Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Powering the Future: A Scientist's Guide to Energy Independence

Book Review: Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence  by Daniel Botkin (FT Press Science – Kindle Edition 2010)

This is an assessment on the future of energy production by a prominent environmental scientist who is also an environmentalist. He describes himself as an ecologist with a background in physics. This book provides data and analysis toward the gradual development of a post-fossil fuel society. While his analysis of the viability of various energy sources is generally considered reasonable he is decidedly against promoting natural gas as a bridge fuel. His work with the DeSmogBlog (an anti-fossil fuel group) shows that he is clearly among those who seek to discredit natural gas extraction as overly destructive to the environment and climate. He does state here though that this book looks at energy as an engineering issue and not an ideological one.

Botkin gives an account of the blackout in the northeast US in August 2003 which was the result of hot weather, air conditioner usage, but mostly of the inadequacy of the grid to handle varying demand. Power grid instability is a threat due to much of it being outdated, used in ways it wasn’t designed for, and inefficiency due to low tech. Many people think that the addition of more wind and solar will further de-stabilize the grid due to storage issues but solar can also help stablilize the grid during midday peak demand times.

Botkin gives four parts to our energy crisis: 1) lack of adequate sources of energy; 2) the need to move away from dependence on fossil fuels; 3) lack of adequate means to distribute energy safely, reliably, and consistently; and 4) inefficient use of energy, with major environmental effects.

He defines energy as the ability to move matter but also notes that it itself is unseen and different energy sources are measured in different ways with different units.

He gives the interesting example of ancient Greece where climate was relatively benign. Even so, houses were heated rather inefficiently in winter with charcoal made from wood and that by 500 B.C. deforestation was becoming common enough that fuel shortages were occurring. By 400 B.C. firewood was being imported. During that time the Greeks began building houses facing south to take advantage of passive solar for winter heating and summer cooling. Apparently, the Romans did the same: used all the wood, then imported it, utilized passive solar, then added glass windows which blocked wind and trapped heat via the greenhouse effect. Energy abundance has been a key feature of the development of successful civilizations.

This book is filled with graphs of energy usage by type of energy and various projections. It is a comparison of all forms of energy from fossil fuels through renewables and estimates of their ultimate monetary, social, and environmental costs.

The first fuel evaluated is oil, or petroleum. It is the most energy-dense of the fossil fuels. Consumption statistics are given. Its origin and emplacement are discussed. Some significant changes to domestic oil production stats have occurred in the few years since this book was published due to the success of “tight oil” from shale in the U.S. Oil is the main transportation fuel in the world. How much oil can be accessed is debatable and depends on possible future discoveries, technical improvements, and costs of extraction. The author thinks that oil production will end in the U.S. around 2060 (or at least by 2100) and in the world soon thereafter due to monetary energy costs of extraction exceeding benefits. According to the author “peak oil” is predicted worldwide between 2020 and 2050 and may have already occurred in the U.S. There is much disagreement about this. Even slight improvements in recovery efficiencies would increase access to vast quantities of more oil as current recovery is low. Increased demand from the transportation sector of developing nations such as China and India may change consumption estimates. Oil shales and tar sands are also discussed. These types of oil mining create much more CO2 emissions and pollutants in their extraction than conventional oil. They also contribute to greater environmental destruction. With petroleum in general there are several possible avenues toward pollution. Spills occur. Waste accumulates. Refining and burning creates air pollution and greenhouse gases. He gives the three most polluting energy sources as coal, nuclear, and oil.

Natural gas is next examined. He gives 60-65 years of supply. Gas is our main home-heating fuel. Some gas is used for transportation. Gas is increasingly used for power plants to make electricity. He explores natural gas vehicles but in a rather negative way without much substance. With adequate infrastructure and fuel storage compressed (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) currently offer significant savings over gasoline and diesel as well as significantly less emissions. The author suggests there will be supply problems but this certainly has more to do with available infrastructure than actual supply. His argument here is very weak. His gas supply numbers for more intensive gas-powered transportation (in the U.S.) are also much lower than current predictions - as gas supply predictions have increased much in the U.S. due to shale gas successes. Natural gas vehicle fleets have successfully reduced smog in several cities throughout the world. He examines gas hydrates – recovery does not seem likely at current tech levels. Coal-bed methane is examined. This has been going on for years and offers some addition to gas reserves. What he calls shale-bed methane, or dry gas from shale, is currently producing nearly half of the gas in the U.S. and this has come quickly. There is also shale gas as gas associated with production of oil from shale. The author mentions the possible environmental problems associated with shale gas production: water usage, liquid waste, possibility for water contamination, etc. He does note that natural gas as the cleanest of the fossil fuels should be emphasized yet he seems to de-emphasize its importance in the long transition to renewable energy establishment.

Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, continues to find increased usage throughout the world as a whole. The oldest and most polluting coal-burning power plants are being retired in the U.S. with few new ones to be built and those must be efficient and reduce emissions. Unfortunately, China, India, Europe, and other countries continue to utilize coal as it is cheaper than gas in many places. Coal supplies are projected to last 150-300 years but the greenhouse gas emissions and pollution are worse than any other fuel, except maybe wood. In the U.S. coal has been steadily losing its share of electricity producing capacity due cheaper shale gas and CO2 emissions as well as particulate pollution have declined as a result. China has surpassed the U.S. in coal use for electricity production although the smog levels in China are apparently perturbing their citizens. There are other serious environmental problems associated with coal: coal ash piles, mountaintop removal as massive landscape destruction, acid mine drainage, strip mining, deforestation, soil erosion, habitat destruction, explosions, cave-ins, underground coal fires, groundwater pollution, black lung disease, soot, land subsidence, dust from blasting, acid rain from high sulfur coal, high amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury, particulates, SO2, NO2, CO2, methane, hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, chromium compounds, etc. So-called “clean-coal technology” or coal gasification is not currently economically or even energetically feasible. CCS, or carbon capture and storage, also called carbon sequestration, is a technology with many current pilot projects but will probably have limited application overall. Some estimate a carbon price (tax) of $75 per ton will be required to make CCS economically feasible. For these and other reasons many suggest that CCS can only cover about 10% of coal burning and that is over the next few decades. Currently (2009-2010) coal provides 25% of world energy use and 40% of world electricity. About 2% of U.S. coal is used to make steel since the carbon in coke, a coal byproduct, is utilized in the steel formula to harden it. The abundance and low cost of coal keeps it being used around the world, especially for electricity. In a world of carbon emission costs through taxes, cap and trade, or another mechanism – coal will be far less used. But it needs to be replaced. Natural gas is the obvious short-term solution and back-up power, as renewable and distributed renewable facilities are built.

Water power provides a certain amount of power throughout the world but that amount is not likely to increase much since the best sites have been taken. According to Botkin about 19-24% of electricity worldwide and about 10% in the U.S. comes from hydro-power. New damn projects threaten to submerge habitat and indigenous people’s land. Some existing dams have negatively affected habitat, especially for fish. Widespread flooding can also be a result of large dams such as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. This is a large project that makes as much electricity as 18 coal power plants and with no emissions. It has also displaced 2 million people, inundated and destroyed famous picturesque land, and is in an earthquake-prone area. Smaller scale hydropower projects continue to be researched and developed but will probably not provide large amounts of energy. These include floating turbines harvesting river currents and tidal power. Water can also be pumped uphill by solar and wind power to be stored for later use as is done in Norway.

Nuclear power obviously has some serious issues. It is very expensive, dangerous, has serious accident potential, and the waste is extremely toxic. The dismantling costs are said to be more than the building costs. The current plants are rather short-lived (30-40 years). However, nuclear power does not produce CO2 and other greenhouse gases, which is why people like Stewart Brand, James Lovelock, James Hansen, and even one of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, have all come out in favor of it. They have suggested nuclear as the best replacement for coal for baseload electricity capacity – due to the price volatility of natural gas – but due to recent gas supply abundance, it seems likely that gas price will stay low for several more years, climbing gradually, and would still provide a cost advantage, especially if there were a price on emissions. Many believe nuclear has become safer but the ongoing disaster in Japan put that thought into doubt (though after publication of this book). There is also a limit to supplies of uranium ore. This suggests that nuclear could only replace a small percentage of fossil fuels and this only for a short time. So called “fast reactors” or “breeder reactors” would require less uranium but this technology is not thought to be ready. France, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, and South Korea get the highest percentage of their electricity from nuclear energy. The U.S. is 10th. The author notes his own work when he was younger with radioactive waste where the means of disposing of it was to dilute it as much as possible and pour it down the sink! Thus arises his doubt as to our ability to deal with highly toxic waste. The author goes on to characterize the problems of nuclear waste disposal, radioactive toxicity, and the accidents that have occurred such as the one at Chernobyl. New nuclear plants take so long to build that they could not offer a short-term solution to a transition to clean energy.

