Wind Power Blowing More Reliably Than Ever

New wind turbines produce power more steadily – with less up and down intermittency – than ever before.

As I wrote in August of last year, NREL believes that next-generation wind turbines can reach a capacity factor of 60%. That is up from a capacity factor of 30% just a few years ago. And it means, roughly, that these turbines would be producing wind power around 60% of the time – making them more and more viable as a substitute for ‘baseload’ power from coal or natural gas plants. That’s even more true when combined with the plunging price of energy storage.

New data from NREL shows that wind power has been continuously rising in its capacity factor (and thus, its stability) for the last 15 years. In 1998, capacity factors for new wind turbines were around 25%. In 2014, capacity factor for new turbines averages over 40%, or two thirds better.

In an absolute sense, wind turbine capacity factor in the US is rising around 1% per year. That implies that we’ll reach 60% capacity factor for average wind turbines by around 2035.

And the best wind turbine deployments in 2014 are already at 50% capacity factor. The best sites, such as those in the great plains, will reach 60% capacity factors for wind as soon as 2025.

Wind Capacity Factor Rising

High capacity factor wind power + transmission to get it the right sites + increasingly cheap solar (which complements wind) + increasingly cheap storage. That’s a formula for reaching a non-carbon grid in the coming decades.

More in this series:

Part 1 looked at how cheap solar can get (very cheap indeed).
Part 2 looked at the declining cost and rising reliability of wind power.
Part 3 looked at how cheap energy storage can get (pretty darn cheap).
Part 4 looked at how far renewables can go.
Part 5 looked at how cheap electric vehicles can get. 

How Cheap Can Electric Vehicles Get?

This is part 5 of a series looking at the economic trends of new energy technologies. Part 1 looked at how cheap solar can get (very cheap indeed). Part 2 looked at the declining cost and rising reliability of wind power. Part 3 looked at how cheap energy storage can get (pretty darn cheap). Part 4 looked at how far renewables can go. Now let’s talk about electric vehicles.

EVs are a Disruptive Technology

If current trends hold, EVs will, within a decade or two, be the cheapest vehicles on the market. And that, if it happens, will lead to market dominance. Electric Vehicles are a disruptive technology.

The Plunging Price of Electric Vehicles

The past four parts of this series have all covered electricity generation. But electricity is only perhaps a quarter of worldwide carbon emissions. What about transportation, where oil-burning cars dominate?

Electric Vehicles, like virtually all other manufactured goods, are likely to have a learning curve, meaning that greater production will mean reduced price. Batteries, a large fraction of the cost of EVs, appear to have a learning rate of around 21%, meaning that every doubling of scale will reduce costs by 21%.

What about whole vehicles? The Ford Model T had a learning rate of around 16%. Let’s use that for the entire vehicle, including the battery. That gives us a conservative estimate of the cost improvement rate.

Last year, EVs grew at around 60% annually, to around 1 million total EVs ever sold. Sources in China tell me they expect several hundred thousand EVs to be sold there in 2016 alone. Growth could easily be 60% again in 2016. Even so, growth will eventually slow. Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects 30% long term growth. Let’s use that for now, to be conservative.

Those assumptions lead to a world where, by roughly 2030, EVs with a 200 mile range are cheaper than the cheapest car sold in the US in 2015.

Electric Vehicle Learning Curve - EVs Dropping Below Cost of Gas Cars - 30percent CAGR - 16percent LR

Is this plausible? Yes. EVs are simpler devices than gasoline-powered vehicles. They have a smaller number of parts, making them easier to assemble. At similar scale to gas vehicles, electric vehicles should indeed be lower cost to built.

In addition, EVs have many fewer moving parts (in the engine and drivetrain in particular) than internal combustion vehicles. That further means lower construction cost for the most complex and costly part of a vehicle, and far lower maintenance cost.

On Cost-Per-Mile, EVs Win Even More

Electric vehicles, today, have lower total costs per mile than equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles, due to lower energy costs of electricity and the lower maintenance costs. At 30% growth rate, EVs will have roughly half the up-front cost of gasoline-powered vehicles in roughly 10-12 years, around 2027 or 2028. At that point, the total cost per-mile-driven of EVs will also be roughly half the cost of gasoline powered vehicles.

