Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Did Renewables have it's "Sputnik Moment" in Spain this year?

Grumpy Old Men resistant-to-change ("geezers") love to rant in great detail about how renewables will never work, continually quoting already-debunked statements like "it's impossible to get above 20% penetration without MASSIVE investment in unproven or non-existent technology" or "the wind doesn't always blow, then what?" etc etc.

Well let's look at Spain's progress up till now and especially let's focus on what happened during 2010.

Previous to 2010 one particular region in Spain, Navarra had at times achieved penetration of up to 60% of it's electricity supply from a combination of wind and hydro. Pretty impressive you might say, but not everywhere has hydro (though plenty places do such as Norway, Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia among others - and it should be pointed out that Ontario is an industrial powerhouse, producing more cars by volume than Michigan so we might say that the industrial base to produce electric cars without being affected too too much by oil declines already exists but that's another story for another day....).

Anyways returning to the point: Spain as an example and it's progress on renewables up to 2010.

In this post here there are some juicy details:

Translated from Spanish, what it basically says is that across the entire country, between wind, solar and hydro, Spain produced an *average* of 35% of it's electric demand from renewables such as wind, hydro and solar and and additional 19% from Nuclear and the balance from oil and gas. This when demand *increased* by 2.9% on an annual basis. I make that to be Spain 55% covered by non oil-and-gas. Or a little bit better than glass is half full.

That's interesting. I thought it was impossible to get above 20% without MASSIVE upgrades to the grid. Oh wait, perhaps the doomers and old change-resistant curmudgeons were actually WRONG? Could it be? Oh woe.

What's also interesting to watch is that Spain is a testbed for solar. In Spain they already have close to 3% being generated by Solar methods and they're nowhere near maxxed out. Given that a radical new solar energy technology is on the horizon with greatly increased efficiency we could conceivably be looking at 10% Solar electricity in Spain in the next decade and perhaps much more optimistically speaking.

And on a sarcastic note one of the reasons hydro was able to produce much more was due to all the extra RAIN that Spain received. Turns out that the evil global warming made Spain WETTER rather than drier. Excuse me but I thought global warming was always EVIL?!?!?

Returning from sarcasm to the real world where money is made, it's also interesting to point out that another of the myths the change resistant geezers promote is that fossil fuel plants need to be built to cover times when renewables produce low volumes. Turns out, that rather than import electricity from fossil fuel powered domains, Spain in fact EXPORTED electricity to France in 2010. And not just in 2010. They've been doing this since 2004.

Anyways, Spain's national target is 40% renewables by 2020, a laudable goal. They're already 70% of the way there and we're only at the end of 2010.

Combine this mix with a healthy increase in nuclear power and we may see the Spanish at least being entirely off of fossil fuels for electricity within the foreseeable future. Now we just need to get off our asses in North America...

So returning to debunking dieoff, could it just possibly be that unlike what the dieoff crowd say, the lights are NOT GOING OUT??

Christmas Post

In idle moments I often wonder why some people are so resistant to change. These very same types of people throw up objections to moving off of oil (while at the same time offering no solutions).

Since there is a lot of resistance (I'd say whining) to moving off of oil, we hear things like the following "I don't want to drive an electric car because I can't refuel it everywhere and I'd like to (2X a year!) drive to the coast which is too far" (ignoring completely the fact that SOME people will have to change their transportation methods if peak oil is real)


"I don't want to pay tax dollars towards subsidizing wind power or solar power because I'm a free marketeer" (but you support spending 2 trillion dollars defending oil supplies in the mid-east - which is *allegedly* not "subsidies".

So imagine this:

Imagine that we have no choice but to move a million vehicles per year in the national fleet off of oil.

Will those disenfranchised drivers prefer to

a. Take the bus
b. Drive a limited range electric vehicle.

Personally I know which I'd choose.

