Monday, September 29, 2008

Artificial Photosynthesis ... and misunderstandings.

I submitted this as a letter to Chemistry World... maybe they will publish it next month. Anyway, it seems salient to the topic of this blog and I have raised this subject previously. If the industry magazine for the British chemistry "industry" (mostly universities) can get it wrong, what chance do other journalists stand?


There is much misconception in the media regarding the new "breakthrough catalyst" for "artificial photosynthesis" as was also reported-on in September's issue of Chemistry World. For a start, the process described by the MIT team has nothing to do with photosynthesis per se, but involves an improved electrode for "splitting water" by electrolysis to generate oxygen at a lower potential than normal. It does not involve a direct light-induced process (and certainly not the reduction of CO2), other than the tenuous connection that light is first harvested using a PV-cell, and the electricity from that then used to electrolyse water, forming H2 and O2 which can be later combined in a fuel cell to produce electricity when the sun has stopped shining. The counter-electrode is made from platinum, to combine the residual protons and electrons (derived from H2O) to make hydrogen.

The new electrode is formed by depositing onto "tin indium oxide" a solid film containing Co and P, formed electrochemically from Co2+ and "phosphate" ions present in solution. Thus the medium is hardly "pure water". Since there is only enough indium (used among other things for LCD's) known worldwide to last for another 5 - 10 years for its current purposes, the large scale implementation of this technology is posed a resource challenge. The article also refers to work by Winther-Jensen et al. who have made a potential "fuel cell" electrode based on the organic conductor PEDOT, which might replace one of the standard platinum electrodes, but even they concede in the paper cited: "the electrode described here provides only a partial solution to some of the problems with the use of Pt... because Pt is also used in the anode (fuel) electrode in the fuel cell."

Fascinating chemistry in both papers, but neither do we have artificial photosynthesis cracked nor is the need for platinum obviated, the demand for which already exceeds the mere 200 tonnes a year of new metal that is recovered. In terms of the energy crunch and the pressing gap between demand and supply of oil we are not out of the woods yet, and it would be irresponsible to claim otherwise.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Chris Rhodes B.Sc., D.Phil., D.Sc., C.Chem., FRSC.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Global Warming from Melting Permafrost?

It was reported this morning in the Independent newspaper that massive amounts of methane are bubbling up from the Arctic depths as sub-sea permafrost in sediments melts. The essential principle is methane hydrate, a compound of methane and ice which only exists under particular conditions of cold and pressure. As the Arctic warms the waters are no longer sufficiently cold to preserve the material which thus decomposes into methane gas and water.

It has been speculated on that some abrupt and profound changes in the past climate, including the wholesale extinction of species, are down to the sudden collapse of methane hydrate and extreme greenhouse-warming from methane gas in the atmosphere. It is often quoted, as in the Independent today, that methane is "a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide ", but this is the case averaged over a 100 year period. Over 20 years, it is 60 times more potent, and if say one kilogramme each of methane and carbon dioxide were released simultaneously into the atmosphere, the global warming potential of methane is nearer 100 times that of CO2.

The latter figure may be deduced as follows from the definition for Global warming potential in: - along with some factors for atmospheric lifetimes for CH4 and CO2 (the latter is quite variable, between 50 and 200 years). From the data in that link, if the warming potential (relative to CO2) for methane is 7 (over 500 years), 23 (100 years), 62 (20 years) - (or the other set of data given) a value of 100 (as deduced below) is reasonable for zero-years, i.e. instantaneous radiative forcing by a given mass of each gas.

Taking the equation that defines GWP (x) in the above link, and then reducing it for t=o (TH=0), you get:

GWP(CH4) = aCH4/aCO2 x MWCO2/MWCH4 = .53W/m^2 ppmv/.015W/m^2 ppmv x 44/16 = 97.2. i.e. about 100. The point is that it's one kg of each gas (i.e. mass not volume) that is assumed to be added to the atmosphere. Since the volume of a kg of a gas depends on the MW of its molecules you need the correction factor as shown, i.e the volume of a kg of CO2 is less than that of a kg of CH4 by the factor of 16/44.

Both gases will over time be removed from the atmosphere, with lifetimes of about 12 years for methane and about 100 years for CO2 (depending on where it is), but I am assuming a kind of steady-state situation where both gases are continually contributed, as seems to be the case, although the amounts of each may vary over time. However, the latter case is complex and goes beyond this simple definition of GWP.

The point is that in terms of assessing the relative GWP of gases relative to CO2, it is important to note the time interval that is being quoted.

Furthermore, if methane is being emitted at up to 100 times background levels in hot-spot regions of the Siberian continental shelf, and the GWP is 100 that of CO2, the effect of this could be catastrophic and climate models will need to be amended to include its influence.

This may well be a striking example of a feedback mechanism in the earth system, where more warming releases more methane and the system runs-away, leading to unexpectedly high, at least local, temperatures with profound influences on the climate of particular regions as the earth heat-machine is tuned in the way it redistributes heat from the equatorial and tropical regions toward and around the poles.

One explanation for the release of methane from the Arctic is that there is an increasing volume of relatively warm water being disgorged from Siberia's rivers as the land-based permafrost melts there. Overall, the Arctic region has felt a rise in temperature of 4 degrees C during the past few decades, with a concomitant decrease in the area of sea-ice there. A significant body of scientists anticipate that the loss of sea-ice which normally reflects sunlight, will result in yet warmer temperatures as the energy is instead absorbed by the open sea.

