Renewable Energy 1 – Hydro-electric Power   

The oldest form of renewable electrical generation is Hydroelectric Power (HEP).  If you take only the electrical generation aspect of this technology then it is clean with no pollution at all – after all it is simply moving water down a gradient over a water wheel that directly spins a turbine shaft generating electricity.  But, like any technology it has full process problems.   The biggest drawback to HEP is of course the requirement of continuously moving water in amounts necessary to spin the turbine shaft.  On the east coast it rains enough that reservoirs constructed behind dams, like the Tennessee Valley Authority project, not only provided flood control for whole watersheds but each dam serves as an HEP plant.  In the west, the aridity of the region meant that water capture behind strategically located dams would capture run off (from winter snow and rain) to serve as reservoirs for irrigation and HEP plants.  Another major drawback for large scale HEP is that the necessary water must come from a major river.  Over the last 100 years or so, nearly all the major rivers in the world have been damned for HEP – there really are no major rivers that can currently be used without major disruptions of local communities and ecosystems.  Indeed, the construction of dams themselves disrupts local ecosystems and because of the natural forces of erosion also condemns the dams to a life-time activity of about 100 years or less.  Silt fills in the area behind the dam and eventually fills in the reservoir.

Environmental Consequences

Besides the sedimentation problem, large dams have as many pros as they do cons.  The pros are that HEP provides clean, non-polluting electricity; flood control; Water storage for irrigation and drinking water, and also opportunities for water recreation (e.g. boating and fishing).  The cons are reduced river flow and sedimentation needs for habitat downstream of a dam; capture of sedimentation behind the dam instead of being spread along the rivers course; alteration and disruption of aquatic life – this often happens because of temperature pollution where cold water releases from the lower  portion of the dam reservoir shocks aquatic life in the lower river; disruption of migrating aquatic species (e.g. Salmon, eels) although fish ladders along the side of a dam can ease this problem; Large scale permanent flooding of arable and recreational land (e.g. Completed in 2003, the largest dam in the world, China’s Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River, displaced over 1 million people and submerged Farmland, archaeology, and viable habitat); and one rarely mentioned is the potential of catastrophic flooding from Dam failure.

While over 98% of worldwide rivers are already dammed, in some areas like the Western USA, the amount of water needed to maintain the reservoirs has been declining since the dams were build and because of increased needs for irrigation and drinking water, the storage capacity needed to run the HEP is also diminishing.  This is further exacerbated by droughts many already arid regions are experiencing.

Pump Storage Schemes (PSS)

In hilly or mountainous areas, using excess/unused electricity can pump water uphill through sluice tubes from one lower reservoir to an upper reservoir.  This serves as a form of energy storage and currently worldwide is one of the largest ‘grid storage systems’ available.   When immediate electricity is needed, as in peak-use times, the water from the upper reservoir can be released back down the sluices to spin electric turbines as in regular HEP.  The only difference is that water is in a closed system with the upper and lower reservoirs being linked as storage and usage of electricity.  Obviously, in arid areas, evaporation and other minor leakages means the reservoirs needs topping up a little on occasion.  In wet rainfall areas, the upper reservoir is naturally topped up by runoff.  The amount of electricity that can be generated varies with the size of the system, but it is not unusual for capacity to reach 3000 MW in a single system – roughly equivalent to 3 large fossil fuel stations.  In 2017, the USA obtained over 22 GW of power from Pump Storage schemes.  One of the big problems with PSSs is that they must be located in areas that are usually of natural beauty (i.e. Mountains), which upsets many advocates of outdoors protection.  Options to overcome this are to use areas that are designated as ‘brownfields’ – they are often disused mining areas or areas that have been heavily disturbed from previous activity.  This would stop impacts on scenic or ecologically sensitive areas.

Smalls and Micro scale HEP

In many countries where rain is regular and sufficient, individuals or small groups of houses clustered together can take advantage of small-scale HEP generation.  In areas with riparian rights to running water (if you live by a river you can use it) a minor part of the water flow can be diverted through a small sluice or penstock and into a micro HEP turbo generator before being returned to the river.  If the water is low flow then a Pelton wheel generator may be needed.  While small scale sounds good, it does require a continuous and reliable water source.  Isolated rural communities can capitalize on the small scale HEP.  In arid areas, Prior Appropriation Doctrine of water rights makes this option all but impossible.  Add to that the likelihood of insufficient water capacity in arid areas and small scale becomes only a reality for wet areas with enough vertical drop height to convert the potential energy to kinetic energy with enough efficiency to warrant investment.

HEP has been a great renewable energy option for over a century, but while it generates up to 17% of the worlds electricity it has almost no option for expansion.  Building new dams is expensive and disruptive for a growing human population where arable land is now a premium for agriculture.  The choice of food versus electricity is becoming a real one in many parts of the world.  In many areas where dams have long been a fixture, they are now being removed to allow the rivers to flow naturally again.  The sedimentation problem of dams restricts their lifespan and cleaning out or rebuilding dams is economically prohibitive at this time.  PPSs are still options, but social and environmental pressures will always be a stumbling block.

Introduction to Renewable Energy – A Reality Check

Systems thinking is “a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems”– definition).

