Tag Archives: wind energy

Group Think: When Two Heads are Worse than One (Science and Sewing, in one post at last!)

It’s my untested belief that expertise in any technical field will result in a near-total loss of respect for journalism.

I know it did for me. The more I learned about climate change, the biodiversity crisis, environmental regulations, and renewable energy, the more I realized that newspaper articles reflected reality only by chance, in passing. More often, an ill-equipped person with good writing skills and no critical thinking ability would write a piece far outside of their education and background by interviewing a bunch of people who claimed to be experts, without evaluating their credentials. We get climate change pieces giving equal weight to well-respected international climate experts and oil-funded PR hacks, pieces on renewable energy with well-reasoned arguments by scientists quoting the best available information and fruit-loop arguments by naturopaths who wouldn’t recognize a herz if it came up and hit them on the head.

And you end up with a voting public almost completely muddled on key issues because they’ve come to the completely totally 100% incontrovertibly WRONG conclusion that there are two sides.

Of course people are entitled to their opinions. I am legally well within my rights to believe that Mars is peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen. But the legal right to hold an opinion is not the same, and can’t be the same, as the attitude that reality is then required to bend to accommodate that opinion. No matter what I believe, Mars is in fact NOT peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen, or by anything at all. The experts are right and I am just plain wrong. (Or I would be, if I held that opinion.)

This set of science experiments sheds some light on the psychology of our inherent tendency to give equal weight to two contrary opinions, even when one comes from an expert and the other does not. Fortunately, for those of you who have no intention of purchasing the article for the low-low price of $10, you can also read this fun summation in the Washington Post.

This went on for 256 intervals, so the two individuals got to know each other quite well — and to know one another’s accuracy and skill quite well. Thus, if one member of the group was better than the other, both would pretty clearly notice. And a rational decision, you might think, would be for the less accurate group member to begin to favor the views of the more accurate one — and for the accurate one to favor his or her own assessments.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, report the study authors, “the worse members of each dyad underweighted their partner’s opinion (i.e., assigned less weight to their partner’s opinion than recommended by the optimal model), whereas the better members of each dyad overweighted their partner’s opinion.” Or to put it more bluntly, individuals tended to act “as if they were as good or as bad as their partner” — even when they quite obviously weren’t.

The researchers tried several variations on the experiment, and this “equality bias” didn’t go away. In one case, a “running score” reminded both members of the pair who was faring better (and who worse) at identifying the target — just in case it wasn’t obvious enough already. In another case, the task became much more difficult for one group member than the other, leading to a bigger gap in scores — accentuating differences in performance. And finally, in a third variant, actual money was offered for getting it right.

None of this did away with the “equality bias.”

The research psychologists attribute this to our need to belong to groups and get along with people. It seems that need outweighs any practical consideration, a good deal of the time, including when money is on the line. Fascinating, right? People who are right and know they’re right defer to people they know are wrong in order to get along and maintain group dynamics, even when it costs them to do so.

When it comes to climate change, this is a serious problem.

Aside: Climate change is a real thing that is really happening and is a complete and total catastrophe. There is no debate on this point in any credible scientific circle. If you think that there is, I’m so sorry, but you’ve been had.

/aside

We end up not moving forward with policy solutions because we keep acting like the actual experts and the paid non-expert hacks share some kind of equivalence when they patently don’t.

But–and I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking this–it’s present in every community, including the SBC.

Ah! See? I told you I’d come around to it.

People act as if the opinions and contributions of experts and amateurs are equivalent when they are not.

Thankfully, the fates of human civilization and a minimum of 30% of animal and plant species do not rest on this fact. The worst that happens in most cases is that a person walks around for a good long time in a garment that looks like utter shit and feels really fabulous about it. On a scale of worldwide catastrophe, it doesn’t even rank.

On the other hand, as this science makes pretty clear, an entire generation of sewers are being educated largely by internet celebrities who are too incompetent even to understand how incompetent they are. It’s not a catastrophe, no, but it is a crying shame. And as predicted by the social psychologists, if anyone ever speaks up to point out that some of them are experts and other are, well … not …, they are pilloried as Mean Girls, jelluz haterz, and bullies.

Aside 2: Yep, I count myself in the group of people sometimes wandering happily about in a garment that on later reflection was not up to snuff. It happens. We’re all human. I won’t melt if someone points it out, though tact is always preferred. It doesn’t count as “bravery” to “put yourself out there” if you feel entitled to nothing but praise; and if you’re going to present your work in public you need to be prepared for public criticism.

