Sugar versus fat: why so many scientists got it so wrong for so long

Looking for more background when I was writing previous post, I came across a very lengthy, but nevertheless interesting story in The Guardian. This long read is titled The sugar conspiracy and the subject is the battle between the theory that sugar is the (main) reason for the obesity epidemic and the established theory that fat was the culprit.

This is not something recent, the controversy originated already in the middle of last century and, although the fats theory was found to be ultimately wrong, the sugar theory was ridiculed, discredited and careers were ruined. It took fifty years for the theory to resurface, leaving the question why the top nutrition scientists got is so wrong for so long.

We hear that objection often in climate change discussions: so many scientists can’t be wrong for so long. Well, it is possible and the sugar theory is only one of its manifestations.

The most interesting part of the Guardian story is the tension between the scientist who first proposed this theory (John Yudkin) and his scientific adversary (Ancel Keys). It reads like the current controversy on climate change. Replace Yudkin with your favorite skeptic, Keys with your favorite alarmist, fats with CO2, meat/dairy/sugar industry with Big Oil/Tobacco and the story sounds really modern. There are a lot of similarities between how the scientists in the two sciences treat those who are skeptical towards the consensus position.

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The lessons we learn from nutritional science

My employer is concerned about the health of his employees and subscribed us all to a health newsletter. Every two weeks we receive some health tips in about ten to fifteen lines, based on the latest findings in health science. In the last newsletter, there was one article that jumped out on me. It was titled “Lots of fats or lots of carbohydrates?”. This is how it starts: (translated from Dutch)

Nutritional Sciences made large blunders in the past. For a long time, we had to avoid fats to stay healthy. Not only was this the wrong advice, it also has proved counterproductive.

In the 1950s, scientists drew the wrong conclusions from population studies. They focused on fats as the only cause of obesity and heart disease. Recent studies provide a more nuanced picture: a diet rich in fats and low in carbohydrates works at least as well to lose weight!

This sounded very familiar. Until a few years ago, fats were seen as something bad for our health due to our sedentary life styles and considered to be THE cause of obesity with loads of negative side effects like hypertension and heart disease.

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The experts who forgot that wind energy is intermittent

A final post in the energy fact check series from SER. Fact check number 4 is titled “Do wind mills run mostly on subsidies?“.

This is the reasoning why subsidies are necessary according to the fact check: since the cost of wind energy is somewhere between €0.074 to €0.098/kWh for onshore wind and €0.133 en €0.157/kWh for offshore wind and on the price on the energy market is around €0.04, therefor subsidies has to be provided to settle the difference.

I have no problem with that.

The fact check starts with the costs of wind energy: cost of the wind mills, installation and maintenance. That is rather brief, but luckily there was a source at the bottom of the page for more information. Unfortunately, no link to it, just a name of a report: Final advice base costs 2014 by ECN (Energy research Centre of the Netherlands). Fortunately that report (Dutch) was easily found on the internet. Strange, why was there no link provided for a source that is readily available online?

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The (actually not so) “excellent” fact check

There was some controversy related to the third fact check of SER on energy. This fact check is titled “Nearby residents have mostly nuisance and little benefit from windmills(Dutch). Two action groups opposing wind mills read the fact check and were not amused. They claimed that the information of the fact check was not objective and incomplete.

Rightfully so. That fact check exaggerated the advantages of wind energy and minimized its disadvantages.

This is no big surprise. This kind of framing is not only done in this fact check, but also in the four other energy fact checks of SER. I would even say that this framing is endemic in alternative energy reporting. The advantages are being emphasized and the disadvantages minimized or even ignored. Being confronted with the nuisance of wind mills first hand, it was probably not that hard to notice for those two groups.

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A future for solar energy in the Netherlands: fact check or wishful thinking?

The subject of previous posts was a statement in the second energy fact check of the “factchecker energie” from the Energy Agreement of the SER (Social Economic Council of the Netherlands). The question that get answered in this second fact check is whether solar energy has a future in the Netherlands. This post will focus on how this is answered.

Reading the fact check, it appeared overly optimistic. As with other communication on renewable energy, the author only highlights the positives and ignores the negatives.

This is how the fact check continued (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

The central planning bureau (CPB) has recently published a report which concludes that solar energy will have a marginal role in the future European electricity supply and wind energy will play an important role. In the most optimistic scenario, solar power fills in up to 8% of the electricity demand. According to the analysis of the CPB, this is mainly because it is so difficult (expensive) to bridge the difference in summer and winter revenues.

Prof. Dr. Wim Sinke of ECN made several remarks on this CPB study. He points out that the CPB is too pessimistic about the cost of solar electricity and is still insufficiently sensitive to the rapid developments in the field of power-to-heat, power-to-gas and power-to-products. The CPB looks only to the electricity system, but not enough to what’s called system integration. By the way, the CPB points in his study also to its limitations, such as the fact that because of the followed methodology, electricity storage cannot properly be taken into account, and it indicates that follow-up study is needed.

If I understand that correctly, the CPB doesn’t believe that solar energy will have much of a future in the Netherlands, but the author of this fact check thinks otherwise. This because:

  1. the CPB is too pessimistic about the cost of solar power
  2. there are rapid developments in the field of solar energy
  3. electricity storage is not properly taking into account in the CPB report.

While that might all be true, it is only half of the story.

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Do wind and solar “complement” each other during winter?

The second fact check of the “factchecker energy” of SER is titled: Is there a future for solar energy in the Netherlands?. Although the author of this fact check admits that solar energy only has a very tiny share (0.1% of the energy consumption) and it needs to be balanced by other flexible energy sources, he is very optimistic about the future. His “fact” check seem to rely on future developments related to solar energy.

As a whole, it seems a quite bland and overly optimistic fact check, but there was one statement that caught my attention (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

There is a factor of ten difference between summer and winter output of solar panels. What the share of solar power in the electricity mix will be, will depend to a large extent on the developments in electricity storage (for short and longer periods) and of the expansion of the electricity connections with other countries. Wind power and solar energy complement each other in that respect: the supply of wind power is higher in the winter when the supply of solar energy is lower.

That is an interesting statement. Apparently wind energy produces more power in winter and this compensates for the loss of output of solar cells during the same time. I decided to have a look at the data to find out to what extent “wind complements solar”, but also the significance of this phenomenon in a continuous working grid.

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Half News: (installed) capacity of wind energy has overtaken coal

From the half-news department comes the article titled Capacity of wind energy has overtaken coal in De Morgen (the Flemish Guardian).

Wind energy overtakes coal - De Morgen , February 9, 2017

This is how it is explained (translated from Dutch):

Last year, the installed capacity of wind power in Europe surpassed that of coal. This according to figures from the industry association WindEurope.

In terms of capacity, only gas-fired power plants preceded wind energy.

The source was an article with the same title from Belga (a news agency) and it was copied verbatim by a huge flock of news sites in Flanders.

The article in De Morgen jumped out as a sore thumb: it appeared in the section “Science”. Probably copied by a “science” journalist who had no clue that comparing installed capacity of wind with coal is meaningless and a direct comparison of the two is misleading.

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