Thursday, 19 August 2010

How much energy do we REALLY need to replace to handle peak oil?

One of our idiot doomer friend said that it's impossible to replace current petroleum energy used by modern civilization.

Well instead of just falling out of my chair laughing, let's just do the numbers.


We need to replace the UTILITY lost by decline in oil supplies. And ONLY for the decline in oil supplies. The entire economy just doesn't run off of petroleum ONLY. There is a huge component that runs on electricity right now and we have no shortage of electricity in the industrialized world nor will we if we continue building renewables and more coal and nuke plants. Anyways, let's take the tack that even if there were no viable fossil fuel substitutes for the petroleum component (shale gas and unconventional oil does not exist for example) then we have the capacity to ramp up electricity production.

So how much do we actually need to replace? Only the equipment and plant affected by the decline rate of oil, not the entire stock of hardware in modern civilization. And since most equipment that uses petroleum is in transportation, let's look at the energy requirements to replace that decline rate.

Since electricity provides about 4X the utility of petroleum due to 4X the efficiency we need to replace about 1/4 of the decline rate assuming there are no other efficiencies to be had.

But there are.

Here in North America people are still arguing that 20mpg is "good gas mileage" because the average mpg of the fleet is about 15mpg.

If we triple that up to 45mpg equivalent by driving European style vehicles by size and then further cut the energy requirement by 4 due to electric efficiency and THEN only replace what we need to replace to cover the decline rate things start to look a LOT more doable.

In North America for example if we need to replace 1/4 of 10% (the high end of the doomer scenarios - though it's more likely to be 1/4 of 2%) then let's take a look eh?

How many vehicles do we have in our vehicle parc? Answer 250 million.
How many get replaced right NOW every year in a normal year? Answer 14 million.
I make that to be about 5 and a half percent.

So every year we are ALREADY replacing double the number of vehicles we need to replace to keep up with decline if we made them all electric. So let's look at how much power we would need to power all these puppies, shall we?

7 million new electric vehicles per year at 20KW/h per day = 140 million KW/h per day. Which is a capacity requirement of 140/24 to get KWs only. That gives us 5.8 million KWs capacity needed which is 5800 MWs.

Now let's take a look at what kind of capacity we're ACTUALLY bringing online:
Right from the Nuclear Energy Institute we have the following:
"For the first seven months of 2010, the following new electric generation came online: 3,700 MW of natural gas, 3,400 MW of coal, 1,500 MW of wind, 300 MW of biofuels, 80 MW of solar, 50 MW of geothermal, and 20 MW of hydro. A total of 37,000 MW of new capacity are under construction and expected to come online between now and 2014. Of this capacity, 46% is natural gas, 29% is coal, 16% is wind, 6% are other renewables and 3% is nuclear. Another 248,000 MW of capacity is planned to come online by 2014 but is still in the documentation phase; 41% of this capacity is wind, 32% are other renewables and 27% are fossil fuels (Ventyx, page 5)."

Wow. Looks like we're already bringing on about half the requirement in renewables by themselves.
So if we triple renewable construction we cover the decline just by renewables alone.


Hit the snooze button.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Peak Rare Earths and Electric Cars - Doom by shortage?

Some doomers reckon that we are not only going to enter a period where conventional oil peaks but that also coal will peak, potash will peak, lithium will peak etc etc.

The one I'm interested in is electric cars, because I like driving and I don't want to give up my car.

So let's take a look at that.

A prius for example uses 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of neodymium in it's motors, and each battery uses 10 to 15 kg (22-33 lb) of lanthanum and some 10lbs of lithium.

There have been some reports that we are doomed because China is currently the #1 supplier of rare earths and if China shuts off supply we are all doomed.
First all, because it's currently the #1 supplier doesn't mean there's none anywhere else in the world. There are significant resources in Canada and the US (not even considering Russia, Africa and Australia) that are simply just not cost effective to extract at current (ridiculously cheap prices ).
But let's ignore that for a minute and focus purely on the amount of material.

Are there substitutes for neodymium? Yes there are. Cobalt works and is about as abundant as neodymium. Additionally Dysprosium can be used. It's also not widely known but the reason we are currently dependent on neodymium is due to a crash R&D program in the early 80s by Sumitomo of Japan to find a replacement for Cobalt Magnets which at the time were the gold standard for delivering high magnetic field strength (and thus high torque). The major source of Cobalt at the time was Zaire, which was involved in the Cold War (remember that?) and the Soviets at the time took the world's main supply of Cobalt offline, thus leading Sumitomo to invent post-haste an entirely new high magnetic field strength magnet based on different materials. Given that China is attempting a strangehold on the market at the moment, what is the likelihood that there are enterprising companies trying to develop alternatives as we speak? Well as a matter of fact there are:
AC induction motors have been developed that completely eliminate the use of rare earths.
Or you could use software controlled systems such as that developed by Chorus technologies which also eliminates the requirement for rare earths also. Options, options. What to pick? Blueberry ice cream or Chocolate or Vanilla or Mint or… you get the picture.

