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Disclaimer. After nearly 40 years managing money for some of the largest life offices and investment managers in the world, I think I have something to offer. These days I'm retired, and I can't by law give you advice. I do make mistakes, but I try hard to do my analysis thoroughly, and to make sure my data are correct. Remember: the unexpected sometimes happens. The expected does too, but all too often it takes longer than you thought it would.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Climate change: the AHA! moment

Source: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadcrut3/diagnostics/comparison.html
When ppl first started talking seriously  about the risks of globule warming in the 70s (Arrhenius produced a prescient analysis of the risks in the late 1800s!) , the cost of doing something to stop it seemed prohibitive.  Alternatives to coal and oil were extremely expensive.  Moreover, poor countries just starting out on their massive eco development were dirt poor; naturally their focus was on development not clean air.  But the cost of solar and wind power fell steadily, as did the cost of batteries: solar by 18% per annum for most of the last 40 years, wind by about half that, batteries by 13% per year (in 15 years, the cost of a laptop battery has gone from US$2000 to US$250).  And China, India, Brazil etc got richer and things like clean air and water became more important to them. 

At the same time, all the cheap sources of oil have been found and extracted.  All new oil supplies are harder to extract and more expensive.  That's true of coal too, the big discoveries in Oz are pricey to produce because of all the new infrastructure required,  So the cost curve of renewables is falling steadily and inexorably, while electricity generated from fossil fuels is getting more expensive.  Meanwhile, the evidence of global warming is becoming ever stronger.  Recently, for example,  there has been new analysis showing that the glacial melt in Antarctica and Greenland is much faster than had been thought and it is now clear that the forecasts of sea level rise made just a few years ago are far too conservative.  

So we've reached an AHA! moment. 

  1. Renewables are on the cusp of becoming cheaper than fossil fuels and are getting cheaper every year.  Why resist that (unless you are a coal miner or oiler or are otherwise part of the fossil fuel economy)?  It will be interesting to see how the right squirms now it is market forces leading to creative destruction of their fave industries.
  2. China, the world's largest emitter of CO2 is taking steps to cut emissions radically, not just because climate change is creating immense problems for them, but also because coal is filthy, and the air over China is lethal.  The top six emitters (China, United States, India, Russia, Japan and Germany) produce nearly 2/3 of global energy-related CO2 emissions (data for 2009; China is surely even bigger now).  The top three over 45%.  Modi, the new PM of India, "wants to see solar panels on every rooftop" (India has more sun in winter than summer because of the monsoon), China wants to cut energy intensity by 50% over (I think, couldn't find the reference) 6 years, the US will cut emissions by 30%   If the top 3 agree, and start concerted action, (a) emissions will start to fall, and (b) everybody else will be obliged to follow.
  3. Forest burning (mostly Brazil, Indonesia, Borneo and Oz) contributes 15% of global emissions (i.e., not energy related).  A man-to-man chat with these guys, armed with a cricket bat, will no doubt see dramatic reforms.  
  4. Global warming is obvious -- and terrifying.  We need to start acting NOW.  Fortunately, thanks to technological advance, the transition costs will be low.

My grandchildren won't drive petrol-driven cars, or use coal-fired electricity.  The VERY BAD NEWS:  Even if atmospheric CO2 peaks NOW, global temps will keep on rising, droughts and floods will worsen, and the sea level will go on rising.  And of course, it WON'T peak now.  Soon, I'm sure.  Soon enough, I hope.

Three years ago I installed 1.5 kW PV panels on our roof, which halved my electricity bill.  If I were to install 5 kW, now, it would cost at A$5000, just twice as much as 1.5 kW then, a compound rate of decline of about 16% per annum.  At the wholesale/feed in tariff of 8c per kWh, at this latitude, $5000  solar panels would be cover their cost in 9 years, after which I would get electricity for free for the next 16 years (panels last 25 years)  At the retail cost (28c per kWh) costs would be covered within 3 years.  But if costs keep on falling like this, should I wait another year?  Another two? Until the  $5000 is down to $4000?  Or $3000?   But the lure of negligible electricity bills as well as doing my bit to save the world .....  

Of course, I also need to put in storage.  The sun doesn't shine at night.  Can't get costings for that yet (there's this and this, though) but for a total system of 6.5 kW, my guess for storage costs for a couple of hours of power is A$1500-A$2000.  Without even getting started on Wind power, with a new Ozzie turbine design

I saw a Nissan Leaf yesterday for the first time, in the lane next to us at the robot while we were waiting to get onto the freeway.  They're still expensive in Oz (A$40,000, but down from $55,000 two years ago) because there are no subsidies, but with battery costs falling as they are, it will be no more expensive than petrol driven cars within just a few years.  And as my lady said  "Imagine never having to buy petrol again!"  But electric cars also require far less maintenance than petrol-driven cars(though batteries must be replaced eventually) and are cheaper to run.  "Imagine never paying for electricity again".  These are as potent motivators for change as saving the planet.

It's all happening. 

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