The end of an era, And fair fa’ my Collier laddie!


A while back Scotland decided to aim for 100% renewable energy by the year 2020 – a goal that has been doubted despite being almost halfway there at the end of 2015. Now, they’ve taken another massive step forward – Scotland has shut down its last coal plant!

Coal has been a player in Scotland for over a century, and that story has now come to an end. There’s still a long way to go – even for Scotland – but this is a big step forward.


For better and for worse, coal has been a big part of life for a lot of people over the last century or so. It should have been less time, but better late than never. Coal’s out in one country, and with any luck oil and gas will follow soon. Hopefully the rest of us will work to emulate Scotland in this.

In the meantime, here’s the rest of Robbie Burns’ poem I hacked up and sprinkled on my title:

Whare live ye, my bonie lass,
And tell me what they ca’ ye?
My name, she says, is Mistress Jean,
And I follow the Collier laddie.
My name, she says, is Mistress Jean,
And I follow the Collier laddie.

See you not yon hills and dales
The sun shines on sae brawlie?
They a’ are mine, and they shall be thine,
Gin ye’ll leave your Collier laddie.
They a’ are mine, and they shall be thine,
Gin ye’ll leave your Collier laddie.

Ye shall gang in gay attire,
Weel buskit up sae gaudy;
And ane to wait on every hand,
Gin ye’ll leave your Collier laddie.
And ane to wait on every hand,
Gin ye’ll leave your Collier laddie.

Tho’ ye had a’ the sun shines on,
And the earth conceals sae lowly,
I wad turn my back on you and it a’,
And embrace my Collier laddie.
I wad turn my back on you and it a’,
And embrace my Collier laddie.

I can win my five pennies in a day
And spen’t at night fu’ brawlie;
And make my bed in the Collier’s neuk,
And lie down wi’ my Collier laddie.
And make my bed in the Collier’s neuk,
And lie down wi’ my Collier laddie.

Loove for loove is the bargain for me,
Tho’ the wee Cot-house should haud me;
And the warld before me to win my bread,
And fair fa’ my Collier laddie!
And the warld before me to win my bread,
And fair fa’ my Collier laddie!

Comments

  1. says

    @EnlightenmentLiberal #2

    First of all, there’s a flavor of “the transition isn’t complete, therefor it can’t be done” here.

    Second, “baseload power” is not actually an applicable concept.

    But baseload output is not a fundamental requirement of modern energy production. It is rather a characteristic of certain fossil, geothermal and nuclear plants that are operated continuously to lower their relative capital expenditure versus fuel cost.

    Basically, you’re demanding that renewable power sources meet the expectations of a radically different kind of energy generation. It seems a bit like judging the competence of a mountain lion on its ability to engage in long-distance hunts like wolves do.

    The existing grid model is not the only possible grid model, just as the existing sources of power are not the only sources of power.

    But while you’re here, why don’t you check out my latest piece on advances on energy storage and transport technology – it actually touches (briefly) on the concerns you raise, and has some links to materials that address those concerns.

    Oddly enough, you’re not the first person to have claimed this is a problem, and others have looked into it before now.

  2. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Abe

    Diving my response into two posts.

    No offense intended, but your reply seems partially disingenuous. Bluntly: What is your opinion on the possible necessity of energy storage for the electrical grid for a hypothetical world majority-powered by wind and solar?

    My answer, and the answer in the real world, is “yes, energy storage on a massive, unprecedented scale would be needed”. We can argue that if you want, but the answer is clearly yes.

    As for your list of various energy storage solutions: As a general note, you are not taking this discussion seriously. You are throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s a gish gallop. Further, several of your options are so laughably ludicrous that you should apologize for linking to them, as a serious citation, and not in jest.

    I haven’t taken a thorough amount of time to pour over all of your sources, but contrary to your protestations, I don’t see one lick of reference to the thermodynamic problem of EROEI. It makes me think that you didn’t even read my source on EROEI, or you didn’t take the time to understand its argument.

