Monthly Archives: February 2013

The first turning point

My story from believer to skeptic – part 2
You might see Part 1 first if you haven’t already.

Temps

Basically, both sides seemed to have proof of their case. It was definitely a confusing time, but I carried on. At that time I mostly accepted answers from the alarmist side, giving hardly any weight to the skeptic side because I questioned their motives.

Without knowing it, I learned some important lessons. Firstly, it is very difficult to change a belief, especially when it was build up and maintained for so long. Secondly, if one is focused on a negative quality of someone (real or imagined), it is not possible to consider their arguments. But this was going to change soon.

To find out more about the different standpoints in global warming, I followed many discussions online. When following such a discussion, I was directed to a site called surfacestations of Anthony Watts. On this site USHCN weather stations were documented. Volunteers surveyed the weather stations to be able to check if the station quality was in accordance with the specifications and some photo’s were taken. This information was posted on their site.

The more I navigated this site, the more I got baffled. I saw weather stations located next to air conditioner units, close to buildings and parking lots, even one on the roof of a building. These things undoubtedly will have an influence on the temperature reading. If this is the way temperatures (that prove the world is warming at an unprecedented rate) are being measured, then how reliable are these records?!?!?!

The process was at that time not completely finished, but the end result was devastating: from memory, about 80-85% of the sites were not even compliant with the regulations, only about 15-20% would have a correct temperature registration.

My thought at that time was: if this is true, I have a hard time believing this claim of unprecedented warming anymore. If this is how the raw data is collected, that unprecedented warming could well be an artifact of the way temperatures were measured. When the collected raw data is unreliable, then the result of the calculation with that raw data will be unreliable as well.

This made me looking with different eyes at skeptical sites. More and more I began to explore their arguments. At least in this one they seemed to have a valid point. The more I looked at the data behind global warming, the more my belief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming started to crumble. At one point I really doubted the catastrophic/anthropogenic part, but the alarmist side still had a convincing argument in their sleeve.

Go to Part III

In the beginning, there was darkness

My story from believer to skeptic – part 1

20130217Dark

Only about four years ago I was a believer in anthropogenic carbon dioxide as the driver of catastrophic global warming. I heard the carbon dioxide story all over the media and most people around me had the same belief. But on the other hand, I always had the impression the claims were probably exaggerated – it most likely was less worse than the media/scientists said it was. But in general, I did believe it.

For example, the winters of 2004 and 2005 were very soft and there was a heatwave in 2006. The media was full of it. They said that this was a clear sign of global warming, that hot summers with heat waves were more common than in the past and soft winters were the new normal (by the way, they now say snowy winters are a sign of global warming too, but that’s another story).

I heard this all around me and I had no doubt that, maybe somewhat exaggerated, in essence it was true.

Looking for answers

Fast forward to 2008 when we had a lousy summer and a cool autumn. I had some time on my hand and I had the question if there was something different in the global warming story. I thought if the last warmer winters were from anthropogenic origin, maybe this cool summer and colder (normal) autumn reflected some improvement. Maybe even because of less emissions, who knows we learned something from our mistakes…

Okay, I admit it, I was really naive at that time.

I started googling and very soon came across a site called RealClimate. I found a similar question and most importantly, it was answered. I found the answer a bit harsh, something in the line of: global warming is still here, everything was still in line with global warming and it was not really smart to think otherwise. So, here I found my answer, global warming was still here, nothing changed and heat would soon resurface. That was it. I ended my search because the answer fitted my belief perfectly.

But not for long. In a way I was not satisfied with this answer. I had a problems with the tone in which the answer was given. I was very surprised that a scientist would need to give a sneer to anyone who has a different opinion. At that time I believed there was a overwhelming consensus among scientists and only a few Big Oil-ers denied the truth. But if that was true, there was no reason why anyone from the “proper” side of the debate had to defend himself against someone with an honest question!?!?

Back to square one

Normally I would have stopped there, but I had some time and I really wanted to know. In no time I found myself googling on my question again. At first it was hard, I still believed in anthropogenic global warming and without even thinking I categorized everyone who doubted global warming as chills from Big Oil or at least people with an hidden agenda. Needless to say I got nowhere, I only looked at one side of the story and ignored the other completely, because my belief that “non-believers” couldn’t be right didn’t allow for considering their views or arguments.

Then I had an idea. I knew the movie An The Inconvenient Truth of Al Gore was about global warming. I didn’t see this movie in 2006, but I knew it had quite some impact on people around me. I wanted to know the real story of global warming and the science behind it, so I thought this would be a good start for my search. Picture my surprise when I found more sites that handled the mistakes of the film than the merits! Bit by bit I saw most of the movie on line. I was prepared there would be some exaggerations in the film to give it more impact, but it was more than I could handle.

This made me more determined to dig even deeper. Slowly I started to look at skeptical sites. The more I did, the more I really got confused. Skeptical sites said temperatures are cyclical in nature and they had proof of this. But pro global warming sites said it was warming at an unprecedented rate because of us humans and they also had proof of it. It seemed both reasonable and I didn’t know what to believe.

