Coal: A Human History – Barbara Freese

Some saw in the mines scientific proof of biblical flood. Some credited coal with protecting people from the bubonic plague; others accused it of promoting baldness, tooth decay, sordid murders, caustic speech and fuzzy thinking.More recently many of us believed we could burn vast amounts of coal without disrupting the natural balance of the planet. No doubt we have still much to learn about coal, but at least we’ve been able to dispel many of the old myths.

The book talks about the history of coal, since Roman times to modern day. Barbara Freese talks about both the good and the bad sides of the mineral. As the author is an environmental lawyer, the book slightly tips on the bad side of coal, however the research is deep, insightful and entertaining.

Coal is appreciated by Ms Freese as the basis of the Industrial revolution and the rock that made the British Empire and the United States. It significantly improved living standards by increasing on a massive scale the efficiency of industrial processes.

On the other side, the bad environmental effects were constant, from the fumes and hard working conditions to current greenhouse gas problems.

The message of the book is that coal was never popular, but always useful. The author finishes the book on a positive note, such as using coal for in plastics and other alternative uses.

How the electricity system works

The electricity market – a very peculiar market

Economic interactions regarding electricity are designed as a market, like any other commodity. Therefore electricity prices follow demand and supply rules. However, they have some very specific characteristics, at consumer level.

Firstly, demand is relatively inelastic in the short-term, particularly for small consumers, less so for large ones. Secondly, there is limited customer storage options. While there is the option of batteries for small consumers, the storage capability is small (Tesla Powerwalls, for example, have a storage of 7kWh and a power of 2kWh; while average daily household consumption in the UK is about 11kWh). This limits significantly consumers’ response to price fluctuations. Thirdly, consumers have limited if any, substitutes for electricity. They can invest in long term demand-response measures (for example, investing in more energy-efficient appliances), but the basic need for the product remains. Fourthly, the entire society is based on electricity as energy carrier. The use of electricity cannot be avoided by consumers. Because of very inflexible demand and limited storage options, the supply has to match and follow the demand at all times. Various ways to organize the electricity market were used, reflecting competing public policies, for example non-for-profit utilities or regulated monopolies. Electricity markets have retail and wholesale markets. Retail markets involve the sale of electricity to end consumers, while wholesale markets involve the selling of electricity to distributors by electric utilities.

How wholesale electricity markets work

The wholesale market is where the commodity, electricity, is traded (bought and sold) by the electricity producers, the electricity suppliers (who subsequently sell it to end consumers) and brokers or traders. Trading can be via direct agreement – directly between producer and supplier, via broker – brokered mutual agreement, or on electricity stock exchanges.

On electricity stock exchanges (also called power exchanges), like any other stock exchanges, transactions may be either financial (speculating for a better price) or may lead to a physical supply. Products can be spot (purchased for delivery on the same day or following day) or forward products (purchased for delivery sometime in the future). This is very similar to any stock exchange, with the exception that the market did not evolve yet to derivative products.

A particularity of the power exchange is that the commodity follows consumption patterns, so the products can also be base (the minimum consumption of electricity) or peak (supply from 8 morning until 20 from Monday to Friday). Finally, spot products can be day-ahead, weekend or hourly-reference products (half an hour, an hour or blocks of several hours). Therefore, a product sold on the exchange can be, for example, base spot or forward weekend. Key is the day-ahead spot price because it is the reference price for the spot trade.

The power of the regulating authority, usually the Transmission System Operator, on power exchanges is significant, because it has the ultimate responsibility to keep the system in balance. Because the electricity system has to be in balance at all times, the grid manager can take balancing actions, procuring more electricity, stopping someone to supply or asking large consumers to limit usage.

The merit order

A model often used by traders and brokers on electricity markets to describe the electricity generators, their production and costs is the merit order. This ranks power generators (mostly power stations and wind farms) by increasingly short-run marginal costs of production and capacity. Power generators with costs below the demand curve (also known as electricity load) will produce, while those above load will wait for a peak. The last power generator “called” to fill the needed load “sets” the price.

While the model has its limits, such as ignoring energy storage and ramp rates, it still shows that electricity produced by the plants with the lowest cost is dispatched first, minimizing the cost for consumers. The difference between the dispatched power plant cost and the load price is called infra-marginal rent.

For peaking units, the costs are covered by scarcity rents, created when load is very high (peaking). Spread is called the difference between electricity prices and the production cost of the plant (mainly involving fuel costs). Clean spread is the difference between electricity prices and the production cost of the plant, including taxes (such as the CO2 price or the carbon floor in the UK). The main competition is between coal and gas, called clean dark spread and clean spark spread, respectively.

How electricity wholesale markets work in EU28

In 2015, there were several bidding zones, but the purpose of the European policymakers is to make an European Energy Market, with one central market. A bidding zone is the largest geographical area where bidders can exchange energy without constraint . The bidding zones are CWE (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg), NordPoolSpot (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway), Apennine (Italy), Iberia (Spain and Portugal), CEE, also known as PXE (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania), and Greece. Other couplings were constructed between countries, but they do not significantly affect price differentials.

