Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Focus III: From Confusion to Clarity

While I get ready to move. I intend to repost what are some of my better essays. The occasion for this October 27, 2008 essay was my proposal that the anticipated new President set up an Energy Issues Fact Finding Commission, to help us identify the problems and systematically lay out the choices we have to make. My argument was, and continues to be, that our society as a whole is fundamentally confused about future energy issues.

From Confusion to Clarity

Before people can make good choices they have to understand what their options are, and what the consequences of making different choices choices are. In cases where adequate and clear information is not available, we are likely to make poor choices. One of the major functions of an Energy Issues fact finding commission would be to clear up confusion, misinformation, and misunderstandings about our Energy options.

Let me mention some examples. One of the options that we face in is the extent which we will continue to burn fossil fuels for energy. NASA atmospheric scientist, Dr. James Hanson has called for drastically reducing CO2 emissions. He believes that atmospheric CO2 has reached dangerous levels, and that to proven major climate change with undesirable consequences drastic actions are required in June of 2008 Hanson told Congress and the national press club that:
Requirements to halt carbon dioxide growth follow from the size of fossil carbon reservoirs. Coal towers over oil and gas. Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming.

Oil is used in vehicles where it is impractical to capture the carbon. But oil is running out. To preserve our planet we must also ensure that the next mobile energy source is not obtained by squeezing oil from coal, tar shale or other fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel reservoirs are finite, which is the main reason that prices are rising. We must move beyond fossil fuels eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly.
Hanson's position is clear. We have to eliminate fossil fuel use because of global warming, and because we are running out of fossil fuels. There are some who would disagree with Hanson about AGW, but the consensus of the scientific community seems to back the notion that further increases in atmospheric levels of CO2 will lead to increased temperatures world wide, with widespread, adverse consequences. There is less agreement with Hanson's contention tht we are at a climate tipping point, and that if we fail to take drastic action now it may be too late.

Hansor's other contention, that we are running out of fossil fuel resources is also debated, but we have observe dramatic rises in the price of oil during the last decade. We could expect from the rules of classical economics that such a price rise would lead to new producers appearing on the market, with a a consequent increase in oil supply. While new producers have appeared, their production has be largely offset by production declines among older producers. Thus total production has edged up slightly but has not kept pace with rising demand despite dramatic price rises.

The situation with coal and natural gas is does not suggest an immediate peak resources crisis, primarily because supplies are capable of being increased in the face of rising prices. Indeed this has already happened in the natural gas industry, where investments in new technologies have lead to the development of significant new resources, and the identification of even more resources. Never-the-less, these resources are only available at high costs, and will in time reach their peak production and inevitably begin to decline. Thus even if we wish to post pone the evil day when we can no longer rely of fossil fuels for energy, and Hanson makes the case that we should not, we will eventually be confronted with fossil fuels shortages that will increasingly limit our ability to limit the production of energy. Thus critics of Hanson on AGW, have no response to the argument that oil production is peaking, and coal and natural gas will as well sooner, rather than later.

Thus we are confronted with the necessity of replacing our current energy system with a radically different system, one which does not rely on fossil fuels. Our future fact finders will probably find that the use of energy from fossil fuels will greatly decline, in the case of oil by 2050, and should greatly decline in the case of coal and natural gas by 2050. The major question would be then, should any fossil fuel use e permitted in 2050, and if so, how much? This would be an issue for a fact finding commission to determine.

There is in our society at present a great deal of confusion about non-carbon energy sources. Internet personality Jerome a Paris, (Jerome Guillet) is a very articulate advocate of wind energy projects. Jerome believes in the financial viability of these projects, and indeed he puts his money where his mouth is. As a Paris banker, Jerome makes loans for the purpose of financing wind energy projects. Following a recent post by Jerome on the Oil Drum, we exchanged comments on the relative costs and benefits of wind and nuclear. In a way we were talking past each other, because Jerome assumed the current business environment, while I assumed a very different environment that would be created by California's "Proposition 7", which would require that 50% of California's electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2025. I had, using data published by Ed Ring of ECOWorld estimated that there was a very substantial "Green Premium" if California voters chose to mandate the generation of 50% of California power with renewable energy. (Wind comes in at about half the cost of solar generated electricity.) Wind projects capable of generating 50% of California's electricity, would $150 billion dollars more than building reactors capable of generating the same amount of electricity.

Critics of nuclear power often talk about how expensive new nuclear plants would be. They are seldom are open and honest about the cost of solar and wind projects. Indeed it is difficult to obtain current and accurate information about the current and future construction costs of renewable power sources. If our fact finders are going to offer wise decisions, they must find accurate information.

