Global Warming: FOXNews Posts a Statistically Significant Inaccuracy

“Global Warming in Last 15 Years Insignificant, U.K.’s Top Climate Scientist Admits.” That was the rather shocking headline of an article that appeared on the FOXNews site yesterday. The “top climate scientist” in question was Phil Jones, former head of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia. The banner beneath the headline elaborates:

The embattled ex-head of the research center at the heart of the Climate-gate scandal dropped a bombshell over the weekend, admitting in an interview with the BBC that there has been no global warming over the past 15 years.

One can only assume the journalist who composed the headline acted out of ignorance rather than malice, as the mistake is “corrected” a few paragraphs into the article:

In response to the question, “do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically significant global warming?”, Jones said yes, adding that the average increase of 0.12C per year over that time period “is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.”

Apparently the layers of editors at Fox have a less than exemplary understanding of statistics.  They should, perhaps, learn something about them if they intend to continue writing articles about global warming.

Whither Nuclear Power?

Carl at Chicago Boyz has some interesting insights on the future prospects for nuclear power.  According to his latest,

While there has been talk of a nuclear “renaissance” in the media for years, it is mostly hype. Existing nuclear plants in the US are running at a high capacity factor and making money for their owners, but there has been little tangible investment in new nuclear plants in the US.

One giant barrier to building new nuclear plants in the US is financing. We haven’t built a new nuclear plant in the US in decades so no one really knows what it will cost (and it depends on which design is chosen) but it is safe to assume that they will cost more than $8-10B each. Given that the entire market capitalization of most US electric utilities is smaller than this figure, as I discussed in this post in June of 2009, the idea that new nuclear plants would be built in large numbers was a pipe dream.

Read the whole article and some of the outstanding comments as well.  For example, one of the nuclear engineers working on the new starts in Texas writes,

First, let’s understand the nature of the loan guarantees. I’m a nuclear engineer who has been involved with the South Texas Project’s new reactor plans since near the beginning.

The loan guarantees do not guarantee against technical risk. They only cover subsequent GOVERNMENT actions. In the last batch, investors lost billions due to capricous government actions either to delay or prevent startup. Once the NRC issues a “combined operating license” (COL) per 10CFR52, the guarantee is to kick in so that no county government or state agency (or feds) can block construction and completion. When a number is given on the amount of loan guarantees, that is NOT the money that has to be spent. It is merely the exposure of default. Each applicant for a guarantee has to pay an upfront fee like an insurance premium to the government based on the expected risk of default. Basically, the federal government is acting as an insurance company, collecting premiums and covering specific risks.

THAT’S ALL WE NEED! Get government and politics out of the way and we can build and run new nuclear power plants in the country.

As you will see if you read the article, Carl is extremely pessimistic about the possibility of a nuclear “renaissance.”  Unless we can find a rational way to deal with lawyers, NIMBYs, and multiple layers of redundant government regulation, he’s probably right.  He summarizes the countries energy picture as follows:

– new drilling technologies are making natural gas in the US cheaper, which makes other types of investment (nuclear, coal) less financially feasible
– while many companies were potential investors in new nuclear plants, only one (Southern Company) was really feasible, and they seem to be first out of the gate (woe to their shareholders, however)
– NRG jumped out first with their Texas plant but it is looking like they are going to pull the plug on that under-capitalized effort
– the Federal government is continuing to be completely inept in their activities 1) unable to disburse stimulus funds, as predicted 2) no plan for waste after abandoning Yucca Mountain 3) can’t figure out what to do about “clean coal” projects after spending over $1B in Illinois and 7 years to boot
– not covered here is cap and trade, which needs its own post to do it justice. It looks like the recent change in the senate will stop this in its tracks, but legal efforts to stop the EPA from implementing new draconian rules continues

As Carl says, the key problem when it comes to nuclear startups is the “giant barrier” of cost.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but a suggestion by one of the other commenters seems to make sense:

One way of solving the quick problem is to use smaller units manufactured offsite. E.G. Babcox and Wilcox, proposes self contained reactors producing 100 — 250 MWe. The site would be prepared, the reactor could then manufactured in a factory and brought in by train or barge. Once at the site the reactor could be hooked up to the system and started up quickly.

There’s an excellent article on small nuclear reactors at the World Nuclear Association website.  Carl plans to take a closer look at the cost issue in a later post, but, if new conventional plants really cost “more than $8 to $10 billion each,” small reactors look very competitive.  After all, a complete Virginia class nuclear submarine only costs $1.8B.  Why not just build a whole fleet of dummy nuclear submarines, float them out beyond the territorial limit, and hook them up to the grid with extension cords?  It would knock out the lawyers and the NIMBYs at one blow!