That, in turn, means that to the extent that transportation becomes a service, with people increasingly paying for rides (ala Uber) instead of paying to purchase cars, the cheapest rides will be in electric vehicles. If you call an Uber, or its future equivalent, it will almost certainly be electric.

Put it all together: Electric vehicles are already cheaper to own and operate than gasoline vehicles. At current rate, within a decade, they’ll be markedly cheaper to purchase up-front, and half the total price to own and operate. And within 20 years, if trends hold, 200-mile-range 4-seater EVs, with awesome acceleration and modern amenities, will be cheaper than the cheapest cars sold in the US today.

That is a coming disruption.

Why I’m Starting the First AngelList Cleantech Syndicate

I’ve been writing and speaking about the incredible pace of solar, wind, and storage for years. I’ve been quietly investing in startups in that space as well.

Today I’m taking a new step: I’m launching an AngelList Syndicate specifically focused on investing in clean energy technology. If you’re an angel investor, I invite you to come join me.

Why am I doing this, and why now?

1. Clean Energy is a Disruptive Technology

The word “disruption” gets thrown around a lot. Clean energy is a technology that truly is disruptive. The cost of solar power has plunged by a factor of four in the last five years, with more reduction to come. Batteries are poised to follow a similar price decline. Wind power, electric vehicles, IoT, and software platforms that manage and accelerate clean energy are all booming in capabilities and plunging in price.

Allance Bernstein Welcome to The Terrordome Solar Price Disruptive - Header Removed

We’ve coupled the price of energy to the ever-decreasing price of technology. There’s no going back.

2. The Transition Will Be Trillions

We will transition to clean energy. The world has no choice. The trajectory of policy is towards ever more downward pressure on fossil fuels. And every unit of renewables deployed brings down their price, making them more competitive.

That transition will involve tens of trillions of dollars of investment.

Today we’re only 1% of the way into that transition. Solar just hit 1% of world electricity. Wind power is a few percent. Energy storage and clean transportation are both closer to one tenth of one percent of the scale they need to be at.

Energy transitions are huge undertakings. That means both a need for investment in R&D and an opportunity for the companies that create the new innovations that power the world, and the investors who back them.

3. Investment is Growing

Clean energy spending around the world hit a new record of $329 billion in 2015, topping the previous record of 2011, and nearly 6 times the amount the world spent in 2004.

2015 Record Cleantech Spending - BNEF

And for the first time in history, the world installed more peak capacity of clean electricity generation than fossil electricity generation, as the chart below shows, in GW of new capacity per year. Fossil fuels still produce more total new energy each year, due to the intermittency of renewables. But the point where renewables amount to more total new energy on the grid each year than fossil fuels is now in sight.

Clean Electricity and Renewables New Nameplate Capacity Passes Fossil Fuel Electricity - BNEF

4. R&D Funding Is Poised to Grow Again

Venture funding in cleantech has been low in recent years. But that’s poised to change with Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zukerberg, and a coalition of governments and large investors aiming to boost cleantech R&D funding to $20 Billion per year.

Some of that funding will come as early-stage government R&D funding. Some of it will come as venture funding. Both are good for angel investors.

5. AngelList is the Right Platform

AngelList itself is a disruptive innovation for startup investing. It turns a process (raising money for your startup / investing in startups) that was previously shrouded in mystery, hugely time consuming, and heavily dependent on knowing the right people, and flattens that process. It’s a landscape-leveler for startups and investors alike. And through the ability of investors to join syndicates, they can draft on the knowledge and expertise of others.

I’ve been investing on Angel List for two years now, joining the syndicates of others. It’s given me access to investment opportunities that I never would have had, previously. And it’s allowed me to back startups that I think have the opportunity to change the world for the better.

There’s no place better or easier to do this than on Angel List.

(I’ll also remain a part of other angel networks, specifically Element 8 in Seattle.)

6. We Have a Moral Responsibility 

The CO2 we emit into the atmosphere lingers there for a century. The warming it causes may last a millennium. The scars in our biosphere may last millions of years. We are leaving the natural world, and all the future generations who’ll live in it, impoverished.

I believe strongly in leaving a better world for our kids, their kids, and for all the generations to come. That’s why I focus on this sector in particular. And in the process of investing in clean technology, I see an opportunity for a triple bottom line: A return in financial gain, a return in a better world, and a return for billions of people who’ll get to enjoy that world.

