2012 February 13 Monday
Electric Vehicles Cause More Pollution In China

The coal electric power plants in China emit so much particulate and other pollution that a shift from gasoline to electric vehicles in China would worsen air quality.

For electric vehicles, combustion emissions occur where electricity is generated rather than where the vehicle is used. In China, 85 percent of electricity production is from fossil fuels, about 90 percent of that is from coal. The authors discovered that the power generated in China to operate electric vehicles emit fine particles at a much higher rate than gasoline vehicles. However, because the emissions related to the electric vehicles often come from power plants located away from population centers, people breathe in the emissions a lower rate than they do emissions from conventional vehicles.

Still, the rate isn't low enough to level the playing field between the vehicles. In terms of air pollution impacts, electric cars are more harmful to public health per kilometer traveled in China than conventional vehicles.

"The study emphasizes that electric vehicles are attractive if they are powered by a clean energy source," Cherry said."In China and elsewhere, it is important to focus on deploying electric vehicles in cities with cleaner electricity generation and focusing on improving emissions controls in higher polluting power sectors."

Electric cars have the potential to lower total pollution. But first electric power generation needs to be made more clean. So cleanliness of electric power plants is more important than the types of drive trains used in cars. Mandates for scrubbing coal electric power plant emissions or a shift to nukes, solar, and/or wind power would cut back pollution for all the uses of electric power.

We need cheaper ways to cleanly generate electric power. Nukes, wind, and especially solar still cost too much.

By Randall Parker    2012 February 13 11:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2012 January 08 Sunday
Electric Power In United States Flows South

The US Energy Information Administration web site has recently had a make-over which I'm exploring. Check out the main page for electricity. Their scrolling list of charts shows some charts of interest. One of the more interesting charts for energy geeks: Electricity tends to flow south in North America.

map of Annual power flows among regions in North America, 2010, as described in the article text

NIMBY California imports 25% of its (expensive) electricity.

One reason for these flows: Cheap hydro's mostly in the north and southern states will pay for importing it.

The map above shows that electricity tends to flow south in North America. The numbers on the map reflect average net power flows—metered hourly—between electric systems aggregated by regions for the year 2010. Most electric power demand is served by local generators. Net interregional trade accounted for less than 1% of delivered power in 2010. However, excess, low-cost power—primarily from hydroelectric generators in the Pacific Northwest, Manitoba, and Quebec—supplied higher-cost markets to the south.

Another page worth a look: ranges of wholesale electric prices by region. The northeast and Texas have very large swings in whole electric power prices. Also, New England, California, and Alaska have the highest electric power prices. California's prices will rise much higher to meet the state legislated requirement to get 33% of electric power from renewables by 2020.

By Randall Parker    2012 January 08 09:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2010 July 07 Wednesday
Renewable Energy Capacity Growth In Europe

Hydro still accounts for over half of renewable energy in Europe.

In 2009, and in absolute terms, about 19.9% (608 TWh) of Europe's total electricity consumption (3042 TWh) came from renewable energy sources. Hydro power contributed with the largest share (11.6%), followed by wind (4.2%), biomass (3.5%), and solar (0.4%).

With regards to the new capacity constructed that same year (27.5 GW), among the renewable sources, 37.1% was wind power, 21% photovoltaics (PV), 2.1% biomass, 1.4% hydro and 0.4% concentrated solar power, whereas the rest were gas fired power stations (24%), coal fired power stations (8.7%), oil (2.1%), waste incineration (1.6%) and nuclear (1.6%) (see figure1).

Sounds like big growth for renewables, right? But since the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine (especially so far north where Europe is located) new wind and new solar together will generate less electricity than new natural gas alone.

As not all installed technologies operate continuously 24 hours a day, figure 2 shows the expected yearly energy output (TWh) from the new capacity. The new gas-fired electricity plants will deliver yearly 28 TWh, followed by wind and PV with 20 TWh and 5.6 TWh, respectively.

New coal-fired plants (at a third of natural gas's capacity with similar or higher load factors) will probably generate more power than solar but less than wind.

In order for renewables to supply 35-40% of European power by 2020 current growth rates would need to be maintained. My guess is that'll be hard to do. Growth rates imply compound growth. So larger amounts get installed each year. Well, does Europe have enough wind sites to scale up that far?

If current growth rates are maintained, in 2020 up to 1400 TWh of electricity could be generated from renewable sources, the report concludes. This would account for approximately 35-40% of overall electricity consumption in the EU, depending on the success of community policies on electricity efficiency, and would contribute significantly to the fulfilment of the 20% target for energy generation from renewables.

Europe is not well situated for solar. Also, the place is very densely populated and does not feature an area equivalent to America's windy plains states with high quality wind. So wind power is more expensive in Europe. If the Europeans really want to displace fossil fuels they need to make a much harder look at nuclear. France leads the way on that score, already getting most of their electric power from nuclear power plants.

By Randall Parker    2010 July 07 07:28 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2010 June 05 Saturday
Watching California Wind Power Output

The California Independent System Operator (Cal ISO), the organization which manages most of California's wholesale electric power grid, has a page where you can watch recent electric power demand in California. Note the second graph on the page which shows wind power output in California.

For the latest day I see on that page wind power output rises and peaks about 4 hours later than overall electric power demand. So wind power becomes more available when wholesale electric power prices are lower. You will probably see a later day's data by the time you read this post.

