Friday 17 November 2023

Volcano powered

I love that GNS is looking at supercritical geothermal generation.

They've commissioned Castalia to look at timelines and economic feasibility. It's looking good, from 2037, if we can get fast-track consenting - and if there aren't other substantial hiccups. 

NZ will need a whole lot more generation as carbon prices rise and folks shift away from carbon-intensive energy sources.

Great thing about geothermal is that it just runs. It doesn't care if the wind blows or the sun shines.

Waste heat can be used for other processes - like milk powder drying, or making wood pellets.

As reminder, here's Eli Dourado's piece from a couple years ago on the big-picture on this stuff.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Afternoon roundup

The tabs!

Advice to an incoming government from Dominic Cummings

Or, at least, some very sharp observations on how the system works. It won't be much different in New Zealand. 

Here's Cummings on Dwarkesh Patel's podcast, and some snippets from the transcript. Superb throughout. If an incoming National government wanted to know what they're getting into, listening to this would be a decent start. 

Dominic Cummings 00:04:08

A fundamental problem with how the British state works is this question of prioritization and the Prime Minister’s time. So you have all of these normal parts of the system that essentially can’t really do anything quickly at all, even in a crisis. So the Prime Minister’s time and the Prime Minister’s prioritization is the most important asset. But also it’s something which is constantly pulled hither and thither by all of this craziness.

One of the things that obviously we wanted to do was fundamentally reorient Number 10, away from what it’s been since Thatcher, which is a kind of press entertainment service. Where the whole building is just built to respond to what the media says and instead say, “What do we actually think is important?” And what is the management system you’re going to build that actually can maintain focus on those things whilst the inevitable chaos goes on?


Again, one of the funny conversations I had with Boris was, you know, we should say to the ministers that here’s your actual priorities as defined by us. Whether or not you get promoted and whether or not your career goes well is going to be defined by how well your department actually fulfills these goals. We don’t care about all of your interviews. We don’t care if you are on TV or never on TV. That’s not how we’re going to judge. Because they’ve all grown up in a culture where they think whether or not they’re going to be promoted really depends on: Are they seen as a good media performer? Or do they botch things on the media? Well, that’s just a fundamentally bad criteria, not least because their definitions of what’s good on the media are themselves terrible. By approaching government like that, you’re incentivizing them to think that their goal is making friends with the media. So then they get good interviews. That also incentivizes them to leak everything. So again, the culture and the incentives are self reinforcing in a very negative way.


I’ll tell you a story about it that kind of summarizes it. At the peak of COVID craziness in March 2020, on the day itself that the PM tested positive for CoVID, a bunch of people come into Number 10 sit around the table and we have a meeting and it’s about supplies of PPE to the NHS.

They say, “None of this ppe that we’ve ordered is going to be here until the summer.”

“But the peak demand is over the next three to four weeks.”

“Sorry, Dominic, but it’s not going to be here.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because that’s how long it takes to ship from China.”

“Why are you shipping from China?”

“Well, because that’s what we always do. We ship it from China.”

But A, we need it now and B, all of the airlines are grounded. No one’s flying anything.

“So call up the airlines, tell them that we’re taking their planes, we’re flying all the planes to China, we’re picking up all our shit, we’re bringing it back here. Do that now. Do that today. Send the planes today.”

We did that. But only the Prime Minister could actually cut through all the bureaucracy and say, Ignore these EU rules on Blah. Ignore treasury guidance on Blah. Ignore this. Ignore that. “I am personally saying do this and I will accept full legal responsibility for everything.”

You multiply that kind of problem by hundreds and thousands of problems, you get a sense of partly why COVID was so crazy. This is normal government. But in a crisis, when no part of the system can actually move fast, all of these bottlenecks end up very dramatically escalating to the PM’s office. And if you read Jared Kushner’s book, Memoir about the White House, there are very, very similar tales there. That a lot of things that obviously should have been solved elsewhere couldn’t be solved at any other part of the system. They all end up cascading upwards in these centralized bureaucracies, because ultimately only the president or only the Prime Minister can give certain kinds of orders.