    The argument is that if you total up the energy costs for mining, refining, manufacture, maintenance, and recycling of wind turbines et al, and solar panels et al, including transformations, transmission, etc., and if you add in the same energy costs for backing energy storage options, you will find that it takes more energy to product the stuff that the stuff will produce in their lifetime, or it’s sufficiently small that it cannot power an industrial society.

    I’m using EROEI numbers from the following Stanford paper.

    >On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy
    storage
    > ARTICLE in ENERGY & ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE * MARCH 2013
    > Authors: Charles J Barnhart, S. M. Benson

    In particular, I’m using their energy stored on invested (ESOI). A ESOI number of 1 means that the thing will produce X units of energy, and it also requires X units of energy to make, which means that that producing it results in a net 0 units of useful energy for other purposes. An ESOI number between 0 and 1 means that it requires more energy to make than it will produce in its lifetime. A number greater than 1 means that it will produce more energy in its lifetime than it requires for manufacture.

    As the above blog article “Catch-22…” argues, and its cited paper argues, and as the Stanford paper argues, we need a sufficiently large ESOI number to power an industrial society. An ESOI number of about 7 for the combined solar cell / wind turbine plus storage system is a good minimum threshold for powering an industrial society. And as the blog article “Catch-22…” and its cited paper argues, pumped water storage doesn’t cut it, and that’s as good as one can get right now.

    Let’s look over your gish gallop list of options, roughly from least plausible to most plausible.

    > Gravitational potential energy via electric trains

    And this is the primary cause for me calling you out for doing a disingenuous gish gallop. This is not a serious proposal. This is a joke. With even a passing knowledge of the details of pumped water storage, which you can learn about via the links upthread, it should be obvious that this a complete non-starter. You can look knowledgeable with lots of options with but a link, but it takes me a paragraph to do a half-assed rebuttal. That’s what a gish gallop looks like.

    > Flywheel storage

    Scaled to grid-scale? Please. I can’t find an ESOI number offhand, but it’s almost assuredly very, very bad. This is very probably not a serious proposal. This is part of your gish gallop.

    > Vehicle to grid storage

    Even worse than dedicated electrochemical batteries, which are already out.

    Worse, this is the kind of thinking by a liberal arts major and not an engineer. Anyone with a passing familiarity with engineering principles should see this as a the farce for what it is. The batteries have conflicting requirements, weight and money-cost for the cars, and ESOI for the grid. The batteries are not available when the cars are being used. The cars are not available for use when the batteries are drained by the grid over the night.

    Then there’s some of the more technical details, like the severe frequency control problems that having so many independent producers will have on an electrical grid. There is a high likelihood that this will be fatal to the grid. Maintaining a grid is as much of an art as it is a science.

    > Electrochemical batteries

    Unworkable ESOI of around 10, or worse, depending on the tech.

    Also has severe materials shortage problem.
    http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/08/nation-sized-battery/

    Preemptively: I’m sure you can google several companies that purport to have found electrochemical batteries techs that don’t have materials shortage problems. Often, they are flow batteries. It seems that a new one pops up every year or so. AFAICT, they’re all vaporware.

    > Hydrogen storage

    I haven’t done enough research into the various pros and cons of this. A couple other sources that I found online the ESOI as comaprable to electrochemical batteries, which means it’s a non-starter.

    In particular, it’s unclear what effect that your new breakthrough will have. 3x less materials? Ok. Assuming a 3x less energy cost, we’re still worse than pumped water storage, which means we’re still in non-starter territory.

    > Thermal energy storage

    Relatively interesting when coupled directly at the heat generation facility. I don’t have numbers offhand, but IIRC it’s around pumped water storage in effectiveness. Aka not completely useless, but not good enough either.

    Also, I need to look into this and if it can cope with holding a decent “charge” for several days, or whether the construction will bleed too much heat during that time. The only serious thermal storage systems that I’ve seen are directly tied to concentrating thermal solar, and are good for only approx 8 hours.

