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Renewable power? Not in your lifetime
Stoneleigh, The Automatic Earth
Since it is the major world conundrum with the shortest timescale, I usually focus on finance here, but alternative energy sources and power systems are my day job. Ilargi suggested that, in response to a question about the potential for renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs), I write an article on the future of power systems.
With people hanging so many of their hopes on an electric future, it seems timely to inject a dose of reality. This is meant as a cursory overview of some of the difficulties we are facing with regard to electrical power in the future. The extraordinary technical and organizational complexity of power systems is difficult to convey, and there is far more to it than I am attempting to address here.
First off: As we are entering a depression, within a few years hardly anyone will have the money to buy an EV. Second: the grid could not come close to handling the current transportation load even if EVs could become common. An economy based on EV transportation would have to be fueled by base-load nuclear that doesn’t currently exist and would take decades to build, and no one builds anything in a depression.
What they do is mount a losing battle to maintain existing infrastructure and hope they don’t lose too much before better times return. This depression will last long enough that the infrastructure degradation will be enormous, even without the impact of above ground events resulting from serious societal unrest. Attempts at recovery after deleveraging are going to hit a hard energy ceiling. Power systems are critical to the functioning of a modern economy, but are almost completely taken for granted. That will not be the case in a few short years.
… Far from a future of greater high-tech connectedness under a smart-grid model, where EVs would charge at night and cover both transportation needs and power storage, we are looking at a much more fragmented picture. We are very unlikely to see massive AC grids covering anything like the area they do now, and much less likely to see power carried over large distances.
Rural areas may well be cut off and will have to provide any power they need themselves (yet another example of the core preserving itself at the expense of the periphery). This will mean a drastic cut in demand to a third world level in many rural areas, and may lead to other areas with no power production, and no money to build any, being abandoned completely or reverting to a pioneer lifestyle.
In urban areas, where dispossessed rural people migrate in very hard times, electricity provision in places down on their luck could look more like this picture of a favela in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a far cry from a neat and tidy high-tech vision of efficiency.
(1 July 2009)
Recommended by Sharon Astyk.
Seven Paths to Our Energy Future
Chris Nelder, Energy and Capital
The Renewable Energy Revolution
I have dished out a healthy share of criticism about the paths we are taking into the energy future, so perhaps it’s time I offered some paths of my own. I will outline them as simply as possible, since the data and thinking behind them could fill a book.
First we must know where we’re going.
Credible models show that by the end of this century, essentially all of the fossil fuels on earth will be consumed—oil, natural gas, and coal. Presumably, whatever fuels do remain at that point will be reserved for their highest and most valuable purposes like making crude oil into plastics and pharmaceuticals, not burning it in 15% efficient internal combustion engines.
… By the end of this century then, a mere 90 years from now, we’ll need to have an infrastructure that runs exclusively on renewably generated electricity, biofuels, and possibly nuclear energy. That’s where we’re going.
Fortunately, there is more than enough available renewable energy to meet all of our needs, if we can harness it. Unfortunately, we’re starting from a point at which less than 2% of the world’s energy comes from renewables like wind, solar and geothermal.
Hydro provides about 6%, and nuclear about 6%, but for reasons too numerous to get into here, some of which my longtime readers have already heard, I don’t believe either source will increase much in the future, and both could actually decline.
Our challenge then is to make that 2% fraction grow to replace about 86% of the world’s current primary energy, in 90 years or less.
We are currently at peak oil, a short, roughly 5-year plateau which goes into terminal decline around 2012. All fossil fuel energy combined peaks around 2018, less than a decade from now.
… How, then, can we replace or offset through efficiency at least 40% of our current energy supply with renewables in the next 50 years, while fuel prices are rising and the global economy is flat or shrinking due to a lack of fuel?
Seven Paths to Our Energy Future
1: Rail. …
2: Rooftop Solar PV. …
3: Alternative Vehicles. …
4: Efficiency. …
5: Utility Scale Renewables. …
6: A Beefier, Smarter Grid. …
7: Keep Drilling. …
(26 June 2009)
Wesley Clark: Ethanol’s field general
Jon Birger, Fortune
If ever there were an industry in need of a general, it’s the ethanol industry. Already under siege from food companies blaming biofuels for rising grocery prices, ethanol companies are now seeing their profit margins crushed by falling prices for their product. Compounding the problem, many environmentalists — who five minutes ago seemed to be in ethanol’s corner — have turned against the corn-based fuel.