You can also load the Daily Renewables Watch PDF file for a picture of all types of renewable electric power output for the previous day.

Hydro can be used to back up less predictable and controllable electric power sources like wind. But since wind power is already generating more electric power than hydro the amount of hydro available in California is not enough to allow hydro by itself to handle wind output variations. Also of note: geothermal outproduces wind in California. Wind way outproduces solar. But what gets the most attention? The opposite order: solar the most, then wind, and geothermal gets the least press attention.

Update: It is less clear to me on inspection about how much of California's electric power comes from hydro. These web pages alternatively refer to hydro and small hydro and it is not clear in all cases when they are referring to total hydro or a subset.

You can also look at past daily renewables watch pages and not just the previous day's page. Try opening a couple of dozen pages in browser tabs and shift between the tabs quickly. A couple of patterns: wind power often peaks around midnite when electric power demand is very low. Wind bottoms out around 7 or 8 AM. Sometimes wind picks up in the late afternoon. But other times it doesn't pick up until the evening. Wind and solar clearly need natural gas electric generators as back-up. During winter the solar contribution is so low that natural gas and other variable power sources have to ramp up during the day.

If one goes thru the daily ouputs for the last couple of weeks and looks at totals then wind's variability becomes clear. On Tuesday June 1, 2010 wind generated 38,341 MWh. By contrast, on Saturday May 29, 2010 wind generated 9,989 MWh. That's almost a factor of 4 swing from Saturday till Tuesday. The managers at Cal ISO must have a hard time managing such a variable power source. In fact, in a meeting at Stanford Jim Detmers of Cal ISO voiced his frustration citing an example of when wind electric power output dropped to one half of one percentage of nameplate (max) capacity. Detmers thinks this variability means wind is costing us more than what the wind generators are getting paid to generate electricity.

By Randall Parker    2010 June 05 11:45 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2010 May 02 Sunday
US National Electric Power Grid Fight

Writing in the New York Times Matthew Wald reports that lots of interest groups are making common cause against a big US national electric power grid whose main purpose is to bring wind electric power from the plains states toward where the demand lies.

After several years of debate, a coalition has emerged around the idea of a strong national electric grid, centrally planned and broadly financed, that would promote renewable energy. The group includes giant investor-owned utilities, public power entities, influential elected officials of both parties and state energy officials, and they speak with a single voice.

And they oppose it.

I have been wondering if or when this was going to happen. Really big bucks are at stake. So interest groups have gotten together to respond to this proposal. In a nutshell: the builders and operators of big wind farms in the US plains states want big electric power transmission lines (probably HVDC) built from the plains toward the East Coast to carry the power from where the wind is to where the people and industry are located. Naturally, the wind industry doesn't want to pay for these transmission lines that will boost the demand (and therefore the price and ROI) of their electric power. Rather, they want to see the costs spread around. Privatize profits, socialize costs. It is the American Way.

Of course, wind power delivered on lines paid by others would lower the prices of electricity generated by local (local to the Midwest and East Coast) nuclear, coal, natural gas, and other power sources including local wind. The opponents also dress up their opposition in high moral principle.

But opponents of a national plan say that it would be biased toward wind on the Great Plains, possibly to the exclusion of renewable resources closer to load centers, including offshore wind.

Of course both sides are promoting positions that boost their financial bottom line. So what should the policy be for long range electric power transmission lines? I do not know. How to make the construction of the lines driven by market forces that best reflect relative costs and benefits of various competing electric power sources? Local electric power delivery companies are regulated utilities that need reliable suppliers. Transmission line construction requires regulatory approval of lots of jurisdictions. This is an inherently politicized and technically complex market.

A picture is worth a thousand words. The purple and red are where the wind is:

A wind resource map of the United States. Click on this map to go to more wind maps.

You can see that the US Southeast especially has weak winds. In my view that part of the country needs nuclear power.

In a recent thread about wind power's economic effects on The Oil Drum quite a few people (myself included) challenged the post's assertion that (government subsidized) wind power lowers electric power costs overall. Wind's reliability problems increase the need for load-following peaker electric power generators that can turn on quickly when the wind fails. Some of the issues raised overlap with this post's topic.

I think it is important not to romanticize any energy source. Wind has many advantages including less pollution and less dependence on dwindling fossil fuels supplies. But it has disadvantages too. There's no energy panacea.

By Randall Parker    2010 May 02 04:39 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (81)
2010 March 14 Sunday
New Compressed Air Energy Storage Projects

Alexis Madrigal of Wired reports on compressed air energy storage (CAES) systems which will store compressed air deep underground. Electric power generated from wind blowing during times of low electric power demand gets used to compress air. Then the compressed air gets used to generate electric power when the demand is highest.

“CAES is the least cost, utility-scale, bulk-storage system available. If other factors such as its low environmental impact and high reliability are considered, CAES has an overwhelming advantage,” one Department of Homeland Security physicist concluded in a 2007 paper in the journal Energy (.pdf).

In the last four months, four projects have gotten new funding. In December, the rights to a long-awaited project in Norton, Ohio, were purchased by First Energy, a large utility in the area. The Norton project could store 2.7 gigawatts of power in an abandoned limestone mine.

