1. One key issue missing from a recent Dot Earth blog post on the carbon commitment from electricity investments


    Yesterday Andy Revkin posted a very useful discussion among high level experts about the issue of “climate commitment”, as discussed in a recent article in Environmental Research Letters by Davis and Socolow.  Both the blog post and the journal article are worth a read to get a sense for the complexities associated with displacing fossil fuels globally, particularly in the developing world.

    The “carbon commitment” is a logical result of the growing focus on cumulative emissions and is a helpful heuristic to help people think longer term about the climate implications of our energy investment decisions.  For historical context on the evolution of thinking that led us to this point, see my 2013 article in Environmental Research Letters (Koomey 2013) and the associated blog post.

    The issue that I didn’t see raised in the responses so far is whether coal fired electricity is actually a net benefit to society after you correctly account for the external costs associated with such generation.  I visited Beijing in February 2014 during what was the worst week so far for air pollution (perhaps it’s exceeded those levels since, I don’t know) and having 30 million people living in such conditions is horrifying.  The official GDP statistics are perverse in that they count visits to the doctor from air pollution related illnesses as something that adds to GDP, but ignores the actual costs to the society in lost productivity and lost life.

    The economic literature on this for the US is quite clear:  Coal fired electricity delivers negative net value added.  This was the conclusion of Muller et al. 2011 writing in the American Economic Review, and this result is strongly supported by Epstein et al. 2011 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.  What has been less well studied is the economics of coal fired electricity in developing countries.  In those countries the coal is often dirtier and the pollution controls mostly nonexistent, but the population is at a point in their economic development where energy is quite valuable, so I don’t think one can say a priori whether the US results would also apply to those countries.   I think we CAN say with certainty that the actual GDP growth rate for China and other countries with comparable air pollution is much lower than what the official statistics state, because these external costs are not currently being counted.  

    Discussion of the carbon commitment article really must acknowledge the importance of these external costs. Some of the commenters implicitly assumed that coal fired electricity delivered net benefits for developing countries, and that’s not necessarily true, given what we know about the costs of coal pollution to society in the developed world.  We do need additional studies of those costs in developing countries, but anyone who’s traveled recently in coal-dependent places knows that those external costs are large and mostly uncounted, and without a doubt would reduce the GDP growth reported by those countries if they were properly internalized. 

    Coal is not cheap when you count the pollution costs, and debates like these need to reflect that reality.  Use hashtag #coalisnotcheap whenever you tweet about articles online about coal’s external costs, so it will be easy to compile those stories in the future.


    Epstein, Paul R., Jonathan J. Buonocore, Kevin Eckerle, Michael Hendryx, Benjamin M. Stout Iii, Richard Heinberg, Richard W. Clapp, Beverly May, Nancy L. Reinhart, Melissa M. Ahern, Samir K. Doshi, and Leslie Glustrom. 2011. “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.”  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.  vol. 1219, no. 1. February 17. pp. 73-98. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05890.x])

    Koomey, Jonathan. 2013. “Moving Beyond Benefit-Cost Analysis of Climate Change.”  Environmental Research Letters.  vol. 8, no. 041005. December 2. [http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/4/041005/].

    Muller, Nicholas Z., Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus. 2011. “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy.”  American Economic Review vol. 101, no. 5. August. pp. 1649–1675. [https://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/aer.101.5.1649]

  3. Upcoming class: Data center essentials for executives

    Cern datacenter

    Photo credit: By Hugovanmeijeren (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons 

    I’ve been struggling for years to convince executives in large enterprises to fix the incentive, reporting, and other structural problems in data centers.  The folks in the data center know that there are issues (like having separate budgets for IT and facilities) but fixing those problems is “above their pay grade”.  That’s why we’ve been studying the clever things eBay has done to change their organization to take maximal advantage of IT, as summarized in this case study from last fall:

    Schuetz, Nicole, Anna Kovaleva, and Jonathan Koomey. 2013. eBay: A Case Study of Organizational Change Underlying Technical Infrastructure Optimization. Stanford, CA: Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University.  September 26. 