In 2007 renewable energy produced about 7% of the energy in the U.S. Of this 7% about half was provided by wood (considered a biofuel), about one quarter by other biofuels, and about 10% provided by biomass or biological waste. 8.1% was provided by geothermal, 7% by wind, and a mere 1.8% by solar/PV. Of course wind and solar have increased much since then but have a very long way to go to even make a dent in overall power production.

Wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy at present. It is cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many areas. One 22-story high wind turbine can produce electricity for about 500 homes, says the author, but he also notes a wind farm in California with 5000 turbines produce power for up to 350,000 people, which suggests that each turbine can produce power for up to 210 people, if we estimate 3 people per home. In any case these estimates differ considerably. Small scale wind applications offer limited local energy solutions and wind can also be harnessed on the sea in efficient ways. The author gives stats for wind potential in the U.S. but does not consider efficiency factors and intermittency when comparing to fossil fuel plants. Generating capacity is far less for wind but could be increased with upgrades to a “smart grid.” Wind energy does offer tremendous potential worldwide for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. He does give some interesting history of wind power and comparison of wind energy in various U.S. states. He mentions a payback period of 6-30 years for small-scale wind turbines for homeowners – hardly a great deal at the longer end. NIMBY concerns with wind power have been expressed, particularly with offshore wind power – which may also affect fish. Wind turbines are notorious for killing birds but siting away from migration routes can mitigate this to some extent. Wind is currently the least expensive and most feasible of renewable energy types.

Solar power is growing quickly but is still the most expensive off-grid electricity option. Solar has many small-scale local applications, particularly in rural areas in less developed countries to offer limited power. Botkin discusses some of the larger solar farm projects and compares types of solar energy including PV and solar thermal. In 2008 solar energy provided just 0.02% of U.S. electricity and 0.003% of total U.S. energy. That is a mere speck. In contrast wind energy provided 1.34% of U.S. electricity and 0.86% total U.S. energy. From these numbers it is quite clear that it will take considerable time and money to ramp up these power sources. Throughout the world (assumed 2009-2010), solar provides less than 1% of electricity and about 0.1% of total energy. The author, among several optimists (such as Mark Jacobson of Stanford) thinks that solar energy can provide vast amounts more. This is likely true but time and cost will be massive. Like Jacobson he thinks the calculations show potential but I am not sure if he is considering maintenance, loss of efficiency of panels, toxic manufacturing waste, increased mining demands, etc. He compares off-grid and grid-tied solar. Off-grid is more applicable to rural areas. He explores the successful implementation of small-scale solar projects in rural areas around the world – quite useful – but hardly adding to worldwide energy production. He does discuss the downsides to widespread implementation of solar PV technology. The obvious one is cost, although that seems to be improving at least slightly year by year. Next is manufacturing limits. Vastly increased demand could easily outpace manufacturing capacity. Another huge issue with solar (and wind) is energy storage. Grid-tied systems could store in the grid (for a fee). Batteries, pumped water for hydro-power, and hydrogen fuel cells are other possible options. Large solar parks/farms may also be criticized by NIMBY folk, for excessive land use, and for possible habitat destruction. Silicon mining for solar panels creates dust and other mining creates pollution. Germany and Spain have been having some success in widespread implementation of solar power and these make good case histories for the immediate future.

The author seems enthusiastic about ocean power, particularly the harnessing of wave and tidal energy. He thinks the U.S. could use it for 15% of electricity at current technology and much more if near-shore wave energy could be utilized. There is also research being done to try and harness energy from temperature differences in different parts of ocean water. Of course, this stuff is mostly in the R & D stage and things like efficiency (what percentage of the energy could actually end up as electricity) and costs are not at all clear. There are technological, mechanical, and maintenance issues as well. Tidal power has been successful and reliable in a few prime areas such as off the coast of Britain and in British estuaries. Ocean energy will likely add to the renewable energy mix but it is as yet unclear how much. Investment in this area has not been huge or widespread so it appears the feasibility is not up to speed just yet.