Some of those bidding areas are now further integrated to form an even larger European power exchange, limited only by the level of interconnection between systems. National power markets still exist, such Romania’s OPCOM, Portugal’s OMIP or Spain’s OMEL, which creates some overlap.

Those bidding zones or power exchanges, including national power exchanges, work as a genuine exchange, trading electricity like any other commodity. NordpoolSpot, the leading European power market, for example offers day-ahead and intraday spot contracts for Nordic, Baltic and UK’s N2EX markets and intra-day spot contracts for the German market. The European Energy Exchange (EEX) and EPEX Spot, a joint venture between Germany’s EEX and France’s PowerNext, offer day-ahead and intraday spot contracts for Germany, Austria, France and day-ahead spot contracts for Switzerland. In addition, EEX has also future contracts, varying from day to year futures, for about all Western countries.

Morning Star (Red Rising saga: Book 3) – Pierce Brown

My name is Felicia au…” I feint a whip at her face. She brings her blade up, and Victra goes diagonal and impales her at the belly button. I finish her off with a neat decapitation. “Bye, Felicia.” Victra spits, turning to the last Praetorian.

[…]

No child in my family watches holos before the age of twelve. We all have nature and nurture to shape us. She can watch other people’s opinions when she has opinions of her own, and no sooner. We’re not digital creatures. We’re flesh and blood. Better she learns that before the world finds her.

Morning Star is the third and final part of the Red Rising saga. A lot grittier, grey and bitter than the first two books, the volume concludes the story of Darrow. The protagonist, born in the Red low-cast, raised through ranks through deception and skill to be part of the Gold high-class. He then challenged the entire Society’s cast-based structure, by the force of his ideas and outstanding moral compass.

The book was more about Darrow’s friends and allies than his actions. The reader still sees the world through the protagonist’s eyes, but he is no longer in absolute control. Many of the main decisions and actions are taken by others. He is a lot more reactive in this book and depending a lot more on the will of others.

Final chapter in the Red Rising saga, one of the most popular sci-fi space operas in recent years.

The plot is still outstanding, the pace of action superb and the characters that are introduced are memorable. However, the quality of writing is a bit down, a bit struggling. It is still head and shoulders above most scifi literature, but just a little below the world class writing that were the first two books. The author, Pierce Brown, admits that he struggled with the third book. He knew where to arrive with the story, but he did not know how to get there.

The saga could have had a better vocabulary, more precise wording. More technical research would have made it a hard scifi, a difficult task considering the time horizon, 700 years in the future.

Overall, this is top-class trilogy, certainly among the best in scifi literature. The writing is superb, solid storyline, the plot is tight, full of action, the pace is perfect, numerous creative ideas for a far away future, explanations of why things are as they are, well-developed supporting characters, great balance between simplicity and psychological and moral dilemmas, excellent world immersion, strong moral messages and, above all, entertaining and unexpected developments.

[Features picture: ESA, NASA and L. Calçada (ESO)]

Golden Son (Red Rising saga: Book 2)- Pierce Brown

That’s what Society does–spread the blame so there is no villain, so it’s futile to even begin to find a villain, to find justice. It’s just machinery. Processes.

[…]

Rose petals of a thousand shades fall from the trees as Golds fight beneath them. They’re all red in the end.

Golden Son continues the Rising Red saga, with the protagonist, Darrow, now a Gold. Darrow is staring to navigate the difficult politics of being a part of the Society as a Gold, while trying to create a rift within it. He tries to use the fight between ruling families to create a civil war, weakening the Society from within.

The reader comes to know the final pieces of the puzzle, the ruler of the Society and her coterie, and the antagonist, a brilliant schemer.

Beautiful scifi saga, with action, politics, love and friendships.

The book keeps the same excellent level of writing, perfectly paced action, almost impermeable plot, depth of character and top class editing.

There is a slight drop in the quality of the plot, with a few turns of the action that raise browses.

However, the storytelling remains world class, creating one of the best sci-fi sagas in recent literature.

[Features picture: ESA, NASA and L. Calçada (ESO)]

Red Rising (Red Rising saga: Book 1)- Pierce Brown

I live for the dream that my children will be born free. That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.’

‘I live for you,’ I say sadly.

She kisses my cheek. ‘Then you must live for more.

Red Rising is the first book and the eponym of the scifi trilogy by Pierce Brown. The saga follows the story of Darrow, a miner in the Mars deep-mines, some 700 years in the future. His kind has a hard life, toiling to extract precious minerals to terraform the world above, that they never see. However, is there more that meets the eye?

Humanity has evolved to colonize the solar system, but not beyond. The society is organized on a hierarchical caste-based system, colours being given by the role they fulfill in the society. Harsh life in the first colonisation of the Moon, centuries ago, made humans to specialize on different tasks and later being genetically modified to better fulfill their tasks. For example, Greys are policeman and soldiers, Blues are pilots are spaceships personnel, Yellows are doctors, and, on top of all, Golds, the leaders. On the bottom of the pyramid are the Reds, the miners and low jobs in general.