In the last post I talked about Nuclear Power and that once one factors in the full process for using that source it turns out to be a highly polluting and dangerous source for many reasons – mining pollution, fuel processing pollution, toxic products, waste hazards, potential for catastrophic outcomes, already refined nuclear fuel source potential, and excessive cost to build and maintain.  As an option to Fossil Fuels (FFs), its only benefit is that the generation of electricity is relatively clean of carbon emission and immediate pollution, although the whole process in itself is as bad if not worse, depending on how you measure hazard.  FFs have severe pollution problems from beginning to end, although they are a transportable dense source of energy.  Oil and Gas however have explosive flammability problems during transportation and storage.

Renewable energy is touted as carbon and pollution free, and indeed it is if you only take the generation of electricity into account.  Once you look at the whole process it is still problematic, but the question is to what extent compared to traditional FF and nuclear power.  It is with this understanding that we can look at the options with a clearer perspective.

One of the limiting factors for technology throughout human history is the problem of having enough energy (power) to do anything.  Mainly muscle power with some wind (think sailing ships and Dutch windmills) and some water (water wheels) as the primary option for power – interestingly, all were completely renewable sources, simple as they were once the technology was built.  The main resources were wood frames with some iron strengthening supports and canvas (Hemp) cloth.   The discovery and use of FFs is what allowed the growth of the industrial and then the technological revolutions.

The problem with FFs of course is the extensive mining and extraction, and the even more harmful pollution resulting from using them.  Another problem with FFs is that they are not evenly distributed over the Earth’s surface.  I have always been somewhat amused by bumper stickers that say “Why is our oil under their sand.”  Another unspoken and crucial problem with FFs is the economic stranglehold and control that the businesses that mine and extract the traditional energy have on the world’s economy and how these companies dictate the world’s geo-political policies.    By far the biggest advantage of renewable energy resources is that they are local and non-transferable – you can transport the energy generated but the resources are not something you have to fight to control.

I never tire of hearing antagonists to renewable energy try to impress me with their insights, like how solar panels don’t work at night and wind turbines don’t work when the wind isn’t blowing, yet remain oblivious to the almost insane logistics of providing energy from FFs and dealing with the pollution of the whole system.  From a system’s thinking perspective, renewable energy is a far better source for generating electricity, not perfect, but the many options have multiple advantages over FFs.  I will cover each renewable option in more detail in upcoming blog posts, but for now a simple overview.  The technology we now have has allowed us to tap into the natural resources in ways not possible before the industrial revolution.

We can now manufacture machines that use natural resources such as wind, sunlight, temperature differentials in the ground and in the ocean, ocean tides, etc.  The big kicker here is that the renewable energy capture system must use the FF energy system to get it running at full steam, so to speak.  If we keep waiting and using FFs until they run out, then not only do we have exponentially more pollution to deal with, but the problem of having enough energy to manufacture the required amount of renewable systems will be gone.   After that it would be a remarkably slow process to manufacture enough energy to meet needs even knowing the technology we need to build.

The other big change we will need to think about is how best to tap into renewable sources based on the locality of where it is being generated.  Solar panels in Barrow, Alaska, night be feasible for 3-4 months of the year during the continuous summer sun months, but not much of an option beyond that.  We need to think about multiple sources being used in any locality based on the best management practices of what is available.  And don’t forget, those resources are local – they cannot be disrupted by any body, and the jobs to build and maintain the technology using these resources are always local and cannot be outsourced.  Manufacturing these renewable energy capture systems is the only drawback – they will still require a large amount of mining to get the needed minerals and the manufacturing will still require smelting of the minerals from the ore and energy to build the systems. But once the systems are in place and adequate for the populations needs, then there is no further pollution and no disposal pollution problems.   The truly clean energy can then be used in further manufacturing, with recycling of components being a simple further conservation measure to reduce mining.

More about the specifics of each of the renewables in upcoming posts.

Understanding Modern Energy 4 – The reality of Nuclear Power

Whenever you talk about Nuclear Power, many people think of Nuclear bombs and the like.  Alas, the mere word nuclear is enough to send some people into anxiety.   I love it in the movies when someone is beside a nuclear reactor and screams that the reactor is going critical and everyone runs around screaming in panic.

The other thing I hear a lot is how clean electricity is when it is produced by Nuclear Power stations.  Like most regular power stations, there is a boiler to produce steam, and in a nuclear power station the decay of radioactive atoms in fuel rods inside a closed system stream of circulating water heats a boiler of water that produces the steam to run a turbine to produce electricity (just like any FF source).  Is the electricity clean?  Only if you narrow the focus down to the single fact that there are no polluting emissions when you heat the boiler.   The problem, however, arises from only using that one fact, and not seeing the whole system of generating the electricity – this is also true for renewables, but that is for another post.  For most regular power stations using a steam turbine, the boiler needs to be heated by something.  In nuclear it is water molecules being hit by radioactive decay particles from the fuel rods that excite the water molecules making them hotter.  And curiously, the process for this heating is only efficient when the fuel rod is in a critical state releasing enough particles to do the job.  Otherwise it would just be a toxic fuel rod.  This criticality is what the power controllers look at consistently by damping or increasing the heating through the lowering or raising of carbon control rods that surround the fuel rods.  The before and after process is the story most people ignore.