If this interests you, and you’re an angel investor, I invite you to come join me.

Citizens Led on Gay Marriage and Pot. We Can on Climate Change Too.

A decade ago, it was nearly inconceivable that in 2015, gay marriage would be legal across the US and marijuana fully legal in four states plus the District of Columbia.

Yet it happened. It happened because citizens who wanted change led, from the bottom up, often through citizens initiatives.

America can change it’s mind quite quickly, as this piece from Bloomberg documents.

Whatever you may think of legalized marijuana and same sex marriage, their trajectory shows how quickly change can happen, particularly when led by the people.

That’s part of why I’m excited to support CarbonWA’s proposed initiative for a revenue-neutral carbon tax in WA.

What’s a revenue-neutral carbon tax? It’s a move that keeps total taxes the same, but shifts taxes onto pollution, instead of (in this case) sales tax, or the tax of low-income people. This particular proposal reduces total taxes on the working poor, helping address Washington’s fairly regressive state tax policy.

And, while not changing the state’s total tax bill whatsoever, it would be effective in reducing carbon emissions, and accelerating the switch to renewables. It would augment other policies, including the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and Governor Inslee’s climate plan. In fact, in WA, it would do far more than the EPA’s plan does. The proposed $25 / ton of emissions is far larger in impact than the equivalent $3 / ton that the EPA Clean Power Plan adds to carbon emissions costs in WA.

And nationwide, a carbon price of $25 / ton, as in the WA initiative, is probably roughly as effective as the EPA Clean Power Plan. That’s the conclusion of the Niskan Center. (Here’s more detail on how effective a carbon tax would be in WA.)

That is to say, a national revenue-neutral carbon tax of $25 / ton would roughly double the speed of reducing carbon emissions over the EPA Clean Power Plan alone. While the EPA Clean Power Plan places pressure on coal, a carbon tax would broaden that, forcing natural gas plants to internalize some of the cost of the carbon they’re emitting, putting them on a fairer footing in competing with wind and solar. And it would do this while lowering other taxes on Americans – the total tax bill would stay the same.

And, as I’ve written before, a carbon tax would accelerate innovation in clean energy:

Think globally, act locally. Getting this measure on the WA ballot in 2016 would start a ball rolling. WA helped lead the nation, passing referendums on same sex marriage and medical marijuana in 2012. Those helped pave the way for other states. When one state leads, others will follow.

A carbon tax isn’t enough on its own to solve climate change. Other policies are needed. But this is an excellent start.

CarbonWA needs to accumulate roughly 250,000 verified signatures by December to get this measure on the ballot for 2016. In a state of 7 million people, that’s a large number of signatures. That takes money, volunteers, and publicity.

I’ll be donating to CarbonWA, and you’ll see me write about the importance of this again.

In the meantime, if you’re interested, you can:

And most importantly, spread the word.

What’s the EROI of Solar?

There’s a graph making rounds lately showing the comparative EROIs of different electricity production methods. (EROI is Energy Return On Investment – how much energy we get back if we spend 1 unit of energy. For solar this means – how much more energy does a solar panel generate in its lifetime than is used to create it?)

This EROI graph that is making the rounds is being used to claim that solar and wind can’t support an industrialized society like ours.

But its numbers are wildly different from the estimates produced by other peer-reviewed literature, and suffers from some rather extreme assumptions, as I’ll show.

Here’s the graph.

This graph is taken from Weißbach et al, Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants (pdf link). That paper finds an EROI of 4 for solar and 16 for wind, without storage, or 1.6 and 3.9, respectively, with storage. That is to say, it finds that for every unit of energy used to build solar panels, society ultimately gets back 4 units of energy. Solar panels, according to Weißbach, generate four times as much energy over their lifetimes as it takes to manufacture them.

Unfortunately, Weißbach also claims that an EROI of 7 is required to support a society like Europe. I find a number that high implausible for a number of reasons, but won’t address it here.

I’ll let others comment on the wind numbers. For solar, which I know better, this paper is an outlier. Looking at the bulk of the research, it’s more likely that solar panels, over their lifetime, generate 10-15 times as much energy as it takes to produce them and their associated hardware. That number may be as high as 25. And it’s rising over time.