Is that 2.7 gigawatts or 2.7 gigawatt-hours? I suspect the latter. That's equivalent to about 2 hours of electric power output from a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately no average expected cost per kilowatt-hour or efficiency numbers for these projects are provided in the article.

Can CAES make it more practical scaling up wind power to deliver a much higher percentage of total electric power? It is worth noting that electric power delivered during peak demand afternoons sells for more than electric power delivered late at night. So if the added cost of CAES isn't too great it can make wind much more competitive.

A cheap way to do electric power storage could help make some methods of generating electricity more competitive. For example, nuclear reactors running at night (when wholesale electric power rates are low) could power air compressors so that more nuclear electric power could be sold in the afternoon at higher prices.

By Randall Parker    2010 March 14 01:46 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2010 March 13 Saturday
European Union Using More Fossil Fuels For Electricity

You might expect that in Europe the percentage of electricity coming from fossil fuels would be dropping. That's what I expected, with with the Kyoto Accord and aggressive green energy policies. But a comment on the Oil Drum led me to an interesting pair of pie graphs of European electric power sources in 1997 and 2005. Bottom line, EU electric power percentage from fossil fuels shows an increase of 4% of total market share:

  • In 1995: 10% (natural gas) + 31% (coal) + 13% (oil) = 54%.
  • In 2007: 21% (natural gas) + 30% (coal) +  7% (oil) = 58%.

How did this happen? My guess is that as total demand increased political opposition to the expansion of nuclear (24% in 1995, down to 17% in 2007) combined with the lack of new rivers to dam to ramp up hydro (20% in 1995, down to 15% in 2007) meant that fossil fuels gained market share. Wind went from almost nowhere in 1995 to 7% in 2007. But that 7% gain just canceled out the market share loss of nukes. Given that Germany might decommission all its nukes fossil fuels look set to make even bigger market share gains.

Solar still didn't account for a big enough amount to warrant its own pie chart slice even in 2007.

A vigorous program of nuclear power plant construction could allow nuclear power to regain its lost market share. Then at least a portion of the expansion of wind power could go toward displacing fossil fuels. Drive nuclear power's markets share up enough to also compensate for all the lost hydro market share (i.e. at least 29% of total electric power from nukes) and then all wind power would displace fossil fuels.

Europe is too far north for solar to make anywhere near as big an impact as nukes. Plus, Europe lacks the big windy plains of America's interior for wind power generation. Europe's biggest practical replacement for fossil fuels is nuclear power. Look at what has happened as a result of political policies that ignore this fact.

By Randall Parker    2010 March 13 03:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2009 October 11 Sunday
Comparative Electric Energy Costs

A recent comparison of electric power generation costs by a big bank illustrate just how much more expensive solar is than other electric power sources.

For instance, HSBC estimates costs per megawatt for different options: Combined-cycle gas, 43 euros; regular coal, 62 euros; onshore wind, 58 euros; nuclear power, 48 euros; geothermal, 43 euros. Photovoltaic solar power costs 290 euros per megawatt; concentrated solar power 181 euros.

Or put another way: What price would oil or gas have to be for each technology to be break-even without subsidies, using combined-cycle gas turbines as the low-cost yardstick?

Geothermal is the cheapest: It is competitive with natural gas at $5.16 per million BTUs or oil at $57 a barrel. Nuclear power breaks even at $6.26 and $69.

If geothermal is so cheap why don't we see more of it?

Click thru to read where the other electric energy sources become competitive. Solar requires very high cost natural gas in order to become competitive.Luckily for solar its costs are dropping. So it still stands a good chance of becoming a contender.

This comparison list is deceptively simple. Solar becomes competitive much sooner in Phoenix Arizona or Las Vegas Nevada than in Stockholm Sweden or Anchorage Alaska. Also, wind doesn't compete in the US southeast due to low wind conditions (and southeastern US politicians are more enthusiastic about nuclear power as a result).

By Randall Parker    2009 October 11 11:56 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2009 October 08 Thursday
Problems With Coal CO2 Capture For Sequestration

Carbon capture and sequestration is still just one big research project.

"Until there is a market, the technology won't take off," says Howard Herzog, principal research engineer with the MIT Energy Initiative. "It's amazing that there are as many projects going on that there are today; they are all research and development projects that are funded with subsidies."

My own take on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): It is effort in the wrong direction. What we need is more effort to make nuclear, wind, and solar cheaper. If (or when) they become cheaper than coal electric they will displace coal via market mechanisms. Coal with CCS stands a very good chance of costing as much as nuclear power. Capturing the CO2 costs energy which requires more coal to be burned to power the CO2 capture process. Plus, the CO2 capture requires more capital equipment to do the capture. Since coal with CCS costs more than coal without CCS lots of lobbyists oppose the former.

Did you know that excessive CO2 pressure underground can cause seismic activity? The article examines other aspects of CCS.

One of the geological challenges faced by Duke Energy and others investigating in CCS is ensuring that the pressure inside reservoirs deep beneath the surface of the earth doesn't climb too high as carbon dioxide is injected. "There are only certain safe levels that you can raise the pressure to before you get into issues of seismicity," Herzog says.