And in fact, In 2020, for example, when we did some things very differently, it was extremely disruptive and extremely unwelcome to the large part of the system. Hence why a lot of what we did was closed down.

Did they say, “Okay, the vaccine task force and operation warp speed and the state have been great successes. We should massively reinforce them. We should build the next generation of vaccines. We should spread the lessons of how the task force operated.”?

No, they basically closed the task force. Sewage monitoring closed. Rapid testing, basically closed and forgot to order enough tests the following year.

So if you look back at 2020, most of the people who were most wrong were given awards and honors by the system and promoted to new jobs. The people who were most obviously repeatedly right have almost all left.

What incentive is there for people to speak out about how these things work? No one expects anything to change. Even after something as big as COVID, when you see what the reaction is, everyone can now see the truth. You can have a once century pandemic. It can kill tens of thousands of people unnecessarily. It can be a complete carnage for the economy, and everyone will just basically go back to normal. MPs will ignore it and nothing much will change.

So if you’re a standard official inside the system, all the signals to you are very clear. In fact, in 2021, it was even more powerful than that. There were a whole load of legal actions brought to say that the real problem with 2020 was that we went too fast and we did things too quickly. People actually brought legal actions against the vaccine task force. They brought legal actions against rapid testing. They brought legal actions against all sorts of activities.

The system didn’t say “This is completely insane. Actually, the bureaucracy and the sloth killed thousands of voters.” It said “Yes, we’re going to investigate all of this.” Every signal propagated through the system was essentially back to normal. You will be promoted for being the most insane process, and you will be demoted and blacklisted if you say this process is insane and try to do better.


Dominic Cummings 00:24:16

Manhattan Project is much in the news with the Oppenheimer movie. If you look at the very last bit of General Grove’s book on Manhattan Project, he talks about what are the most fundamental principles about why it succeeded? And one of those principles is relevant to government. Actually, they’re all relevant to government.

One of the principles is that the quality of the people is fundamental. Another one is that responsibility and authority are always delegated together. The entire British constitutional system and management structure is based on the fundamentally opposite principle. Responsibility and authority are not delegated together. So if you’re asking about something like the vaccine task force, in the normal system, nobody really is in charge of anything. Lots of people can criticize, lots of people can complain, lots of people can argue about things. Lots of people can veto. Almost nobody ever has the authority just to build something or just to do something.

Why did we create the vaccine task force the way we did? Well, because we were trying to actually embody principles like responsibility and authority pulled together. We brought one person in, we said “You are responsible.” But once we’d gone, then what happens to that entity? It’s sitting there amid Whitehall while all the normal parts of Whitehall just start going back to being normal. So what happens? They say, well, they are exempt from all of these rules on HR that the Cabinet Office imposes on every part of Government. This should change because it’s going back to normal. They have to do the following things properly. We gave them special dispensations because of the extraordinary circumstances of summer 2020, but these now come to an end.

So those sorts of things come in. The treasury says, “The spending rules and how the people in the vaccine task force make decisions, that was an emergency thing. Now the normal rules apply again.” So before you know it, all the different parts of the system have basically said, the thing that you created outside of the normal system now has to obey all of the things that it was specifically created to avoid.

Now, the system will just do that automatically unless there is a very powerful counterforce. Fundamentally, again, only the PM can say,”No, we’re not having that. In fact, I want to strengthen the vaccine task force. We want to move on to the next generation of vaccines. etc.” If they don’t do that, and if the people in charge of it can’t call on the PM’s authority, the system will just devour the new entity very, very quickly and force it to conform with all of the normal system.

I’ll give you another example of this on rapid testing. One of the things that we did to get the rapid testing to work was we got a guy who formerly was commanding officer of the SAS, British Special Forces, and this guy got a bunch of his friends from Special Forces also to work on rapid testing. When we first got this pushing from Number 10, I got the critical people from procurement, commercial HR, etc, into the Cabinet room with the Cabinet Secretary, the single most important official in the whole country, and the two of us said, “The PM wants rapid testing dealt with as if this is a wartime crisis.” We’re going to have a second wave. There’s going to be thousands more people getting CoViD, there’s NHS. People are dying, etc. We can’t have any of the normal civil service HR. We can’t have any of the normal civil service bullshit on procurement. Exactly the same as with the vaccine task force. Everyone sits around the cabinet table, they all nod their heads.

