Archive for the ‘gas’ Category

Swinging off a discussion at Jamie Kenny’s of climate deniers, I wonder what Jamie thinks about Steve Levine’s thesis here that China’s emerging culture of mass protest, the famous Mass-Group Incidents or MGIs, may have major and positive consequences for Chinese energy policy and therefore for the world.

It’s surely time we started calling the MGIs a movement; they are big, they are angry, they are common and increasingly so. Also, they seem to be getting more simultaneous as well as more frequent. The range of issues involved is enormous, from pay to police violence via public corruption and land appropriation. And they’re effective – the Chinese Communist Party, although it has more than enough brute force to crush them, often seems to semi-tolerate mass protests by trimming policy or sacking discredited officials. I’ve suggested before that the top level of the Party may actually see them as a useful force in disciplining the industrial bosses and territorial proconsuls who rule below it. The emperor may be far and the mountains may be high, but that’s the last thing you want when an enraged mob is trying to burn down the Public Security Bureau offices.

Beyond that, it’s conventional to say that the Party wants stability above all and that the organising principle of Chinese politics is Hobbesian fear of chaos. JK would probably point out that they’re damn right – if you had China’s history, you’d be obsessed by chaos because there’s been so much of it and it was so fucking chaotic. Anyway, Jamie is the blogosphere’s MGI expert and therefore I’d like his opinion.

Levine’s argument is that forecasts of China’s economic and energy future tend to arrive at an enormous and prolonged boom in coal-fired generation. They do this by projecting current rates of growth into the future. This scares the shit out of everyone with any sense, as it’s this huge, epochal belch of CO2 (and a lot of other stuff besides) that will eventually fuck us all up. Of course, if the CAGRs for coal consumption were wrong quite a few assumptions would need to be reviewed.

Levine argues that it’s the other stuff you get with coal, especially the low grade brown coal China uses a lot of, that will intervene. Basically, he reckons, air pollution, power-plant development, and mining will become a major and rising source of serious MGIs and will result in the Party restraining the coal industry before the mob does it for them. L

Levine points out that Chinese interests were quite restrained during last year’s rush of coal-related mergers and acquisitions – which is interesting when you think that if the Party wanted them to, they could bid almost without limit thanks to SAFE’s enormous foreign exchange reserves.

Further, and I seem to remember James Hansen making this point, there are real constraints on how much coal the Chinese economy can get through, in that moving that much coal from mines and ports to power stations will fairly soon use up most of the State Railways’ freight capacity. As most of this coal is going to drive the machine tools in all those export processing factories…well, either the bulk haul trainload of coal moves or the intermodal linertrain of containers of exports moves. Are you feeling lucky, punk? Building a completely new railway is of course the sort of thing that gets people in an MGI mood.

From a technocratic perspective, as Joe Romm explains here, restrictions on all the other stuff coal-fired power stations shit into the atmosphere are basically as good as a ban on them.

The question is therefore whether “green MGIs” are a serious possibility. It’s not actually necessary that the MGIs be specifically about what Greenpeace would call a green issue, of course. Rioting over pay or safety down the mines, over ethnic resentment in the coalfields, or over land appropriation for new power stations or railway lines would do as well. But it’s worth noting that environmental protests happened in the 1980s in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and acted as a sort of gateway drug to dissidence more broadly. Not that people who are willing to burn down the police headquarters and run the mayor out of town when they feel their interests are insufficiently recognised need one.

Relatedly, and also via LeVine, meet the Unitec Model 5 pneumatic hacksaw, guaranteed by the manufacturer to slice through a 24″ pipeline in one blow and only 16lbs dead weight to tote away from the scene of the crime. And it’s nothing but good American workmanship, too. Mesh wireless is so pre-Iraq by comparison, don’t you think?

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I’m about to propose something to make Daniel Davies cry. Specifically, it’s a solution to a problem we currently deal with by a cash transfer through the tax and benefit system. But I think I’ve made a good case that trying to deal with high energy prices by paying the poor to burn more energy is not sensible, except perhaps as temporary relief of the symptoms. Instead, I suggested, why don’t we pay them to insulate, or to install £1,895 air-source heat pumps, and get rid of the problem; after all, we subsidise the rich to do these things to their property. And I suggested that, if we’re too stingy or the government is short of cash, we could use the money now paid out as winter fuel payments.

Terrifyingly, there’s a chance someone might pick up on the idea – because it turns out they’ve got one like it in exciting America. Surely it’s got to be good. The Californian municipality in question is offering loans to carry out energy-saving improvements, to be paid back through property tax. I’m not quite sure how it works, although here are more details; but it seems to be restricted to homeowners, and I’m far from sure if the repayments are additional to the property tax you’d already pay or not.

My brilliant scheme has the distinction that, rather than the user repaying it, it’s repaid from the benefits they would otherwise claim. In a sense, it capitalises the stream of WFP cheques over ten years. Government gets to save on the benefit payments over and above the amortisation period of the heat pumps or insulation; the recipient gets to save hugely on heating; and society saves three to four units of energy from gas for every unit of electricity the heat pump uses. (The technology is wonderful.) And it hits the cheapest way of saving bulk CO2.