In a book review, Malcolm Slesser, who obtained a grasp of physics through his training as a chemical engineer, notes that
the authors expand the range of anecdotal information, gloss them with science, and extrapolate diminishing dollar costs into the distant future. In this rosy future there will be so much energy saving that oil will scarcely sell for $5 a barrel. To arrive at this sate of affairs they make some heroic assumptions, and incur some thermodynamic howlers. How is the reader to interpret hyperbole like '92% less energy use ' or '100% saving', or the claim that electricity from photo-voltaic devices is of 'higher quality' (p97), or that 'combined cycle gas turbines are not subject to Carnot's Law', or phrases like 'useful work extracted ... to more than 90% of the original fuel energy'? One should not lightly buck the second law of thermodynamics, for no-one has yet succeeded.
Slesser, who set up the Energy Studies unit at the University of Strathclyde and became its first professor, further notes that one of the authors
has a degree in physics. He should know better.
In fact the author in question, who has been depicted in the past as having earned an MA in physics from Oxford, actually received his degree on a complimentary basis. He also holds complimentary PhDs and is sometimes called Doctor, but in truth he has never earned earned any degree in any subject. This explains a whole lot about the intellectual deficiencies of the book. Slesser adds,
Their technique is simple. Some recent technological developments are reported which can cut the energy and materials needs by (say) half. Then new ways of doing things can cut the need for that energy by a further half (half of a half equals a quarter), then, since we have cut some inputs to a quarter, other economies follow in their train. This a very dangerous argument. Here is a quote from page 244:

"Over the next half-century, even if global economy expanded by 6 - 8 fold, the rate of releasing carbon by burning of fossil fuels could simultaneously decrease by anywhere from one third to nine-tenths below current rate. This is because of the multiplicative effect of four kinds of actions. Switching to natural gas and renewable energy, as fast as Shell Oil planners consider likely, would cut by one half to three quarters the fossil-fuel carbon in each unit of energy consumed."

They continue: 'The efficiency of converting that energy into delivered forms, notably electricity, could meanwhile rise by at least half, thanks to modern power plants and recapturing waste heat. The efficiency of converting delivered energy into desired services would also increase by about 4-6 fold' (Why?, How?) '. 'Finally the amount of satisfaction derived from each unit of energy might perhaps be doubled by delivering higher-quality services and fewer unwanted ones.'

The allure of this argument is indeed compelling for it banishes the doom and gloom merchants to their dismal cellars; but it is misleading, for there is one thing they have over-looked: human greed. The evidence is that when you get more from less, you just take advantage of the slack. Economists call this the 'rebound effect', and it is well documented. Is it significant that neither 'rebound effect' nor 'thermodynamics' appear in the index of a book that is astonishingly rich in allusions to energy?

This critique may seem churlish when the environmental problem is so well put and where there are undeniable options for better material and energy use and waste recycle. Are the authors simply deceiving themselves? I think so, and in two ways. Firstly by using monetary measures to extrapolate into the future. Money is an abstraction that does not lend itself to longer term mensuration. Secondly, every single energy- and materials-reducing possibility impacts on the entire economy somewhere, somehow. These options needed to be tested through the medium of a holistic physically-based model of the economy.
Well educated fact finders ought to be able to recognize when a so called energy expert appears to be unaware that the laws of thermodynamics are relevant to the question of whether greater energy efficiency is possible. We then need fact finders who can think independently, who understand the laws of physics as well as having some insight into economics. We need people like Malcolm Slesser who can tell when supposed experts don't know what they are talking about.

Our fact finders need to ask how proposed systems are suppose to work, ferreting out unsatisfactory answers. In July, former Vice-President Al Gore gave a speech in which he called for the all electricity to be produced from non-carbon sources by 2020.

Blogger/Banker Jerome a Paris, using a Department of Energy report titled "20% Wind Energy by 2030" suggested that as much as 50% of American electricity could come from windmills within Al Gore's 2020 time frame.

As I write this I have been looking at "20% Wind Energy by 2030" from the US DoE. I came across the following statement:
Following load net of wind generation, however, creates a wider variability in the magnitude of load change between two adjacent hours. A system with wind generation needs more active load-following generation capability than one without wind, or more load-management capability to offset the combined variability of load net of wind.
This is undoubtedly true, but many of the assumptions in this report are dead on Arival. The most notable example is the cost of the 800 GW project with out assuming the construction cost inflation that has doubled the cost of building windmills during the last 5 years.

