R-Squared Energy Blog

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A Massive Decline in Carbon Emissions?

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay that ultimately turned out to be very controversial:

Why We Will Never Address Global Warming

That same essay published at The Oil Drum received 560 comments, and was until recently the most-commented upon post in The Oil Drum’s history. Global Warming/Climate Change is a topic that people get very emotional about, and the idea that I claimed that we would never address it didn’t sit well with a lot of people.

Now I know that I have some global warming skeptics here. And I have said many times that I am fine with that, but I don’t want to engage in that debate for multiple reasons. And in the hopes that I can focusing this essay, let me say what I really mean: We won’t stop rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. If you want to argue that increasing carbon dioxide is not resulting in climate change, fine. But I think we can all agree that carbon dioxide concentrations are steadily increasing in the atmosphere. In fact, one of the key monitoring stations is here in Hawaii at Mauna Loa, which I can see clearly from my house.

The reason I don’t believe we will stop accumulating carbon emissions is that this is a global issue, and people around the world are going to generally gravitate to the cheapest source of fuel they can find. So, many of the world’s countries can sign a well-intentioned protocol in Kyoto, but then China plans 562 new coal-fired power plants. Carbon emissions continue unabated, despite Kyoto.

This week I saw a new article by Lester Brown – author of the “Plan B” series, the most recently published version of which is Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. In his article, Brown observed that the U.S. has had major reductions in carbon emissions:

U.S. headed for massive decline in carbon emissions

For years now, many members of Congress have insisted that cutting carbon emissions was difficult, if not impossible. It is not. During the two years since 2007, carbon emissions have dropped 9 percent. While part of this drop is from the recession, part of it is also from efficiency gains and from replacing coal with natural gas, wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The U.S. has ended a century of rising carbon emissions and has now entered a new energy era, one of declining emissions. Peak carbon is now history. What had appeared to be hopelessly difficult is happening at amazing speed.

For a country where oil and coal use have been growing for more than a century, the fall since 2007 is startling. In 2008, oil use dropped 5 percent, coal 1 percent, and carbon emissions by 3 percent. Estimates for 2009, based on U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) data for the first nine months, show oil use down by another 5 percent. Coal is set to fall by 10 percent. Carbon emissions from burning all fossil fuels dropped 9 percent over the two years.

All of that may very well be correct. But China and India continued to build new coal plants. Demand for oil around the world remained high. And the result so far is that the monitoring station on Mauna Loa shows absolutely no sign that global carbon emissions have been impacted by this sharp drop in U.S. emissions. In fact, the most recent measurements show the highest atmospheric concentrations that the observatory has ever measured:

This is one of the reasons I have never focused my time on carbon emissions. I just can’t see that anything the U.S. does or that I can advocate is going to really impact global emissions. Sure, we may reduce our carbon emissions in the U.S. But there is a long line of countries waiting to use that fossil energy that we don’t use. So I think the best we could hope for is to slow the accumulation rate. But I think the atmospheric concentration will continue to rise until fossil fuels start to run out. That’s the only thing I think will permanently rein in carbon emissions.

Let me be clear that this has nothing to do with what I would like to see happen. The reason the essay was so controversial at The Oil Drum was because some people perceived my attitude as “I don’t care about climate change.” That’s not it. This is just the way I see things playing out.

I have instead chosen to focus my efforts on changing the forms of energy we use. There is of course some synergy with those who are working to reduce carbon emissions. We both would like to see expanded use of alternative energy. For me, this is about energy security. Increasing the locally produced energy should help insulate against future energy shocks. This would also reduce localized carbon emissions.

But I don’t expect this to impact the global carbon emissions picture. If that was my goal, I think I would be very frustrated by that Mauna Loa graph. I see no reason to believe that picture will change in the next few years. But I am optimistic that we can continue to develop some alternative energy options that enhance energy security for specific locations that have limited fossil fuel resources. I think those countries with ample fossil fuel resources will continue to burn them, though, which is why I think the focus on carbon emissions is ultimately futile.

October 16, 2009 Posted by | carbon sequestration, climate change, global warming, greenhouse gases | 49 Comments

Fuel from Air?