Want to stop and reverse the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide? Cheaper clean energy sources are key. China now burns more coal than the United States, Japan, and Europe combined. India's coal consumption is rising too. The only way developing countries will shift to cleaner energy sources is if those sources cost less. Developed country demand for solar, wind, and nuclear serves its most useful purpose by scaling up demand to levels that cause costs to fall. Those cost declines are essential for a cleaner energy future.

By Randall Parker    2009 October 08 10:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 July 14 Tuesday
Smarter Grid Seen As More Important Than Long Distance Grid

Kevin Bullis of MIT's Technology Review takes a look at arguments against building a massive and expensive continent-spanning electric power grid.

What's more, advances in technology could change the economics involved and make long-distance wind transmission projects obsolete. For example, far-offshore wind farms could be located just a few dozen miles from major cities and provide wind power that is cheaper and more reliable than wind farms on land.

Hauser says that ultimately, stringing high-voltage trunk lines from the Midwest to the rest of the country is unnecessary. What's more important is developing a smarter grid. Equipping transmission lines, distribution networks, and electrical appliances in homes and businesses with sensors and controls that can communicate remotely with grid operators could reduce demand for electricity, allow existing lines to handle more electricity, and make it easier to integrate wind and other intermittent renewable-energy technologies.

The wind power industry wants the massive grid approach so that when wind isn't blowing in some areas then wind electric power can still be brought in from more distant locations. But a smart grid that could turn off appliances during power dips could reduce the need for more distant sources of electric power. More flexible demand would make more variable supplies of wind and solar electric easier to integrate into the grid.

I suspect that a big spend on long distance electric power lines would pull resources away from more productive uses. Also, how solidly is the variability of wind understood? Would long distance electric power lines really allow wind from different areas to act like a single more reliable power source? The answer isn't clear to me.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 14 12:15 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2009 April 09 Thursday
Carbon Taxes To Hit Big Coal Electric States Hardest

Some US states aren't keen on taxes to cut carbon dioxide emissions because they rely on cheap coal electric power.

Jaime Haro, AmerenUE’s director of asset management and trading, said his company paid $30 to produce a megawatt of electricity. The coal burned emits roughly a ton of carbon dioxide. If federal legislation effectively prices emissions at $30 a ton — estimates have varied from $20 to $115 — “my costs could double,” Mr. Haro said.

Those costs probably would be passed on to customers.

For now, Missouri ranks among the lowest five states in retail electricity rates — about 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with a national average of 8.9 cents.

Most competing non-coal sources of electric power are at $100 and higher per megawatt-hour. Coal electric is cheap as long as external costs are ignored.

You can tell where in the United States coal generates most electricity just by looking at a table of by-state electric power costs. Leave aside some northwestern states that get most of their power from cheap hydro. The rest of the low electric price states are big coal burners. Wyoming at 8.18 cents/kwh has the massive Powder River Basic coal deposits and local electric power plants burning that cheap coal. Similarly, North Dakota at 7.48 cents/kwh has big coal deposits and coal electric plants running off of their cheap coal.

This regional distribution of coal reserves and coal electric plants has important ramifications for efforts in the US Congress to cut CO2 emissions. Some states will pay huge increases in electric power costs if carbon emissions get taxed. Houses built less efficiently for low cost electricity will become much more expensive to own. So Senators from these states could potentially block efforts to tax CO2 emissions.

By Randall Parker    2009 April 09 11:20 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (43)
2009 March 31 Tuesday
Renewables Face Harder Time With Fossil Fuels Price Dip

An article by Matthew Wald in the New York Times takes a look at costs for different ways of generating electricity. Wald reports that declines in the prices of coal and natural gas make the renewables (wind, solar) a much harder sell.

The cost of solar thermal electricity, made by using the sun’s heat to boil water and spin a turbine, would be nearly three times that of coal and more than twice that of natural gas. (It would be almost double the cost of wind energy, too.)


A modern coal plant of conventional design, without technology to capture carbon dioxide before it reaches the air, produces at about 7.8 cents a kilowatt-hour; a high-efficiency natural gas plant, 10.6 cents; and a new nuclear reactor, 10.8 cents. A wind plant in a favorable location would cost 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour. But if a utility relied on a great many wind machines, it would need to back them up with conventional generators in places where demand tends to peak on hot summer days with no breeze. That pushes the price up to just over 12 cents, making it more than 50 percent more expensive than a kilowatt-hour for coal.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) on home rooftops costs more than solar thermal (aka concentrating solar). Plus, Brian Wang argues that PV is more dangerous than nuclear and wind because roofers get injured and killed in falls. But he says PV is still safer than coal. My guess is it depends on how tightly regulated the coal plants are. If only coal plants weren't allowed to emit particulates and mercury their damage to our health would go down substantially.

In the US half our electricity comes from burning coal. The 2000 terawatt-hours (twh) of electricity generated each year in the United States from coal electric would cost 3 cents more per kilowatt-hours (kwh) if generated from nuclear power. So what would that cost us? 2000 terawatts is 2 petawatts or 2 times 10 to the 15th power of watts. A kilowatt is to the 1 times 10 to the 3rd power watts. So we are talking 2 times 10 to the 12 power kilowatts times 3 cents extra per kilowatt. Or 6 times 10 to the 10th power of dollars. Am I correct in thinking that is $60 billion per year extra? Seems pretty small.