The report states that in 2000 the average load in the summer peak time slice was 571 GWs with a peak instantaneous load of 702 GWs. The report also suggests that by 2050 the average load in the summer peak time slice will have risen to 1,249 GWs with a peak instantaneous load of 1,531 GWs. The report does not give the slightest hint where that power going to come from. We know that much of the 800 GWs of wind generating power the report assumes, will not be available to meet summer peak demand. Jerome a Paris has suggested to me that the power will be drawn from existing grid resources, which means primarily coal and natural gas powered generators. But if the goal is to stop the emission of CO2 from the electrical generating system, then the use of a large fossil fuel back up system would be less than satisfactory.

Quite obviously conventional nuclear is too expensive to be used as peak reserve, and is seldom used for its load following capacity. If we want to eliminate the use of fossil fuels from the electrical generation system, how do we follow loads and maintain a large generating stand by capacity for summer peak demand? Shouldn't we have a fact finding committee to come up with answers to such questions, and then in turn carry those answers to their logical conclusions? Isn't it time to stop listening to energy quacks? Isn't it time to really think through the energy issues posed by the need for post carbon energy, and carry those conclusions honestly to where ever they lead?


Marcel F. Williams said...

Current nuclear power plants could provide peak load energy that is competitive with natural gas if off-peak nuclear electricity were used to produce methanol and oxygen for methanol electric power plants.

A methanol oxygen power plant could run at a 50% electrical efficiency in addition to providing waste heat for urban heating and cooling. And most of the C02 from the flu gas could be recycled to manufacture more methanol.

Additionally, current natural gas turbines can be cheaply modified to burn methanol at a higher efficiency than natural gas even without adding the free oxygen from electrolysis.


New Papyrus

Warren Heath said...

Yeah, Marcel. I’m glad that someone else is wise to the advantage of Methanol & DME as fuels. George Bush senior was actually a proponent of Methanol, and some efforts were undertaken, which led the Oil Industry and their surrogates in Auto to successfully block widespread use of Methanol as a fuel. Methanol is environmentally friendly (you can spray it on plants to greatly improve yields). Much cheaper and easier to make from biomass, NG, atmospheric or flue gas CO2 etc than ethanol. It's the third cleanest burning fuel next to Hydrogen and NG. Try burning ethanol & methanol under a white plate - with ethanol you get soot - methanol no soot. Also safer for fire hazard than ethanol, and burns more efficiently. Vast quantities of methanol can easily be produced from our NG reserves for about $0.25 per gallon.

Methanol is so safe to handle that they have used in children’s toy engines for over 50 years, and also readily available as fondue fuel in grocery & dept stores in flimsy plastic containers (they wont allow gasoline to be sold there due to its extreme toxicity & fire risk). The EPA estimates a 95% reduction in transportation fire deaths and injuries if we replaced gasoline with Methanol.

DME as a Truck Fuel

DME as a Clean Fuel, substitute for Diesel and LPG

Methanol, A Sustainable Fuel for the Future by Roberta Nichols of Ford Motor Company

Environmentally Friendly & Safe Methanol

EPA 43% Efficient Methanol Engine, with a wide Island of High Efficiency

George Olah on the Methanol Economy pt II

George Olah on the Methanol Economy pt I

CO2 Neutral Synthesis of Methanol

Comparison with H2 & Methanol with Gasoline

Synthesis of Methanol from Biomass

Methanol as a Green Transportation Fuel

Methanol in Heavy Duty Vehicles

Methanol vs H2 Production Cost

Forest Products Waste production of Methanol Analysis

Methanol Safety

The costs for producing Methanol that is Carbon Neutral work out to according to the above documents (in energy equivalent to to gasoline / gal) :

Methanol from biomass: 1.93-2.7 US$/gal

Methanol from flue gas: 3.08 US$/gal

Methanol from atmospheric CO2: 4.62 US$/gal

Undoubtedly these numbers can be improved with refinements to the technology including the small scale reverse methanol fuel cell and gasoline prices will continue to rise substantially. Using surplus electricity those costs will also be much lower, as electricity is the highest cost of the process. And of course the Methanol can be burned at double the efficiency of gasoline in converted TDI diesel engines, and using the series HEV, you can double that again. Methanol contains 40% more H2 than liquid H2 and clean burning Methanol has 6.5 times the energy density of H2 at 3,000 psi and 1.9 times the energy density of NG at 3000 psi. Convert NG to Methanol, and burn in extreme efficiency engines and series HEV’s, and that will quadruple the miles that can be traveled on the same amount of NG.