The most comprehensive review of solar EROI to date is Bhandari et al Energy payback time (EPBT) and energy return on energy invested (EROI) of solar photovoltaic systems: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Bhandari looked at 232 papers on solar EROI from 2000-2013. They found that for poly-silicon (the predominant solar technology today, found in the second column below), the mean estimate of EROI was 11.6. That EROI includes the Balance of System components (the inverter, the framing, etc..) For thin film solar systems (the right two columns), they found an EROI that was much higher, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Note that for the second column, poly-Si, the EROI estimates range from around 6 to 16. This is, in part, because the EROI of solar has been rising, as the amount of energy required to create solar panels has dropped. Thus, the lower estimates of EROI come predominantly from older studies. The higher estimates come predominantly from more up-to-date studies.

We can see this in estimates of the “energy payback time” of solar (again, including Balance of System components). The energy payback time is the amount of time the system must generate electricity in order to ‘pay back’ the energy used to create it. Estimates of the energy payback time of poly-si solar panels (the right half of the graph below) generally shrink with later studies, as more efficient solar panels manufactured with less energy come into play.

The mean energy payback time found is 3.1 years (last column, above). But if we look at just the studies from after 2010, we’d find a mean of around 2 years, or 1.5x better EROI than the overall data set. And the latest study, from 2013, finds an energy payback time of just 1.2 years.

That is to say, the EROI of solar panels being made in 2013 is quite a bit higher than of solar panels made in 2000. That should be obvious – increasing efficiency and lower energy costs per watt make it so. If we used only the estimates from 2010 on, we’d find an EROI for poly-Si solar of around 15. If we used only the 2013 estimate, we’d find an EROI of around 25.

So how does Weißbach et al find a number that is so radically different? There are three things that I see immediately:

1. Weißbach assumes that half of all solar power is thrown away. The article uses an ‘overproduction’ factor of 2x, which seems fairly arbitrary and doesn’t at all reflect current practice or current deployment. There may be a day in the future when we overbuild solar and throw away some of the energy, but if so, it will come after solar panels are more efficient and less energy intensive to make.

2. Weißbach uses an outdated estimate of silicon use and energy cost. Weißbach’s citation on the silicon input to solar panels (which dominates) is from 2005, a decade ago. Grams of silicon per watt of solar have dropped since then, as has the energy intensity of creating silicon wafers.

3. Weißbach assumes Germany, while Bhandari assumes a sunny place. The Weißbach paper assumes an amount of sunlight that is typical for Germany. That makes some sense. Germany has, until now, been the solar capital of the world. But that is no longer the case. Solar installation is now happening first and foremost in China, then the US. In the longterm, we need it to happen in India. The average sunlight in those areas is much closer to the assumptions in Bhandari (1700 kwh / m^2 per year) than the very low-sunlight model used in Weißbach. (Remember: Germany is roughly as sunny as Canada, as you can see in the map below. Almost the entire world gets more sun than Germany, thus making costs lower worldwide and EROI higher.)

4. (Bonus) Weißbach assumes 10 days of storage. The Weißbach paper and graph also gives a second, “buffered”, number for EROI. This is the number assuming storage. Here, Weißbach uses an estimate that solar PV needs to store energy for 10 days. This is also fairly implausible. It maps to a world where renewables are 100% of energy sources. Yet that world (which we’ll never see) would be one where solar’s EROI had already plunged substantially due to lower energy costs and rising efficiency. More plausibly, in the next decade or two, most stored energy produced by PV will be consumed within a matter of hours, shifting solar’s availability from middle-of the day to the early evening to meet the post-sunset portion of the peak.

In summary: The Weißbach paper is, with respect to solar, an outlier. A more realistic estimate of poly-Si solar EROI, today, is somewhere above 10, and probably above 15. And it’s rising. Solar panels generate many times more energy over their lifetimes than is used to construct them and their associated hardware.

How Much Land Would it Take to Power the US via Solar?

I’ve seen some pieces in the media lately questioning this, so allow me to point to some facts based on real-world data.

tl;dr: We’ll probably never power the world entirely on solar, but if we did, it would take a rather small fraction of the world’s land area: Less than 1 percent of the Earth’s land area to provide for current electricity needs.