Climategate and the Inevitable Opacity of Scientific Software

Shannon Love at Chicago Boyz picked up on an interesting article in the Guardian about scientific software.  I thought I would add my two cents worth, as I’ve written large scientific computer codes myself.  The quote she included in her post sums up the article pretty well:

Computer code is also at the heart of a scientific issue. One of the key features of science is deniability: if you erect a theory and someone produces evidence that it is wrong, then it falls. This is how science works: by openness, by publishing minute details of an experiment, some mathematical equations or a simulation; by doing this you embrace deniability. This does not seem to have happened in climate research. Many researchers have refused to release their computer programs — even though they are still in existence and not subject to commercial agreements.

Shannon adds,

Keeping scientific software secret destroys reproducibility. If you have two or more programs whose internals are unknown, how do you know why they agree or disagree on their final outputs? Perhaps they disagree because one made an error the other did not or perhaps they agree because they both make the same error. You can never know if you have actually reproduced someone else’s work unless you know exactly how they got the answer they did. There is no compelling reason to keep scientific software secret. In the case of science upon which we base public policy on whose outcomes the lives of millions may depend, such secrecy could be lethal.

In fact, scientists do have reasons for keeping their software secret, although they may not seem compelling to the layman.  For example, good algorithms can form the basis of software Toolkits designed for Matlab and similar products.  As such, they can be quite lucrative.  Many scientists make a living by selling the rights to their proprietary software products.  Many of them fear, rightly or wrongly, that others in their field might use their intellectual property to beat them to the punch in publishing important results.  For that matter, some of them may be reticent to allow others to see their code for the reasons cited by one of Shannon’s commenters:

The worst, most amateurish code I have ever seen is that produced by scientists. Control flow like a bowl of spaghetti, global variables everywhere. A nightmare to understand, as that poor programmer in the Hadley CRU noted in his in-line comments – so, perfect ground for hiding little ‘adjustments’ and ‘tweeks’.

In fact, there are some elegant scientific computer codes, but I’ve seen some pretty lame ones, as well.  It’s true that, in general, computational scientists are not trained as software engineers, and it shows.

One could cite many other plausible reasons for keeping source code secret.  Shannon indulges in a bit of hyperbole when she claims such secrecy is potentially “lethal.”  A lack of food can be lethal, too, but that doesn’t mean farmers are immoral for not giving it away free.

That said, I generally agree with the argument that secrecy destroys reproducibility.  It is possible to let others run scientific codes without revealing the source code, but that can hardly serve as a proof that the code is correctly written, and contains no bugs.  However, the idea that big scientific codes would be significantly more credible and trustworthy if the source code were freely available is probably too optimistic.

The problem is that scientific software is usually complex, and often contains tens or hundreds of thousands of lines of code.  Big packages with lots of modules can run into the millions.  To understand the mathematics implemented in the codes, one must have a good grasp, not only of the math used to express the underlying physical theories, but of the numerical math used to approximate it on the computer as well.  Often, only a handful of scientists will have enough insight into both to be able to make sense of the source code.  Even for them, reading all those lines of code would be a Herculean task if they hadn’t been involved in the development process from the start.  As a result, nothing is easier than for a computational physicist to snow other scientists, not to mention the general public, about the validity of large codes.  It’s simply impractical to expect that “reproducibility” will work the same way for big scientific software packages as it does for physical experiments.  To a large extent, confidence in a given code must be a matter of trust, based on such things as the reputation of the code developer, demonstrated ability to predict results, results that are not “unphysical,” etc.   Scientific codes have proven extremely useful in practice, greatly expanding our physical understanding and underpinning the rapid technological progress we have witnessed in recent decades.  However, we must understand their limitations.

Those who would deny the value of scientific computation should look at a an MRI scan, or one of the images returned by a deep space probe, or, for that matter, one of the animated movies released by Dreamworks or Lucasfilm.  The amount of number crunching necessary to produce them would boggle your mind.  Those pretty pictures are often created with quite accurate physical models of the absorption, emission and scattering of light photons.  The applications of computational models in industry are innumerable.  Obviously, they must be at least somewhat accurate, or the technological and industrial processes that depend on them would fail.

