Sunday, January 13, 2013

Learning curves, negative and positive--a Carbon Based original

    Under most circumstances, the more we practice at a task or a project, the greater our skill. In a positive learning curve, the costs of acting go down as the rewards increase.  But in some instances, practice makes our performance worse.  Economists and psychologists describe a negative learning curve as one where the more we persist with an activity, the greater the costs we face.  Practice makes us worse off.

    A 2011 article by the vigorously anti-nuclear Joe Romm in Think Progress asked, "Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve?"According to the piece, even the most successful nuclear operations suffer from a sharp growth in construction and operating expenses, even after adjusting for inflation.  Unlike wind and solar, where the cost per kilowatt hour has been steadily dropping, nuclear's has climbed.  A 2007 Moody's study finds nuclear costs mounting from $4000 before 2007 to $5000 to $6,000 today. One case Romm cites in Florida is even more expensive.

    Lest you think that this is just a problem for the balkanized, inefficient, poorly regulated US, Romm links to a paper that finds the same pattern in France's nuclear industry. Arnulf Grubler of the International Institute for Applied Systems in Austria analyzed public records for Energy Policy and wrote “The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing”.

     The cost escalation has happened even though French reactor designs are standardized to a degree that impossible in the US, and even though costs go down per unit as the size of the reactor increases.   France has other advantages, too, such as a powerful, well-run state utility. But this hasn't saved it from the negative learning curve.  Grubler speculates that the French cost rise stems from the inherent complexity of nuclear technology, which demands "a formidable ability to manage complexity in both construction and operation."  It's an ability nobody has, not even Electricite de France. 

    Romm's stinging conclusion: "New nukes have gone from too cheap to meter to too expensive to matter." 

    So much for nuclear power (though I wonder whether the same objections would apply to thorium-based nuclear reactors).  But I'm struck by the notion of negative learning, defined as an activity that grows more costly the longer it's pursued.

    In the broader climate change landscape, the business as usual scenario -- the path we're on now -- exemplifies negative learning.  Sticking with our carbon-intensive ways entails worsening costs in the form of natural disasters, sea level rise and other impacts.  Most casual onlookers or organizations tend to regard climate impacts as random.  But they are externalities that follow predictably from burning fossil fuels.  The more greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere, the higher the costs go.

    One reason we remains stuck in this negative learning curve is ideological.  A substantial minority of American citizens have political objections to the kind of actions required to cut emissions drastically.

    Occasionally public opinions leans toward actually taking action against climate change, usually after a natural disaster.  That's when fossil fuel propagandists hurl themselves into the fray.  Hundreds of megaphones start blaring , stupefying the debate with a cacophony of marginal scientists, pro-capitalist think tanks, and industry flacks. A coalition of petroleum, steel, autos and utilities use their legislative clout to stop anyone from thinking about the origin of the growing costs, or noticing that they're not random. 

    This kind of political bind bedevils the whole world, not just the United States. The dispiriting fizzle of the latest round of international climate talks in Doha revealed yet again that the US inaction has global allies.  The motives of poorer countries are different from the wealthy nations, and stem largely from the urgent need to use energy to advance their development.  They have much catching up to do, and to reach the goal, they believe, they need a full energy portfolio, including fossil fuels.

    The irony is that with climate change, a positive learning curve awaits us when we cut emissions.  Because of the physical nature of growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, early carbon mitigation can have huge benefits.  We have the power to avoid decades of growing costs.

    A recent report in Nature suggested that an international price on carbon at $20 per ton today gives the world an almost 60% chance of holding global temperature increases under 2°C. This temperature level would blunt the costliest impacts of global warming, including: rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and extreme weather.

    Unfortunately for slow learners or non-learners, the cost of action closely tracks the level of greenhouse gas concentrations.  By 2020, when the parts per million are higher, we will need a price of $100 per ton of carbon to achieve the same result.  If we wait until 2030, no price on carbon, no matter how expensive, will be able to hold the line on temperature. 

    Under these circumstances, the moral and economic case for action now is strong. Rather than linger in a negative learning curve, we should actually try to benefit from our experience.  But we live in a cynical, paralyzed, ungovernable time, when our elites cannot act on behalf of our species in any coherent way. 

Some learning curves from an 1899 issue of Popular Science Monthly


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