Utopian dreams and engineering reality

By November 20, 2019Other

The other day someone asked me where I got the ideas for my essays. Some come from an abiding interest in Australian society, politics and economics, public policy and good government. Others come from something I’ve read and pondered on for a while. A third set is what comes to pass in what we call ‘the news’. What actually happens, or happened today, is often important enough to prompt an essay even though I had intended to write on something else. The bushfires forecast for the ‘unprecedented and catastrophic’ Tuesday last week were an example. This essay comes from the second set. It is not new, but it is beautifully written, and the writer, Emeritus Professor Michael Kelly of Cambridge, is a real authority in the field about which he is writing. You can read the speech/essay here. It is thoroughly worth reading, clear and accessible to the average  citizen.

The essay was delivered as a lecture hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London a week ago. Its title is ‘Energy Utopias and Engineering Reality’, and that gives you a good sense of his perspective. There is nothing new in it save the most recent data, but it is compact and forceful. What comes now is my summary.

He starts with a proposition that is amply supported by the hard data that he offers, and has been put forward not only by me in earlier essays but by several commenters on this site. What are in square brackets are my additions.

I want to begin by presenting four examples that show how clearly the world is better off today as opposed to thirty or one hundred years ago because of, among other things, a  among other things, a sufficient supply of  energy. The incidence of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and child mortality have all been reduced by more than a factor of two over the period 1990–2015 (Figure 1a).

Death rates associated with gas and nuclear energy production are less than a sixth those of oil and coal. Deaths from natural disasters have dropped by 90% over the 20th century,) [the tsunamis of the recent past have elevated the 21stcentury natural disaster deaths a little]. Warnings by radio and telephone are the main reason. More people live in safer and better conditions and are better fed than at any previous time in human history. [And there are many more of them, as well, though the birthrate is declining as more girls are educated.]

We in the West have an apparent choice, he says. We can turn off the use of coal in our country (though we won’t and can’t, as you will see) or you can help two billion people in West Asia and Africa move quickly to have ample and reliable energy, which will get them out of poverty and into all the good things that come from access to energy. If we don’t help, the Chinese will do it through their Belt and Road initiative. Do we want that outcome? 

Professor Kelly is not especially interested in the science of climate change. The arguments in this lecture would still apply if the actual warming were twice as fast as model predictions. What are they? First the growth of population has been associated with a growth in the demand and supply of energy. Second, the energy sector has shrunk in terms of its contribution to the economy (energy has become much cheaper). Third, Energy is the essential driver of modern civilisation. World GDP this year is estimated at $88 trillion, growing to $108 trillion by 2023, with the energy sector then being of order $10 trillion. But renewables have played, and will continue to play, a peripheral role in this growth. Industrialisation was accompanied by a steady and almost complete reduction in the use of renewables. Here I presume Professor Kelly is referring to the past use of forest fuels and windmills, and perhaps the dams that powered the first factories in the 18thcentury.

The current global ambition (at least on the part of alarmists) is to keep emissions to within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. [This might make some sense if we knew what those levels actually were, and why those levels are thought to be optimal, which on the face of things is hard to credit.] Professor Kelly says that achieve this goal would require replacing all the energy developments since about 1880 with zero-carbon alternatives. This is to be achieved by 2050… Even reaching the old target of an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be miraculous; this is a level of emissions not seen since 1880. I assert that a herd of unicorns will be needed to deliver this target, let alone full decarbonisation. I also point out the utter nonsense of Extinction Rebellion’s demands to complete the task by 2025.

What drives the demand for global energy? Poverty is declining, the ‘middle class’ is expanding rapidly, people are wealthier and they want, and are able to get, more energy of all sorts. There has been a profound rise in the quality of life of the rapidly developing countries, but alternative energy sources are a tiny proportion of total supply, and most projections of future demand show only a slight increase in that proportion. And this improvement in human welfare will be driven almost entirely by fossil fuels. BP suggests that by 2035, renewables will still only be delivering about 10% of energy demand, less than one sixth of fossil fuel provision. And one sees a smooth evolution rather than any break points that would indicate major advances or abrupt changes in the energy sector.