One thing we seem to have in limitless supply is gullibility. You may have seen the story sweeping through the energy circles of the Web:

Federal Lab Says It Can Harvest Fuel From Air

We love the painless technological solution. “This solves Global Warming AND produces carbon neutral fuel!” I talk to people all the time who say, in reference to our energy and environmental problems, “They will figure something out.” So along comes a story like this, and the layman reads the headlines and breathes a sigh of relief. We can make fuel from thin air. This must be even better than cars that run on water or cold fusion.

So what’s the deal? Here is an explanation from the linked article:

In the category of things that sound so good they have to be checked out more thoroughly (so stay tuned) is this news out of Los Alamos National Laboratory:

Scientists there say they have developed a way to produce truly carbon-neutral fuel and useful organic chemicals at large scale using water and carbon dioxide removed from the air as raw materials. There are plenty of schemes brewing to capture carbon dioxide, both directly from the atmosphere and from the stacks of power plants. All of them, for the moment, are costly or hard to envision at the billion-tons-a-year scale that would be needed to blunt the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere coming mainly from fuel burning.

I like to think I check things out thoroughly, and I try to approach things realistically. I consider myself to be a realistic optimist. It has nothing to do with being a naysayer, it is all about understanding basic science and engineering and knowing what’s likely, what isn’t, and what simply violates physical laws. So, is this pie-in-the-sky or a serious candidate for an energy solution?

Let’s take a critical look. First, details are sketchy (aren’t they always?). They are supposed to be released next week:

Details on the Los Alamos approach will come next week when Dr. Martin gives a presentation at a government and industry meeting, Alternative Energy Now, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The conference, held at a resort for military personnel, is sponsored mainly by the U.S. Air Force.

Let’s be perfectly clear. Could you produce fuel out of carbon dioxide and water? Sure you can – with massive energy inputs. You can’t get around the chemistry. When you burn something like natural gas, oil, coal, or just about anything organic – you get carbon dioxide and water. The amount of energy to turn it back into fuel is greater than the energy that was released in the first place. That is a fundamental law of thermodynamics.

As a simple illustrative example, let’s say I burned a quantity of natural gas and it released 10 BTUs per the following reaction: CH4 + 2 O2 = CO2 + 2 H20. Then to reverse that reaction is going to take more than 10 BTUs, and potentially a lot more. So where is this energy going to come from? Why, nuclear reactors of course:

This plan has a minor hurdle, too; the electricity for driving the chemical processes, according to a white paper describing the overarching concept, would come from nuclear power.

That’s more than a minor hurdle. If the fuel takes more energy to produce than it contains – and the laws of chemistry are against you in this case – then you have to ask whether there is a better use of that energy. If (for instance) I take 20 BTUs of nuclear energy to produce 10 BTUs of liquid fuel – was there a better end use for that nuclear energy? How about putting those 20 BTUs into an electric car, which has a much greater efficiency than an internal combustion engine? That is a much better net than the wasteful route of turning it into liquid fuel.

Make no mistake, technical feasibility is certainly there. Likewise, I can technically run a car off of water, or make fuel out of dirt. I could mine Titan for hydrocarbons. I could even build a colony on the moon or at the bottom of the ocean as a “solution” to overpopulation. These are things that one could technically do. That doesn’t mean any of them make sense.

That’s what I would say about this proposal. Unless they have figured out a way to violate the laws of chemistry, there is no free lunch. If you had vast quantities of cheap electricity, then sure, you could do it. But in that case why not just use the electricity directly?

Conclusion: The proponents have gotten way ahead of themselves, and I have yet to see anyone point out the basic fact regarding the energy balance: It will necessarily be a net consumer of energy, not an energy producer.

One other thing:

As described in a news release by Mr. Martin, it sounds like a possible candidate for Richard Branson’s $25 million carbon-capturing prize:

“Our concept enhances U.S. energy and material security by reducing dependence on imported oil. Initial system and economic analyses indicate that the prices of Green Freedom commodities would be either comparable to the current market or competitive with those of other carbon-neutral, alternative technologies currently being considered.”