Related Reading.
"Exclusive: The methane time bomb." By Steve Connor.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Biochar - Atmospheric CO2 "Mitigation".

This posting follows my last on biochar and the likelihood of it being used as a long-term form in which to store carbon captured from the atmosphere. In a nutshell (no pun intended), plants absorb CO2 through photosynthesis, are harvested and then pyrolysed to yield this relatively stable form of carbon along with a release of energy and other useful liquid and gaseous products, some of which might also be used to furnish fuels. To be practical, the process must produce more energy overall than it consumes. The biochar is tilled into soil which can improve its fertility, crop yield, fertilizer requirements and water-retention abilities. Thus, many pressing issues are addressed in a single action, in respect to global warming, phosphate and water shortages, and the difficulty in growing enough food to feed the burgeoning world population and alleviating poverty in the developing world. Put in such terms biochar begins to sound little short of a miracle.

Humans emit around 7 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere annually from burning fossil fuels, and so that amount must be absorbed in addition to remediating the levels of CO2 that are already there. In rough numbers, if theories about anthropogenic global warming are correct, it would be a reasonable aim to deplete the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels, or say a drop from 380 to 280 parts per million (ppm), or 100 ppm. The mass of the atmosphere is 5.3 x 10^15 tonnes (less than one millionth the total mass of the Earth), and thus it contains:

(44/30) x (12/44) x 100 x 10^-6 x 5.3 x 10^15 = 2.12 x 10^11 tonnes, or 212 Gt of carbon. In this sum, 30 is asumed to be the average molecular mass of an "air" molecule, 12 is the atomic mass of carbon and 44 the molecular mass of CO2.

Over a 40 year period (so that we have accomplished out feat by 2050, the magic year when all governmental targets are to be met), we thus need to remove 212 + (40 x 7) = 492 Gt of carbon, which works out to 12.3 Gt per year.

If we assume a mean crop-mass of 30 tonnes per hectare per year of which 40% is carbon based on a carbohydrate formula of C6H12O6, this amounts to 0.4 x 30 = 12 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year, and so we would need (12.3/12) x 10^9 ha = 1.02 x 10^7 km^2, i.e. around 10 million square kilometres of land to grow it on. This can be compared with 150 million km^2 for the total land mass of the earth, of which around 15 million km^2 is arable and around another 30 million is pasture land. There are swathes of existing forest (including rainforests) but we don't really want to begin cutting them down, since they are principal carbon-sinks, although growing trees e.g. sycamore etc. as part of a managed sustainable programme (harvesting them at regular intervals) might make a substantial contribution to the total carbon-capture volume.

Not all of the arable crops can be converted to biochar, of course, but manure etc. might be from the animals and humans that eat them. Probably, to achieve the aim of capturing almost 500 Gt of carbon over 40 years would require working close to the limits of the planet's growing capacity, and a concomitantly vast investment in engineering, along with policy, commercial, social and all other aspects in an integrated programme. Like many other postulated sustainable technologies, biochar too may fail the crucial "Scale Test" in the final feasibility analysis.

Finally, what would be the depth of biochar generated by the capture of 492 Gt of biochar (essentially carbon)?

If we assume a density for carbon of 1 tonne/m^3, that gives a volume of 492 x 10^9 m^3 for its biochar. If we use that same land area of 1.02 x 10^7 km^2 = 1.02 x 10^13 m^2, we have a thickness of:

492 x 10^9 m^3/1.02 x 10^13 m^2 = 0.048 m = 4.8 cm,

or a mere sprinkling of around two inches!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Biochar.... to save the Planet?

I have just attended the International Biochar conference in Newcastle ( Newcastle is a lovely city with a real buzz to it and very friendly people even if you have to listen a bit carefully to understand what they're saying. But it is a really great place. I last visited Newcastle some nine years ago to be interviewed for a Professorship in Physical Chemistry. I didn't get it, but I met the guy who did a few years later and apparently three months after they appointed him, they closed the chemistry department, such is the age of restructuring among Britain's universities.

Back to biochar: which is a kind of charcoal with several appealing qualities. Number one is that if the hypothesis that global warming is causing the world climate to change is correct, in consequence of humans pushing CO2 into the atmosphere, then by growing trees and other forms of biomass which absorb CO2 via photosynthesis, if this is then pyrolysed (heated to cause chemical decomposition) there remains a solid carbonaceous residue which can improve the growing properties of some soils if it is integrated into the top layers. Put another way, carbon is pulled down from the atmosphere and dumped in solid form into the earth. Improving the fertility of soils might also save on the amount of chemical fertilizers that need to be applied to soil to obtain adequate crop-yields, and result in some curbing of our demand upon a declining world resource of phosphate rock which peaked in production twenty years ago. In truth we will have to redesign the way we live, not only to rely far less on personal transportation, but to recycle nitrogenous and phosphate components from human and animal waste, in order to grow food, let alone a crop for biochar. Ideally those two practices can be integrated, so for example, the proverbial chaff from wheat might be converted into a stable form of carbon-rich material that persists in soil for thousands of years, or at least hundreds, actually drawing-down carbon from the atmosphere and cooling the earth, according to the greenhouse effect hypothesis.

