Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Energy Decision Making

Memo to President Obama on a Blue Ribbon Energy Panel
Part One: Energy Decision Making
In October 2008 I sat out a rational for a Blue Ribbon Energy Commission, which I hoped that Barack Obama, when he became President, would appoint. Of course, I failed to make the important step of consulting Mr. Obama before I offered this advice, and he came into office without a perception that such a panel was necessary. The President came to office at a moment in history where other significant problems were on his plate, including a national, and indeed world economic emergency, and a long deferred national decision on health care. The upshot was the the President appears to have failed to grasp the energy problem, and the decisions that he faced. So I am reposting my original posts. as advice to the President on energy, should he ever see the need for it.

Energy Decision Making

During the next few years our society faces basic choices on its energy future. The decisions have been long deferred. The decision making process should be finished by the end of the next administration, and implementation should be underway. The decision making process should be public, and should bring the best minds in the country to the table to share in the decision making process.

The decision making process should begin by identifying potentially valuable candidate technologies for resolution of components of the energy crisis. These technologies would include solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal and other technologies for electrical generation; electrical and liquid fuels for transportation; solar, nuclear and other sources of process heat for Industry; and solar and electrical technologies for heating and cooling, In some cases the decision might not involve exclusive use of one technology. Air transportation would be impossible without liquid fuel, and without a carbon neutral liquid fuel technology we will simply loose the ability to achieve transportation through the air.

The decisions related to electricity generation will be perhaps the most important, because potentially up to 80% of the energy in a post carbon society will be transmitted through electrical lines. Decisions cannot be left to the market. The market, while providing efficient mechanisms to determine price, and product choice, is poorly equipped to make strategic choices for the future. Decision makers have to basically anticipate future markets. That involves informed guesses, something the market regards as speculation. Markets like to gamble only if there is a great deal of money potentially to be made on bets. There is far too much at risk, and too much uncertainty about the energy future at the moment for most investors to feel comfortable about the risks involved in future energy investments. In the case of solar and wind generated electricity, this has led to the demand for government subsidies, both for the construction of generating facilities, and in tax linked support of revenue produced from energy generation.

The stake in the decision making process is such that wrong decisions could easily lead to the misspending of tens, or hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps even trillions of dollars of tax payer, rate payer, and investor money, without the production of a satisfactory electrical system. Impossible you say. Well just pay careful attention to where the decision making process is today. Mark my word, if the decision making process is not improved, it will lead to very unsatisfactory outcome.

We cannot hope to reach a proper decision without a judicious determination of facts, and there are at present a lot of of enemies of facts in the environment. Enemies of facts include people who are selling flawed ideas and flawed products. Fact finding needs to be turned over to people who are skilled in determining facts, and this would certainly include Nobel prize winning scientists. Others who are somehow representative of the general public need to included among the fact finders, and the fact finding process needs to be open to the public. The fact finders need a first rate staff, and the ability to commission research.

The fact finders need to be aided by skilled politicians who have ascended to the rank of statesmen. My father observed one such politician while attending a hearing for Project Independence in 1974. "I was most impressed," my father wrote. "He is young, intelligent, and highly articulate." Such a figure, if he were still around 34 years later, might well prove a valuable asset to the fact finders, perhaps as chairman of a fact finding commission. And if the politician, by now an elder statesman, were to hold high political office, so much the better. The name of the young politician who so impressed my father was Joseph Biden.

Any group of fact finders would need to carefully separate fact from hype before reaching its decision. As I have demonstrated on Nuclear Green there is a lot of hype in our current discussion of energy options. In fact the hype to information ratio in any discussion of renewable electrical sources is astonishingly high.

During a discussion with wind advocate on The Oil Drum wind advocate "Jerome a Paris"acknowledged that a basic assumption of wind advocates was an electrical grid to which a very large number of fossil fuel burning electrical generators were attached, which would pick up the slack when the wind does not blow. In this view the function of wind is to partially and temporarily defer fossil fuel burning rather than replace it.

It might be added that solar power also partially defers rather than replaces fossil fuel use. Nuclear reactors can replace fossil fuel fuel burning facilities.

Thus the choice between nuclear power and renewables is a choice between an approach designed to stop emitting CO2 in the generation of electricity, or to decrease the burning of carbon based fuels. This is a choice of fundamental importance and should be the focus of an important decision about energy.