Reporting for duty in ethanol’s counterattack: Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former NATO commander, who signed on in February as co-chairman of an upstart ethanol trade group called Growth Energy. Clark, 64, has fully embraced the private sector since ending his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. In addition to co-chairing Growth Energy, Clark is on the board of Dutch wind-turbine maker Juhl Wind and serves as chairman of the New York investment bank Rodman & Renshaw (RODM). At Growth Energy, Clark has lobbied against efforts in California to hold ethanol accountable for deforestation in Brazil, he’s pushed back against claims that diverting corn to ethanol drives up food prices, and he’s spoken out in favor of a Growth Energy proposal to increase the maximum allowable ethanol blend in conventional gasoline to 15% from 10%.
Without support for corn ethanol now, Clark says, the industry won’t be able to fund advances in second-generation cellulosic ethanol made from nonfood inputs such as switchgrass.
(2 July 2009)
Energy Secretary Chu’s alternative choice
… Mr Chu’s job is harder: he is charged with spotting, nurturing and promoting promising energy technologies, thereby helping America to create the tools that the world needs to wean itself off fossil fuels.
He certainly has the qualifications to do so. Barack Obama poached him from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which he had directed since 2004, and which he was busy shaping into a centre for the study of alternative energy.
… He is also a man who thinks big. While Mr Chu was at Berkeley, he conceived the idea of a global “glucose economy”, to supplant mankind’s dependence on oil. Fast-growing crops would be planted in the tropics, where sunlight is abundant. They would be converted into glucose (of which cellulose, which makes up much of the dry weight of a plant, is a polymer) and the glucose would be shipped around much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels and bioplastics. That idea might not go down well with energy nationalists, who want America to declare independence from all hot and unreliable countries, whether oil producers or agricultural powers, but it shows vision on the scale needed to deal with global warming.
Another example of his unorthodox thinking is his observation that painting the roofs of buildings around the world white and using light-coloured road surfaces rather than blacktop would reflect a lot of sunlight back into space—possibly enough to have an effect on global warming as big as taking every car in the world off the road for a decade. There are plenty of scientists with such notions, but they are seldom in a position to convert their visions into reality.
(2 July 2009)
Both ideas mentioned seem either bad (“glucose econmy”) or Quixotic (painting roofs white). Dealing with peak energy is going to take a different mindset. -BA
Can I Clean Your Clock?
Tom Friedman, New York Times
Over the past decade, whenever I went to China and engaged Chinese on their pollution and energy problems, inevitably some young Chinese would say: “Hey, you Americans got to grow dirty for 150 years, using cheap coal and oil. Now it is our turn.”
It’s a hard argument to refute. Eventually, I decided that the only way to respond was with some variation of the following: “You’re right. It’s your turn. Grow as dirty as you want. Take your time. Because I think America just needs five years to invent all the clean-power technologies you Chinese are going to need as you choke to death on pollution. Then we’re going to come over here and sell them all to you, and we are going to clean your clock — how do you say ‘clean your clock’ in Chinese? — in the next great global industry: clean power technologies. So if you all want to give us a five-year lead, that would be great. I’d prefer 10. So take your time. Grow as dirty as you want.”
Whenever you frame it that way, Chinese are quizzical at first, and then they totally get it: Wow, this energy thing isn’t just about global warming! In a world that is adding one billion people every 15 years or so — more and more of whom will be able to live high-energy-consuming lifestyles — the demands for energy and natural resources are going to go through the roof. Therefore, E.T. — energy technologies that produce clean power and energy efficiency — is going to be the next great global industry, and China needs to be on board.
Well, China has gotten on board — big-time. Now I am worried that China will, dare I say, “clean our clock” in E.T.
(4 July 2009)
World`s largest cement firms slash production emissions by a third
Efforts by the world’s leading cement companies knocked down carbon dioxide emissions from the industry’s manufacturing process by 35 per cent even while production climbed by 53 per cent, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Cement Sustainability Initiative.
The council’s Cement Sustainability Initiative released the findings in its report, Cement Industry Energy and CO2 Performance: ‘Getting the Numbers Right’ on Tuesday. The report represents the latest progress in an international effort to make cement production more environmentally friendly.
The group’s work includes development of a CO2 accounting and reporting protocol for the industry and creation of the global Getting the Numbers Right database of energy and emissions information. The resource enables the analysis and benchmarking of industry performance. It is managed by an independent third party on an open platform.
The percentages for production growth and the absolute net reduction in CO2 emissions resulted from the analysis of available data from 1990 and 2006. The findings are significant because they indicate a growing ability to ‘decouple’ cement production from related emissions, as a result of comprehensive measurement and management throughout the manufacturing process
… The manufacturing of cement is responsible for about 5 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. And the three largest producers in the industry are China, the top producer, followed by India and the United States. Reducing CO2 emissions in cement production is an important factor in combatting climate change because the industry is expected to double by 2030.
(2 July 2009)
The cement industry has been quietly working on reducing emissios. If this report is accurate, then it is a significant success story. -BA