Of course the cost of converting to nuclear power would be higher than the price difference since lots of existing coal electric plants would need to be phased out before end-of-life. What is the cost of all existing coal electric power plants?

By Randall Parker    2009 March 31 12:09 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (17)
2008 July 09 Wednesday
Electric Price Growth Rate Rises In US

While electricity is much less sensitive than gasoline to rises in oil prices the inflationary environment for energy extends to electric power as well.

Prices.  Within the past few weeks, a number of utilities have requested permission from State regulators to raise electricity rates in response to rapidly increasing delivered fuel costs for power generation.  It is likely that most other utilities will soon need to pass through these increased costs to retail customers as well.  As a result, the forecast for growth in electricity prices is significantly higher than it was in last month’s OutlookAverage U.S. residential electricity prices are expected to increase by 5.2 percent in 2008 and by 9.8 percent in 2009 (U.S. Residential Electricity Prices).

In spite of this projected rise in prices for electricity we are in a long term trend of shifting more and more applications to run off of electric power. For example, in many parts of the United States electric power is now cheaper than heating oil for heating a house or other building. Also, the auto industry sees rechargeable electric cars as a way to escape from higher gasoline and diesel costs.

Wind turbines, concentrated solar power, and solar photovoltaics all place ceilings on electricity prices. So higher priced natural gas and coal can not cause even a doubling of US electric prices before massive substitution with wind and solar sources of electricity would take place.

By Randall Parker    2008 July 09 11:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2008 March 12 Wednesday
Electric Cars Will Not Need New Electric Power Plants?

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers claim if pluggable hybrids don't get recharged until after 10 PM then they will require little or no additional electric power plants.

In an analysis of the potential impacts of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles projected for 2020 and 2030 in 13 regions of the United States, ORNL researchers explored their potential effect on electricity demand, supply, infrastructure, prices and associated emission levels. Electricity requirements for hybrids used a projection of 25 percent market penetration of hybrid vehicles by 2020 including a mixture of sedans and sport utility vehicles. Several scenarios were run for each region for the years 2020 and 2030 and the times of 5 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., in addition to other variables.

The report found that the need for added generation would be most critical by 2030, when hybrids have been on the market for some time and become a larger percentage of the automobiles Americans drive. In the worst-case scenario—if all hybrid owners charged their vehicles at 5 p.m., at six kilowatts of power—up to 160 large power plants would be needed nationwide to supply the extra electricity, and the demand would reduce the reserve power margins for a particular region's system.

The best-case scenario occurs when vehicles are plugged in after 10 p.m., when the electric load on the system is at a minimum and the wholesale price for energy is least expensive. Depending on the power demand per household, charging vehicles after 10 p.m. would require, at lower demand levels, no additional power generation or, in higher-demand projections, just eight additional power plants nationwide.

Since I suspect the world has already reached Peak Oil I expect the shift to electrically-powered vehicles will happen sooner than this study assumes. Also, total electric demand will grow more rapidly as dwindling oil supplies cause a big shift toward electrically powered equipment of all kinds.

The great difference in power plant usage between the afternoon and late night is partly a result of a lack of dynamic pricing. If electric rates for homes varied by the time of day based on relative levels of demand then people and companies would shift more of their electric demand toward the late night even before significant numbers of hybrid vehicles hit the market. Such a shift in demand would cause higher utilization of power plants at night and therefore less excess power generation capacity available to charge electric cars.

Fortunately thermal solar and photovoltaic solar will drop in prices and will become cost competitive sources of day time power. Electric cars will then preferentially get recharged in the morning sun before the peak business demand for electric power in the afternoon.

By Randall Parker    2008 March 12 11:06 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2008 March 10 Monday
China CO2 Emissions Rising Faster Than Expected

The Western debate over carbon dioxide emissions looks increasingly irrelevant given the trends in China's industrial growth and development.

The growth in China's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is far outpacing previous estimates, making the goal of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gases much more difficult, according to a new analysis by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, and UC San Diego.

Previous estimates, including those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say the region that includes China will see a 2.5 to 5 percent annual increase in CO2 emissions, the largest contributor to atmospheric greenhouse gases, between 2004 and 2010. The new UC analysis puts that annual growth rate for China to at least 11 percent for the same time period.

A constant percentage increase per year turns into an absolute increase per year. If China maintains an 11% CO2 increase per year through the 2010s then by 2020 it will likely emit more CO2 than all the rest of the world put together. Will they do that?

The study is scheduled for print publication in the May issue of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, but is now online.

Keep in mind that many Kyoto Accord signing countries are falling far short of meeting their pledges anyway.

The researchers' most conservative forecast predicts that by 2010, there will be an increase of 600 million metric tons of carbon emissions in China over the country's levels in 2000. This growth from China alone would dramatically overshadow the 116 million metric tons of carbon emissions reductions pledged by all the developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol. (The protocol was never ratified in the United States, which was the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide until 2006, when China took over that distinction, according to numerous reports.)

Put another way, the projected annual increase in China alone over the next several years is greater than the current emissions produced by either Great Britain or Germany.

Picture China's economy 2 times bigger. Picture it 3 times bigger. Huge demands for raw materials. Huge consumption of fossil fuels. Lots of pollution generated even from the solar photovoltaics industry.

