Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Personal Attacks and Conspiracy Theories Can't Alter Reality

Conspiracy theories come to life when a movement desperately desires vindication, despite scientific evidence flying in the face of their assertions. I've been recently and awkwardly shoehorned into one of these conspiracy theories, involving an old complaint and Microsoft Word. It's silly, and wrong, but it's fascinating. 


At the yearly international conference of the global skeptics community, science communicator Bill Nye described the fallout of his debate with creationist Ken Ham:

"This was all over the Internet the next day. 'Bill Nye: The Science Lie'. You laugh, but it shows you the antagonism. Somehow, by discrediting me, the Earth will be 6,000 years old, and science won't be true" 

Nye points out that somehow, the insult is expected to negate the enormous body of scientific work supporting evolution. This happens regularly in public discourse around climate science.

Recently, the Australian climate denial movement has targeted the scientists who work at the Bureau of Meteorology. Maurice Newman, Tony Abbott's business advisor, wants a full inquiry into the bureau, and Jennifer Marohasy, an ex-IPA biologist, wants to see the scientists put in jail. She actively yearns for the confinement of scientists despite (or perhaps, due to) the inarguable strength of the science underpinning anthropogenic global warming.

The phenomenon known as "wind turbine syndrome" is inextricably linked to the organised denial of climate science. The Waubra foundation, an anti-wind group dedicated to being Australia's primary proponents of 'wind turbine syndrome', write in their submission to a renewable policy review that:

In the two ABC Environment articles, I argue against over-reliance on anecdotal evidence, and for an increased reliance on community engagement and ownership. Were my opinion pieces part of an over-arching conspiracy to defend machines the industry knows to be harmful? Well, no, they weren't. I don't make a secret of my vested interests and I , so why the conspiracy theory?

As it happens, Sarah Laurie, the CEO of the Waubra Foundation, has a fondness for conspiracy theories. In a fascinating interview with Radio National's Background Briefing, Laurie outlines her suspicions that wind turbines are somehow being made to rotate at different speeds during acoustic testing, and that her phone is being tapped by the wind industry:

Sarah Dingle: You think wind farm operators are actually reducing the amount of power they generate because your acousticians are going to visit. 
Sarah Laurie: Yes, we do. 
Sarah Dingle: And what evidence do you have of that beyond residents' anecdotal..? 
Sarah Laurie: Oh, we've got some film footage that suggests that that's what is going on. 
Sarah Dingle: And how does the film footage suggest that is the case? 
Sarah Laurie: Well, you can see that the turbines are turning at different speeds. The wind is blowing at the same strength and you have turbines in the same area that are turning at different speeds, markedly different speeds. 
Sarah Dingle: A senior engineer at Hydro Tasmania says individual wind turbines catch different wind speeds, even in a local area, and each turbine automatically adjusts to the wind, which is why they can turn at different rates. 
Sarah Dingle: Sarah Laurie also says her phone is being tapped. 
Sarah Laurie: I've had it confirmed by police on a number of occasions when I've complained. 
Sarah Dingle: Background Briefing has statements from the South Australian police and the AFP, saying they don't have any record of Dr Laurie's complaint, and the South Australian police say they have no evidence of her phone being tapped.
The most recent example of this approach relates to an analysis by the Energy and Policy Institute, which found that after repeated legal tests, courts consistently reject the claimed linkages between wind turbines and 'wind turbine syndrome'.

In response to the publication, the Waubra Foundation published a 4,251 word letter, written by someone named 'J A Rovensky', about the author of the analysis, Mike Barnard.

The unappetisingly long diatribe is designed to discredit him, and more pointedly, rattle his employer. As it happens, I'm part of their conspiracy theory.

The Microsoft Word Default Formatting Style Conspiracy 

In April 2013, an anonymous complaint was submitted to the national health body, detailing times at which Sarah Laurie had engaged in collecting medical data, despite no longer being a registered health practitioner:

"The concerns about Laurie’s research ethics are outlined in a document written by an  anonymous academic and first sent to the Public Health Association Australia. The document  alleges Laurie is not currently registered as a medical practitioner but has been conducting  activity that meets the definition of medical research involving human subjects. On her website, Laurie uses the title of “Dr” and describes herself as a former GP" 
- Crikey News, April 2013

Despite the fact I'm not really an academic, the author of the post on the Waubra Foundation website seems to think it was me who wrote the letter, on behalf of my employer:

"Infigen Energy’s propagandist Ketan Joshi is uncharacteristically silent when challenged by others on various blog sites about his knowledge and involvement in the production and distribution of this defamatory document. The format of the document was remarkably similar to the way Infigen energy prepares their responses to issues raised by objectors to their environmental assessments"

Though I probably don't even need to say it, it wasn't me, or my employer. The letter to the NHMRC is in Calibri size 11 - the default format for Word documents. Incidentally, it's the same format the Waubra Foundation uses (my employer uses a custom Arial template). 

