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Whenever caplan and cowen disagree, I fall on the side of caplan. Cowen has much more of a normie/establishment streak, his arguments lack originality and bite.

Here too, he falls for the vacuous 'up to eternity' argument . Just because theoretically, we cannot mine resources or produce CO2 for all eternity does not mean in the slightest that we need to act now, or in a million years. As a wise man said, eternity is a long time. Those who brought those arguments hundreds of years ago (or millenia - I think the greek were worried about running out of copper) have been falsified. In a way. Because of course you cannot falsify a prediction to eternity.

There is a lot in the book which is good, and true, nonetheless I fear the final message of the work will lower rather than raise social welfare.

What is this consequentialist hair doing in my truth-finding soup? Either check the facts or do propaganda, never mix the two.

I've noticed this too. Caplan is less concerned with taboo.

Fossil futures seems to make several arguments.

  1. Fossil fuels help humans live a better life so we should increase their use.

  2. There is no good replacement for fossil fuels that will be available in the next 40 years.

  3. The global warming caused by 40 more years of emissions is not an existential threat.

  4. Any threat from global warming can be mitigated by increased fossil fuel use, what he calls "climate mastery".

  5. Replacements for fossil fuels should be developed.

  6. The best candidates for replacing fossil fuels are nuclear and enhanced geothermal.

I think he is being misleading or is ignorant. In the next 40 years there are obvious candidates for powering a decarbonized economy. Namely solar and batteries. New Solar is rapidly becoming cheaper than existing coal generation in large areas of the world. Battery production is scaling exponentially. While nuclear is the safest power option, it is never going to be the cheapest. Its technology iteration cycle is too slow. Solar power and batteries on the other hand both have fast iteration cycles. This makes them drop in price faster than nuclear. Even if you got rid of the unnecessarily burdensome nuclear regulations, its slow development cycle means it will not beat solar in cost per unit of electricity in the next 40 years.

Nuclear power plant technology is iterated roughly every 25 years, or twice in the lifetime of a plant. Many first generation plants are still operational, while few third generation plants have been commissioned, and fourth generation plants are still in the planning stage. Even if every design iteration was a factor of 10 better than the previous one, solar, iterating 50 times faster, could outdo this improvement over the same timescale with a mere 5% improvement per iteration. Since this is roughly the solar learning rate, we can now ask if each nuclear design iteration is 10x better than its immediate predecessor. Obviously not.

I am a great fan of Casey, but I think it's important to know about the assumptions that are underlying his analysis:

  1. The learning curve for solar will continue its current trajectory (aka solar keeps on getting exponentially cheaper).

  2. Some kind of solution for storage & the currently non-electrified industry emerges: probably hydrocarbons derived from CO2 direct air capture (Caseys startup).

Number 1. will allow to just ridiculously overbuild solar (so that even in deep winter it mostly generates enough for base-load) and 2. will allow to absorb the surplus by turning it into hydrocarbons (even if there are some losses, we barely care because electricity during sunshine hours is so cheap). IMHO, the logical conclusion in this scenario would be that we use hydrocarbons as storage as well (and use gas peaker plants in winter), though Casey really likes batteries for some reason [0].

About Caseys solar future: I think that Caseys assumptions aren't too far-fetched (the solar learning curve certainly has shown a lot of staying power so far), so maybe this will play out the way Casey describes it. But it really really hinges on storage working out in some way. If one of the two assumptions somehow fails, we will be in a big world of pain. In this case, we will probably get climate-change + whatever haphazard geo-engineering we can muster in an attempt to neutralize it.

About the nuclear future: On the other hand, even if we go all nuclear, something still needs to be done for the non-electrified part of the economy (e.g. ships, airplanes, steel production, fertilizer production etc). That part currently uses much more energy that the electrified part of the economy. So we'd either need great battery tech (+ lots of industrial process innovations) or hydrocarbons from CO2-captured as well if we want to become even nearly CO2-neutral.

