Greenpeace’s misleading claims

I’m going to keep today’s rant short. If you use social media, you’ve probably seen this graphic touting China’s growing use of wind power. (Minus the red stamp that I added.)



China has installed an impressive number of wind turbines over the last few years — but nothing close to what the above graphic implies. Here are the numbers you need to see why the Greenpeace claim is misleading:

First: In 2014, wind turbines generated an amazing 153.4 TWh of electricity. That’s more than the total generated by Norway (147.8 TWh in 2012). And, as you can see in the chart below, it’s also more electricity than China generated from nuclear power (130.5 TWhs).

Wind and nuclear electrical generation in China, 1993-2014.

Wind and nuclear electrical generation in China, 1993-2014.


And here’s a chart from the U.S. Energy Information Agency showing electricity generation in the United States by source. (I’ve highlighted nuclear generation for 2014.)

Electricity generation, nuclear power, 2014. EIA.

Electricity generation, nuclear power, 2014. EIA.

The grand total for nuclear is 797.0 TWhs in 2014. Admittedly, math isn’t my strong point. But I’m pretty sure that 797 > 153.54.

There’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on in the Greenpeace graphic and it centers around the word “can.” As in, “China’s wind farms can now produce…” I suspect they’re using what’s known as the “installed capacity” for wind turbines in China. Installed capacity is the theoretical output from a given source. Under optimal wind conditions, a 3 MW wind turbine will produce 3 MW of electricity at any given moment. But to compare the capacity factor of a wind turbine with that of a nuclear power plant is woefully misleading.

China’s installed capacity for wind stand at around 115,000 MW. U.S. nuclear power plants have an installed capacity of 100,000 MW. So, it looks like this is the voodoo-math Greenpeace used for their claim in the graphic.

China is adding sources of renewable generation at a fevered-pitch. Misleading numbers only detract from that story.

Going Deeper for Oil in the Gulf of Mexico

There was a scene in the 1980s film, Crocodile Dundee, where a group of punks pull switchblades on the Aussie hero and demands his wallet. Dundee looks amused. His girlfriend urges him to hand over his cash, pointing out that the thief has a knife.

“That’s not a knife,” laughs Dundee. He whips out a humongous Bowie knife with a 10-inch blade. “Now, this,” he says with a smirk, “is a knife.”

Don't worry. It's just a game.

Don’t worry. It’s just a game.

I thought of that line today after happening on an article titled, “Players Focus on Deepwater Alaminos Canyon.” The piece appeared in the October 2013 issue of Explorer, a monthly publication of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. One of the benefits of the Internet is the easy access it provides to places from which we were previously barred. As a virtual fly on the wall, you can hear what people or groups say when they alone, just talking among friends.

The Explorer article has a lede that gave me vertigo: “It’s possible to look at the Gulf of Mexico as the most expensive board game on Earth.”

Keep in mind that this was written three years after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people and allowed nearly 5 million barrels of oil to flow unchecked into the Gulf for some 87 days. That disaster — the worst of its kind to this point — isn’t mentioned in the article. The analogue to a board game refers to a battle between oil companies to exploit the black gold beneath the Gulf even more intensively, and to do it deeper. The wellhead under the Deepwater Horizon was 5,000 feet below the surface. The difficulty operating equipment at that depth played a large role in the scale of the BP disaster. It was just too deep to cap after the explosion.

And here’s what reminded me of the scene from Crocodile Dundee. The “Deepwater Horizon?” That wasn’t deep water. The article trumpets “the world’s deepest drilling and production platform, floating in more than 8,000 feet of water.” Three thousand feet deeper than the Deepwater Horizon’s well.

Now, that is deep water.

Seriously, have we learned anything from the 2010 disaster?

Apparently, someone has: the article ends with this sobering quote from John Snedden, identified as the director of the Institute for Geophysics at the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin.

“One thing I learned after 25 years in the industry,” he said. “Never underestimate the power of technology and the persistence of engineers and geologists to develop large discovered volumes of oil and gas.”

I don’t doubt that for a second.

Did Germany’s shift from nuclear power cause a rise in coal-fired electricity?

A coal-fired power plant in Berlin. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

A coal-fired power plant in Berlin. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

Everyone knows that Germany’s panicked decision to exit nuclear power following the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, and fast-track renewable power has had the unfortunate consequence of increasing the use of coal-fired power plants and causing a spike in CO2 emissions.

Most recently, writing in the New York Times this Monday, reporter Melissa Eddy put it this way:

“The race to shutter the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, for example, has resulted in many power providers using brown coal, or lignite, the cheapest and dirtiest of all fossil fuels to keep the power flowing to customers. This, in turn, has led to an increase in carbon emissions”

It’s a simple narrative (less nuclear = more coal) but it’s wrong on several fronts.

German-based energy writer, Craig Morris, has covered these myths in detail – including a piece today — so I’ll focus on what seems to me to be the error with the most important implications: that the anti-nuclear component of Germany’s energy transition has caused a rise in CO2 emissions.

First, the experts I’ve talked with on two reporting trips to Germany (in 2012 and again last October), are, indeed, concerned about a pattern of increasing CO2 emissions in Germany. None of them, however, blamed the 2011 closure of 7 nuclear power plants for the increased GHGs.

Here’s why (Click on the “Enlarge” link in the caption for a better view):

Changes in German electrical power generation by source, 2010-2014.

Changes in German electrical power generation by source, 2010-2014. (Enlarge)

Nuclear power did indeed decline between 2010 and 2014 – by 43.7 Terawatt hours. But, that was more than compensated for by increased electrical generation by renewable sources, such as wind and solar, which rose by 52.6 TWh over the same time period.

What renewables did not replace was natural gas, which declined by 30.8 TWh between 2010 and 2014.

Germany’s single largest supplier of natural gas is Russia — and that country has raised the price of this valuable commodity. German utilities have reduced the use of pricy gas and replaced it with cheap (and dirty) coal. Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it is still a significant source of CO2 — unlike the renewable sources that Germany is investing in.

Still, Germany needs to make changes to reduce the use of dirty coal. But this isn’t news to German experts either. The government has said it will force the closure of the dirtiest coal plants, and there remains the possibility that the European Union’s failed carbon cap-and-trade program (which Germany is bound by) will raise the price of carbon pollution to levels that will actually have an impact on emissions. And, it should be noted that German’s CO2 emissions actually dropped last year. Without these other changes, that trend may not continue, however.

One last point: In the chart above, you may have noticed that nuclear power generation began to fall in 2006. That’s because the nuclear phaseout was not an emotional reaction to Fukushima, but an integral part of German energy policy that began in 2000, more than a decade before the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Craig Morris goes into much greater detail here pointing out the flaws in the NYT article. (And he has far better graphics than the one I threw together above.)