Archive for February, 2008

Increase R&D, don’t cut it

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

BAU trajectory
BAU trajectory. Renewables is primarily hydro; I’m guessing the tiny increase in renewables represents an enormous percentage increase in wind and solar.

According to the NY Times, FutureGen is kaput:

The Energy Department said it would pay for the gas-capturing technology, but industry would have to build and pay for the commercial plants that use the technology. Plans for the experimental plant were scratched.

Top Energy Department officials said the change [to another technology a few years from now] would save taxpayers money, generate more electricity and capture more than twice as much carbon dioxide.

But independent energy experts largely criticized the move, saying it would require two to four more years for new designs, plans and approvals, let alone budget tussles and eventual construction.

From the Toronto Star, Climate Neros fiddle while Rome burns:

How many radio or television debates have shown an environmentalist pointing out the devastating effects of oil sands and power production in Alberta, only to have industry officials tout concepts like “clean coal” or “carbon capture and sequestration” – as if the solution is here and the problem is being overcome as they speak?

The average listener is likely to walk away thinking that action is being taken and that there’s no need for concern. Problem is, we keep waiting and waiting and nothing really happens.

Professor David Keith, a chemical engineer and director of the University of Calgary’s energy and environmental systems group, warned at an oil sands conference last week that there’s tremendous uncertainty around the viability of these large projects. This reality, he pointed out, is overshadowed by all the hype.

“We’re not actually doing very much,” he said. “We’re in a world where there’s an enormous amount of talk but very little actual action.”

As Keith pointed out, there’s been no shortage of press releases. According to Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., more than 20 major carbon-capture power generation projects were announced around the world last year – most of them proposed in Canada, the United States and Australia.

Not one, said Keith, is certain to move forward….

Keith, during his conference talk, said it’s one thing to capture carbon and another to store it. On the latter, he said there are just three large-scale projects underway worldwide and only in areas of the world where a carbon tax exists.

Oil companies and utilities are reluctant to move forward for several reasons. For one, there’s been a lack of clear policy direction in North America. Second, natural gas has stayed cheaper than expected so there’s been no urgency to lean on coal. Another major reason, cited by Keith, is that project costs are skyrocketing.

There’s a shortage of labour. Skilled workers and engineers are being lost to retirement faster than new workers are entering the market. The demand for resources, such as steel, continues to rise as countries such as China and other industries, such as nuclear, rush to lock up contracts.

“Nobody, to my knowledge, really knows whether this enormous run-up in capital costs is a bubble or not,” said Keith….

The largest carbon capture system in testing is about 2 megawatts – versus about 500 megawatts for a small coal plant. That has to be scaled up 250 times to prove it’s ready for prime time. Meanwhile, the largest underground storage project is injecting only 1 million tonnes of CO{-2} per year, compared to 6 million required for an average-size coal plant.

Let’s put this into perspective: in the U.S. alone there are nearly 1,500 coal-electricity generators in operation that are capable of providing all the power needs of Ontario 13 times over. More than 100 new plants are on the drawing board.

And China? What’s happening there is just plain scary. In 2006 alone, the Chinese added 100,000 megawatts of coal power to its grid – nearly four times all the power generation in Ontario. The rate of construction is expected to accelerate, not slow down.

A warming Earth
A warming Earth (picture from NASA)

We need to increase research spending. Past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren, was part of a research panel looking at current spending:

The White House points to what it says is spending of almost US$3 billion (€2.3 billion) a year on energy-technology research and development as its major contribution to combatting climate change. But Holdren said other calculations put spending at under $2 billion (€1.5 billion), and it’s “far from proportionate to either the size of the challenge or the size of the opportunities.”

Tuesday’s report [Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable] said such research budgets worldwide are badly underfunded, and require a tripling or quadrupling, to US$45 billion (€34.2 billion) or US$60 billion (€45.6 billion) a year.

Billions more should go toward work on cellulose as a biofuel, overcoming the problems of nuclear energy, reducing solar electricity’s cost, and developing other cleaner energy sources, Holdren said. He said intensified research is particularly needed for carbon capture and sequestration — technology to capture carbon dioxide in power-plant emissions and store it underground.

How much would a $10 billion dollar research tax cost if paid for only by electricity consumption? US electricity use was 4 million million kWh in 2006, so $10 billion would be 1/4 cent/kWh, presumably more for coal and natural gas kWh.

How much would a $10 billion dollar research tax cost if paid for only by gasoline consumption? In 2006, gasoline plus aviation gasoline plus kerosene-type jet fuel came to about 4 billion barrels in the US, about 160 billion gallons. So $10 billion would be a 6 cent tax/gallon.

It looks like we can afford to more than triple our research dollar. We certainly can’t afford not to.

Changing precipitation
Changing precipitation

More on carbon capture and storage

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

In a lecture at UC, Berkeley, a spokeswoman from the UK showed graphs of either the UK or EU in 2050. Most of the electricity was from coal and natural gas with carbon capture and storage. The audience seemed to feel the proposal overdid it on CCS, but that it would be part of our future.

There may be several reasons to use CCS along with nuclear power. According to Carbon Capture And Its Storage: An Integrated Assessment by Simon Shackley and Clair Gough, the UK is building a demonstration project, collecting CO2 from a natural gas plant and injecting it into North Sea oil fields to increase the recovery. Indeed, the first use of CCS is for this purpose; timing is important because delay would lead to shutting down the wells and then making CO2 available.

Enhanced oil recovery
Enhanced oil recovery

EOR produces more oil and more CO2. On the other hand, the more North Sea oil we use, the less tar shale we need. If the study confirms cost estimates and feasibility, this technology will be used to increase oil recovery elsewhere.

Nuclear power is the main competitor in the UK and elsewhere to reducing GHG emissions from electricity with CCS and either coal or natural gas.

How do the sources compare?

The company E.ON UK plc provided the following cost estimates for different generation options [today 1 British pound = $2].
Coal using CCS: 3.9 – 5.1 p/kWh
Nuclear: 2.5 – 4.0 p/kWh
Onshore wind: 4.2 – 5.2 p/kWh
Offshore wind: 6.2 – 8.4 p/kWh

Clearly wind and solar are not important energy resources in the UK.

Why might CCS be the better choice (sometimes)?
1. Construction and planning timescale: It should be possible to construct and operate a fossil fuel CCS in 4 to 6 years from the decision to proceed. This appears to be faster than nuclear though no one has built either a CCS plant or a modern nuclear plant. [Estimates of nuclear plant construction times come in at below 4 years to 6 years, eg, The Future of Nuclear Power.]

2. Modularity: with either coal or nuclear, the plant needs to be large for economy of scale. If gas is used, modular units of 350 MW can be used.

3. Capital costs: Transportation and storage costs will be substantial. These might decrease when 10 Mt/y CO2 are piped through the system, but this is more than one source would produce (a 1 GW coal plant produces 5 – 6 Mt/y).

Fossil CCS therefore demonstrates some of the limitations of nuclear with respect to ‘lumpiness’ [of investment] and inflexibility, but probably to a lesser extent than nuclear.

4. Fossil CCS plants may be cheaper than nuclear, if nuclear comes in at the high estimate and CCS at the low. [Plants with CCS don’t capture 10% or more of the CO2 emitted, and they need more energy and produce more CO2, so plants are expected to reduce GHG emissions only by 80-90%. That will increase the price of CCS plants if, as expected, GHG cap and trade or/and tax policies are implemented soon.]

5. It isn’t nuclear. Many in the UK public prefer “not nuclear” plants. Members of Parliament perceive opposition to nuclear power as greater than it actually is.

On the other hand, relying on natural gas as a fuel, an energy source where costs are volatile and an important part of the cost, is risky for society. [Uranium costs don’t have much effect on the cost of nuclear power.]

Other reasons I’ve heard:
• Put the energy eggs in as many baskets as possible.
• Anyone operating a relatively modern coal power plant a decade from now will be able to retrofit it for CCS. This will cost utilities dearly, but may be cheaper than dismantling a relatively new power plant.
• Biopower (using plants to make electricity) releases (ideally) just a little more CO2 than it absorbed from the atmosphere (more because you don’t walk it from the field to the plant). With CCS, most of the CO2 absorbed from the atmosphere would be stored, making biopwer potentially GHG negative.

According to Shackley and Hough, several questions still have to be answered about CCS viability:

• Is CCS viable from a geological perspective? Is there a strong and solid case for safe and secure long-term storage?

• What is the capacity for CO2 storage? It is important to narrow estimates for the ability of aquifer pores to store supercritical CO2 (temperature and pressure are above thermodynamic critical point), now ranging from 0 – 100%.

• What are the risks and potential impacts of leakage?

Science at the Theater–Spring 2008

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

All sessions meet Mondays 5:30 – 7 PM at Berkeley Rep Theater.

• February 11 Jerry Tuskan Genomic Advances to Improve Biomass for Fuels

• March 10 Mary Ann Piette Saving Power at Peak Hours

• April 21 Joe Gray, Mina Bisselll, Mary Helen Barcellos-Hoff Genes and the Microenvironment: The Two Faces of Breast Cancer

• May 12 Nate Lewis Molecular Materials for Solar Energy