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Answering Questions on OTEC – Part II

This is the second installment responding to reader questions and comments on ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) by Dr. Robert Cohen. Dr. Cohen’s previous entries are:

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion

Potential Markets and Benefits from Ocean Thermal Energy

Answering Questions on OTEC – Part I


Robert Cohen, February 16, 2010

Environmental, Operational, and CO2 Issues

Since the operation of an ocean thermal plant requires the circulation through the plant of a veritable “river of water”, careful design consideration must be given to minimizing effects on the local and downstream temperature distribution with depth. Hence a lot will depend upon how the effluent seawater is discharged following passage of the warm and cold seawater inputs through the evaporators and condensers. Fortunately there is a disincentive for the plant operator to perturb the pre-existing local temperature distribution, since plant economics are greatly improved by maintaining the largest practical temperature difference between the warm seawater and the cold seawater at depth.

Design of the discharge process—i.e., how to discharge the cooled warm water and warmed cold water effluents—can be handled in various ways. For example, by discharging the cooled warm water at a depth corresponding to its new temperature, and by discharging the warmed cold water below the sunlight-affected (phototropic) zone, to prevent formation of algae blooms within that nutrient-rich cold seawater. One of the functions of the pilot plant is to monitor the discharge plumes, compare them to modeling predictions, and allow environmental scientists to assess how the plant interacts with its surroundings.

During the heyday of the federal ocean thermal R&D program, in the 70s and early 80s (prior to public concerns about CO2), a key environmental goal of the federal R&D program on ocean thermal energy was to avoid perturbing the thermal environment of the plant. Accordingly, contracts were awarded to groups at MIT and Cornell to conduct fluid-dynamical modeling studies of water circulation.

Those studies led to another likely way of satisfactorily discharging the seawater effluents to avoid significantly perturbing the thermal environment; namely, to mix the cooled warm water and warmed cold water effluents, then to discharge the mixture at a depth within the thermocline where the ambient temperature matches the resulting temperature of the mixture.

In those modeling studies, global warming and the fate of the CO2 dissolved in the upwelled cold water were not issues of significant concern. But nowadays, avoiding liberation of CO2 to the atmosphere must also be a goal in plant operation, hence future modeling of seawater circulation in connection with the design of ocean thermal plants and plantships will need to consider both temperature and CO2 parameters.

Another important design factor in avoiding CO2 emissions is proper design and operation of the ocean thermal power cycle. According to a study by Green and Guenther (1990), proper use of the “closed” power cycle would probably suppress CO2 emissions, but if the “open” cycle is used to co-produce fresh water, special care must be taken, in the course of degasifying the warm seawater, to avoid liberating CO2 to the atmosphere. It appears that most serious plant designs for multi-megawatt offshore plants are choosing the closed cycle, because the turbines needed for open-cycle operations are too large for those applications.

There is a conjectural possibility that ocean thermal plants and plantships could—in addition to their normal operation, and for a fee—take on the additional task, if feasible, of removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the deep ocean. But the incremental cost of achieving such sequestration would have to be considered and internalized into the plant economics.

Accordingly, one can safely make the qualified assertion that, when and if deep-sea sequestration of CO2 extracted from the atmosphere becomes technically and economically viable, then fleets of ocean thermal plants and plantships will be well-positioned for conducting that additional function, assuming that the incremental cost of doing so can be dealt with. If such sequestration were to become a realistic option, then ocean thermal technology may be in a position to win the Branson Virgin Earth Challenge Prize for removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

There has long been interest in using for mariculture (of plants or animals) the artificial, nutrient-laden, cold-water upwelling associated with the operation of ocean thermal plants. Such mariculture would utilize for fertilizer the nutrients (phosphates, nitrates, and CO2) dissolved in the upwelled cold water. But nowadays the potential viability of this co-product application would need to be reexamined, in view of the possibility that an open-ocean mariculture operation, as an adjunct to normal plant operation, could result in liberating some of the CO2 contained in the cold water into the atmosphere. Furthermore, although kelp plants, for example, fare well in a cold-water environment, conducting an open-ocean mariculture operation near the surface could result in reducing the temperature of the warm surface water fueling the ocean thermal plant, hence make the two activities incompatible.

Besides the above thermal and CO2 considerations, there are many other environmental aspects of operating ocean thermal plants and plantships. Numerous studies have been conducted regarding possible environmental impacts of ocean thermal power plants, such as: impingement and entrainment of marine organisms; possible discharges of CO2, biocides, corrosion products and working fluids; and artificial reef, nesting, and migration aspects. Those studies indicated that such potential impacts can be satisfactorily dealt with. For example, see a 1990 report by Green and Guenther, and a 1986 study report by Myers et al. The latter, conducted by researchers at NOAA and Argonne National Laboratory for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of NOAA, is available at this URL.

Those studies probably need updating today, in view of growing concerns about global warming. In particular, further R&D will be desirable on how to avoid liberating CO2 from ocean thermal plants, and for modeling various environmental aspects of operating a fleet of ocean thermal power plants and plantships.

Despite the absence of updated studies in these areas, conjectures are being made, often without much basis, as to what environmental effects might occur as a consequence of large-scale implementation of ocean thermal energy extraction. For example, forecasts are being made regarding how much electrical power can ultimately be extracted from the vast available ocean thermal resource. It is my contention that—in the absence of hard data resulting from significant operational experience with commercial ocean thermal plants—it is currently premature to forecast likely environmental impacts or make valid quantitative forecasts of total recoverable power.

As deployment of this technology proceeds, it will be important for the environmental community to develop the modeling tools needed to forecast possible environmental effects. The adaptation of existing finite-element modeling tools is underway for applying them to the pilot plant. As part of the procedures for satisfying the NOAA licensing requirements for siting, building, and operating the pilot plant, there will probably be a year of preliminary environmental monitoring at the proposed site off Hawaii, followed by a second year to validate those measurements, compare them with modeling results, and exclude any anomalies.

The next step will be to model an array of commercial plants located around markets such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Florida. Finally, as more plants are placed in operation, global models will be needed to assess any concerns about large global ocean currents. As a fleet of ocean thermal plants and plantships emerges, data will become available to validate models and assumptions, and the parameters needed for such forecasting will start becoming available.

Much will depend upon how these plants and plantships are developed, deployed, and operated—such as how their effluent seawater is discharged—and upon the degree of implementation of this technology. Those details will evolve with time and are presently rather unpredictable, since there are too many parameters, imponderables, and unknowns to reach valid conclusions in these areas.

The evolution of ocean thermal technology from a concept to a commercial reality will probably proceed cautiously and gradually at first, then accelerate. During the initial phases of that process—sort of a shakedown cruise—much will be learned operationally about how to properly handle the seawater intakes and effluents, among other environmental aspects. And, during that gradual commercial introduction of the technology, licensing requirements ought to cautiously ensure that these early plants be operated responsibly.

By the time fleets of plants and plantships are deployed, operational experience will inform their environmental design and operation. Public Law 96-310 assigned to NOAA the responsibility for licensing the operation of ocean thermal plants and plantships. Presumably EPA will also participate in this process. Recently there have been numerous meetings between the NOAA licensing team and the LM engineering team regarding licensing, and it was NOAA that initiated the technology-readiness workshop cited above. NOAA is planning another such workshop, focused on addressing environmental issues, for the summer of 2010.

Engineering Requirements and Challenges

There are various technical requirements for constructing and operating ocean thermal power plant systems, some of which pose significant engineering challenges that must be surmounted in order to achieve the commercial viability of ocean thermal systems. System requirements include ocean engineering of the platform and its external attachments, and power engineering internal to the platform. And the system solutions to all technical and environmental requirements must be achievable at a reasonable total capital cost for the system, so that, when amortized over the plant’s lifetime, the system will provide products whose costs can be competitive in the marketplace.

One of the reasons why the successful operation of a multi-megawatt pilot plant will be a critically important step in making the transition to a first-of-a-kind commercial power plant is that it will provide a capability to assess the impacts of seawater circulation and to validate analytical circulation-modeling studies.