The enormous, high GHG emitting, high fresh water consumption, environmentally destructive Tar Sands converts NG to heavy crude at an energy ratio of about 1 part NG to 3 parts Heavy Crude. So instead convert the NG to Methanol directly, and burn in series HEV engines, and you will gain about 33% more mileage than using the Tar Sands conversion. So who needs the Tar Sands? On top of that, we’ve been waiting 20 yrs for an environmentally contentious, $20 billion, NG pipeline to be built to carry Arctic NG to southern markets – all of which will be used in the Tar Sands. It is much more efficient and cheaper to convert the NG at source to Methanol and ship it in simple-minded environmentally friendly tankers. Spills quickly disperse in water and are environmentally benign. So who needs Pickens NG fueled vehicles?

Charles Barton said...

I am just wondering where I went wrong in my essay. Where did you guys get that I was writing about Methanol? Hay, by the way, you shouldn't drink thew stuff. Are you planning to bring the Offenhauser engine back too?

Jim Baerg said...

Where was that photo taken?

All those windmills look like they would steal each others wind.

I've seen wind farms in SW Alberta & those are more sensibly lined up on N-S ridges to catch strong west winds, and the N-S lines are much farther apart than in the photo.

Charles Barton said...

Jim the picture was taken in California. I susprct it may have been photoshopped.

Marcel F. Williams said...

"I am just wondering where I went wrong in my essay. Where did you guys get that I was writing about Methanol?"

You mentioned that nuclear power would be too expensive to use for peak load power. And I just pointed out that nuclear power used to manufacture methanol could be used for peak load power.

Charles Barton said...

Marcel you should recognize the word conventional. The LFTR is unconventional nuclear power and should not be too expensive to do peak loads, and load following. There is always someone that does not get the word. I understand that the American open wheel auto racing series uses methanol, just like it did in the good old days,

Anonymous said...

I would say that Jerome would argue that additional grid resources could be nuclear instead of fossil, given is rather eclectic view of energy. you have this report which shows the 1500 GWs? I find this insanely too high. Total capacity is less than 1000 GWs and that's at 100%.


Charles Barton said...

David, the 1500 GW instant peak figure comes from "20% Wind Energy by 2030" by the US Department of Energy. If rthe wind back up is nuclear, the question arrises, why do you need wind at all?

If there are times that only two percent of wind generation capacity can be counted on, and you use nuclear backup, why not make nuclear your primary and only power source. Nuclear base up is no more expensive than nuclear backup. it cost no more to run the nuks when the wind blows, than to run them only when the wind doesn't blow. A nuclear back up system can do the whole job, so why do you need wind? The system becomes a whole lot cheaper without wind than with it, and you get every bit as much power.

Anonymous said...

Hey Charles, I'm almost certain that that photo was taken in the Tehachapi Pass in California and is NOT photo-shopped. I've seen it myself and it looks pretty crazy. About 2/3rds of the windmills just sit there dead at any given time.

Charles Barton said...

Well if that is a real picture it is too crazy. The windmills are way to close to each other.

Anonymous said...

Marcel, wouldn't it be easier to run all the nuclear plants at full blast, then siphon off all the excess power for methanol production (for motor vehicle use)?

After all, transportation is a really big part of our total energy consumption, and the most difficult part to electrify...

Alex P. said...

Marcel and Warren,

I'm quite interested : why do you consider methanol a superior fuel, instead ethanol (not produced form corn), for example. Ethanol can be quite easily produced from algae or cellulosic biomass
it's not so toxic like methanol, it's not so energy intensive to produce as methanol, has about 2/3 of the energy per volume of gasoline and we have still the vehicles and the infrastructures to use it.

Considering further that half of the energy input (fossil fuels, typically natural gas) to produce ethanol is low temperature heat, nuclear (and in particular high temp MSRs) may be an excellent tool to produce low cost, simple and efficient biofuels

Why do you believe that methanol is better than ethanol (besides, I might agree with, the very dangerous production of ethanol from corn) ?

David Walters said...

Charles, LFTR is as you say, it's ability to provide rapid load changing makes it *exactly* the kind of non-carbon competition to both coal AND CCGTs.

But Marcel is correct: it (LFTR, not conventional LWR) can also be used to produce syn fuels from atmospheric CO2. The numbers NNadir has examined has shown that it can be produced at less than $2/gal. Same with DME. The problem with both, of course, is that they have generally lower, by almost half, the BTU content of gasoline.

Anyway, this is important because we may not get electrical storage that can break the 200km barrier any time soon. Thus liquid fuel is important and LFTR a role here also.



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