First, let me be clear: I doubt the future is 100% solar or anything like it. We are in the midst of a multi-decade transition. And while solar is the most abundant renewable on the planet, and plunging in price faster than any other, there’s a role for solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, and geothermal in the distant future based on ideal geographies and scenarios. I very much hope to see highly advanced, high-yield biofuels come into the mix in the next decade. And for a number of decades to come we’re going to have fossil fuels in play. This article is a ‘what if?’ and not a prediction of or call for 100% solar.

Second, to move to a high-renewables world, we need low-cost energy storage. We’re making progress on that. But there’s still quite a distance to go.

For the data, let’s use two examples.

Example #1 comes from a Breakthrough Institute article complaining about the vast amount of land that solar needs. Guest writer Ben Heard complains that solar’s land footprint (specifically at the Ivanpah plant) is 92 times that of a small modular nuclear reactor. (If you’ve read The Infinite Resource you may know that I wrote a whole chapter in praise of nuclear power and of small modular reactors in particular. I’m a fan.)

What Heard’s Breakthrough Institute article doesn’t tell you is how tiny that land footprint, in the grand scheme of things, actually is. Do the math on the numbers he presents: 1087 Gwh / yr, or 0.31 Gwh / acre / year.

At that output, to meet the US electricity demand of 3.7 million Gwh per year, you’d need about 48,000 square kilometers of solar sites. (That’s total area, not just area of panels.) That may sound like a stunningly large area, and in some sense, it is. But it’s less than half the size of the Mojave desert. And more importantly, the continental United States has a land area of 7.6 million square kilometers. That implies to that meet US electrical demand via this real world example of Ivanpah, would require just 0.6 percent of the land area of the continental US.

This fact – which puts the land area requirements in context – is completely missing from Heard’s piece at the Breakthrough Institute site.

Asked about this on twitter, Heard replied that larger size nevertheless is a disadvantage. It threatens ecosystems and endangered species, for instance. And this is a legitimate point, in some specific areas. (Though certainly far less so than coal and natural gas.)

But, for context, agriculture uses roughly 30% of all land in the United States, or 50 times as much land as would be needed to meet US electricity needs via solar.

Ivanpah, of course, may be an atypical site. So let’s look more generally.

Example #2 is a convenient reference from NREL:  Land Use Requirements for Solar Plants in the United States (2013) It’s excellent reading. I recommend pulling it up the next time Bjorn Lomborg writes an op-ed.

The second to last column tells us that, weighted by how much electricity they actually produce, large solar PV facilities need 3.4 acres of total space (panels + buildings + roads + everything else) for each Gwh of electricity they produce.

That leads to an output estimate of 0.294 Gwh / year / acre, and virtually the same total area, around 50,000 square kilometers in the US, or 0.6% of the continental US’s land area.

Update: In my original post I didn’t take the time to compare this area to other suitable areas in the US, such as rooftops, parking lots, and built land. Various people pointed me to pieces of data. So, consider that:

1. The built environment in the US (buildings, roads, parking lots, etc..) covered an estimated 83,337 square kilometers in 2009, or roughly 166% of the area estimated above. (Likely this area would not be as efficiently used, of course. But it could make a significant dent.)

2. Idled cropland in the US, not currently being used, totaled 37.2 million acres in 2007, or roughly 150,000 square kilometers, roughly three times the area needed.

3. “National Defense and Industrial” lands in the US (which includes military bases, department of energy facilities, and related, but NOT civilian factories, powerplants, coal mines, etc..) totaled 23 million acres in 2007, or roughly 93,000 square kilometers, nearly twice the area needed to meet US electricity demand via solar. Presumably much of that land is actively in use, but it gives a sense of the scale.

4. Coal mines have disturbed an estimated 8.4 million acres of land in the US. That works out to around 34,000 square kilometers, not too far off for the estimate from solar, and doesn’t include the space for coal power plants. And coal currently produces around only 40% of US electricity and hasn’t been above 60% in decades. To scale coal to 100% of US electricity would have required far more land than is required to meet that same demand via solar. Other analysis says the same: Counting the size of coal mines and their output, solar has a smaller land footprint per unit of energy than coal.

And the solar estimate of ~50,000 square kilometers, of course, is with solar systems already deployed. It doesn’t take into account the possibility of future systems with higher efficiencies that could reduce the land footprint needed.