There is scarcely doubt that it is the greenhouse effect that keeps the earth warm; a theory advanced by Professor Svente Arrhenius more than 100 years ago. Arrhenius also has his name attached to the pre-exponential or frequency factor in the rate equations of physical chemistry, known colloquially as Arrhenius Equations, that allow us to quantify chemical reactions and other dynamic processes involving molecules. He also proposed an unconventional though now known to be correct theory about ions in solution. For his transgression of prevailing thinking, the Swedish scientific establishment vigorously opposed his being awarded a professorship, although he went on to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1903. A truly brilliant man. The mean global temperature is reckoned at 15 degrees centigrade, and without its influence, it would be nearer minus 15 degrees. Throughout measured geological history, mostly as may be gauged from ice-core samples, every one hundred thousand years the earth experiences an ice-age and then warms into an interglacial period, such as we have now. I have occasionally ruminated that there may have been equally albeit differently advanced civilizations formed on the earth in previous warm times, which were then wiped-away and all evidence of them so, by the following catalogue of ice and glacial grinding. Who knows?

Also as the earth warms the level of CO2 follows the warming, with a lag of roughly 800 years. The present global-warming movement presumes that the current levels of atmospheric CO2 are causing the Earth to warm, and will do so yet more spectacularly in the forthcoming decades. Since these concentrations are unprecedented over 3 million years, this may be true. It is also the case that the mass-balance (as I have written on here before) corresponds closely between the amount of fossil carbon we have burned into CO2 into the atmosphere and its current quantity. The evidence that the atmospheric CO2 is becoming increasingly richer in the lighter 12-C isotope also supports the conclusion that the significant increase in this gas since 1950 is indeed derived from fossil fuels. What, nonetheless is not certain is that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is warming the Earth. There are credible theories created in very credible minds, that the warming of the Earth has alternative origins. We simply don't know, and it is debatable whether it is imperative or justified to turn over all of civilization to carbon-capture strategies.

However, all roads lead to Rome. Since we are threatened by the depleting resource of fossil fuels, most immediately oil, cutting back on our rate of burning them is the single option to take the edge off this imperative; to buy us some more time to regroup. If the greenhouse-gas theory is true then we shall save ourselves and our offspring generations much suffering. The actions in either case are the same. The best way to capture solar energy is through photosynthesis and thus we may grow our way to hope in terms of food production, energy provision, soil fertility and the remediation of our carbon excess. Socially and spiritually such cooperative and concerted actions may be our saving grace.

"Growing Our Way to Hope" is the title of a forthcoming novel by Chris Rhodes.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Solar Investment: Conflicting Views?

We were thinking about putting solar-panels on the south-facing roof of our home-extension some years ago, but determined it would take about 20 years to pay-off the cost in terms of the electricity-bill savings that would be incurred. The upshot was we didn't bother. There are conflicting views, however, with the "Rics" (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) saying that "solar panels are one of the least cost effective (home) upgrades" while the solar industry, including the CEO of Solar Century, Jeremy Leggett, claims that the above conclusion is based on faulty-calculations.

According to the Rics, it costs around £4,000 - £5,000 to fit the average house with solar panels (that's about what we reckoned) but the energy savings are a meagre £24 a year (and so that would amount to 160 - 200 years to pay it off!). In their recent report, Rics also maintain that to swap a wall-mounted boiler with a more energy-efficient one costs around £1,700 to equal an annual saving of £95, a lead-in time of 18 years. They claim that the most cost-effective means to save energy is cavity wall installation, at a cost of £440 - £2,400 depending on the size of the home, to yield a saving of up to £145 a year which could be recovered in three years. We did go for this option and thereby insulated the said extension, at a cost of around £500. I'm not sure yet what it saves us in terms of heating, but this is a well-insulated house and our bills are in any case quite modest.

The solar industry has vigorously objected to the Rics's report, for example Andrew Lee, who is head of solar at Sharp Electronics, said: "Rics' claim on solar panels is massively misleading and potentially damaging for both the UK solar industry and the UK's renewable energy targets, being based on outdated and inaccurate information. Instead of 50 years plus for payback, most average installations will payback within approximately 12 - 15 years." Mmmm, that's about what we thought, and didn't go for it either!

Rics also slams the cost-effectiveness of personal wind-turbines: "A large free-standing wind generator (meaning an electricity generator powered by wind-force) can cost anything from £12,000 to £24,000 to install. But they are only really economic or practical for people in rural areas, particularly those not connected to the electricity grid. Even then, and taking account of electricity fed back into the grid, it would take at least 15 years for them to pay for themselves.

However, this is all costed at current circumstances, and in 15 years or more, there may not be the gas or other provision for electricity, and solar could prove a worthy investment. I can imagine that the price of solar and the dubious sturdiness of conventional power supplies will be good reasons to promote nuclear power, on the national rather than the local scale. It is my understanding however, that solar water-heating systems rather than photovoltaic cells are a good energy investment overall, albeit they don't product electricity, but they may save it in heating water per se. For example, we use an electric immersion heater.

Leggett and Greenpeace are both quoted as saying that solar should become cost-effective with conventional energy by 2020 across most of Europe, and Ernesto Macias, president of the European Photovoltaic Industry association claimed that: "solar voltaic electricity has the potential to supply energy to more than four billion people by 2030 if adequate policy measures are put in place today."

I suspect that the scale of manufacture and installation across the world would be colossal and I have calculated before that only through thin-film cells can the level of resource to fabricate so much solar PV be even addressed. How long it will take to install is a fair question, and I doubt the present level of electricity production can be maintained. All considerations seem to anticipate the reality of a lower-energy society.

Related Reading.
"Solar panels are a 'waste of money', says Rics." By Andrew Ellison.

Friday, September 05, 2008

British Social Fabric Threatened by "Credit Crunch".

