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. While I do make mistakes, I try hard to do my analysis thoroughly, and to make sure my data are correct (old habits die hard!) Also, don't ask me why I called it "Volewica". It's too late, now.

BTW, clicking on most charts will produce the original-sized, i.e., bigger version.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


Silly walk off a cliff. (The failure of neo-liberalism)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Extracting CO2 from the atmosphere

In my last post, I talked about the very interesting process whereby CO2 can be converted into rock.  There is now enough CO2 in the atmosphere  to increase global temperatures by perhaps 2 C.  And yet the ratio of CO2 to the whole (400 parts per million) is so small it's hard to extract and concentrate for storage or conversion into rock or production of methane and e-fuels via the Sabatier process.   However the technology does exist to extract  CO2 from the air, and is already in use on a small scale:

In Squamish, British Columbia, a Canadian town halfway between Vancouver and Whistler where the ocean meets the mountains, a startup led by Harvard physicist David Keith – and funded in part by Bill Gates – is building an industrial plant to capture carbon dioxide from the air.

Carbon Engineering aims to eventually build enough plants to suck many millions of tons of CO2 out of the air to reduce climate change. Its technology could help capture dispersed emissions – that is, emissions from cars, trucks, ships, planes or farm equipment – or even to roll back atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

The Calgary-based company is one of a crop of startups placing bold bets on technology designed to directly capture CO2 from the air. Lately, at least three have shown signs of progress. New York City-based Global Thermostat, which is led by Peter Eisenberger, a Columbia University professor and former researcher for Exxon and Bell Labs, tells me it has recently received an infusion of capital from an as-yet-unnamed US energy company. As part of a demonstration project financed by Audi, Swiss-based Climeworks in April captured CO2 from the air and supplied it to a German firm called Sunfire, which then recycled it into a zero-carbon diesel fuel.

(The Guardian)

(Source; click  to enlarge image)

It prolly isn't sensible  to start extracting CO2 from the atmosphere now, except to make carbon-neutral fuels, as Audi has started to do with e-diesel  and e-methane.  Both processes use concentrated CO2 from exhaust flues or biomass.  The Sabatier process presumably also requires concentrated rather than ambient CO2.   But there will surely come a time when we will need to start extracting CO2 from the atmosphere.  Right now, it would be much cheaper to just switch to renewables than to expensively extract CO2 from the air and turn it into rock, and that switch has started.  In the meantime, though, this process could be used to offset emissions from cement and steel manufacture.

I have no doubt that we will one day have to start removing CO2 from our atmosphere and sequestrating it.  The longer we take to slash CO2 emissions, the more urgent that necessity will become, and the more we will need to do.    As with other ways of preventing runaway global warming, the technologies exist.  Just the willpower is lacking.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Turning CO2 to rock

One of the problems with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is that there is no guarantee that the carbon dioxide injected into underground caverns will stay there.  Which seem to make it pointless, especially since it is very expensive, adding at least 50% to the cost of coal-fired electricity.

The natural weathering of rock removes CO2 from the atmosphere, but only slowly.  The CO2 we've pushed into the atmosphere since the beginning of industrialisation will take thousands of years to be eliminated naturally.  That's why this report about an experiment where CO2 was converted to rock over an extraordinarily short period of just 2 years is so interesting.

Scientists think they have found a smart way to constrain carbon dioxide emissions - just turn them to stone.
The researchers report an experiment in Iceland where they have pumped CO2 and water underground into volcanic rock.
Reactions with the minerals in the deep basalts convert the carbon dioxide to a stable, immobile chalky solid.
Even more encouraging, the team writes in Science magazine, is the speed at which this process occurs: on the order of months.
"Of our 220 tonnes of injected CO2, 95% was converted to limestone in less than two years," said lead author Juerg Matter from Southampton University, UK.
"It was a huge surprise to all the scientists involved in the project, and we thought, 'Wow! This is really fast'," he recalled on the BBC's Science In Action programme.


This is still pretty much experimental technology.  For example, we haven't got a cheap way to extract CO2 from the atmosphere.  Here the researchers were using waste CO2 from the geo-thermal plant, which was already concentrated and so makes the process much cheaper.  Also, the process works with basalt.  Does it work with other rocks?  And it's costly--$17 per tonne, even with the source CO2 already concentrated.  (Which suggests the lowest carbon price we need to set) And it uses a lot of water, though presumably we could use waste water. All those questions need to be answered.  But what it does mean is that if we wanted to, we could start a process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  Conveniently, if we could find a cheap process to remove ambient CO2 from the atmosphere we could do this anywhere there is basaltic rock, because the level of CO2 in the atmosphere would move to equalise over the world's surface, just as it does with emissions.

What it does not mean is that we can let up on our drive to de-carbonise our economy.  This will be needed in addition to stopping using fossil fuels, and it will have to be funded by taxpayers.  The 220 tonnes of CO2 the project injected into the rocks equals the annual emissions for just 12 or so people in the US or Australia.  This will have to be done on a fantastic scale to make a difference. All the same, it's a first small step to getting CO2 back to safer levels.