Go to Part II

(Over)blowing in the wind

WMills

How can one not like free wind energy? It looks that simple. The wind is plentiful and blows free for everybody. Many green minded people naively believe the idea. Also I previously assumed that when the rotors of a wind mill were turning they were saving energy, because the electricity they produced shouldn’t be produced anymore by a fossil fuel power plant somewhere else. Boy was I wrong!

An example

When looking at the page of the C-Power I found the following statement concerning the first Belgian offshore wind farm:

The capacity of the completed wind farm will be 325.2 MW, enough to provide power to 600,000 inhabitants

This is not an isolated case of reporting it this way. Every time for example the mainstream media reports on wind energy, this kind of statement is given. Sometimes they give it in number of people or in “households” or “homes” that supposedly benefit from the windmill(s).

It is a nice statement on its own, but when digging deeper things don’t seem to add up well. Let’s see about this in more detail. They give more detailed information about this farm on another page on their website:

The wind farm consists of 54 turbines with an installed capacity of 325.2 MW

According to calculations by C-Power, based on over 1.2 million historic wind measurements on the coast since 1986, the wind turbines will run for 8,440 hours per year, being 96% of the time.
The equivalent number of hours when the wind turbines are running at full power (equivalent full load hours) has been calculated to be approximately 3,300hrs/year.

That’s 38% of the time, which is a normal figure for offshore turbines.

Digging deeper

This gives me the information to reconstruct the calculation of the statement. Just a quick calculation. The 54 turbines are erected in three phases and with two different capacities.

Phase Number Capacity (MW) Total capacity MWh
I 6 5 30 99,000
II – III 48 6.15 295.2 974,160
Total 1,073,160

In kWh this will be per person per year: 1,073,160,000 kWh / 600,000 = 1,788.6 kWh. That is a plausible average number in Belgium, so at first glance the statement seems to hold very well.

So, what is the problem then? They will produce 1 TWh in a year (what C-Power acknowledges) and this will be equivalent to the yearly use of about 600,000 people (what the Thornton bank-site said and what the calculation seems to confirm). Yes, that’s all true in theory, but in practice it is a completely different story.

The power produced by these windmills will obviously not really go to a group of 600,000 people. There are no power lines from the farm to their houses. The reality is that the power will be put on the national grid and such an amount of electricity can be used by around 600,000 people with an average power consumption of 1,788 kWh per year. This is a very important difference. The first statement seems to imply that the output of these turbines can fully satisfy the power needs of those 600,000 people. It is not.

If this really was the case, they would have:

  • complete blackouts during the equivalent of 4% of the time (about 15 days per year)
  • a varying amount of power during an equivalent of 96% of the time (about 350 days per year)

Unless they get their power also from other sources.

Indeed, this power is not produced constantly. According to the specifications of the turbines, below the wind speed of 3.5 m/s the turbine doesn’t produce anything. The same above 30 m/s averaged over 10 minutes or 35 m/s peak.
Below about 14 m/s the turbine produces only a part of the installed capacity.

The company estimated the working time of the turbine to 96% according to their wind measurements. But this doesn’t take into account the time the turbine stands still because of defects or maintenance. So those figures are again too rosy. The nice 39% load factor is only for brand new turbines, but according to data of the offshore wind farms in Denmark, the load factor declines over time (in case of Denmark from 45% to less than 15% at 10 years of age). That is 1/3 of the initial value left! There are several reasons for this. There is the wear and tear of the turbines and the blades in the humid, salty sea air. But also the turbines experience more breakdowns, need more maintenance and will take longer to put back on line. If the Denmark data is correct, the capacity could decline to one third after 10 years, which means the farm will only cater for “about 200,000 people” anymore.

Wind energy is intermittent. It is not very suitable for power production which needs a reliable output. Power consumption has a certain pattern over a day, but power generation follows the pattern of the wind and is not necessarily in accordance with actual power consumption. If we really want to rely on wind energy, we will need a backup generator that fills in when necessary, which means such a fast reacting generator will turn mostly at suboptimal speed and use more resources than when running at optimal speed.

This is the little dirty secret of wind energy: when we want to rely on wind energy as a constant power source, we need backup plants that run at a fraction of optimal capacity than when it would be if the wind farm was not there. Or put it in another way: even when wind turbines are working optimal, the backup system is still on stand by AND uses (fossil fuel) resources.

What did I learn?

My previous assumption that windmills were saving us fossil fuel seems to be unwarranted. This assumption was fed by waves of smooth stories from which one side is completely omitted, as the one above. Although the installed capacity of the generators and the wind data (the nice data) were correctly brought, the data of the maintenance, capacity decline and backup needs (the inconvenient data) were completely ignored. When adding this information, it paints a completely different picture than the theoretically capacity story.

An argument that omits relevant evidence appears stronger than it is. No wonder this inconvenient side of the story is hardly been told. No wonder the public at large still has false expectations about wind energy.