Our Burning Planet

Opinionista

Beware of Brandolini’s Law – the bullshit asymmetry principle – in South Africa’s energy debate

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Paul-Michael Keichel is an attorney with environmental law firm Cullinan & Associates where he focuses on, among other things, cannabis and entheogen law, climate change litigation and renewable energy solutions.

We all need to challenge ourselves to break free of our echo chambers. Brandolini’s Law states that the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than that needed to produce it.

Our Eskom crisis and how to end load shedding – and for that matter how to avoid grid collapse – are topics that make us all very emotional and that emotion has fed into and been manipulated in the non-renewable versus renewable energy debate.

Despite what polarising forces would have us believe, we actually all desire the same thing (for our lights to remain on) but how to get there and at what holistic cost seems to divide us down the middle and pits us against each other – when we ought instead to be working together to find sustainable solutions to our problems.

What underscores this division and how do we bridge it?

Brandolini’s Law, or “the bullshit asymmetry principle”, states that the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than that needed to produce it.

Social media can make information go viral in minutes, whether it is right or wrong, while Google’s algorithms know you more intimately than do your own best friends and will serve you tailored “information” that aligns with what a computer reckons you’re most likely to agree with.

If a liberal and a conservative (or any other two polarised people) Google-search the same phrase, they are not guaranteed to get the same results. So too if they use social media to fish for “truth” in only their pool of liberal or conservative “friends”.

These echo chambers are compounded by things like confirmation bias” (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories) and the backfire effect” (the need to defend one’s worldview because a correction challenges one’s belief system).

It takes much self-discipline to not get caught up in it. We’re all fallible and we all sometimes do, especially when to swim against the current can have consequences like being ostracised by friends and family, or being labelled as “stupid”, “ignorant”, “naïve”, or the like.

Mindful that we ought indeed to listen to our hearts, there’s still a lot of emotional stuff that clouds what should be the clean logic of debate and that’s exactly what propagandists know to target to get you “thinking” their way.

Today we see: increased polarisation across the full spectrum of societal issues; adversarial politicking; and a general sense of “us” versus “them”. It’s a shame, because “truth” is seldom found at either pole of an adversarial argument, instead (usually, but not always) falling somewhere in between.

Our ancestors knew this, which is why “debate” used to involve two or more parties – necessarily being receptive to the other’s information – “arguing” over their differing perspectives from multiple angles, not to win anything or to convince the other, but to together eliminate muddied thinking and home in on the closest approximation to “truth” achievable.

The business of misinformation

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of the pros, cons and nuances of all of our potential routes out of our energy crisis were presented to us factually and unemotively, so that rational decisions, based on science and statistics and for the good of everyone, could be made?

Certainly.

Are we likely to see that happen?

Probably not – for as long as politics remains a lucrative career and big business interests are so easily able to convince politicians to tell us whatever ensures their profitability.

Of course, these same big business interests have their own “marketing” departments (internal ministries of propaganda) and Brandolini’s Law is abused to great effect – such that well-funded misinformation campaigns go viral quickly, leaving scientists and engineers shaking their heads in dismay because they know that no reasonable amount of good information is likely to sway back public opinion, or government decisions. Who, ultimately, watches the watchmen?

Here, I disclose that I’m an attorney at an environmental law firm that often represents clients who oppose new investment in oil, gas and coal, not for the mere sentimental sake of it, but because we perceive that it will exacerbate climate change, with associated (expensive) infrastructure becoming white elephants.

So, I’m obviously a biased “greenie”, must be anti-development, am colonially minded, and don’t want the “third world” (including my own country) to ride the wave of rapid industrialisation that the “first world” did. Right?

Well, sure – if you believe the narratives spun by those same big oil, coal and gas interests. But, if you bother to ask me, perhaps not. I’m instead motivated by my understanding, be it ultimately right or wrong, that renewable energy is a better (albeit imperfect) option than coal, oil or gas for solving our energy crisis and thereby ensuring the kind of sustainable development (meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) that even the United Nations endorses.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

How to beat load shedding at home… and other ideas

Eskom Intelligence Files

Electricity from coal was once, not so long ago, cheaper per megawatt hour than from solar. It no longer is – at least not in South Africa, when full lifecycle and breakdown costs are necessarily considered.

Our old coal-fired power stations are crumbling and the new ones are failing because, among other things, corruption intercepted the design and construction processes and the best people weren’t always appointed to key roles.

