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Thursday, July 07, 2005

US Energy Policy

I posted this in another community in respose to a call for protest letters regarding the Bush White House energy policy.

(The policy can be summed up as follows:
More oil: YAY
More nuclear: YAY
Hydrogen cars: yay
More conservation: *crickets chirping*
More renewable energy: *more crickets*

No real shockers there.)

While I think the policy is sadly deficient in the last 2 categories, I had this to say about the first two:

More oil (i.e.: ANWR):
North America headed down the unsustainability path a long, long time ago. The horse left the glue factory about 100 years ago. It is significant and irreversable due to its staggering scale. In order to attempt to sustain itself, it has and will continue to rely on a reliable and affordable supply of oil. That is simple reality and even the most ambitious plans to move away from this system must include plans to support the system during the transition period. It is a complete catch-22. ANWR represents a potentially significant source of domestic oil and it should be exploited in conjuntion with the opening of several new refineries in the lower48 to accomodate this new capacity. North America at its current techological levels simply put would cease to exist without oil. No food, no transportation, no industrial capacity, no agriculture.. no anything.
Now, up until now, North America for the most part has outsourced its oil production and refining. There is, obviously, some domestic production.. but it pales in comparrison to how much is imported. Even here in Canada, the US's #1 supplier, we import oil. In doing so, North America has essentially become one giant NIMBY.. it wants the benefits of other countries' environmental destruction but doesn't want to take on that burden itself. It wants the oil, but doesn't want the true cost of that oil. I think that is unacceptable and hypocritical. I think that, similarily, garbage facilities should be located within the municipal boundaries of the city it serves.. the best way to encourage people to reduce what they consume is to make them see the cost of their choices. In this same way, ANWR is a more environmentally sound source of oil than it shifting that capacity demand to OPEC (who very likely doesn't have that capacity available anyway).
In combination with ANWR (and coastal drilling off Florida and anywhere else there is oil), not insignificant resources should be pouring into garbage-to-oil conversion technology. If this could be rolled out in any form of mass production scale.. just about everything changes. Landfills become simple staging areas (and old ones become mines). Garbage becomes a commodity, not a liability. The question becomes "how much waste can be produced and how quickly can be be converted".. "reduce" in the 3 R's (reuse and recycle being the others) goes away and "reuse and recycle" get a huge and unexpected boost. In effect, it would "change everything"... including, unfortunately, the relationship with the Middle East. If people think they hate the West now.. just wait until we stop buying the only thing they export.

Nuclear energy:
Simply put, if the US wants to move away from oil and into a hydrogen economy (which I think is a good goal to have, though I don't know how realistic it is) it would be impossible to do this without a significant reinvestment in nuclear energy. The sustainables (wind, solar, geothermal, etc) require exponentially increased land areas to generate he same quantity of energy that nuclear can produce. Yes, nuclear energy has its own set of problems. No question there. Long term storage can easily be accomodated in a facility like Yucca Mountain or other deep, geologically stable environments (in Ontario, there are several old mine shafts that would suit well to this use). The US energy demands are sufficiently high and spread out that it will always require a significant investment in one of the "big three" sources.. coal, natural gas, and nuclear. There should, I agree, be incentives to increase the production capacity from renewables. No doubt. I'd love to see solar panels on every house and every corporate building. Highways make great wind tunnels for turbine generators. But it is a pipe dream that North America could sustain itself on renewables.. even with the vast expanses of land it has, they wouldn't be enough. So, that leaves the Big 3. Advances in coal scrubbers have come a long, long way to the point where they are almost on par with natural gas in terms of emisions. Unfortunately, you still have to blow up a mountain to get at the coal... and there's the whole downside of "black lung". The advantage, though, is that there are significant domestic supplies and they aren't any real transportation or terrorist issues. Regardless, however, this is my last choice. Natural Gas is an attractive source.. but the problem is that it is somewhat difficult to extract, still requires lots of oil, and global known reserves of it are shrinking fast and what reserves there are are typically still held by countries that don't like the US very much. This leaves nuclear.. far outstrips the others in terms of energy/square foot of generation. Disposal and terrorist threat are both the highest.. however, the US will simply have to account for this increased threat by increasing security. There has yet to be an attack on a nuclear facility worldwide. While it would be foolish to think that this will continue, the fact remains that they aren't nearly as vulnerable a target as they might seem to be (especially given the recent changes to airlines). Vigiliance would, of course, be required.. but when the alternatives are 1) coal 2) shrinking supplies of natural gas 3) continued expansion of the oil economy 4) bulldozing 95% of America and "starting over" with different planning and a different philosophy ... there aren't really many options as I see them.
As for "this changes everything" technology for nuclear energy.. I think it lies in "walk away safe" nuclear reactors. "Meld down proof" is a pretty safe standard.

