A Chemist looks at the Leap Manifesto and finds it wanting

This morning as I was enjoying a well-earned coffee break a fascinating announcement lit up my Twitter feed. It was about “The Leap Manifesto”. By the breathless tweets I expected a highly-researched document full of insight and new ideas, maybe like An Ecomodernist Manifesto that I blogged about earlier this year. To my disappointment I found a minimalist web page almost completely free of useful references or critical details.

Looking deeper, I went to the “sign the manifesto” section where I observed “The 15 Demands” which apparently form the meat of this Manifesto. These demands range from somewhat reasonable to the ridiculous to the sublime and would take numerous blog posts to address individually. Happily for me, I have been writing this blog for almost a year and the Manifesto addresses a number of topics I have previously covered in detail. That being said no one is going to sit and read 5000+ words on this topic so I tonight will stick to my area of blogging expertise and address Demands #2, #3 and #6.

Demand #2 says the following:

The latest research shows we could get 100% of our electricity from renewable resources within two decades; by 2050 we could have a 100% clean economy. We demand that this shift begin now.

This demand is the only one of the lot that actually has any references associated with it since it is discussed on the cover page of the web site. The statement references two documents:

Sustainable Canada Dialogues. (2015). Acting on climate change: Solutions from Canadian scholars. Montreal, QC: McGill University

Jacobson, M., et al. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy 39:3 (2011).

Regular readers of this blog will know well how I feel about these two documents. The first is a feel-good document written in a policy-orientated style that fails to impress. The major problem with the document is that it has been written by urbanites who appear completely unaware of the scale of our transportation issues in Canada. I will not go further into that concept until later (Demand #6). Instead I will hit the bigger target: the Jacobson paper.

I have already written a couple very detailed blog posts on the Jacobson paper. The two blog posts are nominally about a follow-up paper but both primarily detail shortcomings in the Jacobson 2011 Paper. The first: Deconstructing the 100% Fossil Fuel Free Wind, Water and Sunlight USA paper – Part I Why no nuclear power? addresses serious shortcomings in the Jacobson model with respect to nuclear power. The second: Deconstructing the 100% Fossil Fuel Free Wind, Water and Sunlight USA paper – Part II What about those pesky rare earth metals? points out that renewable energy technologies depend heavily on a rare earth metals. As I point out in another blog post On renewables and compromises Part II Rare earths in renewable technologies (and a follow-up blog post at the Huffington Post which I will discuss later) we simply do not have a supply of rare earth metals necessary to address the needs of the facilities suggested in Demand #2. It is lovely to demand that the government do something but before you make a demand you might try to determine whether accomplishing the demand is even possible?

Arguably the first half of Demand #2 (100% electrical energy in 20 years) may conceivably possible, with a Herculean effort, but the part about achieving 100 % clean energy by 2050 (i.e. 100% fossil fuel free energy status) is simply a pipe dream. I did an intellectual exercise detailing what it would take to achieve a fossil fuel-free British Columbia, the short version is here: Dispelling Some Myths About British Columbia’s Energy Picture and the more detailed version is here: Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a “fossil fuel-free BC“? The take-home message from those pieces: In order to achieve a “fossil fuel-free B.C.” we would need to somehow replace the almost 60 per cent of our energy needs currently being met with fossil fuels through alternative sources. Given that BC, which is incredibly rich in hydro, cannot reasonably achieve a fossil fuel-free status in the timeline presented the idea that Saskatchewan or Ontario could achieve similar results without a heavy investment in nuclear power, is simply inconceivable.

This brings us to Demand #3

No new infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future. The new iron law of energy development must be: if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard, then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard.