Mining Uranium

The fuel rods contain Uranium Oxide as the fuel where the natural decay of uranium by radioactive fission heats water.  The rods ability to heat water naturally lessens over time – usually about a 6 year lifespan per fuel rod.  Now that Uranium has to be mined from the ground.  As I have said before, that is an energetic process that generates immense amounts of waste and pollution.  The usual methods of mining can be used (e.g. open pit, underground shaft), but also leach mining where acids are injected into piles of ore on the surface (Heap leaching), or even deep in-situ into specific rock strata (yellow cake).  Once the uranium has been extracted form the ground it must then be processed to enrich it.  Good Ore level uranium is about 0.7%, but must be enriched to about 5% to use in a fuel rod.  This is done through multi-level energetic centrifugation process before the more concentrated ore is further treated to uranium oxide ready for a fuel rod.  As a comparison, however, a 1000 MW coal fired power plant requires about a half million tons of coal a year as opposed to about 30 tons of uranium oxide per year.  We do have the technology to recycle and reuse Nuclear fuel, but it is about as expensive and polluting to do this as dig new ore, but at least this does cater to the one major problem of nuclear fuel – disposal and storage.

Nuclear Waste

The spent fuel rods are extremely toxic and highly radioactive.  This means that they cannot be simply discarded but must be carefully stored on-site at the power plant in large cooling tanks (like large swimming pools).   Since there is no place to permanently dispose of these spent fuel rods – there has been a prepared spot in Neveda  (Yucca Mountain) but transporting the fuel rods there and maintaining security are on-going problems – you don’t want the rods getting into the wrong hands.  After all it is nuclear fuel that can be enriched further for military purposes.

               Nuclear Power Problems

The fuel rods have to be kept at a critical state, but what happens if the rods get to a supercritical state – that’s when you don’t want to be anywhere around.  Super criticality is what is needed to allow a nuclear fuel source to attain a chain reaction if triggered by a specific detonation – booom!!   Fortunately, nuclear power fuel rods don’t become nuclear bombs since there no detonation devices associated with them.  What they can do is become quite problematic when power plants don’t go as expected.  A popular term in the 1980s was ‘The China Syndrome’ meant to describe how a nuclear reactor behaves when it gets super critical and starts to melt.  People perceived that the extreme heat of the melted core would allow it to simply melt its way in the ground and hence keep melting down through planet all the way to the other side.  Of course, that can’t happen because the melted core would eventually reach the inner magma layers and simply blend into the magma.  The reality however, is that the melted core would melt down until it reached ground water layers in the crust.  Then a catastrophic steam explosion would occur and the steam blasting out of the ground would be highly radioactive and move with winds around the planet until it finally settled out or got diluted enough to no longer be a threat.  Notably, nuclear fuel has long half-life’s (the time required for a quantity to reduce to half its initial value) of about 30 years. Some estimates are that the fuel rods can become non-toxic after 159,000 years.  (As a comparison, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years).

Of course, in a nuclear power plant there are many safeguards, but the Homer Simpsons apparently do exist.  Three-mile island was a case of shutting of the water surrounding the core.  Once that happened the core started heating up.  Fortunately, it was caught in time and the water turned back on, but not before the top of the core had already melted requiring the permanent shut down of that core.  Rods are designed to be pulled out of place by robotic arms.  The melted mess presented a massive logistical problem.  The Fermi 1 reactor near Detroit suffered a similar situation (that one never really made the news for some reason, just as many other safety ‘near misses’ were never really reported).  Now Chernobyl was more spectacular and widespread.  An unplanned emergency coolant shut off was done, but it coincided with a stream turbine failure resulting in a large fire.  The cores were heating and no one could get the coolant back quick enough.  In an emergency the reactor can be shut down using graphite balls, and as a final desperate measure to completely shut the reactor down, graphite dust.  In most reactors, the core is chambered in a closed housing, but at Chernobyl the containment was apparently open to the sky.  Once the graphite dust had been dumped into the core, the dust was ignited by the nearby burning turbine, and as you might imagine, the reactor core was not only melting but the fuel rods were also burning.  The resulting smoke with nuclear fuel via winds patterns made its way around north-western Europe until heroic efforts by Ukrainian firefighters managed to eventually put out the fire and the cores could be flooded with more graphite dust.   Then when Mother Earth does unexpected attacks like the Tsunami at Fukushima plant in Japan, nuclear core problems become everyone’s problem and for a long time to come.

There are plans for new types of nuclear reactors that are potentially walk-away safe, but the costs involved in planning, building, and maintaining nuclear power stations are extremely prohibitive, especially when compared to renewable options that can provide the same electric power, safely and for a fraction of the investment cost with minimal problems.

Understanding Modern Energy 4 – The reality of Mining, Extraction, and use of Fossil Fuels (FFs)

Do you know where your energy comes from?  The big concept here is that it takes energy to get to the energy.  The easy ways of getting to the fossil fuels are long gone.  The more of the FF resources that are extracted, the more technology and energy it takes to get what extra FF resource we can squeeze out of a site.  Just google image any of the key terms in this post to see what is happening to get you your energy.  Besides the fact that the amount of FFs available is declining rapidly, and pollution problems are increasing, obtaining FF energy is not a benign industry.

MINING COAL

Coal can be highly variable in quality and consistency.  ‘Young’ coal that has not undergone much transformation from heat and pressure of overlying rock strata is usually just a more solid version of peat (Lignite).  As moisture is removed by heat and pressure over time, the coal becomes denser and less filled with other minerals such as sulfur and nitrogen (sub-bituminous, then bituminous).  The best quality coal is Anthracite because it has the highest carbon content, the fewest impurities, and the lowest water content making it burn hot with little less smoke and flame.  Alas, it is also the rarest and most expensive form of coal with only about 1% of world coal reserves found worldwide in deeper layers of rock strata.  Most coal fired systems will mix cheaper and more polluting bituminous coal with Anthracite to exactly meet pollution emission standards.  Note: these emission standards are not zero emissions, they are only what levels are deemed as acceptable pollution versus economic benefit, which is still amazing amounts of pollution that occurs producing continuous health problems.  The other source of pollution from burning coal is the ‘coal ash.’  Each year U.S. power plants dump more than 100 million tons of this toxic ash (containing Arsenic, Lead and Mercury especially) into ponds and landfills with leakage always a high problem, raising the risk of ground water and surface water contamination.