On another note, I often muse about what the next decade or two is going to look like and I also wonder how to make some money out of it. Some of the signs of change are already here but no clear winners have yet emerged.
2011-2020 is going to be interesting I think. So let me take a stab at guessing what could happen (just guesses):

I think we could see some big winners in the following
1. Electric vehicles powertrain and associated parts suppliers.
2. Japanese, US and European companies who develop alternative non-rare-earth magnet substitute technology
3. Continued breakthroughs in battery technology which bring 400 mile range to european sized passenger cars - some of these technologies will be composed of cheap materials but enhanced by nanotechnology materials
4. Continued breakthroughs in enhanced oil extraction technologies which bolster production - flattening any decline
5. Continued cost reductions in solar technology - better than parity in some of the sunnier regions
6. Reduction in format of nuclear reactors for applications such as freight shipping
7. Standardization in recharging facilities for electric vehicles - will the EU pick one and standardize on it or will be see a betamat vs VHS fight?
8. Heavy duty big rig truck manufacturers will go for natural gas conversions in a big way
9. Continued incremental increases in crop yields
10. Standardization of battery swap technology similar to Project Better Place's idea

Following are wild cards I think we could see:
1. Algal oil up to a sustainable level to be able to produce a couple million barrels per day
2. Methane hydrates - the japanese may figure out how to unlock the massive deposits they have off their coast in a cost effective way
3. Perennial cereal crops & Salt water crops
4. Cheap energy efficient desalinization
5. Seaweed to oil
6. Industrial volumes of biochar for increased crop yield with the by-product of carbon capture
7. Plastics from renewable sources such as biomass on an industrial scale
8. Plastics from natural gas augmented by nuclear power or renewables
9. Greatly enhanced efficiency to some form of fischer tropf process to go from shale gas to liquids using nuclear or renewables
10. Large numbers of junker vehicles backfitted to natural gas for those who can't afford electric vehicles

Place your investment bets ladies and gentlemen...

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Batteries: Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

We might be close.

Planar Energy, a spinoff from the US Department of Energy Renewable Technology lab has developed a 3D printable solid state lithium battery with three times the energy density at half the cost of current generation Li-Ion batteries.

The hard process engineering part was to scale up the size of the batteries which had previously been difficult to do. The breakthrough is their 3D "printing style" deposition process which allows precise deposition of solid state nanoscale electrodes, doing away with the need for liquid.

Half the cost and three times the energy density?

A nissan leaf with a three hundred fifty mile range optimal conditions and two hundred mile range sub-optimal conditions would probably meet in excess of 90% of North American driving scenarios and higher still in Europe.

So are we there yet? Nearly.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

So thinking some more about today's post

So I've been thinking some more about today's post on the new solar antenna which could replace solar panels at greatly increased efficiency and harvest some of that from infrared.

I have come to the conclusion that this technology is disruptive. It's the long awaited replacement for fossil fuels right there.


Let's do a little back of the envelope calculation.

Let's say you get 45% efficiency during direct sunlight (say 6 hours per day). Let's say you get 12% efficiency during the rest of the day (let's remember it can harvest infrared energy even at night). What we're talking about is effectively doubling the number of hours of full sunlight. So we get 12 hours of sunlight every day at 45% efficiency.

Now the best solar panels of today get 25% efficiency during 6 hours per day under optimal conditions (these new paradigm panels get 80% under optimal conditions).

Doing the math that means we have 4X as much energy harvested as with current best of breed cells.

Looking at costing we are at about 2X to 3X the cost of fossil fuel with current solar panel installations with *United States* average retail electricity prices.

Now let's be conservative and say we only get 2X the energy harvested rather than the 4X I have postulated. In this case, assuming we can get the process engineering out of the way and the cost down to a level that's at *least* the same for volume production of current generation solar cells, then we are at parity to 50% more than parity with fossil fuel derived electricity in the United States.

Who cares about parity you say?

Well as it happens the United States happens to be in the least expensive 10% of electricity produced GLOBALLY.

So that means 90% of the planet will be able to produce electricity cheaper with these new solar cells than by burning up fossil fuels.

That's a game changer.

So here's your homework:
What will the world look like 20 years from now?
10 billion people, limited fossil fuels, very cheap renewable electrical energy and ability to extract useful minerals from very low quality ores due to abundance of energy.

We live in very interesting times.

Solar Panels just took a big jump in efficiency

It has been a long hard slog to develop and produce solar panels with an efficiency rating of 25% (that is they convert 25% of the convertible light spectrum into electricity with the rest wasted). The original solar panels from the early 1970s had an efficiency rating of just 10%. So it has taken us forty years to just more than double the efficiency. I'm thinking that surely we can do better than that?

