Originally (paid link) published in Z Magazine, February, 2007 Volume 20 #2. Reposted with permission.


Review: Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning

Doubleday Canada, 2006, 304 pp.

By George Monbiot

George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning is a brilliant, flawed, and deeply important look at what it will take to slow global warming below a catastrophic level.

Monbiot, one of the clearest and wittiest writers about politically difficult subjects today, tackles the problem of phasing out fossil fuels without illusions. Books on global warming normally expend most of their words to show how dangerous the problem is. Then, at the last, they point to a few partial solutions and say “more like that, please.” Or they simply give up on a comfortable life for everyone and turn to a kind of gloating Puritanism and say “You will have to suffer, but it will be good for you in the end.” In contrast, Monbiot takes a step-by-step look at how different sectors of our economy could run on drastically less carbon.

What about the flaws? One is that Monbiot puts excessive faith in a “carbon credit card” rationing scheme. I describe this as an “error” rather than a disagreement because of someone else who finds this doesn’t work well in practice — a very smart fellow named George Monbiot. Throughout Heat, Monbiot repeatedly advocates major government initiatives or stronger rule-based regulations to supplement his emissions trading scheme.

For example, after looking at the split incentives between landlords and tenants he realizes that stronger climate control efficiency standards would leave everyone better off than a pure rationing system. New buildings could use close to zero energy for climate control if appropriate standards were in place and enforced. Existing UK buildings could be remodeled over the course of a decade or so to reduce climate control energy by at least 40 percent. (Existing U.S. buildings, less efficient than UK ones, could reduce climate control consumption 60 percent by the same means.)

To improve passenger travel, Monbiot sensibly advocates mass transit improvements, not something rationing will achieve. Similarly, to decarbonize electricity, he advocates a major government initiative similar to the ones that converted civilian industry to war production during WWII.

Monbiot’s deep seated integrity and common sense force him, in practice, to support a trinity of policy options to reduce greenhouse emissions — carbon pricing, rule based regulations, and public initiatives. But that does not prevent him from spending an entire chapter genuflecting to market fetishism.

Monbiot calls his emissions trading plan a “Ration of Freedom” (in contrast, I suppose, to the totalitarian rigidity of the other methods he later admits are needed). Allocate each nation a carbon limit based on population. (The UK would need to reduce per capita emissions by 90 percent under this proposal, the U.S. by 95 percent, the developing world by much less.) Nations in turn divide these rights into rations; distribute some rations to individuals, keep some for government use, auction the rest off to whoever wishes to buy them.

Rations would be needed only for direct energy purchases. Consumers would mostly pay indirectly for their carbon use in the form of higher prices, which business would charge to cover their ration purchases. Working and middle class consumers would have surplus rations they could sell to pay these costs. Everyone would have incentives to save fuel to reduce the number of rations they buy or increase the number they sell.

Heat argues that the alternative to a scheme of this sort is “to draft laws governing every move we make…. We could have regulations governing when we could turn on the lights or how far we are allowed to travel.” This introduces two false dilemmas in as many sentences. Contrary to later sections of the book, it ignores that we can regulate results rather than means, specifying performance standards for buildings and equipment rather than behavior. Contrary to the same sections, it ignores that conventional regulation can combine with rationing or tax schemes; they are not mutually exclusive.

Heat’s policy proposals are flawed in principle, but good in practice — which is preferable to the reverse. On the technical side, the reverse is often what you get — a brilliant general approach, with serious errors in application.

While there are many examples, the real howler is in the transportation section, where Monbiot calculates that U.K. buses travel ten times more efficiently than U.K. automobiles based on an answer to a Parliamentary inquiry. If you look at the actual Department of Transport statistics, the current UK bus fleet emits about two thirds of the greenhouse gases per passenger mile of automobiles.

Because of this error, he advocates an improved bus system as the main approach to reducing passenger transport emissions. After correcting the false premise, the obvious alternative is: electrify almost all transportation and then produce that electricity from low carbon sources. Given current greenhouse emissions from electricity generation, we will need to decarbonize it any case.

Monbiot realizes the need for low carbon electricity of course, but his alternative misses an important option. Heat looks at renewable resources for the UK, the increased reliability of electricity from many variable sources compared to one, and the High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines, which could move solar electricity to the UK from as far away as Libya (or to New York or Boston from as far away as Arizona). It concludes that around 50 percent of electricity could come from renewable resources. The limitation is reliability, not quantity. (The UK, like most nations, has more renewable potential than current consumption.). Therefore, Monbiot concludes that much electricity must come from fully dispatchable non-renewable sources, at least until technical breakthroughs occur. He argues that the best solution to fill that gap is hydrogen produced from natural gas, the captured carbon sequestered in abandoned wells and mines.