The fact that they're publishing claims that are silly and wrong isn't all that remarkable. Where it gets more interesting is the origin of this conspiracy theory - a man named George Papadopoulos first accused me of being complicit in this letter in some comment threads a while ago: 

Renew Economy Comment Thread, February 2013
George's conspiracy theory became manifest at a time that I switched into a period of fairly intense shift work, so I lost the ability to 'lock horns' with wind farm opponents on websites. I like that he called me a 'loose canon', and he seemed to be a little sad that I'd lost my spark. He kept it up for quite some time: 

The Conversation Comment Thread, June 2013

George also operates under a pseudonym, 'Earth's Internet', on a forum in which he goes into further detail: 

"There is also suspicion that Ketan Joshi may have such knowledge of this letter. The format of the complaint is very similar to that used by Infigen in its responses. Ketan (Infigen e3mployee) has denied to have been the author of the complaint, but refuses to elaborate whether the complaint came out of the offices of Infigen 
I've noticed Ketan is not as smart-assy and arrogant since his own involvement in the anonymous letter has surfaced and he is questioned about this. Though no doubt he'll continue to pimp for his company with all the prejudice and bigotry of any good company man"
Attempting to rattle my employer is an easy alternative to engaging with evidence. It's happened a few times.

After I linked to a particularly egregious Facebook post from a Liberal politician on Twitter, another ex-IPA lobbyist, Justin Timberlake fan, and paid defender of the tobacco industry, did a bit of googling, discovered my employer and decided throw out a response:

It's unsurprising that the Waubra Foundation adopted the same approach. The issue of 'wind turbine syndrome' has seen a vast range of rejections in the past year, ranging from scientific to legal to community push-back. The narrative of fear can't last forever, particularly given the huge number of Australians who live near wind farms without experiencing any problems they attribute to the wind farms.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is right. The purveyors of bad science can publish invective as fierce as they like - it doesn't change the nature of scientific evidence. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Damaging Science and Ecology: How The Australian Inflated Avian Impacts by 886%

Attacking science isn't easy. Simply burying your head in the sand isn't nearly enough - you need to push back against scientific research. Delete the evidence, and write your own narrative.

The best recipe for this is the production of a thin, barely-visible veneer of scientific credibility. Bury this in whatever scientific uncertainty you can find. Stir.

Yesterday, the environment editor for The Australian, Graham Lloyd, added another article to a vast catalogue of anti-wind pieces covering wind turbine syndrome, wind farm output, wind farm economics,  aesthetics and of course - the impact of wind turbines on bird life

Lloyd's 'exclusive' on avian impacts at AGL's Waterloo Wind Farm was obtained from a mechanical engineer named Hamish Cumming - the two have history. In September 2012, Lloyd published an article featuring an unfortunate but incredibly significant misunderstanding. Cumming, a trained engineer, assumed that electricity produced by wind farms is somehow 'spilt' into the aether during times of low demand and high wind, as coal-fired power stations in Victoria don't alter their output downwards.

It's a very, very, very big misunderstanding of the National Electricity Market, but all that was needed was the veneer of scientific credibility. So it is with Lloyd's freshest offering

"EAGLES, falcons and other raptors make up to a third of the estimated 1500 birds killed each year at Australia’s biggest wind farm. 
The finding of an independent report for Macarthur Wind Farm operator AGL follows 12 monthly searches of 48 turbines at the 140-turbine operation in Victoria that found 576 bird carcasses."

An anti-wind blog published a scanned copy of the report, covered in (presumably) Cumming's hand-written notes.

So did the scientists find 1,500 dead birds at the Macarthur wind farm? They must have - Lloyd claims that 1,500 birds were killed in the space of a year by the machines. The report states: 

"A total of 65 individual birds from 15 species and six bats from three species were found during carcass searches"
- Australian Ecological Research Services

Lloyd breathlessly declares that 1,500 birds are killed each year, and that 576 bird carcasses were found at the wind farm. So, what's going on? Why the discrepancies? First of all, Lloyd has misread a quote in the report: 

"A total of 576 carcass searches (12 searches of 48 turbines) were conducted over the subsequent 12 months from March 2013 to February 2014"
- Australian Ecological Research Services

Yep. That's right. 576 is the number of searches undertaken; not the total number of carcasses found during those searches (65). It's okay. That's only an inflation of 886%. Close enough.

But, what about the 1,500 figure declared in the byline of the piece? That's slightly more complex, and it betrays a distinct attitude towards scientific uncertainty and estimation.