Biofuels have replaced a very small percentage of fossil fuels for transportation. There are basically three types of biofuels: 1) organic waste that can be burned; 2) crops grown to be fuels (agrifuels); and 3) firewood. Agrifuels make up less than 1% of America’s energy. Agrifuels may take more energy than they make while providing very small emissions benefits over gasoline or diesel. They also use up arable land that could be growing food. Corn ethanol can drive up corn prices. Cultivation of palm oil for biofuel in Indonesia and sugarcane in Brazil has destroyed large swathes of habitat. The author notes that woodstoves in the U.S. contribute 6% of the total particulate-matter pollution. Ethanol from waste agricultural products is a bit better for the environment overall but costs and ability to efficiently convert sugars to alcohol is often problematic. Waste, or biomass, adds a small amount of total energy production but is not likely to increase very much overall. Waste oil recycling, trash waste-to-energy plants, and other biomass ideas will likely assist small-scale energy production on the local level. Botkin notes three types of efficiency when evaluating biofuels: 1) cost efficiency; 2) energy efficiency – energy invested vs. energy returned; and 3) area efficiency- energy yield per acre in the case of agrifuels. There is disagreement on the efficiencies of agrifuels, with some very questionable whether they provide any benefit at all. Biofuels are also water and fertilizer intensive. Agrifuels have even made fertilizer component prices rise such as phosphate rock which is mined. Biofuels derived from algae and bacteria seem to offer some benefits in efficiency but are still in the R & D phase. Finding strains of bacteria that can quickly and effectively break down the organic matter is a hurdle for several biofuels. Indications are that ethanol from algae may one day be able to offer 50% more energy output than input. The author thinks that this source will one day be preferred for air travel – which requires a transportable liquid fuel of high energy-density. Even large energy companies like Exxon are investing millions into algae-derived “biocrude.” Some of the popularity of biofuels can be attributed to PR by “Big-Ag” and some due to government subsidies which make it seem cheaper than it is. Interestingly, he also notes that biofuels are limited to the efficiency of photosynthesis itself (which he calculates at just 3%) which stores and converts solar energy. Thus, it will be difficult to ever get biofuels to compete with crude oil as a ready energy dense resource, especially in the near term, without massive scale-up, which would create other problems. Biofuels will continue to have niche uses and perhaps the most efficient ones, such as those from algae, will be scaled up.

Transportation and storage of energy is next examined. Oil pipelines, gas pipelines, and electrical transmission lines make up vast networks. Although oil and gas pipelines have a very good safety record there are accidents and some can be deadly and destructive. Some of the pipelines and much of the electrical grid is out of date and due for upgrading. There is much loss of efficiency in power lines and loss of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas – particularly in old natural gas distribution lines to end users. Pipelines are the most efficient, safest, and least carbon intensive ways to get hydrocarbons to refineries and from refineries to market. Diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline are also transported via pipeline and now some bitumen crude from Canadian tar sands projects.

Botkin also discusses the future of our electrical grids. He cites studies that suggest the grid is not prepared for the power load of the future. He stresses that smaller microgrids, distributed locally will be required as well. Strategies to deal with the intermittency and storage issues of wind and solar power will need to be implemented. The ability of solar  to provide more power capacity at daytime peak demand will be important. Currently, microturbines (often powered by natural gas) are used to assist peak demand. Upgrading to smart grid technology, though expensive to install, will be required for the future, This will pay for itself (eventually) by decreasing power outages, making wind power more efficient, allowing power to flow in different directions through computerized switching, and working in tandem with microgrids to increase efficiency by decreasing power loss. Integrating energy production, transmission, and storage is the key. New storage strategies include: “… huge flywheels and underground compressed air in caverns and superbatteries and elevated water reservoirs.” Low temperature superconductor cables are more efficient in transporting energy and reducing power loss. A full nationwide upgrade to up-to-date smart grid technologies could cost nearly a trillion dollars. Solar and wind energy are more amenable to microgrids and off-grid applications. Off-grid technologies will likely be a big part of our energy future, particularly in rural areas. Hydrogen will likely play some role in energy storage but adoption of a full-blown “hydrogen economy” is likely only on a small scale in localized areas.

The section on transportation notes that in the U.S. about 28% of energy use is for transportation and that more than 6% of all energy used in the U.S. is used to transport coal. He compares transportation efficiencies. Railroad and ship are efficient for moving cargo. Inner-city bus is efficient for moving urban folk. He stresses, as have others, mandatory increases in mpg for vehicles and simply driving less as key ways to reduce energy use.