Read more here.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Wind & solar 97% of new US generating capacity

In Q1 in the US wind plus solar made up 97% of new electricity generating capacity.  This is just for one quarter, and probably for the year as a whole the percentage will be lower.  But the trend of renewables in new capacity  has been steadily rising over the last 6 years:

(Source of base data)

And note that this is gross new generating capacity, not net.  Over the last year 5% of the US coal generating fleet was shut down, so the incremental addition to generation from wind and solar exceeded 100% of the net rise in generating capacity .  And SEIA's prediction for 2016 is that new installed solar will total 14.5 gigawatts (GW), a 94% rise over 2015's 7.5 GW.

Even though wind and solar electricity now form only a small percentage of total US electricity generation, what these numbers mean is that we have passed the tipping point.   From now on, at the margin, new (incremental) electricity demand will be met by renewables.  And so will more and more of existing electricity demand. (Technically that might not be true, because capacity utilisation rates in coal generators could rise--but that seems very unlikely).  In China, too, incremental electricity demand is being more than met by incremental supply from wind, coal, hydro and nuclear.  And in Europe, the percentage of renewables in total generation, already high, is rising each year,

Last year coal demand fell by the largest amount in 50 years, in absolute and percentage terms, according to BP.  The last time there was a large fall was in 2009, during the GFC, when the world experienced a deep recession, the deepest since the great recession in the 30s.  And the time before that was in another (milder) recessionary period, 1990 and 1991.  In the 1980-81 recession demand for coal still grew, as was the case in the 1974-75 recession.  This is the first time in 50 years than coal demand has fallen in a year when the world hasn't experienced a recession.


This trend will only accelerate as renewables get cheaper and cheaper and more and more generating capacity globally is switched to renewable sources.  We will probably still be burning some coal in 10 years.  But it will be much, much less than we are burning now.   And I doubt coal-fired power stations will still be running anywhere in the world in 20 years.

Emissions from coal have peaked.  Emissions from oil?  Not yet.  More on that in my next post.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

New Ideas

It can take a long time for new ideas to percolate. My old geography teacher used to say, "people, you can't tell me that they'll put a man on the moon and bring him back alive". He was uncommonly reserved after the moon landing, with the whole class waiting to see what he'd say.  He never admitted he'd been wrong.

The famous consultancy, McKinsey, said not long after mobile phones started to become widespread, that they would never take off:

Here is a cautionary tale about a telephone giant and a management consultancy. In the early 1980s AT&T asked McKinsey to estimate how many cellular phones would be in use in the world at the turn of the century. The consultancy noted all the problems with the new devices—the handsets were absurdly heavy, the batteries kept running out, the coverage was patchy and the cost per minute was exorbitant—and concluded that the total market would be about 900,000. At the time this persuaded AT&T to pull out of the market, although it changed its mind later.

These days 900,000 new subscribers join the world's mobile-phone services every three days. In eight countries more than a third of the population own mobile phones; among Scandinavian men in their 20s the figure is almost 100%. Almost everywhere ownership is growing relentlessly, and sometimes exponentially. In both France and the Netherlands, for example, the number of mobile phones doubled during 1998. The tipping point seems to be somewhere between 15% and 20% of the population. Below that, people regard mobiles as expensive toys for business people, so it takes a long time to reach that point; but from there on, growth takes off.


And The Economist's article was written in 1999! Now there are more mobiles phones than ppl, and most of them are smartphones with computing power millions of times greater than the first IBM machine (the 701) introduced in 1952.

The same learning/experience curves are working in solar panels and their installation, in wind, in concentrated solar power, in batteries and in electric cars and buses. Just like McKinsey in the early 80s, there are many who cannot see that the cost curve declines and the growth in installations are exponential not linear. Something rising by 20% a year doesn't rise 100% in 5 years. It rises by 150%. It doesn't rise by 200% in 10 years. It rises 6 fold.

Renewables are growing by 20 or 30% per annum. That means they will go up at least 6-fold in 10 years. Already, in the world's largest CO2 emitters, the rise in renewables electricity generation each year is greater than the rise in electricity demand. We have passed the tipping point, and the transformation will only accelerate from here.

And just in case you thought that mobile phones were a special case, here are two photographs of the same New York Street, exactly 13 years apart, taken on Easter 1900 and Easter 1913.  In one, there is just one car, in the other just one horse-drawn vehicle.

(Source: Library of Congress/ National Archives; hat tip to addledlady  who pointed me in the right direction)

In just 13 years the entire technology of personal transport shifted irrevocably. In just 13 years. True, that was at that point only in  the US.   But the rest of the developed world followed over the next 25 years.

Currently EVs form just 1% of world car sales.  But sales are doubling every 18 months (BYD, the world's largest manufacturer expects its sales to double every year for the next 3 years.)  So in 3 years they will form something like 4% of sales, in 6,  something like 16%, in 9, 64% or more.  Sales growth is likely to slow after that as EVs get close to 100% of the market, ijn a classic S-curve pattern.

The implications of this shift are huge.  If you are a major low-cost oil producer with huge reserves (say, Saudi Arabia), it makes no sense to restrain production to keep prices higher, because demand is going to start falling by 2% per annum within 5 years and 10% per annum within 10 (assuming the average vehicle lasts 10 years).  You may as well produce as much as you can while you can still sell the stuff.  Expect the oil price to continue its secular decline, even if it has cyclical bounces.  Added to the impending decline in emissions from electricity generation, it also means that global CO2 emissions have prolly peaked and will start falling now, at first slowly but then faster and faster as we switch to the new energy economy.  It also means that conventional car producers and their hangers-on are in strife.  So add them to coal and oil stocks as investments to avoid,