Is there anything else can be done? Why yes there is.
Currently all electric vehicles have a single speed transmission, leading to the need for very large, very powerful electric motors. Several companies, including Zytek and Zeroshift are working on multi-speed gearboxes, which will greatly reduce the need for such large motors (by up to 10-30% by some estimates) meaning that the amount of rare earths required are reduced signficiantly.

Is there yet anything else?
Unlike oil, which is burned in the form of gasoline and the waste products vented to the atmosphere, worn out electric motors and batteries can be RECYCLED and as much as 90% of the original in place material could be re-used.

What about batteries?
Ongoing R&D in the materials required to produce batteries are prolific and there are several candidates on the drawing board which use significantly less lithium and/or have entirely different chemistries such as zinc/air.

And last but not least, despite their name the rare earth metals chemically are not that rare. Within the crust the most common rare earth metals (lanthanum to neodymium) have a similar crustal abundance to the less common base metals (zinc, copper, nickel and tin) and even the rarer middle and heavy rare earth metals are more common than silver. They are certainly nowhere near as rare as the precious metals, such as gold and the platinum group elements. To a certain extent this is reflected in the price of rare earth metals which generally fall somewhere in between the price of the rarer base metals and silver.

So what it comes down to in the end is this: you can pick your investment options and possibly end up picking the Microsoft of the new energy/new transportation paradigm or you can scoot on over to savinar's site and load yourself up with guns and ammo in anticipation of the impending zombie apocalypse.

My choice? I'm deciding whether to go to Maui or Disneyland for my next vacation.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Revisiting Energy Storage for Wind

Some non-believers in the techo-luddite camp believe that wind or other renewables cannot ever replace fossil fuel based power for the simple reason that the wind and/or sun blows/shines at inconvenient times vis a vis power demand.

Ignoring completely that electric vehicles will most likely be run off of batteries which are *stored power* and all by themselves will solve the intermittency problem, there is an already existing and *operational* technology that will also solve the problem.

Back in the 80s a man named Michael Nakhamkin designed the United State's first compressed air storage plant in McIntosh Alabama.

This plant was built for a small utility called Alabama Electric Cooperative.
The problem AEC had was that the power demand did not match the supply. (Sound familiar?)
What they had was that the supply vastly overwhelmed the demand at night. They were running a coal plant at night which provided way more electricity that could be used. Running the coal plant at lower capacity wasn't workable because coal plants are more efficient at 100% capacity and running it down created excess pollution. Then during the day, the plant couldn't provide enough power to meet demand and so AEC had to buy power from other companies at the vastly inflated marginal price. So what to do?

The solution was to create some sort of storage facility.
Luckily such a storage facility already existed in Huntorf, Germany and was fairly straightforward to copy for US implementation. It was a salt dome which was partly dissolved and resealed leaving a giant air compression chamber.

During off-peak times, electricity runs a compressor which pumps the air down into the cavern. Then, when energy is needed, the air is released from the reserve to power a fairly standard turbine, with a little help from natural gas. The system has worked for more than 25 years.

In 1991, when the plant went online, there were high hopes that the technology might catch on among utilities.

‘We expect the CAES plant technology pioneered in Alabama to lead to widespread application in this country,” said Robert Schainker, the manager of the Electric Power Research Institute’s Energy Storage Program in a press release announcing the plant’s completion. ‘Three fourths of the United States has geology suitable for underground air storage. At present, more than a dozen utilities are evaluating sites for CAES application.”

But with low fossil fuel prices and little intermittent renewable energy on the grid, there wasn’t much incentive for utilities to build the plants. The plant saved money for the Alabama Electric Cooperative, but it wasn’t “critical savings” as Nakhamkin put it.

“Rich people don’t talk about how to save five or 10 dollars,” he said.

So the salient points here are the following:
• Even at 1990s prices of electricty, salt dome compressed air storage was cost-competitive (and even saved some (small) amount of money.
• We don't *need* storage for the grid until 20% or greater as the European experience has shown
• 75% of the United States already has the necessary geology to do this.
• It wasn't done because the investment required to save a small amount of money was too great.

So it seems that there is no *practical* nor *technical* reason that it wasn't done. It was that electricity was TOO CHEAP to care about small savings.

So if as the doomers say, electricity prices have nowhere to go but up, then it will also become financially sensible to invest in this kind of storage technology which means there is no reasonable limit on how far we can scale up wind or solar.
And that's entirely ignoring other solutions such as the millions of electric car batteries soon coming online or the ability to ramp up storage into e.g. large refigeration facilities and let them run down overnight etc etc

Seems that the prognostications of doom based on forever rising electricity prices are, shall we say, somewhat of a stretch, hmmmm?