Suppose rising CO2 emissions will cause global warming and that global warming will cause big negative impacts that outweigh the benefits. Well, we are going to have to use climate engineering techniques to stop and reverse the warming. Barring big breakthroughs to lower the costs of solar and nuclear power I do not see a substantial decrease in CO2 emissions until Peak Coal hits.

Most of this increase is coming from burning coal to generate electricity. If only they were building nuclear rather than coal electric power plants the emissions (and not just of CO2, also particulates, mercury, etc) would be far less.

China's installed nuclear power-generating capacity is expected to reach 60 gigawatts by 2020, a senior Chinese energy official said -- much higher than an earlier government estimate of 40 gigawatts. A gigawatt is the equivalent of one billion watts. The new estimate is equal to about two-thirds of Britain's total electricity-generating capacity today, although still equivalent to less than a tenth of China's current total.

If China ramps up to 60 gigawatts of nukes rather than 40 gigawatts then that will still only amount to 6% of their 2020 electric power capacity.

Faced with an energy crunch resulting from its fast economic growth, China has decided to develop more nuclear power. By 2020, the nation will have an installed nuclear power capacity of 40 million kw, accounting for 4 percent of its total installed generating capacity.

They still see nuclear power as too costly as compared to coal. Without cheaper ways to generate cleaner power the world is going to become a dirtier place.

By Randall Parker    2008 March 10 11:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2008 March 09 Sunday
Opposition Cuts Back New Coal Electric Plans

The amount of oil available for import (in contrast to the larger amounts produced or exported) by OECD countries (basically the most developed countries) looks set to decline. We need substitutes. The obstacles in the way of many of those substitutes keep growing. Fear of carbon taxes has helped drive cancellation of many new proposed coal electric plants.

Utilities canceled or put on hold at least 45 coal plants in development last year, according to a new analysis by the US Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh. These moves – a sharp reversal from a year ago, when the industry had more than 150 such plants in development – signal the waning of a major US expansion into coal.

Part of the reticence to build new coal electric plants stems from rising construction costs. Nuclear power is faced with the same problem. High prices for construction materials lowers the profit protential of proposed plants. I wonder whether the high costs are transitory. If not then we are going to pay more for electricity as demand rises.

Natural-gas and renewable power projects have leapt ahead of coal in the development pipeline, according to Global Energy Decisions, a Boulder, Colo., energy information supplier. Gas and renewables each show more than 70,000 megawatts under development compared with about 66,000 megawatts in the coal-power pipeline.

This year could diminish coal's future prospects even more. Wall Street investment banks last month said they will now evaluate the cost of carbon emissions before approving power plants, raising the bar much higher for new coal projects, analysts say.

The turn from coal to natural gas will raise electric prices. On the bright side, the higher prices will make renewables and nuclear power more competitive.

I do not expect the growing opposition to coal electric plants necessarily will cause the United States to reach a peak in coal usage in the next 5 or so years. As world oil production declines another surge in demand for coal will come from a desparate move to convert coal into liquid fuel. So limits on use of coal for electricity just leaves more coal available to power cars with the product of coal-to-liquid plants.

Lots of states are turning against new coal electric power.

State governments already are leading the movement to curb greenhouse gases, with 26 now requiring that a percentage of electricity come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Those include five of the top ten coal-producing states — Pennsylvania, Montana, Texas, Colorado and Illinois.

Nearly all of those 26 states also have signed on to three separate, regional cap-and-trade systems that will eventually require cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other industrial sources. Under those systems, coal-fired power plants would be given or have to buy credits for the carbon dioxide they produce and pay for additional credits if they do not meet reduction targets.

This opposition to coal will increase the demand for nuclear power. But construction cost increases hit nuclear harder than coal because nuclear power plants are more capital intensive. Power plant construction costs have risen very dramatically since 2000.

The costs that drive the rates that power customers pay have been going up dramatically, according to the new Power Capital Costs Index (PCCI) developed by IHS Inc. (NYSE: IHS) and Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) and introduced today at the CERAWeek 2008 conference in Houston. The index shows the cost of new power plant construction in North America increased 27 percent in 12 months and 19 percent in the most recent six months, reaching a level 130 percent higher than in 2000.

The new PCCI -- which tracks the costs of building coal, gas, wind and nuclear power plants indexed to year 2000 -- registered 231 index points in the third quarter period ending in October, indicating a power plant that cost $1 billion in 2000 would, on average, cost $2.31 billion today.

“These costs are beginning to act as a drag on the power industry’s ability to expand to meet growing North American demand, and leading to delays and postponements in the building of new power plants,” said Candida Scott, lead researcher for the Capital Costs Analysis Forum for Power, a new project of CERA. “As the cost of construction rises, firms may become reluctant to invest in new plants, or delay and postpone these projects, in turn constraining the growth of capacity.”


“Although the PCCI has been on an upward trend since 2000, a surge that began in 2005 has pushed costs up 76 percent in the past three years,” according to Scott. “The latest increases have been driven by continued high activity levels globally, especially for nuclear plants, with continued tightness in the equipment and engineering markets, as well as historically high levels for raw materials.” Excluding nuclear plants, costs have risen 79 percent since 2000, she noted.

I hope big strides are made in lowering the costs of solar and wind power. Otherwise look for big price increases in electric bills in the coming years. Also, high construction costs for nuclear and coal electric plants reduce the amount of substitution possible for dwindling oil. Less energy substitution means lower living standards.

