Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Andrew Revkin on Making Veracity Cool

 (Photo credit: patries71 via Flickr)

Andrew Revkin posted an interesting article a few weeks back:

Lately, I’ve come to frame the challenge as a question: Can we foster an online (and real-life) culture in which veracity is cool? You’ll see more on this here in the coming months.

As social primates, we are instinctively motivated to seek higher status in our given troop hierarchies. The word cool is sometimes used as a synonym for impressive. Impressive denotes a measure of status. Coolness is any marketer's primary weapon. I like Andy's idea of making veracity cool, but I'm skeptical it could ever take hold. How would car marketers ever convince us to buy their cars? Although, certainly, he's on the right track in that, if you want to change behavior, like getting people to drive electric cars (or Hummers), convincing them it's cool to drive one will work wonders. 

What I think we need is to teach critical thinking skills in our schools as part of every math and science course, from grade school through college, and test for competency like we do for math and science.

His post led me to Climate Feedback, a website designed to fact check climate change articles. I was struck by how similar the format was to the Disqus comment software where you can use a little hypertext markup language to highlight quotes from an article and then discuss it in detail with links to sources, photos, graphs etc. They also made use of a veracity score which I have half-seriously used a few times myself, here and here.

The first question that came to mind was why the scientists didn't simply post in the comment field under the article? I suggested as much in a comment under Andy's article and interestingly enough, at least to me, my comment never made it past the Dot Earth moderator. So, maybe that was the answer to my question.

A weak link with Climate Feedback is that 99.9% of the public has no idea it exits and isn't likely to ever visit it. My guess is that they're hoping that commenters under climate change articles will link back to Climate Feedback, assuming a given comment field will allow links and that the moderator won't censor it.

Which got me to wondering if anyone had linked back to Climate Feedback from the latest article they critiqued. Nada. Could I really have been the first to check on that or had attempts to link back to Climate Feedback been censored by the author? I wish them luck but the last poll I saw suggested that most Americans still don't buy the theory of evolution. You can lead a horse to water ...

But there was yet another thought that struck me, which was that Climate Feedback had essentially created their own comment field for that article, albeit, with access limited to climate researchers, essentially filtering the wheat from the chaff for readers. 
I recall watching a heated exchange between two of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker, at their respective blogs (neither bothered with the comment field) and I learned a lot from it. I also once witnessed a similar exchange between George Monbiot and Matt Ridley, which was also very informative.

And finally, why should expert critique be limited to climate science? Shouldn't we be applying some of it to the proposed low carbon energy solutions as well?

One should always take at least a cursory look at a comment field under an article about energy and/or climate change to check for pertinent corrections or critique. Learn to skim read past the obvious chaff. Few authors will update an article based on comment feedback. But let me give you an example of an exception. Years ago Andy wrote a piece about fossil fuel subsides:

There’s no surprise in this, but a new survey by Bloomberg New Energy Finance comparing subsidies for fossil fuels with those for renewable energy sources finds a glaring gulf — with the fuels of convenience getting around 10 times the advantages around the world as non-polluting energy sources. [5:38 p.m. Updated The perils of blogging on three hours of red-eye sleep became readily apparent when many comment contributors noted that the most important comparison is subsidies per unit of energy produced. Thanks, all.]

In other words, thanks to commenters, Andrew realized that fossil fuels actually receive considerably less subsidy per unit energy than renewables. This false fossil fuel subsidy argument continues to this day and is also wrongly applied to nuclear energy. You will never find the right solutions to climate change using false input, regardless of what you want to believe, garbage in = garbage out.

I'd like to extend a hat tip to Grist for recently allowing a rigorous debate to occur in a comment field under one of their author's articles about nuclear energy. Articles on complex topics like energy and climate change that don't have comment fields should be avoided. Comment fields help to keep authors honest, and certainly educate them even if they may never admit to it. I learn something every day from comment fields. But more importantly, comment fields inform readers. People who can't be bothered to read the comments under energy and climate change articles are more vulnerable to being misinformed, or quite possibly, want to remain that way.

For more of my thoughts about internet comment fields, consider reading an earlier article I wrote on this subject: Internet Baboons.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The "Does Nuclear Really Help The Integration Of Renewables?" Strawman Argument

Photo courtesy of tracie7779 via Flickr
Cross posted at Energy Trends Insider

What's with the green parrots you may be asking? A parrot repeats what it hears without understanding what it's saying. And by "green" I'm referring to people who, like myself, consider themselves to be environmentalists (whatever exactly that means). To the left of the green parrots is a screenshot of the "shares" from a guest post on the Clean Technica website, which has at least 99 parrots sitting on their wire.

