Thursday, February 28, 2008

Energy For Tomorrow

What is the answer to the energy question? It seems that no matter what form of energy is being discussed, there are proponents and opponents. The following list is for purposes of discussion. Pick your favorite and discuss why you chose it. Or, pick the ones you wish to vilify.

Nuclear Energy – fission or fusion
Fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, diesel, shale oil
Bio-fuels – corn ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, methane from refuse or bio-mass
Solar – land based and space based, large collector or individual
Wind power
Wave power
Hydrogen fuel
Ocean current generation
Wood or other bio-mass as direct source
Pedal power
Equestrian or other animal power

What have I left off of the list?


E. R. Dunhill said...

Great topic. Another option: Bacterial batteries. This article deals with nanoscale devices, but I've read that others are looking at this for macro-applications.
More from me later.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD, you might find this article interesting. Microbial fuel cells generate electricity from waste.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thanks for the link.
I think one of the central problems with the production and use of energy is that we desire to standardize technologies and centralize production as much as possible. While I agree that there is merit in standardization, we need to rethink what exactly we mean by this and how we accomplish it. Briefly, we need to look at what energy is appropriate to a given need, and technically group like-needs, rather than developing a technology, and shoehorning applications into that standard.
In the same line of reasoning, we need to realize mass-localization in energy production. I’ve written before about the example of the hot water tap, and how much money and energy are spent and wasted in this application. Briefly the chain of events is digging coal a long way away; transporting the coal to a power plant; burning the coal to heat water; water turning a dynamo to generate electricity; electricity traveling along power lines (producing waste heat) to a home; electricity heating a coil in a hot water heater; heater storing (and wasting) heat; finally, dispensing hot water from the tap. This doesn’t account for the energy used to produce all of the different equipment or “meta-energy” (running fleet vehicles at the mine, lights and AC at the plant, &c) used to produce and move all of this energy. Instead, we could recover solar energy on site to heat the water, or install a tankless hot water heater, or any number of other creative applications to minimize the wasteful transport and storage of energy.

E. R. Dunhill said...

…to give due attention to the questions you originally posted:
Nuclear fission is a good stop gap solution, but for most applications suffers from the same problem of a wasteful production/transport/storage lifecycle, one that ends with the long responsibility of managing the waste. Phil Muno, a professor of nuclear engineering at U of Maryland has stated that he believes that fusion will be available for producing energy within a generation. It would be a great source of energy, but doesn’t help us now, and again, would likely use a familiar centralized model. On the whole, but only to a degree, I'm in favor of both.
Petrofuels have a host of problems (see my previous comment), not the least of which is that they may become scarce within 50 years. They had a good run, and we did the best we could with them. Now we think we know better. It’s the time to move on. C’est la vie.
Geothermal/wave/hydroelectric/ocean current have certain niche uses for which they are good solutions. Where these are the best solutions, we should use them, but in many cases there are better, less-invasive options.
Walking/other human power: I think this is hugely undervalued. We build machines to live our lives for us, and then lament that we’re in bad shape and poor health, or have to spend time getting exercise at a gym. Connection?
Solar is super. I can’t think of a single reason that shopping malls and office buildings aren’t covered with either PV cells or heat-recovery systems. Likewise, most homes could also make use of these technologies. Ditto for wind power, where it’s physiographically appropriate.
My bottom line is that we need to be much smarter about matching need to technology, and we need to stop wasting so much energy by moving and converting it.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: You bring to mind a question that I asked when I first heard that ethanol plants would be built in the Texas Panhandle -- particularly Hereford, Texas. Why Hereford? It is because that is where the cattle in feedlots are located that will consume the co-products and because there is already low-cost energy available in the form of natural gas.

That begs the question of why are the feedlots located there. Most of the corn consumed by the cattle in those feedlots is shipped in from the Upper Midwest. There is abundant land, a reasonably mild winter, a reasonably mild, dry summer, adequate though diminishing water, but very few ranches that raise calves. The calves going into those feedlots are shipped in from Central and South Texas and from the Eastern and Southeastern U.S. predominatly.

So, if they're going to have to ship the corn in, why not locate the feedlots where the calves are raised? It gets too hot, there are population pressures and cattle do not finish as efficiently (most gain for the grain) in those hotter climates that do not have cool nights. I know of a feedlot in Arizona that owns its own train. It travels back-and-forth between Kansas City and Arizona hauling corn. Why?

Packing plants are mostly located near the feedlots and then ship boxed beef to the population centers of the coasts. Somewhere in all this is the answer. It is economics pure and simple. The capital flows to the least-cost solution.

The same is true in the energy industry. Until recently, abundant energy sources at low costs prevented the development of solar and other alternative energy technologies. Most power plants are located near population centers because it is more efficient to transport the coal or natural gas to the power plant than to experience the losses of transporting the electricity great distances over transmission lines. Exceptions to this have been hydro-electric plants which must be located where the water is.

Wind generation has created a new problem. The wind is not located where the population centers are. The electricity generated must be carried great distances over the grid. The transmission losses must be evaluated when assessing the viability of the wind projects.

