Data integrity – a clear imperative for all

So often you read stuff in the papers or hear data reported/analysed/ speculated on and when you think about the numbers you hear you wonder: do they make sense?

asian-noodle-salad-1

Just today, I read an article saying that the UK was importing more halloumi than any other country in the EU; and that this amounted to twice the imports to Sweden. Now, Sweden’s population is much smaller than that of the UK. As per Eurostat (the European Union Statistical Office which can be relied upon to produce reasonably accurate population figures) the population of the two countries were (as at 1 January 2014):

Sweden:               9.6 million

UK:                      64.3 million

So, if Sweden imports 50 % of the halloumi we do, then that means they import far more per capita than we do given their population. In other words the cheese appears to be much more popular there than here but the article seemed to suggest just the opposite.

This is the kind of use that statistics (or rather data) is put to, which is all about making a point for which there is little evidence. If numbers are not put in context then they don’t mean anything.

But of course, halloumi isn’t all that critical in the great scheme of things – although I love the stuff and have probably contributed to the increase in its importation to the UK.

And the reason I’m making this point…

Well, I get very fed up with this kind of loose use of numbers. Every time I see what looks like an interesting (or even encouraging) number, I think: hang on a moment, does this make sense? And I feel that at least the ‘good guys’, the people whose views and research and opinions I rely on, should be better than the mainstream press in their use of numbers.

And sometimes they aren’t and that makes us on the green left very vulnerable, because if we quote numbers that can easily be picked apart that can undermine our argument, even if our argument is valid.

The Future of Energy

The future of energy is much more important than halloumi; so when I came across an article in Resurgence called ‘The Solar Revolution’ I was excited. I hoped that it would show that solar energy is being taken seriously enough to be a real prospect for a renewable future soon.

But given the fact that when I travel I note that there is still not nearly enough evidence of solar power installations, I was a bit wary.

The article is interesting and I recommend that you read it. The point I am picking up on is some of the numbers it uses.

They are contained in this screen shot of a small section of the article:

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 18.04.58

You can read it once you enlarge it a bit. But the key points are these:

‘Wind and solar provided 80.9 % of new installed US electricity-generating capacity for February 2014.’

And, a little further on:

‘Coal, oil, and nuclear provided none, while natural gas and 1MW of ‘other’ provided the balance.’

Now this looks fantastic. The US is not really up there in our minds as a renewables paradise; if they don’t install new capacity using fossil fuels, well, why should we? All terribly good news you would think.

But, wait a minute, these are figures for one month in the current year. These figures do not tell us what proportion of the total generating capacity of the US electricity market is made up of different types of generation. So is it good news?

The article directs us to the source of the figures, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; so I thought I’d have a look at their website. It’s a website full of reports of numbers. It’s not totally straightforward to work out which report might have been the basis of the statement made in the Resurgence article. I came across one report that certainly has interesting numbers relating to electricity generation in February 2014. It is called: Office of Energy Projects Energy Infrastructure Update For February 2014.

It is not very long but it is also not as clear as one might hope. It starts with some information about new Natural Gas and Hydropower projects and then comes to electricity generation.

In this section, there is a table that shows the new generating capacity provided in February 2014, in January + February 2014 and in January + February 2013 for comparison.

I always think that graphs are easier to read than tables so I have taken the numbers and turned them into a graph. Here it is:

New generating capacity Jan and Feb 2013 and 2014

What do the numbers tell us? First, they cover only a very short period – which is acknowledged in the Resurgence article; but they also tell us that the figures both for wind and solar are even better in the same period the year before. Finally, they tell us that in 2013, there was also some additional capacity working with natural gas (likely to be sourced from fracking in the US but not actually spelled out).

The graph and its underlying table also tell us something about the quantity of the new generating capacity: for the two months in 2014 an additional 568 MW (megawatts) were brought on stream; in the same period in 2013, this was 2170 MW – which is just short of 4 times the new capacity in 2014 in the same period.

I don’t think we can assume from this that the US is scaling down its new capacity development; it’s telling us that the figures on a month-by-month basis are likely to be extremely fluctuating.

But what does any of this mean in terms of the overall generating capacity in the US? The next table in the report answers this question. Again, I have produced a graph to show the picture more clearly.

Total Generating Capacity

So in terms of overall generating capacity – and this is not a surprise – renewables – and in particular solar – are a very small fraction of the total. In the graph, this is expressed in per cent.

But it is also illustrative to look at the proportion represented by the generating capacity referred to in the article compared to the total generating capacity in the US.

I’d like to show this in another graph but the February 2014 additional capacity represents only 0.02 per cent of the total generating capacity. It just doesn’t show up on a graph.

Are there any conclusions to be drawn?

Yes, definitely. Firstly, it is clear that even the US – a country we are told has had a complete energy revolution because of fracking (and that may well be true given the figures for natural gas in the total capacity) – is beginning to focus on renewables; that is excellent news. But it’s not quite the same as saying that the US is moving over to renewables quickly or significantly, given the overall capacity in their system.

Secondly, it is telling us that the focus for new capacity in recent months seems to be going in the direction of renewables. It would be interesting to chart the numbers across a period of time (I’m thinking 10 years) to show whether or not there is a trend being established.

Thirdly, it is telling us that there is still a mountain to climb to get the US to have a substantial proportion of its generating capacity coming from renewables. And so using the US as an example needs to be done with great care.

But the most important point is this: if we don’t do our homework on our numbers when we postulate positions on these things, we are vulnerable. It didn’t take me long to ask the questions – someone who is completely opposed to renewables (and there are people like that, just read the Daily Telegraph every now and again) will drive a coach and horses through our numbers and demolish our arguments.

And just because Resurgence may think it is singing to the choir when it comes to its readers, does not excuse its loose use of numbers. We can, and we should, do better than that.

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About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
This entry was posted in Behind the Headlines, Politics in context and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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