Again, the point here is not that we’ll see a 100% solar world. The more solar we deploy, the more sense it makes to deploy wind to complement it. And frankly, I want to see the nuclear industry succeed. Nuclear is safe baseload power that we should be rooting for. I hope the nuclear industry can get costs and construction times down and under control.

But, when it comes to solar, land is not a blocking issue. Be skeptical when it’s brought up as one.

2014 Was a Good Year: Better Than You Remember

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The Sony hack and surrender to fear. 2014 seems to be ending on a crappy note. My twitter feed is full of people expressing good riddance to the year.

2014 was better than that. I want to take a moment to remind us, and to offer some perspective on the dark stories.

So, good things about 2014:

1. 2014 Was the Year Same-Sex Marriage Reached More Than Half of America

2. 2014 is the Year That American Support for Legalizing Marijuana Tipped

3. And the Year that the First Legal Marijuana Stores Opened in Two States

Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana in the 2012 election, and opened their first stores in 2014. Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC joined them in fully legalizing Marijuana in the 2014 election, while 20-odd other states have allowed medical use or softened penalties for recreational use.

And so far, the evidence is, legalization is working pretty well.

4. In 2014, the Internet Reached 3 Billion People for the First Time

That data is courtesy of the ITU.

Not only is that a staggering number, it’s more than half the adults on the planet. For the first time, this year, more adults have access to the internet than don’t, a trend that’s only going to continue, as seen below in this chart from a presentation by Benedict Evans.

5. 2014 Saw a Historic Climate Agreement Between the US and China

Remember when we would never act on climate change because we’d never be able to agree with China? Yeah, me neither.

While the US-China deal isn’t enough on its own to meet the world’s goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, it represents a sea change. It’s a turn of the steering wheel, starting the process of steering us away from the cliff we’ve been headed towards. There’s much more work to do, but every course correction starts somewhere. And, as Slate shows, quantitatively, this one is a big deal.

6. 2014 Saw a Record Installation of Renewable Energy and Energy Storage

Final numbers will show that 2014 had the largest ever deployments of wind power and solar power. This was also the year that saw the largest purchase of energy storage in US history. Both of these are vital steps in bootstrapping the industries that will allow us to power our civilization while cutting the emissions that cause climate change.

And they’re just the latest in the ongoing surge in renewable energy in the market:

Renewable energy remains a tiny fraction of worldwide energy use. It’s starting from an extremely low base. Even growing at its phenomenal rate, it will likely take decades to turn the corner in climate change, but it is possible.

7. 2014 Saw Mainstream Realization of Solar and Wind’s Incredible Price Decline

That possibility is made even more clear here: 2014 saw two incredible graphs from mainstream financial analysts on the price plunge of renewables.

Lazard Capital Management put out a report showing how, in the last 5 years, wind and solar in the US have dropped 58% and 78% in price, respectively, now putting them below the price of grid electricity in many regions. (The red lines below are my own additions.)

And AllianceBernstein published their even more provocative solar “TerrorDome” chart (with slight yellow arrow annotation from me) showing how, in the long term, solar is plunging even more phenomenally in price relative to traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

Both are as important for who published them as for what they say. These are not reports from environmental groups or even greentech investment funds. These are financial analysts advising their clients on trends in the costs of energy – trends they see as upending the market.

8. In 2014, Hunger and Malnourishment Reached a New Low

In 1969, more than 30% of the developing world lived in hunger. Now that’s down to 13.5%. The rate of hunger reduction has accelerated in recent years, according to the FAO. As a percent of humanity, it’s likely that hunger has never been this rare, in the couple hundred thousand years our species existed. And even absolute numbers have dropped over the last 25 years. There is a huge amount of work left to do – but 2014 is the best yet in this measure.

9. And So Did Global Poverty, Child Mortality, and a Host of Other Ills

We don’t have the final data yet, but it’s almost certain that when we do, we’ll find out that in 2014, global life expectancy was at an all-time high, global poverty was at an all-time low, and worldwide child mortality had reached another new low, as part of the long trends of progress on each of these metrics.

For instance, see the trend on poverty, via Max Roser

Or the trend on under-five mortality, which has dropped by half since just 1990:

10. In 2014, the US Became Healthier and Safer as Well

Here again, we lack final numbers, but when we have them, it’s extremely likely that we’ll find that in the US, 2014 continued the long trend of:

– Declining infant mortality

– Declining crime rates.

