Friday, October 8, 2010

Reverse Engineering the Future of Energy: Energy Sector Needs

This post is the fourth in a series on energy plans. The first post focused on a renewable based energy plan for Australia, the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan. Many critics have pointed to major flaws in that plan, while plan authors have been unable or unwilling to provide comprehensive answers to their critics. A second post related the history to draft a Thorium Grand Plan. Although the Thorium Grand Plan has never been drafter in its entirety, elements of such a plan exists, and interest continues in completing the Thorium plan. The third post offered a reverse engineering approach to 2050 energy plans, and concluded that 2050 energy plan would be unlikely to succeed unless unless they included nuclear power.

Climate scientists tell us that carbon dioxide emissions from energy inputs into human activities need to decline by about 80% between now and 2050 in order to prevent dramatic shifts in global climate, with potentially catastrophic consequences. In addition as patterns of rapid industrialization are emerging in developing nations such as China and India, and their increasingly affluent populations are adopting high energy lifestyles, limits in the fossil fuel supply form a second focus of concern. It seems unlikely that global fossil fuel production will meet future energy demands. In addition, several other issues point to a need to replace fossil fuels as energy sources, to a more acceptable and sustainable energy base. These include environmental consequences, quite apart from climate change, of fossil fuel use, the consequences of fossil fuel use for human health, the economic costs of fossil fuel importation, and the opportunity costs of fossil fuel dissipation by energy sectors of the economy. The fossil fuel stocks are important resources of the chemical industry, and reserving the fossil fuel stocks for use by the chemical industry, would appear to offer a better use of what is in reality a group of limited assets.

The health consequences of fossil fuel use, frequently receive limited attention, but in fact the costs are significant. A recent report by the National Academy of Science, titled Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use, found that the hidden, health related costs of burning fossil fuel in the United States, ran about $120 Billion a year, according to Matthew Wald of The New York Times. These health related costs can be attributed to the burning of both coal and oil, yet the two industries do not bare the costs. There were significant gaps in the study. According to Matt Wald of the New york Times,
the study (did not) measure damage from burning oil for trains, ships and planes. And it did not include the environmental damage from coal mining or the pollution of rivers with chemicals that were filtered from coal plant smokestacks to keep the air clean.
The study also reported that the burning of fossil fuels cause a large number of deaths among Americans,
Nearly 20,000 people die prematurely each year from such causes, according to the study’s authors, who valued each life at $6 million based on the dollar in 2000. Those pollutants include small soot particles, which cause lung damage; nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog; and sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain.
Wald also noted that
Coal burning was the biggest single source of such external costs . The damages averaged 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 0.16 cents for gas. But the variation among coal plants was enormous.

The worst plants, generally the oldest and burning coal with the highest sulfur content, were 3.6 times worse than the average, with a cost of nearly 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (which is more than the average retail price of that amount of electricity).
What of nuclear power?
The study found that operating nuclear plants did not impose significant environmental costs, although uranium mining and processing did. But 95 percent of uranium mining takes place in other countries, the study said.
Thus advocates of Generation IV closed nuclear fuel cycle technology, can point to significant environmental benefits obtained by limiting mining requirements.

Thus even without the potential menace of climate change, there are serious reasons for switching from fossil fuel based energy sources to non-carbon emitting sources.

Thus the goal of any reverse engineered future energy plan is the replacement of some or all fossil fuel energy sources. If concerns about a postulated link between carbon emissions and potential climate change are to be taken seriously, the reduction of fossil fuel use by 2050 may equal as much as 80% of the current fossil fuel use. However, even if this goal is not immediately meet, it may be possible to make significant cuts in fossil fuel use by quickly beginning to replace the worst health and safety offenders among the fossil fuel burning plants.
Planning is important

The primary sectors this plan will address are electrical generation, transportation, industrial process heat, and space and water heating and chilling.