The report relies primarily on 'correction factors' - they multiply the number of carcasses they find by a certain value, to adjust for the fact that carcasses may be removed by predators before the researchers had a chance to find them (they went out once a month to look for deceased birds): 

Australian Ecological Research Services (AERS) euthanised a collection of turkeys obtained from a turkey farm in Victoria, and used these as controls, to determine how long it takes for a carcass to be removed. As AERS state: 

"Estimates of bird and bat mortality are subject to several sources of bias which may result in inaccurate estimates. Such sources of bias include the use of correction factors for searcher efficiency and scavenging rates which are ineffective if no fatalities are found at a turbine due to prior removal from scavengers.  
However, the likeliest source of error in the current estimates of mortality at the Macarthur Wind Farm is the search interval between consecutive carcass searches Each turbine was searched approximately 30 days apart but as illustrated by the scavenger trials, most carcasses are removed by scavengers within one week This results in fewer carcasses being detected and of those that are detected, a very high scavenging correction factor is applied. As such, the estimate of mortality is likely to be inaccurate as it relies primarily on correction factors rather than actual fatalities"

The estimates used by Lloyd and Cumming to headline their piece are just that: "very high" factors to adjust for the fact that the data were acquired at a low resolution (once a month) rather than at a higher resolution (once a week).

They multiply the '10.19' per turbine figure with 140 turbines to get 1,426, and automagically add on another 74 to reach that wholesome round number of 1,500. Fits the narrative a bit better, if it's a bit bigger. 

The scientists do their best to generate approximations in the face of uncertainty, and they're open about the limitations of their estimates in the study. Do Lloyd and Cumming declare the same information in their article? Not really: 

"But an AGL spokesman said the report had “shown no significant impact on threatened ­species”. The company said overall ­estimates of bird and bat mortality “are subject to several sources of bias which may result in inaccurate estimates”" 

What? 'The company' said that? Those words come directly from the report. Lloyd is making out that the company is begrudgingly criticising the findings of the scientists, when really, they're simply quoting the uncertainty declared in the report, as Lloyd has spectacularly failed to do in his article. 

Another of Cumming's multitudinous angles of attack against wind energy is the survival of the brolga

"All of Australia’s GHG is now less than 1% of the world’s emissions, wind farms in Australia will not reduce the global GHG emissions by any measurable amount. Wind farms will however displace Brolga from their habitat, threatening their survival"

AGL commissioned a separate environmental firm, Biosis, to review the veracity of their Macarthur report: 

"Biosis found that the collision mortality rates at Macarthur wind farm are ‘not high relative to other wind farms’.” Key findings of the monitoring research found no brolga deaths and the protected species had successfully bred on the wind farm and continued to return to the site"

Significantly, Cumming's focus on the preservation of the Brolga isn't included in Lloyd's article. Presumably, it distracts from the narrative, somewhat. A science communication writer wrote on uncertainty at The Conversation recently: "Genuine researchers are those rare individuals who have come to terms with their uncertainty and confront it on a daily basis". This is true; but I'd append a further feature of uncertainty.Those who seek to erode research and damage science use uncertainty as a blank substrate for fear and anger.

As an avian ecologist pointed out on ABC Radio National's Ockham's Razor: 

"Wind farms are one of the few sources of impacts to birds and bats that are being systematically monitored. Most other forms of energy generation do not monitor impacts. Nor do we have widespread systematic monitoring of all the other human-related activities that we inflict on species – such as collisions with cars, powerlines, windows, poisoning, shooting, pollution etc."

By presenting estimates of bird mortality without any context, such as monitoring conducted at a coal-fired power station or a gas-fired power station, Lloyd and Cumming together work to damage efforts by scientists to directly address the issue of avian impact.

They're making it harder for scientists to publish work without it being co-opted and misquoted and tarred with the brush of anti-wind groups. Uncertainty and estimation ends up under the wheels of the narrative. 

There is already some data on comparisons between generation technologies and avian impacts: 

"Environmentalists and environmental scientists have criticized wind energy in various forums for its negative impacts on wildlife, especially birds. This article highlights that nuclear power and fossil-fuelled power systems have a host of environmental and wildlife costs as well, particularly for birds. Therefore, as a low-emission, low-pollution energy source, the wider use of wind energy can save wildlife and birds as it displaces these more harmful sources of electricity"
Source + You can read a response to this paper here

So why won't you see any articles about the impact of Australia's coal-fired power stations on bird life? Well, fossil fuel companies aren't required to do any monitoring or reporting, despite the likelihood their impact on wildlife is many times greater than that of wind energy.

This is one field of uncertainty very likely to remain untouched by The Australian, Graham Lloyd, and Hamish Cumming. Can't mess with the narrative, can we?

Update 24/09/2014

Found this report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau - provides information about bird strikes from aircraft:

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Belief in 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' seems unrelated to the presence of wind energy

Doing an opinion poll isn't an ideal way of establishing whether two phenomena are causally linked. Which is why, when investigating the reality of the phenomenon known as 'wind turbine syndrome', the National Health and Medical Research Council turned to peer-reviewed scientific literature, rather than asking the Australian population whether they believe it's real.

Sometimes, though, opinion polling can give us an interesting insight into the political manifestation of the syndrome, which was created as a campaigning tool for wind farm opponents, and subsequently began to drown out other more legitimate concerns communities had with large-scale clean tech developments in their neighbourhoods.

Polling conducted by a bipartisan organisation in the United States (as far as I know, the first of its kind) examined the attitudes of 2,477 voters on clean tech issues, including their attitudes on wind turbine syndrome, focusing on states in the Mid-West.