 Of course, a prime target of many of the recent aspersions cast on scientific computing are the climate models used to study global warming.  According to the Guardian article:

One of the spinoffs from the emails and documents that were leaked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia is the light that was shone on the role of program code in climate research. There is a particularly revealing set of “README” documents that were produced by a programmer at UEA apparently known as “Harry”. The documents indicate someone struggling with undocumented, baroque code and missing data – this, in something which forms part of one of the three major climate databases used by researchers throughout the world.

It would not surprise me if this were true.  In any case, climate models must somehow meet the seemingly impossible challenge of dealing with a problem with billions of degrees of freedom, incomplete and occasionally inaccurate input data, and incomplete knowledge of the relevant physics.  No computer, available now or likely to be available any time in the foreseeable future, will be able to solve a “full physics” model of the problem in all its complexity.  Physical approximations, some of them quite crude, are necessary to make the problem even reasonably tractable.  Climatologists are similar to scientists in many other fields in that they tend to gloss over the implications of these approximations.  In many cases, they probably honestly believe their models have more predictive value than is warranted by the underlying assumptions.  In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that, whether because of scientific hubris or pure arrogance, they have so often succeeded in shooting themselves in the foot, as in the recent IPCC and Climategate affairs, their results should not be dismissed out of hand.

We know that, other things being equal, sunlight that reaches the earth’s surface is reradiated at wavelengths that are more or less strongly absorbed in a given layer of atmosphere in proportion to the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in that layer.  If the best computational models we have suggest that the result will be a substantial increase in the planet’s average temperature, it seems to me foolhardy to simply ignore them.  Certainly, the models don’t “prove” anything, but, since this is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, surely it is better to be safe than sorry.  If something is true, it will not become false by virtue of the fact that some of those “scientists” who agree it is true have been arrogant, and have behaved more after the fashion of an ideological sect than disinterested seekers after truth.   In my opinion, much of the criticism being directed at environmental scientists in general and climatologists in particular is richly deserved.  However, it is a bad idea to jump off a cliff, even if the people who are telling us it’s a bad idea are arrogant jackasses.  It would be rather unwise to jump off the cliff anyway, just to spite them.

Political Progress on the Nuclear Front

According to Nuclear Notes, the Obama Administration has created a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Its members will include such worthies as Brent Scowcroft and former U.S. Senators Pete Domenici and Chuck Hagel. According to NN, “the commission’s charge is to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel.” This is another sign that the Administration is keeping an open mind towards nuclear as part of the overall energy mix. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and his chief science advisor Steve Koonin are both brilliant scientists in their own right, and both appear to be genuinely committed to the goal of achieving substantial reductions in our carbon emissions in the coming decades. I suspect both would welcome a greater role for nuclear as a step towards achieving that goal. However, both realize they must move ahead deliberately, but not recklessly. There are issues of Realpolitik as well as science here, as can be seen from the following blurb in the NN article,

Chu does not consider the focus on nuclear energy in President Obama’s State of the Union or the founding of the commission to represent a “betrayal” of environmentalists who supported the President’s election (nor should he – Obama was muted but definite during the election that he supported nuclear energy.)

Regarding the Commission’s charge, I found this bit at NN interesting:

Yucca Mountain will not be considered an option. For all intents and purposes, it’s dead.

Why not Yucca Mountain? Because, said Chu, “science has advanced dramatically” in the 20 years since Yucca Mountain was chosen and a better, safer solution is preferable and now possible.

The thought of all those plutonium-laced fuel rods just sitting in cooling pools around our current reactors makes me a bit uneasy, but perhaps there’s method to the Secretary’s madness. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until we hear from the Commission.

It happens, BTW, that Koonin has a long history in connection with inertial confinement fusion (ICF). For example, he chaired the Committee for the Review of the Department of Energy’s Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) Program, established by the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council on behalf of DOE. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to the upcoming experiments to achieve fusion ignition at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) should they prove successful.

Germany Ends the End of Nuclear Power

Philippsburg_qThe editors of Spiegel magazine still think anyone who supports nuclear power is a minion of Satan bent on the destruction of humanity, but according to this article, at least some Germans are beginning to see the light. Under the byline “End of the Atom Shutdown,” and the lugubriously disapproving headline, “The Federal Government wants to leave Ancient Reactors Online,” we read:

The atom lobby got its way: Spiegel has learned that the federal government wants to leave all 17 of Germany’s reactors online, including the ancient reactors at Neckarwestheim and Biblis – that will continue in operation by virtue of a trick.