    > Compressed air storage with existing underground chambers

    ESOI of 240. It’s one of the better technologies. However, it’s only barely better than pumped water storage, which means it’s not good enough.

    I question whether it can be scaled up to the needed amounts. In particular, we’re limited by existing underground airtight chambers. I don’t know of any studies offhand looking at the availability of such things. I suspect it’s not good enough.

    > Pumped water storage

    The ESOI is an impressive 210 (without accounting for the costs of the solar cells or wind mills). Yet, it already fails on the ESOI.

    It also humorously fails on other metrics. The following blog post goes into some of the details.
    http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/11/pump-up-the-storage/
    In short, it’s not happening on account of the amount of water needed, amount of land needed, in addition to the thermodynamic energy cost problem.

    > Larger grids solves the problem

    Nope. For example, solar produces around 1% of nameplate capacity in the winter months for much of Europe. And there’s this thing called “weather patterns” which means that it can be windless for a week or two at a time across much of Europe. The recent historical data on wind farms shows this. Look it up. With this, Europe would be without electricity for weeks at a time in winter in some years. If we’re going to move to all electric heating, which we need to do to combat global warming and ocean acidification, then this is a non-starter. To handle that hypothetical week, we need enough storage to storage (power demand)(1 week), or we need to build enough reliable power generation assuming no wind and no solar. In effect, the benefit of wind and solar is the savings in fuel costs, and the majority money-cost and energy-cost of most electricity production methods is capital, not fuel. Without super-cheap energy storage, wind and solar are mere supplants, not replacements.

    From what little I can find, the only reason that Scotland is not seeing brownouts and blackouts right now is that the rest of the UK is providing reliable baseload power to Scotland.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    What can we do? And what should we do?

    Overpopulation on Earth is a severe and immediate problem. Contrary to Malthus, the moral solution to overpopulation is to raise poor people out of poverty, and improve their standard of living. (Plus a few other important things, like education, emancipation of women, and access to contraception.) To do this requires energy. Our goal needs to be to raise the world’s population to something like the consumption levels of a European, or around 1 KW.

    Again contrary to Malthus and his ilk, giving more energy to humans does not cause humanity to destroy the environment faster. Rich countries can afford to spend time, money, and energy on protecting the environment. Examples: That’s why America has the clean water act, the endangered species act, etc. We’re not losing forests because of wood commercial wood products. It’s poor countries that are clear-cutting rainforests for additional farmland. Of course, protecting the environment doesn’t come automatically, and we need to fight Republicans and their ilk to ensure that we maintain good government regulations to protect the environment, but again we can only afford to have such regulations when we have lots of cheap and clean energy.

    Global population is expected to peak at around 10 billion people. That’s because they’re going to get out of poverty, and they’re going to do it with coal unless a money-cost competitive option can be found. Our goal is thus 10 billion people x 1 KW = 10 TW. If you’re not hitting this number, then you’re not taking the problem seriously.

    Aside: It is no exaggeration that to reach this number with solar, we would need to pave over several large countries with solar cells. If one wants to talk about massive ecological damage, that’s what it looks like. Source calculation using very generous numbers:
    > (10 TW) (1 m^2 / 200 W daily average solar radiation value) (1 / 15% sunlight to electricity conversion) (1.1 for transmission losses) (1.1 for storage conversion losses) = 400,000 sq km.
    > Reference: Land area of Egypt: about 1,000,000 sq km. Texas: About 696,241 sq km.

    Globam warming is a problem. AFAICT, ocean acidification is even more serious, and more immediate. We have already dropped the pH of the ocean from 8.2 to 8.1 in the last 200 years. It is projected that the oceans will reach pH 8.0 by 2050 from human CO2. (It’s a simple enough calculation.) There are serious concerns that this may cause mass extinctions in the ocean. Even if not at 8.0, soon. We need to do something about this now.