It all started when an apparent shale gas enthusiast (Nick Grealy) wrote a 1,100 word article at his blog about the use of shale gas in France which contained the following rather cryptic throwaway sentence:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Articles of Interest and Commentary--5/7/2016

 Cross-posted at Energy Trends Insider

Green Tech Media


I Was Wrong About the Limits of Solar. PV Is Becoming Dirt Cheap

by David Keith

Although quite upbeat about solar PV (and I'm also a big fan of solar PV), this article generated almost 300 comments because it was also frank about the limits of solar PV, and wind, and to make matters worse, he concluded the article with the following statement:
My view is that only two forms of energy -- solar and nuclear power -- can plausibly supply tens of terawatts without a huge environmental impact.
This is tantamount to blasphemy in most green (whatever exactly that means) technology websites. Which explains much of the action in the comment field but one comment in particular by Susan Kraemer caught my attention. She feels that CSP (concentrated solar power) with molten salt for heat storage is the answer to solar intermittency. I found this interesting because she had recently written an article at Earth Techling titled How a Hotter Climate Destroys Thermal Electricity Generation. CSP is thermal electricity generation (spins turbines with hot gases and must dump waste heat). The irony (is that the right word?) is that I had explained this to her in a comment under her article:
Thermal power simply becomes less efficient. It will be no more "destroyed" than solar photo voltaic:

"As part of Power System Program of the International Energy Agency (EIA), a study was conducted to analyze data from 18 grid connected PV plants located on different geographic locations and it showed a direct relation between temperature and PV module efficiency. The plants were located in Austria, German, Italy, Japan and Switzerland. The study concluded that 17 out of the 18 systems showed annual losses in efficiency due to temperature changes by 1.7% to 11.3%."

Also, solar thermal power plants have the same efficiency loss as any other thermal power source.

So, that leaves wind. Nobody is planning to run civilization only on wind. The future will be some mix of wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear with just enough natural gas to stitch them all together. The fact that higher temperatures will reduce efficiency is just something engineers will compensate for, and the lower efficiency would, all things being equal, result in higher prices, but I suspect the price difference will be negligible.
...you can lead a horse to water.

But the the study she wrote about also pointed out that hydro, the undisputed king of renewable energy, is going to be in a world of hurt. There are a lot of environmental bloggers out there without any kind of engineering background who write about energy issues, and the fact that they don't always understand the engineering principles behind what they write is obvious, at least to an engineer.


VOX doesn't allow comment under its articles. I try to make it a policy not to provide links for (or usually even read) articles without comment fields under them. Comment fields go a long way to keep blog authors honest. Would you buy stuff on Amazon from a retailer that does not allow reviews of their products? Me either. Why should you have to buy what an author says without seeing what reviewers think? I'm making an exception in this case because I'm essentially providing a comment field for these articles and anyone is welcome to participate.

Two articles by Dave Roberts caught my attention.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Terrorists, Nuclear Powerplants, and Snakes

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times a few weeks ago titled: "Terrorists, bathtubs, and snakes."

It was about how our evolved abilities to assess risk (which worked great when we were hunter-gatherers) can fail us pretty miserably in the modern industrial world--a point that has been made over and over again by lesser known writers over the last decade about the safety of nuclear powerplants. From the article:
"In short, our brains are perfectly evolved for the Pleistocene, but are not as well suited for the risks we face today. If only climate change caused sharp increases in snake populations, then we’d be on top of the problem!"

"Yet even if our brains sometimes mislead us, they also crown us with the capacity to recognize our flaws and rectify mistakes. So maybe we can adjust for our weaknesses in risk assessment — so that we confront the possible destruction of our planet as if it were every bit as ominous and urgent a threat as, say, a passing garter snake."
Not that it matters, but I strongly suspect that a fear of snakes is largely a learned behavior. In my experience, if you hand a garter snake to a toddler, she will treat it pretty much like anything else and try to chew on it. You can be taught to fear garter snakes just as easily as you can be taught to fear nuclear powerplants, or not, neither of which is an ominous and urgent threat.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Update on the Progress of the Electrification of Transportation

Graph from Study in Nature Energy Modified by Me to Add Timeline

 Cross posted from Energy Trends Insider

I found this study on Nature Energy, which I subscribe to: Moving beyond alternative fuel hype to decarbonize transportation.

Although I disagree with the study's main conclusion, the above chart they put together (which I have modified) was of interest to me because it suggests that things are finally starting to happen when it comes to electrification of transportation.

The study authors combed through the New York Times archives for stories on energy topics. They summed up negative and positive articles to calculate the number of net positive articles about a given technology which they define as hype.

Had they mined the entire internet instead of just the Times, I suspect the hype about biofuels would have been off the chart, literally. Stories about students piling into biodiesel powered buses to spread the gospel had become a worn out cliché.

They lumped corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and biodiesel into one category. It would be interesting to see which was generating the most hype.