Industries use a great deal of energy. According to the the United States department of energy, industries use over 1/3 of American energy consumption. Most energy currently used in American Industries comes from fossil fuels. Fossil fuel use can be cut by recourse to greater efficiency, but efficiency alone will not solve all of the problems related to industrial energy use. Nor can all of those problems be solved by conversion to electricity as an energy source.
Process heating, while not the only industrial energy use, is vital to many industries. The manufacture processes of basic materials such as steel or cement are dependent on heat. Currently that heat is primarily produced by burning fossil fuels, but in a post carbon economy this would not be possible. There is a short list of alternative process heating technologies. There are only two: Solar thermal and advanced high temperature nuclear. Of those two, solar thermal is far, far more limited. First, solar thermal energy is constricted by clouds. Thus solar thermal energy facilities require environments that are almost entirely cloud free. Thus industrial facilities that require ST source heat would be restricted to the Southwestern United States, where water resources are scarce. This in itself would be a serious, probably fatal, flaw to the idea of using ST energy for process heating, but there is another devastating flaw to the idea. ST energy production varies seasonably, with far less energy available during the Fall and Winter than during the Spring and Summer. Thus industries using ST energy for process heating, would face serious shortfalls for half of the year, while encountering energy over production for the other half.

While renewable energy advocates have proposed the use of ST energy for industrial process heating, they have yet to think through its liabilities, a familiar error in renewable energy post carbon plans. A third flaw in the use of ST energy in industrial process heating, is its costs. Solar Thermal energy sources are currently over twice as expensive as conventional nuclear technology. But in addition, there are proposals for reactors intended to produce industrial process heat, either directly or indirectly, that are estimated to cost only half the cost of conventional power plants, while producing heat of 1000 C, or even higher. Thus arguments that ST designers will eventually pull a rabbit out of their hat in the form of low cost ST technology, appear to not be decisive, because paths to far lower cost high temperature, low cost nuclear technology are known.

A second proposal comes from the most recent edition of the Greenpeace energy plan, Energy [R]evolution. In addition to noting the possible use of ST energy by industries situated in the Middle East, Energy [R]evolution (2010) suggests
fossil fuels for industrial process heat generation are also phased out more quickly and replaced by electric geothermal heat pumps and hydrogen.
Indeed ground source heat pumps are excellent, highly efficient means of space and water heating or cooling buildings, but I can find no evidence that ground source heat pumps and produce the sort of temperature required to melt steel. The word hydrogen is magic
for most renewables backers. But one renewables advocate, who is trained as a scientists, Joe Romm points to the serious problems of hydrogen. According to Romm hydrogen is
* An unusually dangerous fuel
* Very leaky
* Odorless (probably unfixable)
* Invisible and burns invisibly
(“A broom has been used for locating small H2 fires”)
* Highly flammable (cell phone, or lightning can trigger fires)
* Hence: onerous codes and standards
We will not proceed further than the leak problem. The tiny hydrogen molecule simply leaks through any container. Not only does hydrogen escape containment, but hydrogen weakens the metal walls of any container, so that eventually if hydrogen is kept under pressure, the container will burst. There are solutions to the hydrogen storage and transportation problems, but they add to expenses, and they add to the complexity of hydrogen based solution. It is also possible to manufacture hydrogen with high temperature reactors, with a significant advantage, the reactor can be located on the industrial site where the hydrogen is to be used, thus the hydrogen can be immediately used to provide industrial heating, thus solving the hydrogen storage problems. The fire related problems of hydrogen can be solved if hydrogen leaks can be prevented.

