Science

Benjamin Zycher on solar power

by on January 5, 2018 at 12:47 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

From my email, if you would like to read a more negative than usual take:

“A couple of observations on your Bloomberg column on solar power:

  • There is nothing “clean” about solar (or wind) electricity, primarily because of its intermittent nature.  Because it is unreliable, it cannot be scheduled (it is not dispatchable), and so must be backed up with conventional (usually gas, sometimes coal) plants.  The latter units must be cycled up and down depending on whether the sun is shining or not, which means that they must be operated inefficiently (they experience rising heat rates), increasing their emissions of conventional effluents and greenhouse gases.  Engineering studies for Colorado and Texas, for example, estimate that this adverse effect becomes important when the market share in terms of capacity reaches around 10 percent (combined with the guaranteed market shares and must-take regulations enforced by many states).  I have been beating on this drum for years, but the press and many others continue to describe solar and wind power as “clean.”  No, it is not.
  • That emissions pattern is separate from the problem of solar panel disposal, vastly underpublicized in my view, in a world in which solid-waste disposal is priced inefficiently.
  • The Independent System Operators generally are forced to take renewable power when it is available, and the PUCs are forced to roll their high costs into the rate bases, spreading the costs across all consumers.  (The same is true for the high transmission costs attendant upon renewables.)  There has been some reform around the margins in a few states, as the PUCs have trimmed the net metering subsidies for rooftop solar systems, but this is a minor adjustment in a system characterized by vast inefficiency, cronyism and interest-group rent-seeking, upward transfers of income, feathering of bureaucratic nests, and increased pollution.  Such are the fruits of government wisdom.”

The author is Charles C. Mann, and the subtitle is Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  What a splendid book, this is, all rolled into one the reader receives two distinct biographies, a history of mid-20th century environmental science, a book on technological progress in agriculture, and one of the best overall frameworks for thinking about environmentalism.

Oh how many good sentences there are:

Until I visited post-Katrina New Orleans I did not realize that rebuilding a flooded modern city would involve disposing of several hundred thousand refrigerators.

Here is one fun bit:

So ineradicable was the elitist mark on conservation that for decades afterward many on the left scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions.  As late as 1970, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day as Wall Street flimflam meant to divert public attention from class warfare and the Vietnam War; left-wing journalist I.F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.”

By the way, as for the subjects of the dual biographies:

The two people are William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.

Here is the framing of the book:

…the dispute between Wizards and Prophets has, if anything, become more vehement.  Wizards view the Prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor, even racist (because most of the world’s hungry are non-Caucasian).  Following Vogt, they say, is a path toward regression, narrowness, and global poverty.  Prophets sneer that the Wizards’ faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, scientifically ignorant, even driven by greed…Following Borlaug, they say, at best postpones an inevitable day of reckoning — it is a recipe for what activists have come to describe as “ecocide.”

Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?

This will end up as one of the very best books of this year.

The city recently cracked down on delivery robots — autonomous devices such as those tested by Yelp’s Eat24 service last year, that travel on the sidewalk to distribute food and other essentials to customers. New rules limit them to a speed of three miles an hour, and require a human operator nearby. Moreover, only nine delivery robots can be tested in the city at any time, dashing the hopes of start-ups that had envisioned fleets of self-driving bots taking hot pizza to hungry millennials.

And:

The pet shelter initially reported good results from the security robot, with fewer car break-ins. However, controversy arose over its powers of surveillance, and at one point it was kidnapped. Unknown assailants covered the robot with a tarp and smeared barbecue sauce on its sensors to block them. The president of the pet shelter at first alleged the perpetrators came from a nearby homeless encampment but later said she wasn’t sure.

That is from Leslie Hook at the FT.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The first disquieting sign is that solar companies are spending only about 1 percent of their revenue on research and development, well below average for a potentially major industry. You might think that’s because things are going so great, but some major solar users may have already maxed out their technology. According to Sivaram’s estimates, four of the five most significant country users — Italy, Greece, Germany and Spain — have already seen solar energy flatten out in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent of total energy use. The fifth country, Japan, is only at 5 percent.