Demand #3 is a typical NIMBY/BANANA demand and reflects a common misconception about energy amongst the non-technically inclined. I address the problem in detail in another blog post On Renewables and compromises, Intermission: Energy Density and Power Density which points out that while our modern society is very power-hungry and uses a lot of energy, most renewable energy sources have very low energy density. Energy density is the amount of energy stored in a unit of mass or volume. The thing that makes fossil fuels so attractive to our society is that they represent a very dense energy source. The reason that fossil fuels are so energy dense is that Mother Nature has done the all-important job of converting the power of the sun into a biological form, then geology compressed it from a less dense to a more dense form. Large energy projects cannot, by their nature, reasonably be put in every person’s backyard. If we are going to survive in a renewable energy future we will need a lot of energy from hydro and geothermal sources and you simply can’t put a commercial-scale geothermal or hydro facility in anyone’s backyard.

To put it into perspective, solar, the highest density renewable, has a theoretical power density of up to 200 W/m2but that the best solar collection systems seldom do better than 20 W/m2(in desert solar photovoltaic farms). The further north (or south) you go the lower the theoretical maximum, and thus the lower the resultant systems. A truly exceptional visualization of this is presented by David Mackay athttp://withouthotair.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/david-mackays-map-of-world-update.html. As for the remaining renewables, the best biofuels can achieve about 2 W/m2 while wind can achieve a maximum of about 3 W/m2. As Dr. Wilson points out, since Germany and the United Kingdom consume energy at a rate of approximately 1 W/m2 in order to supply either country with power using wind they would need to cover half of their total land mass with wind turbines which is not a realistic option in a country with cities, farms and forests. Even with that density, the country would be powerless in the dead of winter or on any wind-free evening.

As for these energy systems, as I mentioned above, they cannot function without rare earth metals and as I point out in my blog post Our Demand For Renewable Energy Comes With Canada’s Dirty Little Secret rare earth metals facilities are neither small nor are they clean and they certainly do not fit under the “new iron law”. The activists who prepared these demands appear to be unaware of where the wood, metal, concrete and aluminum needed to create their infrastructure actually comes from. None of these can be scaled down to what you would build in your backyard.

NIMBY only works if you are rich enough to be able to import your raw materials from somewhere else. While I agree that most of the initial signers of the Manifesto might be that rich, the rest of us aren’t and so we will continue to need to hew wood and draw water.

I must say of all the demands the one I find most amusing is Demand #6:

We want high-speed rail powered by just renewables and affordable public transit to unite every community in this country – in place of more cars, pipelines and exploding trains that endanger and divide us.

I cannot imagine greater proof that this list was written by a bunch of urbanites than a suggestion that we connect the country (and all cities) by high-speed rail, powered by renewables. As I wrote in my blog post Dispelling Some Myths About British Columbia’s Energy Picture

With improved transit and smart planning we should be able to reduce our energy needs for transportation; but the vast majority of British Columbia cannot be served by mass transit. There is simply not enough money available to give every driver from Creston to Fort Saint John and from Invermere to Prince Rupert an alternative to driving. That means that for most of British Columbia, we will still need personal vehicles.

Moreover, all the transit in the world will not address the need for panel vans and light trucks. Contractors, suppliers and salespeople cannot rely on the transit system. Try to imagine a plumber attempting to transport a new sink or toilet and all her supplies/tools to a job site on a bus?

Finally, no amount of transit will reduce the need for the transport trucks that bring the groceries to market and supply the boutiques of Vancouver. The last time I looked it was pretty much impossible to move a pallet of milk or apples on SkyTrain.

Given our current technological state we are nowhere near a position where British Columbia can achieve 100 percent fossil fuel-free status. Any plan that ignores that fact is simply magical thinking.

I think that last line pretty much summarizes my opinion of the 15 Demands and The Leap Manifesto. They ignore the laws of physics and show a profound misunderstanding of energy science. As such they represent nothing more than the magical thinking of a bunch of activists who have never actually had to hammer out how a system like the one they “demand” would be sourced, built and paid for. The authors of the Manifesto are well-meaning but appear to lack the real-world experience to understand that Canada is a HUGE country and building a trans-continental railway was an incredible achievement. The thought of connecting every community in Canada by rail (powered by renewables no less) doesn’t even warrant the description “pie in the sky” it is simply delusional.

