Thursday, October 23, 2008

Focus I: 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 of 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, but the 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 will not by itself 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 blind faith in it as a remedy for our energy problems.   


Anonymous said...

Charles Barton said:
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.

First let me admit that I am an agnostic concerning anthropogenic CO2-induced climate change. But I strongly believe we should move away from carbon-based energy sources to nuclear.

If we switch to carbon-free electrical power sources and electrify surface transportation, then I believe that things that must have carbon-based fuels such as air transport become a minor issue. This link states that aviation is only 6% of world-wide oil use. This means that CO2 generation by aviation is less than 3% of our current total.

Also, peak oil becomes much less of an issue because of substantially reduced demand. I would even support coal-to-liquids (process heat from nuclear, of course) to supply liquid fuels for aviation if needed. On the other hand, if carbon neutral fuels can be had economically, then by all means let's make aviation carbon neutral.

I would like to see large ships powered by nuclear. I would like to see biofuels produced using process heat from nuclear rather than from natural gas or the biomass itself.

The way to get to a low CO2 economy gets into the realm of politics. I must admit I am having a hard time figuring out what to do here. I don't like government (no matter how benign and well-intentioned) picking winners and losers. I would rather see government remove impediments and provide a stable financial environment in order to unleash the creative energies of individuals and companies. But then I see that some projects such as advanced nuclear reactor development are so large and "speculative" that government needs to have a rĂ´le.

Charles Barton said...

donb, there is an issue of allocation. The remaining oil reserves are more valuable to society as feed stocks for the chemical industry, than for use in transportation. Peak Oil theorist claim that most oil will be used up within the next century, so even if air transportation receives a short run allocation of the remaining oil, that cannot be expected to last long. Coal to liquid is very energy intensive, and will produce very expensive fuel. Coal to liquid also produces a lot of CO2 and probably won't be acceptable for that reason.

While I share in many respects, your preference for market mechanisms, Markets have not proven particularly good at organizing societies for future shortages of vital resources. We face a crisis on a similar scale World War II. I am soon going to argue that we will need to mobilize our society to meet the crisis in ways that are in some respects like a war time mobilization.

Anonymous said...

It is impossible to orchestrate a major social advance in an area that is dominated by entrenched groups, ownerships, customs, and beliefs. The European capture of North America demonstrated what has to be done to break out of the chrysalis and emerge as a butterfly - people have to have a place to reorganize and leave the old ideas behind. This is not possible on any land surfaces on the Earth. The only possibility that I can imagine is to colonize the ocean surface, setting up new countries as floating islands. The like-minded adventurous types can gather in these new countries and build better infrastructures, leaving the fossils (both people and fuels) behind. Any other approach will be stymied by attrition wars and never ending friction with groups that disagree with modern science.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment Randal.

I have also thought a lot about free-floating oceanic colonies, and how a dense power source like LFTR could be enabling for such an activity.

I had not thought about some of the aspects you mention, like how such organization helps a society to throw out incorrect and unproductive thoughts, but that is very true. Perhaps a oceanic society powered by thorium would be an example to other nations of the world that such a goal could be accomplished.

Jason Ribeiro said...

Charles, I think this is your best article I've read so far, you're a genius :) - I plan on referring to this article.

You are absolutely correct in saying that the free market is not good at strategic decision making. The Laissez faire approach to energy won't work for the long term.

Oil is far more valuable in the long term for the chemical industry. There may be enough time to develop new sources of carbon fuel as good strides seem to be happening at the right time. algae fuels looks like it has potential for example. If they say they can make jet fuel, then they ought to shoot for 5% of that market to start. That alone would be a huge undertaking as they would have to integrate with existing processors to airport pipelines somehow.

Nuclear is slowly gaining strong momentum though, the sleeping giant has awoken!

Jason Ribeiro said...

One more thing - EVERY politician should to read this article.

Finrod said...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Conservation is, at best, a secondary virtue. It cannot be a primary virtue, because it cannot create anything of itself. At best, it can be used as a stopgap measure during a time of scarcity. It makes no sense if the only way it can be economically implemented is to maintain an artificial scarcity, which is exactly what selecting it as an energy strategy over expanded nuclear power (or any other sort of power) would mean.

Charles Barton said...

I would be happy if only one politician read this, provided his name was Barack.

Charles Barton said...

Finrod, there has to be people talking and people listening for information to be exchanged. This process is a conversation.

Anonymous said...

If Peak Oil makes air travel non-viable, would ocean liners come back (only this time they would be nuclear-powered)?

Charles Barton said...

George, we are dealing in the realm of speculation, but at the moment it would appear that nuclear powered ships will be a future option for long distance travel. Rod Adams would love to sell you Adams Atomic Engines, for your ocean liners.

Finrod said...

" Charles Barton said...
Finrod, there has to be people talking and people listening for information to be exchanged. This process is a conversation."

Charles, you have me at something of a loss here. My comment was (I thought) supporting one of the prime points in your post. Could you perhaps clarify for me the manner in which I have sinned?

Charles Barton said...

Sorry Finrod, I misread your post.


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