11. Finally, 2014 Will Be Seen as a Transparency Tipping Point

The stories that drew the most outrage in my corner of the internet – outrage that I shared – were stories of police violence, intentional or unintentional, without proper accountability. And so I’ve saved this for last.

I’m a pragmatist who believes that police are a vital part of society, but who also believes that those who have the most power should be held to the greatest accountability. That isn’t the case today.

On the flip side, many, primarily conservatives, viewed the Mike Brown case through an entirely different lens, instinctively seeing it as a police officer confronting a criminal, and defaulting to trusting the officer’s view of the world. The debate has been loud, acrimonious, and sometimes downright nasty.

What almost everyone agrees on, though, is that more transparency is good. Support for police body cameras has been voiced across the political spectrum. That technology isn’t a panacea, by any means. As we saw in the Eric Garner case, a video doesn’t lead to even an indictment, let alone a conviction.

But the best data we have is that wearing body cameras does reduce police use of force and complaints against them. In other words, if Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who used a prohibited choke hold on Eric Garner, had been wearing a body camera, he might have reconsidered his behavior. Garner might still be alive.

What’s just as important is the increasing ubiquity of cameras in all of our hands. The video of Pantaleo choking Garner didn’t lead to an indictment, but that very fact led to voices on the right and left expressing dismay. One case won’t lead to change. But enough clear-cut cases will. And with cameras becoming cheap and ubiquitous, police officers now need to assume that their every action will be recorded.

Transparency is the key to change. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. The problems of police over-use of force have existed for years, if not decades. The problem of police near-immunity from prosecution is even older. These aren’t new issues. They’re simply coming further into view. Social media allows us to take issues that might once have been obscure, carried on the back page of one newspaper, and shine a glaring light onto them. And the presence of cameras everywhere – in our pockets, most of all – means a flood of imagery that we lacked even a few years ago. That visibility is essential. It informs our opinions, our conversations, our votes.

Sunlight is the best disenfectant. In the first few rays, though, the world can look grimy indeed. Just remember, the grime was there all along. What you’re seeing isn’t new. What’s new is that we have the power, for the first time, to wipe it away.

2014 will be remembered as a transparency tipping point. A sunlight tipping point. It’ll go down as a year that authority – in at least one form – had to start becoming more responsive and more accountable to the public.

–Far From a Perfect World–

I could go on about a dozen other ways the world is getting better, but I won’t. This list isn’t meant to convey that the world has no problems, or that it’s getting better in every way. Plenty of things are getting worse. But I trust you can find lists of those pretty much everywhere you turn. They’re over-represented in our discourse, and especially in the news. The good news is radically under-represented.

Good news doesn’t happen magically. The above trends didn’t pop out of thin air. They represent the hard work of millions of people – maybe billions. Some of them are improving the world out of simple self-interest. Others are doing it out of some passion, out of altruism, or out of deep conviction. Either way, optimism isn’t the same as complacency. Optimism is about action.

So here’s to those who act.

I think 2015, while it will have its share of problems too, will be even better.

What’s Limiting the Impact of GMOs on Global Food Security?

My friend Jon Foley, who I have a great deal of respect for, has a piece up arguing that GMOs have failed to improve global food security because they fall into a trap of reductionist thinking.

With due respect to Jon, I see this a different way.

First, GMOs do bring other global benefits.  As Keith Kloor points out at Discover, study after study has shown that GMOs have helped reduce poverty among poor farmers who grow them in the developing world, boosting the food security of those farmers and their families.  Those GMOs are primarily cotton, which is, to date, the only GMO that’s allowed to be grown in most of the developing world.

Second, global bans & politicking have stopped promising GMOs from being planted. As I pointed out in my piece on Why GMOs Matter, Especially In the Developing World, over at Grist, there are genetically modified food crops that have shown huge yield gains in parts of the world, and that have been banned from cultivation for no good scientific reason.  As I wrote at Grist, Bt Cotton boosted cotton yields by a staggering 60% or so in India, as the figure below shows:

GMO cotton gave yields a huge boost in India. Too bad similarly engineered food crops aren’t allowed.

