Friday, June 25, 2010

Power Hungry by Robert Bryce

Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future
A couple of years ago, I read an article on C-Net, Can Renewable Energy Make a Dent in Fossil Fuels?, which I babbled about to anyone who would stand still long enough. Go read it. I'm waiting... Much of the information in it was taken from a paper written by Crane, Kinderman and Malhotra called A Cubic Mile of Oil (since expanded into book form). Bryce has been a journalist writing about energy issues and policy for two decades, and he appears to have done his research quite thoroughly, reaching some conclusions shared by the authors mentioned above.
I'm definitely a numbers-oriented person, and Bryce really does a great job of laying out the numbers involved in global energy production and consumption - really big numbers!! Bryce talks about the Four Imperatives of the energy business: power density, energy density, cost, and scale. He debunks many of the myths about energy that everyone knows are "true" about energy and hydrocarbon use in the world today.

Did you know that the United States actually exports an average of 1.9 million barrels of oil per day? Most of the exports are in the area of refined products, because U.S. refineries are among the best in the world, producing what the global market demands.

Biodiesel is a big buzzword these days. Did you know that if the United States converted all of its soybean production into biodiesel, it would provide less than ten percent of our diesel needs, or if it could be made into jet fuel (a process as yet uninvented), it would only provide about twenty percent of our jet fuel needs? That's just the U.S. Worldwide, the demand is much much larger.

To listen to some polititicians talk (a futile quest if ever there was one), you would think that the U.S. didn't produce much energy from nuclear power. Did you know that the U.S. ranks first in the world in total number of megawatts of electricity from nuclear power plants. France is second place, although they produce a higher percentage of their total electricity that way than we do. Interestingly, the United States actually produces domestically about 74 percent of the primary energy it consumes, despite all the rhetoric about our being overly dependent on foreign oil. We also have more proven hydrocarbon reserves than any other country in the world.

Before I go any further, let me mention that Bryce is in favor of reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, although he's sceptical that climatologists can predict with any certainty the actual effects of CO2 emissions on global climate change. He doesn't propose giving up on "green" power altogether, but he demonstrates prettty thoroughly, by the numbers, that wind and solar are not the panacea that their fans would have us believe.

He says, "the carbon dioxide reduction targets being advocated by the U.s. Congress and the Democratic leadership in Washington are pure fantasy...Obama has 'set a goal for our nation that we will reduce our carbon pollution by more than 80% by 2050.'" Bryce asks, first, what are we going to substitute for hydrocarbons that will provide us with the energy required, with as small of an environmental impact and as low a cost, and second, if (as he shows in this book) higher energy usage results in higher living standards and better health for people worldwide, how can we expect all 6.7 billion of them to use less energy?

The Holy Grail of carbon strategies is CCS, Carbon Capture and Sequestration. The idea is that we capture all of the CO2 from our power plants, cars, trains and planes, and keep it from entering the atmosphere, then store it somewhere harmless. While it's "technically feasible", no one has figured out how to do it in an economically viable way. Just 10 percent of global carbon dioxide emitted annually is about 3 billion tons. What do you do with 3 billion tons of CO2?

While we can all agree that the production and use of hydrocarbons for energy has its downside, with problems like oil spills, air pollution, refinery accidents, mine collapses, environmental degradation from mining collapses, encouraging corruption in governments worldwide, financing terrorism and so forth, the less technologically sophisticated alternatives are far worse. 

In Virunga National Park in the Congo, the mountain gorillas are endangered. The reason for this is that the nearly 1 million people in the area use charcoal to cook their food. The charcoal is made by burning the trees in the gorillas' forest. If we were able to provide butane (a hydrocarbon) stoves to these residents, they'd quit burning the trees and the gorillas might be saved. The use of other biofuels (wood, dung,  in third world nations also causes indoor air pollution, which kills thousands of people there. The quest for biodiesel in Europe led to the increased production of palm oil in Indonesia. To grow more palm oil, farmers there cut down the lowland tropical forests, endangering rare species such as the Sumatran Tiger and orangutans.

Cellulosic ethanol has a number of enthusiasts in politics today. Made from wood chips or other biomass, one of the best of which is switchgrass, it is touted as being able to replace gasoline in our fleet of vehicles. But when you run the numbers, you find that its low energy density requires that you need 48.5 billion gallons of ethanaol  to replace 32 billion gallons of oil  mde into gasoline for our automobiles in the U.S. each year.

One acre of switchgrass can produce, in theory, 11.5 tons of biomass for ethanol each year, so to replace our gasoline, you would need to put 42.1 million acres, or 65,800 square miles of farm land into switchgrass production, an area the size of the state of Oklahoma. I'm sure the Sooners are up for that. Doing so, by the way, would require taking 10% of the land in this country currently under food production out of play.

I'm always interesting in the old adage, "follow the money" when it comes to people's motivations. We all know that Al Gore has been a tireless promoter of stopping global warming and reducing carbon emissions. I'd read elsewhere that Al had some controlling financial interests in companies that trade carbon credits, but here's a new little bit. In the pantheon of companies in the U.S. that are trying to produce electric cars, "In September 2009, Fisker Automotive received a $529 million loan from the U.S. government to cover its startup costs. One of Fisker's main financial backers is...a Silicon Valley firm where Al Gore is a partner."

Bryce believes that the long term solution lies mostly in what he calls N2N, Natural Gas to Nuclear. Natural gas is a cleaner, more plentiful, less costly method of producing electricity than most of what we're doing today. Nuclear is by far more effective, and he feels we should eventually move much further in that direction, while phasing out the more "dirty" methods, such as coal-fired power plants. There are some issues with disposing of nuclear waste (mostly political, really), but the total volume of coal ash produced in the U.S. in a single year is 2200 times larger than all of the nuclear waste produced in this country in 4 decades! The existing global fleet of  nuclear reactors prevents the emission of 2 billion tons of CO2 annually, about 7 percent of world output.

Listen, there's just so much information in this book that you're never going to learn about on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, CBS, or even the Discovery Channel. I seriously believe you need to read this book, so you can be well-informed about global energy issues, the myth and the reality. I don't agree with everything he has to say, but I sure can't argue with the numbers.

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