Atmospheric scientist James Hanson argues that CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries. Hanson argues, "the only realistic way to sharply curtail CO2 emissions is to phase out coal use . . ." While the use of wind and solar defers the burning of some coal, renewables by themselves would never be able to replace the burning of coal.

Hanson envisions coal fired power plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CC&S), but the Energy Returned on Energy invested (EREOI) of CC&S is very unfavorable, with somewhere between half and three-fourths of the energy produced by burning coal being going into CC&S. Thus electricity from CC&S plants will be very expensive. In addition we appear to be facing the almost immediate prospect of peak oil, with a significant decline in oil production looming in the near future. Energy currently derived from oil, including energy used in transportation, must be replaced by energy from other sources. Among the proposals are the use of fuels derived from biological sources, but this proposal like coal CC&S has a low EROEI. Other liquid fuel options include hydrogen production, and the production of methanol from atmospheric CO2. The later two options would require massive amounts of process heat from non-carbon sources. There is one further option, to power land based transportation with electricity. This is technologically possible, but still leaves an energy gap for water born shipping and air transportation. Switching the land transportation system to electrical energy will increase the demand for reliable carbon free electrical production.

Efficiency Hoover Style: There is a wide spread belief in American society that energy efficiency will make up for short falls in carbon free generating capacity, but far to much is expected of electrical efficiency. The belief in efficiency as an economic solution is an old one in the United States, and is called Hooverizing after the 31st president of the United States, who was a great proponent of efficiency and enemy of waste. (World War I propaganda posters from the Herbert Hoover lead Food Administration contained slogans like, "Feed a Fighter: Eat only what you need. Waste nothing, that he and his family may have enough.") First achieving high levels of energy use savings through Hooverizing electricity would require very large capitol investments. Secondly some energy uses may be relatively impervious to the Hooverizing approach. If effective post carbon energy sources are available at reasonable prices, then it may be more cost effective to invest in them rather than higher priced efficiency measures.

We need to know a great deal more about the impact of efficiency before we will know how much impact greater efficiency will have on the energy situation, but given the possibility of electrifying land transportation, it is not a safe bet that Hooverizing will lower our demand for electricity.

Such is the American faith in Hooverization, that it will take us some time and considerable discussion before we realize that efficiency and renewables will not by themselves replace coal. Once attention is fixed on our problems, it will then take us some time as a country, before we clearly focus on our energy options, and begin the process of making choices.

Personal Note: I am American enough to admire efficiency, I just cannot accept the blind faith that it is will so remedy for our energy problems that a nuclear solution is unneeded.


DV8 2XL said...

Part of the problem is that electric motors play a significant role in energy conversion. They are the true workhorses of industrial and commercial facilities, consuming roughly a quarter of all electricity produced in North America and more than 60% of all electricity used in industrial facilities. The most energy-intensive sector is the manufacturing sector. A recent U.S. Department of Energy study determined that 44% of industrial motors operate consistently at less than 40% of full rated load.

Those clamoring for a drive to more efficiency, point to this a a major potential source for so-called 'negawatts' but fail to realize that the situation is much more complex than a simple measurement of the ratio of actual load to rated load. Starting torque requirements and speed stability requirements are two of the areas where headroom is needed when using electric motors, and the load itself may not be constant over a typical working cycle.

Also while it would be nice if every application could have a custom made motor that was designed to provide the best power curve for the job, the fact is that in most cases, a standard size will likely be used that may have more available power than is strictly needed, simply because of cost.

Of course there is also the huge issue of retrofitting commercial and industrial buildings for greater thermal efficiency. Often the shear cost of such a project will never be recovered in the structures lifetime. This is because to have this happen the price of energy would have to go so high it would be questionable if these concerns would still be in business.

Other, often stated, 'opportunities' of the same sort, like wholesale replacement of rolling stock, and similar large capital expenditures, suffer from the same poor long-term economics. While these conversions may reduce national energy consumption, the price simply may be too much for the market for the final product to bare. What good is saving energy domestically, if the upshot is to make imported products a better buy. This is particularly true for foodstuffs, for example.

Unfortunately, ideas like this are often floated by well-meaning, and well educated individuals, but not by people with a global understanding of how the larger business economy works. The trouble is that calls for less 'waste' does hit a nerve in most Western cultures, and is often seen as the more moral choice, and not questioned as closely as it should be.

Richard said...

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