Here are some numbers. The two main groups of WFP recipients get £200 and £300 respectively; this is currently planned to go up quite sharply. (Another reason for my brilliant scheme is that tying bits of the government budget to prices that might rise without apparent bounds is stupid.) To be conservative, and also because I could have tried harder, here are some data from 2006. £1.98bn was spent. Elsewhere, it looks like 11,407,000 individuals received money, but the relevant number is a number of buildings not people. It seems 8 million households received WFP, which is a fair enough proxy. That gives us an annual payout per premises of £247.50; with a full-heating ASHP at £1,895, that’s a bit over seven and a half years to pay it off.

We’ve already got a list of recipients, and we write to them every autumn. Obviously there are people who don’t want to be bothered, and probably they are right, so we’ll give them the choice of fuel payments or [whatever silly name our friendly local special advisor comes up with]. Given the usual take-up rate for optional benefits, I’d reckon the pressure every year should be manageable enough; but if we felt militant enough we could make it voluntary-but-automatic.

One question I’d raise against myself is why this pensioner obsession. Don’t a lot of them own their homes? What about children? Well, for some reason they are the only group in our society we find it necessary to give special help with their energy requirements. Minister, I am a mere technocrat. I don’t bother my head with these things…but you might want to look at the numbers for some of the in-work benefit schemes.

Jamie Zawinski links to a campaign to have a Californian sewage works renamed after George W. Bush. I disagree, strongly. Who on earth would associate something as civic, egalitarian, and useful as sewage treatment with the Commander Guy? Not just that, but it’s a publicly-owned sewage plant, part of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Hunter S. Thompson thought Richard Nixon should have been flushed into the Pacific through the sewers; he didn’t confuse the sewer with the shit. As he so wisely said, politics is the art of controlling your environment.

Yer man knows better: like this.

Whilst we’re on the subject of public works, by the way, may I point out that hitting up Centrica with a windfall excess-profits tax would be completely stupid if the intention is to fund a pre-election sweetie special winter fuel payment. The causes of high natural gas prices are well known – we used the North Sea gas to screw the miners and get Lord Wakeham a seat on the Enron board, and now we’re stuck with a lot of gas-fired power stations and noninsulated Victorian buildings, while the import infrastructure consists of three pipes, two of which pass through about six middlemen before getting to the big tap next to Vladimir Putin.

Even if Chris Dillow’s perfect power ponies plan had a chance of being put in effect, it still wouldn’t actually solve the problem. Just giving people more money to spend on expensive fuel doesn’t actually get us any more fuel or any more heating; in fact, in so far as the recipients spent the money on fuel, it would go right back to the gas merchants.

What would help would be to use the money to, ah, fix the problem. I therefore refer everyone to my proposal to upgrade every home in the kingdom as close to passivhaus standard as possible, starting with the poorest (say, current fuel payment recipients as a kickoff). Of course, there are a lot of buildings around that you can’t do much to (see above), so instead we could fit air-source heat pumps. Strangely enough, there is actually a small government project that already does this in the Yorkshire ex-coalfield, which has a lot of houses built on the assumption coal would always be very cheap, with poor people in them. And here’s a bloke in Sheffield who makes them.

Well, actually he doesn’t; in fact he imports cheap ones from China. But this does mean that he can supply one big enough to provide your space heating as well as hot water for £1,895 + VAT; which is less than the government’s existing Low Carbon Buildings Programme grant. So yes, we are already giving away enough money per LCBP grant to buy one outright. The only problem is that LCBP grants are directed at people who own their homes and care about selling them in the future. This excludes, of course, precisely those people who can’t afford their gas bill and usually live in houses with the insulating qualities of a mankini. Further, the price is now in the rough area where the existing value of winter fuel payments could be capitalised over a reasonable period of time – so it could be close to budget-neutral.

You want a workable, egalitarian, green policy for this autumn, Gord? One that actually combines wonkosity with bashing? Or you, Nick? It’s become almost routine to read about the search for ways to combine bottom-up development and environmental protection in Africa, say – but perhaps we should apply some of the same thinking here. It is, after all, very much the case that society offers solutions to the problems of the rich but only relief from the problems of the poor.

James Glanz of the NYT reports at great length on the electrical siege of Baghdad, with detail, network maps, and more. Great.

Obviously, this being a blog, the primary meaning of this is an excuse to moan about the press. Why didn’t Glanz (or anyone else at the NYT) report on this back in 2004, say? It was a commonplace as early as the summer of 2003 that electricity production was a crucial indicator, that pylons were being destroyed and wire dragged away to sell. John Robb was writing about it then. So was this, ah, blog.

Did I say I loved the FT? Check out this story (subreq) on Gazprom, and especially the Robbtastic pipeline map (direct link (swf).)

James Glanz of the NYT reports at great length on the electrical siege of Baghdad, with detail, network maps, and more. Great.

Obviously, this being a blog, the primary meaning of this is an excuse to moan about the press. Why didn’t Glanz (or anyone else at the NYT) report on this back in 2004, say? It was a commonplace as early as the summer of 2003 that electricity production was a crucial indicator, that pylons were being destroyed and wire dragged away to sell. John Robb was writing about it then. So was this, ah, blog.

Did I say I loved the FT? Check out this story (subreq) on Gazprom, and especially the Robbtastic pipeline map (direct link (swf).)