A week later, I call this guy, a former SAS boss and say, “So, how’s it going? Are you getting who you want and is everything working great?”

He says, “No, it’s all the same shit show.”

So I have to get all the people back in the same room with the country’s most senior official and say, who the fuck have we got to fire around here to make clear that these people doing testing don’t have to do all of your bullshit HR?

That’s how extreme things have to be. It was only by doing that a second time and making clear that I would get the PM to actually just start firing senior people in the Cabinet office. It’s only then that the system will kind of part and go, “Okay, this element is allowed to.” But you imagine as soon as that countervailing force is removed, all the normal sea floods back.


Dominic Cummings 00:31:25

Sorry to interrupt, but imagine as well what the promotion system is like and who ends up getting to the top of these systems. A lot of people say, “Oh, you’re so negative about the civil service. You’re all saying that everyone there is rubbish, and it’s not fair.” That’s not my view. In fact, if you look at the civil service, you actually see a lot of very able people, but most of them are young. What happens is the young, excellent people get weeded out by self-selection, largely because they go in idealistic, they’re there for a few years, but then they look at what the process is to be promoted, and they look at their bosses, and the best of them look at it and go, “I don’t want to be like that.” I don’t want to have to make those decisions. I don’t want to have to make those compromises. I don’t want the job like that, where it’s almost all bullshit. We can’t actually build anything.

The most entrepreneurial, the kind of people who actually want to get on and do stuff now, leave and the most HR compliant, disastrous people to be in charge of supposedly fast moving agencies are the ones who are promoted to take over. And then that culture itself becomes highly self reinforcing. Once you get a whole cadre of leadership at the top that’s like that, it’s extremely difficult to break out of.

I'll stop clipping there or I'll wind up just having the whole darned thing. 

Monday 13 November 2023

Afternoon roundup

The tabs!

Preparing for the new government

Tova O'Brien at Stuff reports on leaked emails at MBIE that point to preparations for downsizings.

In a statement, MBIE said the cuts were in response to the savings targets imposed by the outgoing Labour government and being mindful of the cost of living crisis.

“This work to date has been based on the targets and expectations set by the current Government. We will have conversations with the new Government when it is formed on how we have worked to date to achieve the fiscal savings target,” Tremain told Stuff.

In late August, just ahead of the election campaign, Labour’s Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced $4b in public service savings including cutting back on contractors and consultants and trimming agencies’ baselines by 1 and 2% of which MBIE faced the largest cut at $110.8m

But further changes being considered may be in anticipation of the new government making good on its “cut the waste” campaign rhetoric; in the email, Tremain says “we are preparing for change” and that “this is inevitable as we get ready to support a new government and new Ministers”.

I was curious where some of this might be going and had put in an OIA a while back. 

Treasury had started a pre-election information exercise to help them prep for Budget 2024. I figured that whatever they got back from the Ministries would be a heck of a lot more informative than what's served up in Briefings to the Incoming Ministers. 

Because it would be a lot more informative, Treasury withheld all of it. And fair enough. 

But they did give me the questions they'd asked. I'll copy it all here. 

It's relevant to today's story from O'Brien because a lot of this process started before the election, and there was a Baseline Savings Proposal that was underway. 

But Treasury was also asking for substantive changes to stop or scale down current services or activities - as it ought to be. 

Also interesting - Treasury was asking what projects hadn't yet been started, presumably so they could be cut if needed. I wonder if any agencies started scrambling to start spending on projects to lock them in.

I wonder what all showed up as savings options in Section Two.

Friday 10 November 2023

Afternoon roundup

The end-of-week closing of the browser tabs

Making coal

Trees are very good at sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, they eventually release it back into the atmosphere. Some gets stored for the longer term, but our ETS pretends it's all released at point of harvest. And there can be a good case for that if most of it does and if it's hard to track.

But there are other options.

I have no clue whether the economics of this option would stack up, but it should be allowed in principle.