The term "credit crunch" is used loosely to describe an economic downturn, that might become a full-blown recession, and which indeed is linked in part to a shiftless lending of money to people who can't pay it back. If there is an economic slide, with job-losses from what is now a majority service-economy, this will impact further on the service-sector causing further job-losses. If people have less spare cash to spend, on retail and other "services", workers in these industries will begin to be laid-off. There will be less people working and thereby contributing tax to the government's coffers and more drawing benefits from them. It has been said that the anticipated level of public-sector (i.e those who work for the state) pensions is such that it could bankrupt the nation - add too the burden of increased welfare payments to a swelling number out of work, with fewer working shoulders to bear that load, and we are in trouble indeed.

The French have similar problems in respect to pensioning their state-workers, who were promised very generous deals after the second world war, for instance to run the transport infrastructure, fire-service, postal-service etc., but which are no longer affordable within their present situation. There has been a certain level of industrial action over all of this, and I have little doubt there will be similar in Britain too. However, the bottom line is no matter how loudly the unions or anyone else may shout for more, if the money to prop-up these various systems is not there, they will fail, and money taken from elsewhere, as must be necessary to do so, merely shifts the hardship somewhere else. There seems to be a case for economic efficiency as for energy-efficiency along the lines that you can't squeeze blood from a stone. "Agreement" must prevail in the longer run but for now it will be the "boss-class", "them and us" politics that tries its hand, and which in the 1970's brought Britain to such a state of discontent with the Labour party and the trade unions, that Margaret Thatcher's government were elected in a land-slide majority, to much regret afterwards, since she destroyed the recalcitrant and militant trade-unions by crippling the industries without whom they had no power. Hence much of our present industrial weakness and dependence upon the above referred to "service-sector".

Whatever the subtle rhetoric of industry and pension arrangements, there are emerging dire (but unsurprising, really) predictions about the consequences of the "credit crunch". Now arguably Britain is on a social knife-edge (forgive the unintentional pun in the face of rising violent crime among young people who have been "parented" to have little actual sense of belonging, purpose or self-esteem), and it is only the benefits "giro" that keeps things in some semblance of order rather than anarchy. This may change, however, once the government can no longer maintain the "keep them quiet" payments.

Here are some thoughts inspired by a couple of recent articles [1,2]. A crime-wave is expected, as times get hard, with increasing intolerance toward immigrants. The latter notion follows presumably the lines of the "them taking our jobs" antipathy, but ironically "they" are apparently needed "to do the jobs our own people won't do". This does strike me as paradoxical, to pay people to do nothing so they are in the position of choice of "won't do", while we bring in foreign labour and pay them on top. Surely there is some compromise system possible, i.e not to pay anyone slave-wages, but rather to ensure that all who are "British" make a constructive contribution to society, by topping-up when necessary (and the employer is not simply trying to behave like a slave-master) the wage to a reasonable amount.

This approach would strike at the heart of the pernicious "benefits culture", and save the government an awful lot of money. When energy, particularly fuel is hugely expensive we will have plenty of work to do (much of it manual, on farms and in other crafts) and it will not be practical or cost-effective to simply bring-in labour from abroad whose taxes pay to support our own unemployed people. This is the beckoning age of national self sufficiency which it would be laudable to anticipate rather than pretend that our current way of life can be continued so wastefully.

Family breakdown [2] is another aspect expected to be "triggered" by the impending economic crisis. This has already happened to such as degree in Britain that it sounds hollow and false to refer to it as some forthcoming event. Half of all marriages end in divorce and many do not get formally married. That is of course a matter of personal choice, but it makes it impossible to quantify the degree of "family breakdown". At one time we talked about "broken homes" in the implication that the home was the stable norm and the breaking of it an infliction on the national social fabric. More likely the "non-nuclear family" (to be PC) is now the norm and a major contribution to why kids are left without a sense of belonging, purpose or self-esteem. It then becomes the state or the gang that surrogates the vital role of parent. Will more families break-up, in the face of bankruptcies, home repossessions, unemployment and a generalised struggle to pay household bills? Perhaps; but underpinning this potential strife is a safety-net that has become a device; a culture that does not allow for improvement and which condemns those entrapped in it.

Whatever happens to our personal finances, we must begin the restructuring of society to foster a sense of social integrity and the opportunity for all to contribute to the land that will be ours in both five years and five generations. This is surely the age of the transition-town: toward a community that is sustainable both in energy and in all other needs, as human beings, believing ourselves and each other worthwhile.

Related Reading.
[1] "Credit crunch could lead to crime wave, Home Office warns Downing Street." By Andrew Porter.
[2] "Deepening economic crisis 'may trigger family breakdown'.By Becky Barrow. "

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Blogger Yorkshireminer said...