What can change all this is storage. Monbiot notes that adding enough pumped storage might let it use variable sources to provide more of its power. What he missed (to be fair it is very obscure) was information about how little storage would be required if sources were dispersed widely enough.

A Windtech International article published March 2006 included unpublished wind data from a study covering eight sites dispersed hundreds of kilometers apart. It asked how reliably (hypothetical) wind farms at those sites could guarantee power around two-thirds of their average output, if connected together by long distance transmission lines.

Wind generators produce 33 percent of rated capacity on average — a third of what they would produce spinning at top speed all of the time. Guaranteeing around two-thirds of this average 33% output is the same as promising 20 percent of the most a wind generator could produce, but promising that 24 hours a day.

The newly published data showed that without storage, the farms could guarantee 80 percent reliability just based on interconnectedness. Three hours storage would raise reliability to 90 percent, ten hours to 95 percent. Further, ten hours storage would let the farms time shift the remaining third of their production, not needed to ensure reliability, which they could sell for peaking and load-following.

Ten hours storage is amazingly cheap because you only pay for two. Storage needs are calculated based on how much you guarantee to provide. But in pricing storage needs you compare to peak output. You need enough storage capacity to deliver 10 hours electricity running at one-fifth maximum output, which is the same as that required for delivering two hours running all out. Wind generators and storage methods are both capital intensive, this capital to capital comparison is the way to determine costs; it tells you as a percentage how much capital costs grow. Even if you use expensive utility scale storage batteries instead of cheap pumped storage, they increase wind costs by only 75 percent, including capital, additional transmission, power losses from storage and transmission, and additional O&M.

At the upper limit, reliability limits wind to delivering 95 percent of U.K. power; hydroelectricity (suitable for base load, load following, and peaking) currently provides about 4 percent of UK power, and could continue to do so, making the grid 99 percent carbon free. (Hydro versatility makes it ideal for shaping wind, filling in on a daily basis for the moments when storage is exhausted. In practice the mix would include many renewables, not only wind and hydro.)

That leaves a problem Monbiot focuses carefully on: operating reserves. The final 1 percent of demand will open larger gaps than the (approximately) one hour per day hydro can shape. On occasion you will need backup when not enough wind is blowing, and stored power is exhausted.

Because hydro resources reduce backup needs to 88 hours annually, standby diesel plants would provide this for lowest capital expense. Because of the low number of operating hours, cost for fuel, operations and maintenance would remain low in absolute terms. That would remain true, even if they ran on biodiesel from waste, or on a mixture of conventional diesel and conventional natural gas.

A 99 percent (or more) carbon free grid based on renewables should cost less than Monbiot’s hydrogen path. If you compare current technology at current prices, the photovoltaics alone in Heat’s proposal probably exceed the costs of a stored wind scenario. The capital costs of micro combined heat and power, and the 50 percent more expensive hydrogen fuel increase that price. Wind, including storage and backup, will cost less. You can assume breakthroughs and price reductions, but then prices for wind electricity and utility scale batteries are dropping as well.

What of climate control for buildings? Monbiot despairs a bit when it comes to space heating. For various good reasons he rejects extensive solar heating, ground source heat pumps, geothermal heating, and district heating for existing UK buildings. His main reason for proposing hydrogen is that waste heat from various processes could warm buildings and water.

But an all-renewable grid makes another option Monbiot dismissed practical: electric space heating. Low carbon electricity could power efficient air-to-air heat pumps, a type of electric furnace is (on average) between 15 percent and 50 percent more efficient than the best resistance heaters. There is a variation that can be installed room by room in buildings that can’t accept central ones (called ductless minisplit heat pumps).

Won’t expensive electricity still make this cost prohibitive? No, because additional wind generators without storage or backup could provide climate control energy. Low cost thermal storage could replace expensive electricity storage using phase change materials, or thermal mass. Thus, lower cost variable electricity could let buildings produce heat in the winter and cold in the summer as the wind blew, then store it for use up to 36 hours later. (Electricity for other uses would continue to require electrical storage.)

Does missing alternatives such as this, along with actual errors, lower the value of Monbiot’s work on this issue?

Heat remains one of the most important books of the decade. For works of this nature, serious errors are not only unavoidable, but necessary and productive. An initial proposal covering the transformation of an entire society cannot possibly get everything right.

The best you can hope for is to be generally right, to let facts trump ideology and wishful thinking, to be as accurate as one person can be in such matters. Then let feedback and criticism correct errors and refine answers; essentially apply the scientific method to popular discourse. Monbiot has performed the invaluable service of starting the process. More, he has glimpsed the beginning of what needs to be done politically. (Generally second steps in politics only become apparent after the first step is taken.) His case for working through existing environmental and climate justice groups to build the politics of a low carbon future is compelling.