Coal Mining – Underground

Underground coal mines are becoming harder to mine with rock fault systems making it prohibitively expensive to continue this kind of mining.  Coal seams deep underground have a shaft for the workers, machines to get underground and also for the extracted coal to come to the Surface.  The main tunnel is reinforced concrete that leads from the shaft to the continually moving coal face where drum cutters drop coal on to an armored chain conveyor belt system that takes the coal all the way back to the main shaft.  The space immediately in front of the face is supported by roof props that are moved forward with the advancing face and the main tunnel support.  Usually, the props are removed and the area once filled with coal is left open on the outside of the main tunnel concrete chamber.  This void is prone to frequent roof collapse with the main tunnel being the only protection for the miners and machinery.  In areas where the geological rock strata is highly faulted, the coal seams are dislocated and much effort is necessary to keep the tunnels moving in a linear fashion.  Needless to say it becomes economically less feasible as the price of coal varies and coal mines producing bituminous and especially sub-bituminous coal become less useful because of high impurities (produce excessive pollution – recall, devastating black-smogs).

Coal Mining – Opencast Mining and Mountain Top Removal

More surface mining from Opencast mines is one of the most common forms to extract primarily bituminous coal.  The mining is generally more surface level coal, although deep pit mining techniques can be used.  In Mountain Top Removal, the mountain is literally removed to access the coal seams.  Imagine a chocolate layer cake with a cream center layer.  In surface mining, the top layer (the overburden) has to be removed to access the cream layer.  In reality this is mountain top removal where all the overburden is removed and dumped off to the side below the layer often into river valleys around the mountain while the coal (the cream layer) is removed.  If you ever see tailings tips from old mining, think about his on a scale where the whole area is one big tailings tip.  It is an extremely destructive form of mining leaving hundreds of square miles of surface land stripped to lower level bedrock.  The river valleys now filled with overburden still have the watercourses moving through pulverized rock leaching out all manner of minerals that pollute the surface and the groundwater – acid mine drainage is a extensive problem in all surface mining that is almost impossible to remedy without expensive water treatment or water purification plants.

Tar Sands and Tar Shales

You may have heard of Tar Sands and Oil Shales where Kerogen lies permeated into the near-surface layers of sands and rock shale (e.g. Alberta).  I said at the start of this post that it takes energy to get the energy.  In these sands and shales, the kerogen is strip mined and then chemically treated to make it into an oil-like substance.  I have it on good authority from a Conoco colleague that it is barely a money making proposition since it takes about 4 barrels worth of oil energy to get five barrels of yield.  Meanwhile it does completely ruin thousands of square miles of ground for hundreds of years before it will naturally remediate back to a prairie, and eventually back to a boreal forest (just google image ‘Tar Sands Canada’ and see why).

DRILLING FOR PETROLEUM OIL

Petroleum Oil (a complex mix of hydrocarbons) is found in deep underground reservoirs and rock impregnated with oil or Kerogen.  When a well is drilled, the pressure on the underground reservoir usually forces the primary extraction to the surface on its own.  Once that natural pressure is gone, secondary extraction requires that some form of pressure from the surface (e.g. water injection, natural gas reinjection and gas lift) be applied to the oil well to force the oil to the surface.  About 35-45% of the oil reservoir is recoverable by primary and secondary techniques.  A further tertiary 5-15% may be extracted using techniques like high pressure steam and surfactants that make the viscous remaining recoverable oil flow under generated pressure to the surface.  The ‘Estimated Ultimate Recovery – EUR’  is an approximation of the quantity of oil or gas that is potentially recoverable or has already been recovered from a reserve or well.  When it is extracted it is usually piped to the coast and loaded on to really big oil tankers for shipping around the world.  The transfer pipes too often rupture or explode and the oil tankers sometimes run aground (think Exxon Valdez), although the newer tankers have double hulls to lessen the likelihood of oil spills in such cases.  The big new threat is that of oil rail cars on the railroads.  The majority of these oil cars are still not up to standard for controlling spills.  You may have heard of derailments where small towns have had to be evacuated because of these oil cars rupturing and exploding in derailments.

DRILLING FOR NATURAL GAS (NG)

Drilling for NG was a lot like drilling for oil in that it is a similar drilling technique to a large underground deposit.  When NG was first found it would be possible to simply drill a hole and then tap the gas fields.  Since the 1970s the numbers of large gas fields have fast become depleted and in the mid-1990s, Hydraulic Gas Fracturing (Fracking) finally became economical to use.  From one drill head the drill goes vertically down to the level of the shale containing the many small pockets of NG where the drill can then go horizontally through the shall layer.  The same drill head can go horizontally in various directions   Once the hole is drilled, water (up to 1 million gallons per frack), fine grained sand (50%) and a mixture of proppants (up to 655 chemicals, many toxic, making 0.5% of the fluid mix total) are pumped under high pressure to crack the shale rock, thereby releasing the NG from the pockets.  The pipeline is cleared by withdrawing as much as 70% of the fracking mixture leaving behind the sand and some proppants to keep the cracks open so that the gas from the now ruptured gas pockets can flow freely back to the surface.  This sounds innocuous, unless you live right next to a drill head.   All the water used cannot be recovered unless it is extensively distilled (really expensive) and so is removed from the water cycle and pumped underground (along with the chemicals) into old extraction sites.  It is assumed that the groundwater will not be contaminated and that the cracks produced in the rocks deep underground will not leach to the groundwater or to the surface itself.  Numerous reports suggest that this is not predictable and does occurs occasionally.