And:

A common view is that solar power will come into its own once batteries and other storage technologies make steady improvements. Yet Sivaram notes that lithium-ion batteries in particular are not well-designed for storage across days, weeks and months. Also note that about 95 percent of global energy storage capacity is from hydroelectric power, a discouraging sign for the notion that solar energy storage is on a satisfactory track.

And:

Solar energy has great potential for emerging economies, but some very basic preconditions are not in place. India, for instance, would need to end its kerosene and electricity subsidies. Freer trade in solar technologies is found in Tanzania and Rwanda but not always in West Africa.

My column draws heavily on Varun Sivaram’s forthcoming Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet, Amazon link here.  This book is full of useful information, a pleasure to read, and more generally a model for how to write about science, technology, and policy.  It will definitely make my 2018 “best books of the year” list.

Michel Serafinelli and Guido Tabellini have a new paper on that question, here is the abstract:

Creativity is often highly concentrated in time and space, and across different domains. What explains the formation and decay of clusters of creativity? In this paper we match data on thousands of notable individuals born in Europe between the XIth and the XIXth century with historical data on city institutions and population. After documenting several stylized facts, we show that the formation of creative clusters is not preceded by increases in city size. Instead, the emergence of city institutions protecting economic and political freedoms facilitates the attraction and production of creative talent.

Recommended.

And here is what it tells us:

In the most recent paper, and one published earlier in the year by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, these were among the predictive correlations:

■ The system was able to accurately predict income, race, education and voting patterns at the ZIP code and precinct level in cities across the country.

■ Car attributes (including miles-per-gallon ratings) found that the greenest city in America is Burlington, Vt., while Casper, Wyo., has the largest per-capita carbon footprint.

■ Chicago is the city with the highest level of income segregation, with large clusters of expensive and cheap cars in different neighborhoods; Jacksonville, Fla., is the least segregated by income.

■ New York is the city with the most expensive cars. El Paso has the highest percentage of Hummers. San Francisco has the highest percentage of foreign cars.

That is from Steve Lohr at the NYT, and here is a link to the earlier research as cited in the first sentence.

Good post.

There are a few other topics that can serve as useful handles to “understand” India.

1. Study the folk history of the popular Indian pilgrimage sites –

For a lot of people, Hinduism is associated with abstruse metaphysics, mysticism, Vedanta, and Yoga. And this obsession with the high falutin theoretical stuff, means that many students of Hinduism don’t pay as much attention to the pop-religion on the ground. And this religion is best understood by actually understanding the few hundred important pilgrimage sites scattered across the country. Each of these sites is ancient and has a “legend” associated with it. (the so-called Sthala Purana). The civilizational unity of India is largely accomplished because of the pan Indian reverence for these pilgrimage sites. Be it Benaras in the North, Kolhapur in the west, Srirangam in the south, or Puri in the East. A nice way to get started on this is Diana Eck’s book – “India – A Sacred Geography” where she makes a strong case for the theory that the idea of one India is one that is primarily stemming out of the pilgrimage experience of Hindus.

This study of pop religion will be messy and frustrating for people from an Abrahamic monotheistic background. But there is no better way to understand what makes Indians tick spiritually, and why every Indian is a millionaire when it comes to Religion.

2. Study of the history of Indian mathematics –

This may seem like an odd handle to understand India. But in my view it is useful, because Indian mathematical tradition that goes back to roughly 700 BCE, is one that is highly empirical, algebraic, and averse to theorizing and rigorous proofs. So it tells you a lot about the Indian mind. Which is very different from the Greek mind, in that it places a very very low premium on “neatness”, and a high premium on “improvisation”.

Unlike the Greeks, Indian mathematics is not that big on geometry. And also not that big on “visualization”. While someone like Euclid leveraged diagrams to make his point, Indian mathematicians like Brahmagupta and Bhaskara I/II, just stated results in 2-line or 4-line verses.