Other technology has been used to lesser or greater degrees of efficiency such as focussed lens solar panels, but these are far more expensive than standard solar panels and since regular solar panels to start with are 2X-3X as expensive today as the most expensive electricity in the United States, we don't need anything that adds to the cost.

One of the issues at hand is standard solar panels have two major drawbacks. The first is that they must be angled correctly or the angle of the sunlight will just bounce off the junction in the solar cell, with the potential to convert the light to electricity lost. The second drawback is that standard solar panels are able to utilize only a small and fixed portion of the solar spectrum.

These two factors may be about to change with the invention of an entirely new class of solar panels at the US Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls. The new panels are able to use a much wider spectrum of light than standard panels and additionally they are capable of absorbing energy at a variety of angles.
This leads to an efficiency of greater than 45% compared to the current best of 25% for the most expensive panels currently on the market.

The most interesting and salient point, however isn't the ability to use angles, it's the fact that in addition to being able to use a much wider spectrum of light, they are also able to use non-visible light such as infrared.

Why is that important?

Firstly greater than 50 percent of sunlight is in the infrared and secondly another name for infrared is *heat*.

What are the implications of that?

These solar panels can be used at *night*!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Nuclear Powered Freight Shipping coming to a theater near you

Many of the bleeding edge thinkers on oil decline point to nuclear energy as being a valid substitute to diesel in freight shipping.

It seems that the freight shipping industry itself has finally sat up and taken notice. About time too I say to myself.

Anyways... One of the largest shipping and freight operators in the world, greek shipping operator Enterprise Shippind And Trading S.A. has gotten together with Hyperion Power and discussed the concept of powering the shipping fleet with nukes.

This has already been tried successfully by the Germans between 1970 to 1979 on a nuclear powered freighter called Otto Hahn.

So the crap we buy from Wal-mart will still be arriving from China much to the chagrin of our "green" friends, likewise the 4000 mile salads even post peak.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Electric Buses

Start and stop fixed loop delivery vehicles are a prime candidate in the logistical supply chain for electrification. In previous posts I've pointed that out and also the accumulating evidence that the marketplace is starting to take notice. Specifically that those kinds of applications are already cost competitive with diesel and if prices rise drastically post peak oil decline then they will become more cost competitive still.

What about buses? I've pointed out before that buses are another prime candidate for electrification since they are fixed loop and since there is typically a large dedicated depot facility at the beginning/end of the loop, that depot facility would be a prime candidate for a fast charge facility so that even in heavily used urban bus routes, the bus could be taken out of service for, say, an hour and fast-charged back to 80% of capacity. I expected that this would cover most if not all urban bus scenarios.

As it turns out, I'm way too pessimistic. In the US, which has some 800,000 buses registered, close to 75% of them travel less than 100 miles per day. This is particularly true of the nearly 500,000 school buses.

There are several bus companies who have either hybrid, plug-in hybrid or fully electric already in short-run production.

One interesting application is one recently trialed by GE Global Research who have successfully piloted a dual battery system which has two distinct kinds of battery technologies: One is a high power A123Systems advanced (but expensive) lithium-ion battery with extremely high power density and the other is a much less expensive sodium metal halide battery which has lower power density but higher energy density.

The combination of the two is both cheaper (20% less expensive) - making it an easier sell - and meets the needs of a stop-and-start transit application or else a school bus type application.

I make that to be a potential market of more than half a million vehicles at the same time as shoring up yet another section of the transportation network.
Since these are a 1:1 substitution for diesel applications, the diesel that these electric vehicles *would have* used would subsequently be freed up by use forpersonal transportation, thus blunting any potential price rises and allowing car manufacturers a longer time period to amortize older plant and equipment and also spread the costs of raising capital for new plant and equipment.

So now where are we post peak oil in terms of substitutes:

Long distance transportation (via electric rail) Check.
Long distance shipping via nuclear powered freighters. Check.
Hub and Spoke last mile delivery via electric trucks. Check.
Pizza delivery via electric scooter. Check.
Mass transit via electric buses. Check.
School Transit via electric buses. Check.