Thus the Greenpeace suggestions for renewables based solutions to the industrial process heating problem, are either not viable, or far more problematic, complex and expensive than advanced reactor based solutions appear to be. Indeed the Greenpeace "Energy [R]evolution" attempt to plan a renewables based solution to the industrial process heat problem represents a reduction ad absurdum of the Greenpeace scheme to replace nuclear energy with renewables.
I have chosen to look at the industrial process heat from a reverse engineering standpoint, because it would appear that only nuclear power can be successfully be substituted for fossil fuels as a source of industrial heat. Unless this conclusion can be shown to be wrong, this conclusion demonstrates that the development and use of advanced nuclear technology will be required in order to continue industrial civilization in a post carbon era. It further demonstrates that a renewables only approach to future energy planning may not be, and probably is not viable. Future energy plans that do not acknowledge the importance of nuclear technology are likely to be doomed to failure.

All energy plans focus a great great deal of attention on electrical generation. Yet some problems which future post-carbon electrical generation plans should addressed are partially or completely ignored by renewable plans, and even plans involving the large scale deployment of conventional nuclear power. These problems are are basically related to how variations in electrical demand are handled, and backup systems for renewable generated electricity. Peak electrical demand occurs during the day, and during days of exceptional winter cold or summer heat. During such days, electrical production units, often kept in reserve for most of the year are brought online, to fill the gap between ordinary electrical demand, and exceptional climate driven peak demands. A second problem is that of standby back up power. That is generation units that are are operated in such a way hat they can be quickly brought online if the generation units unexpectedly shut down or are forced to shut down. The operation of quickly brought on line back up generation capacity plays an important role in maintaining grid stability. Without such a reserve, sudden but inevitable problems with operating generation facilities could easily bring the whole grid down. A massive grid collapse is a highly undesirable event that can cost the economy a large amount of money, as well as create social chaos. . The August 14-15, 2003 a blackout shut down many cities in the North Eastern and Middle Western United States and Eastern Canada. Cost estimates vary, but the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association (OMA) estimated the direct costs of the blackout on Ohio manufacturers to be $1.08 billion. Numerous large manufacturing plants were shut down for a day. Ontario set asside $75 million to compensate local governments for their blackout related expenses, and lost revenue. Utilities lost between one and two billion dollars, and the total losses for the day long blackout may have been as high as $10 billion. Thus grid operators are charged with maintaining grid stability. Back up generation is part of the stability system.

Both problems at present are largely handled by gas fired generators, although some of the seasonal reserve generation capacity comes from old, inefficient coal fired power plants. Natural gas fired power plants produce less CO2 than coal fired power plants, and natural gas fired power plants are often preferred for peak demand and seasonal demand generation roles, as well as back up roles.

Renewable dominated electrical generation systems pose significant problems for meeting peak demand, and in providing system backup. A number of renewable only based post carbon energy plans, for example the Greenpeace "Energy [R]evolution" offer the continued use of natural gas in peak load, and backup roles. Although offering improvements over the carbon emissions of the current electrical generation system, whether a natural gas "bridge" system is consistent with the 80% carbon-reduction goals of our reverse engineered 2050 energy system. One of the major benefits of a reverse engineering approach is that it allows us to identify approaches that are likely to fail.

Renewables advocates argue that the limitations of wind can be countered by adding solar generation to the renewables mix. But given the limitations of renewables, renewable advocates have found only three methods of making renewables reliable:
1. Burn a lot of natural gas whenever renewable generated electricity is in short supply.

2. When renewable output is high, save the surplus in some form of energy storage.

3. Build transmission systems from areas where surplus generation is possible, to areas where electrical supplies would be inadequate due to the limitations of local renewable resources.
Each of these approaches has serious flaws. The first approach is unsatisfactory because it fails to eliminate carbon emissions from the electrical generation system.