Why, given the inflated costs of Medupi and Kusile and how long they’ve taken to build, would we prefer the coal option to solar, hydro and wind, which is cheaper, generally cleaner and contributes units of energy to the grid with every panel, wind turbine or hydro generator added (presuming that Eskom bothers to connect independent power producers to the grid)? It’s a rhetorical question, although the comprehensive answer is beyond the scope of this article.

What of natural gas? Doesn’t it burn cleaner than coal? It does, but, again, are you willing to wait years (although fewer years than with coal power) for gas-fired power plants and necessary supply infrastructure (pipelines and whatnot) to be built?

Are you aware that inevitable “upstream” leaks of methane (i.e. before it’s combusted) mean that a greenhouse gas about 80 times worse than carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere?

Do you know that Eskom’s plan is to buy that gas from Mozambique and get it to South Africa through a terrorist-bombable pipeline to Richards Bay (we all seem to frown on the US’s Keystone and the EU’s Nord Stream) or to indiscriminately “frack” for it under our pristine Karoo? Do you think that maybe, just maybe, some associated decisions might have been bought?

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

On the fence about climate change? We check the facts with three experts

Fake news — The fight for South Africa’s future in the face of mounting disinformation

That said, in 1894, many cities were facing “the Great Horse Manure Crisis”. Everyone was getting around on horses and their excrement was piling up faster than it could be disposed of. It was described as “the greatest obstacle to urban development at the turn of the century”. What cleared that obstacle?

Ironically, it was the advent of the internal combustion engine and the proliferation of cars and buses. Why ironic? Because the internal combustion engine burns non-renewal, dirty fossil fuel and is today a significant contributor to the very same climate crisis that now motivates the likes of us “greenies”.

Avoiding past mistakes

So, despite our understanding that renewable energy is better than non-renewable, history tells us that we must not shut our eyes to its limitations or pitfalls lest we again make avoidable mistakes.

What are the limitations and pitfalls of renewables, albeit that I’d argue them to be fewer, on average, than with non-renewables? Among other things, it’s been observed that “the sun does not shine at night and the wind does not always blow”, meaning that solar panels and wind turbines stop supplying energy when there’s no, or insufficient, inputs, whereas demand for power does not drop equivalently.

Many great thinkers and problem-solvers… have stuck their fingers in their ears against talk of anything (non)renewable, because the political polarisation of this debate has them believing that they must be binarily all for one and entirely against the other.

Thus, surplus energy needs to be stored when solar and wind generate the most, so that supply can be met when they supply the least, or nothing. Traditionally, this has been by way of chemical energy storage, i.e. in batteries of the sort that invoke legitimate criticisms of finite minerals being filthily mined in formerly pristine parts of Africa and South America, sometimes by child labourers, then transported around the world using fossil fuels, to be industrially beneficiated in processes that cause more pollution.

One day, those toxic batteries must be disposed of and many will find their way into landfills, alongside dirtily manufactured and non-recyclable solar panels and wind turbine blades.

This is all in addition to each “solution” having its own immediate and long-term environmental impacts and that developing nations are hypocritically being expected to avoid development waves already ridden by industrialised superpowers. Of course, there’s also the potential for “big renewables” to start (if not already happening) “influencing” leaders to look away from this all.

None of this can, or should, be downplayed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: We need system change, not climate change — how do we get there?

There are potential mitigations, if not solutions, to the problems of renewable energy. As with the tough-to-pigeonhole nuclear option, they deserve articles (by experts). Promising developments include the mechanical and thermal storage of energy (such as pumping water upstream during the day and releasing it down through turbines at night; using abandoned mineshafts to pull weight up during the day and release it down, generating power, at night; and focusing sunlight onto molten salt vats during the day and using that stored heat to produce steam to drive generator turbines at night).

We could also take many positive leaps to improve how and by whom battery minerals are mined, panels and turbine blades manufactured, and all of it transported. I could go on.

That said, many great thinkers and problem-solvers – those who could contribute to these solutions – have stuck their fingers in their ears against talk of anything (non)renewable, because the political polarisation of this debate, (presently) designed to serve big coal, oil and gas, has them believing that they must be binarily all for one and entirely against the other.

Much nuance, appropriate middle-ground and potential “truth” is thus lost – the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. 

Challenge ourselves

If we’re to do iteratively better as interconnected givers to and takers from the whole that is our only viable planet – and to sustain and develop ourselves without compromising the environment and other sentient beings in and alongside which we live – then we must appreciate that what we believe in this important debate, and other analogous debates, is likely to come down to (influenced by algorithms and propaganda): what we read, heard or saw; whether or not we respected the source of that information; and, ultimately, whether that source was motivated or influenced by an ulterior motive, or conflict of interests.

I encourage us all to always ask ourselves why anyone might want us to believe what isn’t reflective of objective fact. The answer, usually, is money.

We all need to challenge ourselves to break free of our echo chambers, look around to establish what objectively is and isn’t, and, where there’s doubt, to then cooperate with one another to conclude (through genuine debate) what is right – not because some gotten-to politician or CEO told us so.

If we manage to do that, then we can settle on directions that take us forward as humanity, mindful that we are, like it or not, the custodians of the intricate and delicate systems on which all life on Earth depends. DM

Paul-Michael Keichel is an attorney with environmental law firm Cullinan & Associates where he focuses on, among other things, cannabis and entheogen law, climate change litigation and renewable energy solutions.

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  • Bruce Young says:

    Well written and good article. What you have not mentioned in the South African context is that as things like the EU carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) continue to evolve it will start to put increasing pressure on coal based economies to decarbonise.

    No amount of political grandstanding by South African politicians will have much influence on much larger global trends.

    • Coffee@ dawn says:

      Agree, very thoughtful and well written article and so good to read in today’s world of biased and trash reporting.
      My concern is with CBAM. This is like a slow burning fuse or if you like ‘the frog in warming water’. We see already in industry, the clouds gathering on the horizon. If we do not care to recognise the danger and the need to change, the CBAM may well cause us a lot of economic (and political) pain at some point in the future.

  • Myrtle Clarke says:

    Bravo PM! May I suggest we bring back the old school debate? Like the ones we used to participate in when we were in high school? 3 experts on the left, 3 experts on the right & a facilitator in the middle with one carefully worded topic / question. Live & in person with a live audience. One a week in each province on the energy crisis, showcasing experts nationwide. The government can pay for the venue & the catering. Stream it on SABC.
    Just a thought…

  • John Harman says:

    Bravo. Well written.

  • Peter Atkins says:

    As Mr Keichel writes, if we can unpolarise our mental filters and listen to each other we might be able to develop sensible solutions to our difficult problems that we can all support. I do try but haven’t been able to suppress my convictions and can’t help thinking that if I let down my guard the ‘other’ will take advantage and brush me to the side.

  • D.R. W says:

    Fantastic article – some eye opening new facts and interpretations

  • rwcurtis says:

    “There are potential mitigations, if not solutions, to the problems of renewable energy. As with the tough-to-pigeonhole nuclear option, they deserve articles (by experts). ”

    Quite.

  • John Drowley says:

    A really interesting discussion.

  • A Green says:

    I believe the race for renewable energy and the green transition is the new “wave of rapid industrialisation”.

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    Good article. However, it is high time the world begins to appreciate that a National Grid (and all other utilities) are Common Pool Resources, in that we all want the goods supplied by that utility whenever we want it, in as much quantity as we want, but for a minimal cost. Therefore, regardless of how much of a grid’s power is generated by coal, gas, renewables or nuclear, the grid is going to have to be ADMINISTERED much more efficiently than is currently the case – especially in the case of ESKOM. The late Elinor Ostrom studied Common Pool Resources and identified 8 principles, which, if adhered to, would help to ensure that the resource would NOT suffer the Tragedy of the Commons. She would start by recommending that the ESKOM board be ELECTED (AND financed) by the stake holders and not consist of political appointees, financed by government. Getting that right is more crucial than getting the balance of energy sources right. Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambia

  • A lot written, not much said about how to move forward in the energy crisis in SA, which is very debatable as the root causes are not hard technical facts and details, but a myriad of non-technical issues i.e. political, which in tern is the the moral failure of people at many levels.

    Re renewables vs other energy sources in a more global view. That is a debate that should most definitely come down to technical and financial discussions, so it is disappointing that this more objective world is simply glossed over with no hard analysis, except to implore the reader to challenge their biases. To explore the facts… why not just take the effort then to write an article to present these facts, their sources and make conclusions from these.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    When you speak of natural gas you need to look at the whole gas cycle: extraction, distribution and combustion. When you add all of the normalised emissions from each of the cycle stages using natural gas is in fact worse than urning coal. BTW coal does to leak if it spills it retains the carbon locked in it whereas when natural gas leaks the contribution to GWP is huge and lasting. The EU change of taxonomy was passed by a very narrow margin plus it needs to be contextualised within the EU’s infrastructure and its very strict and steep reductions to 2030. For SA the only viable solution are renewables with some form of storage whilst ensuring that no one is left behind. Last week EU energy prices were negative so if you had batteries requiring replenishment you could do it not only for free but also be paid for doing it. Renewables will provide us with the cheapest possible long term energy costs so rushing their implementation is a no brainer notwithstanding the political background noise from those with clear vested commercial interests.

    • William Stucke says:

      Unfortunately, renewables are only cheap if you ignore the cost of storage. The cheapest storage technology at grid scale is water. Unfortunately, RSA is a water-scarce country, and most of the decent locations for hydro-electric dams have been used.

      What about pumping water back up to Lesotho? That would be an interesting study.

      While thermal and mechanical (gravity) storage has been demonstrated, it doesn’t seem to be quite ready for prime time yet. That leaves us with chemical storage – batteries. Variations of Lithium-Ion batteries are continually improving, but as PM states in the article, they have troubling material and disposal issues. Also, at present, the “sweet spot” for grid scale Li-Ion seems to be 4 hours of storage. That, unfortunately, just isn’t enough to cover for the ~18-hour gap left by Solar PV and the intermittency of wind. And it’s far from cheap. Eskom’s Battery Storage System works out at $400/kWh. It needs to get to be well below $50/kWh to be workable. As 75% of a Li-ion battery’s cost is its materials, we won’t get there with that route.

      What about other battery technologies? Various variations on the concept of Flow Batteries seem to be our best bet. Once again, these are promising, and indeed a few are available on the market, but not yet at grid scale.

      That leaves us with one other option – nuclear. However, I wouldn’t trust this government to not cock that up, and steal us blind. Private local SMRs, anyone?

  • Dou Pienaar says:

    Thought provoking article.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Despite the reservations of some of the commenters below, as far as I’m concerned (and as an engineer it does hurt that I have to say this to a freaking lawyer – with the greatest respect etc etc) this has to be one of the BEST articles I have EVER read about the subject and in fact, apart from saving the link, I’m going to print it out and hand it to as many people as I possibly can because it is BRILLIANT. The added humour is a big bonus too. Well done Paul Michael and many many thanks. The fact that you agree with everything I say obviously helps. I also really need to congratulate you on a couple of points that don’t seem to be made anywhere near enough in the whole debate:

    Renewable energy in SA has to be an obvious plus. But then, as you say, you get the idiots saying the sun doesn’t shine in the night, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time, who apparently have never heard of batteries. Or my personal favourite, as someone who spent his early career around the mining sector, what about using the old mine shafts as ready-made energy storage (not forgetting that they’re all tied into the grid as well)? Then you get the other idiots that moan about the Karoo (all 400 000 square kilometers of it) being covered over with solar panels (who often seem to be the same ones punting fracking there, without realising there ain’t much water).

    You also mentioned petrol driven cars – the first cars were electric driven!

    Keep up the pressure, PM!

  • craig.mcgregor says:

    Paul-Micheal, thank you for raising this important issue of moving to a reason-based debate rather than ideological posturing. As an engineer I see this all the time; you mention many of the classic examples.

    In coal versus renewables debate, we in SA have many coal-fired power stations that we will need to rely on until their end of life as we build new capacity. However, an ideological position in opposition to the west that we have “the right to use coal” should not lead us to pursuing a more expensive option for new generation. Wind and solar are the cheapest options for new generation.

    Even more nuanced is the consideration of natural gas use that you touched on. Should we as a country use gas-fired generation on ships (Karpower)? Yes, for two or three years whilst we face severe load shedding and need generation to reduce load shedding. Should we sign a 20-year power purchase agreement with Karpower? Certainly not, how can we have a 20-year emergency; the money should rather be spent on deploying the cheapest new generation, namely wind and solar.

    Furthermore, we must be careful not to oppose all natural gas developments. Again, the answer is nuanced. There is a period of roughly a month every year around May when our seasonal weather patterns result in almost no wind and typically cloudy days. No amount of extra wind, solar PV, or storage (batteries), can economically get us through this seasonal “wind drought”. What we need for this period is gas-based power, which will only run about 10% of the year. So we need to allow these gas-fired power plants to be built, as they enable the deployment of a high renewables grid; we just must be suspicious of any argument that once these are deployed they should be run continuously.

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