Their findings are fascinating, but I'm going to focus on their question around 'wind turbine syndrome'.

It's clear that the concept of 'wind turbine syndrome' hasn't taken hold in any of the states - the percentage of people who suspect the syndrome is a real condition is quite low. What interests me is how these findings relate to the installed capacity of each state - wind power has grown rapidly in the last decade, in America, as can be seen in this great US energy department graphic:

We can see an interesting trend when we compare current installed capacity to the poll's findings on 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' belief:

Alright, so what's going on?

An article in Midwest Energy News offers some insight around why there's no relationship between the presence of wind turbines and belief in wind turbine syndrome:

"The highest percentage believing [claims about wind turbine syndrome] (21 percent) was in Wisconsin, a state which has far fewer wind farms and where some political leaders have in recent years been hostile to renewable and distributed energy"

As I said earlier, this gives us more insight into the political and social existence of this phenomenon, rather than questions about its physiological feasibility. The times and places at which 'wind turbine syndrome' emerges give us a fascinating and insightful clue as to why its existence is seemingly unlinked to the operation of wind turbines.

Which brings me to something in the article I disagree with:

"Advocates say the key is using science and information to address residents’ fears and debunk myths"

Sort of. It's necessary, and the communication of science has to be done better than ever. But it's not sufficient, and it's not necessarily the 'key'. If someone adopts a belief for social, political or ideological reasons, scientific information won't be enough to cancel it out. That's why information like the polling above is so important.

It's a warning: ignore sociology and psychology, and you'll draw the gap between reality and perception even wider.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Man Who Nearly Reviewed The Renewable Energy Target

With the recent completion (and subsequent panning) of the government-commissioned review of the renewable energy target, it's interesting to dig into what could have been, had Abbott picked someone else to lead the review.

The review ended up being helmed by an ex-oil businessman, who also happens to be a climate sceptic (is that relevant? Well - would you review medical funding by hiring someone who rejects the existence of disease?) 

It could have been much worse - Renew Economy reported a while ago that then Institute of Public Affairs 'head of deregulation' Alan Moran was the Abbott government's front-runner for heading the review.

Moran ticks the climate skeptic box without trouble. But he made some incredible errors when talking about the impact of the scheme on household bills, inflating it to about 4 times of its real value. This error was published in several major news outlets. 

This, from Abbott's first choice to review our only clean tech policy. 


A few weeks back, an article in The Australian declared that the Institute of Public Affairs ‘deregulation unit’ head, Alan Moran, had been let go, on the basis of some offensive tweets:

“On August 17, Dr Moran accused federal Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek of backing the investigation into Mr Shorten for reasons of ambition. “Tanya Plibersek backs rape probe into unnamed senior Labor figure. Can only be ‘cus he is a rival for leadership?’’ Dr Moran tweeted. He sparked outrage when he tweeted this month: “Is there ever anything but evil coming from Islam?’’”

A few days prior to this, Moran was responsible for the creation of an odd myth, in an opinion piece written for the Australian Financial Review (AFR):

“In terms of the direct impact on electricity consumers, the burden of renewable requirements this year is estimated by the energy regulator to add 12 per cent to the average household’s electricity costs. That’s about $260 per year.”

$260 per year? That doesn't sound right.

The myth infected Andrew Bolt, who picked up on the mysterious $260/yr value. From there, furious climate change deniers and anti-renewable netizens hollered outrage into the self-constructed void in which they dwell.

On Friday, four days after his piece in the AFR, Moran wrote another piece, this time for the Herald Sun, in which he’s billed as a ‘prominent energy economist’. He repeats the claim:

“Finally we had various government renewable energy requirements, including the Commonwealth’s Renewable Energy Target, which added 12 per cent to the price”

To put it nicely, Moran’s "12%" value is really, really weird.

The day before his original piece, the AFR published an infographic explaining the impost of the RET on consumer electricity bills:

Perhaps Moran has accidentally combined solar feed in tariffs (FiT) and the RET? That only brings us up to 6% of retail electricity bills, half of Moran’s 12%.

I tried tweeting at Moran, to determine where he’d sourced his values, and who this mysterious ‘energy regulator’ was. His responses were baffling and evasive, but he did offer some clues as to where he'd sourced his data.

As he reveals above, Moran is referencing the IPA’s submission to the RET review, authored by himself, which features a table from the Australian Energy Market Commission's ‘Residential Electricity Price Trends’ report from earlier this year.

Confusingly, he cites ‘16.67’ cents as the total cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity, when the table in the IPA’s submission (and the original report from which it’s sourced) shows that it’s around 27-28 cents, depending on the year:

The only explanation I can offer is that Moran has mistaken Tasmania’s ‘network costs’ on page 104, somehow, for the total average cost of an average electricity bill in Australia - it's the only time the value "16.67" shows up in the report.