Hamburg – For the time being, it’s the end of the atomic shutdown: According to Spiegel’s information the federal government has decided to leave all 17 of Germany’s nuclear reactors on the net for the time being following a meeting with energy concerns in the chancellory. Even the ancient Neckarwestheim 1 and Biblis A, which would soon have been required to shut down according to the red-green consensus on atomic power, are to remain in operation until the black-yellow government has agreed on a new energy policy. This might take until October…

…Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the SPD, expressed outrage, and accused the government of “dirty deals.”

Well, you can see which way the spin blows, but apparently a good number of Germans, with the obvious exception of Spiegel and the wildly misnomered “Greens” are beginning to realize that taking nuclear plants offline means keeping coal plants online. It is difficult to imagine why this makes sense in a world in which our number one environmental problem is supposed to be global warming, but human beings can convince themselves of anything if they happen to be wearing the proper ideological blinders.

The German government is to be congratulated for putting common sense over ideological purity. Meanwhile, here’s a clue for the editors of Spiegel. In addition to being world champion air polluters and prodigious producers of greenhouse gases, coal plants are also a greater radioactive hazard than nuclear plants.

Thorium: Wired Magazine Muddies the Water

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit recently linked to an article by Richard Martin in Wired Magazine entitled, ‘Uranium is so Last Century:  Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke.”  I cringed when I read it.  I suspect serious advocates of thorium did as well.  It was a piece of scientific wowserism of a sort that has been the bane of nuclear power in the past, and that its advocates would do well to steer clear of in the future.  It evoked a romantic world of thorium “revolutionaries” doing battle with the dinosaurs of conventional nuclear power.  Things aren’t quite that black and white in the real world.  Thorium breeders deserve fair consideration, not hype, as does nuclear power in general.  There are many good reasons to prefer it to its alternatives as a source of energy.  It doesn’t take a genius to understand those reasons, assuming one approaches the subject with a mind that isn’t made up in advance, and is willing to devote a reasonable amount of time to acquire a basic understanding of the technology.  Martin would be well advised to do so before writing his next article on the subject. 

In the first place, thorium is not a replacement for uranium, as implied by the title of the Wired article.  Rather, the point of putting it in nuclear reactors is to breed uranium, which remains the actual fuel material, albeit in the form of isotope U233 rather than U235.  Thus, when Martin writes things like,

Those technologies are still based on uranium, however, and will be beset by the same problems that have dogged the nuclear industry since the 1960s. It is only thorium… that can move the country toward a new era of safe, clean, affordable energy.

in comparing thorium reactors to their more conventional alternatives, it is evident he doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Referring to the physicist Alvin Weinberg, he tells us,

Weinberg and his men proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear- armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material. The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.

With all due respect to Weinberg, a brilliant scientist whose work remains as relevant to conventional reactors as to their thorium cousins, this picture of thorium knights in shining armor doing battle with the dark forces of the nuclear weapons establishment is certainly romantic, but it leaves out some rather salient facts.  In the first place, conventional power reactors do not even produce weapons grade plutonium, which contains a high concentration of plutonium 239.  Special reactors that run for a much shorter period of time are used for that purpose.    Furthermore, thorium is not a nuclear fuel.  A reactor using thorium alone would never work because thorium is not a fissile material.  In other words, unlike, for example, uranium 235 or plutonium 239, it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction.  The point of putting it in nuclear reactors is to breed uranium 233, another isotope that is fissile.  We began producing nuclear power with conventional nuclear reactors based on uranium 235 rather than thorium breeders because of their simplicity, not because of their usefulness as sources of bomb material.  The fuel needed to run them is available in nature as one of the isotopes in mined uranium, and doesn’t depend on a complex breeding cycle for its production.  There are other drawbacks to thorium breeders that Martin doesn’t mention in his article.  For example, in addition to uranium 233, they produce significant quantities of uranium 232, a short lived isotope with some nasty, highly radioactive daughters.  Separating it from U233 was out of the question, and its presence makes the production and handling of nuclear fuel elements a great deal more difficult. 

I’m certainly no opponent of thorium breeders.  In fact, I think we should be aggressively developing the technology.  However, before writing articles about the subject, it can’t hurt to have some idea what you’re talking about.  There are no lack of good articles about the subject on the Web within easy reach of anyone who can use Google.

thorium

The Copenhagen Climate Summit: Narratives to Suit Any Taste

Look! It’s a rainbow of spin! Today’s Copenhagen headlines are a snapshot of political narratives worldwide. Want to find out who’s still carrying water for Barack Obama and who’s not? Let’s have a look.