The second approach is advocated by a report titled Energy Self Reliant States (Second Edition is available online). The word storage is repeated over and over in this report:
Very high penetration rates will require new developments in electricity storage. . . .
establish a system of widely distributed and abundant storage that would change the very underpinnings and assumptions of an electricity system designed without storage in mind. . . .
Some renewable fuels, like sunlight and wind, are variable. Thus the estimates, especially for wind, assume a significant level of storage or on-demand distributed generation. . . .
sufficient electricity storage . . .
sufficient electricity storage . . .
These investments should be designed to allow the integration of many variable and dispersed generators as well as growing amounts of distributed storage. . . .
To achieve very high proportions of our electricity from variable renewable energy sources will require very significant amounts of storage and/or a restructuring of our electricity system to rely on more natural gas-fired distributed backup generators. The electricity storage sector has seen many technological and commercial developments. This report does not examine storage and its implications but in our analysis of variable renewable energy potential we assume sufficient storage is available. . . .
The report argues:
that a new extra high voltage inter-regional transmission network may not be needed to improve network reliability, relieve congestion and expand renewable energy. The focus should be on upgrading the transmission, subtransmission and distribution systems inside states. These investments should be designed to allow the integration of many variable and dispersed generators as well as growing amounts of distributed storage. New in-state transmission lines may well be needed but these will probably be lower voltage lines. In any event, they should be built only after maximizing energy efficiency and the use of existing transmission capacity.
Energy efficiency and demand reduction, as well as the use of distributed generation, can free up significant amounts of distribution and transmission capacity.
But what would such a storage system cost? Tom Konrad. a renewables advocate suggests that
On a national basis, such storage would cost an estimated $13 Trillion, or over 65 times the cost of the transmission investments they oppose.
Konrad argues that by connecting low renewable resource states with electricity produced in high resource states, much of the cost of storage could be avoided. Konrad argues that a $700 billion transmission system could be substituted for the $13 trillion storage system. However, Konrad's estimate is presented with out the sort of detailed analysis that would back up his claims. Before the $700 Billion estimate is accepted, it would have to be tested against a worst case scenario.

The added transmission approach, which could be called, "the wind is always blowing somewhere" approach, creates additional huge expenses in the form of redundant generation capacity. We have to build redundant generation capacity where ever the wind is likely to pick up the slack part of the time. As it turns out "the wind is always blowing somewhere" requires that wind generators be multiplied by many times the required name plate capacity, in order to generate the required amount of electricity from wind most of the time. Even then there will be times when the wind is not blowing anywhere, and as a consequence the wind generated electricity on the grid will drop to a grid collapse level. The Devil is in the details, and sufficiently examined the details of renewable energy plans appear to be very ugly.

So if a plausible renewables based electrical generation plan does not seem likely, can nuclear power do better? The answer is no as long as conventional Light Water Reactors are the only available nuclear technology. Although LWR levelized costs are lower per unit of electricity generated than renewables, LWRs have significant performance gaps . Indeed no one has yet to produce a post-carbom energy plan that relies primarily on LWRs. Yet promising nuclear alternatives exist.

In a previous post, I focused on the problem of industrial process heating, because it is an urgent problem for which renewable plans offer no practical solution. In a previous post on Nuclear Green, I discussed the potential role of Molten Salt Reactors, including the LFTR in maintaining grid stability. It will be my contention in a further post, that the inclusion of Molten Salt nuclear technology will be an essential part of of any successful energy plan.


jagdish said...

Nuclear is so important for post carbon energy that The knowledge should be common hertage of mankind. Unfortunately opposite is the case at present due to distrust and NPT.

Rick Maltese said...

I recently saw the film Avatar and also an interview with James Cameron the director on CBC. He recently toured the Alberta Oil sands and said he supports Nuclear as a means of easing up on the environmental damage. During the interview there was a comparison to the film. The native territories that are plundered were being called Pandora's like in the film. So it seems Nuclear energy can also help save the destruction of the atmosphere and scarring of the Pandora's of this Earth.

seth said...

You are forgetting about electrically generated hydro + CO2 producing synfuels of various sorts. That could be use for transpo, high temperature heat, or storage.

Charles Barton said...

Seth, i have not forgotten anything. i have yet to discuss transportation.

Anonymous said...

Is electrical resistance heating
as in the aluminium industry considered to be an appropriate means for the supply of high temperature process heat in other industries? I acknowledge that we will still need a way of producing c02 neutral "fluid fuels" as NNadir has mentioned in past posts. Alex

Charles Barton said...