The trouble is with alternative tech is that there is such a long lead in time. And we don't have the time we have left it too late. What gets up my nose is that the people who say we can change to renewables don't understand this. Let me give you just one example PV. The PV industry in America is growing at the rate of approximately 50% per year, sounds great bring out the marching bands hip hip horay good old Yankee technology and get up and go, we are saved. What the numb nuts don't realise is that PV produces only 0.1% of Americas total energy and if you were to double it every year for the next four years you would still not produce more than 1% of you energy, the same is for most of the other renewables and most of them have limits to growth, geothermal and hydro, only wind has any chance of success and that is hampered by the fact that it is intermittent and we have no cheap way of storing electricity, millions of Lithium Ion Batteries is just not on. The other thing that everybody seemed to have missed that when Oil declines whether it is linear or expotentional it will be at a rate far greater than our ability to replace it with renewables. The North Sea Oil is diminishing at 7% Chantrell at 14% 6 years at 7% means that you have lost over one third of you energy source for your industry which will have contracted most likely at a higher rate and with it a corresponding contraction in the money supply which will mean you will have even less capital and energy to fund the renewable program which will cost even more as you try and ramp it up quickly. The Government of a country like Britain will be faced with an even more insidious choice as the economy sinks into depression, millions will have been made redundant and living on Welfare, which will be competing for the limited resources of a diminished economy. It will be a choice between windmill or butter. That is without Murphy's law or chaos. Chaos it is easy to predict that it will happen, but certainly not when. I don't know if you have any memories of the miners strike in the 70s, I certainly do, smiling Joe Gormley didn't win because he had a better argument, he won because Teddy Teeth Heath had been told that if the country went from a three day week to a two day week it would collapse, into chaos. This time we wont be able to call off the strike to get industry moving. I think the technical term is positive feed back loop. I haven't even mentioned Murphy's law. I am thinking something on the line of Archduke, Sarajevo, idiot with a gun. If you have difficulty thinking about a scenario think middle east, Jews, idiot with an Atomic bomb. When that happens we will soon know how the feral brats of the Religion of the permanently offended will react. They wont likely be too pleased as the Government will have most likely cut down the size of their welfare tit beforehand to pay for the windmills, the Government will be jousting at in there PC addled minds . Have a nice day Chris , by the way have you decided where you are going you haven't got much time. By the way and now for something not completely different but I think you will find interesting and I think you will understand why I found it interesting. I downloaded an E-Book several weeks ago which I have just finished reading and I am going to include a quote, it is by a chap called Jeavons I don't know if you have heard about him he was writing in the middle of the Victorian era about the British Coal industry. It seems so relevant today.

Quote :- To say the simple truth, will it not appear evident, soon after the final adoption of Free Trade principles, that our own resources are just those to which such principles ought to be applied last and most cautiously ? To part in trade with the surplus yearly interest of the soil may be unalloyed gain, but to disperse so lavishly the cream of our mineral wealth is to be spendthrifts of our capital—to part with that which will never come back.

7:27 PM
Blogger energybalance said...

Hi David!

"Jeavons' Paradox" right? Still and even more relevant today!

Trying to sort-out business arrangements etc. before that decision of where to go is made.

I can see the government struggling to pay the benefits bill, as they have been sanctioned by the EU for overspending and overborrowing (5.3% of our GDP as opposed to the limit of 3%), 53 billion quid in real money.

Half the country is on benefits of some kind if you include pensions and when the government can't afford to keep them all any more, all hell will break loose.

As always you make profound common sense, especially about the lead-in time for new technologies! I've commented before that if the world had begun a serious search for alternatives 30-odd years ago when OPEC caused the first oil crises we might be realistically closer to some solutions now. But, as you say, we've left it too late.

In a nutshell, the service economy will begin to collapse (it's happening already), people will lose their jobs, there will be less tax going into the pot and more being taken out of it to provide for the unemployed...

...crash, disaster! At worst, anarchy!

And the liberal-thinkers let the PC tidal-wave happen. People often blame socialism or conservatism but the pernicious force is liberalism, because it doesn't stand up for one thing or another, and simply lets the lowest common denominator yield the final sum. That said, British manufacturing wasn't in exactly good shape after labour in the 70's and Thatcher culled what was left! Summarily and carelessly. Now, after these Monopoly years of token-money we really need solid production - at least of food and coal. Perhaps this is where many new jobs will be created - coal mining and farm labouring?

I don't see too many windmills on the horizon?

...I think we can see what that is going to be in a social context.



Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Economist Debater Series - Final Round-up.

In summary, the pro's beat the cons by 55% to 45%. A close match, but it seems to me that the two sides were never entirely in opposition, and there is much common ground. The stuff of a good debate. One comment summarised much of this alluding that through energy efficiency we could get by on one third of current U.S. energy consumption, but we do need to ensure future provision of that amount through new technologies. "New technologies" are not necessarily entirely new as in a hydrogen economy or accomplishing terrestrial nuclear fusion, but e.g. using heat from fossil fuels directly, rather than in its end-use as electricity which wastes two-thirds of it. Nonetheless, that would require a revamping of the way many homes and other buildings are heated.

The Proposition's closing statement:

Aug 27th 2008 JOSEPH J. ROMM

I think Mr Meisen and Ms Fehrenbacher are in complete agreement with me that “we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations."

The time has come for aggressive deployment of energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. Indeed it is long overdue.

Breakthroughs are nice, like winning the lottery, but in fact, breakthroughs in energy technology that fundamentally change how we use energy are considerably rarer than most people realise.1 In any case, breakthroughs certainly can't be counted on to save the day no matter how much money we throw at them–just look at hydrogen fuel cell cars.

After billions of dollars spent in public and private money over the past two decades, hydrogen technology has seen no game-changing breakthroughs, and the cars are still decades away from ever being practical.2 Honda’s new FCX Clarity, supposedly “the world’s first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle intended for mass production,” still costs “cost several hundred thousand dollars each to produce.” Mass production might bring that down to $100,000–and even that assumes people would buy a car for which there's no fueling infrastructure. The future in vehicles is good old fuel efficiency, hybrids, and batteries--all of which is quite old technology.

Having helped run the largest programme in the world for working with businesses to develop and deploy clean energy technologies – the US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy–I could not agree more that we must start with an aggressive push on energy efficiency. I am very glad to see that both Mr Meisen and Ms Fehrenbacher understand this.