The Indian mathematical tradition is arguably the greatest Indian contribution to human civilization. Particularly the decimal number system, infinite series, and the algebraic orientation in general (markedly different from the Greek emphasis on geometry). The tradition includes Sulba Sutras (700BCE), Aryabhata (400CE), Varahamihira (400CE), Brahmagupta (500-600CE), Bhaskara I (600CE), Bhaskara II (1100-1200 CE), and ofcourse the famed Kerala school of mathematics (14th century). Madhava from the Kerala school approximated Pi to 13 decimal places. In more recent times, the most distinguished mathematical mind is ofcourse Srinivasa Ramanujan, very much a man in the Indian tradition, who disdained proofs and conventional rigor, and instead relied on intuition and heuristics.

3. Study of Indian poetry and music and its emphasis on meter

This is something that is again uniquely Indian – the very very high emphasis on meter. Which is a consequence of the Indian oral tradition and cultural aversion to writing. Which continues to this day. The emphasis on meter and rhyming was partly an aid to memorization and rote learning. And this emphasis begins with the Vedas (the earliest religious literature, preserved orally for some 1500 years before they were written down in the common era) And you see this in Indian poetry and even Indian film music to this day! Bollywood songs are characterized by their metrical style and perfect rhyming, which you don’t always see in western popular music. In that sense, the metrical legacy of the Vedas is still alive in popular culture.

That is from Shrikanthk.

Amateur meteorology in India

by on December 27, 2017 at 1:57 pm in Science | Permalink

India’s amateur forecasters are not formally trained in meteorology. Still, many people rely on individual blogs or Facebook pages that have built reputations after years of forecasting. “U r a gr8 help” reads a message Srikanth received from one reader of his Chennai Rains blog, which he manages with two other people. Another reader invited the Chennai Rains team to his wedding.

Weather wonks such as Srikanth are scattered around India. In the financial hub of Mumbai, 64-year-old retired businessman Rajesh Kapadia has become a local hero for the predictions on his blog, Vagaries of the Weather. Kapadia’s passion for meteorology started when his father gave him a wall-mounted thermometer as a teenager. At first, people mocked his weather obsession. “They thought I was a madman looking at clouds,” he said.

In the northern Indian city of Rohtak, 16-year-old Navdeep Dahiya sends local farmers WhatsApp and Facebook weather alerts while studying for school exams. Dahiya describes 2014 as his “golden year” — it was the year he went on a school trip to the India Meteorological Department. “I saw how farmers are helped by the weather,” he said. “I saw how they use all these gadgets to predict weather.”

Dahiya soon set up his own weather station at home; he has thermometers, an automatic rain gauge and a digital screen. Now known as Rohtak Weatherman, Dahiya sends out weather reports in Hindi and gets phone calls from farmers in the region asking for predictions.

That is from Vidhi Doshi at WaPo.  I would be very interested in knowing how the forecasts of the amateurs (probably not the right word at this point) compare to the professionals.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The onset of a new year brings plenty of predictions, and so I will hazard one: Many of the biggest events of 2018 will be bound together by a common theme, namely the collision of the virtual internet with the real “flesh and blood” world. This integration is likely to steer our daily lives, our economy, and maybe even politics to an unprecedented degree.

For instance, the coming year will see a major expansion of the “internet of things”…

And:

But whatever your prediction for the future, this integration of real and virtual worlds will either make or break bitcoin and other crypto-assets.

And:

So far the process-oriented and Twitter-oriented foreign policies have coexisted, however uneasily. I see 2018 as the year where these two foreign policies converge in some manner. Either Trump’s tweets end up driving actual foreign policy and its concrete, “boots on the ground” realization, or the real-world policy prevails and the tweets become far less relevant.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of cyberwar,  China and facial surveillance technologies, and the French attempt to ban smartphones at schools.