As I understand it, electrical resistance heating is inefficient. The waste heat from process heating can be used to generate electricity.

Alex877 said...

Using electrical resistance in industry such as electric arc furnaces can produce very very high temperatures currently up to 1800 degrees C with plans to increase that to 2000-3000 C. Plasma torches are another high temperature industrial tool using direct electric power as its driver. The efficiency overall will depend on the operating temperature of the reactor's heat engine and would be of a similar order to water spitting to produce hydrogen via a thermochemical method and certainly better than hydrogen via electrolysis. Electrical power can produce process heat today although I acknowledge that synthetic gases for heat would also need to be produced for industry.
Looking forward to some discussion on syn-fuel using c02. I know you are quite sceptical about this but we need a plan for making fuels for long distance aircraft/ships that are benign on the environment. Oil as feedstock for chemicals & liquid fuels are so useful, if they didn't exist we would have had to invent them. In the future we will surely need to re-invent them through synthesization.

Charles Barton said...

Alex877, i am concerned about the potential health and environmental consequences of any liquid fuel. Considering the problems with oil based fuels, we ought to be careful before we choose to go down that road.

Alex877 said...

Yes, as per your latest post - I agree that there should be a lot more concern among the general public about particulate emissions due to (incomplete) combustion of liquid fuels. (think the problems caused by coal burning are more widely recognized by the layman). I guess that is why there is such enthusiasm for DME which is liquid under slight pressure but is gaseous before combustion as well as being an oxygenated fuel which helps reduce particulate emissions to something next to zero. Its somewhat low energy density compared with Jet A and Diesel still leaves us no feasible replacement for air transport/shipping outside pure hydrocarbon fuels. Maybe Dimethylfuran could be suitable?!

Rick Maltese said...

Jaro made an interesting point about spacecrafts of the future. He said that they could use water as a propellant in the right kind of Nuclear spacecraft. I think he was referring to our favorite LFTR or some variation of that. Also an interesting point Arthur C. Clarke made about space travel was that special spacecraft would be assembled in space and never touch down on any surface. That would be left to the shuttles. I know. I'm getting off topic.

Charles Barton said...

Alex, Shipping alternatives are
1. reactors
2. fossil fuels
3. synthetic liquid fuels

Air transport alternatives
1. Switch to high speed electric trains for short and middle range passenger transportation
2. Fossil fuels for long range air transportation
3. Synthetic fuels for long and possibly short range air transportation.

Alex P. said...

Don't know if diesel is suitable for turbine airplanes, but a little amount of liquid fuels can be produced by biomass to liquid processes (mainly diesel fuel, indeed). And biogas from waste can be conserved for high temp heat.

Coolective and personal road transportation (with trains, trams and electric/plugins) and low temp haeting need via high efficient heat pumps can be easily and very efficiently electrified

Alex P. said...

" In a previous post, I focused on the problem of industrial process heating "

Is that link correct? I don' t see any discussion about the issue...
anyway how do you think to solve the problem ?

Alex877 said...


Considering your last comment. If fossil fuels are to be eliminated from the mix in time, point 2 is out. So its 1 and 3. I would like to see a grand plan for syn-fuels and just how much power would be needed to provide enough liquid fuel for medium to long range ships and aviation assuming that 95% of things on land are electric.

Parag said...

Most of the Asian economies are booming with China and India leading the way. But in the name of development, both the countries have been using energy resources to worrying levels. Including these two countries, the developed nations too are not far behind. But they have adopting green policies since a long time. We have seen engineering marvels keeping in line with the nature.
Green energy sector

Engineer-Poet said...

Since nuclear generation is going to be most valuable as base load for some time to come, either some form of fuel stockpile or electricity storage is going to be increasingly valuable.  The Iowa Stored Energy Park and the Norton (OH) CAES project are things to watch.


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