While oil fields tend to be in non-populated places, fracking is done everywhere, including populated areas and even within communities.  First there is the noise from a drill rig going 24/7 accompanied by endless truck traffic going back and forth from the site.  Since the drilling is 24/7, there are intense arc lights on during the night.  And then there is the potential of blowouts, which sadly are more frequent than the news reports would have you believe.  When a frack is occurring, the high pressure can rupture the drill head containment system.  At this point, the back pressure would push some of the frac mixture out of the drill head into the air.  There are numerous stories of people who live downwind of a drill head suffering unusual debilitating health problems.  With a blowout, the problem is magnified as the chemicals (the injection list is proprietary) become more concentrated in the air, and possibly the worse hazard is the fine grain sand (around 10 micron grains) that if you are downwind and should be unfortunate enough to get a lung-full, would cause silicosis!  The industry argue that the system is safe and that the economic benefits outweigh the environmental and health risks, yet their faith in the system is so weak that they vehemently fight any regulations that place any health and safety issues at their door.

Issues surrounding natural gas extraction. 

Colorado Issue 112 (2018) – This issue has only one sentence – setback any drill site 2500 ft instead of the current 500 ft.  This is NOT an anti-energy proposal, but an increased safety proposal.  There are already regulations limiting where fracking can occur and that have obliged the industry to cater to health and environmental safety.  So why should an extra 2000 ft safety setback raise such commotion?  Issue 112 does not restrict the right to drill.  The 85% of areas currently not open to drilling are irrelevant in this issue.  Yet, the industry has launched an $80-100 million misinformation campaign to defeat this issue emphasizing an economic Armageddon that will engulf Colorado should it pass.  Based on data from drill-head blowouts, even 2500 ft is barely enough should you be nearby or downwind from the blowout.  It is not a restriction on legal drilling nor is it extending any of the existing regulations other than the setback distance – NG will still be as available as it currently is – this issue is merely an extra setback safety space.  Horizontal drilling can go 5200 ft from the drill head.  This increased setback would mean more negotiating with landowners for site placements to reach shale rock beyond their existing reach, but the safety factor for homeowners, schools and businesses overall would be greatly improved.  The venom exhibited by the oil and gas industry and their proponents is quite extraordinary – even death threats to 112 supporters.  The CSPR roundtable report list lots of economic data to support their viewpoints, except WHY this setback would actually impact the industry.  Why would jobs be lost? Why would revenue be lost?  Why would the industry go into economic freefall? – what makes issue 112 reckless, besides the fact that the industry does not want anyone telling them what they can or cannot do?  Existing regulations on the industry would still allow fracking where it is currently allowed, except they would have to think more clearly about the setback distance and safety issues.

A little history.

Projects Gasbuggy (1967), Rulison (1969), and Rio Blanco (1973).  As an example of clear thinking by the Energy industry, let me appraise you with a brilliant idea of three projects with peaceful uses of underground nuclear bombs, all part of Operation Plowshare.  As an example, in the Rulison project, a 38.5 Kiloton nuclear bomb was exploded 8,400 ft underground, 8 miles southeast of Parachute, Colorado.  The resulting blast was meant to open up all the shale rock in the area and provide a large central chamber in which all the Methane could collect for piping from the blast site.  In all three cases the resulting methane was contaminated with Radioactive Kypton 85 and very high levels of Tritated Hydrogen (apparently, no one thought of radioactive contamination as a serious side-effect) and eventually the gas was flared off (burned in to the atmosphere).  Fracking was seen as a better alternative – it didn’t upset the public as much with radioactivity being absent, except in residues of the retrieved fracking solutions.

Understanding Modern Energy 3 – The Exponential use and depletion of Fossil Fuels

I have been teaching about energy for many years.  In all that time I have heard a great many people who expound on fossil fuels (FFs) that really have no idea of what is really happening concerning the use and depletion of this energy source.  Since we have been using them for over 200 years there seems to be an assumption that there must be an inexhaustible amount of them, even if the idea that they are finite is recognized.  In the last blog post I mentioned the ‘exponential function (EF).’  I have this description of EF from another blog I write: “The EF is also known as the power of doubling.  It can be applied to everything that grows or diminishes.  A very simplified formula that can be applied to calculate EF is 70/Growth Rate (GR) = Doubling Time (DT).  The number 70 is simply a round-up of the exponential doubling function 100ln2 (69.3).  If you know the GR or the DT then you can find a real number for growth.  For example, if you wanted to find the doubling time for the human population with a GR of 1% then 70/1 = 70 years.  So if the global population of people in 2000 was 7 billion, then at 1% GR the population would be 14 billion in 2070.  Without going into any more detail, simply realize that when you have a resource of say 100% of mineral Z and you have used half of the mineral (50%) then you are just one more DT from depleting that resource – 50% à 100% in one DT.  At 25% you are two DTs from depleting the resource.  If you found an extra 100% more mineral Z extra than you had before, then you are still only one more extra DT from depletion, since 100% à 200% in one DT.  The math is really simple.  Small numbers grow slowly to bigger numbers, then big numbers get monstrously bigger quickly.