    Further, there’s probably already too much CO2 in the air to avoid further ocean acidification. CO2 in the air and ocean water will reach equilibrium, but IIRC it takes decades or centuries to reach equilibrium, and so there is real concern that even if we reverse course now, ocean acidification might reach levels where we will see real problems. We need to do something more than just stopping release of CO2. We need to pull CO2 directly out of the air of water. The best and only approach I’ve seen to do this is the lime and basalt method (or just a direct basalt method), and I’ve seen plausible estimates that it will take about 10 TW of non-CO2 electricity running for centuries to fix it. So, double our energy target to 20 TW.

    There is only one approach that is technically demonstrated that is available for mass rollout now. All other approaches require sticking our heads in the sand, and praying for a technological breakthrough that might never come. That one approach is nuclear fission reactors, conventional, and next-gen, such as the IFR and LFTR. I’ll spare the details for now, but there is no waste problem, there is no safety problem, and there is no fuel shortage problem. Even with nuclear, the scale is staggering. To reach our 20 TW target by 2050, we need to produce about 1.6 TW of new nuclear capacity every day for the next 34 years. That’s approximately one and a half large nuclear reactors every day. But unlike some of the other options, this can be done. The numbers are comparable to wide-body aircraft construction. It’s a little bigger, but there’s every reason to believe that we can reach those construction numbers, without any thermodynamic problems in the way, or environmental problems, or money problems. Sure, it might cost in the neighborhood 1% of GDP, but how much we do already spend on foreign wars for oil? It should be bargain.

    The only actual thing standing in the way of the only solution we currently have is the short-sighted, narrow-minded, so-called environmentalists who would rather wait for a magical breakthrough in non-nuclear technology than save the world with nuclear.

  4. says

    Will we need more storage? Sure, but we have the technology to do that, and even if it’s not as efficient as we’d like, it’s not hard to compensate by increasing generation capacity.

    Nobody has ever pretended that the transition will be EASY, I’m just stating that it is 100% feasible, if we actually decided to commit to it. That means updating the grids to reduce power lost in transmission, and increasing the amount of distributed power production and storage, but as I mentioned in the post I linked you to, we have a LOT of methods for grid-level power storage.

    Again, we’re not making the transition because it’s easy or cheap to do it, we’re doing it because we need to in order to survive.

    As a general note, you are not taking this discussion seriously. You are throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s a gish gallop. Further, several of your options are so laughably ludicrous that you should apologize for linking to them, as a serious citation, and not in jest.

    Stuff it. I’m so very sorry that I haven’t written every blog post, in full, that I plan to write on the subject. Seriously? You call it a gish gallop because I listed various power storage methods that are being worked on as part of a discussion? Would it make you happier if I just ignored the issue altogether? Or are you saying that every blog post on a topic of literally global scale and complexity should fully address every potential issue?

    And you’re accusing ME of raising too much to be addressed in a conversation? I’m writing a blog, not a book, and I’m talking about ongoing issues one blog post at a time. If you want all the answers in one place at one time, this isn’t where you’ll get them.

    This is not a debate, this is a blog. It is a written medium in which the writer addresses issues how they feel like addressing them. In my case, I like to mention connections to other issues, and provide links when I can, and you can do your own research from there. Would you prefer that I stick to vague generalities? Were you hoping that I just wouldn’t say anything you disagree with?

    As I mentioned, you’re not the first person to raise these issues, and I’m not the only person to respond to them. I will continue to try to address them over time, but again – if you want everything all at once, I think you’re out of luck. Maybe some of it will be addressed here? If you plan on getting answers from me, then you’re going to have to be patient, and wait until I actually do an in-depth blog post on the topic. It’s on the to-do list, but so is everything else. On the other hand, if you want me to write the blog posts YOU want on YOUR timescale, then you’re welcome to go to my laughably underdeveloped patreon page and pay me to write for you. You don’t get to dictate why I say about a topic, but at least I’ll address it. In the meantime, you get a comment response!

