OnPoint by Keith Ng

A rather more convenient truth

Last month's issue of New Scientist presented the ultimate deus ex machina: The sun will save us from global warming.

Similar to Al Gore's graphs, it correlates sunspot activity with temperatures on Earth. More sunspots = hotter Earth. But of course, it's much more counterintuitive than that. The sunspots are an indicator of the sun's magnetic activity; as the sunspots pop up, it means that the sun's magnetic field widens, which helps to deflect cosmic rays away from the Earth. These cosmic rays actually help *cool* the planet, by changing the air circulation patterns and possibly aiding cloud formation - so the theory goes.

Bottom line: A sunspot crash is expected soon, which in times past have brought on Ice Ages. It's estimated that this sunspot crash could lower the average global temperature by 0.2 degrees - as much as the most optimistic hopes for the Kyoto Protocol by 2050.

Of course, it's also quick to stress that this is not a revival of the old debate that sunspots are to blame for global warming (love these headlines):

Scientists blame sun for global warming (BBC, Feb 1998)

Sun 'not to blame' for global warming (ABC, Sep 2006)

The truth about global warming - it's the Sun that's to blame (The Telegraph, July 2004)

Don't Blame Sun for Global Warming, Study Says (National Geographic, Sep 2006)

The New Scientist article acknowledges that the variations from the sunspot cycles *doesn't* generate enough energy to cause climate change, *but* the magnetic fields and the cosmic rays can make a difference, *but* that's not enough to account for the climate changes, either, *but* a sunspot crash can still reverse or at least slow down some of the effects of climate change.

Bottom bottom line: It won't help solve the cause of climate change, but it will delay its effects for a few decades, during which we can clean up our act and save ourselves. Or live like SUV-riding kings and laugh at future generations. Suckers.

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My first mainstream cover piece and, arguably, the funniest thing ever published about the New Zealand electricity system, is now online at the Unlimited magazine website. Pertinent to the current debate is the economics of power, and in particular, I take issue with some of Hatfield-Dodds' claims, as articulated by I/S.

Renewable sources of power have a very steep increase in marginal costs. That's to say, producing the second 100MW of power is more expensive than the first 100MW, and the third 100MW will be even more expensive, etc. Why? When you decide to plonk down a wind farm, you choose the place with the most wind, the cheapest land, the lowest transmission cost, the least number of litigious pricks with expensive properties with a view of the site. Then you build your windfarm, and then the next wind farm that you build will have to be somewhere else - and it's going to be more expensive and/or less windy etc.

So, for all the talk of renewables being economically viable - they are - they will only be economically viable up to a point. While technology will work to lower the cost in the long-term, it's worth keeping in mind that the more you have, the most expensive the next one will be.

The way carbon tax works is by raising the cost of fossil fuel electricity generation, thereby making more renewables viable. For example, if coal generation costs 20c/megawatt, then windfarms will be economical up to that point; when carbon tax raises coal generation to 25c/megawatt, then all those windfarm sites where it'd cost 21-25c to generate a megawatt suddenly become economically viable. Hey presto - more windfarms, more expensive power.

But the problem is with how the costs are spread out. First, it's not the power companies who will absorb the cost, it's power consumers. So, with the carbon tax scenario, not only will consumers pay for the more expensive windfarms, but they'll also have to pay that 5c premium on the coal power as well.

The other way to do it, as is done in Australia and Britain, is to require retailers to buy a certain percentage of their power from windfarms. You can still get the same number of windfarms, and consumers still pay for those windfarms, but they don't have to pay the carbon tax as well.

The question is: do we want to encourage renewables, or do we want to punish polluters? The latter isn't without merit, but the problem is that ma and pa *are* the polluters - do we want to zap them with a tax to discourage them from polluting (i.e. using power)?

To make an argument for carbon tax, it needs to influence behaviour at both the generation and the consumption ends. If it was really painless for consumers, it wouldn't have any effect on consumption. And if it only influenced generation, why not just regulate it?

It's unavoidable - if you want people to use less power, you've got to kick them where it hurts, economically speaking. So, do we?