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Archive for June 2020

Datteln 4: a new German coal plant shows diseconomies of scale

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A new coal-fired power plant opened last month in Datteln, just north of Dortmund in the Ruhr area of Germany.  The news was greeted with howls of indignation.  Greta Thunberg tweeted that the opening of the plant is a shameful day for Europe.  Deutsche Welle reported that protests greeted the opening:

Around 500 climate activists on Saturday gathered outside the new Datteln 4 coal power plant in Germany’s Ruhr region, to protest against its opening. Fridays for Future, Greenpeace, as well as German groups Ende Gelände and the German Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) were represented at the protests. During the night into Saturday, climate activists graffitied the slogan “Climate crisis, made in Germany” on the side of the tower.

This had followed earlier protests and occupations of the worksite last February.  For Eric Reguly of the Globe and Mail, it is an example of the power of the coal industry:

The priority is restoring employment in a hurry – all the better to win elections – not decarbonizing the way we live and create wealth… On May 30, Germany opened the enormous, €1-billion ($1.5-billion) Datteln 4 coal-fired power plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, even though Chancellor Angela Merkel had vowed last year to close all of the country’s 84 coal-fired plants by 2038. Datteln sneaked in under the wire, revealing the power of the coal lobby has barely waned.

What is going on?  Germany has been held up worldwide as an example of enlightened decision maker when it comes to energy and greenhouse gas emissions.  Is the country changing course?

The truth is complex, and hinted at by Reguly when he mentioned “under the wire.”  Construction of the plant started in 2007, and the planning and authorization process took place even earlier, of course – in another era.  The plant – a living fossil, as it were – provides a nice example of diseconomies of scale: what may be wrong with huge projects.

In the face of it, though, the plant is not a bad one. According to the magazine Power Technology, the plant stands

among the world’s most modern coal-fired power plants under development…with a net efficiency of more than 45%. It will produce district heating in addition to generating power generation. Upon completion, the project will replace the aging Datteln 1-3, and Shamrock (Herne) power plants. [It] will be equipped with an advanced multi-step flue gas purification system, which will eliminate nitrogen oxides, dust and sulphur from the flue gas. Using combined heat and power technology, the Datteln 4 power plant will also produce approximately 1,000GWh of district heating, sufficient to supply for approximately 100,000 houses. It will provide district heating to Castrop-Rauxel and Dortmund-Bodelschwingh areas.

Out of the total electricity produced, 413MW of traction current will be delivered to Deutsche Bahn’s grid for its railway system. The remaining 642MW will be transmitted to the region’s public electricity grid.  The 50Hz power generated by the plant will be converted into 16.7Hz, which is ideal for the train system, by a traction current converter facility to be constructed along the power station. The converted energy will be fed to Deutsche Bahn’s 110kV high-voltage grid.

Fortum, the Finnish plant owner and operator, had this to say:

We understand people’s concerns, and we agree that coal must be phased out, and emissions must be reduced. However, the transition to a low-emission society must be made without compromising the security of supply or an affordable cost of energy, in a socially just manner. This has been the starting point for the comprehensive solution of the German government, which allows the commissioning of Datteln 4 and systematic phasing out of coal by 2038.

The German government is committed to reducing emissions quickly, so old and inefficient power plants will be decommissioned first. As long as coal is needed to ensure the security of supply, it should be used as efficiently as possible.

So, overall, not such a bad project: a very efficient new plant that will replace older plants and produce more energy, electricity and thermal, for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  (And it will power the DB trains – I love trains!) Nonetheless, the project abounds in irony.

Part of the problem is the sheer size of the project.  A small local project would likely not have attracted so much attention on both sides of the debate.  As it stands, despite opening, the plant may get mired in lawsuits as well as protests from environmentalists.  Michael Buchsbaum, in the on-line Energy Transition magazine, wrote last December that

as the government embarks on a bizarre sales campaign peddling the idea that Datteln’s advanced technology will somehow help improve the climate, activists are organizing a protest wave that will dwarf previous actions around the embattled Hambach Forest… Given the swelling numbers of activists joining Fridays For Future, Ende Gelände, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups, there will be no shortage of demonstrators.

The project, indeed, seems to be affected by what economies call diseconomies of scale.  That is the opposite, of course, of economies of scale: a bigger company, a bigger manufacture, benefits from its size because it can do things more efficiently – until the increased complexity brings it to its knees.  This is what we’re seeing in a lot of megaprojects, particularly in energy generation.

Wikipedia lists a number of reasons that explain diseconomies of scale: increased communications cost, duplication of effort, office politics, top-heavy management, as well as slow response time and inertia.

Slow response time is key in here.  The project was planned before the German government decided to get out of coal by 2038, and improved efficiency seemed a reasonable justification at the time.  And of course, in the early 2000s, nobody could have predicted how quickly the cost of wind power would have dropped.