If we use Australia's data, and we average FY14 and FY15, (and remove half of the carbon price for this year), we can get to Moran’s “12%” - by including all environmental schemes, rather than just renewables:

Compared to the $260 Moran cites, only $80 is attributable to the Renewable Energy Target, the subject of his article. The remaining $180 is due to programs that have nothing to do with the Renewable Energy Target: the carbon pricing mechanism, state level schemes and the feed-in tariff.

Something went horribly wrong with Moran's maths. Because of this, several media outlets published outright falsehoods on their pages. 

The AEMC remind us:

“The renewable generation that is supported by the LRET also tends to offer its capacity into the wholesale spot market at a low price. In regions where there is significant entry of renewable generation, the net effect of this behaviour may be an overall reduction in wholesale spot market prices”

The fact that undermines opponents of the RET scheme is that every single piece of modelling, no matter how biased the assumptions, shows that the impost of the RET on electricity bills is small.

Even the RET Review’s own modelling estimates that over the life of the scheme consumers will be better off under the existing RET legislation:

Moran may have mistaken Tasmania’s network costs for the total electricity cost, or he may have classified all environment schemes as ‘renewable’, and derived the percentage that way. It doesn’t matter. 

The error gives us an insight into what the outcome of the RET review may have been like, had Abbott gone with his original choice.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

UNSW Guest Lecture - The Benefits of Blending Engineering with Communication

This is adapted from a presentation given to UNSW students at the Climate Change Research Centre. Many, many thanks to them for asking me to come along. Universities are fun.



The Herald Sun has the highest circulation of any daily newspaper, in Australia. It has a daily readership of 1.5 million. Not too long ago, an economics writer working for the Herald Sun decided to publish an article about wind power. In it, he writes:

“On Monday, all the wind farms in Southern Australia, all the hundreds of turbines scattered across South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, altogether produced exactly zero — nothing, nada, zip, zilch — power for two hours smack in the middle of the day……..That included those two hours, from 3pm to 5pm, of absolutely no power”

I work at a company called Infigen Energy, and part of my current job is assembling and disseminating articles that discuss renewable energy. This article came up in my media monitoring sweep, and I felt an instant thrill. It’s not often that you see articles in the media that attempt to discuss the actual operation of wind energy in this level of detail. So, did the author get it right? Did the entire Australian wind farm fleet simultaneously drop to zero megawatts of power output?

When you access wind farm generation data hosted by the east coast market operator, known as AEMO, you can see that the actual output of wind farm was around 20 megawatts. The total installed capacity of the wind farm fleet is around 3,000 megawatts, so it’s obviously quite low. But it’s not zero, so the content in the article in the Herald Sun was demonstrably false.

Here’s the other thing – even if the combined power output of all wind farms were to drop to zero, it doesn't really mean anything. There are two reasons for this.

First, wind farms are not distributed across all possible high-wind sites on the Eastern seaboard. Modelling commissioned for AEMO shows that there's a variety of locations in Australia you need to build your wind farms to ensure a proper spread. We're not there yet.

Obviously, this isn't modelling isn't 100% wind power. It’s mix. It’s assumed that there will be times when wind speeds are low across the fleet, and that we can account for these rare occurrences using other low-carbon or zero carbon technologies.

Even without considering the presence of other technologies, we can quantify the frequency with which our wind energy fleet sees periods at which the output is low. Here’s a chart of the percent of time, each month, that the fleet spent below 50 megawatts. As you can see, as the installed capacity of wind farms increased over the past three years, the amount of time that fleet-wide low-wind occurred was low.

This is a pretty interesting mistake. These articles tend to get re-blogged and tweeted and cited in a variety of places, meaning it has a real impact on how people view technology like wind energy. It’s pretty important to compare it to better, more accurate coverage of technology.


This article, published in The Australian, looks at the same month – July – but it reports on data for the entire month, rather than a single two hour period.

43% of South Australian electrical energy was sourced from wind power, for the month of July. This is the highest ever percentage of power from wind energy in a single state for a month.

This article considers the energy output of wind power, not the power output. Wind power varies when you examine it on a short time scale, but when you look at contribution over time, you can see that it contributes pretty significantly to the energy mix.

We have two articles here, about the same month, that seem to reach extremely different conclusions.

One decries wind energy as a useless, ideological totem – something that fails with obscene regularity. The other article, wielding the same month and the same data, declares that it’s the best performance of wind power in the history of the technology in the country. The fact that wind speeds change over time seems to be dealt with very differently, despite the facts being the same in each instance. 

There are a couple of clips I’d like to play here, to illustrate how engineering problems are understood by politicians. In this case, I’m going to instance a politician who currently holds the highest office in Australia. This is a clip of Tony Abbott talking to the Australian Steel Institute in 2011:

And, let’s follow up that clip with another clip.

Yep. You can use sunlight to melt steel. Whilst it's no steel mill, it's enough to demonstrate Abbott's hope and desires around the absence of clean tech in industry and manufacturing are false (incidentally, BMW will partly power their proposed electric car manufacturing plant with a wind farm) 

2011 wasn’t the last time he said it either. It’s become his favourite talking point when asked about the viability of renewable energy – a pithy phrase that’s summoned quite regularly.