First the bad news: Germany’s honeymoon with the President is kaputt. The Teutonic brethren at Spiegel magazine discovered long ago that there’s big dough in Amerika bashing. Sure, the US President is ein netter Kerl, but these are hard times for journalists, and one can’t afford to be too finicky. You only need to learn three German words to get the gist of their coverage of all things American: Fiasko, Debakel, and Desaster. Need I translate? Here’s Spiegel’s take on the latest out of Copenhagen:

Full Speed Ahead into the Greenhouse

Failed Summit

What a fiasco: The Copenhagen climate summit has failed thanks to the politics of unyielding self interest of the USA, China, and many other states. We are likely to soon find out just how catastrophic climate change will really be – in a global greenhouse experiment.

Our British friends, whom Spiegel was fond of referring to as “vassals” and “poodles” of the US back in the days of Tony Blair, are taking a rather more charitable view of the affair. Apparently they’re still not quite ready to throw the President under the bus. According to the BBC,

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed a US-backed climate deal in Copenhagen as an “essential beginning”.

He was speaking after delegates passed a motion recognizing the agreement, which the US reached with key nations including China.

The more erudite among the BBC’s readers who get past the headlines will find some less than rosy details mentioned in passing in the body of the article, such as,

However, a number of developing nations were angered by the draft proposals.
BBC environment correspondent Richard Black said the language in this text showed 2C was not a formal target, just that the group “recognises the scientific view that” the temperature increase should be held below this figure.

but such minutiae don’t spoil the overall positive effect.

Here in the US one can also find a version of reality to suit any taste. Of course, they’re pulling no punches at Foxnews:

Has Copenhagen collapsed?

That seems to be the growing sentiment inside the city’s Bella Conference Center, where officials, environmentalists and even delegates to the international climate conference began streaming out Friday evening. What began with excitement and anticipation two weeks ago ended Friday night with disappointment and anger for thousands.

Collapse? What collapse! As I write this, it appears they haven’t noticed a thing at CNN. Their world headlines link has no mention of Copenhagen at all. However, more persistent readers who trouble themselves to click down a page or two will find reassuring “news:”

Obama announces climate change deal with China, other nations

President Obama announced what he called a “meaningful and unprecedented” climate change deal with China and other key nations that was expected to be sealed before the president headed home from the Copenhagen summit late Friday.

There, that’s all you need to know, now just move on. Well, all right, if you have a suspicious nature and don’t believe CNN, just check the rest of the mainstream media. True, the guys at MSNBC are a shade less sanguine, but, after all, the Pres did what he could:

U.S., others broker modest climate deal

Plan includes way to verify reduction in global warming emissions

That last blurb is a bit rich, even for MSNBC, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope the editors of Spiegel don’t see it. For that matter, it’s downright sober compared to the take at ABC:

Obama Hails ‘Significant Breakthrough’ at Climate Talks

Obama and Three World Leaders Have Agreed to a Political “Accord,” Official Says

President unites China, India and Brazil on climate agreement in Copenhagen.

There! See? Whatever were those silly fellows at Spiegel thinking with their hand wringing about a “fiasco?” Still don’t believe me? Apparently you’ll need an even stronger dose. Let’s move on to NPR’s website, where the President, arrayed in shining armor, still rides through cyberspace on his snow white charger:

The president tells the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen that America is setting an example of bold action and other nations must follow or see the world suffer catastrophic effects.

Good old NPR, fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, German nitpickers.

Climategate and Scientific Credibility

I think this article at Reason.com by Cathy Young about the global warming debate is spot on (hattip Instapundit). Her conclusions:

There is no doubt that refusal to accept human-made climate change is often self-serving. But the other side has blinders and selfish motives of its own. “Going green” has turned into a vast industry in its own right—as well as a religion with its own brand of zealotry. For many, global warming is the secular equivalent of a biblical disaster sent by God to punish humankind for its errant (capitalist) ways. Those who embrace environmentalism as a faith have no interest in scientific and technological solutions to climate change—such as nuclear power—that do not include imposing drastic regulations on markets and curbs on consumption.

In theory, science should be above such motives. Yet, at the very least, the scientists who back strong measures against global warming have not objected to the alarmism, the political fanaticism, or the pseudo-spiritual drivel promoted by many of the crusaders in this cause.

Public trust is something scientists must work hard to maintain. When it comes to science and public policy, the average citizen usually has to trust scientists—whose word he or she has to take on faith almost as much as a religious believer takes the word of a priest. Once that trust is undermined, as it has been in recent years, science becomes a casualty of politics.

It was obvious to me that environmental scientists had a major credibility problem when I read Byorn Lomborg’s “Skeptical Environmentalist.” This impression was greatly stengthened when a gang of scientific hacks set up a kangaroo court known as the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, and “convicted” Lomborg of “scientific dishonesty,” noting, however, with supreme condescension that Lomborg was “not guilty” because of his “lack of expertise” in the fields in question. How this arrogant, scientific pond scum could have come to such a conclusion when they were unable to cite a single substantial example of factual error in Lomborg’s book is beyond me. Their abject betrayal of science spoke for itself. Needless to say, the credibility of environmental scientists has not improved in the interim, as Young notes in her article.

This is unfortunate, as it seems to me that the evidence is strong that we may be facing a serious problem with artificially induced global warming. However, because, as Young points out, “…the scientists who back strong measures against global warming have not objected to the alarmism, the political fanaticism, or the pseudo-spiritual drivel promoted by many of the crusaders in this cause,” the issue has become politicized to such an extent that the chances that we will be able to do anything more effective than ideological grandstanding to address the problem are almost nil. As usual, the politicians, who rejoice whenever a crisis comes along for them to “save” us from, will promote any number of very expensive but useless nostrums that present us with the pleasant illusion that we are doing something about the problem, perhaps reducing greenhouse emissions by some insignificant fraction in the process, but accomplishing nothing in the way of really solving the problem. In the meantime, the rest of us must keep our fingers crossed that some fortuitous technological advance will allow us to dodge the bullet, perhaps in the form of the discovery of a way to tame fusion or a transformational improvement in the efficiency of solar collectors. For those of us who possess the means, it is, perhaps, not too soon to begin looking for attractive tracts of land in Alaska, preferably on high ground.

Germany to Reverse Course on Atomic Energy?

As a result of their dismal showing in the elections to the Bundestag on September 27, Germany’s left of center Social Democrats (SPD) have been replaced in the former “grand coalition” government with the more conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) by the market oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP). One salutary result has been an apparent reversal of course on the irrational but ideologically fashionable decision to shut down Germany’s nuclear generating capacity. According to Der Spiegel,

The Union (CDU) and FDP will accommodate the nuclear industry – but under stern conditions. The operational lifetime of German nuclear power plants can be extended on condition that high safety standards are met. According to a paper by the new coalition’s working group on the environment made available to Spiegel Online, “Nuclear energy will be necessary as a transitional and bridge technology until climate friendly and more economical alternative means of producing sufficient electricity are available capable of meeting baseload electric generation requirements. Therefore, the operational lifetime of German nuclear power plants will be extended to 32 years.

Solar Power and German Ideologues

Der Spiegel has provided us with another edifying example of the difference between sound public policy and ideological grandstanding. It turns out that the outgoing Social Democratic (SPD) “Minister of the Environment,” Sigmar Gabriel, has saddled the German people with a gift that will keep on giving in the form of a debt of at least 27 billion Euros. It comes in the form of a clause in Germany’s “Renewable Energy Law” that grants a subsidy of 43 Cents per kilowatt-hour to producers of solar power – five times higher than the cost of conventional power. But wait, it gets better; the subsidy will remain in effect for at least the next 20 years. And, by the way, that’s just for the facilities that were built between 2000 and 2008. Meanwhile, new facilities are being built hand over fist. About 2000 additional megawatts are expected to come on line in 2009, providing German consumers with another heaping helping of debt to the tune of 9 or 10 billion Euros. This remarkable example of ideological dilettantism has, at least, resulted in the creation of many new jobs – in China. Following a predictable pattern, German solar cell producers have been ramping down production at home and transferring it to Asia. Meanwhile, as Der Spiegel points out, the subsidies have had such “environmentally friendly” effects as

…keeping the world price of solar panels artificially high. The result: international producers are flooding the German market with solar modules – and very little is left for other countries, in spite of the fact that a solar facility in Africa could produce substantially more electricity than in rainy Germany.

All this comes at a time when the actual cost of solar modules has been in free fall. Spiegel cites an article in the German trade magazine “Photon,” according to which, “Solar power can now be produced much more cheaply than the high subsidies would lead one to believe.”

Judging by the quantitative results, we must assume that wind has been less afflicted by ideological meddling than solar in Germany. Wind facilities currently provide six percent of her power, as opposed to solar’s contribution of less than one percent.