Even if you ignore the pollution and waste problems, I have heard politicians and fossil fuel industry representatives exclaim that the data from ‘experts’ in the FF industries say we have enough FFs for hundreds of years.  For instance, headlines will claim that “at current rate of usage we have enough coal for a 1000 years.”  It is designed to mislead people.  Yet, as the Colorado University Physicist Al Bartlett used to say, “The headline is sort-of true but only under two very specific conditions that never exist.” Once we parse apart the headline, the assumptions for this to be true are that:

  1. All the known resource can be extracted. These resources are not like a glass of water where a full glass can be easily poured out.  Getting to the FFs is straight forward at first but becomes harder as the resource is removed.  As a very broad generalization only about 50% of the resource is recoverable (between 30-70% depending on many factors of extraction technology) and the economic reality is that as the resource becomes harder to extract, the rising cost of extraction becomes economically prohibitive to unfeasible.  For coal, the easily accessible coal seams start to become harder to mine.  For oil and natural gas, the large pockets are long gone and new invasive techniques are needed to get to the dregs at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak (more in next blog post about extraction itself)
  2. The headline says at ‘current rates of usage’ – this is crucial to understand because it talks about a linear rate of usage not exponential. That is, we use only as much next year as we did last year. And, the statement in the headline assumes that for the next 1000 years we will never increase usage per year but it is exponential not linear user that is currently happening.   What are the possibilities that we will immediately stop using energy exponentially.  One of the reasons we are using FFs exponentially is that while 15-20% of the industrialized countries have been using FFs for nearly 200 years, because of globalization the rest of the world is now coming on-board quickly with developing technology based on FF use, and only a few isolated places going straight to the renewable energy options.   Curiously, China was building a regular coal fired power plant at the rate of a 1000 MW coal fired electrical plant per week.  But China has now become highly invested in solar and wind as the reality of FFs hits home to them with extensive pollution problems, and limiting FF supplies that they now have to import at large cost.

If you go to the U.S. government’s own sites that give the FF supply status, and then apply the exponential function, the reality of FF supplies in the U.S. becomes alarming and surprising.  Peak of a resource is when the maximum rate of resource extraction is experienced.  After peak, the amount available then declines even as the demand increases.

  • Coal: At the current exponential rate of usage there is about 50 years worth of coal that can be recovered – this includes known and expected unknown resources, but recovery is going to be very costly from this point onwards. It has to be heavily subsidized by the government for it to make sense to continue extraction.  And as for the boondoggle called clean coal, it’s like saying clean dirt or clean mud.  What people who say this mean is that it is somehow possible to capture the carbon and pipe it under ground in old empty FF sites and old salt mines, etc.  That’s great as long as the deposition sites never leak and you have enough money to throw at the emissions capture system.
  • Oil: In 2008, a politician was busy telling us how we had billions of barrels of Oil in Alaska that would address our country’s needs. I asked my students to do find out what the known and expected unknown resources of Oil were in the USA.  They correctly came back and said there were about 50 billion barrels of oil total, but the country was using just less than 8 billion barrels a year at current exponential usage.   Even with efficiencies of oil usage the sad comment is that the USA has about 8 years worth of its own oil resources.  The ‘peak’ of oil in the USA was about 1974 and since then we have been busy draining the last major recoverable oil reserves in the country.  Even with off-shore exploration the best finds tend to be about 500 million recoverable barrels per site.  ANWR in Alaska, possibly the largest untapped oil research in the USA, which is part of the total 50 billion, has only 11 billion barrels – enough for about 1.4 years of oil if we had to rely just on that U.S. oil reserve.   Even from industry experts, the world is currently at peak oil now.  The largest oil fields in the world (Middle East) will no longer release data of the estimates of recoverable oil – a comment in itself as they strategize their economies for the future oil shocks.  All oil fields in the world are in decline with the exception of some of the Russian oil fields and the East Bagdad oil field in Iraq.
  • Natural Gas: The peak of NG with regular technology in this country was about the early 1970s. As large NG resources started to decline, a new technique, previously uneconomical to use, was set up – Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking).  This allowed the energy companies to reach into widespread shale deposits where the confined gas pockets were highly variable pockets in size although some shales also contained small amounts of shale oil as well (its actually Kerogen that needs processing into oil).  The technology for fracking has existed since the 1940s but was never economically feasible until the price of NG started going up as supplies started to become limiting in the early 1990s.  Rather than just a vertical drill hole to a large pocket of resource, fracking allows drillers to drill down from one hole and then go horizontally in multiple directions deep underground.  The horizontal drill holes are then hydraulically treated to crack the ground rock deep down where the smaller gas deposits can be collected and piped to the surface.  OK, that’s a very simple explanation.  The reality is a bit more troublesome.  (More discussion in the next post.)

What is key here is that extraction of gas and oil via fracking is that recovering these resources means we are plumbing the bottom of the barrel of what was once there.  Coal is already uneconomical to extract.  In October 2018, yet another major coal mining site declared bankruptcy.  And out of the 20 major oil fields in the world, 18 are already well past peak and rapidly depleting.   As far as human societies go these FFs are all fast approaching the end of their useful life.  Yes, there are supplies for now but even as we continue to use them in the developed world, they are becoming exponentially depleted as more and more people in the developing countries that were not using them before start to increase their use of them.  Only last week (October 12, 2018), the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its monthly report that the world has hit “new twin peaks for global oil demand and supply” at 100 million barrels a day.  An optimistic report by the IEA based on industry reports of known oil resources is that the world has about 500 billion barrels of oil total.  A quick calculation based on world total with the latest daily oil use shows us less than 14 years of oil supplies at current rates.  And we keep acting as this is not a problem.