Professor Kelly points out that there is a lot of confusion everywhere about ‘energy’ and ‘electricity’, because many people think they are the same. Not so. In the UK twice as much energy is used in transport as in electricity generation. There are no electric ships, let alone aircraft, and electric vehicles are a very small proportion of the whole market — and in any case they are powered by fossil fuels. If we did magically convert all fossil-fuel powered transport to electricity, Kelly argues, the capacity of the grid would have to treble. [If all city vehicles in Sydney were converted in the same way, virtually all buildings would have to be retro-fitted, at great expense to somebody, and grid capacity would have to be increased dramatically, again at great expense. What great good would come from this sweeping change?]

Kelly’s conclusions follow. So far, I have described the scale of the global energy sector, how it has come to be the size it is, the current drivers for more energy and the current status of attempts to decarbonize the global economy. I can draw some initial conclusions at this point.

• Energy equals quality of life and we intervene there only with the most convincing of cases.

• Renewables do not come close to constituting a solution to the climate change problem for an industrialised world.

• China is not the beacon of hope it is portrayed to be.

• There is no ground shift in energy sources despite claims to contrary.

This is not the end of his lecture. He goes on to talk about the engineering problems of alternative energy sources, whose power-to-weight ratios are tiny in comparison to a gas turbine or a nuclear reactor. He doubts that there can be a marked improvement in battery technology: Modern lithium-ion batteries are better[than the lead-acid type], but not much: all the R&D over the last 40 years has given a 50-fold increase in energy density, but we are now approaching the limits allowed by the materials as we know them. In other words, there is not another 1000-fold improvement to be had that might allow batteries to compete with petrol. The reason is clear: all the chemical energy in all the relevant chemical bonds in petrol is available when the fuel is burned. In a battery, most of the weight is not converted to useable energy.

This is such a good, authoritative, well-supported and well-written piece. You can transfer his arguments to our own country with ease. It makes for sobering thought, and ought to be read by every policymaker in Australia. 

Fat chance.

Join the discussion 37 Comments

  • Neville says:

    I recently linked to Dr Pielkes’ 2019 study and here he shows that to meet some of the emission reductions by the clueless Dem candidates by 2050 is impossible.
    The USA would have to build 1 nuclear power plant every day until 2050 or 1500 wind generators would have to be installed every day until 2050. Unbelievable but true.
    Yet plenty of crazy people want to vote for these fools. Of course the change in temp by 2050 would be minimal. See Lomborg’s PR study.
    Thanks for your link Don and I will now read his full talk.


  • Karabar says:

    Although there is absolutely no reason to think that “a rise of two degrees of one and a half degrees above pre-industrial levels is of any significance. The value was pulled from thin air by a journalist at an IPCC meeting. As someone who shifted from the Yukon Territory to the Pilbara, I can assure you that human beings can adapt to temperatures 50C rather than minus 50C without much difficulty. Especially considering that the touted “annual global average temperature” nonsense that is impossible thermodynamically as well as mathematically, one can only wonder at the absurdity of naming this a “problem”. From 1900 to the present even the “experts” suggest this mythical temperature rise has been less than a degree. During that time, the population has doubled, there are 75% fewer in poverty, the planet has significantly more vegetation, harm from weather extremes has been reduced 99%, need I go on? And yet these numbskulls would have you believe that another half a degree is going to be a crisis? What is in the water these fools are drinking, and in the weed they are smoking?
    Besides, sit has been cooling erratically since the Holocene Optimum 9,000 years ago. There is reason to suggest that it is getting colder in a hurry. The coming winter in the NH will definitely underscore the danger of colder temperatures which lead to food shortages and death due to freezing, inter alia. Should that turn out to be the case, and Fahrenholt and Luning predicted it twenty fie years ago, there really will be reason to talk about a crisis. David Archibald’s book “Twilight of Abundance” paints an excellent picture of the future should “The Quiet Sun” be accurate. His description of life in the future is cold, brutish, and short.

  • Boxer says:

    Thanks Don, I live in hope that more people will conduct these sorts of studies. Prof Kelly doesn’t really touch the climate panic issue, he just falls back to the known chemical & physical principals of energy.

    It is not the rise in temperature that concerns me, so much as the panicked stampedes in this direction or that over a variety of issues.

    This opens opportunities for rent seekers and carpet baggers to swoop in and sell windmills and batteries that we don’t need (because they are fundamentally not fit for purpose) to impress people we will never meet. It’s fashion, a demonstration of trying look like we are ahead of the pack. That demonstrated so well by frequent reference to the need for Oz to become The World Leader in renewable energy. We could leapfrog over all other nations, just like that.