    Beyond that, did you read your own links? The Scotland power crisis article clearly mentioned that Scotland is a net EXPORTER of power TO England. Does that mean England is also in crisis? Or are you saying that it’s a terrible thing that Scotland doesn’t generate 100% of its own power?

    The argument is that if you total up the energy costs for mining, refining, manufacture, maintenance, and recycling of wind turbines et al, and solar panels et al, including transformations, transmission, etc., and if you add in the same energy costs for backing energy storage options, you will find that it takes more energy to product the stuff that the stuff will produce in their lifetime, or it’s sufficiently small that it cannot power an industrial society.

    My argument is that we need to transition away from fossil fuels if we want civilization to survive. This isn’t something we’re doing because it’s fun or because I have an aesthetic preference for renewable energy, it’s something we need to do because fossil fuel use has already destabilized our climate, and continued fossil fuel use WILL make that worse. If you’re presenting an economic calculation that doesn’t account for the costs of a rapidly changing climate, then I’m going to dismiss it. I don’t care if it costs more money to switch over. I don’t accept the assertion that that’s the case, but even if it is, that doesn’t change the fact that we need to stop using fossil fuels, so it’s not a useful argument. You address the climate/CO2 issue later on, but not as part of your discussion of the cost. Cheaper would be nice, but it’s not actually relevant to whether we should make the transition.

    Gravitational potential energy via electric trains
    And this is the primary cause for me calling you out for doing a disingenuous gish gallop. This is not a serious proposal. This is a joke. With even a passing knowledge of the details of pumped water storage, which you can learn about via the links upthread, it should be obvious that this a complete non-starter. You can look knowledgeable with lots of options with but a link, but it takes me a paragraph to do a half-assed rebuttal. That’s what a gish gallop looks like.

    Or, you know, one part of a blog post that’s focused on something else. As I’ve mentioned, since I got to FTB, part of the premise I’m working with is that we have the ability to generate more power than our society currently uses, with renewable energy, and that if you combine that with increases in efficiency, we will have a large excess of power. If that power isn’t going to be directly used for something like more electric rail transit or desalination, then the options are losing it or storing it, at which point more methods of power storage become useful, even if they’re not ideal. I doubt all of the ideas I linked will go into large-scale use, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used at all, or shouldn’t be investigated.

    Flywheels have been proposed for short-term, local grid storage of excess power, for periods ranging from 12 to 24 hours.
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-flywheel-design/

    Your comment on vehicle to grid storage implies that you haven’t actually ever looked into it, you’re just dismissing it based on your “passing familiarity with engineering principles”. “Batteries are not available when cars are being used” Really? Who woulda thunk it? Oh right. Everybody. Cars are parked a large majority of the time. Having a grid plug-in for all cars would be a radical change, but that’s the whole point – we’re talking about a massive overhaul of our entire energy system, including significant changes to the grid.

    Electrochemical batteries “they’re all vaporware” Which is why Tesla is investing in home-size batteries? Or are you insisting that we only consider single, massive power storage stations?

    I’m about out of time to spend on this. I don’t find your objections to be very meaningful because as I said, we need to change our power sources, even if it means using something that’s less than ideal. This is a bit like whining about water damage when your house is on fire. You’re damned right a firehose will damage your stuff, but not as much as the fire will.

    And again, you’re asserting all of this as if nobody with an engineering background has thought about it or looked into it.

    Oh yeah, and you’re demanding that I write about everything all at once, otherwise it’s a “gish gallop”. Ha.

    P.S. I’m aware of your obsession with nuclear power, and that’s ALSO on the to-do list, when I get around to it. It may surprise you to learn that you’re not the only person to have heard of that as well.

    Then again, I haven’t written about it in the couple weeks since I re-started the blog, so clearly I’ve never heard of any of this and will never write more about it.

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Will we need more storage? Sure, but we have the technology to do that, and even if it’s not as efficient as we’d like, it’s not hard to compensate by increasing generation capacity.