More about extraction in the next blog post.

Understanding Modern Energy 2 – The wonder and dreadfulness of Fossil Fuels – A reality check.

The fossil fuels (FFs) – Coal, Oil, and Thermogenic Natural Gas (tNG – also called Methane) – are all fossils in the sense that they are made of compressed remnant anaerobically (without oxygen) decayed material from ancient organisms 100–500 million years in environments that existed at the bottom of the ocean, in deep lakes, and in swamp sediments.  All were converted to a substance call Kerogen and depending on the conditions in which they formed deep underground became the FFs we extract from the ground.  That’s the basics.  A key feature to think about is that these FFs were mostly photosynthetic organisms, i.e. they grew by extracting carbon dioxide from the air as do modern plants to form high energy sugars and other compounds used to build the plant’s structure.  The high energy chemical bonds were maintained and concentrated over the time they were transformed into Kerogen.  As a transportable energy source they had much more energy per equivalent mass than say wood.  Since ancient times, wood burning had been a major source of energy for humankind.  As populations grew so the forests shrank rapidly, since trees need many years to grow and mature and forest management was not thought about until the mid-1800s with extensive forest depletion in Europe.  About that time large exposed surface layers of coal had been discovered and coal became the natural fuel to use for the growing technology of the industrial revolution.  While swamp gas and tNG had been known about for centuries, commercial gas wells started in the 1820 and it was mainly used for lighting streets.  It wasn’t until safe gas lines could be built that it was finally piped into homes for heating and cooking in the early 1900s.

The FFs have been around for nearly 200 years so now everyone takes them for granted and as always having been there.   What we often forget is the pollution that occurs with FFs.  Until the 1970s the intense primary pollution has always been a problem and the reason for many respiratory deaths and lung problems over the many decades since their introduction.  Yes, they are a highly convenient form of energy, but the drawbacks were obvious with the frequent, intense, and dangerous smogs.  The black sooty pollution also coated everything in a black grime and acidic deposition (rain/snow) that also ate away at stone buildings.  And in case we think extracting FFs is benign, the mining and extraction jobs in these industries are some of the most dangerous in the world.  Accidental explosions and fires from extracting FFs are a common hazard as are the transportation and processing of these sources.

The other consequences of burning the FFs are that when we extract and release the energy, the carbon dioxide and other chemicals that had been stored underground for millions of years is released back into the atmosphere.  The thing most people seem to forget is that this trapped carbon dioxide is now added back to the atmosphere approaching levels that once existed in an ancient past.  Ancient periods (e.g. the Carboniferous period), in which the bulk of the Carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere during the creation of the FFs, had an atmosphere in which the planet was like a hot swamp all over (including the poles during the summers) where lots of surface swamp Natural Gas was also being produced.  (Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide.  The greenhouse effect is a normal process of how the planet stays warm anytime.)  Scientific evidence shows that the planet at the time of the Carboniferous period may have been 10-15oF hotter than it is today.  To be fair, some of that heat was also a result of an ‘equatorial circumventing thermohaline ocean current’ rather the ‘polar thermohaline circulation’ we have today.’  Another consequence of a warmer planet and denser vegetation is the increased movement of water (Water Cycle – evaporation, condensation, and evapotranspiration) into the atmosphere with increased clouds and atmospheric water vapor, which also increases the heat trapping ability of the atmosphere.  Yet, to ignore the consequences of how much heat trapping ability that carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor have is to ignore the scientific realities of atmospheric change outside anything natural happening.

In a nutshell, we are fast creating atmospheric conditions that resemble the carboniferous era but fortunately without the circumventing equatorial current’s additional effects of pre-35 million years ago.  (About that time, continental drift caused North and South America to meet up and Africa to connect with Europe and Asia Minor forcing the thermohaline current to move south under Cape Horn, South Africa and then north towards Greenland thus incrementally cooling the planet as the ocean waters cooled nearer the polar regions.)   Thank heavens for small mercies.  If we continually burn all the FFs the released gasses, that have been stored for hundreds of millions of years, may eventually give us a 10-12oF raise in temperature.  The planet will readily adapt – it always has, but can human society adapt to a radically different world in which mass energy will be need to survive but most of the FF energy sources have been used.  Ah, I hear some say, won’t we have renewable energy options – yes, but……

Just in case we forget, by only focusing on the heat trapping ability of atmospheric chemicals, the immediate problem of FFs pollution is also growing exponentially with the increased extracting of FFs over the last several decades.  Despite the 1970s clear air act, we are still increasingly bathed daily in Acid Deposition, Photochemical Smog, Ground Zone, Nitrous Oxides, Peroxyacyl Nitrates (PANs), and a host of other toxic and irritant pollution resulting from burning of FFs.  Health problems and deaths from FF pollution is on the increase globally.  As I said in the first blog post, what is bad about carbon?  What is good about pollution?

Now if you were to only listen to politicians and the FF energy sector bosses you might think that we had endless supplies of FFs.  The reality is that there is only a finite amount of organic organisms that were made in to the FFs.  All the easy to find FFs have long been discovered and already extracted.  (I have heard some non-scientists insist that these FFs are an ongoing process today, if not much slower process, but besides the pollution and heat trapping atmospheric gasses we have only to wait a few tens of millions of years for them to be ready to tap.)  No, another big problem that most people seem to be ignoring is the speed at which we are using these FFs, and it is exponentially growing usage.  To explain exponential usage, imagine you were stranded in the desert and had 10 gallons of water to drink.  If you rationed yourself to one pint a day the water would last 80 days.  If, however, there were two of you, the water would only last 40 days.  If four of you, 20 days.  If eight of you, 10 days.   You get the obvious idea; The more of you there are, the faster the water will be used.   That is happening with the FFs because the rest of the world is also consuming FFs as fast as we have been in the westernized world for the last two hundred years.  All the data from the energy companies, governmental sources, wherever, all show signs of serious depletion of FFs.  We are running out of large sources of FFs.  And the timeframe is a couple of decades, not a century or more.  So the FFs were wonderful in helping us to create our modernized world, but dreadful with the massive pollution consequences and exponential usage fast reaching depletion in the near future.

Understanding Modern Energy 1 – What it is and where it comes from.

Welcome to the new Blog by Renewables Now Loveland.

Thank you for visiting this Blog.  My name is Richard and I was a professor of Environmental and Sustainability Studies for many years, even writing textbooks to try and highlight the options and possibilities of sustainable technologies and sustainable living.

Since we’re talking about renewable energy it would be good to start with a basic understanding of energy overall.  Don’t worry, it won’t be a grim discussion on physics, but we do need to understand why renewables are a big issue and why they should be seriously considered as we move into the energy needs of the 21st century.

Our modern world with all its wonderful technologies exists only because we found wonderful sources of energy that allowed the technologies we take for granted to be made.  If you could take a Greek or Roman scholar from the past and throw them into the world of revolutionary America (1776), they would understand how the technology worked.  Even the guns and canons being used would be comprehensible to those ancient scholars.  Bring them 242 years further forward (2018) and those same scholars would conclude that our world must work on magic.  The great leap forward was possible because we found high energy sources that allowed technological leaps forward.  One of the first was the use of coal, then gas and oil to heat and light our modern world as well as provide energy for transportation.

Even today, most people do not comprehend the amazing enormity of what happens all the time.  For most, electricity is just a socket on the wall – behind that socket is a stream of electrons – made by a power station – that run through wires into our homes and businesses.  For most of the time during our technological world of the last 200 years, electricity was made by burning ‘something’ to heat a boiler of water to produce steam under pressure that would spin a turbine.  This turbine produces the electricity we take for granted. Most of the environmental problems we face today come from what was, and still is, being burned to heat the boiler.  Other problems stem from what is used as an energy source to provide us with transportation as we use to move around so effectively (or not as gridlock becomes the norm).

Between tens and Hundreds of millions ago, plant life that decayed in anerobic conditions (like swamps, of which there used to be a lot more around the planet back then) preserved the energy from photosynthesis captured within the plant structure.  Over time this plant mass was transformed by geological processes into Coal, Oil, or underground Natural Gas (as opposed to surface gas from present day swamps) – the fossil Fuels (FFs).  These high-quality energy sources were used to create electricity or to power our transports, with Natural Gas (NG) used to run furnaces for heat and industry and cooking ranges, and today replacing coal in many previous coal-fired power stations.  Of course, anything that can spin a turbine creates electricity, so many large rivers were damned to allow water to flow across the turbines creating hydro-electricity.  Those were the big four for many years until the advent of nuclear power (after WWII) when the heat from decaying radioactive chemicals were used to heat the water in the boiler (same basic idea – heat water to produce steam).

In a nutshell, the big problems are that all this plant material laid down over millions of years is limited.  We have been using it so fast and in such enormous amounts that it is no longer the plentiful source it once was.  Burning all this material is the same as burning wood in a campfire – it produces lots of smoke – and since the FFs are concentrated energy, the smoke and emissions are many times more concentrated as well.   Those who grew up in the post WWII years will recall the thick killer grey-smogs that plagued our cities and towns.  We have historical accounts of the horrors of coal pollution since the late 1800s from Coal fired power plants all around the growing industrialized countries of the world.  The reason we don’t see the intense grey-smogs anymore is because of the clean air act of 1970 (here, and also in other industrialized countries).  Coal burning had to be regulated and the power plant output of smoke had to be treated.  Auto-emission also had to be treated (using catalytic converters on the exhaust) to reduce the intensity of the emissions.  The problem of auto-emission is the production of photochemical brown-smog.  All carbon sources fuels produce smog chemicals and ground level ozone pollution.  So when we hear from carbon lovers about what is bad about carbon, my answer is always, what’s so good about pollution?   In the 1970s there was a big push to move away from FFs to renewable energy that didn’t burn something to produce electricity, instead using technology that directly captured the energy of the sun or its derivatives (e.g. wind, ground heating) – sources that would last as long as the sun burned.

We’ll end this blog post with the caveat that there is no perfect energy capture or generation system.  What we will do in subsequent blog posts is explore all the options and recognize those that are clearly better for our health and the health of the environment, and also those that will promote a sustainable world of equity rather than a world of limitation and strife.

Hello Loveland

Welcome to Renewables now Loveland.  The blog begins with the latest post and scrolls down through to the first post.  It is meant to educate about Electrical Power and why we need to embrace renewable energy while acknowledging its history in making this modern world possible.