By Randall Parker    2008 March 09 12:51 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2007 December 15 Saturday
Regulatory Fears Cut Coal Electric Plans In United States

A Bloomberg article mostly about prospects of increased sales by GE of natural gas electric generator turbines highlights a shift away from new coal electric plants due to fears of carbon emissions regulations.

Concern that climate-change legislation could render coal- fueled plants obsolete prompted the cancellation of about 13 this year. Coal plants capable of generating 12,000 megawatts, enough power for 9.6 million average U.S. homes, were proposed for construction in 2005. Only 329 megawatts, enough for 263,200 homes, were built, according to U.S. Energy Department data.

Fears of global warming (now widely relabeled to "climate change" to make the assertion less disprovable?), whether realistic or not, are serving a constructive purpose by cutting back on coal electric plants. We get less conventional pollution as a result. Both nuclear and wind gain from this turn of events. Coal gets used for base load demand. But wind can contribute little to reliable base load demand. Therefore power companies either need to build nukes or a combination of wind with natural gas back-up.

If nuclear power plant building firms can manage to get nuclear power plant cost overruns below the 25% cost overrun of the Olkiluoto-3 plant in Finland (and some of the mistakes seem avoidable next time) then I expect nuclear will become much more competitive against the wind/natural gas combination - especially when natural gas production starts declining. Parts of Europe (France excepted) might go with the more expensive wind approach. Offshore wind costs more than onshore wind or nuclear. Yet the British government has just decided on a big offshore wind push. On the bright side, when natural gas prices skyrocket at least offshore wind will be cheaper than natural gas for electric power generation.

Update: Regulatory obstacles to new coal electric plants might work in our favor for reasons unrelated to pollution. More nuclear and wind facilities will be developed and therefore the coming peak in world coal production will fall less hard on countries that are forced away from coal by environmental opposition. The Energy Watch Group released a report in October 2007 which argued that measured by energy content US coal production already peaked in 2002.

The USA, being the second largest producer, have already passed peak production of high quality coal in 1990 in the Appalachian and the Illinois basin. Production of subbituminous coal in Wyoming more than compensated for this decline in terms of volume and – according to its stated reserves – this trend can continue for another 10 to 15 years. However, due to the lower energy content of subbituminous coal, US coal production in terms of energy has already peaked 5 years ago – it is unclear whether this trend can be reversed. Also specific productivity per miner is declining since about 2000.

The Energy Watch Group expects world coal production to peak around 2025.

Global coal reserve data are of poor quality, but seem to be biased towards the high side. Production profile projections suggest the global peak of coal production to occur around 2025 at 30 percent above current production in the best case.

In the United States coal provides about half of all electric power. A decline in coal production in the US means higher electric prices and inability to migrate current oil uses to electric power instead. We need a lot more nuclear and wind power. We also need accelerated research and development into ways to make photovoltaics cost competitive.

CalTech professor David Rutledge also expects a coal peak much sooner than previously projected.

By Randall Parker    2007 December 15 09:00 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2007 November 07 Wednesday
Small Carbon Tax Would Make Nuclear Power Cheaper Than Coal

With a carbon tax of a mere $10 per metric ton nuclear power might become cheaper than coal for generating electricity.

The Electric Power Research Institute’s staff estimates the effect of a charge on carbon dioxide emissions on the price of a kilowatt-hour, the amount of electricity needed to run 10 100-watt bulbs for an hour. Natural gas produces 0.84 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, and coal produces more than twice as much, 1.9 pounds.

At $10 per metric ton, the impact is minimal. But at $50 a ton, for example, the cost of a kilowatt-hour produced by coal goes from about 5.7 cents to about 10 cents. Wind power currently isn’t competitive, according to the institute’s calculation, but it becomes competitive when carbon dioxide costs $25 a ton. By their calculations, nuclear energy, with negligible carbon dioxide emissions, looks sensible at a small carbon charge.

Thanks to "Fat Man" for the article tip. He suspects that the New York Times is using Nuclear Energy Institute estimates for nuclear costs (PDF) by way of an Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) report. Until we see some nuclear power plants built in the United States using the newer designs we aren't going to know for sure. But my guess is that the NEI numbers aren't too far from reality. Otherwise we wouldn't be seeing so many plans for new nuclear power plant construction.

The nuclear revival got its official kickoff last month with an application from NRG Energy Inc., Princeton, N.J., for the first new nuclear plant in three decades. The NRC is preparing for 32 nuclear-power-plant applications by 2009, including as many as nine this year.

The electric power industry is factoring in some probability of a carbon tax in coming years and it is hedging its bets. The passage of a carbon tax of just $10 per metric ton would likely stop all new coal electric plant construction in the United States. I'd like to see that happen just to prevent mercury, particulates, and other conventional pollution. However, even if that happens Asian demand for electricity looks set to put new 1000 coal plants online in just the next 5 years alone.

More than 1,000 coal-fed power plants will be built in the next five years, mostly in China and India, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. China, the world's biggest coal producer, became a net importer for the first time this year, taking supplies from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa and reducing the amount available for Europe.