Energy efficiency is the cheapest alternative. California has cut annual peak demand by 12 GW--and total demand by about 40,000 GWh—through a variety of energy efficiency programs over the past three decades. Over their lifetime, the cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2-3 cents per kW–five times cheaper than new nuclear, coal, or natural gas generation.3 If the world launched a nationwide effort to embrace efficiency and change regulations to encourage efficiency, then we could keep electricity demand flat in the rich countries well past 2020. And countries like China could cut their demand growth rates in half. That is particularly true if we include an aggressive effort to push combined heat and power.4

A May presentation of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) modelling results shows that energy efficiency could deliver up to 36,000 Gigawatt-hours of “negawatts” by 2020 (that is the equivalent of more than 5 GW of baseload generation operating 80% of the time).5 At the same time, the state could build 1.6 GW of small CHP and 2.8 GW of large CHP. So that is nearly 10 GW of efficiency by 2020. If this were reproduced nationwide, efficiency would deliver more than 130 GW of efficiency by 2020, easily covering all of the expected demand growth.

While wind and solar photovoltaics get all the attention in the renewable energy arena because of their rapid growth, perhaps the most important renewable technology it is concentrated solar thermal power (CSP), which I call solar baseload. Recently, CSP has come roaring back after more than a decade of neglect with more than a dozen providers building projects in two dozen countries.6

Utilities in the American Southwest are already contracting for power at 14 to 15 cents/kWh. The modeling for the CPUC puts California solar thermal at 12.7 to 13.6 cents/kWh (including six hours of storage capacity)—and at similar or lower costs in the rest of the West. A number of players are adding low-cost storage that will make the power better than baseload (since it delivers peak power when demand actually peaks, rather than just delivering a constant amount of power 24/7). More importantly, baseload solar has barely begun dropping down the experience curve as costs are lower from economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve. The CPUC analysis foresees the possibility that CSP could drop 20% in cost by 2020.

A 2006 report by the Western Governors Association “projects that, with a deployment of 4 GW, total nominal cost of CSP electricity would fall below 10¢/kWh.”7 And that deployment will likely occur before 2015. Indeed, the report noted the industry could “produce over 13 GW by 2015 if the market could absorb that much.” The report also notes that 300 GW of CSP capacity can be located near existing transmission lines. As an aside, wind power is a very good match with CSP in terms of their ability to share the same transmission lines, since a great deal of wind is at night, and since CSP, with storage, is dispatchable.

There is enough baseload solar potential in one 90-mile-by-90-mile grid in the American Southwest to power the whole country. A similar grid in North Africa could power all of Europe. India and China have equally large solar resources, more than enough to replace new coal.

And CSP is a decades old technology, that uses mostly commodity materials--steel, concrete and glass. The central component, a standard power system routinely used by the natural gas industry today, would create steam to turn a standard electric generator. Plants can be built rapidly, in two to three years. It would be straightforward to build CSP systems at whatever rate industry and governments needed, ultimately 50 to 100 gigawatts a year growth or more–if we got serious about global warming and technology deployment.

Once again, it is crystal clear “we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations."








The Opposition's closing statement:

Aug 27th 2008 | PETER MEISEN

After reviewing all of the Energy Debate comments, many stated that it’s not either we deploy or focus on breakthroughs–it is and/both.

Michael Eckhart of ACORE rightfully states that

“we can begin to solve our energy problems with today’s technology, so there is no need for delay in getting started, but we will need breakthroughs across all of these technology arenas to have the tools for a carbon-free society that is sustainable.”

At last year’s World Energy Congress (WEC), one-quarter of the exhibiters featured renewable and efficient technologies. This was a tenfold increase from three years prior. For me, it was the most significant demonstration of these new technologies breaking into the energy establishment of coal, oil, gas and nuclear.

The Global Energy Network Institute prepared our participation by challenging the E8 (eight largest global utilities) with a proposition and set of questions that are worth repeating. The WEC daily news deemed them important enough to publish for the entire convention–and I offer them here so you can pose them to your own energy ministry and utilities:

“We are all interconnected today–linked across borders via gas pipelines, electric grids, telecommunication cable, and global finance. The new international factor facing our industry is carbon. Power production and the transport sector create two-thirds of global CO2 emissions, and the public is becoming vocal in their demand for cleaner energy and fuels. It seems certain that a 'market price per ton of carbon' will soon be enacted and will dramatically alter the cost equation for fossil fuels.

As a member of the E8, you are a global leader in how we produce electricity. The rules of the game are changing. In preparation for the 20th World Energy Congress, we put forward several questions for consideration by you and your staff:

1. Renewable Potential: What’s the potential capacity of all the renewable resources in your service territory, including your neighbours? Could you meet most of your electrical requirements from these non-carbon resources? (Five nations already do: Norway, Iceland, Brazil, Canada and New Zealand.)

2. Interconnection: How could these renewables be integrated into your electric grid and provide the reliability, security and immediate dispatch that your customers require?

3. Fossil Fuel Transition: As existing fossil fuel and nuclear plants need replacing in the coming years, could renewables meet that replacement capacity using the same criteria?

4. Design: In the coming carbon constrained world of the future, how would you strategically plan, engineer and build this out?”

Additionally, every business and citizen needs to ask a couple of personal questions. First, does my electricity come from clean or polluting energy? Second, what fuel powers your car, bus, truck, train or plane? These two choices, made by billions of people, will determine the future of our planet.