/aside

So it’s not the end of the world, no, but it’s a detriment to all of us. The people getting the money, in many cases, haven’t earned it; the people with valuable skills to share don’t have the platform to do so; we keep acting as if everyone’s equal when they’re not to be Nice and keep everyone happy, even though not everyone is happy; there are entire boiling lava rivers of resentment and bitterness flowing right under all the green meadows we’re so happily skipping over (in our badly-pressed culottes and boxy tops with peter pan collars, no less). It’s weird. Can’t we, as an online culture, agree that it’s not a violation of the Geneva Convention if someone points out that a hem is crooked or a print isn’t matched? Does it matter if it’s not “nice”? Don’t we all benefit from increased honesty and openness? Do any of us actually expect to be perfect, or need to be treated as if we are perfect in order to function day to day? If you really don’t want people to point out how you fucked up, is it so much to ask that you acknowledge it yourself, then? Hey look at this horrible side seam–I really fucked up!

That went off on a bit of a tangent. Pardon me. Let’s drag it back on track:

The Equality Bias! It makes everything worse while we smile and pretend nothing’s wrong. Fight it!

New Year’s Resolution

And I make no apologies

Hey, I have an idea: this year, let’s save the world.

Oh I know, we’ve promised to before, but this time, let’s really do it.

Let’s get off our comfortable asses and decide to put real money and effort into climate change.

Let’s get that using  a tonne of metal and litres of gasoline to ferry one person and their shopping bags around for maximum personal convenience is a historical accident, not an inalienable human right. Let’s  start doing stuff ourselves again, like walking to the store, opening cans, sweeping floors, and shoveling snow. Let’s start using calories, not coal.

Let’s realize that a hundred years ago, people lived happy and fulfilling lives with three outfits, two pairs of shoes, no televisions or computers or cell phones, in a 1000-square foot house without a garage. The rest of this stuff we keep stuffing our lives with is fun and it triggers all kinds of happy chemicals in our heads, but those chemicals are fleeting and then we are left with the debt and the environmental burden. Let’s distinguish needs from wants, and learn how to say no to ourselves. We are not toddlers. We will not die from the  disappointment nor throw temper tantrums at the mall.

Let’s believe that a growth economy is not the only way to prosperity for all, that it doesn’t work on a finite planet and we may as well begin figuring out how to wind it down now, before it crashes into the twin walls of the Laws of Physics and biospheric collapse.

Let’s save the world! Let’s prioritize our health, our savings, our time, our happiness and, yes, our environment over the GDP and our personal acquisition scorecard.

Sound good? Who’s with me? For a New Year’s Resolution it’s hard to beat.

Excellent! Now that we’ve got that settled….

I only have one New Year’s Resolution for myself this year, and it’s goofy and saccharine and not specifically environmental, so you don’t get to read it here. But you could probably guess that I absolutely intend to get some wind energy projects built this year.

Is it 2011 already?

Light in the distance

It is. If the calendar tells the truth, it is about 2.5% of the way through 2011, no less, and I’m just getting around to saying hello. (Hello, 2011!)

2010 was a great year for me and my family, and an interesting year for the environment in Ontario. My daughter and I moved to a lovely little town where I got a great job doing exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do, and if anyone ever tells you that your job is unrelated to your happiness and you can learn to be happy with any old job if you only have the right attitude, don’t believe them. Then, punch them in the nose. Yes, some people can, but some people can walk tightropes slung between hundred-story office towers, and we’re not all expected to follow in those footsteps, are we?

My daughter is going to a lovely school with a teacher she adores and has a bunch of wonderful friends who live on her street, which is pretty much seven-year-old nirvana. We have a two-minute walk to her school and I have a fifteen-minute walk to my office, and getting rid of the commute has made a huge difference, too. Plus, I walk to work through a park.

You’re jealous, and that’s ok. Did I mention the little grocery store that sells local, organic food, or the local, organic butcher, both a five-minute walk from my office? No? I’ll stop. 2010 was a really good year for us.

It was more of a mixed blessing for the environment in Ontario, at least from the perspective of this project manager in wind energy. Plus: We have a Green Energy Act and there are proposed wind projects all over the province! Minus: if Tim Hudak’s conservatives are elected this fall, they may stay “proposed” indefinitely if he fills a pre-election promise to can FIT and put a moratorium on wind.* Plus: The GEA’s regulations are getting better and the process is coming into focus. Minus: That didn’t happen until late fall 2010, which isn’t so great for planning field work and getting the process complete in time for the Commercial Operation Date deadlines. Plus: David Miller in Toronto put a $0.05 fee on plastic bags, which had a dramatic impact on their consumption. Minus: Rob Ford was elected, and he’s promising to scrap it. Plus: Ontario actually shut down four coal generators–the first jurisdiction in North America and one of the first in the world to be able to do so, partially as a result of new green energy construction.

Apparently Ontario’s coal shut-down is the largest climate-change mitigation project in North America. Eat your heart out, California.

More narrowly for wind energy, 2010 was a year of tremendous growth as the Ontario Power Authority approved 1530 contracts under the Feet-In Tariff program.** If they all go ahead, that would make 1530 MW of new wind generation, equivalent to >3 of Ontario’s coal generating stations. It thrills me to be involved in that.

More in line with the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” is 2011’s election and its potential to change, upset, or derail all of those wind projects. Here’s hoping Hudak is just pandering for votes with a promise he has no intention of delivering on–I’m not sure how he could, anyway–or even better, that he loses. The end of the world, Dear Readers, is no time to be aiming for the Lowest Common Denominator and promising negligible tax breaks in exchange for a future of ecological and economic ruin.

Not that that’s ever stopped anyone before. See: Easter Island.

Working in the environmental field does not often give one grounds for cheery optimism. Most often, one is trying to squeeze lemonade from rotting limes: “Hey, so Copenhagen didn’t work out. We still have a few years left to mitigate climate change to the point where only millions people will die this century from climate change. We can do it!” This year–though we are still very much in rotting-limes-t0-lemonade territory–I felt optimistic about environmental progress and my role in it for the first time in many, many years. We are actually building enough renewable energy to shut down coal. It can be done. And I can help do it.

