Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Go Nuclear to Avert Climate Change.

This is the prognostication of Professor David MacKay, who is the U.K. government's chief scientific advisor (following Sir David King), who thinks that emphasis on nuclear power is the only way that Britain can keep pace with its inexorable demand for electricity but at the same time, holding rein on its carbon emissions. On his first day in this new role, Prof. MacKay delineated a plan for the nation could produce a three-fold increase in its electricity by a four-fold increase in nuclear power. I'm not entirely sure how the figures stack-up for this but this is what is written in the article cited below. At any rate, "nuclear" is our only hope.

I'm not immediately scared of nuclear power since for the most part nuclear power stations have run quite safely for years, there being only three really bad accidents that come to mind: Three Mile Island, Windscale and Chernobyl. Apart from the nuclear waste, it is a pretty clean technology too, especially in terms of carbon emissions, so I take his point. That said, we need to import uranium, which is enriched somewhere?, and there are issues over potential terrorism, so I am not convinced by the usual "security of supply" argument for nuclear.

It is reckoned too that there is around 40 years worth of uranium in known reserves and so if we are going to go for nuclear, we need to get hold of a lot more of the stuff. Obviously, if we all go four-fold in our adoption of fission-based reactors, that divides into 10 years worth and since it takes about 10 years to get a nuclear power plant up and running from scratch, we may have left it a bit too late.

I agree with Professor Mackay too that renewables are unlikely to provide more than a small fraction of our energy at least in the short term, and yet in the rounder and longer view they are all we have. At the risk of repetition, this reminds that we have to cut our energy use - transportation is an issue in its own right and will begin to decline in the wake of the most precious and vulnerable of fossil resources, namely oil - by a wholesale relocalisation of society. However, if this is not done in a structured way, and no government wants to point out the severity and proximity of the situation for fear of scaring the living daylights out of its electorate and augering-in anarchy, then it is exactly the latter that is likely to prevail upon us.

Related Reading.
"Professor David Mackay: Britain 'must go nuclear' to control climate." By Jonathan Leake: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6860181.ece

Monday, October 26, 2009

Biofuel From Algae - Different Prognoses.

I have read two entirely differing articles about the imminence and feasibility of growing algae and converting it into biofuel to stave-off the paucity of oil in the "post peak oil era" as that final descent has been dubbed in some quarters. We have on the one hand the valourous trumpet "Algae biofuel propels a brave new world" in fanfare that the status quo of plentiful liquid fuels can be sustained even in the absence of crude oil, and on the other is a rather more Job's comforting title: "Commercial fuel from green algae still years away." Well, of course it is, but it is a better bet than other alternative schemes particularly hydrogen which has gone rather quiet of late... or is that just my imagination, or perhaps I read the wrong papers these days?

Why do I say "of course it is"? For the simple and sustained reason that appends all efforts to find alternative energy, that it must be got up from scratch. In all cases, there is no commercial scale output from them, beit hydrogen or fuel from algae. Liquid fuels are remarkable and without them the modern world would not have arisen in the form it has. For transportation alone we need to find something like 60% of 30 billion barrels worth of crude oil each and every year, and to ramp up that supplication year on year if we are to believe that the market forces will continue to dictate further demand - i.e. that capitalism is sustainable both as a practice and a philosophy.

I doubt the preservation of either and the energy and resources curve is connecting its ends into a finite loop, set at an elastic limit bent only now in contraction. I have dismissed the hydrogen economy in the immediate term, and since that is defined by plentiful energy which will not be available in the later term, (even beyond a few decades), it isn't going to happen, at least not on the scale of the crude oil economy and there rests the crux of the problem. Algae at least can be grown, with sufficient engineering, on a large scale that does not require prime crop land in competition with growing food crops (as rules out conventional biofuel strategies beyond grants from governments and the European Union), and there is no demand for freshwater since saline water does even better to promote the growth of certain highly oil-yielding strains.

Algae can be fed from waste-streams of CO2 from fossil-fuel power stations as a carbon elimination strategy and can also decontaminate groundwater, so there is a potential mix of environmental solutions in aid of a common goal of fuel beyond oil. That said, it is going to take years, and the sooner we get going the better. I have argued before that the best use of algal technology is to sustain smaller settlements of perhaps a few thousand grown in a "village pond" and processed for local use. There is still no means to maintaining global transportation and globalisation in the absence of cheap oil, and the time limit for this gargantuan and conceptual change is perhaps a decade.

Related Reading.
(1) "Algae fuel propels a brave new world,"By Dominic Rusche: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article6823231.ece
(2) "Commercial green fuel still years away," By Laura Isensee: http://www.reuters.com/article/GCA-GreenBusiness/idUSTRE5975OT20091008

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Is There an Extra Half-Trillion Barrels of Oil?

It is claimed that there may be an extra half-trillion barrels of oil than was formerly reckoned, but even if there is, does it really matter? Dr Marcio Mello presented an analysis at the Denver ASPO conference that there may be 500 billion (half-trillion) barrels worth of oil in the sub-salt basins on the margins of the South Atlantic Ocean. The discovery of "diamondoid" structures in oil found at shallow depths in Brazil suggests that a mixing occurs of two types of petroleum, one of which had formed at great depths, below the salt layer that blankets the basin.