Undeveloped in this debate, but critically important, are government policies that provide the grease to accelerate this transition. Katie Fehrenbacher of Earth2Tech and Joseph Romm make the convincing case for California’s decoupling utility profits and energy efficiency programmes. This should be initiated by utility commissions across the nation. Global subsidies and incentives for fossil fuels and nuclear power are ten times that for renewable and clean tech. This is upside down in a world facing peak oil and climate change.

The proactive way to shift the direction of climate change is to shift our energy investments.

The International Energy Agency stated that $45 trillion will be required in the next few decades to meet the world’s growing energy demand and reduce CO2 emissions. To tackle climate change, it is essential that renewables, energy efficiency and future fuels receive the lion’s share of this investment.

Entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, pension funds and individual investors will fund this transition–and benefit handsomely. The opportunities are global, especially as India and China strive to raise the living standards of 2.5 billion people. Until recently, these two nations have followed the same energy path as the west. Solving climate change will require the West and East to co-operate, moving beyond carbon-based fuels and investing in the transition to renewables and clean technologies.

The commercialisation of these renewables has attracted multinational energy and engineering firms to initiate significant financial commitments. Yet solar, wind and geothermal remain less than 3% of the global energy mix. With market barriers removed, some experts forecast that renewables will supply 50% of our energy requirements in 2050. That would be a 1,700% increase from today’s market share, offering investors strong potential returns.

Efficiencies are coming from government policy and technical breakthroughs. Several countries and states are banishing the incandescent bulb for the more efficient compact florescent. Looking forward, the organic light-emitting diode is the next generation of energy efficient lighting, using just a fraction of today’s wattage-wasting bulbs. Gas-electric hybrid cars get 2-3 times the mileage of current automobiles, with the promise of plug-in hybrids getting over 100 miles per gallon. Promising second generation liquid fuels include algae, switch grass and jatropha curcas seeds. Breakthroughs will double solar cell efficiency and wind turbines have grown to six megawatt capacity. Smart grids, feed-in laws and net metering propel rooftop photovoltaics. Each of these new technologies is a huge business opportunity, creating new industries and jobs.

If we continue building and funding the world’s energy needs as we did in the last century, we deserve the consequences. If we embrace the energy technology revolution, investments in clean energy solutions will flourish and dominate the 21st Century. Climate change will be mitigated by shifting investments to solutions that de-carbonise the entire energy value chain. To track our progress, follow the Keeling Curve and the money.

Finally, I want to extend my thanks to Vijay Vaitheeswaran and the editors at for hosting this debate, Joseph Romm for his thoughtful analysis, the featured participants and all those who took time to comment and engage in this critical issue of our time. It was an honour.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Economist Debate - Some Closing Comments.

There are some interesting thoughts here, beginning with "Power Towers". This sounds like a descendent of one of Tesla's inventions? I'll do a final round-up of what was exactly concluded by both sides of this debate, and their moderation, but it seems that consensus is (as I and others commented at the outset) there is no question of either/or about using what we have or developing new technologies. We are going to need all that can be "sensibly" provided on a realistic timetable. Energy efficiency over what we use now and in new technologies is key. The major problem of providing liquid fuel for transportation might be solved by making diesel from algae, which seems like the most direct way of using "solar-energy" to make fuels. Other biofuel strategies, based on land-grown crops, fail the "scale-up test". All sources of electric power should be utilised where practical, since the final product "electricity" can be used in manifold applications, inclduing running light-trains and trams, particularly to underpin local economies.

Whatever we decide will require an unparalleled degree of cooperation at the personal and governmental level. Plans will have to be laid-down clearly and followed. No U-turns... there simply won't be the resources to mess about, half-heartedly picking up one thing and then another, only to drop them at the will of political and commercial short-termism.

Frank G wrote:

August 31, 2008 05:00

"The Power Towers is an ideal power plant for the electrical power needs of the future. It is a clean tech patent pending airfoil design that utilizes proven, off- the-shelf technologies to convert wind power to electrical energy. The Patent is Titled: Innovative Method of Power Extraction Using Static Airfoils.

The design of the airfoils is two airfoil shaped towers that naturally form two stacks that act as conduits for both wind and the wasted heat energy given off by the gas turbines. This makes the towers consistently predictable energy generators and economically feasible. The towers are wildlife friendly, safe and produce on average 50% less green house gases and uses much less land than a conventional wind farm.

The critical feature is the design of the airfoil that creates an accelerating constriction allowing for substantial wind power acceleration. This creates a pressure drop. The differential pressure acts through a turbine-connected generator. Combining this unique design with a gas-turbine, Power Towers can produce electric power even when wind doesn’t blow. This hybrid solution allows for consistent, low-cost energy production and a quicker return on capital investment.

With cities, states, and nations around the globe planning to generate at least 20% or more of their total energy from clean-energy sources within the next decade or two, and with billions of people still in need of potable water and reliable electricity in the developing world, clean tech will be a dominant force well into the 21st century.

This century will be shaped by how effectively and smoothly the world introduces hydrogen as a transportation fuel, but first hydrogen or electric power to recharge Plug-in Hybrid cars must be produced. The solution is a hybrid wind/gas-turbine power tower.

We must introduce a renewable energy source in order for world economies to grow, for the growing middle class in emerging markets to have increased wealth, and for people who have dreamed all their lives of owning a vehicle to finally realize that dream. This is why clean tech represents the biggest opportunity of an era and why long-term thinking will be a critical tool for those participating in this massive industrial transformation. The Power Towers will be the one major key in this transformation.