He puts big emphasis on railroads as a way to mitigate energy usage in the transportation sector. He and the US DOT think that passenger rail travel will increase drastically by 2020. He explores costs (the main hurdle) and compares them to the costs of restoring and upgrading infrastructure – ie. roads, bridges, tunnels, water lines, sewage lines, etc. Shipping cargo by rail is more efficient, saves money, and reduces truck traffic. He suggests that the government has neglected railroads when upgrading infrastructure. He makes a good case for investing in passenger and cargo railroad travel – light rail for cities, passenger rail, and high-speed rail.

Botkin suggests that “eco-friendly” folk would be better to discourage car and truck over-usage than air travel since air travel has become vital to our economy on both micro and macro levels. He makes a good case for urban travelers to embrace inner city buses and bicycle travel. Upgrading and expanding bike paths and bike lanes and bike sharing offer opportunities to save energy as well. The author thinks that re-organizing transportation to disfavor cars and trucks and to favor bikes, buses, and especially trains, can be one of the best ways to conserve energy in the near term. He notes that replacement of trucks by rail could conserve vast amounts of energy.

Increasing energy efficiency in buildings also offers vast opportunity for conserving energy and saving money. Passive solar design and taking advantage of microclimate are good strategies for energy conservation. He notes the energy-to-comfort ratio advantages of a radiant heating system over a forced hot-air system. Green buildings and city design are examined also with emphasis on reducing pollution and conserving energy. Much of this is “no-brainer” stuff as energy savings=cost savings. One of the biggest hurdles these days to efficiency is overcoming the initial cost needs, as payouts come gradually.

Deep geothermal provides less than half of 1% of U.S energy capacity. There are limited areas where this is applicable and there are serious issues such as water-injection induced earthquakes. Even the most optimistic estimates put deep geothermal potential at less than 10% of U.S. energy production. Most of the potential for this zero emissions energy is out west where population is sparse.

Shallow geothermal for home and business application offers more potential but mostly for rural homeowners or places where there is space enough to bury the pipes. He discusses energy savings form geothermal heating/cooling systems and determines that they could save up to 70% in heating costs and up to 40% in air conditioning costs.

“The simple answer to our energy problem is for Americans to learn to live happily using just 6% of our current per capita energy use” Yeah good luck with that!

In considering solutions to our energy/climate dilemma he notes the need for a smart grid – “… a renovated and modernized system to transport energy.”

He considers three scenarios of energy production/consumption leading up to 2050:

Scenario 1: Business as usual – if population and energy demand increases then fossil fuels will be used and depleted faster. Climate change will also be accelerated. Grim.

Scenario 2: Per capita use unchanged, but solar and wind replace fossil fuels – a daunting task, especially trying to keep up with demand and costs. This will cost vast amounts compared to scenario 1.

Scenario 3: Per capita use drops 50% and solar and wind provide two-thirds. This is actually a more practical scenario rooted in conservation and efficiency. Doing the numbers he demonstrates that this is do-able but the key is to reduce consumption. Costs for this transition will likely be one third of costs for scenario 2.

The author again de-emphasizes natural gas and I think that is his biggest mistake. For some reason he thinks gas is about to run out though record supply and reserves contradict his assertions, his bias as I see it.

The biggest challenge is to reduce per capita energy consumption. Much of this reduction will be technological. Wasting energy will likely get more expensive in the future. Energy efficiency consultants are being used more and more for businesses and buildings. Putting a price on carbon, the government, efficiency consultants, innovative engineering, and the individual consumer can all contribute to reduced energy usage.
He thinks energy will eventually be seen as a combination of social service and commodity, an efficiently and modestly regulated free market commodity.

He suggests that the government build a 10MW solar plant with the sole purpose of producing gas and liquid fuels in preparation of oil and gas running out. While this could be useful and R & D should continue, I think it is at least a few decades too soon to do this on any large-scale basis. He gives several other suggestions as well as a list of what will not work. Once again he mentions natural gas as very limited in quantity, not useful for an energy transition, and environmentally damaging – three statements with which I strongly disagree. Other than this rather inexplicable bias I agree with most of his assessment.

Overall a good book discussing our energy future in a general way. 

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