I discovered one of my articles was copied without attribution onto a Russian website. I suppose I could be mad, but I think I will just take it as a complement that someone liked my work enough to steal it.
This article was published at Breaking Energy
January 20, 2014
Joule – CO2 to Fuels via Photosynthesis
Joule is a biotech firm developing a breakthrough photosynthesis based system for the production of liquid fuels using biocatalysts fueled by sunlight and carbon dioxide.
The Joule process looks like many of the algal biofuel processes from the outside, but under the hood it is completely different. If proven successful the Joule process could be a huge leap forward in productivity and efficiency. Most algal processes are based on growing algae biomass and squeezing oils out of them, or alternatively biomass conversion. These processes are limited by the growth rates of the algae just as any other biomass based process.
Joule’s process removes the biomass out of the equation and uses genetically modified bacteria to produce ethanol or hydrocarbons directly and continuously from the cells themselves. The bacteria are circulated through a series of tubes filled with water, nutrients and carbon dioxide exposed to sunlight. Over the course of the process the fuel product, be it ethanol, diesel, or other hydrocarbons are separated out in a continuous fashion. The racks of tubes are arranged in a modular fashion that allows one rack at a time to be cleansed of spent bacteria and reloaded while the rest of the production continues. After approximately eight weeks of production the bacteria are removed and incinerated and new bacteria are introduced into the system.
Among the advantages of the Joule system is the ability to use salt water or brine as the circulating agent, eliminating the need for clean fresh water. This lowers the costs and reduces the environmental impacts. The ability to use salt water opens up wide possibilities where facilities could be located, far away from agricultural lands or areas of water scarcity.
Joule uses carbon dioxide captured from industrial processes and so this process may prove to be a viable example of carbon capture and utilization. It is estimated that a 1000 acre plant could utilize 300,000 metric tons of CO2 annually.
The biggest advantage of the Joule system though, is the elimination of any biomass or the need to produce any crops. The biocatalyst bacteria are cultured in a lab in a controlled environment that is not dependent on weather or soil or any other vagaries of agriculture. There is also no requirement for costly and inefficient biomass conversion as the fuel product is directly produced from the cells themselves.
The heart of Joule’s system are prokaryotic cyanobacteria that use photosynthesis to grow. The scientists at Joule have modified the bacteria to produce hydrocarbons instead of cellular growth. Cyanobacteria are one of the oldest and most successful forms of life on Earth and are thought to be responsible for oxygenating the early atmosphere and helping to create the conditions for diverse life to flourish. Cyanobacteria are found in nearly every habitat and can flourish in a wide variety of conditions, a trait that has been harnessed by Joule and enables them to use brackish or salt water as a growth medium.
Joule’s first product is ethanol and they are also producing diesel fuel. By modifying the cyanobacteria Joule scientists are able to tailor the process to produce a variety of outputs. The ethanol product is called Sunflow-E and is chemically identical to ethanol on the market today. Sunflow-D, their diesel product is composed of diesel range, paraffinic alkanes and can be blended with conventional diesel in high concentrations of 50% or more.
Joule estimates annual commercial productions per acre of up to 25,000 gallons of ethanol at $1.28 per gallon and 15,000 gallons of diesel at $1.58 per gallon at full scale production. For comparison various agricultural crops produce ~300-800 gallons of ethanol per acre per year (ref: Wikipedia). Obviously production gains of this magnitude, if brought to fruition, could be transformative of the markets.
The company was founded in 2007 but operated in stealth mode for the first few years. An academic paper describing the process was published in 2011 and can be found here. It was around this time that the company came out of the closet and announced plans to construct their first demonstration facility in Hobbs, New Mexico. The Hobbs facility is one acre and is using brackish water from a local aquifer and waste CO2 captured from industrial flue gas that is piped to the plant.
The plant design is highly scalable and modular and can be readily expanded to thousands of acres. Joule is currently working on improving their systems engineering and proof of concept at their demonstration plant before moving on to full scale production.
This piece first appeared on the Energy Collective.
The marine shipping industry is moving towards a heavy use of LNG, driven primarily by new emissions standards that come into place in 2015 combined with the low cost of natural gas from unconventional shale resources. Traditionally, big ships use bunker fuel, the heaviest and dirtiest of the petroleum fuels, but costs have risen in the past decade. These economics combined with environmental regulations and the growth in gas infrastructure have served as the tipping point which could see LNG establish itself as a viable primary fuel for commercial vessels in the US.
New maritime regulations include the North American Emission Control Area (ECA) requirements and Phase II of California’s Ocean Going Vessel (OGV) Clean Fuel Regulation. In 2015, seaborne traffic in North America, the US Caribbean, and European waters will be mandated to reduce fuel sulfur content from 1.0% to 0.1%.
In order to meet the emissions requirements ship owners must either use low-sulfur diesel which is not widely available and twice the cost of LNG or else install expensive exhaust scrubbers similar to those used on coal fired power plants. The third alternative, which has the lowest costs and the best performance is to convert to LNG fuel. Bunkering facilities for LNG need to be built to fuel the ships, but they are beginning to be built out now.
The global fleet of 42 LNG-powered ships will almost triple by 2014 and increase 42-fold to almost 1,800 vessels by 2020, according to DNV GL, the largest company certifying the merchant fleet for safety. Thirty-seven new LNG-fueled ships and two conversions are on order, scheduled for delivery in the next three years.
A little more than a decade after its first tests in the European market, North America companies have begun to penetrate the marine LNG fuel market with formidable speed. North America will at least have 31 LNG fueled vessels by 2018. Including “LNG-ready” vessels, this number rises to 42. More impressive however is that none of these vessels were in operation prior to 2013. The first LNG-fueled ship (that is not an LNG container ship) was a Norwegian ferry built in 2000. LNG container ships have for decades used the boil-off from their LNG cargo for fuel.
In the United States and Canada, Harvey Gulf International Marine plans to add new vessels to its fleet that already includes five LNG-fuelled vessels. Harvey Gulf is also building the first LNG bunkering facility in the U.S.
The biggest vessels ordered so far are two container ships for delivery in 2015 and 2016 for TOTE Inc., which runs services between the United States and Puerto Rico and Alaska. The design for the LNG-powered vessels won the Next Generation Ship Award in June at the industry’s biggest conference in Oslo.
Another ship owner, Matson has also decided to move forward with the construction of two new Aloha class 3600TEU containerships at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. Designed for service between Hawaii and the West Coast, the 260.3 meter long vessels will be the largest containerships constructed in the US and feature dual fuel engines and hull forms optimized for energy efficient operations.
An LNG powered ferry set a new world speed record for ships in 2013 at 58.1 knots. The Francisco, an Argentine ship owned by Buquebus and built by Incat is powered by dual GE LM2500 turbines that produce 22 megawatts each (~30,000 horsepower). The innovative ship is an aluminum catamaran with a unique wave piercing design.
Aside from the fuel transition, there are also new developments in off-shore gas production. Floating LNG (FLNG) production and Floating Storage and Regasification Units (FSRU) are an emerging sector of off-shore
infrastructure. Though currently limited in number, and not a factor in the USA, this revolutionary technology has the potential to greatly expand international markets for gas on both supply and demand sides by providing facilities on ships that can be relocated as needed to meet evolving market conditions and avoiding the risk of expensive stranded assets such as unused LNG import terminals in the USA.
FLNG has been pioneered by Royal Dutch Shell who recently floated the hull for its new vessel, the Prelude, which will be the largest ship ever built and the first FLNG project. This new technology offers the ability to develop stranded gas fields that are too far from shore to economically develop by traditional methods. FLNG vessels will be able to fill LNG container ships directly at the source of production. The Prelude will produce at least 5.3 million tons per annum (MTPA) of liquids, 3.6 MTPA of LNG, .4 MTPA of LPG and 1.3 MTPA of condensate. Malaysia’s state owned oil and gas company Petronas is working on its own FLNG vessel, PFLNG 1, which is expected to launch in Q4 2015 and will produce 1.2 MTPA of LNG.
FSRU vessels can be a vital link for new markets by enabling the cargo of an LNG carrier to be converted into its gaseous form on-board the vessel for direct delivery into shore-side gas pipelines. Prior to the advent of FSRUs, expensive (and permanent) shore-side storage and regasification facilities had to be built in order to import LNG. Since LNG markets can change quickly, having the ability to relocate expensive facilities to new locations as the market demands offers tremendous flexibility and allows new markets to be developed quickly. In January 2013, the floating regasification market reached 31.7 MTPA of import capacity spread across eight different countries.
Shell FLNG vessel Prelude. The world’s largest ship will produce natural gas from distant off-shore fields and liquefy it directly.
The fact that LNG has proven performance in cutting edge ship designs, favorable economics and decisive environmental advantages creates a compelling case for the maritime industry to commit to LNG. Just as diesel replaced steam locomotives in a rapid transition, it is possible to see a similar transformation happening in maritime shipping.
Here is a paper I wrote recently on some the latest developments in the LNG market. Includes discussions of shipping, rail, trucking and heavy horsepower equipment markets.
Wind, solar and biogas combine to keep the lights on in Germany
In Germany a test has been successfully conducted of a 100% renewable energy power plant using wind, solar and biogas to provide round the clock electric power. The Kombikraftwerk 2 is a “Combined Renewable Energy Power Plant” that links together geographically dispersed assets into a virtual power plant. Unlike plans for 100% renewable energy written by activists such as Mark Jacobson that are designed to influence the political debate but could never actually function, this plan is designed by engineers to actually work in the real world. Many climate activists reject all carbon based fuels but the Germans recognize the crucial role played by methane as a renewable that can both fill in for the intermittency of wind and solar as well as providing much needed energy storage. This novel new renewable energy model demonstrates the need for natural gas backup, energy storage in the gas pipeline network, carbon capture and utilization and renewable natural gas.
The Kombikraftwerk 2 is a pilot study funded by the German government and conducted by a consortium of leading companies including Siemens and SMA along with academics and the weather service. The main focus of the study was to demonstrate on live facilities that grid stability could be maintained as the power outputs from wind and solar fluctuated. Through a combination of slight curtailment and biogas power, precise voltages and frequencies were successfully maintained on the power grid. The test system linked together 37 wind turbines, four biogas CHP plants, twelve PV systems and one pumped hydro reservoir into a virtual 80 MW plant intended to meet the power demand of one small town or equivalently 1/10,000th of Germany’s overall power demand. All of the plants were active commercial facilities. Most of the documentation for the project is in German, but here are links to English videos and papers. The videos provide an excellent overview of the operations and a vision for how the system is meant to work in the future including the advanced power to gas systems.
In America the discussion over energy storage is generally focused on batteries or pumped hydro. The Department of Energy lists batteries, flywheels, capacitors, control systems and some others technologies in its Energy Storage Program, but no mention is made of using the natural gas pipelines as a storage medium. The Germans on the other hand embrace the idea of power to gas completely and lead the world in the technology. Power to gas plays an important but often overlooked role in the Energiewende. Power to gas offers substantial benefits in minimizing curtailment when wind and hydro are overpowered by using the diverse, abundant, long-term storage capacity of the pipeline networks. There are real limitations in batteries and pumped hydro, aside from their expense, they can only store a few hours of power, these technologies have their role but neither can offer the massive storage potential of the gas pipeline network that is already in place. Gas pipelines also offer alternative long distance transport options to the power grid that is less expensive and lower impact than power lines.
Power to gas works in a variety of ways. The simplest method is basic electrolysis; electric power is used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used directly, injected in small quantities directly into the natural gas pipelines or combined with carbon to form methane. Pilot projects are currently being run in Germany to assess direct injection of hydrogen. A more advanced option is to combine hydrogen with CO2 captured from coal or other fossil fuels to form methane, which is CH4. This process requires some energy to break apart the carbon bonds, but it would be done with surplus or low cost power.
Making use of captured CO2 is a topic rarely mentioned in the American policy debates. The discussion is dominated by Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) and how difficult and expensive it is. Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) offers an alternative model for carbon recycling. Using low cost power from surplus renewables or nuclear, CO2 can be broken apart and used for fuels or in the chemical industry. Methane is not the only option and other chemicals may offer better economics or efficiencies. An interesting study was performed by DNV and can be found here. The main products that can be produced from CO2 include chemicals, plastics, carbon fiber, graphene, fuels, carbonated beverages and Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). EOR has been the most successful use so far for CCS, but sequestering CO2 just to produce more fossil fuels does seem to defeat the purpose from a climate change perspective. CCU is an idea that should be explored far more actively in this country as carbon is valuable life giving molecule, not toxic waste.
While I am personally very excited to see this concept of a gas-electric renewable power model brought to life, I do have a couple of comments about the limitations of the Kombikraftwerk.
First, this model is for electricity only, they state in the video that “most” transportation will be electric, but obviously not all. Electricity is great for light duty passenger vehicles and commuter trains, but hydrocarbons are still needed for heavy duty and long distance vehicles such as trucks, construction equipment, airplanes and ships (Rod Adams passionate appeal for nuclear shipping duly noted). Clean fuels for transportation are still needed and not provided for in this model.
Secondly this model is not a prescription for a high energy future. This model presumes (without saying) that energy use will be reduced through efficiency measures, which may be possible but it is not clear that it is desirable. The production of wind, solar and biomass simply do not add up to provide the massive quantities of energy that will be required to lift billions of people out of poverty. Bulk heat and power in a high energy future will need to be provided by nuclear power and on this point I break with German energy policy. A high energy future opens up new possibilities for improving living standards by enabling energy intensive projects like water desalination, toxic waste cleanup and aluminum production.
A hybrid gas-electric clean energy model offers opportunities for every type of technology to find its niche according to its utility and scalability. We must stay focused on replacing coal and oil with clean energy solutions. I am convinced that these solutions exist and will enable us to clean up the environment, lift up the poor and open up vast new energy resources and economic growth. The Kombikraftwerk is very encouraging and shows us some pieces that are missing from the American energy policy debate but should be encouraged here like renewable natural gas, carbon utilization and power to gas.
There has been a lot of talk this week about a new PNAS study which found much higher levels of methane in the atmosphere than previously estimated. Reactions to the study were predictable. Climate activists sounded the alarm and reiterated their position that natural gas is no solution for clean energy because systemic leakages of methane outweigh any benefits. The gas industry response was that the data was old since it was from 2007-08 and they have been working to reduce their emissions since then. My reaction was that this study was one more piece of evidence that there is a lot of methane out there available to be captured and utilized, it is one of the most common molecules in the universe after all.
There are many sides to the methane story. One side is that methane is a potent greenhouse gas whose concentrations in the atmosphere closely track temperatures, and have been rising steadily since the industrial revolution began. Another side of the story is that methane is a non-toxic replacement to coal and oil found in voluminous quantities throughout the world. Fortunately, by dealing with the leakage problem we enhance the efficacy of the clean fuel solution. It is a win-win to capture as much methane as possible to keep it out of the atmosphere and use it instead as clean fuel.
The Global Methane Initiative is an international consortium focused on developing practical technical solutions for capturing methane emissions. They have five main areas of focus: Oil and Gas Systems, Landfills, Wastewater, Coal Mines and Manure Management. For each of these industries there are proven techniques to capture methane emissions, but the challenges tend to be economic. Without mandates or other incentives, the value of the captured gas is generally not competitive with current low natural gas market prices.
For example, dairy farms in the USA produce methane from animal waste and the farmers are well aware of the potential for anaerobic digestion to provide multiple benefits; odor reductions, improved fertilizers and home brewed fuels. Unfortunately though, these solutions are rarely implemented because small farmers lack the necessary capital to purchase the equipment and have little economic incentive to do so. There is no government support or mandates to install the digesters, the biogas that is produced does not work for their diesel tractors and producing electricity is hardly worth the effort since electricity is cheap. Upgrading biogas to pipeline quality methane is easy technically but the capital costs for the equipment and pipeline expansions are daunting. The main benefit in lieu of any clean energy or pollution regulations is odor control, which is certainly nice but hardly central to the economics of the farm.
Landfills often have mandates to capture methane and this is the leading source of biomethane being marketed today. So much more could be done through aggressive zero waste strategies that bypassed landfills altogether and processed all food and carbonaceous wastes into clean fuels. Coal bed methane has emerged as an important source of natural gas and a possible bridge to the future for coal regions. Sewage treatment offers another source for local gas production that could be supplemented if food wastes were to be sent down the drains via in-sink disposals. A report produced by the Gas Technologies Institute (GTI) concluded conservatively that 10-20% or more of current natural gas demand could be met by renewables; biomass, sewage, garbage and manure.
The oil and gas industry is well aware of the public pressure to reduce methane emissions. They have been moving towards “green completions” and other solutions to reduced leakage in pipes. Well-designed regulations will be needed to enforce this effort. But an unfortunate consequence of low gas prices is that producers of other fossil fuels can afford to waste natural gas in order to get at higher priced liquid fuels. The Bakken Shale in North Dakota has become infamous for the amounts of methane being flared while oil is produced. The Canadian tar sands offer a similar dynamic, huge quantities of natural gas are consumed to produce the bitumen from the ground.
Clean air regulations have been very effective at reducing criteria pollutants such as sulfur and particulates, improving air quality and saving lives. If these mandates continue to be ratcheted down the market will steadily be pushed towards natural gas, since methane contains no toxic contaminants. This trend towards gas has been clear in the electric power industry where the combination of pollution controls and low gas prices has pushed the conversion from coal to gas. We are also seeing this trend take form in the marine fuels market where dirty bunker fuel for ships is being forced out of the market by new USA\Euro emissions standards. Ship operators are required to install expensive exhaust scrubbers if they want to continue using dirty fuels or else switch to LNG (low sulfur diesel has been too expensive).
Methane capture is very important for the environment and local economies, but the quantities are not substantial relative to the overall market for fossil fuels. Shale gas has been the big player lately that has impacted the markets, but the potential for the methane hydrates makes shale gas look like hors d’oeurvres. Methane hydrates (also known as clathrates) are concentrates of methane encased in ice found in the ocean floor along the continental shelves throughout the world. They have yet to be commercially produced but there is serious work being done to bring these resources to market. The Japanese, Chinese and Indians are particularly keen to develop the resources as they have the greatest unmet needs for new energy supplies. Just as shale gas was unlocked through the efforts of one ambitious engineer, George Mitchell, we are one engineering breakthrough away from repeating the trick on a much bigger scale with methane hydrates.
This graphic from German newspaper Der Spiegel presents a view of methane hydrate availability and illuminates some of the major implications. First of all, the reserves are massive, dwarfing all know coal and oil deposits. 3000 Gigatons is even a conservative estimate, some analysts have modeled over 60,000 Gt. Secondly they are spread relatively evenly throughout the world reducing potential conflicts between nations.
Climate activists tend to be horrified at the mention of developing the methane hydrates. It is thought that burning this much carbon would surely send the climate over the edge. The Clathrate-Gun Hypothesis suggests that rising temperatures may release frozen methane and trigger rapid runaway climate change and may have been the cause of mass extinctions in the past. Another danger in mining the hydrates is the potential to destabilize the sea floor and trigger tsunamis.
The positive potential for the hydrates should be viewed in terms of replacing dirty coal and oil. Methane hydrates could be produced close to coastal cities, with no messy drilling on land and no oil to spill. Off shore mining combined with floating LNG production would enable container ships to be loaded with LNG on the spot for global distribution bypassing the crude oil trade. If gas can be produced cheap enough to compete with oil and pollution standards are enforced then the markets will naturally shift to natural gas. To truly displace coal and oil we need the volume of product at the right prices to make dirty fuels unnecessary and methane hydrates just might be able to fill the bill.
As the old expression goes, “the stone age did not end for lack of stones”. Nuclear has an important role to play in providing bulk heat and power, but hydrocarbons are still needed in the mix because they perform critical roles in providing storable fuels, chemicals, plastics, fertilizers and backing up renewables. Rather than trying to eliminate hydrocarbon fuels, we should be focusing on producing them cleanly and using them efficiently.
Renewable energy sources and natural gas should be considered as complements and not rivals. A hybrid gas-electric clean energy provides a workable engineering solution while 100% Renewables models based heavily on wind, solar and efficiency fall short of the meeting the functional needs of a modern technology intensive society.
Natural gas and renewables are already functional partners on the grid. Because wind and solar are intermittent sources of electricity, some form of backup power is required to fill the down times. By and large this backup power has been provided by natural gas because gas is the most flexible in its deployment. Gas turbines can be turned on and off quickly to meet fluctuating power demands. Large boiler based systems such as coal and nuclear are not so flexible in their operations, they can take hours to turn up and efficiency is lost. Big boilers work best when they are operating consistently which makes it more challenging to integrate with the intermittent wind and solar power sources.
Secondly, natural gas is primarily methane and methane is itself renewable. Methane can be manufactured in vast quantities and is indistinguishable from fossil sources. Renewable methane can be made from biomass, garbage, sewage, farm waste and is given a variety of names; biomethane, renewable natural gas, substitute natural gas, biogas and others. Many of the best resources for biomethane are waste products today and are treated as liabilities but could be converted into assets. Biomethane can be produced in greater quantities than other biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel.
Third, power-to-gas offers the potential to convert excess electricity into methane and store it in the pipeline infrastructure. Electrolysis uses electricity to separate water (H2O) molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen can be used directly for a variety of industrial purposes and powering fuel cells, but can also be used in the manufacture of biomethane which is CH4. In Germany experiments are being run to determine how much methane can be injected directly into the natural gas pipelines. While power-to-gas is not being implemented in commercial scales today, the technology is all completely proven. As solar and wind deployments ramp up the need for storage becomes more pronounced and gas production has advantages over batteries because gas can be stored indefinitely while batteries lose their power over time. Gas can also be easily transported in pipelines and tankers and converted into other products.
The natural gas infrastructure enables the use of fuel cells to produce emissions free electricity. Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells use pure hydrogen as fuel and are being developed for vehicles. Solid Oxide fuel cells can use methane as fuel but are best for stationary power production. There is great promise in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles but there is a fundamental challenge in distributing and storing pure hydrogen. Hydrogen is tiny and extremely volatile, it both leaks out of conventional steel pipes and reacts with steel making it brittle. Hydrogen distribution requires the use of stainless steel (or other specialty material) pipes with high test welds at all joints and special valves. This is a very expensive and complex engineering proposition compared to the existing natural gas infrastructure that uses common galvanized steel pipe. The practical and economic answer is to connect hydrogen fueling stations to natural gas distribution and steam reform and pressurize the hydrogen on site where it is sold. Industry generally produces hydrogen from natural gas as it is far cheaper than producing hydrogen from electrolysis. In this way natural gas enables the widespread use of hydrogen and fuel cells.
As the cleanest burning of all hydrocarbons methane is naturally a friend to the environment when used to replace coal and petroleum. Renewable electricity solutions can replace many uses of coal for power but are challenged at replacing petroleum for vehicles, big ships and high horsepower machines such as mining equipment, freight trains and airplanes. Natural gas is a direct replacement for diesel, gasoline and bunker fuel and can be converted into high quality liquid fuels such as jet fuel. Dirty fuels such as coal and diesel are loaded with particulates, heavy metals, sulfur and other contaminants that cause toxic pollution and kill hundreds of thousands of people every year globally. Methane is clean enough to burn indoors and cook food on, its widespread adoption to replace dirty fossil fuels would create significant air quality improvements and save many lives. Methane also has the lowest carbon content of any hydrocarbon so when used to replace coal and petroleum it reduces carbon pollution.
Methane is the most abundant and versatile of all hydrocarbons. It can be used to produce heat, power and transportation. Methane can be converted into ultra clean diesel and jet fuel through Fischer-Tropsch processes. Methane is also a critical raw material for the production of plastics, chemicals and fertilizers. Recycling plastics back into methane can help facilitate zero-waste goals. Natural gas resources are broad and deep and found all over the world. The shale gas revolution has already overturned global energy markets and there appears to be vast resources to be tapped. If the methane hydrate resources in the ocean can be brought to market that would further tilt the energy landscape towards natural gas as those reserves are massive and dwarf all coal and petroleum known to exist.
Natural gas has an excellent safety record, though it is often thought of as very dangerous. LNG in transport is very safe. LNG has been shipped in huge quantities by ship for decades and there has never been a disaster (knock on wood). When used for a vehicle fuel it has distinct safety advantages over gasoline, diesel and propane because methane is the only one that is lighter than air and dissipates quickly if released while the others pool on the ground awaiting ignition. Methane has a very narrow range for ignition making harder to combust accidently. Also the tanks used for CNG and LNG are very robust by nature, whereas liquid fuels are often carried in thin walled tanks.
Methane combustion does produce carbon emissions but far fewer than other fossil fuels, and methane is itself a greenhouse gas, so its use does need to optimized to mitigate any global warming effects. Capturing leaking methane is important, and has the benefit of increasing fuel supplies. Natural gas is easily deployed as fuel for power production and can be deployed nearer to where the electricity is used minimizing line losses and improving efficiency. Combined heat and power is part of this efficiency playbook that natural gas enables.
In conclusion methane, aka natural gas, is a clean, high performance and versatile fuel that complements the roll out of renewable electricity technologies. In practice, intermittent power sources such as wind and solar require stored fuel to be available at all times to keep the grid online. Electrical sources are also not proven to power high horsepower vehicles while gas can. Natural gas is the most abundant, clean and safe of all hydrocarbons and fulfills a critical role in our energy infrastructure. Renewables advocates should recognize this fundamental harmony between these energy sources.
I have seen the future of fuel and it is LNG. Liquefied Natural Gas. Its cool! Pun intended. To be honest I think that natural gas broadly speaking is the future, its cryogenic form is merely one manifestation. All forms of natural gas are useful; whether in pipelines, compressed, liquefied, converted to synthetic liquids or hydrogen, fossil, bio or hydrate. It all works. And that is the critical element, it works. Methane can power the big machines to get the big work done, it’s as clean as any combustible fuel can be and as safe as fire can be. Ultimately though it is the economics that are driving its widespread acceptance. Low prices thanks to the shale revolution are driving industry to spend serious money to convert big expensive machines from diesel and bunker fuel over to natural gas in its various forms.
I just returned from a small scale LNG conference where presenters from the marine, rail, trucking and high horsepower industries were discussing their experiences and opinions in converting their fleets to liquefied natural gas. Overwhelmingly the message was that economics was the primary consideration. Trucking companies for whom fuel was their number one expense were very eager to capture $1 a gallon savings across their fleets. $1 dollar may not sound like much but when you consume hundreds of gallons of fuel per truck per day, spread across many trucks 365 days a year that dollar ends up being hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year for big fleets. I was not surprised to hear that economics was the bottom line for these companies, in business the bottom line is the bottom line after all. But industry seems convinced that the price spread between petroleum and natural gas is going to persist into the foreseeable future and the transition will continue.
My interest in the conference though was to hear if LNG really worked. I wanted to hear from the operators themselves about their experience using LNG in the field. Because if the performance was not acceptable, if the fuel was unreliable or created maintenance problems or in any way impaired their ability to get the job done then the apparent advantage of lower costs would be trumped by their inability to complete the tasks at hand. And what I heard overwhelmingly was that LNG works great. LNG is actively being used on powerful drilling rigs, big ships and trucks and being experimented with in freight trains. These are some of the biggest most powerful machines in the world. Yes there were technical hurdles to overcome in the early days, engines needed to have compression ratios tuned, in some cases pistons needed to be hardened to handle the hotter burning fuel, and LNG takes up a lot more space than diesel so new tanks need to be accommodated. Cryogenic fuels require drivers and technicians to be trained to handle the –260 degree liquids. Boil off in the tanks require some operational considerations so that you do not leave the LNG sitting for extended days in the vehicles less some fuel be lost. LNG is not suitable for all applications where diesel is used today. LNG is best for machines that operate continuously and consume very large quantities of fuel: long distance trucking, big ships, and industrial facilities. Other equipment such as school busses may be better suited for compressed natural gas, CNG, since they operate for only a few hours at a time without going real long distances and may sit for days. CNG does not suffer from boil off, the tanks will hold the fuel indefinitely. CNG is less dense than LNG and the tanks take up more space, so the choice between CNG and LNG depends on the particular application. Regular folks driving conventional autos would use CNG for these reasons, no special training required to handle it and it is stable to be left in the home garage.
Costs aside there are other advantages to natural gas, the engines run quieter which generates fewer complaints from neighbors and reduces stress on operators. Natural gas also burns cleaner which not only improves the emissions profile but it also improves the maintenance. The beauty of clean fuels is that all those contaminants in diesel that foul the air we breathe, also foul the engines. Sulfur, heavy metals and particulates have no fuel value, all they do is create deposits in the engines and soot in the air, soot that kills many and makes all of us unhealthy. So the environmental and health advantages go hand in hand with mechanical advantages. When you combine the economic, environmental, performance, safety and domestic abundance advantages of natural gas over other energy sources it is easy to see why this transition seems so unstoppable.
100_percent_renewables_NY_critique (PDF version)
I feel compelled to respond to a paper that is widely referenced by anti-hydrofracking activists as proof that New York can move beyond fossil fuels and power 100% of its energy needs with renewables. The WWS (Wind, Water and Solar) Plan for New York (Jacobson et al., 2013) is part of a series of papers authored chiefly by Prof Mark Jacobson from Stanford University that can be found here. The New York paper includes contributions from Cornell University professors Bob Howarth and Tony Ingraffea. Jacobson attempts to makes the case that society can acquire all of the energy it needs for all purposes in a relatively short period of time from a combination of solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Jacobson is opposed to nuclear power and also opposes all hydrocarbon fuels whether bio or fossil based because of the contention that all CO2 emissions must be eliminated in order to prevent a catastrophic melting of the arctic sea ice. The plan calls for an 80% conversion to WWS by 2030 and 100% conversion by 2050. Unfortunately the plans are deeply flawed from a practical and technical perspective.
Jacobson makes broad assumptions about the suitability of many different technologies and offers little evidence to back up his claims. Such assumptions include the complete abandonment of hydrocarbon fuels for vehicles, heavy equipment, ships and planes and conversion to battery and hydrogen fuels. No proof is offered that these new technologies can meet the performance requirements of existing machines. Nor are any references from industry or the military presented to justify the technical feasibility of the claims. Jacobson contends that some electric and fuel cell vehicles have come to market but that hardly meets the burden of proof that a century and a half of performance based industrial development can be converted over wholesale to new equipment that is not currently proven in real world use.
A common flaw in the WWS model is the use of unproven technologies along with insufficient analysis of their land use impacts. For example, wave devices, tidal turbines and enhanced deep well geothermal are included even though they are not mature technologies. The WWS plan has virtually no discussion of the land use impacts of new power transmission or discussion of hydrogen storage and distribution. Other writers have disputed Jacobson’s assumptions about electricity storage and economics here and here. Debate over the feasibility of intermittent power sources to keep the grid running can be found here and here, a response to the critics by Jacobson can be found here. A much more realistic model was produced this year by NREL in their Renewable Futures Study (NREL, 2012), they conclude that 80% of energy can be supplied by renewables by 2050; they detail emerging technologies but do not include them in the models, they do include biomass and accept that some uses of hydrocarbons cannot be replaced.
I am not going to attempt to cover every point Jacobson raises, but I will focus on some practical issues as they relate to New York. Specifically, the wind and solar models are impossible as presented. In all of the wind and solar cases (onshore and offshore wind, CSP and PV solar) capacity factors are overstated, land use is understated and public acceptance is never addressed.
The chart below is taken from the WWS NY paper and details the numbers of each type of device that would be required for the plan. I added the yellow highlights.
Concentrated Solar Power – CSP
The most glaring defect in the entire model is the use of CSP, concentrated solar power, which is a thermal technology used in the desert and not applicable to New York. I would challenge the authors to find any qualified engineers or developers who would certify these types of facilities for NY. The authors call for 387 CSP plants rated at 100 MW each to be built throughout the state. Each 100 MW CSP plant requires roughly 1 square mile of flat, unburdened land and requires the highest levels of solar insolation. New York has the opposite characteristics: long, cold, dark winters and rolling hills covered in forests, fields and farms. By the authors’ own figures, 327.3 square miles of land would have to be cleared to construct 387 of these projects across the state.
CSP plants in New York would most likely never function in the winter when snow and ice are common and the sun might not emerge for weeks at a time. NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, lists seven southwestern states as being CSP compatabile: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, and Texas in its Solar Market Report, 2010 (NREL, 2011). The CSP map from NREL shows that New York is one of the worst places in the USA to attempt CSP. The photograph of the Shams 1 CSP facility in Abu Dhabi shows what a modern 100 MW CSP looks like, and the landscape clearly does not look anything like upstate New York.
Photovoltaics – PV
Regarding solar PV, Jacobson overstates the capacity factor of their proposed farms in New York by cherry-picking an unusually high efficiency PV module, the SunPower E20, which is not reflective of the mean for the industry. According to the sales literature, “SunPower E20 panels are the highest efficiency panels on the market today”(SunPower, n.d.) with 20% efficiency while the industry average for crystalline PV is closer to 15%. So while the SunPower E20 modules do exist there is no discussion of module availabilities or specific costs and it is misleading to use them in the model because the scale of installations described in the paper would likely necessitate the use of common modules rather than select high performance modules. It is like describing a huge vehicle fleet made from Ferraris rather than Fords. Many PV farms globally use cheaper thin-film varieties that offer even lower efficiencies and require more land. The authors state that the New York PV farms will have a capacity factor of 18% which is the average for the entire country (NREL, 2011) when New York is on the lower end of solar potential.
In 2010, the typical efficiency of crystalline silicon-based PV commercial modules ranged from 14% for multicrystalline modules to 19.3% for the highest-efficiency monocrystalline modules (average monocrystalline module efficiency was 14%). For thin-film modules, typical efficiencies ranged from 7% for a-Si modules to about 11% for CIGS and CdTe modules. (NREL, 2011)
The WWS model describes 136.4 square miles of land devoted to photovoltaic farms in addition to the 327.3 sq miles of CSP for a total of 463.7 sq miles of land that must be cleared of existing fields, forests and farms to make space for the solar developments. Ironically, Tompkins County, NY, home of Ithaca and Cornell University where some of the authors are employed is roughly the same size at 476 sq miles. Does clearing an entire county’s worth of land to install underperforming solar technologies represent proper stewardship of the land? Perhaps that land is better left growing plants that clean the air, soil and water, sequester carbon and provide crops and habitat.
The wind model presented is troubling because it assumes to utilize as many wind turbines as conceivably possible, basically placing turbines on every single hill with decent wind in the state without regard to people already living there. Similar to the trick in the PV model, the authors choose particularly large turbines that allow them to overstate production. 5 MW turbines are used in the model when the norm around the US is 1-3 MW. By choosing larger turbines the authors can project higher production and higher capacity factors than typically reported for New York because taller turbines reach higher into more consistent wind streams. The Cornell Wind Study states that a 27% capacity factor is typical for NY (Hoerig & Smolenski, 2010) while Jacobson et al claim “30% or higher” (Jacobson et al., 2013) capacity factors.
Taller turbines increase the environmental impact and spacing demands. Larger turbines cast bigger shadows, longer wakes, make more noise and require bigger access roads for larger cranes and wider setbacks from homes and structures for ice-throw safety. Jacobson consistently claims across his papers that turbines use very little land and that the space around them can continue to be used for farming. This is true but ignores the impacts on residents, wind turbines make poor neighbors. Land use requirements for access roads and power lines are also not sufficiently addressed.
New York State has fairly marginal wind resources compared to other parts of the country and installing over 4000 turbines for a total of 20,100 MW on shore dwarfs all expectations of the industry and state authorities. To achieve 20,100 MW would require exponential growth of the industry over the coming decades and assumes total public acceptance that has not been demonstrated.
The numbers presented for offshore wind are truly astounding. 12,700 turbines at 5 MW each for a total capacity of 63,550 MW. The authors do fairly note that there is not a single off shore wind farm anywhere in the United States in 2013, but that does not stop them from asserting that some of the busiest multiuse waterways will be packed to the maximum extent with a forest of very large turbines. The available waterways in NY are the coasts of Long Island and parts of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. There is no discussion of impacts on shipping lanes, boating, fisheries, recreation or general public acceptance. No discussion of bathymetric properties of the sea floor and whether the farms of the proposed scale are even technically possible. Jacobson also never discusses wind shading and the principle that turbines block the wind from one another. Densely packed wind farms as described in the models would have lower power production averages per turbine due to wind shading effects.
The proposed wind farm off Cape Cod for 130 3.2 MW turbines has languished for years due to sharp public controversy. The notion that a proposal 100 times larger in nearby waters would be accepted by the public defies common sense. This is not to say that there should no wind farms offshore, but we must be realistic with projections. To offer another perspective: according to the Global Wind Energy Council, the total global offshore installed capacity in 2012 is 5,415 MW compared to the proposed 63,550 MW in New York alone.
I hate to be critical of proposals for wind and solar because I hope these industries continue to grow, but the WWS plan lacks any technical credibility whatsoever. It has been widely criticized by many writers and for good reason. I only chose to add to the pile because I see the paper being hailed for political purposes by those with an agenda opposing drilling for natural gas. Mark Jacobson has been making appearances on television claiming this is all technically feasible, well I have to disagree.
I share the authors concerns about global warming and pollution but the answer is not to take underperforming technologies and overbuild them to make up for their lack of performance, this is like having an unreliable car and buying two more so that you can always have one working when you need it. New York is not a good location for CSP and is marginal for wind and PV, these technologies should certainly be utilized but they cannot be expected to provide the majority of New York’s energy needs. On the other hand New York has vast resources of biomass and waste going unutilized that the WWS model rejects. Garbage, sewage, farm waste and biomass can all be gasified and injected into the natural gas pipelines as carbon neutral or even carbon negative fuels that offer superior mechanical performance in existing machines. These resources would not meet all of New York’s needs but they could make a sizable contribution and are mostly going unused today.
Performance cannot be ignored in the discussion of new energy solutions. All too often advocates for renewable energy reduce the issues to academic equivalency equations that assume fossil fuels can simply be replaced by alternatives without examining the mechanical requirements involved. Society moved from biomass to coal to petroleum to natural gas because at every step competitive performance advantages were achieved. Historically, the military and industry have been the arbiter of these conversions and the ultimate proving grounds have been the battlefield and the marketplace. If proposed energy solutions do not enable the military to fight and win battles or industry to get heavy work done more effectively then the proposals will not be adopted. It is well worth noting that Jacobson et al never detail combat vehicles or heavy equipment like those required to manufacture and install wind and solar devices. There is a large body of literature on clean energy futures that are far more thorough and credible than the WWS study, this study does not pass even a cursory examination.
Maps provided by NREL, http://www.nrel.gov/gis/maps.html
Hoerig, C., & Smolenski, K. (2010). 2010 New York State Wind Energy Study.
Jacobson, M. Z., Howarth, R. W., Delucchi, M. a., Scobie, S. R., Barth, J. M., Dvorak, M. J., … Ingraffea, A. R. (2013). Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight. Energy Policy, 57, 585–601. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2013.02.036
NREL. (2011). 2010 Solar Technologies Market Report, (November).
NREL. (2012). Renewable Electricity Futures Study (Vol. 1).
SunPower. (n.d.). SunPower E20 / 435 SOLAR PANEL.
I enjoyed watching the debate on CNN the other night following the showing of the pro-nuclear film Pandora’s Promise. The anti-nuclear voices argued consistently that wind, solar and efficiency are the answers to our energy and climate problems and we should reject nuclear and natural gas. The argument is that wind is cheap, solar is getting cheaper fast and that efficiency is the most cost effective means of all to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Each one of these statements taken alone is true, and I am certainly not going to argue against embracing all three of these as they are all useful. But the evidence simply does not exist than any of these actually replace a single btu of fossil fuels. Nuclear and natural gas offer the proven environmental and engineering performance we need to move beyond toxic coal and oil.
First of all energy use is growing around the world and all the wind and solar capacity installed in recent years has been to meet growing demand and government incentives, not replace existing supply. To the extent that coal plants have been shut down they have been replaced by natural gas, not wind and solar.
Wind and solar are also driving demand for natural gas as gas is used to make up for the intermittency of these sources. Both wind farms and concentrated solar plants are being built using natural gas as back up and could be described as hybrid gas-electric systems.
Efficiency is a false argument, not because it is ineffective. Efficiency should always be pursued, it is a sign of good engineering and conservative use of resources. But efficiency is not a fuel, it does not put gas in the tank. If your car gets 500 miles to the gallon, it still needs a gallon of fuel. Unless you can present an alternative fuel supply then efficiency is simply a defense of the status quo. In today’s terms efficiency means getting more value out of fossil fuels.
Efficiency also makes a given device more cost effective and desirable to operate, therefore more are put into use and net energy demand goes up even when energy use per device goes down. Iphones and Ipads are substantially more efficient than computers of just a few years ago, but this has not ushered in a new era of low power computing, it has only increased the demand for power as more people now have access to computers than before. Industrial history has followed the same pattern. Industrialists always sought to make their factories more efficient because less waste was good for production and profits, this made factories more cost effective and ever more were built. Net energy use has only gone up since the industrial revolution. There is simply no historical evidence that efficiency gains in devices translate to net reductions in energy use.
Wind is similar in cost to hydro power, in fact wind and hydro power have many similarities. If cost was the only issue the world run on hydro power because it is cheap, clean and more reliable than coal, yet coal dominates. The reason is because hydro only works where you have the right rivers, hydro is useless elsewhere. And once you have built out all the good sites then there is no more room to grow. Wind has the exact same characteristics. Wind works great in the correct locations, but it is of little use elsewhere and once the good locations are built out that will be it.
Solar can scale more than wind but it needs storage to get there and there is no good solution for large scale storage. Batteries only store a few hours’ worth of power, have short life spans and are very resource intensive to manufacture. Pumped hydro works in the right locations, but those locations are not common. Flywheels only work for very short periods of time and other solutions are unproven. One of the best solutions for electricity storage may prove to be power-to-gas; produce hydrogen and store it in the gas pipelines as synthetic natural gas.
Solar and wind both require energy intensive manufacturing to be produced in the first place. Neither industry can support itself energetically, yet we are supposed to believe that they can power all of society? Minerals must be mined from the earth and refined. Materials and components are shipped all over in the global supply chain. Heavy equipment is used in the installation. Can anyone demonstrate the complete life cycle of wind and solar being energetically self-sustaining?
Meanwhile the heavy machines of the world that consume thousands of gallons of fuel a day are transitioning to natural gas in order to meet emissions requirements and take advantage of low gas prices. Machines like heavy mining equipment, container ships and tug boats, freight trains and drilling rigs, are transitioning to natural gas without losing engine performance. By replacing dirty fuels with natural gas toxic contaminants like particulates, heavy metals and sulfur are being eliminated and lives are being saved, today. Additionally the machines run much quieter, minimizing stress on operators and neighbors and LNG has an excellent safety record on land and on sea.
Nuclear is an option that must be pursued. There are hundreds of different design possibilities available including designs that consume today’s nuclear waste as fuel. It may take decades to get the technology right, but once perfected nuclear can run for centuries. Radiation fears are wildly overblown. We all live with low level radiation every day from the sun and the soil and it is simply not accurate to believe that there is no safe level of exposure.
Wind, solar and efficiency are all important to pursue, they are all useful. But the big solutions will be driven by the resources that are the most energy dense, productive and clean. Natural gas is abundant, high performance, versatile, clean and even renewable. Nuclear fission is one of the great breakthroughs in human history and offers the ability to produce gargantuan quantities of power. We are going to need more energy in the future, not less, if we want to solve the big problems like lifting billions of people out of grinding poverty, cleaning up the environment and desalinating water. Our energy vision should be based on the principle of on unleashing dramatically more energy, not making do with less.