    When pinning so much faith in battery technology, some pretty basic analysis at the outset would have illuminated Prof Kelly’s point that energy density in batteries will never compete. And electricity is only a small part of national energy consumption. Unlikely we will smelt iron with electricity in the near future.

    Maybe the brains trust behind homeopathy could just dream up a way to store all the energy throughout the universe in a metaphysical teaspoon. Problem solved.

  • Neville says:

    Don I can’t get your PDF link to Prof Kelly’s lecture to work. But it is one of the best videos I’ve seen for a long time.
    BTW here is the PDF link for the lecture with all the graphs etc. I hope this works OK as it does for me.
    Now the developing countries will build new coal plants until at least 2040, we know that their so called mitigation of their CAGW is the greatest fra-d in human history.
    But where are the MSM, scientists, pollies, Journos etc pointing out this super ponzi scheme? Very simple sums tell us that wasting trillions $ on this fra-d will see no change until 2100 and of course no dividend at all.
    I’ve been pointing this out for years and nobody seems to care.


  • Neville says:

    A new nuclear power plant would take at least 6 years to build and would last about 50 years and coal would be similar.
    So Dr Pielke’s estimate of one nuclear plant a day until 2050 is probably out of reach by a factor of 2190 days and for every plant.
    And probably similar for clueless wind energy comparison as well. So this is another mission impossible and just more corr-ption and fra-d. He is correct that this will never happen and the trillions of $ required for this myth would be wasted and show a zero return forever.

  • Chris Warren says:

    As the source is GWPF you need to be very wary. For example how does it compare with more authoritative statements from the IEU that ?

    “Renewables increasingly central to total energy consumption growth

    The share of renewables in meeting global energy demand is expected to grow by one-fifth in the next five years to reach 12.4% in 2023.”

    [ https://www.iea.org/renewables2018/ ]

    Surely this growth will continue?

    • ianl says:

      The source is *NOT* the GWPF. That merely provided the venue.

      The source is Dr Michael Kelly, inaugural Prince Philip Professor of Technology
      at the University of Cambridge. You think he is not authoritative ?

      Stop the straw man silliness, Warren.

  • Ben says:

    If Germany is anything to go by, trillions of euros spent on intermittent energy sources don’t do much for emissions reduction.

    2009: 908 Mt CO2e
    2018: 866 Mt CO2e


    And renewable investment is slowing, and people are starting to pick up that as renewables get to a certain point in the grid, reliability disappears and fossil fuels have to kick in. Electric vehicles don’t cut the mustard, and are shown up as subsidies are cut.

    Imagine if Australia had spent $20b or so on dams, pipe and pumps over the last decade instead of $40bn on wind and solar subsidies…

    • JMO says:

      But Ben, Germany has delayed global warming by ,,,,17 minutes and changed their once reliable grid to an unreliable one. They have to buy electricity from nuclear powered France, as far as the idiotic Greens are concerned, hundreds of billions of Euros well spent.

  • Neville says:

    China’s use of coal continues to boom and ditto for the ASEAN countries. How long before we wake up and start building reliable, base-load coal plants here in OZ?

    Certainly there would be ZERO change to weather or climate or temp or SLR, or cyclones, or fires, or rainfall, or floods, or ENSO or IOD or SAM or booming polar bear numbers, or other extreme weather events etc.



  • Neville says:

    Here’s the Wiki coverage of the largest fire in Victoria’s history in Feb 1851. About a quarter of the state burned and 1 million sheep and thousands of cattle etc were lost.
    The heat was so intense that it could be felt many klms out to sea and a fog plus smoke descended over Tassie.
    Temp reached 41 c by 11 am and 45 c later on and hot northerly winds helped to dry out the air and bush.
    Note how they describe the Aboriginal’s use of cool fire burns to reduce the fuel loads and how they opened up the bush with open tracks etc.
    Of course all this would have changed after John Batman signed his purchase/treaty with them in 1835.


  • Neville says:

    Here’s more of the stupid German govt’s disaster trying to reduce their co2 emissions.
    The reduction has been small, yet they intend to close all their nuclear plants sooner rather than later and close coal plants ASAP as well.
    And these stupid fools intend to rely on even more S&W for their future, although there seems to be a drop in support for this across the country. What a disaster, what a fra-d and is the best example of wasting 100s of billions Euros for ZIP return.
    Of course none of this reduces emissions at all, because they just transferred those emissions via China when they imported more of their cheaper products over the last few decades.
    The same for the rest of the EU and the UK as well. That’s also the reason co2 levels have increased by a whopping 60 ppm since 1990. Only 10 ppm less than the previous 240 years, or 70 ppm from 1750 to 1990. When will people start to wake up to this corr-ption and fra-d?