    That’s also why I’ve worked with Heatspring to develop the following course:

    Upcoming online class (Nov 10 to Dec 12, 2014)–Data center essentials for executives.

    Here’s the course description:

    Spend five weeks learning from Jonathan Koomey, Ph.D., a Research Fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, and one of the foremost international experts on data center energy use, efficiency, organization, and management. Jon, along with help from other industry leaders, has developed this course to help experienced executives bring their internal information technology (IT) organizations into the 21st century. For the Capstone Project, students will propose management changes to their own organizations to help increase business agility, reduce costs, and move their internal IT organization from being a cost center to a profit center.

    I’m excited about this class, but to make it happen, we need lots of signups by mid September.  Please spread the word by sending this to upper level management in the company where you work.

  5. A short discussion of academic integrity and what it means

    I taught a class called Energy and Society as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley back in Fall 2011.  It was a kind of homecoming for me as I had taken the graduate version of that class at the Energy and Resources Group from John Holdren and the late Mark Christensen back in 1984.

    At some point in the semester I gave an impromptu lecture on academic integrity, and I recently ran across a recording of that lecture by chance. It struck me as a nice concise summary that others might find useful. Here’s an edited version:  

    It’s about the right time in the semester to remind everybody about academic integrity. It’s important that any work that you submit as yours should be your own individual thoughts—not thoughts lifted from other people in any way, shape, or form. When you do assignments you have to use what’s called “proper attribution”, and by that we mean quoting accurately and making sure that somebody who reads what you write can trace back to the original source who said what.

    I have been doing work on a paper recently with the historian Richard Hirsh, who never ever, ever uses quotes second hand. So if he hears somebody has quoted a particular person, the only way he ever uses that quote in his work is if he can look at the wording of the quote and the context in the original source, to make sure that he’s got it right. That turns out to be important, because you find mistakes all over the place.

    For example, the old White’s Law that we talked about earlier in the class? The relationship between culture and energy? The original slide that I presented came from last year’s class and was dated 1973. It turned out to come from a paper in 1943. So there was a little typo. And so going back to the original source, Richard figured that out. It’s good to be a history professor; you have time to track these things down.

    You have to use proper attribution—if you aren’t sure what that is then go to this site or this site and they will tell you a bit about that. It’s also important that you don’t work with other students or collaborate on assignments unless you’re given permission or instruction to do that. You need to do your own work and you need to make sure that whatever work you use to support your own work is properly attributed.

    You should take this issue seriously. The University is a test bed for real life.  As an undergrad, you need to experiment and try different things, but there are consequences—both here and in real life—for not following these rules and not guarding your academic integrity with great care.

    Reputation is a precious and perishable thing, and if you use someone else’s work without attribution, then you are impugning your own intellectual integrity: you are hurting yourself. In the real world, if you are a scientist and somebody finds out that you have copied data, you are ruined. You are ruined. There is no way to recover from that as a scientist. You might be able to do some work in another field, but no one’s ever going to trust you again.

    Academic integrity is about doing the right thing even when it is not convenient to do the right thing, to mean what you say and say what you mean, and follow through when you make a promise to someone. That’s all part of integrity. That’s all part of making sure that when people see your work they say: “I believe it”. And they will check it—in science especially they will always check it—but they will have an underlying confidence that because you’ve done your work with integrity in the past—every time they’ve checked it in the past it’s worked out well—they will believe your work and trust it and use it to support theirs. It’s a critical thing both personally and professionally. Please keep that in mind. If you have questions about this issue or about the rules about academic misconduct at UC Berkeley, please check this website.

    See also my post on What is Intellectual Honesty and Why is it Important?.

  7. My podcast interview with Tom Bowman titled “How Can We Accelerate Carbon Reductions?”

    My interview with Tom Bowman about “the unique role entrepreneurs play in climate action” was posted this past Saturday. It turned out very nicely and required little or no editing, so I guess I was on a roll. Please listen, send comments, and spread the word!