[0] And I think that Caseys biases show most strongly on this front, e.g. the somewhat gloating tone of this article of his, which basically describes the gas peaker plants being driven out of business due to market manipulation by large batteries with fancy algorithms. This is obviously not optimal because these gas peaker plants are actually needed today since the batteries can only smooth over small variations and can't deal with longer-term shortages.

Holy shit, there are so many red flags in that screed. People take this guy seriously? He's just spewing random figures in the hopes nobody checks them.

It's just an endless stream of "here's some numbers, NEW PARADIGM! insert sneer, more numbers, SYNERGY!""

Inadequately serviced demand for short-term grid stabilization is a market inefficiency and represents an opportunity for arbitrage.

And he just lathers on the sneering so he doesn't have to explain how this arbitrage scales to 100% seasonal battery storage and "10-15x overbuilding solar". It's as if SBF claimed the Japanese bitcoin arbitrage was a secret trick to dominating the world economy, rather than a rapidly exhausted pool of free money laying on the floor, like finding coins under a vending machine.

Could you tell me specific critiques you have of Handmer's analysis? Or even better can you steelman his position?

If the gas peaker plant starts up, the battery can flood the market, diminishing the price and cutting the peaker’s revenue. If the peaker does not start, the battery can enjoy a high level of revenue for as long as the demand persists. If the peaker wants to lock in a given price level, they will have to pay the battery operator a fair market price for this opportunity, or else take their ball and go home. Given that they have precisely no cards in their hand, it’s turned out to be a bit of a shakedown.

If the battery and the peaker flood the market, the battery doesn't make any money either. It's like he considers battery power unlimited. It is the other way around: The peaker is the one with virtually unlimited supply at a given price. Once the battery is empty, the peaker can make bank.

If battery and solar is or will be so cheap, there is no need for an argument. Even the most die-hard climate denier would not pay more for fossil fuel. But this has not been our experience these last years: the greens said it was already cheap, but in actuality it was expensive and subsidized.

I suppose the sneering tone can trigger some people. But I think his analysis is one of the better ones I have read. The learning curve for solar means it will be a large part of the energy future. At this point as far as I can tell the debate is about the minority of power that is baseload or long term seasonal storage. Has anyone looked at just over building batteries?

AFAIK the learning curve for batteries doesn‘t look that rosy for the near future (for grid-scale storage).

I suppose this is somewhat off-topic, but I figure I might as well ask here: does nuclear energy count as a "fossil fuel"? I see nuclear grouped in with oil, gas, and coal, whether as a baseload energy source or as something regulated in a similar fashion. But uranium isn't really a fossil, no?

It shouldn’t count.

Oil and coal are literal fossils. This means 1) they must be burned, and thus must release carbon. It also means 2) our reserves are the capture of millennia of solar energy.

Uranium and friends solve 1) handily. They have no carbon to start, so they will not create CO2. Instead you get much worse material—in much smaller amounts, since nuclear energy is very, very dense.

They don’t deal with 2). Uranium is also finite…at least on Earth. But the aforementioned density helps a lot.

I should probably state that I'm well-aware of the advantages of nuclear--but I happen to see nuclear lumped in with fossil fuels, either from Republicans/conservatives defending it or it being treated as if it's just as bad as fossil fuels.

Look up the EU debate last year on declaring nuclear a "renewable" energy source for the purposes of regulation. It'll be entertaining even if it's not informative

Uranium is definitely not a fossil fuel. Uranium is a base element--a heavy metal, specifically--with radioactive and (close to) non-radioactive isotopes. To generate nuclear energy, you purify the radioactive isotope, and then generate a nuclear chain reaction, accelerating the decay of the isotope and trapping the released energy as heat, usually by converting water to steam, which drives turbines that produce electricity.

Fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) are made of hydrocarbons, which are more or less chains of carbon atoms coated with a layer of hydrogen atoms. Sometimes other stuff gets mixed in, most often atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, or sulfur, but nearly all of the atomic content is hydrogen and carbon. These hydrocarbons are burned to release heat, etc. etc. as above. One way to look at the process of "burning" on a chemical level is "combining with oxygen." The hydrogen atoms are stripped off and stuck on oxygen atoms to produce water (H2O) and the carbon chains are broken up and the individual atoms hook up with oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2). This process releases a lot of energy, which is why fire is hot.

So while both processes produce heat, which is then converted through a couple of intermediate steps into electricity, the sources of the heat are very different. Nuclear power plants rely on the radioactive decay of uranium, while fossil fuel plants rely on burning hydrocarbons.

Solar is only cheaper based on naive LCOE measures, which are trumpeted everywhere for propaganda purposes. In terms of marginal price of electricity as demanded they are quite poor (and will get worse as electrification schemes progress due to winter heating and electric car charging being added to the grid, both of which are at their highest demand when solar is at its lowest supply).

No possible battery economics could support seasonal energy storage to allow Canada and the northern US to use solar for winter heating, when energy use more than triples at the same time that solar is producing less than 1/10th of its summer output.

Every argument I've seen for solar enabling bans of nuclear and fossil fuels has used the LCOE of solar as a flag to look "mathy," them collapsed into moralizing about The Climate Crisis in the hope that readers wouldn't ask for more details. They rarely do.

The reason solar makes nuclear non-viable is that it craters the price during summer afternoons, while spiking it on cold winter days. So cheap baseload energy doesn't pay, and everyone rushes to build gas peakers and even diesel banks for winter. Which is exactly what's happening everywhere.

Buy gas stock. Unless the ecos win so hard that they can just turn our lights and heating off to "balance demand", in which case go live in the woods.

DO you have a citation for peaker plant expansion? What I read indicates that used to be the case. More recently and likely a long term trend, batteries are winning the race for rapid on rapid off energy that peaker plants used to dominate.

That battery figure is for storage watt-hrs, and can't be compared to generation capacity in watts.

California's "250 MW Gateway Energy Storage System" has exactly 250MWh of capacity, so can operate for... Exactly one hour. Compare that to a gas peaker that can produce that output indefinitely. This can be useful for frequency and voltage regulation, and help with daily wind intermittency and the solar duck curve, but it's not any kind of solution to seasonal intermittency.

That's what I was talking about before with using nameplate and lcoe figures to avoid thinking about actual operation issues.

Notice that almost all the gas shutdowns are long-delayed decommissioning in California. The north-midwest is rapidly expanding gas generation.

I would be interested to see a dispassionate reading of the studies on decarbonizing the grid. From my limited reading major build outs of renewables are likely to continue well past 50% of the grid. The combination of increased capacity factors for renewables, national grids, and cheap storage will give us several more doublings of installed renewables. I am not sure what technology will take us to 90-100% renewable penetration. I wouldn't be surprised if some nuclear baseload is kept online to achieve a fully decarbonized grid.

It is hard to separate the pace of development of nuclear from the regulatory barrier that makes advances less commercial.

But even then, Epstein isn’t arguing necessarily against a solar. Sure, he doesn’t think it will be feasible based on what he knows. But nothing in his book is suggesting we shouldn’t do solar if it works.

Is his thesis not fundamentally that we don't have a viable replacement for fossil fuels in the next fifty years so we should increase fossil fuel use? If the argument against his thesis is that solar plus batteries follow exponential curves that will be able to match government mandates for taking over transport and the grid how does that not obviate his hypothesis?

His argument is don’t ban fossil fuels because there is no reasonable replacement now. If solar development occurs at the rate suggested then the calculus changes.

Submission statement: Alex Epstein, author of Fossil Future, argues that Tyler Cowen severely misrepresented his book and views in a recent review. In particular, he says that Cowen is wrong to assert that a) Epstein thinks there is no need to transition away from fossil futures even on the scale of centuries and b) that Epstein doesn’t engage with actual climate models.