Monday, December 17, 2018
The Future of Energy is Bright, Part I
But there does seem to be one point of near-universal agreement: concentrated forms of energy, and especially electricity, are an essential ingredient of modern civilization. Fuel shortages and price increases are a major cause of social upheaval and mayhem. Power cuts are disruptive, especially to industrial production facilities that require steady state conditions. In hospitals and medical centers they can be lethal. Extended power outages often result in riots and looting. Without refrigeration food stockpiles go to waste; without heat or air conditioning urban centers become unlivable. Commerce, increasingly reliant on distributed information networks for payment processing and inventory control, grinds to a halt. Without elevators high-rise buildings become inaccessible.
If frequent though temporary power cuts are a major nuisance, stable electricity but high electricity prices are even worse because they make entire economic sectors—any that involve running electrically powered industrial machinery—globally noncompetitive. Sometimes all it takes is one bad decision. A case in point: some time ago Lithuania decided to shut down its only nuclear reactor, because it was an old Soviet design—RBMK, the same type as had blown up in Chernobyl, although with numerous safety upgrades, and so dumb politics rather than safety were the real issue. Now the Lithuanians have some of the highest electricity rates in Europe, there is no more industry in Lithuania, and instead they have to look for work in Germany.
A lot of people seem to think that energy is all about fossil fuels, which are bad because burning fossil fuels causes global warming. True, much of our energy, and virtually all transportation energy, comes from fossil fuels. But they are also not as plentiful as we would like, and the world as a whole is depleting the resource base of fossil fuels much faster than it is finding new resources. It is also generally conceded that there are enough of these resources left in the ground to completely wreck the climate—if they are ever going to be produced. Thus, fossil fuel resource depletion, and the fact that most of the remaining resources may turn out to be too difficult and expensive to produce, is actually a sort of blessing in disguise.
Furthermore, most of the fossil fuel resources, as far as quantities of usable products, are past their peaks. China has powered its transformation into an industrial powerhouse using cheap and abundant coal (causing much environmental devastation) but now China’s coal production is declining. Gasoline production, worldwide, peaked around 2006. Heavy oil, and diesel production with it, appears to have peaked in 2018. Natural gas production is still growing, but mostly thanks to new Russian liquefied natural gas production, and to shale gas production in the US, but the latter suffers from very high depletion rates and an overall lack profitability. Though everyone involved in the fossil fuel industry is compelled to paint a rosy picture (lest the investment money dry up) and we are being constantly barraged with optimistic projections, these often turn out to be exaggerated when reexamined in the rear view mirror. In short, we may be more blessed than we know.
But the blessing is also a curse, since a lack of stable, reliable, affordable energy pretty much spells the end of the world as we know it. Perhaps it will make you feel better knowing that you are no longer destroying our home planet as you wander up and down a stretch of abandoned highway collecting dry tree branches for your campfire, on which to cook some rodents you caught with a forked stick, but wouldn’t it make you feel even better if there were a way to keep the lights on without destroying the planet?
It is at this point that many people go off the rails, shoot off into the green energy weeds, and get stuck there. The most heavily hyped forms of green energy are wind, solar and biomass, followed by tidal energy, run-of-the-river micro-hydro and other exotics. I am certainly no enemy to any of these, having spent months living off-grid using various such devices. I have installed and maintained wind generators and solar panels, and will probably do so again if the situation calls for them. I am particularly fond of biomass and have an entire woodshed stacked with seasoned split alder logs to prove it. Stoking a wood fire is pure joy. I am less fond of the chores of going through battery banks, topping off electrolyte and looking for shorted cells to bypass, climbing masts to service wind generators or going over solar panels with a spray bottle and a squeegee.
But I have also looked at the economics of it, and have discovered that there is only one situation where wind generators and solar panels make sense: where the need for power is very modest and there is no electric grid to connect to. They are also pointless as far as replacing fossil fuel energy, because they cannot be manufactured, transported and maintained using anything other than energy and materials from petrochemical sources. Add up all the numbers, and what you end up with is this: wind and solar provide reasonably good ways of storing and transporting small amounts of fossil fuel energy using wind and sunlight as an assist.