Large projects are chronically plagued by cost over-runs.  Muskrat Falls in Labrador is a classic recent Canadian example, to say nothing of the on-going saga of Site C dam in BC.  Researchers Benjamin Sovacool, Daniel Nugent, and Alex Gilbert reported on over 400 energy projects (The Electricity Journal, 27(4), pg112-120, 2014).  They found that large hydro projects had average costs overruns of 70%; nuclear plants, 117%; in contrast, wind (both on-shore and offshore) averaged 7.7% overruns.  The wind farms represented 35 projects for a total capacity of 6200 MW.  Thirty-nine large solar farms (PV or CSP) had a mean overrun of 1.3%, where it did occur; over a quarter of the projects were built below cost.

This illustrates the intrinsic complexity of big projects.  Wind and solar farms are made up of simple components, endlessly multiplied.  In contrast, Datteln 4 is one giant single-block systems.  It was scheduled to come on-line in 2011, but was both over-budget and delayed.  In this particular case, this was largely due to “the continuing curse of T24”, to use the expression of the magazine Modern Power Systems.  T24 is a type of steel alloy that was selected for the boilers at Datteln, but stress corrosion problems forced its replacement with another material, the T123 alloy, at considerable expense and delay.

So it may be a bit unfair to accuse the German government of betrayal.  It had to deal with the result of decisions made two decades ago.  Yes, it could have vetoed the opening and compensated the owner; it chose to mothball two other plants instead, a pragmatic, cheaper strategy, possibly, but an unpopular one with terrible optics.

There is an understandable fascination with large projects.  They incorporate the most recent technology – and offers technical challenges of great appeal to engineers.  To politicians, they may seem to offer silver bullet solutions (electricity supply issues? Gone) as well as irresistible vanity projects (WAC Bennett got his name on a dam – why not me?).  But their complexity usually means cost overruns and delays.  And, delay or not, the time it takes from planning to operation means that they may well be obsolete by the time they are completed.  Datteln 4 should be a reminder that mega-projects have a knack for coming into the scene as costly white elephants.

Yes, Site C, yes, Kitimat LNG, I am talking about you.

Written by enviropaul

June 19, 2020 at 1:59 pm

Jeff Speck on walkability

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In my class on environmental issues I have shown a Ted Talk by Jeff Speck to generate discussion.  A livable, walkable city is better for the environment, so goes the argument.  Here is the talk:

Jeff Speck is indeed a bit of a guru on urban development.  I recently finished his 2018 book Walkable City Rules.  It is a companion to his 2012 book Walkable City.  But while the earlier book is written as an essay, the more recent one is articulated around a set of 101 simple rules.

The idea of a “how-to” book on urban planning may seem a bit ludicrous – the book is written for the general reader in mind, not someone who can single-handedly change a neighbourhood.  But it is at the same time an expression of democracy: the savvier citizens are about urban planning, the more they can provide input to city hall; and municipal politics are the ones where it is easiest for anyone to have a say and even influence a decision process.

But it is also a way to understand the urban fabric and sometimes to put into words something that otherwise may remain a nagging, un-articulated feeling.  For me a small epiphany was learning the expression “beg button”.  These have always annoyed me, irrationally – or so I thought.  But to read about them in Speck’s earlier book was strangely comforting.  Speck writes (pg 184):

Another reliable bellwether [of walkability] is the visible absence of push-button traffic signals.  In my travels, it is almost always the cities with push-button crossings that need the help most…push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile predominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent.  Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light.

This is repeated in his new book as rule 75: do not install pedestrian push-buttons (“beg buttons”), nor countdown clocks.  Aside from making pedestrians feel second class, they almost encourage people to jaywalk.  Often, they don’t even work (Speck reports that none of the roughly 3000 push-buttons in NYC work, save for 120 of them (4%), for instance).  Some merely extend the crossing duration, like the one recently re-installed at the corner of Glover Road and Duncan Way in Langley, across from where I teach.  This is hardly a major intersection; it’s one across which I commonly jaywalk.  I feel personally insulted by having to wait a full cycle because I pressed a second too late, while cars just go.  As Speck writes, “people driving are automatically ushered through, while people walking have to beg for passage.”  And countdown clocks don’t help, either; they merely “encourage drivers to gun it to beat the light.” (Toronto’s experience with them bares this out: the record on pedestrian safety hasn’t changed, but the number of rear-enders has shot up.)

The above may give an idea of what’s in the book – and there’s a lot.  I’m not going to list the rules; many are somewhat self-evident, such as “sell walkability on climate change” (rule 3), but it is the wealth of evidence that Speck marshals that makes it a delight.  There’s a lot about good public transit, urban fabric, sidewalk width, and stuff like that.  But the main point is never lost in the wealth of specific details; instead, the reader is always thinking about their home city: “is it true here? How do we rate on this metric?” In other words, it’s a lot of fun.

