Putting the life back in science fiction

Predictions for 2016
January 1, 2016, 3:18 am
Filed under: 2016, climate change, Hot Earth Dreams, Speculation | Tags:

Happy 2016 everyone!

Here’s what I hope will happen in 2016: COP21 will take force; entrepreneurs worldwide will realize there are fortunes to be made in shifting the world towards sustainability; Big Oil companies will be indicted and sued over their knowledge of climate change and actively suppressing public action on that knowledge, and we’ll finally get on with trying to adapt.

Why not be optimistic?

Actually, I’ll be really interested in seeing what happens to the COP21 agreement in the US over this presidential campaign year.  If it disappears without a trace, that will be bad.

One tedious 2016 problem is that the mainstream American media will undoubtedly focus the vast majority of their attention on the 2016 campaigns, and for good reason: thanks to the Citizen’s United ruling, there’s a huge amount of potential ad revenue out there for them to suck up.  Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I can’t see them getting away from the inane “politics as a horse race” for the next 11 months.  We’ll have to watch the second-line and international media to see what the Obama administration, states like California, and the megacorps do (or don’t do) to implement COP21 or otherwise deal with climate change.  Hopefully, the rest of the world will be less caught up in the Trump/Clinton supermarathon, and rather more interested in deep decarbonization.

In other news, I suspect the weather will get more chaotic, and a lot of people will suffer.  My take on the changing weather is that it’s sort of like the random wandering monster encounter tables from the Old Dungeons and Dragons.  This dates me horribly, but remember those tables, where you rolled a d20 to see whether orcs or a gelatinous mass turned up?  (My apologies if someone thinks those two are political references.)

What global weirding of the weather is doing is shifting the probabilities in the weather encounter table.  Things like cold, dry weather are getting less common.  Hot weather is getting more common, as are wet weather and hot, wet weather.  The thing is that the encounter table hasn’t yet changed, just the probabilities for each event.  Thus, the denialists can claim that the storms of last week are just “normal Texas weather” or similar, while climate alarmists like me can say it’s global weirding, and we both look right to our friends.  A shift in the probabilities isn’t a shift in averages, at least at first.

Still, extreme climate change would turn most of the Mississippi River basin tropical, more like the current Amazon.  When you look what the current storms are doing to the area, you can kind of see how it might get there, with increased floods in the winter and possibly in the summer (depending on hurricane tracks) and increased heat in the summer.  It’s not a pleasant vision.

But still, I’m a pessimist, so tonight I’m pessimistic about my pessimism.  Maybe we’ll see some positive action in 2016.  I’d like nothing better than to publish a book called Pleasantly Disappointed in 2025, and talk about how all my predictions in Hot Earth Dreams were wrong.

What are your predictions for 2016?


13 Comments so far
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My prediction is that the status quo will prevail. People will be horrified by individual natural disasters, but fail to see them as part of a worsening pattern. They will spend their time watching Fox, and reading click-bait articles about the clowns fighting it out to be king of the mountain. The United States will continue building its military spider web over the entire world. The 3,000 people currently on death rows across the nation will be forgotten while we congratulate ourselves that “the death penalty is on its way out.”

Comment by Catana

Well Frank, I think the world is better served by leaving the predictions to people like you who have researched the issues they are predicting about. I will stick with Yogi Berra who allegedly said”Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”
Unless I read you wrong, I recall that the already emitted carbon will take dozens of generations to be absorbed back into the planet’s buffering mechanisms. And that is if we stop emitting carbon tomorrow. Since that will not happen and since a nation’s GDP ranking correlates with its energy consumption per capita, I’d say that it’s all baked into the cake. Our states’ senator, a guy named Barrasso who is owned lock, stock and barrel by the energy interests promised to do everything in his power to reverse the so called “achievements” of COP21 in the next administration. The rise of our own home grown hitler with the orange hair is unsettling but it is his support by the many millions of red necked illiterate racist imbeciles that has pretty well caused me to abandon any hope for the planet. This country is just one of hundreds of regions populated by similar dimwits. So now, tell me again why you are not pessimistic?

Comment by cal48koho

Call it a coping skill, leavened by experience. It’s easy to be pessimistic, and it’s also easy to be wrong. Another issue is that living too pessimistically can have real and negative health consequences, so having a sense of humor about it is essential if you want to live long enough to see what happens.

Comment by Heteromeles

I have been tracking renewable energy generation on the CAISO grid for some years now. The annual average real output since 2011 (first complete year of archived data from CAISO) in megawatts has been:

2011 2532.4
2012 2744.5
2013 3429.2
2014 4055.0
2015 4559.4

This includes geothermal, small hydroelectric, biogas, and utility scale wind and solar. It excludes distributed solar (data not available) and relatively environment-unfriendly (IMO) solid biomass and large scale hydroelectric power.