First, you would be trading dependence on imported oil for dependence on imported uranium. Again, no free lunch. Second, I know someone else who has a much stronger case for Branson’s prize. 😉

April 16, 2008 Posted by | Argonne, carbon sequestration, electric cars, global warming, technology | 29 Comments

Winner: Sustainable Production Technology

As I have mentioned before, I am not going to use this blog to promote my new company. I have said very little about it to this point, but I intend to write one post explaining in detail what we do. I do think we have the best (the only?) commercial carbon sequestration technology, and I wanted to highlight that this week we won a national award in the Netherlands for Sustainable Production Technology:

Titan Wood Wins Prestigious National Awards for Sustainable Production Technology and Innovation

Titan Wood is the wholly owned subsidiary of Accsys Technologies that makes Accoya®. Here is the news release:

Titan Wood Limited (“Titan Wood”), has won the overall Dutch National Award for Sustainability Innovation – “The Columbus Egg” http://www.ei-van-columbus.nl/ – with its pioneering Accoya® wood product. Titan Wood also won in the category of Sustainable Production Technology. Titan Wood will now be entered into the European Business Awards for the Environment (EBAE) contest where winners will be announced during “Green Week 2008” the first week of June.

This year’s awards were opened by the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, and are granted by the Dutch Government bi-annually to reward sustainability innovation in the Netherlands.

Wim Quik, one of the judges, commented: “Titan Wood’s Accoya® wood modification process is truly innovative. Thanks to this production technology, Accoya® wood has become a real alternative to increasingly scarce tropical timber. The ability to make high performance timber from fast–growing, sustainable species will help to protect threatened species and rainforests. Further advantages are that Accoya® wood can replace less environmentally friendly materials in demanding exterior applications and that it requires less frequent maintenance due to its improved durability and dimensional stability.”

Finlay Morrison, CEO of Titan Wood, added: “These awards recognize Accoya® wood’s innovative nature and its environmental credentials. It is a solid wood product made from certified sustainable sources and has multiple long-term environmental benefits as it is non-toxic, recyclable and acts as a carbon sink. We are enormously proud of the hard work that the Titan Wood team has put into the development of Accoya® wood and appreciate the growing recognition of its benefits.

April 4, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, carbon sequestration, global warming, Titan Wood | 145 Comments

FutureGen Project Stopped

The FutureGen Project, a clean coal demonstration plant that would have included carbon capture and sequestration (and was #8 on My Top Energy Stories of 2007) has been cancelled. The culprit? Cost overruns of about 80%, and a lot of competing projects. It turns out that carbon sequestration isn’t cheap, and the DOE decided the price tag was too high for this project:

U.S. pulls the plug on funding for FutureGen

The Department of Energy on Wednesday officially quashed a $1.8 billion clean-coal project slated for central Illinois, leaving the experimental venture to capture carbon emissions dependent on Congress for survival.

The FutureGen Industrial Alliance was cooperating with the Energy Department to develop a coal-fired power plant designed to gasify and store carbon emissions deep within the Earth, a process known as sequestration. But the Energy Department withdrew its support because of ballooning cost estimates on what was initially supposed to be a $1 billion project.

The surprise move transformed a short-lived celebration after Mattoon, Ill., was selected last month as the plant’s home into a legislative battle, once the Bush administration chose instead to spread funding across multiple facilities planned nationwide.

Carbon sequestration, however, is certainly not off the agenda:

During a conference call Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell said circumstances have changed since the program’s conception in 2003, noting there are 33 applications to build similar coal power plants. Under the new plan, the Energy Department would fund the capture and storage of carbon emissions, while utilities cover the cost of power generation. The Department of Energy estimated the new plants would join the grid starting in 2015.

FutureGen executives were confused by the decision:

Department of Energy officials in April expressed reservations about rising costs, leading to a series of meetings with FutureGen executives that failed to produce a meaningful conclusion. Mudd said his organization does not understand the rationale behind the Energy Department’s announcement, noting that its decision squanders four years spent reviewing the science and regulatory framework in a historically unprecedented effort.

It’s not so hard to understand. When you have huge cost overruns, you run the risk of having your project cancelled. It’s the same in industry. I know it is very easy to underestimate project costs, because I have seen it done again and again. That’s why I always take those claims of “We will produce (ethanol, biodiesel, gasoline) for less than $1/gal” with a big grain of salt.

January 31, 2008 Posted by | carbon sequestration, global warming, greenhouse gases | 417 Comments