The only remaining piece is to cover the personal transportation segment.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Dieoff by global warming

So allegedly if we don't stop the economy the associated emissions from carbon dioxide will heat the planet up, leading to temperatures so high that we'll all fry.

What's interesting to me is that there have been at least two global warming episodes in the past.

The biggest was during a period called the Eocene several tens of millions of years ago. What's interesting about this era is that carbon dioxide was several times what it will be in the worst case scenario in our own era(more than 500 parts per million project compared to 2000 parts per million during the Eocene). During the Eocene the summer temperature at the poles was 20C and in the tropics it was close to 40C. At the same time the global biodiversity was one of the highest it's ever been in the history of life. There were no humans around.

The more recent period called the Pliocene was very interesting because it's similar to now. Carbon dioxide was just under 400 parts per million and the configuration of the continents was almost identical to the way they are now. The temperature, however was some 5C higher at the poles and some 3C higher than today at the tropics.
Biodiversity was also much higher than today. There were only early hominids around and in limited numbers. Practically speaking there were no humans around.

What can be gleaned from those two cases?
1. Biodiversity in the pre-human epoch was usually higher during global warming periods.
2. There is large variation in temperatures at the same level of carbon dioxide
3. Even at extremely high concentrations of carbon dioxide there was no runaway greenhouse effect and life was not baked to a crisp.

So given these incontrovertible pieces of evidence we have to ask the question WHY are the ecologists so up in arms about us pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?

To answer that question we have to note that the response is: reduce the size of the economy and reduce energy consumption in order to reduce the emissions.

I think the answer to that is they do not really care about the carbon dioxide, it's the processes that generate the carbon dioxide and the energy consumption they're worried about.


Well, if your prime concern is biodiversity and preservation of ecosystems then you want the least possible interference. Given that carbon dioxide has a net positive impact on biodiversity all things being equal it's glaringly obvious that the problem for the ecologists isn't carbon dioxide, it's the size of the economy and the amount of energy consumption.

If it were carbon dioxide alone then we switch to non carbon means of generating energy but there isn't a consensus among the green groups. Some are opposed to e.g. nuclear power and wind turbines and very few are not. Tbus it's easy to conclude it's not the emissions they really care about it's the fact that the economy drives energy consumption which drives extraction of natural resources.

In the end the answer is the economy needs natural resources and that's their real concern. That also in fact is a message that's now being pumped out into the media: reduce consumption and "we use too many resources".

What's interesting however, is you hear no such message coming from e.g. the Chinese or the Russians.

The Russians don't believe in global warming AT ALL. They think it's bullshit.
On the other hand they also think WE should reduce our emissions (read: reduce the size of our economy).

Likewise the Chinese state they are very concerned about global warming but have no intention of reducing their emissions and in fact are going to GROW their emissions. They say that if anybody has to reduce emissions it should be us, meanwhile they will be free to increase theirs.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions from these observations but it's enough to ask one final question in closing:

Are we so GULLIBLE here in North America and Europe that we're going to voluntarily reduce our economy and standard of living while our industrial competitors laugh at us behind our backs while they increase their standard of living at our expense with NO NET EFFECT on global emissions since they will be emitting more to make up for our reductions?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Peak Oil the doomer position

On this site I've already taken a look at the IEA report and concluded reaonably optimistic projections based on chopping it down a little.

One of our more pessimistic friends (as reported on the Oil Drum) ex- from the Saudi Company Aramco Sadad Ibrahim Al-Husseini, former executive vice president for exploration and production says that IEA is too optimistic because supplies are depleting at "twice" the rate of new reserves being added. (Note that he's talking about supplies of *conventional* crude and isn't talking about substitutes, demand destruction or efficiency *at all*).

He goes on to say that conventional resources have to be replaced by deep water resources and arctic resources as well as smaller fields which deplete at a higher rate than large fields. (Note that nowhere is discussed the possibility I highlighted earlier that there might be greater total volume in a potentially much larger number of smaller fields than there are in the large fields since in nature volume of e.g. lakes follows a power law and it's unlikely that oil fields are any different)

Husseini's "more realistic" forecast of global crude oil supplies yields what he described as a production plateau that levels off at around 87 million bpd from 2013 through 2019 and declines thereafter to nearly 83 million bpd by 2030.

“Supply shortfalls during this time frame must be met by unconventional fuels and oil substitutes…Gulf oil production would not exceed 25-26 million bpd over the next two decades owing to a variety of technical and economic reasons.”

Interesting. So he says that conventional fields all by themselves will start to decline from 87 mbpd in 2019 to 83 mbpd in 2030. I make that to be a gap of 4 mbpd over a period of 11 years. In other words less than a half million barrels per day net decline rate for *conventional* supplies.

Can we make up a half million barrel per day decline rate on a yearly basis from unconventional sources such as tar-sands, gas-to-liquids, fuel substituion, efficiency and other demand-destruction measures such as "taking the bus"?

We're so friggen dooooooomed!!!
(Rolls eyes)

Electric Trucks: Told you so

So I've been ranting about Electric Trucks being a key component of the solution to peak oil. Specifically they address the depot to local market delivery problem in the logistical transport of goods network. At a stretch they could also address the last mile in the fast crash scenario where there are liquid fuel shortages and not enough electric cars built.

Any case, returning to reality. As I have pointed out before, Electric Trucks have been not only cost competitive in Europe for some time now, they have also netted cost savings compared to the equivalent diesel based solution for delivery networks such as those operated by Federal Express, DHL and others.

Now we have proof of concept in the North American market. Frito-Lay and Staples have now put in large orders of Smith Electric Vehicles medium duty trucks (16,000 lb vehicles with a range of 100 miles fully charged and a top speed of 50mph).

Both Frito-Lay and Staples (as well as Fedex) have now conducted reasonable trials and concluded that over a ten year period due to reduced costs of fuel (electricity is cheaper and more fuel efficient than diesel) combined with reduced maintenance costs, electric truck will be *much* cheaper to operate in the *current* diesel-price environment than an equivalent diesel based truck.

So... the *market* is providing a solution to keeping goods on our shelves.

We're not there yet in terms of an electric vehicle being much less expensive for personal trannsportation simply because the duty cycle is less intense and the maintenance and fuel costs are much lower over a vehicle lifetime, but we are within a factor of 2 for Europe and a factor of 3 for North America.

My personal guess is that inside of ten years we should be hitting the sweet spot.
Tighten our belts a little and we should make it comfortably.

Here are the cost savings broken down right here:

Smith Electric Vehicles trucks cost $30,000 more than an equivalent diesel.

The Annual maintenance cost of a diesel is about $2,700 in most years.
An Electric vehicle which doesn't need fluids, belts and associated parts is about $250, given an annual saving of $2500 more or less.

Brakes also have significant cost savings: Regenerative brakes on electric vehicles need repaired only every four or five years rather than every year, so there's an additional saving of $1000 more or less.

Also since Electric Vehicles are by definition zero emissions, the exhaust cleaning system at $700 annually is not required.

The results of Staples trial suggests that the fuel savings at *current* prices of diesel (hardly peak oil or even current European territory) are around $6500.

I make that to be a savings of $10,700 per year or slightly less than 3 years payback. If the vehicle lifetime is 10 years then you have 7 years where it costs $10,700 less per year to run than a diesel equivalent. Therefore over a ten year period you are STUPID not to buy electric trucks to replace your diesel trucks or you just happen to have 7 x $10,700 (approx $75000) to throw away on each of your diesel trucks.

Here's a story going into greater detail in the Wall Street Journal:

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

More on Rare Earth Motor Substitutes

You know, it seems that unlike the doomer position (where substitutes can't happen because oil is irreplaceable) substitutes seem to be popping out of the woodwork.

Yet another substitute for rare-earth magnets by a Silicon Valley based company:

Novatorque's design uses ferrite magnets and some innovative engineering to produce a motor that functions under similar operating conidtions to neodymium based magnets but without the need for rare earths.What it does is make a motor more efficient by modifying the shape and positioning of the magnets to improve magnetic flux.

Now the interesting point about this is that this technology could *also* be applied to rare earth magnets thus reducing the usage of rare-earth minerals and therefore magnifying the utility of existing reserves.