    You’re not responding to my argument. I’m pretty sure that you don’t even understand my argument. I’m pretty sure that you still haven’t read my links. You didn’t even read my short 1-paragraph explanation. If you are going to discuss a strawman of my position, as opposed to my actual position, in spite of my several attempts to explain myself, then there is nothing I can do. I would again urge you to read up on EROEI, and understand how the above quote of you shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the argument and problem.

    Beyond that, did you read your own links? The Scotland power crisis article clearly mentioned that Scotland is a net EXPORTER of power TO England. Does that mean England is also in crisis? Or are you saying that it’s a terrible thing that Scotland doesn’t generate 100% of its own power?

    This is a false measure. What matters is whether the lights can stay on 24-7. Without sufficient storage, “net exportor, daily average” is not an interesting metric, and I contend that there is no sufficient storage technology currently available.

    Stuff it. I’m so very sorry that I haven’t written every blog post, in full, that I plan to write on the subject. Seriously? You call it a gish gallop because I listed various power storage methods that are being worked on as part of a discussion? Would it make you happier if I just ignored the issue altogether? Or are you saying that every blog post on a topic of literally global scale and complexity should fully address every potential issue?

    My complaint is primarily that you included at least one flatly ridiculous technology. I think that you didn’t even take a few minutes to vet the technology before adding to your list. The link you had for gravitational potential energy from electric trains is laughable. You should feel bad for posting such flatly ridiculous “technologies”. I am surprised that I didn’t see “perpetual motion machine” make your list. You are arguably being disingenuous. It seems quite evident that you just took a few minutes of google, found any link that supported your position, however ridiculous, and made a list. This is not critical thinking. This is dogmatic thinking.

    Electrochemical batteries “they’re all vaporware” Which is why Tesla is investing in home-size batteries? Or are you insisting that we only consider single, massive power storage stations?

    I would appreciate if you took the time to read my points, and respond to points that I’ve actually made. This is the second time that you haven’t responded to something that I actually wrote and instead attacked a strawmn. I urge you to take the time to read what I’ve actually written.

    I said: As far as I know, all “startup” battery techs that do not have materials shortage problems have been vaporware. Tesla’s batteries are lithium ion, they are not vaporware. However, Tesla batteries have a materials shortage problem. I simply stated that there are not enough materials, in this case lithium, to produce sufficient batteries for enough grid storage. The link that I provided w.r.t. electrochemical batteries talks specifically about the materials shortage for lithium batteries (and nickel, and lead).

  6. says

    I’ll look over it again when I’m actually writing about energy storage, and more detailed stuff on renewable energy, but I can’t say when I will have time to do that.

    It’s possible that the rail storage option is flatly ridiculous, but at the moment all I have is your assertion that it’s flatly ridiculous.

    My general stance is that given the scale of the problem it would be foolish to dismiss any potential tool out of hand, simply because someone mocks it as ridiculous, and there’s no question that it’s physically possible to store energy by lifting a weight. It’s not a very efficient way to do it, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t possibly have any use. At the moment, I’m for exploring any avenue to see what results it could yield, and that includes things that seem unlikely to play a big role.

    I don’t have the expertise to declare that something will, for certain be effective, but I also don’t have the expertise to say that it won’t, when people are actually trying to see if they can make it work.

    Unlike with perpetual motion, storing energy by moving matter uphill does work. The only question is how well it works, and whether there are ways to make it work well enough to be worthwhile, depending on the amount of excess energy to be stored. That’s what it comes down to for me – Using a combination of efficiency increases, distributed photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind power, bio power (from waste), and certain kinds of next-generation nuclear (those that have low or zero water requirements and no meltdown risk), it’s entirely feasible to generate a lot more power than we in a given year, and worthwhile to store the excess power against future need.

    All power storage options come with their own problems, and I think it’s worth pursuing “low-tech” options as well as better batteries and things like electrolysis.

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