Breaking rules 81 and 63 at once (Starbucks on Hastings at Kaslo)

Take, for instance, rule 81: disallow curb cuts. “Fast-food and bank drive-throughs have no place in walkable districts”.  These cuts mean that cars may cut across the sidewalk at any time, unpredictably, making pedestrians and especially cyclists unsafe.  The only exception should be for parking structures and for hotels that lack access through a lane access.  The McDonald’s drive-thru 41st and West Boulevard in Kerrisdale (Vancouver) is one local instance: when I was part of a Sunday morning jogging group, I witnessed a number of close calls there (joggers would collide into one another because someone had to stop abruptly for a car pulling out). The line-up to get in the Starbucks drive-thru on East Hastings is at times long enough to affect the new bicycle path at the corner of Kaslo.

Vancouver is actually mentioned a couple of times in the book: it is held as a good example of well-coordinated transit and land use (rule 20 – though denizens of Langley may disagree) and has its own rule, rule 85, “build Vancouver urbanism” – skinny towers on pedestal bases that have good street-level appeal.  We may discuss hits and misses, but still it’s nice to see our city earn a mention for pioneering an approach.  Many other rules find applications here, such as rule 82 (introduce parklets: it’s getting there), rule 57 (build bicycle boulevards: not bad, getting better – but only in Vancouver itself), rule 86 (make interesting lighting: well…), and many others.  It becomes a bit of a game; walking around town gets more interesting.

But for a North American like me, it is the “out-there” rules that may be the most interesting, showcasing case-studies from Europe that open up a whole new field of questions and ideas for ways of co-habiting with motor vehicles that are unknown here, especially when it comes to safety.  I’m not talking about simple things like rule 63 (yes, curb parking actually makes sidewalks feel safer).  No, this is about initiatives like rule 33: adopt vision zero.  Speck points out that “when children die at a crosswalk, it is natural and appropriate to investigate the driver.  Rarely do we investigate the cross-walk.”  Zero Vision, an approach started in Stockholm, addresses that by modifying engineering standards including lowering urban speed limits, but encompassing many other changes.  Since its adoption, fatalities in Stockholm have dropped drastically: 6 in 2013, none in 2016.  Compare that to Phoenix, a city of the same size, that registered 167 pedestrian fatalities in 2013.  More details on Vision Zero can be found here and here.

Even more startling, consider rule 77: build naked streets and shared spaces.  This means no more street lights or other signs, no more painted lines and other markings.  It should result in chaos.  But in the small towns where it has been tried, the opposite has happened: not only are pedestrians and cyclists safer but traffic flows smoothly.  Speck gives the example of Poynton in England and recommends watching the YouTube video about it.  I concur; take a look (but remember that in Britain, pavement means sidewalk).  There are more examples here and here.  Enjoy!

Speck, Jeff 2018. Walkable city rules: 101 steps to making better places.  Washington: Island Press.

Speck, Jeff 2012. Walkable city: how downtown can save America, one step at a time.  New York: North Point Press.

Written by enviropaul

June 18, 2020 at 9:26 am

Between terpen and dikes: room for the river

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God made the Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands, so goes the saying.  Indeed, much of the country is built on reclaimed and drained land, much of it below sea level.  So it comes as a surprise that the latest Dutch initiative, Room for the River, aims to give some of the land back to flooding.

But there’s flooding and flooding.  Allowing the sea back in, the sea that came in a storm surge in 1953 (when 1836 people drowned) to say nothing of historical floods (over 100,000 people may have died in the 1530 flood), is not at all what is under consideration.  But the Netherlands is also home to the Rhine and the Meuse rivers, and these are the rivers that need extra room if they are not going to overtop dikes and cause calamitous flooding.

The Dutch government has created a few videos explaining what that means.  Here are two of them, to give an idea of the strategy followed by the government.

If this is a new strategy brought on by climate change, rising sea levels and more intense storms, some of its components hark back to another, age-old strategy.  Where farm land is to become flood plain, farm buildings – house, barn, etc – are to be protected.  A river flood is temporary; a crop may suffer, and the farmer compensated for the loss, but the as long as the buildings, the equipment, the livestock, and the farmer’s family remain dry, the flood is an inconvenience, not a disaster.  The barn, house and other buildings are to be elevated or relocated on built-up mounds above the surrounding land.  These mounds are called terpen, and they are a throw-back to a practice that is over 2,000 years old.