The logic underpinning this sound bite is that if a resource varies over time, then it is disqualified from comprising any percentage of our national electricity grid. What do we do when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind speeds are low? Don’t we want reliable baseload generation in the electricity market?

In a letter written by a wind farm opposition group in South Australia, we find traces of the article I mentioned in the Herald Sun, mixed in with Tony Abbott’s catch phrase – “When the wind doesn't blow, the power doesn’t flow”.

It’s pretty clear that media, politics and the public are intertwined. Within each of the three categories, there are times where people have a good understanding of the technicalities of renewable energy, and there are times where people have an extremely bad understanding of the technicalities of wind energy.

These three areas of public discourse have a shaky and fragile relationship with the hard engineering that underpins the coal face (excuse the term) of our efforts to decarbonise our energy system. The key to understanding why science and emotion collide in these worlds lies in an operational federal government scheme known as the renewable energytarget.


This policy was introduced by the Howard government in 2001, and since then, it’s been split into two parts – the LRET, or large scale renewable energy target, and the SRES, or small scale renewable energy scheme. Combined, these two schemes aim to ensure we get at least 20% of the total energy over the course of a year from energy sources that aren’t coupled to greenhouse gas emissions. These energy sources include hydro, wave, tide, ocean, wind, solar, energy crops, ag waste, food waste, black liquor and a range of others.

So, we started at a point where we had 0% of the total energy made by our machines from clean tech. We want 20% of electrical energy made by different machines – ones that aren't coupled to greenhouse gas emissions.

But if we build the machines, will we need the electricity? What if we have too much electricity?

An example of a 'bid stack', showing offers of generation at differing prices, stack from lowest price to highest price. 

This is what’s called a bid stack. Every five minutes, the market operator, AEMO, figures out exactly how much power it needs, measured in megawatts.

This is what’s called ‘dispatch’. One of AEMO’s responsibilities is the reliable supply of power to meet the demand we create when we turn on our TVs and laptops. They also need to ensure there’s extra capacity in case something goes offline – whether that’s a single power station or a transmission line transporting electricity from place to another.

But that’s not the only thing they do. They also need to deliver the power at the cheapest possible price.

So, every five minutes, each generator on the electricity market, regardless of fuel type, submits a bid – they offer a certain number of megawatts at a certain number of dollars. AEMO wants the final price to be as cheap as possible – so they fill up the stack of required megawatts from the cheapest to the most expensive. So coal, which is generally the cheapest, offers their megawatts at the lowest price. Gas is a bit more expensive, and so it fills the stack even further.

If demand is high enough, they'll call on diesel generators, which are expensive. The price is set by the generator that gets slotted in just before they hit the required amount of for demand.

Power output by fuel type in South Australia, over the past few days, showing wind crowding out generation from fossil fuels. 

Things get interesting when you add renewable energy. The RET scheme works by requiring retailers to purchase clean energy generation certificates, which are known as LGCs. They pass the cost of these through to the consumer – they make up about 3% of your electricity bill. I’ll come back to these a bit later. The certificates offset the expensive cost incurred by companies building wind farms and solar panels when building the machines. But once they’re built, the fuel is free. So when we submit our bid every five minutes, our bid more than just cheap – it’s zero dollars. However much renewable energy resource is available is dispatch first because we’ve submitted the lowest bid.

A snapshot of wholesale electricity prices on the 26th of August

Because we’re filling the stack with cheap clean energy, and because the cost of building expensive machines is offset through the certificate scheme, the price that ends being set by the last generator that slots into the stack is a lower price than it would have been, had there been no renewable energy. If prices are decreased more than 3%, then clean technology has already made up for the 3% price impact on retail electricity bills.

During the rare times when there’s no wind output or no solar output, things are just business as usual. So, prices are either normal, or lower - on average, that means prices end up lower. 

What I've just described is known as the merit order effect, and the heatwave we experienced during January this year is an excellent example of this effect at play. The chart shown here is the output of wind farms during the week. Because there were times where wind power pushed the bid stack upwards, it meant the slice of super-expensive generation at the top of the bid was cut out of the dispatch run. An energy retailer named Meridian energy analysed power output and wholesale price during the week, comparing actual price to what the energy market would look like without wind in the system.

Sinclair Knight Mertz, the modellers involved in this, found that wind contributed to 6% of volume in Victoria and South Australia, but reduced wholesale prices by 40%. When prices are already high due to extremely high demand, that reduction ends up being a very large dollar value, in the order of millions.

Another example of the actual outcomes of the addition of renewable energy technology to the grid – the crowding out effect of fossil fuel generation I cited above. The chart above shows output by fuel type in South Australia in the final weeks of July and early August. You can see, quite clearly, that there is less gas dispatched in South Australia during that week. The extent to which this occur depends on the output of wind farms. But because wind speeds are nearly always high enough to have some output, this effect is almost always occurring.