Wind is Sun's heat transformed into kinetic energy through the greatest solar collector currently available, Earth's atmosphere. Wind total power is estimated between 1,700 and 3,500 TeraWatt; by comparison, the whole mankind primary energy needs are estimated at approx. 14 TW.

The Solution: Power Towers is prototype power plant of the future. Power Towers is a patent pending scalable design that uses wind to produce electrical energy. The towers are scalable to immense sizes.

Clean-tech markets from renewable are finally, after years of pioneering efforts building momentum, and going main stream. With oil at $140/Barrel and predicted to go higher, renewable are hot on Wall Street. Energy from wind offers the greatest opportunity for wealth creation in a generation and Power Towers are going to be a big part of it.

The energy industry is a great example of the need for long-term thinking. It took coal nearly 100 years to bypass the burning of wood as the world’s primary energy source. It then took oil nearly 100 years to surpass coal usage. Natural gas has been more than 100 years in development and now represents about 20% of global primary energy use. Similarly, it will take renewables, such as wind and solar 10 to 20 years to match the technological momentum of coal, oil, and natural gas.
In the 21st century, population pressures, global economic forces, environmental needs, shortages of natural resources and climatic changes will force changes in energy production. The solution has always been with us renewable such as wind and ultimately the sun.

Our solution takes advantage of the alternative and superior clean energy sources by capitalizing on proven scientific principles and recent technological advances. The features are combined in a unique patent pending protected way. We use understandable technologies that take advantage of an energy source that is non-polluting and unquenchable.

Rest assured that the dire predictions will not come true. I for one, choose to build towers to light the future and keep the darkness away, but as Saint Augustine said “God sends the wind, but we must put up the sails!”

Sirajul Islam wrote:

August 30, 2008 23:51

It’s really hopeless to observe the slow development of energy alternatives. New sources of energy are desperately needed to compensate for the eventual disappearance of existing fuels as well as to slow the build-up of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Wind and solar power have gained some significant footholds in some parts of the world, and a number of other innovative energy solutions have already been developed and even tested out in university and corporate laboratories. But these alternatives, which now contribute only a tiny percentage of the world’s net energy supply, are simply not being developed fast enough to avert the multifaceted global energy catastrophe that lies ahead.

Renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, and hydropower along with traditional fuels like firewood and dung, supplied but 7.4% of global energy in 2004; bio fuels added another 0.3% (DoE, USA). Meanwhile, fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas supplied 86% percent of world energy, and nuclear power another 6%. Based on current rates of development and investment, the DoE offers the following dismal projection: In 2030, fossil fuels will still account for exactly the same share of world energy as in 2004. The expected increase in renewables and bio fuels is so slight, a mere 8.1%, as to be virtually meaningless.

In global warming terms, the implications are nothing short of catastrophic. Rising reliance on coal, especially in China, India, and the United States, means that global emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to rise by 59% over the next quarter-century, from 26.9 billion metric tons to 42.9 billion tons. The meaning of this is simple. If these figures hold, there is no hope of averting the worst effects of climate change. When it comes to global energy supplies, the implications are nearly as dire. To meet soaring energy demand, we would need a massive influx of alternative energies, which would mean equally massive investment in the trillions of dollars, to ensure that the newest possibilities move rapidly from laboratory to full-scale commercial production. Whatever the Economist debate outcome is, but that, sad to say, is not in the cards. Instead, the major energy firms backed by lavish US government subsidies and tax breaks, are putting their mega-windfall profits from rising energy prices into vastly expensive and environmentally questionable schemes to extract oil and gas from Alaska and the Arctic, or to drill in the deep and difficult waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. This is what is meant for banking on existing technologies (in the energy industry). The result? A few more barrels of oil or cubic feet of natural gas at exorbitant prices with accompanying ecological damage, while non-petroleum alternatives limp along pitifully.

Robert North wrote:

August 30, 2008 19:18

If one includes the management and political processes required to bring technologies to fruition and effect then we certainly need breakthrough innovations in these areas.

ginghamdog wrote:

August 30, 2008 12:02

The question comes down to what cost an economy can bear to institute new energy sources. The argument for waiting for a breakthrough isn't so much an argument of waiting for a supply breakthrough as it is waiting for a cost breakthrough.

Alternative energy sources will always be more expensive than traditional carbon fuels, unless markets are allowed to completely regulate the transition, which also means that carbon based fuels must become much more expensive before the transition is made, which makes the transition point a greater economic shock. In any rate such an approach is highly unlikely, the demand from the public for action precludes the ability of markets to make the transition without input or support from public policy makers.

So if we must institute a transition from the position of public policy we are doing so for the long term good, not to save economies money. There will always be extra cost involved in the use of alternative fuels. This will also only be exacerbated as the use of alternatives increases, because of simple supply and demand, as the demand for traditional fuels decreases so will their cost. As a matter of fact if the move to alternatives is widespread and rapid we could wind up in a position of having significant supplies of oil which cost very little, making the cost difference for using alternatives even greater.

As far as the U.S. is concerned the best thing that country could do to hasten the implementation of alternatives in vehicles is to create a mandate stating that in a ceratin period of time a high percentage of military and government vehicles must be powered by alternative fuels. An international contest could be put forward to select the type of technology and the suppliers, companies outside the U.S. could compete provided supplier operations were then located in the U.S., technology was shared, and made available to the public. This would create the sort of public backing required to make a transition of the necessary scope. For critics who might argue that such a mandate would put U.S. forces at a strategic disadvantage the security of the U.S. is assured by its nuclear arsenal, and much of current conflict tatics centers around air power.