Suppose a carbon forest owner harvested the forest, dug a very deep pit, put the harvested trees into the pit, and covered them with layers of clay so no gasses would seep up. The process takes carbon from the atmosphere and sticks it back into the geosphere. Give it time and it'll be coal.

I've always figured that if a carbon forest owner did that properly, that permanent sequestration ought to count against any surrender obligations that come with cutting down a carbon forest. For every tonne durably sequestered, a one NZU reduction in surrender obligation.

Turns out Bill Gates is backing a neater version of this. Story from December 2022 but I only just caught it.

A California startup is pursuing a novel, if simple, plan for ensuring that dead trees keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for thousands of years: burying their remains underground.

Kodama Systems, a forest management company based in the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Sonora, has been operating in stealth mode since it was founded last summer. But MIT Technology Review can now report the company has raised around $6.6 million from Bill Gates’s climate fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures, as well as Congruent Ventures and other investors.

In addition, the payments company Stripe will reveal on Thursday that it’s provided a $250,000 research grant to the company and its research partner, the Yale Carbon Containment Lab, as part of a broader carbon removal announcement. That grant will support a pilot effort to bury waste biomass harvested from California forests in the Nevada desert and study how well it prevents the release of greenhouse gases that drive climate change. 

It also agreed to purchase about 415 tons of carbon dioxide eventually sequestered by the company for another $250,000, if that proof-of-concept project achieves certain benchmarks.

Whenever I've suggested "Why don't we consider just letting people bury trees," NZ climate people look at me like I'm crazy. 


A handful of research groups and startups have begun exploring the potential to lock up the carbon in wood, by burying or otherwise storing tree remains in ways that slow down decomposition.

Trees are naturally efficient at sucking down vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, but they release the carbon again when they die and rot on the ground. Sequestering trees underground could prevent this. If biomass burial works as well as hoped, it may provide a relatively cheap and easy way to pull down some share of the billions of tons of greenhouse gas that studies find may need to be removed to keep global temperatures in check in the coming decades. 

One of the usual objections from the kind of climate people who love to grope for excuses to ignore things that might help the climate (because those things don't force Radical Structural Change and Deep Decarbonisation) is that forests are risky because a forest that offsets emissions from a tonne of coal means a transfer of carbon from the geosphere to the biosphere, and the biosphere is risky. 

Well, carbon stored in trees can be stuck back into the geosphere. 

Look at all these approaches being tried. 

Burial costs

Other startups and research efforts are taking different approaches to the problem. 

The Australian company InterEarth believes that allowing trees to soak up salty groundwater before burying them will effectively pickle the wood, preserving it for extended periods.

The Carbon Lockdown Project, a public benefits corporation founded by University of Maryland professor Ning Zeng, has proposed creating pits that are lined with clay or other materials with low permeability.

In a paper this year, Zeng and a colleague also highlighted a number of other potential approaches, including storing biomass in frozen sites, underwater, or even in above-ground shelters. His earlier work found that harvesting and storing wood could potentially remove several billion tons of carbon dioxide a year at a cost of well below $100 a ton.

You don't need all of them to work. Or even any of these ones - there's lots of other projects being tried, including mineralisation. 

Run a clean ETS focused on net emissions and run the accounting properly. If any of these techs can scale up at low cost, we hit net zero at a low carbon price and could push for net negative, to undo the damage already done. If none of them do, we still hit net zero - just at a higher carbon cost.

I was on a panel discussion earlier this week about COP28 hosted by the NZ Institute of International Affairs - remotely, as daughter currently isolating with Covid and I don't want to impose risk on others (she's fine).  

But the whole discussion was so frustrating. 

A friend who'd attended said my presence there was felt, like a fart in Church, despite my being remote. 

I talked about the ETS, changes to help it drive to net zero durably, tech bets NZ should be making, other tech underdevelopment. 

Germany's climate rep wanted to focus on gross emission reduction. But when I asked about Germany turning off its nuclear plants and now having to rely on coal, she said nuclear is bad because of Chernobyl. I have a very difficult time taking these people seriously. Unfortunately, they set the agenda at COP.  

Anyway - burying trees isn't as crazy as it might have seemed.