While reading Bill McKibben’s new long piece in the New Yorker entitled, In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things, I ran across a familiar name — Doyne Farmer. He was the main character, protagonist, star (whatever) of a book from 1985 by Thomas A. Bass called The Eudaemonic Pie. He was a physics student who used then state of the art microcomputers in his shoes to beat roulette wheels in Las Vegas. I found this a very fascinating book about a group of physics students coming into the nascent field of chaos theory and dreaming up the scheme to use micro computing to beat Roulette with limited success. It has lots of fascinating gambling and science minutia from that time period. There’s appearances by Martin Gardner and Ed Thorpe. Thorpe’s main claim to fame was coming up with the first card counting strategy for beating blackjack detailed in his book, Beat the Dealer. Not as well known, is that he went on to use his skills (He was an MIT math professor) to come up with the first stock warrant hedging scheme detailed in his book, Beat the Market. I suppose he could be credited with creating the hedge fund industry and he even became a hedge fund manager.
Doyne Farmer followed a similar path using his expertise in complexity theory to work on programmed trading along with his academic career. He’s now using his skills to predict the trajectories of energy technologies. From watching a few of his YouTube videos, I’m getting a read that he’s using his considerable brain power to confirm his bias for a Net Zero view of the world. This zoom conference is very illustrative:
I’m stunned by his adherence to green orthodoxy. He’s arguing that a rapid transition to wind and solar will make energy cheaper than a slower transition from fossil fuels. He also argues that transitioning to wind and solar will be cheaper than transitioning to nuclear. He seems to be basing everything on past trends for individual technologies. His rationale for a faster buildout is based on Wright’s Law in which costs are related to cumulative production by a power law yielding a straight line of decreasing cost on log scale graph. Therefore increasing the production of the technologies he likes, namely wind and solar, will exponentially continue the rapid price drops we’ve seen over the last few decades. He uses the rather sparse constant nuclear cost data as an argument against building more. I think he’s grossly over-extrapolating. Has he factored in any of the overwhelming political support for wind and solar or the demonization and regulatory monkeywrenching of nuclear? How about the implications of China taking over the polysilicon market with it’s massive coal expansion and slave labor?
He does move outside of his trendlines when arguing against nuclear. He argues that nuclear plants take too long to build, while wind and solar at their low penetration level, which he acknowledges, can proceed exponentially. I wonder what happens when they run into material bottlenecks? Mark Mills has detailed how Net Zero aspirations are running up against mining realities. Here’s a summary based on EVs:
A recent analysis by the Wood Mackenzie consultancy found that if EVs are to account for two-thirds of all new car purchases by 2030, dozens of new mines must be opened just to meet automotive demands—each mine the size of the world’s biggest in each category today. But 2030 is only eight years away and, as the IEA has reported, opening a new mine takes 16 years on average.
Despite these and similar analyses, many countries, and many US states, are now proposing to accelerate deployment of solar, wind, and battery technologies without clear plans for overcoming the material shortfalls. One study sponsored by the Dutch government offered a blunt statement of reality: “Exponential growth in [global] renewable energy production capacity is not possible with present-day technologies and annual metal production.”
Another area of concern for these new technologies is their future cost, which will be inseparable from the velocity and scale of their entry into the market. Today, future plans for solar, wind, and battery technologies assume costs will continue to fall significantly, as they have over the last decade. But the implications of record-breaking demands for mineral commodities suggest the reverse is more likely.
He does acknowledge wind and solar intermittency and the need for storage. He’s very big on hydrogen. Does he understand the technology? It’s notorious for leakiness, volatility and low conversion efficiencies. He seems to think you can just take the current pipelines and gas plants and convert them to hydrogen with minimal muss and fuss.
I sort of get the impression that he’s cloistered and surrounded by Net Zero types. He predicts the collapse of the fossil fuel industry and is trying to pinpoint when it will be. He has an incredible bias against nuclear and dismisses people comparing solar and nuclear waste as nuclear mouthpieces. He’s also very taken with the World War Two military buildup as an analogy for a renewables buildout. In September he participated in a group editorial for Bloomberg news touting Biden’s energy initiatives.
Doyne Farmer is sort of new on the public energy discussion scene and his ideas are fresher and more interesting than the usual fair put out by the RE crowd and they need to be addressed. I’d like to see him engage with some of the proponents on my side such as Alex Epstein, Robert Bryce or Mark Mills, … but I’m not holding my breath.
Picture is from Wikipedia. Uploaded by Magnus Manske. Author is Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA. Wikipedea Creative Commons License.
I know nothing about Doyne or what he and similar mathematical / financial geniuses get up to, but I was just having similar thoughts watching a well known French Trotskyist politician: “How can such an intelligent person fall for this guff?”
We waste a lot of time I think arguing whether the Greens are sentimental hippies or vengeful anti-capitalists or idle academics or predator capitalist rent-seekers. The common factor, I think (at least for the leading thinkers) is that they are intelligent people with a great curiosity and an urgent need to find solutions to everything.
So what does that make us? We’re not stupid, and we’re curious. Are we too lazy to look for solutions, or is there something else?
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Geoff – “so what does that make us?”.
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Mark, I was going to say “people striving to be realists”.
We don’t always achieve this, not least because energy tech is developing.
It’s possible to be too pessimistic therefore, at least theoretically.
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A key issue with wind is that the more of it there is, the more unstable the grid gets. Even with enormous quantities of wind built out, there will be plenty of lulls. There will also be ramping events, and naturally the scale of these is partly dependent on the quantity of wind on the grid.
Manhattan Contrarian has a piece on the feasibility of a renewables-only grid: https://www.manhattancontrarian.com/blog/2022-3-21-more-confirmation-of-the-infeasibility-of-a-fully-windsolarstorage-electricity-system
[I think we should link to MC more often, as one of the few sceptic blogs that link to us.]
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“The common factor, I think (at least for the leading thinkers) is that they are intelligent people with a great curiosity and an urgent need to find solutions to everything.”
Yes, but are they wise enough to see that not all problems need a solution? or that sometimes many disparate ways of dealing with a problem are better than a single idealised one?
Talking of Alex Epstein, great to see Mike Shellenberger defending him on Joe Rogan
leading to this cave-in from the Washington Post two days ago:
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Here’s Doyne’s paper that’s getting all the attention:
Click to access S2542-4351(22)00410-X.pdf