  • Boambee John says:

    To take a more parochial pisition, even if (and it’s a very big if), the CAGW theorists are correct, and CO2 or GHGs really are the determining factor for climate change, nothing Australia can possibly do can have any significant effect on world GHG levels.

    China, India and other developing nations will not condemn themselves to continuing economic deprivation. Their annual increases in GHG emissions will continue to be greater that Australia’s total annual emissions.

    If CAGW is really on the way, the sensible solution for Australia is to focus on adaptation rather than mitigation. Professor Kelly points the way for adaptation. Reliable, affordable, energy is the essential requirement. Every dollar wasted on renewables is an egregious opportunity cost. I hope that those resp9nsible for the massive economic waste of recent decades will eventually be forced to accept responsibility for their actions.

  • The demographics of the avid proponents of a rapid wholesale switch to wind and solar power are overwhelmingly comprised of urban nonproducers who vote for a living and produce little or nothing anyone else needs, desires or which would be missed if it were to disappear. Their horizon of awareness extends only from the shop to the rubbish bin with little understanding of anything beyond. If granted their desires and demands regarding food and energy their most significant personal contribution to the environmental outcome would most likely be as compost.

  • spangled drongo says:

    When United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres said that the true aim of the U.N.’s 2014 Paris climate conference was “to change the (capitalist) economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution”, China rubbed its hands and knew it was on a winner.

    But for the West, the penny still hasn’t dropped.

  • Neville says:

    SD the penny hasn’t dropped for our MSM, pollies, so called scientists etc or a high percentage of our global population.
    Even our CSIRO Cape Grim data proves they’re losing the battle trying to lower the co2 levels since Paris COP 21 Dec 2015.
    This is when they agreed to start reducing levels, but like Kyoto it has been a disaster.
    The average INCREASE since Oct 2015 to Oct 2019 has been about 2.55 ppm per year or much higher per year than 1990 to 2015 time period.
    China, India and the developing countries must be laughing all the way to their banks.
    Dr Hansen was correct that Paris was just “BS and fra-d” and he said these people must believe in the “Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny”.
    But who in the media is now highlighting the co2 data increases and the fact that Paris is just BS and fra-d?
    Of course this only applies if you BELIEVE that co2 is pollution and we really are facing a global climate emergency.
    In fact we have Dem Presidential hopefuls running at this moment who think the world could end very soon in some global apocalypse. Perhaps in the next 12 years, yet I can’t find ANY confirmation for any of this when I look up the Our World in Data site.
    So what do they do about that increasing trend in co2 emissions since the start of their Paris BS and Fra-d agreement? Thanks again to Dr Hansen and for his accurate prediction.

  • Neville says:

    Thanks to Jo Nova, here’s the link to the EIKE climate conference in Munich and the first English speaker starts at about 13 mins 50 secs.
    I’m sure the German speakers were great but my German is very poor.


  • Neville says:

    No doubt about it the Dems are barking mad. Here Sanders tells the voters that major cities around the world will be under water by 2028 and droughts, etc will be much worse.
    Oh and there will be millions of climate refugees and fossil fuel executives will be prosecuted because they’ve known about this for a long time.
    Yet people have voted for this fool over the years and he is now one of about 4 leading contenders for President.
    Check out this silly banshee in full flight at the link. Fair dinkum you have to pinch yourself these days to make sure you’re not dreaming.


  • Peter Lang says:

    Can somebody please provide the link to the original source of the chart. I can see the data in the BP Statistical Review, but the chart Don has posted is not in that publication.

  • […] Aitkin on utopian dreams and engineering reality. Commentary on Michael Kelly’s very important paper explaining how basic science and […]

  • Neville says:

    The scientists attending the EIKE conference in Munich have had to hide from the clueless climate thugs and they’ve received no help from the German govt.
    Don’t forget these vile donkeys can’t add up very simple sums about co2 emissions 1750 to 1990 (+70 ppm) and compare it to the last 30 years ( + 60 ppm) and draw the obvious conclusion.
    But then again this simple data seems to have escaped the understanding of thousands of scientists, the MSM, pollies/govts etc all around the world.
    Unbelievable but true.