Building and testing a pilot plant prior to designing and constructing a commercial plant is a standard, prudent industrial practice aimed at reducing risks when making the transition from any engineering concept to a commercial reality. In the case of ocean thermal, assembling the components and subsystems into a pilot-plant working system prior to making a major investment in a commercial plant can build confidence in the viability of the concept by demonstrating that it is practical at a multi-megawatt scale and by solving any unanticipated problems that emerge. Operational data and experience obtained from successful operation of a pilot plant will provide invaluable cost, environmental, and engineering-design Inputs for moving to a commercial-size plant.

Ocean engineering requirements and challenges that must be successfully surmounted in achieving commercially viable ocean thermal power plants include:

• Designing and deploying large-diameter, kilometer-long cold water pipes (CWPs)
• Flexible, detachable coupling of the CWP to the platform
• Tolerance of the CWP to vibrations caused by vortex shedding
• Detachable mooring (or dynamic positioning) of ocean thermal power plants for stationkeeping in depths equaling or exceeding a kilometer
• Operability in storms, and survivability in severe storms and hurricanes

Similarly, means must be developed for satisfactorily connecting submarine electrical cables to ocean thermal power plants, and those cables will need to be durable and capable of transmitting power to shore from large distances at a reasonable cost and with minimal power attenuation. For plantships grazing on the high seas, the stationkeeping requirement is relaxed compared to the stationkeeping requirement—usually mooring—for plants cabling electricity to shore.

Some CWP failures during deployment have historically occurred in the course of ocean thermal experiments, yet many CWPs have been deployed successfully in the past forty years. However, the CWP diameters required for large, multi-megawatt ocean thermal plants will considerably exceed those of similar pipes that have been successfully deployed at sub-megawatt power levels, largely as intakes for seawater-cooling or lake-water-cooling installations.

In 2008 DOE awarded LM a cost-shared, multi-year R&D coöperative agreement aimed at demonstrating technology for designing and deploying a CWP made of composite material. The LM technique is to fabricate sections of the CWP aboard the platform, then to assemble and deploy them as they are manufactured. LM is developing approaches for coupling the CWP to the ocean platform, as part of the NAVFAC contract mentioned here earlier.

To meet power-engineering requirements, design of the heat exchangers must address biofouling, the buildup of a layer of ocean organisms on surfaces exposed to seawater. Formation of such a slime film on the heat exchanger surfaces inhibits heat transfer, hence prevention or removal of biofouling deposits is required.

Similarly, the corrosion of the heat exchanger surfaces would inhibit heat transfer and must be avoided. In view of their lower costs and greater availability, aluminum alloys that can resist seawater corrosion are attractive candidate materials in comparison to titanium alloys.

Open-ocean testing of the biofouling of candidate heat exchangers rated at 1 MWe was conducted aboard OTEC-1, the test facility for ocean thermal system components. As part of those tests, biofouling was controlled (Gavin & Kuzay, 1981) primarily by chlorination; i.e., injection of chlorine into the evaporator and condenser. The rate of intermittent injection was 0.4 mg per liter during one hour out of each 24-hour period that the seawater systems were in operation.

Even with stringent environmental regulations, it is anticipated that chlorination levels in the discharge can be designed so as to comply with those regulations. Indeed, use of intermittent chlorination within EPA standards has already proved successful in controlling biofouling in the condensers used in conventional coastal power plants, hence that technique is a likely means for performing the same function in ocean thermal plants.

Fortunately, during the 28-year lapse since DOE ocean-thermal R&D funding began to be curtailed in 1981, the offshore oil industry has made some remarkable technological advancements in designing and operating ocean structures, much of which will be relevant to the above technical requirements for ocean thermal systems. Consequently, many of the perceived and actual risks of moving forward today have been considerably reduced, thanks to the innovations and experience of that industry. At the annual Offshore Technology Conference held in Houston in 2009, a panel session reviewing the status of ocean thermal technology was attended by some key people from the offshore oil industry.

These events were foreshadowed years ago by Derrington, 1979; Clare, 1981; and Wortman, 1981, who observed that much of the technology developed for the offshore petroleum industry will be transferable to the construction, deployment, and operation of ocean thermal systems.

Efficiency and Cost Considerations for Generating Electricity

There is a basic question as to whether the above engineering requirements for ocean thermal power systems can be achieved at a system capital cost that will provide baseload power that is cost-competitive with other sources of electricity. For ocean thermal power systems, it is clear that, because of the low net conversion efficiency, lots of capital equipment will be required to circulate a “river of water” past extensive expanses of heat exchanger surfaces.

Practical realization of an ocean thermal plant requires a physical configuration of heat exchangers, turbines, generators, pumps, and other hardware, such as a startup engine. The plant will probably be comprised of multiple power modules, whose condensers are served by a single cold water pipe.

Engineers familiar with conventional power systems that generate electricity by the combustion of fossil fuels are accustomed to dealing with conversion efficiencies of at least 30%. Hence they find it difficult to grasp that an ocean thermal power system can be viable at a net efficiency much smaller than that.

For ocean thermal power plants, typical operating ∆T’s project theoretical (Carnot) efficiencies of about 6 or 7%, while their achievable net efficiency will be about one-third of theoretical. There are two reasons for this reduction:

1) The gross power generated will be less than the theoretical target because there is some loss of temperature across the walls of the extensive areas of heat exchangers.

2) The net power output from the plant will be less than the gross power generated because there is a need for operational “housekeeping” power, mainly used to power the pumps that circulate these large volumes of seawater.

The considerable pumping power required will be used for 1) pushing seawater against the drag experienced when it flows through the heat exchangers, and 2) for moving seawater through the cold water pipe, the warm water pipe, and the seawater-effluent pipes. Some pumping power will be used to move the ammonia working fluid from the condensers to the evaporators.

The pumping power required to lift the water through the kilometer-long cold water pipe is lower than what one might anticipate. That is because, thanks to buoyancy, the pumping power actually required for that purpose is only that needed to accelerate the cold seawater, compensate for its density gradient, and counter the drag experienced alongside the CWP’s walls.

To minimize drag losses alongside the CWP walls, it is evidently desirable to employ a single CWP rather than to have multiple CWPs. One can also draw the conclusion that the CWP is a plant component amenable to an economy of scale (up to a point) as plant size and the diameter of the CWP are increased.

Granted that it will be important for ocean thermal power systems to operate at maximum/optimum efficiency, there are two reasons why focusing solely on efficiency can be diversionary or misleading when it comes to analyzing and comparing power-plant economics:

1) Net conversion efficiency is not the economic bottom line, which is energy cost, the cost of the plant’s output electricity per kWh.

2) The life-cycle energy cost of a power plant is the sum of three components: the plant’s fuel cost, O&M cost, and amortized capital cost.

For power generation from renewable energy sources, the fuel cost is zero, but the capital cost of those systems tends to be relatively high compared to a fuel-consuming plant. For power plants that burn oil, the fuel-cost component nowadays tends to be high, and is likely to increase, while their capital cost continues to be relatively low compared to that of power plants employing renewable energy.


Clare, R., 1981, in Proceedings, Eighth Ocean Energy Conference (ed. E.M. MacCutcheon)

Derrington, J., 1979, in Proceedings, Sixth Ocean Energy Conference (ed. G.L. Dugger)

Gavin, A. P. & T. M. Kuzay, 1981, 0TEC-1 power system test program: biofouling and corrosion monitoring on 0TEC-1. Argonne National Laboratory

Green, H.J. and P.R. Guenther, 1990, Carbon dioxide release from OTEC cycles, Solar Energy Research Institute report TP-253-3594

Myers, E.P. et al., 1986, The potential impact of ocean thermal energy conversion (0TEC) on fisheries, NOAA Technical Report NMFS 40—Available at URL http://spo.nwr.noaa.gov/tr40opt.pdf

Wortman, E.J., 1981, in Proceedings, Eighth Ocean Energy Conference (ed. E.M. MacCutcheon)

February 22, 2010 Posted by | global warming, guest post, ocean thermal energy conversion, otec, Robert Cohen | Comments Off on Answering Questions on OTEC – Part II

Answering Questions on OTEC – Part I

Dr. Robert Cohen has been involved in ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) since the early 1970’s. He has posted two guest essays here previously:

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion

Potential Markets and Benefits from Ocean Thermal Energy

Following both essays, a number of questions and concerns were raised, so I asked Dr. Cohen if he would respond. He has written me a thoughtful and detailed response, and I will present it here in two parts.