Yes, yes, I know patents are not the right measure, that is what we’ve got:

I exploit historical natural experiments to study how establishing a new college affects local invention. Throughout the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, many new colleges were established in the U.S. I use data on the site selection decisions for a subset of these colleges to identify “losing finalist” locations that were strongly considered to become the site of a new college but were ultimately not chosen for reasons that are as good as random assignment. The losing finalists are similar to the winning college counties along observable dimensions. Using the losing finalists as counterfactuals, I find that the establishment of a new college caused 32% more patents per year in college counties relative to the losing finalists. To determine the channels by which colleges increase patenting, I use a novel dataset of college yearbooks and individual-level census data to learn who the additional patents in college counties come from. A college’s alumni account for about 10% of the additional patents, while faculty account for less than 1%. Knowledge spillovers to individuals unaffiliated with the college also account for less than 1% of the additional patents. Migration is the most important channel by which colleges affect local invention, as controlling for county population accounts for 20-40% of the increase in patenting in college counties relative to the losing finalists. The presence of geographic spillovers suggests that colleges do cause an overall net increase in patenting, although I find no evidence that colleges are better at promoting invention than other policies that lead to similar increases in population.

That is from new research by Michael J. Andrews, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Or do we misallocate talent when it comes to innovation?  Here is a not so famous but very interesting paper by Murat Alp Celik:

The misallocation of talent between routine production versus innovation activities has a fi rst-order impact on the welfare and growth prospects of an economy. Surname level empirical analysis employing micro-data on patents and inventors in the U.S. between 1975-2008 combined with census data from 1930 reveals new stylized facts: (i) people with “richer” surnames have a higher probability of becoming an inventor, however (ii) people with more “educated” surnames become more proli fic inventors. Motivated by this discrepancy, a heterogeneous agents model with production and innovation sectors is developed, where individuals can become inventors even if they are of mediocre talent by excessive spending on credentialing. This is individually rational but socially inefficient. The model is calibrated to match the new stylized facts and data moments from the U.S. economy, and is then used to measure the magnitude of the misallocation of talent in innovation. A thought experiment in which the credentialing spending channel is shut down reveals that the aggregate growth rate of the economy can be increased by 10% of its value through a reduction of the misallocation. Socially optimal progressive bequest taxes that alleviate the misallocation are calculated, which serve to increase the growth rate of the economy to 2.05% while increasing social welfare by 6.20% in consumption equivalent terms.

I am not so persuaded by the idea of buying your way into innovative circles with credentials, or the analysis of the inheritance tax, but nonetheless this should stimulate thought.

So says Keith A. Meyers, job candidate from University of Arizona.  I found this to be a startling result, taken from his secondary paper:

During the Cold War the United States detonated hundreds of atomic weapons at the Nevada Test Site. Many of these nuclear tests were conducted above ground and released tremendous amounts of radioactive pollution into the environment. This paper combines a novel dataset measuring annual county level fallout patterns for the continental U.S. with vital statistics records. I find that fallout from nuclear testing led to persistent and substantial increases in overall mortality for large portions of the country. The cumulative number of excess deaths attributable to these tests is comparable to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Basically he combines mortality estimates with measures of Iodine-131 concentrations in locally produced milk, “to provide a more precise estimate of human exposure to fallout than previous studies.” The most significant effects are in the Great Plains and Central Northwest of America, and “Back-of-the-envelope estimates suggest that fallout from nuclear testing contributed between 340,000 to 460,000 excess deaths from 1951 to 1973.”

His primary job market paper is on damage to agriculture from nuclear testing.

forthcoming study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives doesn’t use any of those terms and explicitly says it must not be read as an “indictment” of tenure. But it suggests that research quality and quantity decline in the decade after tenure, at least in economics.

The authors of the paper — Jonathan Brogaard, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Washington at Seattle; Joseph Engelberg, professor of finance and accounting the University of California, San Diego; and Edward Van Wesep, associate professor of finance at the University of Colorado at Boulder — started with a question: “Do academics respond to receiving tenure by being more likely to attempt ground-breaking ‘homerun’ research and in this way ‘swinging for the fences?’”

After all, they wrote, “the incentives provided by the threat of termination are perhaps the starkest incentives faced by most employees, and tenure removes those incentives.” (The question is sure to annoy academic freedom watchdogs. In the authors’ defense, they do cite the benefits of tenure, including job stability’s potential to encourage risk taking.)