An example of cherry-picking in media discussion about power output - this instance occured during the heatwave in January. Source

Consistently, those opposed to wind power, whether they’re embedded in the media, politics or just public opinion, choose time periods where power output is low. It’s a meaningless assertion, but it’s a quick fix – it betrays a disconnect between the engineering of the electricity grid – in that the system can handle variable output technology quite easily.

“Based on experience to date and analysis of likely future outcomes, AEMO considers that it is technically feasible to integrate the renewable energy likely to emerge from the existing RET settings while maintaining the security of the power system”

AEMO state quite clearly in their RET submission that it doesn’t matter that when the wind don’t blow, the power don’t flow – the system is designed to absorb that variability. Additionatelly, AEMO uses an advanced wind power forecasting system.

It’s important to remember that communicating the science and engineering underpinning this particular aspect of our reaction to climate change requires a fairly dedicated effort not only to analytical honesty, but to finding the ability to communicate with the same passion that the doubters do.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The RET Review: Rendering a Carbon-Intensive Utopia for Climate Deniers

The panel charged with reviewing Australia's renewable energy target concluded, simply, that we ought to increase greenhouse gas emissions and protect fossil fuels. The conclusions exist to render a perfect energy system -  coated with carbon. 


As you move through open world computer games, the software renders only the world in front of your view. Everything behind your head doesn't exist. Everything past those mountains in the distance exists only when you climb over and look.

If you stand still, nothing needs to exist bar the things rendered in front of your face.

The review of the renewable energy target, instigated by Prime Minister Abbott and written by a panel hand-picked by the PM's office, exists to ensure the only future we render is one that's cloaked in carbon. The thought of an energy system that's even partly powered by low-carbon machines is one that threatens the worldview of those who reject the science of climate change.

As many have pointed out, the RET review found, simply, that the scheme was successful at reducing carbon emissions by adding clean technology to the grid, at minimal cost to consumers. Despite this, the panellists recommended that the scheme is either axed immediately, or axed slowly.

The logic for this recommendation lies in the fact that lowering carbon emissions means profits fall for fossil fuels, and that renewable energy companies, instead of not existing, make money from generating power.

For a long time, the Abbott government has been declaring their support for the Renewable Energy target, and promised, prior to the election, that the scheme had their full support. Mark Butler, the shadow environment minister, compiled these in a press release:

Look, we originated a renewable energy target. That was one of the policies of the Howard Government and yes we remain committed to a renewable energy target … we have no plans to change the renewable energy target.
Tony Abbott, 29 September 2011 
But the Opposition Leader told the party room that people saw generating renewable energy as an important issue and the Coalition had to commit to it.
The Australian, 20 June 2012 
“We will be keeping the renewable energy target. We’ve made that commitment. We have no plans or proposals to change it... We have no plans or intention for change and we’ve offered bipartisan support to that.”
Greg Hunt, speech, 27 February, 2013 
It has been interesting to note the claims being made about what the Coalition will or won’t do. All of it is simply conjecture. The Coalition supports the current system, including the 41,000 giga-watt hours target.
Simon Birmingham, Speech to the Clean Energy Week Conference, 24 July 2013
Breaking an election promise to kill an industry that has near-zero (and eventual negative) impact on electricity prices, creates jobs and is extremely popular with the public seems like a poorly calculated move. But the logic underpinning the move to scrap the RET isn't logical - it's tied inextricably with the landscape of climate change denial in Australia.

Dick Warburton, the head of the panel that authored the final report, has been variously described as a climate change sceptic, climate change denier, and climate change critic. Yesterday, whilst being interviewed by Andrew Bolt, Warburton stated that:

"Well, as I read the facts that are coming through, the temperatures have not risen since 1998, there's been just a flat area, even though carbon emissions have gone up, but the temperature has not"
Via SkepticScience - the reason a 'pause' is cited to argue against climate science

That the head of a renewable energy review is spouting long-debunked anti-scientific climate denial talking points on national television ought to precipitate some nervousness in us.

Can you imagine Abbott conducting a review of car safety, and appointing someone who rejects the causal relationship between car crashes and injury? There's no reason to suspect he wouldn't, if industry wealth was threatened.

The subtle anti-scientific justifications for the RET review explains why messaging has been so confused. During Warburton's interview with Bolt, he states that "Electricity prices will continue to rise" if RET isn't modified - this directly contradicts the findings of the modelling commissioned for the report:

The first option offered by Warburton is the outright cessation of the large-scale renewable energy target scheme. Buried in the text of the report:

"With less renewables in the electricity mix, the wholesale electricity price would initially drop, but would then increase from 2018 onwards and would outweigh the savings from avoided certificate costs by around 2020; causing retail electricity prices to be higher than if the RET remained"

Warburton is literally calling for higher household electricity prices, whilst stating that he's scrapping the RET to avoid price increases. Peter Hannam writes for the SMH:

"The Warburton panel appears to be calling for the most expensive option for the large-scale component. According to its own modelling, provided by ACIL Allen, closing the scheme to new entrants would be $302 more costly than the current setting for households over 2015-2040. By contrast, raising the goal to 30 per cent by 2030 would leave households $297 better off"

Even more confusingly, Warburton goes on to cite the forthcoming decrease in wholesale electricity price (due to renewable energy) as further evidence for an *increase* in price, in the future. What? It's a garbled conglomerate of underhand fallacies and heavy-handed mistakes.