Dr. Cohen also has a website with more information on OTEC. His contact information is available there. Part I is a general commentary on history, current status, and the projections for cost and a market-entry outlook. Part II will delve deeper into the engineering and environmental questions that were raised.



Robert Cohen, February 16, 2010


Numerous comments were posted on this blog in response to my two previous postings here regarding ocean thermal energy. Those comments raised various issues and concerns regarding the implementation of ocean thermal energy technology. This posting is an effort to provide some perspective on the status of ocean thermal technology, written with the intention of addressing the points people raised in their comments.

The postings by viewers tended to fall into several categories, which I shall group as follows:

  • Possible environmental impacts of plant operation on the ocean, including those on parameters such as temperature and CO2-concentrations
  • Technical and economic requirements, challenges, and hurdles for ocean thermal technology to become a commercial reality
  • System conversion efficiency and system energy costs

My Perspectives on Ocean Thermal Energy Technology

Since being assigned by NSF in 1973 to serve as the first ocean thermal program manager, charged with organizing and conducting a concerted federal R&D program on ocean thermal energy, my tentative outlook has been, and continues to be, that of a cautiously optimistic advocate of this technology. Informed by my experience since then, I have yet to encounter a demonstrable or foreseeable “show-stopper” in the technical, environmental, or economic areas that would preclude the achievement of economically/technically viable and environmentally acceptable technology for harnessing ocean thermal energy.

In the mid-1970s my outlook was first bolstered by two federally sponsored industrial studies that resulted from contracts awarded to Lockheed and TRW. After conducting an engineering evaluation, both firms independently concluded that ocean thermal technology had good prospects for achieving technical and economic viability. By “economic viability” I believe that we all mean that baseload ocean thermal power systems could become cost-competitive, at least versus oil-derived electricity.

Now, some 35 years later, both Lockheed Martin (LM) and the U.S. Navy seem to have reached similar tentative conclusions about today’s outlook for this technology.

Starting around 2007, LM began rebuilding its ocean thermal engineering team by annually investing millions of dollars of its own discretionary internal R&D funds, and is continuing to make such investments. The LM team’s effort is focused on developing the design of a multi-megawatt power plant for operation off Hawaii, successful operation of which can lead to prompt design and construction of a first-of-a-kind 100 MWe commercial plant. LM regards the latter as likely to be cost-competitive in markets like Hawaii that presently rely on oil-derived electricity. Some company perspective on LM’s effort is stated at this URL.

Recently the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), which is responsible for naval-base infrastructure, competitively awarded an $8.1 M contract to the LM team. That award is for technical activities aimed at reducing overall system and developmental risks for critical subsystems and components, and at maturing a pilot-plant design. The Navy has a long-term interest in helping foster the commercialization of ocean thermal technology, achievement of which would enable it to purchase, at cost-effective rates, ocean-thermal-derived electricity and fresh water from privately developed facilities at U.S. military bases located in places like Hawaii, Guam, and Diego García.

In an effort to help call attention to what harnessing ocean thermal energy can do to help mitigate global warming, I posted some information on the Copenhagen Climate Council Web site, which can be accessed via URL here. A set of slides addressing various facets of ocean thermal energy can be downloaded there. Those slides summarize many of the technical, economic, and environmental aspects of the issues raised here.

A November 2009 workshop was convened and hosted by the NOAA people who are charged under U.S. law with licensing ocean thermal plants. That workshop was specifically aimed at exploring the technical readiness of ocean thermal energy technology, and it is my understanding that the technology received high grades there. The workshop is summarized on this Web page. [Note that the Web page is replete with hot buttons, i.e., Web links, each leading to detailed information about various technical aspects of ocean thermal that were examined at the workshop. Most, but not all, of the items that are in bold face are Web links.]

Cost and Market-entry Outlooks

The largest ocean thermal power system heretofore operated (by DOE contractors in 1980) was OTEC-1, a floating test facility designed to test candidate ocean thermal components and subsystems, such as heat exchangers, rated at 1 MWe. Lacking a turbine-generator set, that facility fell short of being a complete power system. Two complete closed-cycle ocean thermal power systems of sub-megawatt size have been successfully demonstrated. They were the 50 KWe (15 kWe net power) floating facility operated off Hawaii in 1979, which was developed by a private consortium led by Lockheed, and the 100 kWe (34 kWe net power) land-based facility operated in 1981 on the island of Nauru, which was developed by the Tokyo Electric Power Services Co.

To bridge the gap to multi-megawatt commercial plants, the LM team is designing a 5/10 MWe ocean thermal pilot plant—initially containing the first of two 5 MWe power modules—to be sited off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Operation of the pilot plant will provide performance, cost, and environmental data preparatory to designing and constructing a 100 MWe “commercial” plant for Hawaii’s oil-driven market.

Extrapolating pilot-plant cost estimates to what the commercial plant might cost, the LM team believes that a first-of-a-kind 100 MWe commercial plant can be built at a capital cost enabling it to compete in Hawaii’s oil-driven electricity market; i.e., to produce electricity at an avoided-cost target close to what busbar electricity is currently worth there.

Assuming that LM can achieve that energy-cost target—a busbar cost of electrical energy of roughly 20¢/kWh—then, if I work backward from that energy cost, using reasonable assumptions regarding interest rate and plant-amortization lifetime, including an additional cost of ca. 2¢/kWh for O&M, I estimate that that energy cost for a first-of-a-kind 100 MWe baseload power plant would roughly correspond to a plant capital cost target of about $1 B, or $10 per watt. If one assumes that federal tax credits are available to serve as an incentive/subsidy, then the tolerable capital cost for this first-of-a-kind commercial power plant could perhaps be about 50% higher, around $1.5 B.

In contrast, the 5/10 MWe pilot plant that LM is designing—since piloting of a technology at small scale increases the cost per unit output—will probably cost roughly several hundred million dollars, corresponding to an energy cost perhaps ranging from 40 to 60¢/kWh, making that large an investment sub-economic. Hence the pilot plant will require some subsidization, the hurdle-cost for launching this new ocean industry.

But the subsidy required sounds like peanuts nowadays. Note that during its heyday—the late 70s and early 80s—the DOE ocean thermal R&D program was being funded at about $40 M annually, equivalent to $100 M/year in today’s dollars. It may well be that Recovery Act funds or DoD will provide that subsidy, but it would be reassuring if the Obama Administration and the Congress would soon explicitly embrace ocean thermal and commit to rapidly advancing it into the marketplace, as was happening during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations.

Once the pilot plant is successfully operated, the design data and cost estimates for the first 100 MWe commercial plant will become much clearer. There are various options for funding that commercial plant. For example, about 80% of its capital investment could be federally loan-guaranteed; the remainder, roughly $200 to 300 M or so, would be venture capital, and investment tax credits would offer an additional incentive.

A comparison—albeit crude—can be made between the above $10 capital cost per watt, for baseload (continuous, 24/7) ocean thermal power capacity, versus the capital costs per watt for intermittent wind and photovoltaic power. Let’s assume wind and photovoltaic power systems that cost $4 and $7 per watt, respectively, and that they generate power about one-third of the time. Then, for purposes of making a rough comparison with the capital cost of a baseload source like ocean thermal, the intermittent wind and photovoltaic capital costs can be multiplied by three, yielding $12 and $21 per watt, respectively, compared to roughly $10 to $15/watt for a first-of-a-kind, 24/7 ocean thermal plant.