A modern terp

Terpen developed all over the North Sea coast from Denmark to Belgium, along what is called the Frisian coast. The Frisian coast is particularly dynamic, constantly changing over time.  But mostly, it is sinking: as Scandinavia slowly rebounds up from under the weight of the glaciers, it is tilting the continental plate, a phenomenon called isotactic rebound.  But because of the tilt, as the Scandinavian coast is receding, anything south of Denmark is, instead, sinking.

Early inhabitants of the Frisian coast were dry land farmers.  But as the sea invaded, especially from 500BCE onwards, these farmers retreated to whatever little hillocks they could find, eventually adding soil to them, building them up, so as to support communal farms or villages, barns, houses and gardens.  These mounds are called terpen (also wurten; singular terp).  The Roman writer Pliny was the first to describe them, and he was not impressed:

There this miserable race inhabits raised pieces of ground or platforms, which they have moored by hand above the level of the highest known tide. Living in huts built on the chosen spots, they seem like sailors in ships if water covers the surrounding country, but like shipwrecked people when the tide has withdrawn itself, and around their huts they catch fish which try to escape with the expiring tide.  They braid ropes of sedges and rushes from the marshes with which they make nets to be able to catch fish, and they dig up mud with their hands and dry it more in wind than in the sun, and with [peat] as fuel they heat their food and their own bodies, frozen in northern wind. Their only drink comes from storing rain water in tanks in front of their houses. And these are the races which, if they were now conquered by the Roman nation, say that they will fall into slavery!

But in fact, this amphibian life was not miserable.  The lands would be flooded, but only temporarily.  When this happened, the terpen would become little islands holding humans and their livestock.  All the manure and other waste would be disposed of on the mound, ensuring that the gardens near the buildings remained exceptionally fertile.  After the flood (or the high tide), the animals, cattle and sheep mostly, would return to pasture on the drying bottomlands. Over generations, terpen grew from the accumulation of rubbish as well as from purposeful addition of clay to the mounds.

Indeed, terpen inhabitants were a bit like sailors, using boats to go anywhere at high tide; but their situation was far from the dismal picture Pliny portrayed.  Michael Pye explains that they had access to fish, yes, but also to meat and dairy from their livestock, something that Pliny seemed to have missed.  Even if the surrounding salt marshes could not grow grain, the terpen dwellers ate better than their counterparts on the mainland.  Medieval peasants ate a gruel from the grain they raised, often suffering from nutritional deficiencies, and they were always under the threat of famine should the crop fail. They also owed work and a portion of their harvest to the lords.

Not so the terpen Frisians, who had the extra advantage of being free, owing no lords a fee for their lands.  Petty nobles had experienced what the Romans had first realized: the wetlands made military conquest very difficult.  The lowland Frisians remained free peasants much longer than their dryland counterparts.  From their terpen the Frisians had meat and cheese, fish and game, as well as turnips, broad beans, rapeseed, and barley from their gardens.  In the early medieval era the terpen supported a higher population density than elsewhere in western Europe, and the Frisians had the luxury of having more than half of their calories coming from animal products.

Nor did they live as hermits; sea-borne commerce developed early on.  The terpen dwellers needed wood for their buildings, metal tools, wheat and millstones to make bread; they also wanted wine.  They sold fish, cattle, cheese, butter, parchment from skins, and, most importantly, wool.  Wool was a mainstay of the medieval economy.  For instance, king Richard the Lionheart of England, captive in Palestine, was ransomed not for coin but for 50,000 sacks of wool.  The Frisians took full advantage of their ability to produce and sell wool.  Archaeologists found an ancient farm near modern Wilhelmshaven that raised two types of sheep, producing distinct grades of wool for the luxury markets.  Eventually the area moved on to weaving as well; with its centre in Flanders, the region became one of the wealthiest of Europe through the later middle-ages and renaissance eras.

By that time the Dutch, the Flemish and the Frisians had built a new set of flooding defenses: the dykes, for which they are justly famous.  But they never forgot the lessons in resilience learned from terpen life: co-operation and community are essential, be it to keep dry or to fend off some haughty lord.  They also learned that a flood need not be the enemy: properly managed, the waters can be a source of wealth and identity.  Room for the River is just the latest incarnation of these lessons.

And the rest of the world, faced with the challenges of climate change, is finally listening to the Dutch: learn how to live with the water.

More info:

Pye, Michael 2014. The edge of the world: how the North Sea made us who we are. London: Penguin.

Meier, Dirk 2008The Historical Geography of the German North-Sea Coast: a Changing Landscape.  Die Küste, 74 ICCE, 18-30.

Hoffmann, Richard 2014. An environmental history of medieval Europe.  Cambridge U Press.

van Alphen, Sander 2019. Room for the River: Innovation, or Tradition? The Case of the Noordwaard.

Other “Room for the River” videos at


Written by enviropaul

June 4, 2020 at 4:53 pm