And so can you, by knowing enough not to be duped by cynical politicians who will tell you that it can’t.

~~~

*Note: Those bulldozed municipalities were, in the main, quite happy for the province to take over that decision-making function when they passed the GEA because the municipalities wanted to approve the wind farms but politically it was too difficult. They may be making a lot of noise now about how unfair it is, mostly to appease their constituents, but I’m not sure they actually want the authority back.

** 58 of which are for wind, and 10 of which I am managing under REA. Good god.

Six Months In to the Green Energy Act and Ontario Regulation 359/09

An excellent vantage point, but not much of a view.

The most exciting part of working under a new piece of legislation is that no one, and that includes the people who wrote it, knows what it means yet.

So far what it means is a whole lot more work under a process that was meant to streamline things–but never mind. The learning curve is so steep we’re using grappling hooks and pulleys to climb it.

Ontario, you may remember, had that horrendous summer blackout in 2003, along with most of the northeastern United States. That blackout resulted in part from decades of mismanagement of Ontario’s electricity system: no new construction to keep pace with the exponential growth in population or demand, or to replace aging and fragile generation or interconnection infrastructure. You know how your cell phone can burn out in about six months? And a toaster or a kettle will work for a couple of years, maybe a decade? Our electricity infrastructure also has a shelf life, and in order to keep the cost of Ontario’s electricity to consumers artificially low, for decades, successive governments did absolutely nothing about it.*

We import electricity from elsewhere, which would be fine if the transmission system were up to date and functioning well, but it isn’t. A lot of the electricity we import is coal-generation, and while Ontario has an abundance of hydro power thanks to our large rivers, it is tapped out. Moreover, old-style hydro generation has enormous environmental costs. If you’ve ever had any concerns about the impacts of wind turbines on birds, consider that fish cannot swim around water turbines.

Anyway. Basically, despite our huge hydro capacity, we depend on coal generation transmitted through an ageing and faltering system, leaving us vulnerable to blackouts and problems with supply and killing hundreds of Ontarians each year** from air pollution. Conservation is huge. It has by far the greatest potential contribution to our energy woes. We should absolutely conserve as much as we can, and due to our conservation efforts (plus the recession) Ontario’s electricity demand was the lowest in 2009 since 1997.

BUT.

But.

Conservation alone will not allow us to turn those coal plants off.

And we need to turn the coal plants off, because they’re killing people. Not to mention destroying the environment via global climate change.

In order to turn the coal plants off, we need new, non-polluting electricity generation. We need it NOW. Actually, we need it fifteen years ago. But it didn’t happen fifteen years ago, in part because a) renewable electricity doesn’t pay enough to make it worthwhile to build, and b) the Environmental Assessments required to get permission to build it took too long and were too expensive.*** The Green Energy Act attempted to fix the former by establishing Feed-In Tariffs, or fixed rates for electricity produced by various renewable means (for large-scale wind, the price is $0.135/kwh), over 20 year contracts. Ontario Regulation 359/09 attempted to fix the latter by creating the Renewable Energy Approval process, meant to streamline and simplify Environmental Assessments. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, but that’s a post for another day.

If you read the newspapers, and in particular the National Post and Toronto Sun, which seem to make careers out of taking potshots at anything anybody else does without ever proposing solutions of their own, you’ll read–frequently, and perhaps daily–about how we can’t afford the FIT rates for electricity. In fact, we can’t afford not to. This is counter-intuitive, I know–why is $0.056/kwh for coal too expensive, and $0.135/kwh for wind dirt cheap?

Because coal doesn’t cost $0.056/kwh.

(And nuclear doesn’t cost $0.086/kwh–this one easily dismissed, since that lovely stranded debt charge that shows up every month on your hydro statement relates directly to the substantial cost over-runs of Ontario’s current nuclear fleet. In fact last year when the Ontario government tried to commission new private nuclear investment, they found that no company was willing to undertake it for close to what the government planned to pay.)

Because coal kills workers. Thousands of people die every year from mining, transporting, refining and burning coal at power plants–69 in 2007 in the United States alone. You don’t pay for that. Meanwhile China is bragging that “only” 2,631 people died in their coal mines in 2009. I could not uncover a global statistic, but you can believe the total number of people who die just from the coal mining–not including black lung disease, not including injuries, not including refining, processing, transporting and burning–is substantial. And, for you, the end consumer, free!

Because coal sickens and kills Ontarians. We pay billions of dollars every year in health care costs for people with asthma–doctor and hospital visits, prescription drugs, lost days at work and school. And hundreds of those people will die, many of them children. A 2004 study by Daniel Kammen & Sergio Pacca, published in the Annual Review of Environmental Resources, found that when deaths and illnesses were factored in to the price of coal-fired generation, the price per kilowatt hour was fifty cents. That is ten times what you pay. Again–forty-five cents worth per kilowatt hour of injury, illness, disease and mortality is, for you, the end consumer, free.**** (Or so you think.)

Air pollution doesn’t just trigger asthma, it causes asthma. A recent well-publicized study shows that decreased smoking in Canada over the past few decades has led to a decrease in asthma among Canada’s children. Smoking is not the only form of air pollution that causes asthma. Outdoor athletes are far more likely to suffer from asthma than indoor couch potatoes, contrary to what you might assume, because they are far more exposed to air pollution.

Coal mining, refining and burning destroys the environment. The tops of mountains are blasted off. Rivers are filled with toxic sludge. Entire forests disappear. You don’t pay for any of that on your hydro bill–but you should.

You do not pay for the carbon output of coal on your hydro bill. Your kids get to pay that one, in the form of a dangerous climate.

The price of coal-fired electricity on your hydro bill reflects only a tiny percentage of the actual cost. It is heavily, absurdly subsidized by all levels of government, in order to placate consumers. You pay for coal-fired electricity in your hydro bill, and also in your tax support to Health Canada, the Ministry of Health, Environment Canada, to the Ministry of Environment, to the Ministry of Natural Resources, to your local Public Health Unit, and on and on. You just don’t know how much.

At $0.0135/kwh for wind, you are paying for everything. That cost reflects the total, as it factors in the environmental assessment and any requried post-construction mitigation for impacts to wildlife. There is no mining, no processing, no transporting, and no burning.  No one dies in a Wind Mine accident. No explosions. No blasted mountaintops, no ruined rivers. No kids in the hospital with asthma. No deaths. No hospital visits. No smog advisories. No kids kept inside on beautiful sunny days because the air will hurt them. And no ruined climate jeapordizing the future of human civilization.

All of that is included in the 13.5c/kwh for wind projects in Ontario under the FIT program.

It’s a bargain.