Clare, R., 1981, in Proceedings, Eighth Ocean Energy Conference (ed. E.M. MacCutcheon)

Derrington, J., 1979, in Proceedings, Sixth Ocean Energy Conference (ed. G.L. Dugger)

Gavin, A. P. & T. M. Kuzay, 1981, 0TEC-1 power system test program: biofouling and corrosion monitoring on 0TEC-1. Argonne National Laboratory

Green, H.J. and P.R. Guenther, 1990, Carbon dioxide release from OTEC cycles, Solar Energy Research Institute report TP-253-3594

Myers, E.P. et al., 1986, The potential impact of ocean thermal energy conversion (0TEC) on fisheries, NOAA Technical Report NMFS 40—Available at URL http://spo.nwr.noaa.gov/tr40opt.pdf

Wortman, E.J., 1981, in Proceedings, Eighth Ocean Energy Conference (ed. E.M. MacCutcheon)

February 21, 2010 Posted by | global warming, guest post, ocean thermal energy conversion, otec, Robert Cohen | Comments Off on Answering Questions on OTEC – Part I

My Top 10 Energy Related Stories of 2009

Here are my choices for the Top 10 energy related stories of 2009. Previously I listed how I voted in Platt’s Top 10 poll, but my list is a bit different from theirs. I have a couple of stories here that they didn’t list, and I combined some topics. And don’t get too hung up on the relative rankings. You can make arguments that some stories should be higher than others, but I gave less consideration to whether 6 should be ahead of 7 (for example) than just making sure the important stories were listed.

1. Volatility in the oil markets

My top choice for this year is the same as my top choice from last year. While not as dramatic as last year’s action when oil prices ran from $100 to $147 and then collapsed back to $30, oil prices still more than doubled from where they began 2009. That happened without the benefit of an economic recovery, so I continue to wonder how long it will take to come out of recession when oil prices are at recession-inducing levels. Further, coming out of recession will spur demand, which will keep upward pressure on oil prices. That’s why I say we may be in The Long Recession.

2. The year of natural gas

This could have easily been my top story, because there were so many natural gas-related stories this year. There were stories of shale gas in such abundance that it would make peak oil irrelevant, stories of shale gas skeptics, and stories of big companies making major investments into converting their fleets to natural gas.

Whether the abundance ultimately pans out, the appearance of abundance is certainly helping to keep a lid on natural gas prices. By failing to keep up with rising oil prices, an unprecedented oil price/natural gas price ratio developed. If you look at prices on the NYMEX in the years ahead, the markets are anticipating that this ratio will continue to be high. And as I write this, you can pick up a natural gas contract in 2019 for under $5/MMBtu.

3. U.S. demand for oil continues to decline

As crude oil prices skyrocketed in 2008, demand for crude oil and petroleum products fell from 20.7 million barrels per day in 2007 to 19.5 million bpd in 2008 (Source: EIA). Through September 2009, year-to-date demand is averaging 18.6 million bpd – the lowest level since 1997. Globally, demand was on a downward trend as well, but at a less dramatic pace partially due to demand growth in both China and India.

4. Shifting fortunes for refiners

The Jamnagar Refinery Complex in India became the biggest in the world, China brought several new refineries online, and several U.S. refiners shut down facilities. This is a trend that I expect to continue as refining moves closer to the source of the crude oil and to cheap labor. This does not bode well for a U.S. refining industry with a capacity to refine 17.7 million barrels per day when total North American production is only 10.5 million bpd (crude plus condensate).

5. China

China was everywhere in 2009. They were making deals to develop oil fields in Iraq, signing contracts with Hugo Chavez, and they got into a bidding war with ExxonMobil in Ghana. My own opinion is that China will be the single-biggest driver of oil prices over at least the next 5-10 years.

6. U.S. oil companies losing access to reserves

As China increases their global presence in the oil markets, one casualty has been U.S. access to reserves. Shut out of Iraq during the recent oil field auctions there, U.S. oil companies continue to lose ground against the major national oil companies. But no worries. Many of my friends e-mailed to tell me that the Bakken has enough crude to fuel the U.S. for the next 41 years

7. EU slaps tariffs on U.S. biodiesel

With the aid of generous government subsidies, U.S. biodiesel producers had been able to put their product into the EU for cheaper than local producers could make it. The EU put the brakes on this practice by imposing five-year tariffs on U.S. biodiesel – a big blow to U.S. biodiesel producers.

8. Big Oil buys Big Ethanol

I find it amusing when people suggest that the ethanol industry is a threat to the oil industry. I don’t think those people appreciate the difference in the scale of the two industries.

As I have argued many times before, the oil industry could easily buy up all of the assets of ethanol producers if they thought the business outlook for ethanol was good. It would make sense that the first to take an interest would be the pure refiners, because they are the ones with the most to lose from ethanol mandates. They already have to buy their feedstock (oil), so if they make ethanol they just buy a different feedstock, corn, and they get to sell a mandated product.

In February, Valero became the first major refiner to buy up assets of an ethanol company; bankrupt ethanol producer Verasun. Following the Valero purchase, Sunoco picked up the assets of another bankrupt ethanol company. If ExxonMobil ever decides to get involved, they could buy out the entire industry.

9. The climate wars heat up

There were several big climate-related stories in the news this year, so I decided to lump them all into a single category. First was the EPA decision to declare CO2 a pollutant that endangers public health, opening the door for regulation of CO2 for the first time in the U.S.

Then came Climategate, which gave the skeptics even more reason to be skeptical. A number of people have suggested to me that this story will just fade away, but I don’t think so. This is one that the skeptics can rally around for years to come. The number of Americans who believe that humans are causing climate change was already on the decline, and the injection of Climategate into the issue will make it that much harder to get any meaningful legislation passed.

Closing out the year was the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. All I can say is that I expected a circus, and we got a circus. It just goes to show the difficulty of getting countries to agree on issues when the stakes are high and the issues complex. Just wait until they try to get together to figure out a plan for peak oil mitigation.

10. Exxon buys XTO for $41 billion

In a move that signaled ExxonMobil’s expectation that the future for shale gas is promising, XOM shelled out $41 billion for shale gas specialist XTO. The deal means XOM is picking up XTO’s proved reserves for around $3 per thousand cubic feet, which is less than half of what ConocoPhillips paid for the reserves of Burlington Resources in 2005.

Honorable Mention

There were a number of stories that I considered putting in my Top 10, and some of these stories will likely end up on other Top 10 lists. A few of the stories that almost made the final cut:

The IEA puts a date on peak oil production

The statement they made was that barring any major new discoveries “the output of conventional oil will peak in 2020 if oil demand grows on a business-as-usual basis.”

AltaRock Energy Shuts Down

Turns out that deep geothermal, which the Obama administration had hoped “could be quickly tapped as a clean and almost limitless energy source” – triggers earthquakes. Who knew? I thought these were interesting comments from the story: “Some of these startup companies got out in front and convinced some venture capitalists that they were very close to commercial deployment” and “What we’ve discovered is that it’s harder to make those improvements than some people believed.” I am still waiting to see a bonafide success story from some of these VCs.

The biggest energy bill in history was passed

In total, $80 billion in the stimulus bill earmarked for energy was a big story, but I don’t know how much of that money was actually utilized.

The Pickens Plan derails

The website is still there, but the hype of 2008 turned into a big disappointment in 2009 after oil prices failed to remain high enough to make the project economical. Pickens lost about 2/3rds of his net worth as oil prices unwound, he took a beating in the press, and he announced in July that we would probably abandon the plan.

So what did I miss? And what are early predictions for 2010’s top stories? I think China’s moves are going to continue to make waves, there will be more delays (and excuses) from those attempting to produce fuel from algae and cellulose, and there will be little relief from oil prices.

December 24, 2009 Posted by | biodiesel, China, climate change, ethanol, ExxonMobil, geothermal, global warming, Media coverage, natural gas, oil consumption, oil demand, oil prices, oil refineries, T. Boone Pickens, valero | 27 Comments

Let the Data Do the Talking

Although not always successful, my goal is to let data drive my conclusions. Still, we all sometimes find ourselves in debates that are based more on passion and conviction than on data. But if the data are ignored because the conviction is strong, it may be dogma driving the conclusions.

