosling on Data Journalism and Visualization

A long format talk by Hans Rosling at the Open Knowledge Festival, on the importance of not just liberating public data, but also using it to weave engaging stories for the public about the facts of the world as we know it exists today.  It does no good to allow students to debate why women in the Muslim world have more children than elsewhere, because it isn’t true.  Sweden still sends foreign aid to China, even though China just bought Volvo.  People think that 30% of our power comes from wind and solar, because wind and solar grew 30% last year.  Why don’t more activists demand good data?  Why don’t they use it to build fact-based cases for their causes, instead of seeking out only the data that confirms their pre-existing ideologies?

Note: Rosling’s talk begins at 35 minutes into the archived video stream.

CO2 is not on the world’s dashboard

Hans Rosling, world famous Swedish statistical edutainer, offers some thoughts on the importance of timely and transparent reporting of CO2 emissions.  We all know (whether we want to or not) exactly how this thing called GDP is doing, quarter by quarter, but on greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a year long lag.

Cargo cyclists replace truck drivers

In livable, human-scale cities, a lot of cargo can be moved more efficiently by bike.  The EU is funding a pilot project called CycleLogistics to collect data on just how effectively human powered cargo can be scaled up.  With modest electrical assistance, loads can scale up to as much as 250 or even 500 kg, and stay human scale.  It’ll be very interesting to see the results.