I recall, in writing previously about the Tupi field in the Brazilian Santos Basin, that one of the problems attendant to extracting oil from there was the need to drill through the salt, which was over a mile thick, and hot enough that it had semi-plastic properties, which meant that there was a tendency for the hole to close should the bit be withdrawn for any reason. It is also necessary to drill in substantial depths of water and through rock layers too, that act as the "bread" in a salt sandwich, both of considerable thickness too.

The Tupi field is enclosed in a reservoir of limestone at depths of around 6 km, and beneath a salt layer of around 2 km in thickness. It would not normally be expected for oil to exist there as at such depths it would be too hot, but due to a geological effect of deep water and the high thermal conductivity of salt, the temperature is lower than it would otherwise be.

Dr Mello reckoned that overall there may be another 500 billion barrels of oil down there, although there are questions of EROEI and cost of a barrel of oil. Most likely these fields will eventually be developed but the cost of a barrel of oil so derived will be very high, and so this "find" is not the cheap oil the world needs to maintain its energy status quo, but is the stuff of specialist applications for a world which is by then sorely short of oil, given that it is not expected that the Santos Basin will yield significant oil before 2020.

Related Reading.
"Half a trillion barrels more," By Euan Mearns. http://thepildrum.com/node/5867

Friday, October 16, 2009

"The Not-So Sweet Truth of Sugar Fuel."

The title is that of the headline in today's "getreading" local newspaper. The latter aptly refers not only to the assimilation of information by the process reading, but also to the town of Reading, across the River Thames from the village of Caversham where I live in south east England, where today one can read about Reading Council's efforts to run its local bus-fleet on biofuels. The article claims that council bosses are left with red faces because said buses were not, as proudly claimed, being run on bioethanol produced "from sugar beet from Norfolk", but rather from wood pulp imported from Sweden, which it must be admitted is rather further afield.

To compound the issue, the council has told the Reading Transport Board (who run Reading Buses) that the bioethanol fuelled buses will be switched to run on biodiesel in view of "the high price of the inefficient bio-ethanol fuel." The article continues to say that, "although bio-ethanol fuel is only 2.61% more expensive than bio-diesel, the bio-ethanol powered buses are a staggering 44.5% less fuel-efficient. This makes them twice as expensive to run than a bio-diesel bus."

"The bus fuel bill is expected to drop from £390,000 a year to £226,000 after the fuel conversion."

Transport spokesman and conservative councillor Richard Willis commented on his blog yesterday: "I suspect this won't exactly help Reading Transport's chances of winning an innovative award on 12 November for the introduction of bio-ethanol buses."

Which is a shame if they have simply been misinformed, "but by whom?", is the question being robustly asked by all political sides.

Related Reading.
"The not-so sweet truth of sugar fuel," By Linda Fort, Chief Reporter: getreading.co.uk.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

UK "in with Europe" to Turn Waste into Energy.

The European Union has a major drive to turn all kinds of waste into energy, particularly from biogas. There are two main incentives for this, the first being the geological feature that natural gas is in finite supply and world production of it is expected to peak within the next few decades, and secondly that burning fossil carbon contributes to the atmospheric concentration of CO2, which some believe will cause global warming and climate change. To address either issue, finding a renewable (non-fossil) source of methane is encouraged.

The claims over how important biogas could be to help secure Britain's energy future are certainly extravagant, and Mark Fairbairn from the National Grid thinks that it could provide for half the country's gas by 2050 in substitution for natural gas [1]. Given that the UK gas consumption is around 103 billion cubic metres [2] of natural gas annually (i.e. around 3.6 trillion cubic feet, tcf) 50-odd billion m^3 (1.8 tcf) of biogas would need to be produced per year to meet this projection. This, roughly (assuming that 6,000 cubic feet of natural gas has an energy equivalence of one barrel of oil) amounts to an equivalent of 300 million barrels or 41 million tonnes of oil. That does sound rather a tall order - to put it mildly.

In Germany biogas is already being fed into into the national gas grid and in Sweden and Spain, vehicles including buses are run on biogas, but they still use an awful lot of oil overall and most of the small number of gas-powered vehicles are run on petroleum-gas. In Yerevan, Armenia, where I was last May, I noticed buses and lorries resplendent with rusty-looking cylinders of gas as their fuel supply, which is more cheaply obtained than liquid fuels, but I emphasise that it is petroleum gas (mainly propane and butane) that is used there and not biogas.

Also in Germany, there are aerobic digesters which are fed by maize (corn) rather than waste and so the same argument would arise over growing crops for fuel or for food as applies to biodiesel production and must ring an eventual death-knell for both biodiesel and biogas, if the latter is made from food too. It is ridiculous to compromise indigenous food-production in any nation, since all nations will find it increasingly untenable to import food on the vast scale most currently do, in the absence of cheap oil or gas.