~~~~~

*This is like keeping your housing costs down by refusing to fix the leaky roof; in the long term, you won’t just need to replace the roof, but the walls, the floors, and all your stuff, from water damage. The motivation is clear enough: Ontario and nearby provinces and states were manufacturing powerhouses; keeping electricity prices low was a way to compete for factories and jobs. This has backfired and needs to be addressed–not least because it didn’t work, and caused Ontario to lag behind jurisdictions with higher electricity prices in both standard of living and productivity.

**249 in Ontario in 2009, despite our coal electricity generation being at the lowest level since 1945

***Ask anyone in the business of renewable energy how they feel about needing to conduct expensive, multi-year environmental assessments to build solar- or wind-farms to SAVE the planet when private developers can slap up a subdivision or an office tower without so much as a by-your-leave, when office towers are the leading cause of human-related death for migratory birds and both represent colossal wastes of energy and resources.

**** Their study found that the total price of wind was less than ten cents/kwh with human health costs factored in.

Good Stories, Damned Good Stories, and Statistics

I dated three Michaels in highschool. The first, a really sweet boy, moved to Las Vegas on three days’ notice when his parents illegally backed out of a real estate contract. The second, whom I barely remember, went to Hong Kong for the summer and never came back. And the third, another sweet boy who may or may not have been a criminal but that’s another story, either died or went to jail or disappeared, but in any case all his contact information broke one day and I never heard from him again. From this, I reasonably concluded that I am a Michael Curse, and regardless of what happens in my personal life, there is one thing I know for sure: I will never date a Michael again.*

In which I’ve done everything I criticize climate skeptics and anti-wind activists of doing, although with drastically less negative impact: I connected a series of factual events into a plausible narrative, thus making one hell of a story, and came to a wholly ridiculous conclusion.

~~~

Fact: 2009 was a colder-than-average year in Ontario
Fact: Some climate scientists at a well-known university don’t like each other, and discuss this on email.
Fact: In the 1970s, a minority of climatologists thought that the greenhouse effect might trigger an Ice Age–though this was never a common viewpoint, it got a whole lot of press.

Plausible Narrative: Climatologists are incompetent, bumbling idiots determined to repress The Truth, which is that global warming isn’t happening, or it would always be warmer everywhere.

Ridiculous Conclusion: Climate change isn’t happening. Or, if you prefer your Ridiculous Conclusions flavoured with a dash of Conspiracy Theory, it’s a plot of the UN to force a worldwide socialist government on us all, and it is up to all freedom-loving citizens to resist!

~~~

Fact: Wind energy generators under the new GEA may earn 13.5 c/kwh for their electricity.
Fact: Birds and bats often fatally collide with wind turbines.
Fact: Residential energy consumers in Ontario currently pay approximately 5.6 c/kwh for their electricity.

Plausible Narrative: It’s all a bunch of furriners coming into our wonderful province to jack up electricity prices so they can make a killing, while our democractically elected provincial government colludes with them by dragging our hard-earned coins directly from our pockets, and it’s all a scam because it doesn’t help the environment anyway!

Ridiculous Conclusion: Rise Up!

~~~

It’s possible that you don’t see the problem with the above two examples. Human minds are pattern-seeking missiles, after all, and if those facts are all you know, then the obvious pattern might seem like an inescapable conclusion. So here’s a less technical example:

Fact: Many species of birds fly south from Canada to Central or South America in the late summer or early fall of every year.
Fact: At the end of October, Canadian children dress up in terrifying costumes and go door-to-door demanding candy.

Plausible Narrative: Migratory songbirds are scared of witches.

In order for your pattern-seeking missile to explode so completely at the wrong target, you have to believe that you already know everything–that there are no further facts that might explain the situation in another way. That everything to be learned is available for free on the internet. That there is no value to the expertise gained in specialized education or work experience. I’m tempted to say that you need to be dull and incurious, never asking “why” after having leapt once to the wrong conclusion, and satisfied entirely by stories that paint those who disagree with you as villains, crooks, liars, and worse.

You may be asking yourself why I’m so convinced that my pattern-seeking missile is better at finding the target than yours, and that’s an excellent question. The answer is, it’s not, except that in my areas of expertise I’ve learned enough to correct course more efficiently, and have been wrong often enough to know that before you detonate, you have to ask yourself one not-so-simple question:

If you run your Plausible Narrative through the Scientific Method, does it come out looking more like stainless steel or hamburger?

~~~~~

*There may be reasons other than the Michael Curse why this is so.