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11 Responses to A Chemist looks at the Leap Manifesto and finds it wanting

  1. This one is pretty funny

    “And since we know this leap is beginning late, we need to invest in our decaying public infrastructure so that it can withstand increasingly frequent extreme weather events.”

    Like

  2. Unknown says:

    I especially liked the NIMBY line about if something doesn't belong in your backyard it doesn't belong anywhere.

    A lot of people in Ontario would love to be able to invoke that demand and rid themselves of those ugly wind turbines and solar panels.

    Like

  3. V8 4bbl says:

    Dreams of utopia – whats wrong with that. Many are inhabiting a lucid dystopia right now, never mind 20 years from now. Are we comfortably insulated from objective reality, or willfully ignorant. The leap agenda is a working hypothesis. A wish list.
    .

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  4. Mark says:

    The leap agenda is a working hypothesis. A wish list.

    I think it's clear it is a non-workable hypothesis. A demand list.

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  5. Blair says:

    I would tend to agree with Mark. The use of the term “demand” does a good job of indicating the intentions of the authors, in my opinion.

    Like

  6. Fritz says:

    I would have a lot more respect for the modern environmentalist movement if they actually spent more time advocating plausible solutions rather then lists of demands based on delusions of utopia. A prime example the the author has cited, replace dirtier power sources such as coal with cleaner and more efficient ones such as nuclear. I don't necessarily agree with abolishing coal as an energy source as coal burning technology has come a long way in recent years, but in advocating for wind and solar as replacements they have left no other option but to have gas fired power plants on standby for the times when the wind does not blow or that the sun does not shine. Another one is the automobile, rather then abolishing the motor car, promoting electric cars, or demanding fuel economy and emission standards that defy the laws of physics, why not advocate natural gas as an alternative fuel?
    But I think that the most revealing aspect of this manifesto is that they want to replace an economic and social order that works, albeit with flaws, with one that cannot and never will.

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  7. V8 4bbl says:

    Some valid observations yet don't get hung up on semantics.
    Urgency of action is the gist of the tract.
    The use of the word demand seems clear to me simply an emotive one used to convey the seriousness of the challenges before us.
    Revolution being another emotive word denoting the urgency of the issues and the speed at which we are running out of time to influence outcomes.

    Obviously the manifest people are in no position to make demands. However action is required and a vision for the future is needed that is not the present trend of economic and social order that supplies stability and wealth for a small minority at the expense of the many and the future of humanity.
    If present trends continue… History is replete with evidence of endemic warfare, degraded environments and failed societies.
    To avoid dystopia would require evolution not revolution guided by rational objective, scientific thought and a vision of compassion and justice for humanity and a balance towards environmental sustainability. With political will – achievable goals within our present democratic systems.

    A disparate group of fringers have issued a joint statement of what they think a fair and just society should be. Not all goals are immediately practical but are the spirit and vision of the goals worthy?
    The purpose is to generate discussion and awareness and hopefully influence future decisions. Every journey needs a destination. Even a petrol head like myself can see that much or perhaps Ive spent too much time with my head in a gas can.

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  8. About the mass transit situation, perhaps they are suggesting a lifestyle switch? Is BC anything like Ontario? http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2015/07/27/rent-vs-buy/

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    • Blair says:

      Footprint,

      BC is a lot like Ontario in that there is a very dense small area (GTA versus GVRD) that is amenable to rapid transit and a vast majority of the province in which rapid transit is simply impossible due to population densities. In BC the problem is mountains between smaller population centers in Ontario it is the huge distances.

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  9. We asked power generation experts about that national wind hydro grid idea – Infeasible. One laughed ad called it the ‘national wind, hydro and candlelight grid’ https://friendsofsciencecalgary.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/power-generation-information-on-difficulties-of-instituting-the-proposed-wind-hydro-national-grid-network-in-acting-on-climate-change/

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  10. Pingback: The Leap Manifesto: Mixing ice tea with bathwater | A Chemist in Langley

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