Passionate debates are fine, but passionate debates that ignore data have no business in a scientific discussion. Further, such arguments frequently degenerate because one or both sides is not listening to the other.

During such emotional debates, I have been accused of being a shill for oil and gas, or of being a shill for biomass. In fact, in the debate I will discuss here, I was called both in the same thread! I am pro-biomass. I am anti-biomass. I love the environment. I want to destroy the environment. I am a Conservative. I am a Liberal.

The thing is, my world is not a black and white place. In the right hands, a screwdriver is a handy tool. In the hands of an enraged person, it can be a weapon. Same tool, vastly different outcomes, depending on how it is used.

Biomass is also a tool in which the outcome depends on lots of different factors. And even then the answers to the questions don’t always lead to the same conclusions for everyone.

Here is what I mean by that. People die in car crashes every year. So one reaction to that is “If you don’t want to die in a car crash, then don’t ride in a car.” That is true. That is one response.

But one must then consider the impact of that response:

  • “How would this impact your mobility?”
  • “Would you still travel places, and if so, how?”
  • “Is there a bike path that you could utilize, or would you give up your automobile only to risk your life cycling next to a busy highway?”
  • In other words, what secondary conclusions result based on the response to the initial question? But another approach is to reexamine the initial question:

  • “Why do people die in car crashes?”
  • The answer may be that most people die in car crashes due to very specific issues that can be mitigated. That is not to say that this will eliminate your risk of dieing in a car crash. But if I determine that 63% of the people who die in car crashes were not wearing seat belts, then I can always wear a seat belt and improve my odds of surviving a car crash.

    This is the approach I try to take with science issues. Frequently the answers to questions are not definitive, and instead depend on any number of conditions. And in the end there will still be disagreement. Some people may feel that a 1% risk is acceptable, but that may be 100 times too high for the next person on the very same issue.

    When someone is letting their emotions drive the argument, I try to get them to confront the data. If the answer is “It won’t fit”, then I either want to see that it doesn’t fit, or I want to measure it. This was the approach that I attempted to take with Joshua Frank, the author of – Burn a Tree to Save the Planet? The Crazy Logic Behind Biomass.

    Following my recent critique – Biomass is Not Crazy Logic – Frank dropped by and left a number of comments. Not everyone wades through the comments, and the comments are really not designed for prolonged exchanges. Further, these essays are often picked up and reposted without the comments. So I thought it might be worthwhile to extract some of the comments here. (The complete responses can be found following my initial essay).

    Frank’s argument can be distilled down to this: Citing Professor Tim Searchinger, Frank argues that burning biomass creates a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere. Burning biomass creates the danger that we will cut our forests down and inefficiently turn them into energy. Burning biomass creates emissions. Therefore, the burning of biomass is crazy, and it must be stopped.

    My response can be distilled down pretty easily. I actually agree with Searchinger that there are lots of factors that have to be evaluated in the biomass/bioenergy equation. Searchinger’s point is to show that the improperly used screwdriver can be a weapon. Frank then extrapolates that position to: A screwdriver is a weapon, and therefore we must stop the spread of screwdrivers.

    Frank cites Searchinger, but Frank’s extrapolations are subjective and qualitative. Numbers are missing from Frank’s analysis. Conclusions are sweeping and rigid. He argues that there is only one way to do biomass: The wrong way.

    In the real world, the burning of biomass can present the risks Mr. Frank cites. But where Mr. Frank goes wrong is that he believes that it must present those risks. That logic does not follow. Responsible management of biomass resources can have the opposite impact of what Mr. Frank suggests.

    In the back and forth that ensued, Frank seems to be unaware that the issues he raises are known issues; that while he is bemoaning them as a reason to surrender, some are out there working on solving them.

    A perfect example of this was his frequent argument that “burning biomass creates particulate emissions.”

    JF: “Burning woody biomass produces PM25, the most deadly form of particulate matter. This is a serious public health threat. Even if you believe that biomass is carbon neutral, you cannot skate around this important, well-documented fact.”

    Regarding this issue that Frank kept trying to educate me on, here are some excerpts from a book chapter that I recently completed on Bioenergy and Biofuels from Woody Biomass:

    RR: The majority of the wood used for cooking is done over an open stove. This is an inefficient process, leading to excessive consumption of wood. Open cook stoves also result in particulate emissions. Excessive pollution from wood cooking has been identified as a risk factor in acute lower respiratory infection, the chief cause of death in children in developing countries (Smith 2000).

    So I am well aware of the particulate emission issue with biomass burning. But here was the next paragraph, in which I discussed mitigation of the particulates problem:

    RR: Modern biomass stoves have been developed that are much more efficient with respect to wood utilization. These stoves can mitigate some of the problems associated with cooking over an open fire. By operating more efficiently, the money spent for fuel, and/or the time spent collecting fuel is diminished, as less fuel is required. Because combustion is more efficient, the air pollution associated with open fires is also diminished. Due to the multiple advantages of moving to modern biomass stoves, a number of programs have emerged with the intent of disseminating these stoves to the developing world (Barnes 1994).

    In another section, I wrote:

    RR: As with wood for cooking, one disadvantage from using wood for heating is the high level of particulate emissions. Open fireplaces also suffer efficiency losses from heat exiting the chimney. The development of community advanced combustion systems (AWC) has the potential for allowing increased usage of wood for heating, because of increased efficiency and lower particulate emissions.

    So Frank is aware of a problem, but is unaware that this sort of problem can be mitigated if the framework is in effect to mitigate it. This problem has a solution, albeit many have not adopted the solutions. Frank only sees a problem.

    The biggest hang-up, though, was probably around energy balances. There was quite a bit of “it takes a lot of energy to cut trees down and haul them out of the forest.” Again, there were never any numbers associated with these kinds of comments (except for the ones I provided). I guess if you use phrases like “diesel-powered” a lot, you can infer that the energy balance is bad without ever having to crunch the numbers.

    As I told Mr. Franks, the various energy inputs in the logistical chain of taking a tree from the forest and getting it to a processing facility – or the energy inputs in the conversion process itself – are available and are used in life cycle assessments regularly. “A lot of energy” for me has numbers associated with the claim. So instead of arguing about “a lot of energy used to harvest and transport” and that no biomass process can overcome that, why not attempt to quantify that?

    Back to the chapter I just completed, I wrote a section called “Net Energy Considerations.” Here is an excerpt from that section:

    RR: When calculating the energy that one could extract from a resource, it is important to consider the energy inputs into the process, as well as the types of energy inputs.

    In that section, I spent a bit of time explaining that the net energy of a process can easily be negative, and those processes are not sustainable. I concluded that section with:

    RR: Consideration of energy inputs also highlights one of the shortcomings of biomass relative to petroleum: The energy density for biomass is much lower; less than half the energy density of oil. This is due to the fibrous nature of biomass, and the fact that the moisture content tends to be high. This has implications for recoverability of wood resources. In general, the lower the energy density of the feedstock, the closer it needs to be to the processing facility due to the energy required for transport. Economical technologies that can efficiently increase the energy density of biomass in the field are needed. Some are currently under development and will be discussed in this chapter.

    So yes, I am aware of the relationship that energy inputs have on the sustainability of the system.

    At one point Frank did actually use some numbers to show that it takes longer to grow a tree than it does to burn a tree:

    JF: “A large tree that took 20 years to go (GE trees would be less) may burn in 17 seconds (after chopped to fine pieces).”

    This must be a key concept for him, because he actually pointed it out three different times. At one point he referred to this as a fundamental fact. This leads him to the conclusion:

    JF: “Trees will be burned at a far quicker rate than it takes to replace them.”

    As a rebuttal to his “fundamental fact,” I point out that the tomato it took 60 days to grow is eaten in 5 minutes. Therefore, tomatoes are eaten at a far quicker rate than it takes to replace them and the eating of tomatoes must be stopped before they are wiped out?