Darrow is a Red in the society’s hierarchical caste-based system, skilled in his job, young in age, but old according to his colour. His wife dreams of more, for her children to be free and have a better life, and she is killed by the society. She passes her dream to Darrow, who starts an epic struggle of guile, force and grit for a new society.

This is one of the best series of scifi saga, right next to Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games. Great ideas and plot, excellent writing, characters with depth and motivations, unpredictable plot and excellent pace.

Thinking bigger than the world he is.

Most impressive is the plot, which moves quickly, but with just enough detail to get to keep the reader immersed in the story. So many things are happening, but they are linear enough to be easily tracked by the reader. There are no parallel stories, the reader sees the world only through the eyes of the protagonist, which makes the complex story easy to follow.

Secondly, the motivations, the actions, the plot is credible and realistic. The protagonist is not the perfect guy, with the perfect plan. He sometimes loses, sometimes is out-foxed and out-maneuvered, with real consequences for him. Rarely there are plots with so few holes. Indeed, plot holes exist in the book, but they are few and far apart.

Finally, the writing style is head and shoulders over similar novels, with great grammar, well-researched Latin references and excellent use of English vocabulary. It is clear that the book had a great editor, helping the writer to identify weak points of the story and keep the plot progressing steadily.

No wonder the book was Goodreads choice for 2014. There was a bid war for film rights between some of the largest film corporations around (which made the author a multi-millionaire in the process) and likely there will be a movie in the making. A book to read, even if not a scifi fan.

End This Depression Now! – Paul Krugman

There’s another element in the euro crisis, another weakness of a shared currency, that took many people, myself included, by surprise. It turns out that countries that lack their own currency are highly vulnerable to self-fulfilling panic, in which the efforts of investors to avoid losses from default end up triggering the very default they fear.

This is an economics book by the Nobel awarded economist, Paul Krugman, where he presents his neo-Keynesian ideas in dealing with the 2008–2012 global recession. Krugman sees as the solution to economic crisis an increase in government expenditure, to balance the consumer decline in purchasing and reignite the economy. Government expenditure is made by the central bank (Federal Reserve in the US) creating money, with which governmental bonds, for example, are purchased, which in turn are used to make governmental projects or purchases.

In the European Union, the central bank bought eurobonds and company bonds, that is corporate debt, debt used by companies for investment or keeping production, in order to stop the vicious circle.

On macro-economics of depressions: the Keynesian view.

The US indeed had an expansionary economy, but Professor Krugman considered that the level of government expenditure was not enough to alleviate the consequences of the economic crisis. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman, was a history economist and an expert in the Great Depression.

For the austerity policies adopted in several countries of the European Union, he considered that they only create unnecessary pain, calling for the stop of austerity and the end of economic depression.

His economic ideas are drawn from the Great Depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, of which Keynes considered that the government should intervene and balance the private production with public demand, until the economy is reignited. Indeed, largely until the New Deal of President Roosevelt, the Federal Reserve focused mainly on keeping the federal budget and the inflation in check. To recall, the New Deal created numerous public projects, such as government buildings, airports, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and dams, around 35,000 overall.

A critical review comes from the Austrian school of economy, which notes that, despite significant spending from governments, the crisis continued, hence the measures were inefficient. Furthermore, the reasons that created the crisis will not be corrected, if the government kept pouring money.

Professor Krugman got his Nobel prize for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.

The book manages to give a solid macro-economy insight into the world economic crisis of 2008-2012, while having an attractive writing style.

Marines (Crimson Worlds 1) – Jay Allan

The new officer AIs were the state of the art in quasi-sentient computers, and the designers had decided that giving them a soothing, human-sounding voice and an active personality would reduce stress on officers in the field. I can’t speak to the psychology of the officer corps in general, but the damned thing creeped me out. And it talked too much.

Marines is the first book of the Crimson World series, a military sci-fi saga with assaults on planets, marines, decrepit governments and futuristic technologies. The book follows the astonishing rise through the ranks of Erik Cain, from a gang member and low strata to major in the space marines.

Jay Allen creates a dystopia, 250 years in the future, where Earth superpowers fight in space among themselves for colonies, resources and warp gates access. Society returns generally to feudal politics level, with a tightly controlled population and only token elections. In this environment, the army provides a refuge for those willing to be in a meritocratic system, a brotherhood of arms.

Space marines and planetary colonies. Intro to the Crimson Worlds saga.

The author promotion of military values is visible throughout the book, rarely any officers or troops being unfit for job. The highest sought-out skill is military experience. Politicians are disdained. Colonists are brave people, willing to preserve democracies and the main reason of the protagonist’s motivation to fight.

The book is well-written, engaging, with good depth of characters. The universe is well described and the author tries to explain why things are as they are are, which adds to the depth of the book.

A drawback is the nearly perfect career of Erik Cain, who skyrockets through ranks without enough explanation why. He tops the academy (how? why was he special?). He displayed brilliance on the field (how? what others would do normally and he did differently and exceptional?). In this respect, I recommend the Man of War series or Star Carrier, also on the blog, who really kept the reader guessing.

The book reads generally as an intro to the series, with a rushed plot and some, but could have been more, description. Maybe next books in the series will have a more twisted plot.