Using the online curve fitting via mycurvefit.com, estimated average output for 2016 is:

5076 MW (linear regression)
5336 MW (quadratic regression)
4736 MW (symmetrical sigmoidal)
5117 MW (smoothed cubic spline)

I’m going to bet that linear regression comes closest to the true value, because I have an affinity for defaults.

Rather astonishingly, the mid-day solar peak for CAISO in December 2015 has regularly been above where the *summer* peaks were in 2014. Solar is still growing very quickly! I would be delighted to find out that my prediction undershoots the real number for 2016.

What’s your guess?

Comment by Matt

That’s great Matt! I haven’t had a chance to crank the numbers, so I’ll have to leave that prediction to you. What I’m interested in a bit more is the political economy, what with Nevada trying to gut their solar industry by raising their inherent grid fees that every user has to pay, while drastically cutting what their grid is willing to pay for solar energy pumped back in. I heard it on the radio as a “balancing a cost structure that’s out of whack,” but to me it sounds like there’s a substantial bit of politics involved.

Comment by Heteromeles

It’s both “balancing a cost structure that’s out of whack” and politics. As long as I have paid for my own utilities I have had separate connection and consumption charges for water, sewer, gas, and electricity. I thought it was like this everywhere. Apparently, some electric utilities have historically rolled all of the fixed costs of maintaining the distribution infrastructure into the per-unit consumption charge. This is in effect an infrastructure discount for entities that need a reliable grid connection but don’t buy very much electricity through it, paid for by entities that need a reliable grid connection and do buy a lot of electricity.

Wires, poles, and transformers cost about the same and need about the same amount of maintenance whether your household is running a 50 inch TV, a 20 inch TV, or just reading by a single light bulb. It costs more to build a connection that can handle a peak demand of 10000 watts instead of 3000 watts, but having built a connection of certain peak capacity, the maintenance costs remain the same whether actual average demand is 900 or 500 watts.

If you start charging connection fees that approximate the actual infrastructure maintenance costs, and decouple them from consumption via that infrastructure, you’d finally be making rural and suburban low-density living pay its own way for electrical infrastructure. Hurray! But you’d also saddle low-consumption households which tend to be lower income with higher bills. Boo! And you’d reduce the financial incentives to efficiency in higher-consumption households and businesses. Boo!

I am of the opinion that if you want sustainable growth of rooftop solar that can’t be sabotaged every time a state gets a conservative governor or conservative utility commission, it needs to be based purely on reducing the building’s own energy consumption from the grid. Not on getting paid to export power back to the grid. If you’re interested, I’ll write another post about the complex valuation of exported rooftop solar power. This one is already long enough.

Comment by Matt

Go for it, Matt. So far as I know, that approach hasn’t worked for the last few decades (outside of true off-the-grid living), so I’m interested in why you think it will work better now.

Comment by Heteromeles

The “carrot” making distributed solar without net metering work better is falling prices.

The “stick” that forces considering life without net metering is that the financial and environmental value of exported rooftop power falls as penetration rates increase. If we want to make optimal use of solar resources, the net metering incentives should fall with increasing uptake. Otherwise renewable construction will over-emphasize rooftop solar and underinvest on e.g. wind power. You’ll be displacing less GHG emissions per dollar spent if rooftop incentives are too high.

One simple way to value electricity export from rooftop solar is at the full retail rate. If your house produces a solar surplus from 10 AM to 2 PM, the exported electricity shows up as a consumption credit on your bill and you can use those “banked” kilowatt hours later in the day. This has been a common incentive for rooftop solar in the early phases.

Problem one with the full retail price credit is that the late morning to early afternoon time when solar reaches its peak output is not actually a peak demand time. In temperate climates, both winter and summer, the late afternoon to early evening time is when peak demand occurs. It’s when people get off of work and come home to cook, turn on lights, and adjust home temperatures for comfort. Exchanging below-peak surplus production from midday for peak-time consumption in the early evening over-values the surplus and under-values the later consumption. Time of day metering can fix this imbalance: installing west-facing solar panels helps supply peak demand better than south-facing panels, but south-facing panels will generate more electricity over a year (or north-facing if you live in the Southern Hemisphere), so everyone will point panels south if all electricity is valued equally over a day.

Problem two with the full retail price credit happens in regions where the utility has not historically charged a separate grid connection fee. With a large enough rooftop system your electricity bill can reach zero, but you’re actually using the grid nearly as much as before, either to draw power when it’s dark or to export power when it’s really sunny. The costs shift to everyone who hasn’t installed solar yet. This is somewhat attractive from an environmental POV when penetration rates are low and solar is popping up in upper-middle class neighborhoods — it’s kind of a carbon tax that you get to impose on your solar-free neighbors until they join the party — but it’s pretty regressive once everyone who can afford the up-front costs has installed solar. It’s putting a heavy burden on apartment dwellers or low-wealth households that don’t have the space or the money to invest in solar.