    Frank made a number of other unsupported arguments such as:

  • JF: “Biomass in the US means deforestation in our national forests. Period.”
  • JF: “Almost 99% of biomass to electricity plants in the US are also burning coal or trash. That’s a huge problem.”
  • JF: “If we are going to promote biomass as a renewable, we are looking at large scale deforestation.”
  • JF: “Trees simply do NOT make for good sources of biomass for electricity. Woody debris is not a dense energy source like coal (I’m not suggesting coal is the alternative). That’s why, as you know, power plants are using other fuels with biomass to produce energy.”
  • JF: “There is no such thing as good forest management when profit is involved.”
  • It’s like arguing that red is the best color. Put some numbers to it and let’s measure it. Are 99% of biomass to electricity plants really burning coal or trash? What is the source of that claim? Or is that simply hyperbole over coal plants that have started to supplement with biomass?

    I kept wondering if he ever gave any thought to what would happen if we abandoned the use of biomass for fuel. I can tell you what would happen: In the U.S., the future would be coal until we run out of coal. (To be perfectly honest, that’s probably the case anyway). That is reality. Sure, there’s nuclear, but something tells me that this wouldn’t be his preferred outcome. In developing countries, it would eliminate the particulate emissions problem because huge numbers of people wouldn’t have any fuel for cooking.

    At one point Frank brought up the threat of genetically modified organisms (GMO). I pointed out that while my company doesn’t use genetically modified trees, I am not personally opposed to genetic engineering in principle. Nature has been genetically modifying organisms since the beginning of time, and everything we eat has been genetically modified. Every mutation (even those that aren’t expressed) is a naturally-occurring experiment in genetic engineering. This was his response:

    JF: If you are not opposed to GE (and no, cross-breeding and hybridized plants are not genetically engineered, stick to engineering because your biology stinks) then I can’t help you. GE is new to the cycle of evolution.

    That line of argumentation is certainly a tangent, but countless people are alive today as a result of genetic engineering. Incidentally, I appreciate his concern, but it isn’t my biology that stinks. I wrote that nature has been doing genetic modifications forever. That is a fact. Frank was the one who translated that as “cross-breeding and hybridized plants.” He may want to look into genetic mutations, because cross-breeding and hybridization aren’t the only things that have changed the genetics of our food.

    Ultimately when I continued to challenge his replies, it went the way emotional-arguments often go. Because I failed to yield to his subjective arguments, he concluded that I couldn’t be motivated by the science. So he threw out a couple of ad homs

    JF: You get paid to do it. Makes much more sense why you will not address the real dangers of biomass production.; You are motivated by factors other than hard science. Biomass = paycheck. I get it.

    – and then left. In light of what he actually wrote, I found the phrase “hard science” especially ironic. Maybe I misunderstood and he was simply complaining that the science is hard?

    For the record, I don’t get paid to promote biomass. I don’t get paid to write at all. I write because I like to, and I am focused on biomass because I think it is going to have to play an important role in our energy future. It can’t be the sole solution – and I have argued the point many times that it can only replace a small fraction of our fossil fuel usage – but every analysis I have ever done suggests that it must be a part of the solution.

    At the end of the day, I try to be practical. I frequently hear people suggest that what really needs to happen is to reduce the global population by 95%. My eyes just glaze over. Those are the sorts of things that are not going to happen by politics or decree. It is navel-gazing to sit around and argue about “solutions” like this. Better to focus on solutions in the context of what is likely to actually take place once the politics have been factored in.

    This is how I view biomass. Frank can spend his time dogmatically arguing that it must necessarily be a disaster. But what is likely? It is more likely (in fact, it is certain) that we are going to continue down this path. Therefore, I think a much more productive use of time is to ask “How do we do it right?”


    Barnes DF, Openshaw K, Smith KR, van der Plas R. (1994). What Makes People Cook with Improved Biomass Stoves? A Comparative International Review of Stove Programs. Washington, DC. The World Bank.

    Smith, K., Samet, J., Romieu, I., and Bruce, N. (2000). Indoor air pollution in developing countries and acute lower respiratory infections in children In: Thorax. June; 55(6): 518–532.

    December 21, 2009 Posted by | biomass, biomass gasification, climate change, global warming | 99 Comments

    Biomass Is Not Crazy Logic

    I saw a story about a week ago that I flagged to comment on when I got caught up. I suppose I am caught up enough now to do so. The story is:

    Burn a Tree to Save the Planet? The Crazy Logic Behind Biomass

    The author is listed as Joshua Frank, described as an environmental journalist and the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush. Frank has previously written an article critical of Oregon’s usage of electricity derived from coal, and in the current essay he turns his attention to biomass.

    The article is confusing from the start:

    It might seem crazy that anyone would even consider the incineration of wood and its byproducts to be a green substitute for toxic fuels such as coal. Yet that’s exactly what is happening all over the country, and it has many environmentalists scratching their heads in disbelief.

    I find those comments baffling. Why would it seem crazy to believe that burning biomass – which utilizes CO2 when it is growing and helps sequester carbon in the soil through the root systems, leaves, and slash – would be greener than burning a fossil fuel like coal that has a long list of potentially undesirable environmental impacts? Do you know what happens to waste biomass that isn’t utilized? It decomposes and ends up as the same CO2 it would end up as if you burned it.

    While it is true that emissions controls on coal-fired power plants are much improved in recent years, it is also true that burning coal has resulted in acid rain and increased levels of mercury in our waterways. Burning coal also increases the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. To suggest that burning trees isn’t greener than burning coal is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard. From the tone of the article, it sounds as if the author believes that forestry and the harvesting of trees is by definition bad.

    Now it is true that if you cut down an old growth forest and inefficiently turn it into a liquid fuel, that isn’t environmentally responsible. I could certainly envision any number of schemes to make the burning of biomass come out with a higher environmental impact than from burning coal. If I cut down a chunk of the Amazon, displace the people and the wildlife living there, ship the wood halfway around the world, and combust it in an old, inefficient boiler – then yes, the environmental impact of that would be higher than from burning Powder River coal. But such exceptions aren’t the norm. This article, however, paints with a very broad, one-sided brush and acts as if all usage of biomass is by definition bad:

    NASA’s James Hansen says that the burning of coal is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic global warming, so any alternative fuel source must decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere if we are to put the breaks on climate change. Biomass, despite its label as a renewable energy source, does not solve the problem because burning trees actually emits a large amount of CO2.

    That is another very odd comment. Burning coal releases ancient CO2 that was sequestered away. Burning biomass releases recently recycled CO2. That’s why it is renewable. If the author is concerned about CO2 emissions – and he clearly is – then coal and biomass are night and day. And while they acknowledge in their next paragraph that this is what “proponents counter with”, Frank quickly tries to shoot that one down:

    An article in Science released last October attempted to debunk the myth that biomass is a good alternative to traditional coal and oil burning. The study, authored by climate scientists, claimed that when an existing forest is chopped and cleared to produce fuel, the ability of those harvested trees to absorb CO2 is eliminated entirely while the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually increases.

    This entire article seems bent on the notion that the biomass we utilize will come from old growth forest that is slashed, burned, and left fallow. The people interviewed for the article must envision a scenario like turning the Amazon into biofuels – and this is the future they must foresee for biomass to come up with these sorts of conclusions. Such a notion isn’t remotely indicative of the future of biomass. Biomass will be grown for purpose (as I explained in Don’t Weep for the Trees), and it can definitely be grown responsibly and sustainably.

    “The game is up,” stated biomass skeptic Ellen Moyer, a principal of green engineering firm Greenvironment, after the release of the report. “The problem has been identified, and the clarion call for course correction has rung out around the world. The days of biomass burning … are numbered and pending legislation needs to be corrected before perverse incentives to burn our forests are enshrined in law.”

