The New York Times Embraces Fake Science, Fake Engineering, and Fake Economics

The Oct. 16, 2017 New York Times devotes most of a full page to an editorial promoting “5 Climate Truths Mr. Trump Doesn’t Get.” They even have graphs to supposedly illustrate their five truths. As someone who has studied climate change and renewable energy I immediately understood that their editorial was very simplistic and does not engage with economic or engineering realities.

The Times’ view is that it is important to reduce CO2 emissions and that wind and solar energy are the way to do that. They also imagine that batteries storing power are the solution for the erratic nature of wind and solar generation. They particularly dislike coal because it emits more CO2 when burned compared to natural gas.

I have to assume the editors of the New York Times are not stupid. Probably they have a very weak grasp of science and engineering and probably ideology blinds them, preventing objective study of the issues.

Global warming is now called climate change because the globe has not warmed for two decades. The “science” behind predictions of global warming due to emissions of CO2 has clearly collapsed. The promoters of the catastrophe are most charitably described as bad scientists and less charitably as snake oil salesmen. The predictions are based on computer models that don’t agree with each other and that have failed miserably in predicting the actual global temperature. There is no shortage of distinguished scientists screaming that global warming is a fraud.

Even if you believe the junk science of climate change, the CO2 emissions are concentrated in Asia. Reducing CO2 emissions in the U.S. at great cost makes no sense because the supposed problem is in Asia. The way to really reduce CO2 emissions is to replace fossil fuel electricity generation with nuclear generation. Nuclear power does not emit CO2 and it works at night when the sun is not shining and it works when the wind is not blowing. Further, there are great prospects for improving the cost and safety of nuclear power. The Times and the promoters of wind and solar ignore or demonize nuclear power.

The globe is not warming in the face of rapidly increasing CO2 levels, giving lie to the theory that CO2 will create a catastrophe, or create any problem at all. It is beyond question that increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere enhances agricultural productivity and greens deserts. Plants are hungry for CO2 and don’t need as much water if they have more CO2.

The Times makes the point that natural gas emits less CO2 than coal and is cheaper than coal. There is some truth in this but there are other issues that should be taken into account. Natural gas is a premium fuel of many uses. It burns cleanly, it is easily transported by pipeline, and due to fracking it has become very cheap. It is feasible to power automobiles with compressed natural gas, the main problem being a lack of refueling stations. Coal, on the other hand, is mainly useful for generating electricity. Modern coal plants are non-polluting because they have elaborate pollution controls. Our reserves of coal are vast, enough for many centuries, and are much greater than the reserves of natural gas. Natural gas is cheap, often nearly as cheap as coal per unit of energy. But the low price may be temporary because we will become an exporter of liquefied natural gas to lucrative markets in Asia and Europe.  Natural gas now is used sparingly in transportation, but may be used more in the future due to its cost and clean burning advantages. The price of natural gas may increase substantially as supply and demand equalize.

A terrible danger is being ignored in the rush to make the electrical grid “green.”  The grid is vulnerable to a catastrophic attack that could take the grid down for months or years. Our deadly enemies in Iran and North Korea understand this. The electrical grid is powered by large machines: turbines, generators and transformers. These devices are as big as a house, cost millions of dollars, and have to be ordered many months in advance. The most vulnerable devices are the large transformers that step voltage up and down to enable the transport of electricity over longer distances. Vast energy passes through these transformers. If something goes wrong, the energy flow is sufficient to destroy the transformer in seconds. The transformer will melt or explode. The easiest way to destroy the few thousand of these large transformers is by electromagnetic pulse attack. Such an attack may be performed by exploding a small nuclear weapon 200 miles above the Earth, over the central U.S. Interaction between the gamma rays emitted by the weapon, the atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). One of the effects of EMP is to cause a modulation of the Earth’s magnetic field that in turn induces direct current flow in long transmission lines. The direct current causes saturation of the magnetic core of the transformers that results in catastrophic deposit of energy in the transformer. Such an EMP can also be caused by natural storms on the Sun that eject charged particles that strike the Earth. Such a solar storm in 1989 crashed the Quebec grid and destroyed a transformer in New Jersey. The nuclear EMP also has the capacity to damage computer controls throughout the economy and even automobile engine controls. (Military systems have long been hardened against EMP.)

Coal generation of electricity has a resiliency advantage because a month’s supply of coal is typically on hand. Natural gas plants depend on just in time deliveries of natural gas, with perhaps limited backup supplies of fuel oil, an alternative fuel that some plants can use. Natural gas pipelines are susceptible to sabotage. For example California is highly dependent on a handful of pipelines that bring gas into the state.

The Times compares the cost of wind and solar energy by comparing the cost of the electricity at the plant fence and by ignoring the substantial government subsidies and mandates. Since wind and solar generate electricity unpredictably, depending on clouds, nighttime and the wind velocity, there must be a backup source of power. Typically the backup will be a natural gas plant. The only cost saving from introducing wind and solar into the grid is the reduced consumption of fossil fuel when the wind and solar are actually generating electricity. This avoided cost amounts to 2-3 cents per kilowatt hour while the cost of the electricity from wind or solar is about three times as much as the saving in fuel for the backup plant.

The Times suggests that lithium ion batteries costing $273 per kilowatt-hour of capacity could be used store electricity as backup to wind and solar. That idea is just dumb. Take for example a solar plant with a nameplate capacity of 400 megawatts and capable of generating an average of 100 megawatts in a sunny location. Such a plant would cost about $600 million. A lithium battery system capable of storing 2400 megawatt hours, or one day’s output, would cost approximately another $600 million. However even the sunniest city in the U.S. has about 50 cloudy days a year. One or two cloudy days and the plant would fail to deliver electricity.  The batteries would also have to be replaced every 5 or 10 years. Grid scale battery systems may be useful for smoothing short peaks in demand, but not for backing up wind or solar.

Trump gets the truths far better than the Times does.

Norman Rogers writes often about climate, energy and politics. He has a website.


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