Problem three is that the distribution system wasn’t designed for bidirectional operation. AFAIK, it’s inefficient or even impossible to make use of the solar surplus when a whole neighborhood has a net solar surplus. It can’t be re-centralized and distributed to another city to be consumed; it’s wasted and might even damage equipment if no measures have been taken to protect against feeding back. I don’t know enough enough about the grid to say how hard it is to build a fully bidirectional system, but I am pretty sure such systems don’t exist now. Expending more money to generate electricity that goes to waste isn’t sensible even if you’re wasting solar power instead of fossil power.

Another simple way to value distributed solar surplus is to set it equal to the current wholesale spot price in the region where it’s generated. This is a bit less simple than a full retail credit, because it requires detailed time tracking for output and consumption. This is closer to what utilities threatened by rooftop solar would prefer (second best to paying zero for surplus power, of course).

One problem with valuing the solar surplus at the wholesale price is that it’s not recognizing the infrastructure cost savings that solar can provide. Remember in the previous post how I said that it’s the peak connection capacity that dictates grid infrastructure cost? Solar can initially shave a neighborhood’s peak capacity needs a little (with south facing panels) or a considerable amount (with west facing panels) and save not just the cost of generating extra electricity but the infrastructure needed to deliver it. But, as mentioned above, this benefit reverses once the neighborhood runs a large surplus and needs more infrastructure to export it.

Another problem with valuing solar at wholesale is that it doesn’t recognize any environmental benefits. At a CO2 externality valuation of $30 per tonne, a megawatt hour of solar power should be worth $30 more than the wholesale price if it displaces coal power or $14 more if it displaces natural gas power. That’s an unrecognized benefit of up to several hundred dollars per year, if you install a residential system in a sunny region where the grid is fossil-heavy. If you use the Stern Report’s estimate of $85 per tonne of CO2, it could be undervalued by ~$1000 per year.

I hope that simple grid demand reduction, without any surplus credit, can be made financially viable in the sunny parts of the US because that is the path least vulnerable to the whims of utility companies and the only path that can support ubiquitous rooftop generation. If you’re not trying to export a surplus, distributed generation appears on the grid as demand reduction. The power company doesn’t know if your summer electric consumption was cut in half because you started using solar power, you insulated the house better, you upgraded appliances, or you changed your behavior. There’s no “restoring fairness” charge that the utilities can make stick in the court of public opinion (IMO) to discourage solar installation, as long as solar installations don’t expect to be paid for grid exports. There are also better incentives to make financial benefits and environmental benefits align: use a combination of efficiency upgrades and rooftop solar instead of just a lot of solar, orient installations to match real household consumption patterns, invest in demand shifting or various sorts of storage to make better use of solar peaks instead of expecting the grid to become a free virtual battery (which it can’t be for everyone).

In South Australia and Hawaii the simple demand reduction already offers a financial ROI, but only because their grid electricity is extremely expensive. In Australia it’s expensive because a lot of unneeded distribution infrastructure was built in anticipation of a consumption boom that never materialized, and now that waste is being repaid with higher per-unit charges. In Hawaii it’s extremely expensive because Hawaii is the only state where a majority of electricity comes from liquid fuels, e.g. diesel generation. I’m hoping that rooftop solar gets cheap enough that people in the continental US start to see similar ROI calculations for rooftop solar — hopefully without retail electricity prices first rising to Hawaiian levels.

If US rooftop solar installation costs get down to the cost of those in Germany or Australia, large parts of the continental US would already be viable for demand-reduction rooftop solar. I think it’s plausible that it can happen because hardware costs are approximately the same everywhere and labor is actually a bit cheaper in the US. The US has a huge variety of different rules by state and municipality governing permitting, inspections, and standards for installation. A single national standard would slash thousands of dollars and weeks of time from the typical installation. The other issue is that US rooftop solar installers spend a huge amount of money on customer acquisition, e.g. advertising and preliminary estimation for prospective customers. It actually costs more per customer than the actual hardware. There’s a virtuous circle where they need to spend less on advertising once people see more systems on roofs and it spreads organically by word of mouth. Simplifying permitting would also reduce the effort/cost of preliminary estimation.