    In the interview I talk about why economic models underestimate the scope and possibilities for change. I also explore why entrepreneurs are a crucial part of the solution. And I describe why hope is really the only choice in the face of climate change, the ultimate adaptive challenge.

    Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions. His podcast series on climate solutions is extensive and interesting.

  9. A closer look at funding for Bjorn Lomborg


    Graham Readfearn over at Desmogblog.com has done the most detailed exposition to date of the various ways that one of the most famous “luke warmists”, Bjorn Lomborg, gets his money (read more about the luke warmists).  Students of misinformation know well that Lomborg is a prolific producer of half truths and cherry picked conclusions.  Unfortunately, the media lap it up.  

    Here are a few key paragraphs from the Desmogblog article:

    The impression back in 2012 might have been that Lomborg’s think tank was struggling for cash, but a DeSmogBlog investigation suggests the opposite.

    The nonprofit Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC) has spent almost $1 million on public relations since registering in the US in 2008. More than $4 million in grants and donations have flooded in since 2008, three quarters of which came in 2011 and 2012.

    In one year alone, the Copenhagen Consensus Center paid Lomborg $775,000. 

    It’s important to follow the money, as Readfearn has done, to determine who’s supporting the most prominent skeptics.  Almost always the trail leads back to the status quo interests who want to keep earning profits from fossil fuel infrastructure as long as they can.

    Read more…

    Addendum, June 26, 2014:  Joe Romm at Climate Progress has gone into more detail about funding for Lomborg, indicating that some of the usual status quo suspects are behind these developments.

  11. Risky Business: Documenting the economic risks associated with climate change


    The new Risky Business report was released today.  Worth a read.  Here a paragraph motivating the report’s conclusions:

    Climate Change: Nature’s Interest-Only Loan

    Our research focuses on climate impacts from today out to the year 2100, which may seem far off to many investors and policymakers. But climate impacts are unusual in that future risks are directly tied to present decisions. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds or even thousands of years. Higher concentrations of these gases create a “greenhouse effect” and lead to higher temperatures, higher sea levels, and shifts in global weather patterns. The effects are cumulative: By not acting to lower greenhouse gas emissions today, decision-makers put in place processes that increase overall risks tomorrow, and each year those decision-makers fail to act serves to broaden and deepen those risks. In some ways, climate change is like an interest-only loan we are putting on the backs of future generations: They will be stuck paying off the cumulative interest on the greenhouse gas emissions we’re putting into the atmosphere now, with no possibility of actually paying down that “emissions principal.”

    Our key findings underscore the reality that if we stay on our current emissions path, our climate risks will multiply and accumulate as the decades tick by.

    By putting the risks in financial terms this report makes clear what’s at stake.  ”Staying the course” has real costs and risks, it’s not just the alternative future that costs something.  And all credible analyses show that the incremental costs of making the changes we need are modest (at most 1-2% of GDP, but very likely much less than that, for reasons that I can explain to anyone who’s interested in the details).

    Download the full report.

  13. National Geographic changes its arctic maps because the arctic ice cover has melted so much in recent decades

    For the tenth edition of its National Geographic Atlas of the World, this venerable institution has now altered the way the arctic ice appears on its maps.  For details go to “Shrinking Arctic Ice Prompts Drastic Change in National Geographic Atlas

    Here’s an animated GIF illustrating the changes.


  15. An excellent news feed site for climate issues

    If you want a compact place to check out the latest climate news from around the world, my friend Mel Harte’s site is for you. It’s hosted on the Huffington Post.


  17. Ten commandments of logic, worth consulting and following when engaged in arguments of any kind.


    Addendum:  This list omitted one of my favorites, the Tu Quoque fallacy, where someone claims that an argument is invalidated because of hypocritical actions by the person making that argument.  Thou shalt not do that either!


  19. Game changing innovation in a Silicon Valley garage. Who would have thunk it?

    From an energy efficiency perspective, one of the most persistently difficult appliances is the clothes dryer.  Apart from switching from electricity to natural gas, or buying a washing machine that has extra high spin speeds, there just isn’t much you can do about dryer energy use.  For decades people have talked about dryers that use a heat pump instead of electric resistance heating, but they suffer from long dry times, high cost, and reliability issues.