It is true that a small amount of biogas is produced from landfill and sewage and used for energy in the U.K., but it is anticipated that "new incentives" (i.e. forms of financial encouragement; tax-breaks maybe?) will mean that this kind of conversion of waste into fuel would find more extensive applications, including the use of compressed biogas for transport. It sounds great but I question the usual scale-up and engineering required to inaugurate a huge infrastructure based on biogas. In my opinion, like solar energy, the greatest opportunity for the technology is in providing energy for small communities rather than as some attempt to preserve the energy status quo, which is simply unsustainable without fossil fuels, including gas.

Related Reading.
[1] "UK joins European drive to make energy from waste." By Gerard Wynn. http://www.reuters.com/article/GCA-GreenBusiness/idUSTRE5981HY20091009
[2] http://europe.theoildrum.com/story/2006/4/7/192346/7389

Thursday, October 08, 2009

U.K. Government Told: "Peak Oil in 10 Years".

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has issued a report in which it is stated that there is a "significant risk" that world oil production will reach its peak and then fall into terminal decline - i.e. "peak oil". The report further urges, quite logically, that the price of oil and hence fuel will rise and become more volatile and so one might expect will the world economy, given its inextricable underpinning by the price of oil.

The UKERC states that oil provides one third of the total energy used in the world - in fact it is nearer two fifths, at 38% - and that major discoveries such as those by BP in the Gulf of Mexico and by Petrobras in Brazil would only delay the peak by a matter of days of weeks. Well, that's what I've been on about for the past 3 years, and so have many others, but it's nuce to think that the government is being told the story and one can hope that it might act upon this information.

It is of course highly misleading to speak of oil and providing one third of total energy since it does this in a very specific and difficultly replacable fashion. Namely, that oil provides liquid fuels and thus powers practically all of the world's transportation. Without cheap oil, the global ecomony is doomed. Thus any practical action by the British or other governments must be that of inaugurating an infrastructure to feed and run nations as oil becomes a relentlessly rarer commodity.

Related Reading.
"Oil will peak in 10 years, Government warned." By Robin Pagnamenta. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article6865557.ece

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

British-Norwegian Power Link.

An undersea power link is to be established between Britain and Norway at a cost of around £1 billion. Norway generates almost its entire electricity production using hydropower while the U.K. are planning more wind farms. Establishing a power cable between the two countries could help to smooth-out intermittencies that are an integral feature of producing electricity by renewable means such as wind-power, whereby Norway supplies electricity to Britain when necessary but gets it back again on windy days.

The state electricity company, Statkraft, said the cable would stretch 465 miles across the North Sea to Britain from southern Norway making it the longest undersea power cable in the world.

There is already a link with France from Britain and another currently under construction with the Netherlands. When river levels fell last year with the result that France closed 14 of its nuclear reactors, some of the consequent shortfall in French electricity was met by electricity from the U.K.

The British government is anticipating an increase of wind-energy to meet its target of making 15% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. That said, back-up systems are necessary to provide power when the wind is not so strong, mostly generated from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, but many of these power stations are due to be closed over the next few decades.

The exact details and timing of the project are a matter of negotiation but it does look like an extension of a European power grid concept which if large enough could absorb many of the hit-and-miss power output from renewable resources. There is a large installation called Desertec aimed at producing solar energy in north Africa and bringing that to southern Europe, which could provide it is thought up to 25% of Europe's electricity. Perhaps the future of continental electricity production will be made on a Europe-wide scale, but this still does not solve the problem of supplanting liquid fuels, to replace those currently derived from oil.

Related Reading.
"National Grid plans world's longest underwater power cable between Britain and Norway," By Rowena Mason. http://www.newsonfeeds.com/article/10368323/National%20Grid%20plans%20world%27s%20longest%20underwater%20power%20cable%20between%20Britain%20and%20Norway

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

British Wheat Surplus Consumed to Make Bioethanol.

A bioethanol plant at Wilton (originally the home of the I.C.I. Advanced Materials Centre, and now a science park for a range of companies with similar interests) will consume one tenth of the U.K.'s home-grown wheat crop which is above the national surplus. 450 Million litres of bioethanol will be produced annually from 1.2 million tonnes of wheat. Since the U.K. wheat harvest ranges between 12 million and close to 14 million tonnes, the U.K.'s wheat surplus amounts to between half a million and three million tonnes, which goes for export. The demand by this Ensus plant and another refinery of similar size being built in Hull by B.P. means that our wheat exports will be nil.

Indeed it may be necessary to import wheat given that the combined demand from these plants will be around 2.3 million tonnes of it.

As the effect of peak oil becomes evident and fuel prices first rise in the face of imminent actual fuel shortages, surely it makes sense to grow as much of our food at home as proves possible, which amounts to only 60% at present, the rest being imported, rather than turning a food crop over to fuel production. And in regard to the latter, if the two plants produce say 900 million litres of ethanol per year, which is the energy equivalent of 630 million litres of hydrocarbon fuel, or 500,000 tonnes of it, this is less than 1% of the U.K.'s current fuel demand as is currently met from crude oil.

Related Reading.
"Hunger for biofuels will gobble up wheat surplus," By Robin Pagnamenta. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article6860936.ece#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=1185799