    You will have to show me the laws that incentivize the burning of our forests. If you mean laws that incentivize the usage of biomass for energy – well that isn’t the same as burning our forests. You first grow the forest, and while that is taking place everything you are complaining about when you burn it is running in reverse. Oh, there can be particulate emissions from improper burning, but it is also true that proper forest management can result in improved soil and increased carbon sequestration in the soil.

    Another problem with biomass is that it is typically mixed with substances like coal to produce energy. In Nevada, for example, NV Energy is set to use a mix of coal and wood at its Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant. As a result, the company hopes to qualify for the state’s renewable energy credits.

    The first problem is that this isn’t true. That is not how biomass is typically used. It can only be blended with coal in small amounts due to differences in chemical and physical properties, and it requires a substantial investment in the coal plant to allow such mixing. There is a technology called torrefaction that has the potential to allow much greater mixing, as it converts biomass into something like bio-coal. But torrefaction is still mostly at a pre-commercialization stage.

    If a coal-fired power plant receiving energy credits isn’t mind boggling enough,…

    Why is that mind-boggling? You just wrote that they were going to use wood to displace coal. Why wouldn’t they qualify for the same energy credit anyone else gets for using biomass? Or do you prefer that they simply continue to use 100% coal?

    “They are burning more than trees because wood is simply not a good energy source,” said Jeff Gibbs, who resides in Michigan and is fighting the state’s six operating biomass plants. “Look, wood produces 50 percent more CO2 than coal, for the same amount of energy output. We have to stop this before more plants begin to pop up.”

    I am sorry, but that’s another ludicrous statement. I would really love to see the analysis that provided that figure.

    Not only is biomass not a good source of power, claims a 2007 paper presented at the European Aerosol Conference, it’s also not a healthy alternative to coal. The paper claimed that particulate matter (particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke) was actually higher for a 7 megawatt wood gasification plant than it was for a large coal-fired power station.

    There’s that broad brush again. While it is true that wood gasification plants can have lots of particulate emissions, that is not an inherent quality. You can put the same pollution controls on them that you can on coal plants. So once again a bad starting assumption leads to a sweeping, but false conclusion.

    In summary, this was a very one-sided view that presented the worst extremes as more or less the status quo for biomass utilization. It is true that you can do things a right way or a wrong way. Water is healthy and I need it to live, but if I drink too much it can kill me. Taking a page from this article, I suppose I should avoid water from now on, as it has the potential to kill me.

    For those quoted in the article, I hope they don’t freeze to death in the dark as the biomass they are so opposed to rots and releases its CO2 anyway. As I tell people sometimes, if you are opposed to everything, then prepare to be happy with the status quo.

    December 15, 2009 Posted by | biomass, biomass gasification, climate change, global warming | 133 Comments

    Catching Up

    Back home now, just trying to catch up on the energy news of note. Four stories that I want to highlight. First was POET’s announcement on their progress on cellulosic ethanol:

    Poet hits ‘long shot,’ cuts cellulosic ethanol costs

    WASHINGTON – The head of the world’s largest ethanol producer, Sioux Falls-based Poet, said Wednesday that his company has drastically cut its cellulosic ethanol production costs.

    It is a breakthrough that will allow cellulosic ethanol to compete with gasoline within two years.

    Jeff Broin, Poet chief executive, told reporters during a roundtable discussion that the company has reduced its cellulosic ethanol production cost during the past year from $4.13 a gallon to $2.35 a gallon.

    Andrew Leonard of Salon asked me for some comments, which he included in a story on the news:

    Who cares about peak oil when you have corn cobs?

    In addition to what made it into the story (and those comments were specifically about the kinds of risk factors POET faces), I said that I thought the guys at POET had done a nice job on this (that comment did make it into the follow-up story at Salon). One thing that isn’t clear to me is whether the production cost includes any capital recovery. If not, then they still have some distance to go to get that $2.35 into an economic range with ethanol presently trading at about $2.00 a gallon. [Edit: A comment from Nathan Schock of POET over at Green Car Congress indicates that this is in fact the total production cost – including depreciation]. Another question I would have is how their version of the process performs with other sources of biomass.

    One other thing I said to Andrew (that didn’t make it into the story) is the really big challenge is in getting those ethanol titers up. Low titers mean lots of energy is spent in getting the water out. This is why I have always favored gasification technologies over hydrolysis technologies: You don’t have water to deal with, and thus the BTU efficiency is potentially going to be higher. (Probably your capital costs as well will be higher for gasification – depending on what you are producing from the syngas). If biomass costs rise in the future – as I expect them to – then there will be added incentive for maximizing BTU efficiency.

    The second story was sent by a reader. In light of the amount of corn we produce, this could have significant ramifications:

    Amaizing: Corn Genome Decoded

    A team of scientists led by The Genome Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published the completed corn genome in the Nov. 20 journal Science, an accomplishment that will speed efforts to develop better crop varieties to meet the world’s growing demands for food, livestock feed and fuel.

    The United States is the world’s top corn grower, producing 44 percent of the global crop. In 2009, U.S. farmers are expected to produce nearly 13 billion bushels of corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    The next story is about a trend that I think will continue. In my presentation in Orlando, one of the trends that I pointed out is that more refineries are being built closer to the source of the oil. Saudi produces crude, but would like to capture more of that value chain by refining it as well. There are a number of very large refinery projects underway – especially in Asia and the Middle East – and in a world with stagnant oil production that means some refineries are going to shut down. In the U.S., our refining capacity is more than three times greater than our oil production rates. I see a dismal outlook for refining in the U.S., with a lot of refiners going out of business in the U.S. Valero just announced another refinery closing:

    Valero refinery in Delaware City to close permanently

    DELAWARE CITY, Del. — Valero Energy said this morning it plans to permanently close its Delaware City Refinery, eliminating hundreds of high-paying jobs, because of weak economic conditions, high local costs and chronic troubles at the 210,000 barrel-per-day complex.

    Company spokesman Bill Day said that a plantwide maintenance shutdown, announced late last month, was already under way, and will convert to a final closing. Plant employees will continue on the payroll for 60 days under federal rules for large-scale layoffs.

    Day said the plant — which produces about 70 percent of the gasoline sold on the Delmarva Peninsula— has lost $1 million a day since the start of 2009.

    About 550 full time workers will be put out of work by the decision. Valero (VLO) also has notified companies that work closely with the refinery, Day said, but effects on those operations were not immediately available.

    People forget that refining is a very tough business. They remember when refiners make money – as they were doing a couple of years ago – but forget that most of the time they aren’t making money. Plus, when they do make money they are subjected to accusations of gouging and calls from politicians to tax their windfall.

    Finally, readers know that I have consistently avoided wading into the debate over global warming. It takes enough of my time just trying to keep up with the latest energy news, and I decided long ago to sit out the debate on climate change. It is far too politicized and people get too emotional over the issue. However, I do think it is important that the debate takes place, and I don’t like to see people trying to shut it down. Attaching labels like “denier” to people who question the science is an attempt to shut down debate, and I don’t care how right you think you are – in my view the debate needs to go on.

    A couple of days ago it was announced that some e-mails from a climate research outfit in England had been hacked:

    Global Warming Research Exposed After Hack

    A climate change dust-up

    I have to say that some of the e-mails I have seen posted are troubling. Whatever history ultimately shows, some of those e-mails appear to be agenda-driven and not science-driven. There is no place for that.

    Let the debate carry on, and let science – not agendas – determine the outcome.

    November 22, 2009 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, genetic engineering, global warming, greenhouse gases, oil refineries, POET, refining, Salon, valero | 118 Comments

    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

    What’s 72 Million Gallons Anyway?

    I just read a story this morning suggesting that the “Cash for Clunkers” program is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by only a trivial amount:

    ‘Cash for clunkers’ effect on pollution? A blip

    While the focus of the story is that this won’t do much for climate change, this is the piece that attracted my interest:

    America will be using nearly 72 million fewer gallons of gasoline a year because of the program, based on the first quarter-million vehicles replaced. U.S. drivers go through that amount of gas every 4 1/2 hours, according to the Department of Energy.