In an equally confusing interview with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast, Warburton claims Abbott's Direct Action policy is a suitable replacement for the RET - a policy that hasn't been passed into legislation, let alone written, modelled or examined.

Warburton isn't just championing higher electricity prices - both LRET options he recommends will result directly in increased carbon emissions:

The only consistency in messaging so far has been the repetition of the word 'billion' with force - the number preceding this angry mantra is the amount of money the fossil fuel generators will lose in the process of the alteration of Australia's energy system to a safer, cleaner mix. They inject unmasked feeling and fervour into these words, because they're talking about the monetary outcome of a world where climate science is real, rather than a conspiracy borne of grant-hungry scientists and scheming environmentalists.

If climate change isn't a fraudulent conspiracy, then we do indeed need to re-balance our energy mix, incentivise clean technology, and penalise those gaining wealth from damaging humanity. A 'cross-subsidy', in a world rendered such, is simply the outcome of over-investment in injurious technology.

Their world needs to be protected - the barricades must be strengthened and the foundations must be buttressed. A new conspiracy theory about dastardly scientists from the weather bureau grabbing weather stations and moving them to 'fake' a global warming trend, presumably cackling maniacally whilst doing so, gets a near-daily run in The Australian. These sit alongside Tony Abbott's business advisor Maurice Newman, unironically warns of global cooling (in his response to criticism, he complained of the weather bureau's 'unscientific rounding').

Today, Chris Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of The Australia, angrily inquired:

“Why are the views of environmental activists privileged above the role of economic growth, which inevitably creates better ­environmental, employment and social outcomes for the wider community?”

The perplexing disparity between the actual information in the RET review modelling, and Warburton's recommendations makes sense only when we consider the urgency with which the climate change denial community needs to preserve the incumbency of fossil fuel generators, and strengthen our dependence on fuels that damage societies, economies and atmospheres.

It can't go on forever. Most of us are rendering a future of technological improvement, rather than technological stagnation.

We can't stand still forever. Actively stifling our completely human need for improvement isn't something that will be readily forgiven. Not by us, nor those who inherit the thin film of atmosphere we inhabit. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Bureau of Meteorology is engaging in an evil conspiracy.......TO BE ADORABLE

I think everyone should read the Bureau of Meteorology statement, published in response to a fairly disjointed theory being furiously bandied by increasingly desperate climate change deniers, that implies the BoM is intentionally moving weather stations to 'fake' a warming trend.

But I'm worried people won’t read it.

So, here it is, altered to incorporate fluff balls. Everything has been peer-reviewed to ensure maximum daintiness.

Statement via Graham Readfern’s excellent piece for The Guardian
Pictures via this and this.


Contrary to assertions in some parts of the media, the Bureau is not altering climate records to exaggerate estimates of global warming.

Our role is to make meteorological measurements, and to curate, analyse and communicate the data for use in decision making and to support public understanding.

To undertake these tasks, the Bureau employs highly skilled technicians and scientists and invests in high quality monitoring equipment.

The Bureau measures temperature at nearly 800 sites across Australia, chiefly for the purpose of weather forecasting. The Australian Climate Observations Reference Network – Surface Air Temperature (ACORN-SAT) is a subset of this network comprising 112 locations that are used for climate analysis. The ACORN-SAT stations have been chosen to maximise both length of record and network coverage across the continent. For several years, all of this data has been made publicly available on the Bureau’s web site.

Temperature records are influenced by a range of factors such as changes to site surrounds (eg. trees casting shade or influencing wind), measurement methods and the relocation of stations (eg. from a coastal to more inland location). Such changes introduce biases into the climate record that need to be adjusted for prior to analysis.

Adjusting for these biases, a process known as homogenisation, is carried out by meteorological authorities around the world as best practice, to ensure that climate data is consistent through time.

At the Bureau’s request, our climate data management practices were subject to a rigorous independent peer-review in 2012. A panel of international experts found the Bureau’s data and methods were amongst the best in the world.

The Bureau’s submissions to the review were published on the Bureau’s website, as were the findings of the review panel. The Bureau’s methods have also been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Both the raw and adjusted ACORN-SAT data and the larger unadjusted national data set all indicate that Australian air temperatures have warmed over the last century. This finding is consistent with observed warming in the oceans surrounding Australia. These findings are also consistent with those of other leading international meteorological authorities, such as NOAA and NASA in the United States and the UK MetOffice. The high degree of similarity is demonstrated in Figure 1 (above).

The Bureau strives to ensure that its data sets and analysis methods are as robust as possible. For this reason we place considerable emphasis on quality assurance, transparency and communication. The Bureau welcomes critical analysis of the Australian climate record by others through rigorous scientific peer review processes.