Comment by Matt

I’m enjoying quite a bit of your book so far, being more of a social nihilist than a pessimist. I’m also a Createspace author – welcome to the club of void – no, that oblivion’s really for me, you should enjoy the feedback.
One book not in the bibliography strikes me as a direct competitor to yours: Robert Loughlin’s “Powering the Future: How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow,” (2011) Did I mention that he’s a Nobel Laureate? It is mentioned on the title page of his book, and I also quite enjoyed reading his book, but Nobel Laureates in Physics can be remedial 101 in Sociology.
The second possible omission is Craig Dilworth’s “Too Smart for our Own Good,” and then of course there are William Catton’s books – were either of these three authors ones you had not run across, or did you find them not compelling enough?
Thanks for the massive and worthy effort to put Hot Earth Dreams together though – I do find self-publishing to be a valiant, though quixotic field for independent and honorable refuseniks.

Comment by notabilia

Thanks for the praise and the references. I haven’t read any of them yet.

As for my motives, they aren’t nearly so pure as being an independent and honorable refusenik. In marketing Hot Earth Dreams, I’m not a recognized climatologist or futurist, so it’s not clear how I’d sell the book as non-fiction, at least at first. Non-fiction publishers reportedly want to see authors with large and predictable audiences. Similarly, it’s not a novel, so I don’t think I could market it through, say, Tor, even though it’s speculative rather than factual. However, I felt very strongly that it needed to be written, so the obvious route was self-publishing and seeing what happened next. If it becomes popular (big audience) or notorious enough, some publisher may want to buy the next version. Depending on the terms, it’s a reasonable route, if only to get copies into libraries and schools.

Comment by Heteromeles

Sure, that is certainly a logical view – not many of us are comfortable publishing as anti-marketers, which may be a silly category, but there have been quite amazing works done for horrendously little cash, and even less public acclaim.
In my second course of 75 pages of reading of your pretty damn assured and necessary work, I of course want to ask about one bugaboo that you raise that others also are prone too – the idea that we “don’t have a clue” about X, which in this case are the coming climate catastrophes.
Your work finds an amazing amount of clues – scientific data that has, not certain, but quite rugged likely outcomes. Unlike the conservative, tenured, position- protecting folks at the IPCC, you can indulge some informed guesses without being shunned at the next organizational confab as a pessimist or doomer.
We have a lot of clues – the basic goal of scientific inquiry – but humans do not like clues that either are not 100% in favor of guilt or innocence, or do not favor a positive outcome.
We may not be able to prophesy the date and time of when our homes must be abandoned to caravan to Yellowknife (Giles Slade also wrote an essential, compelling book about this future), but we can read trends, we can do some logical sociology, and then start to see the graphs confirmed.
The black swan metaphor, for me, gets shopworn and incorrect – Taleb’s last book was unreadable, and all the swans I see are white.
Like your other fans, as grateful as I am for the work, the title marketing department should be fired – there are no “dreams” in the book. It is factual, not the fictional nonsense our ungoverned brains come up with in sleep mode.

Comment by notabilia

I’m not sure I’d move to Yellowknife quite so fast. That might be a better place for your grandkids if you take Hot Earth Dreams as gospel.

In any case, forecasting non-linear trends is tricky at best, let alone sigmoid trends (aka state changes) and more complex interactions. We’ve got a lot of non-linear trends around, from polar ice melting to the growth of renewable energy. We’ve got potential state changes (what if the Koch Brothers die tomorrow? Or Exxon faces criminal prosecution?). To pick one example, predicting when a pandemic happens really is a black swan, because it depends on how hard an as-yet unknown disease is to control using rapidly evolving medical technology, especially in the face of probable societal breakdown in areas affected by the disease.

Black swans are explicable, not predictable, and they’re very real, not a shopworn metaphor. They’re just like lottery numbers: I can precisely explain the mechanism by which we’re going to get the Powerball numbers tomorrow, but I cannot predict which numbers will be selected. That’s the essence of a black swan.

Right now, we have multiple possible futures for the next few decades, ranging from a radical civilizational change to renewable energy to a nuclear WW3, perhaps as the rest of the world tries to force Pres. Trump to the peace table. In Hot Earth Dreams, I assume that we slow but don’t stop greenhouse gas emissions over the next century, which is what I thought was likely when I started writing the book. I suspect that we’ll know whether that was too conservative a prediction or not in the next two years, and so I’m not going to make any firm predictions just yet.

It’s not a matter of not wanting to be wrong, either. Right now, quite a lot of people want predictions that either say we’re all doomed (in which case they can do anything they want, because it doesn’t matter), or they want predictions that say that everything’s fine (in which case they can do anything they want, because it doesn’t matter). To me, it’s abundantly obvious that what we do does matter a great deal, and I want above all for people to understand the consequences of our actions.

Comment by Heteromeles

[…] 2016 waits for the knackers, I figured I’d go back to the predictions I made last January to see how far off I was.  While yes, I understand that I’m not supposed to look backwards, […]

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