    In the context of the amount of gasoline we use – 140 billion or so gallons per year (a bit less now because of the recession) – this amounts to only 0.05% of our annual gas usage. Experts have suggested that making sure tires are properly inflated could save 3% on gas usage, or 60 times the amount saved by “Cash for Clunkers” if the majority of people are driving around on under-inflated tires.

    So, for $1 billion invested in the program, a savings of 72 million gallons means we taxpayers paid $13.89 for each gallon of gasoline/yr saved. Readers know that I am a big fan of much higher fuel efficiency, but $13.89 to save a gallon of gasoline per year? While this benefit will be spread over several years of gasoline savings, surely we can do better than this.

    Even if – as one reader suggested – those cars would have been on the road for another 10 years, you are still paying over a buck a gallon for the savings. No doubt that stimulus funds can stimulate in the short term, but what happens when the tax bill comes due? Will we look back on that as a wise use of those funds?

    August 5, 2009 Posted by | cars, climate change, fuel efficiency, global warming | 40 Comments

    What If I’m Wrong?

    Risk Assessments

    I spend a lot of time playing “What if?” We all do this. I do this when I am driving – “What if that car at the next intersection pulls out in front of me?” – when I am working – “What if that high pressure line ruptures?” – and at home – “What if I wake up and find the house is on fire?” I also spend a lot of time pondering the question “What if there are energy shortages in the near future?

    When we do this, we are generally trying to understand the potential consequences of various responses to a given situation. This sort of exercise is a form of risk assessment, and it is a very important tool for making decisions about events that could impact the future. Sometimes the consequences are minor. If I choose not to take an umbrella to work and it rains, there is probably a small consequence. If I choose to pass a car on a blind hill, the consequence may be severe, and may extend to other people.

    In this essay I will explore the implications of the question: “What if my viewpoint is wrong?

    What If I’m Wrong About Peak Oil?

    I guess it was my training as a scientist that emphasized to me that conclusions are tentative (I was two years into a Ph.D. in chemistry before I decided the job prospects were better for a chemical engineer). They are subject to revision as additional data come in, and you have to always be willing to consider that you may be wrong. But acknowledging that I could be wrong has to go hand-in-hand with the consequences of being wrong.

    I spend a lot of time thinking about the possible consequences of peak oil. My view on peak oil is that it presents an enormous challenge for humanity, that we will begin to face these challenges within 10 years, and that there is no easy solution. I see spiking oil prices and the subsequent fallout as a prelude to what lies ahead. These views have influenced my profession, where I have chosen to live, what I read, and what I say to others. Fear of peak oil has influenced some people not to attend college, or to quit their jobs and move away to remote locations. It has even caused some people to decide against having children. But what if I am wrong about the timing of peak oil? What are the consequences?

    For me, this one has low consequences. If I am wrong and we have adequate oil supplies for the next 40 years, then perhaps I live a more frugal life than I might have otherwise. I prefer to walk, ride a bike, or take a train instead of hopping into a car to drive some place. When I drive, I probably drive a smaller car than I would have otherwise. Then again, I have always been frugal, so perhaps I would have done all of these things regardless. The one thing that it may have impacted upon in a major way is my interest in energy.

    But if I am right, then I have plans in place to manage the impact as well as I can. Those plans start with minimizing my energy consumption. It is my small insurance policy. If the worst case doomers turn out to be right, then there isn’t a lot I can do except try to make sure my family and I are in circumstances that minimize the risk. Further, I have done a lot of work that is aimed at improving our energy security in the years ahead. That work includes promoting renewable energy technologies that I think can make a long-term contribution, but also arguing for conservation, and better utilization of our own natural resources. So if I am correct, then I have chosen to work on things that have the potential to mitigate the consequences.

    But what if the other side is wrong? Government agencies devoted to monitoring our natural resources often reassure us that there is plenty of oil for decades to come. But what if the government, industry, etc. turn out to have missed the mark on peak oil? In that case I think we will be in for a lot of trouble.

    If the peak comes quickly and the decline is steep, I believe we will be wholly unprepared. There is not a cheap, easy substitute for oil. Much higher prices will be inevitable in such a situation. Industries – such as the airline industry – won’t be prepared and we will see perhaps entire industries go bankrupt. While I do believe that over time we can transition to natural gas vehicles (and our supplies of natural gas look adequate for a while), that will take some time. If the government is wrong and the peak happens much sooner than expected, we will be in for a very difficult transition period.

    What If I am Wrong on Global Warming?

    Another question I think a lot about is “What If I am Wrong on Global Warming?” To me, this one is more complicated. If the Al Gore contingent is correct, then we are facing some very major problems. As I have written before, I don’t expect us to be able to rein in carbon dioxide emissions, so I see a future with ever higher atmospheric CO2. And while I tend to come down on the side that human activity is contributing to global warming, the scientist in me reminds me that “conclusions are tentative.”

    On the one hand we have potential global devastation if Al Gore is correct (because again, I believe carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to climb). On the other hand are those who believe that human activities play little or no role in global warming. They view the opposition as putting global economies at risk by putting a price on carbon emissions. While I think global devastation is a much worse consequence than economic stagnation, the impact of that could be pretty severe as well.

    So we have two camps, each of which thinks if the other side gets their way it will lead to global disaster. So we get a lot of vitriol in this debate, which I don’t like. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome on this one will be, but one thing I don’t want to see is the debate stifled by placing derogatory labels on those with whom you disagree.

    I never discount the possibility that I could be wrong about something. I would say that precious few of my views are embedded in granite. That’s why I write this blog; to discuss, debate, learn, and change my mind when reason dictates that.

    July 1, 2009 Posted by | climate change, global warming, greenhouse gases, Peak Oil | 43 Comments

    Tariffs in the Climate Bill

    A number of people have written to ask why I haven’t commented on the climate bill. There are two reasons. First, the House and Senate versions are very different, so the final form may not resemble the version the House just passed. Second, I haven’t had the time to read through much of it.

    There was one issue that I considered quite important, but I didn’t know whether it was in the bill. Jim Mulva was recently quoted as saying that the climate bill would impose higher taxes on domestic fuel versus imports. While we can agree that Mulva’s comments are self-serving, I also believe that most people would oppose a bill that shifts more of our fuel supply to imports.

    While I know the goal here is to favor renewable energy, what happens if it can’t fill a void left if the new bill discourages domestic production? The void will be filled by imports. Prices will also rise, so some of the void will be filled by conservation. But in order to keep the playing field level, I really liked the idea proposed by Jeff Rubin: If you place a carbon tax on domestic production, you can place a carbon tariff on imports. This idea was discussed in my review of his book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization.

    I hadn’t heard any discussion of this until today. From Steven Mufson of the Washington Post:

    Obama Praises Climate Bill’s Progress but Opposes Its Tariffs

    President Obama yesterday said that the House took an “extraordinary first step” by passing a climate bill on Friday, adding that he hoped it will “prod” action by the Senate and predicting that the legislation could make renewable energy “a driver of economic growth.”

    But he said he hopes that Congress will strip out a clause that would impose a tariff in 2020 on imports from countries without systems for pricing or limiting carbon dioxide emissions.

    Obama went on to suggest that there were other protections built in that will keep the playing field level. I would like to know what those are. I can understand how tariffs would do it (although enforcement raises some sticky questions). But I have heard enough double-speak on energy policy that I want to see the fine details of how the playing field will be kept level.

    Make no mistake: This bill is a tax increase. That’s the basis for the political opposition. But I have long advocated a tax increase on fossil fuels to slow the rate at which we are using them up (and to make renewables more competitive). So I don’t oppose the bill on the basis that it is a tax increase. On the other hand I can’t say that I endorse it, because I haven’t read it. I certainly believe there are more efficient ways of raising carbon taxes than this. I still think – perhaps naively – that my proposal to tilt the tax code toward higher fossil fuel taxes and lower income taxes would be more attractive than this.

    June 29, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, carbon tax, climate change, energy policy, gas tax, global warming, Jim Mulva, politics | 30 Comments