So overall I give the Bush (i.e. ExxonMobil et al) plan a score of about 50%. Some good points, some terrible points (in their omission).


At 6:59 PM, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

(Is there any chance of you changing to a template that doesn't cram all the text into a skinny little column on the left?)

You're wrong about renewables; I crunched some numbers and found that the USA could replace all fossil-generated electricity using a thermochemical zinc reduction process just being pilot-tested by researchers at ETH Zürich.  Zinc can be used directly to make electricity, oxidized to zinc oxide and hydrogen (for chemical synthesis), or used off-site to power vehicles using zinc-air fuel cells.

I made my calculations based on 600 million dry tons of biomass as a carbon source for the thermochemical step.  My numbers yielded an average output power of 317 gigawatts; US electric production from all fossil sources in 2003 was 311 GW.  (Yes, I was surprised too.)

Then there's wind power.  The US has on the order of a terawatt of wind potential, and that may not take into account the greater wind speeds at 130+ meter hub heights of the biggest new turbines.  1 TW average is 2.25 times as much electricity as the USA used in 2003.

Vehicles?  Energy actually delivered to the wheels was on the order of 180 GW average last time I checked.  If you've got 300+ GW of solar-zinc plants and even 500 GW average wind power, finding 180 GW to run vehicles is a piece of cake.

Nuclear has its place, like guaranteeing that base load can be met no matter what the weather.  But don't count renewables out; they have a lot more potential than you give them credit for.  (Lest you think I'm anti-nuke, check out It's (a) mine!).

At 9:18 AM, Blogger True Urbanism said...

Those are some impressive numbers indeed, and thanks for posting them.

Zinc: I hadn't heard of this tech before. It sounds very promising from what I've read.

Some questions for you:

Would expansion of zinc mining operations be required to produce enough zinc to supply the demand from fuel cells?

Can zinc be deemed a true "renewable" given that it is a mined resource, albeit an abundant one? What will the zinc production requirements be if the gasoline engine is phased out and zinc becomes the dominant resource?

What the spatial footprint requirement of a solar-zinc plant? How does this compare to a "typical" nuke plant?

The US has the potential for significant wind energy, no doubt, but have you calculated the distribution concentration of such potential? Are there areas that have theoretical high potential, but it might not be able to harness it all due to the required spacing of turbines? Are there areas that have very little potential and are located far enough away from the wind farms as to make distribution of the electricity not feasible? Does the theoretical potential figure include off-shore wind-farms? Where does the "1 terawatt" figure come from?

If a reliable energy resource could be harnessed from waste-to-oil... is the converstion to a completely new fuel model economically worthwhile?

I've re-formatted the pages to make them wider. How does it look now?

Sean of TrueUrbanism.com

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

"Would expansion of zinc mining operations be required to produce enough zinc to supply the demand from fuel cells?"

Yes, of course, but not much.  My calculations indicate that allowing 200 million vehicles (one USA's worth) the rough equivalent of a tank of fuel requires about a year's world production of zinc.  That's about 8 million tons.  Doing this replacement over 10 years would require world zinc production to increase about 10% for the duration.

If I'm off by a factor of two or it's desirable to have twice as much banked energy on hand, that goes up to a whole 20%... I don't have much concern about being wrong.

"Can zinc be deemed a true "renewable" ...?"

It's recycled within the system.  It may well be more renewable than bio-fuels, once soil depletion is accounted for.

"What the spatial footprint requirement of a solar-zinc plant? How does this compare to a "typical" nuke plant?"

Depends how much sun you get, but it's going to be a lot more than nuke; my back of the envelope calculations came out at about 150 MW per square kilometer, plus whatever land is devoted to providing the carbon feedstock (if you use biomass).  On the other hand, you can distribute this capacity in much smaller chunks, and you might be able to put mirror fields above shopping malls and parking lots.


This page claims that the top 20 states for wind could produce 10,500 billion kWh per year (1.2 TW average).  That calculation is 5 years old; more recent projections indicate that it was an underestimate.  No, the distribution isn't what you might like, but neither is coal or gas available where we might want it to be - wind in Oklahoma is better than oil in Iran.

The rest of your windpower questions are best answered by investigating wind farms, but AFAIK the influence of a turbine on wind speed is unmeasurable 10 rotor diameters downwind and that sets the maximum required separation.

"If a reliable energy resource could be harnessed from waste-to-oil... is the converstion to a completely new fuel model economically worthwhile?"

It has to be both reliable and available in sufficient quantity; if you don't have enough you're going to be converting something anyway.  As that appears likely, you might as well go for the system which gives you more options rather than fewer.  Zinc is really good in that regard because you can regenerate it electrolytically, chemically, or thermochemically; you can leverage more different energy sources than you can if you're producing e.g. ethanol or synthetic oil.

"I've re-formatted the pages to make them wider. How does it look now?"

Looks great, much easier to read.  Muchas gracias.


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