But we don’t eat cotton. And GM crops we can eat are banned from cultivation:

But the world’s poorest countries, and in particular India and the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, don’t allow any GM food crops to be grown. India came close to approval for a Bt eggplant (or Bt brinjal). Studies showed that it was safe, that it could cut pesticide use by half, and that it could nearly double yields by reducing losses to insects. But, while India’s regulators approved the planting and sale, activists cried out, prompting the government to place an indefinite moratorium on it. Similar things have happened elsewhere. The same Bt eggplant was supported by regulators in the Philippines who looked at the data, but then blocked by the court on grounds that reflected not specific concerns, but general, metaphorical, and emotional arguments that Nathanael Johnson describes as dominating the debate.

From this, I conclude that one of the reasons that GM crops haven’t done more to boost food security around the world is that non-scientific bans have blocked them from doing so.

Third, we need more public-sector investment in GMO research focused on food security. The fact that Bt crops produce such huge yield gains in the developing world is largely a happy accident. Yield was never the primary goal. GM crops are designed primarily for the customers that have the most to pay (western farmers), and they’ve been designed primarily to save western farmers money rather than to boost yields. It turns out that saving western farmers money by reducing the need to spray insecticide also has an even greater win for countries where insecticide is sprayed by hand (rather than by machine).  It, as a practical matter, dramatically reduces losses. That’s an effectively huge yield gain. But again, it’s a bit of a lucky accident of a product targeted at relatively well-to-do western farmers.

I’m a huge advocate of the potential for GM crops to boost yield. (Again, just look at what’s already happened with Bt cotton in India or what early trials showed with Bt brinjal as an example of what the technology can do, without even focusing on yield as the primary goal.) But if we want to see more of this as the outcome, we ought to specifically invest in R&D with that goal.

That R&D might come from the private sector. But it might better come from the public sector. Today the Gates Foundation funds R&D into GMOs that could dramatically boost yieldimprove nutrition, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. That’s wonderful. What would be even more wonderful is to see large governments, many of whom worry about the climate-food-water nexus as a future source of instability, investing in R&D in this area as well. Raising food security in the developing world has a triple win of raising food output, lowering poverty, and lowering instability. That’s something we’d all benefit from.

That’s what I’d call holistic thinking.

Arctic Sea Ice: Less in November 2013 than Summers Before 2006

(This is a correction of a previous post that stated that there was less Arctic sea ice in December than in any summer before 2007. That post used a PIOMAS anamoly graph, which was not appropriate.)  

The Arctic is melting. That's a problem. Ice reflects 90% of the energy of the sunlight that hits it. The dark waters of the Arctic Ocean below it absorb 90% of that energy instead. If the sea ice is gone in the height of summer, the additional sunlight captured would be enough to warm the whole planet substantially. Exactly how much we don't know, but perhaps as much to keep raising the planet's temperature as much each year as all the human-released carbon in the atmosphere. Additionally, the regional warming effect would be even greater, which would accelerate the melt of permafrost near the Arctic, and the release of buried carbon there, much of which will come out as extremely dangerous methane. The melting Arctic is an extremely dangerous climate feedback loop.

We usually hear about Arctic sea ice in terms of the area it covers. Every winter almost the whole Arctic freezes over. That's changed very little. But in summers less and less is left. But what's even scarier is that the ice is also thinner by about half. When we look at it in terms of volume, in the height of summer, three quarters of the ice volume from the 1980s is gone. Three quarters. There's ice still covering water, but it's thin, and fragile.

Another way to think of it – today, in December  in November of 2013, the last month for which we have complete monthly ice volume data, in a year when ice coverage has rebounded, there was less ice (by volume) left in the Arctic than in any summer prior to 2006 2007, going back for at least thousands of years.

You can learn more about Arctic sea ice volume at the Polar Science Center.

The raw data for the graph above came from PIOMAS Monthly Volume Data 

I write much more about the challenges of climate tipping points, and how to innovate to maximize our chances of overcoming them, along with the related challenges of energy, food, water, and other natural resources, in my book on the topic:  The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Less Water, Less Oil

Here in the US, we consume less oil per person and less water per person than we have in decades.

Oil consumption per person per year, from the IEA.  (The last bullet point is their projection for 2030):

Water withdrawals per person, from the Pacific Institute.  While the 2010 data point is missing, it would most likely show US water withdrawals down to a level not seen since the 1940s.

It's possible to grow richer while using less.

More on how it's possible to reduce resource use while growing richer in the book for which I created these graphs: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet