Forget About Cheap Oil: Cheap Solar Is the Real Game Changer

The Buzz

The Economist has a special feature on energy this week, and it is resolutely optimistic about renewables:

Measuring progress is tricky: the cost of electricity from new solar systems can vary from $90 to $300 per megawatt hour (MWh). But it is clearly plummeting. In Japan the cost of power produced by residential photovoltaic systems fell by 21% in 2013. As a study for the United Nations Environment Programme notes, a record 39GW of solar photovoltaic capacity was constructed in 2013 at a lesser cost than the 2012 total of 31GW. In the European Union (EU), renewables, despite a 44% fall in investment, made up the largest portion (72%) of new electric generating capacity for the sixth year running.

The clearest sign of health in the renewables market is smoke-clogged China, which in 2013 invested over $56 billion, more than all of Europe, as part of a hurried shift towards clean energy. China’s investment included 16GW of wind power and 13GW of solar. The renewable-power capacity China installed in that year was bigger than its new fossil-fuel and nuclear capacity put together.

And note this:

The IEA (International Energy Agency) expects the cost of solar panels to halve in the next 20 years. By 2050, it predicts, solar will provide 16% of the world’s electric power, well up from the 11% it forecast in 2010.

So it is now remarkably cheap to generate renewable energy, but what about storing it? That relies on building better, and cheaper, batteries, and here The Economist's optimism is less well grounded in statistics. Instead it points to government subsidies (which can be and often are withdrawn at short notice) and promises by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk to cut the cost of storing energy in batteries from US$250 per kWh to US$100.

All of this is of course excellent news for our warming planet, but the implications of a world in which “solar power will become so cheap that energy will no longer be seen as scarce” are more far-reaching even than that. What would a world of cheap, clean and limitless energy mean for our economies and societies?

This blog first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here


The Blue Patch of Ignorance

Paul Pillar

The graphic that was on the front page of the New York Times on Saturday is striking. It accompanied a story about how 2014 was Earth's hottest year on record. There is a bar chart showing how average global temperatures have been rising over the past century and markedly so since the 1970s, and how the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1997. But just as eye-catching is a world map that uses color to depict how temperatures in different areas of the globe in 2014 differed from the average for each area: red for hotter and blue for colder, with the intensity of the color indicating how much of a divergence there was from the average. As would be expected with the hottest year on record, most of the map is red. But given that temperatures do not vary uniformly around the world, there is some blue. And the one patch of blue that covers an area with any significant population happens to be over the central and eastern United States, with some adjacent parts of Canada. (Remember those wayward polar vortices last winter?) The only other blue areas that are over parts of continents are in eastern Antarctica, which is uninhabited, and a small piece of northern Namibia and southern Angola, in one of the more sparsely populated parts of Africa.

If weather were the product of some sort of intelligent design, this pattern might lead one to conclude that the designer wanted to tilt debate in the United States on climate change in favor of the climate-change-deniers. No matter how many reminders experts issue that short-term variations in weather are not to be equated with longer term climatological change, there is nothing like a good blast of cold air through Washington to cool receptivity to messages about the need to slow and arrest global warming. There still would be plenty of ostrich-in-the-sand denial on this issue regardless of the current weather, but in general the less that Americans are directly and immediately feeling ill effects of a problem, the less likely that U.S. policy will be shaped to deal with the problem.

This correlation is most obvious with the climate change issue itself, but is not limited to it. Terrorism, for example, is a phenomenon rooted in circumstances and policies that are spread across many countries but that usually leads Americans even to recognize that a problem exists only if they themselves are hit with some of the consequences. And even though terrorist attacks involve human volition, exactly where and how terrorist consequences emerge out of larger patterns of political and social dysfunction involves, like any one year's weather, essentially unpredictable variation. There is no overall intelligent design.

Grabbing the American public's attention requires not only an impact on Americans themselves but an impact that is, like a city full of hot uncomfortable air, obvious and impossible to miss. Consequences for Americans and U.S. interests can be substantial but still missed without that kind of immediacy and obviousness. This is true even when the consequences flow from actions taken by the United States itself. It is true, for example, of the economic harm to the United States of U.S.-imposed sanctions. It is true as well of many ways in which other countries and peoples impede the projection and exercise of American power overseas.

The blue patch hovering over most of the United States in that map in the Times thus can stand for more than just last year's respite for some of us from the heating up of the planet. It also can represent a more general pattern of ignorance of much of the red vastness beyond U.S. borders. It can be thought of as a blue haze that miraculously protects us from the immediacy of much of the world's problems but also obscures our understanding of them. The only difference from what the map depicts is that the phenomenon does not stop in the high plains but instead also includes the western United States.                                      

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

Australia’s Future Submarines: The World’s Best Non-Nuclear Subs?

The Buzz

There has been considerable public debate about Australia’s future submarine program with much of the focus being centered on whether submarines should be produced locally or procured offshore. But surprisingly little of the debate has touched on the imperative to avoid a capability gap once the Collins-class submarines begin to be retired from service in the latter half of the next decade, nor on how Australia might best utilize existing sovereign submarine capabilities to achieve that.

Given the unique nature of the Australian requirement, it seems highly unlikely the solution for Australia’s future submarine would be either an “off-the-shelf” purchase from an offshore supplier or an onshore design-and-build activity. Notwithstanding the fact that Australia doesn’t have the design capabilities to go it alone on the future submarine program, any existing design would need to be customized with a US combat system and weapons while an appropriate indigenous design would obviously have significant cost, risk and time implications. Instead, the optimum acquisition strategy for Australia’s future submarine program is likely to fall somewhere between those two approaches as part of a “hybrid” design-and-build process.

While it’s clear that Australia cannot, and should not, undertake the enormous venture of the future submarine on its own, there are many reasons why a collaborative approach, encompassing Australia’s sovereign capabilities in submarines and the sovereign capabilities of a partner nation with experience, capability and capacity in large conventional submarines, would be sensible, practical and feasible.

Such an approach would draw upon the submarine design capabilities of an international partner; a US combat system and weapons (based upon ‘spiral development’ of the Collins class combat system); Australian industry’s existing naval integration capabilities; and the submarine sustainment capability resident in-country. It would also facilitate the inclusion of leading-edge international and Australian technologies, build on Australia’s sovereign submarine capabilities, and provide considerable work for Australian industry. Overall, it would result in the lowest cost/risk approach to the provision and sustainment of a new submarine capability for Australia.

From a capability perspective such a collaborative approach would facilitate the timely provision of an appropriate future submarine capability for Australia on a schedule that would militate against a capability gap once the Collins-class submarines begin to be retired from service in the latter half of the next decade.

That said, the Government doesn’t have the luxury of time in their decision-making process. It’s clear that to avoid a capability gap, Australia should confirm its acquisition strategy and move as soon as practicable to establish a long-term collaborative partnership for the design and build of the future submarine. Raytheon Australia has now released its own paper, which confirms that if the first future submarine is to be in the water by 2026, an acquisition strategy needs to be settled now.

From a defense industry perspective, such a collaborative approach would provide many new, long-term Australian jobs. That’s a view that has been articulated by ASPI, argued by Government and confirmed by our own analysis.

To be clear, the likely roles for Australians under a collaborative design-and-build model would, at a minimum, include: mission system design—working closely with an offshore designer; mission system integration; hull consolidation; test and activation; and the substantial task of sustaining the submarine throughout its approximately 30-year operational life. Potential also exists for a level of in-country platform assembly. Such a collaborative approach would also require a substantial Australian supply chain.

Through a collaborative approach with an international partner, Australia has the potential to acquire the most capable conventional submarine in the world, optimized for its needs while delivering maximum value for money for the taxpayer. That means Australian industry has every reason to welcome the opportunities presented by the SEA1000 future submarine program.

This article first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAustralia

A Sanity Check from London on Iran

Paul Pillar

Those who want to maintain endless tension and animosity between the United States and Iran, and who thus have been endeavoring to kill any diplomatic agreement between the two countries, are racing ahead with their latest project and will be very busy during the week ahead. That project, the AIPAC-promoted Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, will be the subject of a Senate banking committee hearing, with only anti-agreement witnesses so far announced, on Tuesday, to be followed by the committee's mark-up of the bill on Thursday.

Promoters of the bill are racing to beat two things. One, and worst from the promoters' point of view, would be completion of the international negotiations (which also are due to resume in plenary session this coming week) to limit Iran's nuclear program and announcement of an agreement. Even before any agreement is reached, those pushing the bill also have to worry about losing the support of those who may have originally believed the cover story that the legislation is intended to strengthen the hand of U.S. negotiators but who come to realize that the legislation is instead about spoiling the negotiations and killing a deal. Key among this group are Senate Democrats, including some who in the last Congress signed on as co-sponsors of an earlier version of the Kirk-Menendez bill.

Those in this group, and anyone else who might genuinely but mistakenly believe that passage of this bill would aid negotiations, would do well to pay close attention to the comments on this subject from British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a joint press conference with President Obama at the White House on Friday. “On Iran,” said Cameron, “we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. The best way to achieve that now is to create the space for negotiations to succeed. We should not impose further sanctions now; that would be counterproductive and it could put at risk the valuable international unity that has been so crucial to our approach.”

The prime minister further commented on how those who had predicted that the sky would fall with the reaching 14 months ago of a preliminary agreement—which already has placed the most important restrictions on Iran's nuclear program to ensure that it stays peaceful—have been proven wrong. “To those who said,” stated Cameron, that “if you do an interim deal, if you even start discussing with the Iranians any of these things, the sanctions will fall apart, the pressure will dissipate, no one will be able to stick at it—that has demonstrably been shown not to be true.”

Some background to these remarks from the British leader are useful to keep in mind. The United Kingdom is a full participant in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, as part of the P5+1 (or EU3+3, as they prefer to say on the other side of the Atlantic). It is not an interloper in someone else's diplomatic business, and British diplomats and leaders have at least as much basis as anyone else for knowing what is working and what is not in the negotiations.

Britain also is a country that, like the United States, has historically had some really bad relations with Iran. In Britain's case this experience dates back to a British and Soviet invasion of Iran during World War II, beginning an occupation that extended until almost a year after the end of the war.

Today, the United Kingdom—unlike certain other countries that would like to influence the fate of the nuclear negotiations—has no significant interests in the Middle East that are discernibly at odds with those of the United States. And the comments on Friday came not from some soft post-conflict European liberal, but instead from the leader of the Conservative Party in the country that is still in many respects America's most important ally.

There are two major takeaways from Cameron's comments. One is to provide further confirmation that the myth that something like the sanctions bill before the Senate would facilitate negotiations and hasten an agreement is exactly that: a myth. When people actually doing the negotiating say something would weaken rather than strengthen their negotiating hand, that's a good indication that it indeed would not strengthen their hand.

Actually it should not even be necessary to get independent confirmation of this from someone like Cameron. Even if one were to assume the very worst about Barack Obama's objectives—such as that he were willing to give up the store solely to claim a foreign policy achievement or to burnish his legacy—there would be no conceivable reason for him to oppose any measure that really did strengthen his bargaining hand rather than weaken it.

The other takeaway to be had from the comments of an allied leader concerns the likely fallout if the deal-killers succeed in their effort through something like the sanctions bill. The most direct consequence would involve the responses of Iran. In the best, or least bad, case it would mean greater Iranian reluctance to make concessions because Iranian confidence in Washington's ability and willingness to live up to its end of a deal would be shaken even more than it already is. In a worse case it would mean an Iranian conclusion that the Congressional action is so counter to the spirit if not the letter of the interim agreement that the only alternative is to leave the negotiating table and go home.

But the further consequences concern the responses of the rest of the international community. Cameron indirectly reminded us of that by saying that he was commenting as “someone who played quite, I think, a strong role in getting Europe to sign up to the very tough sanctions, including oil sanctions, in the first place.” The interim agreement did not cause the beloved sanctions regime to unravel. But if the U.S. Congress wanders so far away from an international consensus and off into right field that it is seen as the main impediment to an agreement, unraveling is likely to begin.

Good, reliable allies have several uses, and not just in providing more warplanes to fight someplace. Helping to protect ourselves from our own solipsistic tendencies is another thing they can do for us.       

TopicsIran United Kingdom RegionsMiddle East

No, China Can NOT Shoot Down 90% of Hypersonic Missiles

The Buzz

A number of media outlets have reported in recent days that China has deployed a new missile defense system on many of its ships that has a 90 percent success rate against hypersonic missiles. The same reports also unwittingly highlight that this assertion is false.

All the reports appear to originate from a story the Taiwan-based Want China Times carried last month. Citing a report in its “Chinese-language sister paper Want Daily,” which itself cited a story by an unnamed Russian media outlet, Want China Times reported last month that “that China's latest indigenous Type 1130 close-in weapon system can fire 10,000 rounds per minute and destroy 90% of hypersonic missiles traveling at a speed four times the speed of sound.”

The Want China Times report has been picked up by numerous news outlets since— either directly or indirectly. For example, citing the Want China Times article, International Business Times reported last month that “China has developed a new close-in weapon system” that can “reportedly destroy 90 percent of hypersonic missiles even travelling four times the speed of sound.” Earlier today, ran a story based on the IBT report that was headlined, “Chinese Chain Gun Can Destroy Almost Every Hypersonic Missile.”

Meanwhile, yesterday Gawker media’s design and technology website, Gitzmodo, ran a story headlined “Say Hello to China's New 11-Barrel Hypersonic Missile Killer.” In that article, Gitzmodo staff writer Andrew Tarantola cites the Want China Times article (which he refers to as a Chinese media outlet) in reporting that “China's newly unveiled Type 1130 close-in weapon system can make short work of inbound warheads traveling at four times the speed of sound [emphasis in the original].” Later in the piece he reports that the Type 1130 is “quite accurate, notching 90 percent accuracy against hypersonic threats,” before concluding, ominously, that “Combined with the PLA's new WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle, naval battles may soon be over in the blink of an eye.”

There are a number of issues with all this. The first, and least egregious, is that the Type 1130 CIWS system is not particularly new. In fact, it was first noted by Western defense analysts as far back as May 2011, albeit at the time it was still in development and referred to as the Type 1030. However, by the time China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, began sea trials the following year, the gun-based CIWS was being called by its current name (noted, the Type 1130 is also called the H/PJ-14). Thus, at the very least, the Type 1130 is about two and a half years old.

Far more importantly, however, by these reports own admission, the Type 1130 CIWS can’t shoot down hypersonic missiles. As noted above, these reports claim that the Type 1130 CIWS can target missiles traveling at up to four times the speed of sound, or Mach 4. As impressive as these reports make Mach 4 out to be, it doesn’t reach hypersonic levels. To constitute hypersonic, the missile must travel at five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) or greater. NASA further categorizes speeds as hypersonic (between Mach 5 and Mach 10) and high hypersonic (between Mach 10 and Mach 25). This oversight— calling Mach 4 hypersonic— is particularly surprising given that it was featured on science and technology websites Gizmodo and

There are other smaller issues with the claims as well. For example, no country currently deploys hypersonic missiles, raising the question of how the Type 1130 achieved its 90 percent success rate in shooting them down. In fact, it’s unclear where the 90 percent success rate statistic comes from at all, although one possible culprit is a report by a Chinese state-run television station. Needless to say, this is another source that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Finally, while no country currently deploys hypersonic missiles, any that China’s potential adversaries like the United States would deploy in the foreseeable future are almost certainly going to be long range missiles (for example, as part of Prompt Global Strike). Since the Type 1130 CIWS can’t even shoot down medium or long-range subsonic missiles it’s a good bet that it will struggle with hypersonic ones.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikipedia/U.S. Air Force

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific