End of era of cheap combustion energy; beginning of era of cheap fission energy
During the next few days or weeks, I am going to try to develop an energy story that I hope will inspire action, not depression. I may not succeed.
The first installment is the first half of a 90 minute documentary video titled A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash a 2007 documentary film that includes dramatic images and sharply focused narrative that sets the stage for one aspect of the challenge. The petroleum enabled world that I dearly love and enjoy is nearing or past the point at which access to vast quantities of easily processed and burned liquid hydrocarbons is easy or cheap.
A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (1/2) (PL) by DobrySamarytanin
This version of the film was shared on Google Video by someone aiming to reach a Polish speaking audience, so there are Polish sub-titles. (Corrected from initial version that called them Russian subtitles. 9-14-2011 12:45)
If that was the end of the story, depression would have already set in here. Please return for more. I have some hopeful alternatives to talk about.
Rod, it’s polish not russian
Oil is the most incredible fuel, it is cheap, it is easy to store and transport and it has a high energy to mass ratio. Along with those properties it can be easily and inexpensively fine-tuned to optimize its performance for the application at hand. Natural Gas has its own ideal set of properties for the applications that it is used for; it can be transmitted by pipeline thus centralizing the storage and distribution issues, (yielding economies of scale) it can be controlled quickly to a very fine degree with very simple apparatus, and it also burns clean.
For almost all of the period these fuels have been in use the biggest issue has been the fact that production has always been able to outstrip consumption. Thus throughout their history these industries have relied on various price-fixing schemes and the organizations they created to administer them. Now with demand growing faster than consumption, the supply and demand equation will reverse itself and prices are on the rise as a result of market forces.
We only have one chance to make the right choice to replace them because the remaining pool of gas and oil represents our inheritance of (almost) free energy. Although all of the connections are somewhat convoluted to follow, if that inheritance is squandered chasing poor solutions, implementing the right one will be even more expensive.
Yep, deviate. At some point in the future, there will still be enormous, enormous amounts of hydrocarbons still underground, but they will require more energy to access than they will provide via their combusting.
This is one issue I worry about a little bit. I view nuclear power as a way to be able to reduce our carbon emissions by burning less fossil fuel.
However, it came to my attention a year or two ago that if you have cheap nuclear power, a likely unintended side-effect would be that large quantities of currently “expensive” fossil fuels become much cheaper and viable. For example, the Canadian Athabasca Tar Sands.
If my understanding is correct, that also, in addition to unconventional resources like the tar sands, even a lot of old oil wells where they do not currently extract oil, because it would take too much energy to pump it out (because the internal pressure of the oil is no longer sufficient to lift it up out of the ground with little assistance), would all of a sudden become economic again if there was cheap energy available from nuclear power.
I sometimes wonder if that is secretly part of at least a small portion of the pro-“renewables” movement (I know, I know, the prevailing theory around these parts is that the renewable energy movement is mostly a secret front for the fossil fuel industries; I’m not saying that’s an invalid view – what I’m saying is, that even if the major impetus for renewables is coming from Big Energy, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in that group who don’t have other motivations).
That is, I wonder if some of the ardent pro-wind/solar people know that solar and wind will continue to be so expensive they’d never be used to pump oil/bitumen, but that nuclear has a real possibility to become cheap enough that could happen?
It took me a 2nd reading, but I think I deducted that the overall theme of your comment here is that increased usage of nuclear power might not necessarily lower emissions overall, since it could allow energy intensive oil extraction to possibly be more economically feasible.
Then you postulated that maybe some of the pro-renewables crowd is anti-nuclear in part because they recognize that nuclear might open up more fossil fuel resources for extraction, which would cause less of a reduction in emissions than might be thought at a first glance.
Did I deduct correctly?
Joel – I think that Jeff is saying that some people promote renewables because they provide expensive, unreliable energy. Perhaps some of them even understand that access to cheap energy makes it easier to tap other sources of energy, so the process snowballs into an abundance of energy.
The key point is that they don’t want an abundance of energy.
“Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” – Paul Ehrlich
I remain convinced that the reason that Ehrlich became influential is that a lot of very powerful people like to keep society on an energy diet so that we feel the need to binge whenever we get a chance.
Also, it helps the bottom line if energy is seen as expensive and scarce rather than cheap and abundant.
Finally, the notion that the most valuable form of energy is liquid petroleum that other countries seem to have in abundance helps to keep the defense industries busy. How many people would be inspired to send troops to defend American interests in the Middle East or North Africa if more people realized that we actually do not need their stinking oil?
Yes, that’s about the long and short of it. I don’t think that worries about nuclear power being used to extract fossil fuels are the primary concern in their mind, but I wonder if some of them have considered that, and that’s one of their concerns.
Rod – You mean like the Club of Rome?
Liquid fuel is easy to store and transport and the infrastructure is already in place. If a cost effective high temperature nuclear reactor can be developed, then hydrogen can be economically produced at high temperatures, combined with carbon dioxide, and refined into a liquid fuel.
Now for the part I am uncomfortable with. The industrial complex would contain three major parts: a high temperature nuclear reactor, a coal electric plant with carbon capture, and a refinery. The carbon dioxide from the coal plant would be one of the inputs to the refinery resulting in carbon neutral liquid fuel. I am so against the use of coal that I can not bring myself to like this method of making liquid fuel. Is there a better way of making liquid fuel?
The CO2 *could* be extracted from the air. See http://www.lanl.gov/news/newsbulletin/pdf/Green_Freedom_Overview.pdf for one such proposal. Whether it would really be reasonably cheap is to be demonstrated.
Another proposal is ammonia as a fuel. See http://www.nh3fuelassociation.org/
Ammonia could be made by the Haber process using hydrogen from water split using nuclear energy, or maybe this
http://www.energy.iastate.edu/Renewable/ammonia/ammonia/2007/SSAS_Oct2007_Final.pdf process will work well.
However, the ammonia enthusiasts don’t mention that we already have environmental problems from fertilizer use, & the inevitable leaks & spills from ammonia fuel systems will make that worse.
I think batteries are going to improve sufficiently quickly that none of this will be necessary. We will have electric cars and the infrastructure is already present (may need to be improved but it exists).
It will be an ‘electrical’ world — heating/cooling (heat pumps), lighting, appliances, etc. and transportation (aircraft can use synfuels). All supplied by nuclear power plants.
Infrastructure above means the electrical grid.
I wish the issue were that simple, but when you run some basic calculations, it just doesn’t add up.
Even if new all electric vehicles were cost competitive with gasoline powered vehicles(they’re not), and assuming that the life of the vehicle were comparable to that of a gasoline powered vehicle (which it isn’t). Let’s say that under those conditions, every new vehicle sold in the future is an all electric. In 2009, about 6 million vehicles were purchased in the U.S. At that rate, to replace the roughly 250 million vehicles on the road would take 42 years. With rising energy prices, people will have less expendable income with which to buy new cars, thus older cars will stay on the road longer. As much as I wish it were simply a technological hurdle to have an all electric transport sector, it’s not. 50 years is the amount of time it would take to replace the gas powered fleet if it could be done “for free”.
That assumes energy prices stay as low as they are today, don’t forget that Methane(Gas) prices rise with Oil, and Electricity prices rise with Methane. When I first looked at this issue, the solution seemed cut and dry, all electrics all the way. But even ignoring the technical issues of all electrics(including that 50% of our electricity comes from coal), simple arithmetic dashes those dreams against the rocks.
Almost all the energy released when you burn coal comes from the formation of CO2, To burn coal only to break the exhaust leads to significant losses. To make synfuels, you’d use the coal directly, not burn it in a coal plant then process the CO2 exhaust. Plasma converters would probably do a decent job at making synfuels from Coal and/or Municipal Solid Waste, leaving behind a solid waste product that is possible to sequester. My understanding is that several of these plants already exist, but instead of selling the syngas they make, they burn it to make electricity. But as far as a low cost feedstock of carbon for synfuels, you really can’t beat Coal I’m afraid to say.
@Simeon – Thank you for jumping in on this one. I saw Martin’s comment yesterday but did not have a chance to respond. As you noted, the prize that we are looking for is carbon that can be combined with hydrogen to produce a liquid fuel. Chemically speaking, we do not want to invest the energy required to break that carbon away from O2, we want it from a more easily released source like coal or perhaps the carbohydrates of plant matter.
IThe fundamental reactions that produce heat energy from hydrocarbon combustion are generally similar to the one below:
CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O + energy
The subreactions that are actually going on include:
C + O2 -> CO2 + heat energy
H4 + O2 -> 2 H2O + heat energy
If you ignore losses in the transition, the heat released by combining C with O2 is exactly the same amount of heat that would be required to break CO2 up into C and O2. Since every transition has losses, you can never get any net energy by starting even with pure CO2. If you have to get CO2 by separating it from other combustion products, you will have even more real world losses.
One of the best ideas I have found for producing liquid hydrocarbons from coal came from a friend who spent a number of years working with Sasol, a company that has been producing liquid fuel from coal in South Africa since the apartheid days. His improvement on the technology he knew was to use a high temperature gas reactor as the source of both heat and electricity needed for the process instead of burning half of the input coal to provide the heat as Sasol does.
I’m an optimist. And I subscribe to the view that technology innovation can continue to provide exponential improvements in human life and human capabilities for a long time to come.
But even the most fervent adherents of economic and technological progress know it is achieved only by dovetailing technologies together. Each technology on its own provides a logistic (s-curve) pattern of returns. Society ‘rides’ the favorable part of the curve, then replaces the technology when it levels off. Vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits. Coal to oil to fission.
History is littered with the corpses of naysayers and doomsday prophets who didn’t understand this process. So when I first heard about peak oil, I assumed it was simply another niche of pessimists who fell into the same trap. I was wrong.
There is almost overwhelming evidence that we are now late in dovetailing off of oil and other fossil fuels. And there are plausible ways to understand past collapses (e.g. Rome) in terms of such failure. As much as I hate to admit it, there is real existential risk to Renaissance society in peak oil.
The good news is, there are dovetail technologies available. The Romans probably didn’t have such attractive options. And to my satisfaction, the peak oil folks are still wrong in that they generally underestimate the potential of fission, lithium, and information technology (we should head over to theoildrum.com and enlighten them).
I believe we will get at least two of these three dovetail technologies in very short order (disclosure: I hold a modest position in TSLA). Fission, on the other hand, is at risk.
A common myth about collapse is that it is sudden. Perhaps it was on Easter Island. But Rome took longer to fall that it did to rise. It probably wasn’t noticeable to anyone who could have prevented it. As the marginal return on invasion started to fall, Rome’s institutions weakened. Wealth continued to grow for some time, at least at the far tail of the wealth distribution, where the very people who might have done something about the problem were best insulated from it.
@Martin Lithium replaces a huge part of the demand for liquid fuel, but yes, there is a better way to make it:
Or, if you must have something people call “renewable”, algae-based biofuels have some potential to reach reasonable material flows.
I read the Los Alamos paper on the Green Freedom concept. With gasoline prices hovering around $3.70 to $3.80/gallon, it sounds as though this concept needs to taken off the shelf, dusted off and moved forward (it was dated November 2007).
The paper said that a high-temperature nuclear reactor would be a good fit for the system, and it appears to me that the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) fits the bill.
LFTRs will be molten salt high temperature reactors if and when they are commercialized. LFTRs should be cheaper to operate than today’s reactors which would hopefully bring down the end product’s production costs.
Is there any reason why they couldn’t capture CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas fired plants for this process as well?
If you can make a fission reactor to produce liquid hydrocarbons from the air, you can make one to replace the coal furnace too. Coal is undesirable for more reasons than just CO2. It has low energy density (even compared to other fossil fuels like oil and natural gas) and consequently, mining and transporting it is hard.
While acknowledging that we will indeed run out of crude oil someday (and coal and natural gas), I think that our more immediate and near term goal as a nation needs to be energy self-sufficiency. We import somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 billion worth of crude oil each year to make up for the domestic crude oil production shortfall.
Being pro-nuclear, I think we should begin by replacing all coal (and maybe natural gas) power plants with next generation (III and IV) nuclear (especially LFTRs). Yes, it would be very costly and time comsuming, but a good investment. The NRC badly needs reforming to speed the process along. I would put Rod in charge of it. Interested Rod?
Next, as coal and natural gas is gradually freed up from the construction of generation III and IV nuclear, we would embark on a coal and natural gas liquefaction program. They would be built next to the nuclear plants and use the excess heat from the nuclear plants to lower the liquid fuel production costs. Yes again, very costly and time consuming. But importing $350 billion worth of crude oil each year is very costly too. The liquid fuels from coal and nat gas would displace imported oil. I can’t see the coal lobby easily allowing their industry to die off because of nuclear plant construction unless their product is put to an alternate use.
With help from the DOE, several companies are preparing to commercialize their process for converting biomass to biofuels (see virent.com). They say their process can cost-compete with crude oil-based liquid fuels at current prices. Growing biofuel grasses like miscanthus and/or switchgrass on land not suitable for food crops would (hopefully) revitalize rural farming communities which are badly in need of it. This would be another source of domestic transportation fuels to displace the need for imported oil.
Algae-based biofuels are still many years away from commercialization (if ever) because of cost issues.
If and when they reach commercialization, they could be a significant contributor to our liquid transportation fuel needs. But much more R&D is needed there.
I can’t see the driving public embracing electric cars in huge numbers anytime soon simply because they never seem to have embraced them in the past. Here is Wisconsin, the winters can get awfully cold, and batteries usually don’t like cold weather. Even in the absence of the recharging issue away from home, there is still the problem with their limited range unless some breakthrough is discovered. But then, when all fossil fuels run out, biofuels and/or electric may be our only choices.
Longer term, I can’t even begin to say what the answer or answer(s) could be, although I still hold out hope for nuclear fusion. Wind and solar? Forget it.
Again, I realize my ideas would be very costly and time-consuming. But the energy issue is a big one, and I doubt that any other solutions would be cheap.
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