  • Chris Warren says:

    Why isn’t this junk deleted ???

    clueless climate thugs
    vile donkeys

    What sort of project is this blog running????

  • Neville says:

    Roger Pielke jnr provides the latest data for cyclones/hurricanes around the world and for the USA.
    He agrees with the IPCC that so far there doesn’t seem to be any AGW influence around the world or USA.
    In fact the big gap of major USA cyclones of 14 years ( 2005 to 2019) is the longest period over the last 120 years of the records.


  • Neville says:

    One of the world’s experts on wind energy said recently that the wind industry is on its knees.
    Mass sackings are taking place and thousands of extra workers could soon join the ranks of the unemployed.
    And can anyone understand how these new desperate negative bids are supposed to work?
    This so called industry is only lately created and yet despite all the generous, extra taxpayer funding it is finding itself in this mess.
    Yet a new nuclear or coal power stn used to provide very cheap, very reliable base-load power around the world and last for at least 50 years or longer with proper maintenance.
    Once again all this pain for ZERO gain. What a con, what a fra-d.


    • Chris Warren says:

      Why would anyone object to the use of the word “lie” but sit on their hands when others, of similar inclination, spew precisely the same but spelt differently as “What a con, what a fra-d.”?

      Why wasn’t the post deleted?

      • Boambee John says:


        If your posts are being deleted for naughty words, perhaps you could develop the mental flexibility to choose other words? Mental flexibility beats mental intransigence?

        • Chris Warren says:

          As usual, all this fantasy is nothing but a figment of Boambee John’s febrile imagination.

          • Boambee John says:

            What fantasy? You raised the subject.

            If you have nothing of substance to say, based on logic and reality, best to say nothing.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Because the forbidden word was ‘lie’.

        Chris, why don’t you set up your own website, and then you can have whatever rules you like?

        I am not answerable to you for my ruling, because it is my website. I’ve banned only a couple of people, and only one word in seven years, so I think I’m more than reasonably tolerant. Just learn to live with it, or find something else to do.

  • Trying to accommodate increasing levels of highly variable and unpredictable wind and solar power in a grid becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. At only a fraction of total power requirements they are already beginning to encounter technical and economic limits with the Luddite fantasy of powering a modern economy from sunbeams and summer breezes turning into a nightmare.

  • Neville says:

    Terrible conditions in Nov in NSW 75 years ago with temps of 47 c. Coastal and Hunter valley areas covered in dust and smoke.


  • Neville says:

    Just to add to the NSW Nov 1944 article above. In 1944 co2 levels were 310 ppm and about 311 ppm in 1950.


  • Boambee John says:

    “No further coal plants should be built anywhere in the world ever again. The great majority of existing plants should be phased out within fifteen years.

    That is the message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as delegates descend on Madrid for next week’s COP25. There is no chance of keeping CO2 emissions below critical thresholds and preventing run-away climate change if this does not happen.”

    There is absolutely no possibility that this will happen. Neither China nor India will actually do this in the time demanded, regardless of any soothing noises they might make in Madrid.

    Those people who genuinely believe the CAGW hypothesis must now recognise that mitigation of CO2 emissions is not going to happen in the time demanded, and instead focus on adaption to the changes they say are inevitable.

    The first step in adapration must be provision of reliable, continuous, affordable electric power to enable civilised life to continue. This (as pointed out in Don’s article above) is not feasible with renewable power and storage sources at their current level of development. If fossil fuel sources are as damaging as the true believers claim, to only realistic option for a nation like Australia, with limited potential hydro power sources, is nuclear power.

    Next, we must have reliable water supplies. If electric power is the destructive force claimed, then desalination plants are not the solution. More storage (as different to hydro power) dams are essential.

    Finally, we need some Dutch engineers to advise on construction of sea walls, again if the true believers are correct about sea level rise.

    Even if CAGW turns out to be grossly exaggerated, the power sysyems and new water storage will not be wasted, while the sea walls need not be built until the risk is clear.

  • Michael Kelly says:

    In my lecture the second point was request for people to point out errors so that I may eliminate them.
    There are two errors in my lecture, one neglecting the fact that electric motors are three times as efficient as internal combustion engines, so that the grid has to nearly double rather than treble in size if transport is electrified. The second is an error in my original energy density in a lead acid battery. Both are corrected in the text available at https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2019/11/KellyWeb.pdf
    I will challenge Chris Warren above to find another one! MJK

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