Wind and solar alone cannot be used to power the electric grid because the power they produce is intermittent and is either too much or too little. And since the electric grid has no way of storing energy (supply and demand must remain in balance at all times) both surpluses and shortfalls are bad. Therefore, other, stable generating capacity (based on fossil fuels, of course) must also be provided. How much additional generating capacity is needed? Rather unsurprisingly, pretty much all of it. That is, you have to build and maintain the same generating capacity as you would have to otherwise, except that you will now also have to pay for wind generators and solar panels. You will save some on fossil fuels, but then you will squander most of these savings on efficiency losses because, you see, rapidly throttling down your generating capacity to compensate for wind storms and sunny spells will waste a lot of energy (in the form of precious compressed steam loudly, stupidly vented to the atmosphere).
As a side note, one point about wind and solar that seems to confuse everyone is the difference between rated power and actual power. I installed a 400W wind generator on two separate boats. It generated, on average, around 30W. A large part of the time it generated 0W and a smaller part of the time it was too windy for it and it screamed like a banshee, then went into self-braking mode and also generated 0W. I also installed 200W of solar panels. These generated somewhere near 150W around mid-day when the sky was cloudless and their angle to the sun was close to perfect and much less—again, averaging out to around 30W—the rest of the time. If there was tree pollen in the air and I hadn’t bothered to squeegee off the dust and the pollen, they produced significantly less.
Now let’s do the math. A 1.5kW (that’s 1500 Watts) gasoline-powered generator on Alibaba is $250 US (and you know you’ll need one for those windless, sunless days). A 200W solar panel kit is also around $250. And a 400W wind generator is $300. Suppose you need to be able to count on having 1kW of power, generated “renewably” to the greatest extent possible, if you please. Well then, based on my numbers, you will need 33 wind generators and 33 solar panels, for a total outlay of $15,000 US. Batteries, cables, masts, solar panel frames, battery racks, charge controllers, inverters, etc., are not included, but they will add up to almost as much. Labor for installation and maintenance is also not included, and it is likely to be again as much. You are then looking at an outlay of $45,000 for 1kW. If you are in California, with its outrageous electricity rates ($0.1523/kWh), this will pay for itself in about 300000 hours, or 33 years.
Or you could just spend $250 on a 1.5kW gasoline-powered generator and be done with it. The $45,000 you save would buy you more than 10,000 gallons of gasoline (in California, which has the highest gas prices in the US). The generator consumes somewhere around gallon every 4 hours, giving you around 45,000 hours (or 5 years) of continuous operation at full power. You will need to replace the generator sooner than that, cutting into your savings somewhat, but on the other hand you are unlikely to have to run the generator flat out 24/7.
I am quite sure that you could scale up this calculation to any size and the results would be similar, and the economic results bear this out: nobody has ever managed to keep electricity rates internationally competitive by going this route. And if you make yourself noncompetitive, then you will no longer have to solve this problem because your companies and your workers will either relocate to a place that has competitive electricity rates, or they will just sit around and get drunk all the time like many of the Lithuanians are currently doing, consuming very little electricity in the process. All of this seems rather straightforward to me, but I am sure that I will fail to convince certain people, probably because they think that wind generators and solar panels are ecological and can save the planet, generators are noisy and redneck, and doing the math is for nerds.
Be that as it may. If you are not convinced, then please do some research on your own and convince yourself. I understand that for many people “green tech” is a matter of faith, and I do not wish to hurt the feelings of the faithful. I submit to you that there are major problems with fossil fuels in terms of their above-ground availability and affordability, rosy pictures drawn by certain petroleum geologists and energy information agencies notwithstanding (they have to feign optimism in order to continue to get paid). I also submit to you that wind, solar, biomass and other such “green” technologies do not offer a solution (but do offer a way to squander even more natural resources and to waste people’s money while making them feel green and virtuous). Add to this the fact that the burning of fossil fuels is causing major environmental problems. To top it off, take on board the fact that affordable, reliable electricity is the sine qua non of civilized existence.
Does this problem have a solution. Well, yes it does, which is why I believe that the future of energy is in fact so bright that you’ll need specialized protective gear just to look at it. It is also very complicated, full of scientific, technical and political challenges, and fraught with great dangers. I will explain how that can be next.