Houston, we have a problem

Houston, we have a problem… actually we have two problems

  1. Texas has massive power outages as an “unprecedented” polar vortex hits, and
  2. we just can’t agree on what to conclude from this event.

The current unfortunate (and I assume uncomfortable) situation in Texas where over 4 million people were without electricity earlier this week, is revealing about how people view the energy debate.

  • On one extreme I have seen multiple “sharings” of a (very) old photo of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine to “prove” how reliance on renewable energy has caused the problems.
  • On the other extreme, it is claimed that the polar vortex is yet more proof that climate change is here and now and we should demand more renewables and shut O&G (and nuclear).

Both of these are confirmation bias in action.

Unfortunately, reality is likely to be far more complex. Texas looks like a plane-crash in the sense that a lot of things have had to line up (badly) for the outages to happen.

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50% Renewables: The Good the Bad and the Average

Three facts about wind generation of electricity in the UK:

(1) Headlines exclaim that the UK has beaten its own record and produced 55% of its demand from renewables alone.

(2) Similar headlines (here and here) boast of the average contribution of renewable power over the year (2020 is likely to be a record) and demonstrate the real and laudable displacement of coal and consequent dramatic (world-leading) reductions in GHG emissions.

(3) No headlines, but very real – days when wind and solar don’t contribute and these cause significant perturbations to the grid, price spikes and CO2 emissions rise.

All of these are factually correct – but depending how they are presented (or ignored) can significantly change the narrative.

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In the Court of King Crimson: lessons from Covid – Part 2

According to the author Stephen King, the Crimson King was “the orchestrator of chaos and decay” – and so it is with many faceless corporations: Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma and now maybe Big Tech. 

To be sure the “Big” ones have some extremely bad history, lead in petrol, brutal marketing for a known killing habit, many medical scandals (from thalidomide to opiate epidemics), and now for Big Oil the entire carbon footprint of billions of consumers. Orchestrators of chaos and decay, you bet. 

The above may be a fair representation – and is one beloved of headline writers. However, there are alternative narratives that can be equally true and yet coexist. We have to be ready to accept some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance to be able to hold conflicting but valid narratives at the same time. Or just have very short memories.

The Big Pharma Redemption

Big Pharma has a bad rap – the brilliant Ben Goldacre has provided grist with Bad Pharma and indeed Bad Science. In the US “aggressive marketing” of opioid painkillers led to “100 deaths a day” from overdoses – and huge profits for the corporations. 

Add into this, the very human reaction of “chemophobia” and you get mistrust of the whole industry. Indeed, this may even be part of the reason for the rise in the anti-vax (pre-covid) movement.  Fear of chemicals and technology with very little understanding of the science is a common problem because cutting-edge technology in any domain is way ahead of a lay-person’s understanding.

But the other side of the narrative is so huge and so important that it is largely not noticed.

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