Direct Current lines are slightly more efficient at transporting that power than are the typical Alternating Current of most area-wide grids. Historically DC transmission has been used only for connecting between different company's lines due to phase incompatability between the grids. Who pays for the new grid transmission lines -- the interconnectivity between grids as well as the connectivity of new sources of power? Ultimately it will be the consumer.

The problem is the huge amount of capital investment necessary for the infrastructure. We see the same problem with ethanol infrastructure. One of the greatest limitations today is the lack of rail cars and pipelines for moving the ethanol from the plants to blenders where it can be added to gasoline. Ultimately, it all becomes a problem of economic efficiency. It is complicated however, due to government programs and edicts that influence the flow of capital. We have not yet reached the point of energy cost where most alternative energy sources are viable without that intervention.

Is our government influencing the development of that new technology in the wisest manner? I think that may be one of the most important questions that must be answered.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Energy efficiency is definitely one of the keys but ultimately, it is an economic decision. Most consumers and businesses find it less costly to buy energy from a utility company than to invest in personal sources such as solar and wind. I've been personally evaluating investing in a wind charger for my home. I have adequate wind and land for the installation. The capital outlay versus the lengthy recovery time (considering the opportunity cost of the investment) has so-far made it an economically negative decision. The same goes for solar -- we have sunshine in abundance. I could go off-the-grid if I was willing to lay out the investment to do so. So far, it is not the least-cost alternative for me. At this point if I decided to make the investment, it would be purely to make a "statement." I suppose that I'm a bit pragmatic to spend a lot of money making that statement.

Sue said...

Chris -- you said " It is economics pure and simple. The capital flows to the least-cost solution." But often it's not. Many forms of energy receive substantial subsidies. In Kentucky coal is subsidies ten-ways to Sunday. It's cheap because coal companies do not shoulder many costs of producing coal, the local residents pay those costs, downstream communities pay those costs, and tax payers in Kentucky (roads, bridges, slurry pond disaster clean up) and the U.S. (federal black lung benefits, Social Security disability, for example) as a whole pay those costs. But the primary decision-makers (i.e., the private companies) do not pay the full cost and therefore do not take those costs into consideration. Coal is by no means the only resource that is subsidized. Water certainly is subsidized in some places and not in others, often making it less expensive in the places where it is the most scarce. I was shocked for example to discover that my best friend who lives in Nevada in the middle of a desert pays a fraction of what I pay for water (and doesn't even have a water meter), while I live in a place where tons of water falls out of the sky and keeps local reservoirs full with little effort or expense.

If people want the market to make decisions, then the market really does need to make those decisions -- things have to cost what they really cost, so that people can make rational decisions.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: Maybe I should have clarified the difference between "societal cost" and "decision-relevant" costs to the investing entity -- such as the coal company. I further stated that, "It is complicated however, due to government programs and edicts that influence the flow of capital." This complicates the decision-making of the investing entity. Their decision to invest or not to invest is based on potential profit -- not societal cost or benefit. Admittedly, the least-cost scenario is not always the profit-maximizing solution. I should have said, 'When comparing potential investments of capital, the flow of capital is to the profit-maximizing solution, if the market is allowed to operate as designed.'

Societal costs are irrelevant to the decision unless they are addressed through government incentives or edicts.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I agree with the historical reasons for centralization of production of energy (and agriculture). I would also offer that other significant drivers have been a growth-only business model and a period of corporate consolidation. We also can’t discount the externalized environmental and social costs that have made fossil fuels dollar-cost effective.
I think we’re approaching a threshold at which a confluence of consumer demand, competition to deliver technologies, the internalization of externalities, and limitations of the centralized production model make onsite energy generation economically attractive. While there has traditionally been an economic advantage to letting someone else own all of the plant and do all of the work of production and transport, that may not continue to be true for much longer; certainly not in the one-size-fits-all model that we currently use.
I’ve also priced solar systems for my home, both photovoltaic and heat recovery. Wind is simply not an option, here. Like you and many other potential buyers, I’ve found that the high first-costs and limited operational cost savings (or avoidance) don’t yet make sense in terms of dollar costs. Market conditions (or perhaps a reduction in government giveaways to traditional producers) could correct this. I also think that there is a great deal of unrealized potential to organize nearby buyers to realize economy of scale benefits. Part of the solution here will be entrepreneurs who can see the benefits of new ways of doing business.

Progressive said...

I think looking at alternative energy as the choice of one from many may be the wrong way of going about it. I agree with ERD with the threshold idea - it is true there is a confluence of demand occurring, of which (I think) the government could take advantage of to fund new clean energy R&D, though that is another topic.

Otherwise, why isn't energy being thought of on a local scale? No one solution is national in nature, so why can't energy be viewed as a portfolio, of which a locality chooses the one or more that best fits their needs and abilities?

It is like the solar panel debate - you hear detractors say that we would need to cover an enormous area of the southwest with solar panels to meet energy needs, but why can't the southwest convert their own energy demand to solar?

An "all energy is local" campaign needs to be started!