    Now comes a new technology that promises to revolutionize drying efficiency: the long wave radiofrequency (RF) dryer.  This technology involves using very long wave electromagnetic RF radiation (about 70 feet or 21 meters wavelength, corresponding to 13.56 MHz, for the technical folks in the audience) to heat the water in the clothes.  One of the great advantages of such an approach is that the RF energy can be “tuned” to preferentially heat water, so it’s very efficient indeed.

    On February 5th, 2014 I had occasion to visit a Silicon Valley garage containing an RF dryer prototype.  The company is called Cool Dry RF, and they have made tremendous progress on this difficult problem.


    Photo credit:  Jonathan Koomey.

    Two of the three inventors of Cool Dry are in the picture:  John Eisenberg (left) and Dave Wisherd (right).  Chris Calwell of Ecova is in the center.

    The first thing to understand is that the value of clothes moving through the clothes dryer is much higher than the value of the energy used to dry the clothes.  Thus drying methods that are easier on the clothes (and extend clothing lifetime) have an inherent advantage.

    RF dryers benefit from more direct coupling of drying energy to the water in the clothes, resulting in lower fabric temperature and fewer rotations.  In addition, the technology allows the dryer to directly sense the capacitance of the load of clothing, giving a precise measurement of the actual moisture content of the clothes.  By contrast, conventional moisture sensors (resistive strip sensors) are notoriously imprecise, and often result in over drying (and thus fabric damage).

    These benefits together result in significantly improved drying performance. The RF Cool Dry prototype was built from a conventional 240 VAC GE Spacemaker electric dryer.  The engineers bought and maintain a second dryer, which is the exact same model in a conventional configuration.  The second dryer is the baseline against which savings are measured.


    Photo credit:  Jonathan Koomey.

    The standard GE Spacemaker dryer, instrumented but otherwise unmodified.

    When the Cool Dry prototype is compared to the conventional dryer for drying a 3 pound mixed load (denim jeans, cotton T-shirts, high speed washer spin), the results are striking.  Drying time is the same (35 minutes), but electricity use is 26.5% lower for Cool Dry.  In addition, 8.5 times fewer drum rotations and a 45 degree F lower fabric temperatures results in one fifteenth of the lint compared to the standard dryer. The more precise measurement and directed RF energy means that the T-shirts are not over-dried as they are in the conventional dryer. 

    Your clothes will therefore last longer with the RF dryer.  This technology is yet another example where improved efficiency is a byproduct of good design, and in fact it’s the other benefits (longer clothing lifetimes) that will probably be most motivating for consumers (the lower cost of operation will be a bonus).


    Photo credit:  Jonathan Koomey.

    The back of the modified GE Spacemaker dryer that incorporates the GE Cool Dry technology.  Some of the wiring is for instrumentation, but most is to make the device function.

    This system is by no means optimized.  The Cool Dry engineers were forced by the limitations of the Spacesaver dryer to make certain compromises, and I’ll pretty sure that building the technology into a dryer design from the start will result in much bigger savings.  The Cool Dry engineers didn’t want to say this definitively, because they are very careful fellows, but just take this as my speculation based on experience reviewing whole system design methods for improving efficiency. Starting from scratch almost always results in higher savings and lower costs.

    The company is currently in licensing discussions with several big appliance companies, so there’s a good chance this innovation will make it to market.  There is a long road between a prototype and commercialization, but this looks like an innovation that has legs.  That’s hopeful, given how hard it’s been to improve dryer efficiency in the past.  Let’s hear it for garage-based innovation, whole system design, and thinking outside the box!


    Photo credit:  Jonathan Koomey.

    Now that is my kind of workshop!

    Addendum:  The earlier version of this post gave the wavelength of the RF waves as 70 meters, but the correct wavelength is 70 feet, as now described above.

Blog Archive

I research, consult, and lecture about climate solutions, critical thinking skills, and the environmental effects of information technology.

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