Looking for answers, Brogaard, Engelberg and Van Wesep collected a list of academics who worked and were tenured in economics or finance departments at 50 top-ranked institutions at any time between 1996 and 2014. The final sample included 980 professors, all of whom were tenured by 2004.

Here is the link.

Andy was great, here is the text and audio, here is the introductory summary:

Before writing a single word of his new book Artemis, Andy Weir worked out the economics of a lunar colony. Without the economics, how could the story hew to the hard sci-fi style Weir cornered the market on with The Martian? And, more importantly, how else can Tyler find out much a Cantonese meal would run him on the moon?

In addition to these important questions of lunar economics, Andy and Tyler talk about the technophobic trend in science fiction, private space efforts, seasteading, cryptocurrencies, the value of a human life, the outdated Outer Space Treaty, stories based on rebellion vs. cooperation, Heinlein, Asimov, Weir’s favorite episode of Star Trek, and the formula for finding someone else when stranded on a lonely planet.

My favorite part was this, which Andy answered with no hesitation:

COWEN: What if there were two immortal people, let’s say it’s the two of us, placed on opposite sides of the Earth, an Earth-like planet, and we can wander freely with no constraints but just foot speed. How long does it take us to find each other?

WEIR: Can we collude in advance in any way?

COWEN: No, we cannot.

WEIR: OK.

COWEN: But we know we’re trying to find each other.

WEIR: We know we’re trying to find each other. Well, we should both — but can we have a — are we both rational actors and we —

COWEN: We’re as rational as you and I are; take that as you wish.

WEIR: So, no?

[laughter]

COWEN: No.

WEIR: I think the best thing to do would be for both of us to pick an arbitrary great circle to walk, around the planet, and leave markings along the way denoting what direction you’re walking. So I would arbitrarily pick a direction to go and I would just go that direction with the intention of circumnavigating the entire globe, and I would walk at maybe half what is a comfortable speed for me. And you would do the same thing. Now, somewhere, our two — in fact, in two points — our great circles will intersect.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: And when one of us reaches the other one’s, then they start following the markers at full speed, and then you get the guy. Right?

COWEN: And what’s your best guess as to how long that would take?

WEIR: Well, if you pick two points, I’m guessing one of us would have to walk probably about a quarter of the way around the planet before we found the other one’s great circle. And then you’d have to walk again. So in terms of circumnavigation times, it would take you 2x to get all the way around the planet, because my initial plan was you’d walk half-speed. So I’m guessing it would be a quarter of that, so one-half x to get to your great circle, and then a quarter x to find you along your great circle, on average, I’m guessing. So one-half plus a quarter, so .75x. So three-quarters of the time that it would take to circumnavigate the planet.

COWEN: OK, great answer.

WEIR: That’s my guess.

Do read/listen to the whole thing

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Virtual reality technology can create vivid multiprojected environments, designed to feel real in some ways. In essence, with virtual reality we will be able to manage our empathetic and emotional reactions in a manner currently beyond us. The technology may make our medical treatments seem less painful by providing distractions. It could help alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, by allowing sufferers relive the bad experience in a way that helps them get over it. Athletes and test-takers might use simulations to get over “choking” and other performance problems. There are plenty of other uses we probably haven’t much thought of — I was struck by a recent report of a virtual reality “death simulation machine,” to help prepare people for their passing.

In this future, we will be able to steer and manage our emotional reactions to a greater degree. Do you think you don’t care enough about starving babies around the globe? There probably will be a virtual reality program to fix that, at least temporarily. You will be able to enter their world and experience their suffering in a manner that will seem almost real, perhaps in preparation for writing a check to your favorite charity.

One key question is which emotions we will decide to have more of. It would be nice to think we will use virtual reality to make ourselves more caring and more empathetic, but I’m not convinced. Just as gossip magazines and celebrity-based reality TV have long been popular, we might use virtual reality to vicariously sample the lifestyles of the rich and famous. That could make us more callous rather than more caring, or at least less involved in the suffering of others, as competing experiences will seem so much more exciting.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, Smith’s TMS lurks throughout.