The mind boggles. Asian economic development makes so many Western debates about the environment seem almost irrelevant. Decades after the environmental movement took off in the United States the world is going to become a more polluted place. Our best hope is the development of cheaper ways to generate electricity using nuclear, solar, and wind power. A carbon tax in China or India seems a distant prospect.

By Randall Parker    2007 November 07 10:59 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2007 July 26 Thursday
Robert Rapier: Our Future Should Be Electric

Over at The Oil Drum Robert Rapier argues biomass energy has a very limited role to play as compared to solar photovoltaics.

The fundamental problem here is that photosynthesis is not very efficient. Consider the rapeseed oil yield above. Gilgamesh made a table that is basically the solar capture/conversion to oil from various crops. The gist is that only a few hundredths of a percent of the incoming solar energy gets converted into liquid fuels. Of course some did get converted into other biomass, which could be otherwise used for energy, but generally we get a very low capture of the sun's energy for use as liquid fuels. (This exercise can still be proven by assuming the theoretical limit for photosynthesis. One must just make more assumptions and it is not as easy to follow for a general audience).

Consider instead direct solar capture. Let's not even consider the record 40+% efficiency that Spectrolab announced last year. Let's not consider any of the more exotic technologies that are pushing the envelope on direct solar capture efficiency. BP's run of the mill silicon solar cells operate with an efficiency of 15%. That's about 250 times better than the solar to rapeseed oil route. Or, to put it a different way, you can produce the same amount of energy with direct solar capture in a 13 ft. by 13 ft. area that you can by photosynthesis in 1 acre of rapeseed. And odds are that you have a roof with an area that size, which could be used to capture energy without the need to use arable land.

Rapier has reached the same conclusion I've preached for years: We need to develop the technology we need to shift to electric power for transportation.

Of course the disadvantages are 1). The costs for solar are still relatively high; and 2). We have a liquid fuel infrastructure. But in the long run, I don't see that we have any chance of maintaining that infrastructure. If we are to embark on a Manhattan Project to get off of our petroleum dependence, we should direct our efforts toward an eventual electric transportation infrastructure.

Biomass energy will eat up too much land and agriculture will generate too much pollution with a poor ratio of Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). Synthetically created photovoltaic materials will convert sunlight to energy far more efficiently than plants can manage. This fact might one day enable nanobots to outcompete DNA-based life. But for the foreseeable future the use of photovoltaics instead of biomass energy will protect nature.

Airplanes probably aren't going escape their use of liquid fuels when cars shift to electric power. So the relative cost of air transportation will rise vis a vis ground transportation. But overall the cost of transportation will fall once we can power vehicles off of electricity.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 26 10:50 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2006 November 21 Tuesday
Home Combined Heat And Electric Generators Maturing

Mark Clayton of the Christian Science Monitor reports that home micro combined-heat-and-power (micro-CHP) systems are becoming cheap enough that the market for home electric generators that also supply heat is starting to take off.

Since Malin changed his home heating system to micro-CHP in February, 18 other families in the Boston area also have adopted the technology, which squeezes about 90 percent of the useful energy from the fuel. That's triple the efficiency of power delivered over the grid.

Factories and other industrial facilities have used large CHP systems for years. But until the US debut of micro-systems in greater Boston, the units had not been small enough, cheap enough, and quiet enough for American homes. Add to that the public's rising concern about electric-power reliability - seen in a sales boom of backup generators in the past couple of years - and some experts see in micro-CHP a power-to-the-people energy revolution.

"Right now these residential micro-CHP systems are just a blip," says Nicholas Lenssen of Energy Insights, a technology advisory firm in Framingham, Mass. "But it's a ... technology that ... could have a big impact as it's adopted more widely over the next five to 10 years."

Get this: These things pay for themselves by lowering total cost of electricity.

Micro-CHP doesn't come cheap - just with a long-term discount. Basic systems cost from $13,000 to $20,000, installed. Even at the lower range, that's at least $6,000 more than a new high-efficiency hot-air furnace, even after a gas company rebate. Result: The payback period on the initial investment is three to seven years, depending on the cost of electricity, say officials at Climate Energy. The company expects to install about 200 systems next year, mostly in New England.

How fast they pay back probably varies by a lot more than 3 to 7 years. This is so for a few reasons. First off, residential electric costs in the United States vary from 6.23 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh) in Idaho to 23.53 cents per kwh in Hawaii. Even that table which lists average electric costs per state understates the range of variation since some areas of states have different rates than other areas of the same states. Similarly, per capita electric energy usage by state varies by a factor of 4. Plus, the heat that comes from the gas-fired home electric generators saves much more money in colder states than in warmer states. During warmer periods the heat from the electric generator just becomes waste heat. If you use a lot of electricity, live in a cold state, have natural gas available (not all do) and it is fairly cheap then the economic argument for getting a micro-CHP device is very strong.

Micro-CHP could make home solar power more practical. Micro-CHP could kick in when the sun does not shine. Throw in some micro wind turbines on the roof and then micro-CHP would only need to kick in when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow.

By Randall Parker    2006 November 21 11:04 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2006 September 18 Monday
Silicon Chip Turbine Electric Generator

Semiconductor technology advances are mostly funded by sales of computer processors, memory, and other digital computer parts. Those advances have created capabilities to manipulate small scale devices for a variety of other purposes including microfluidic devices that function as biological and chemical labs on a chip. Another application being pursued at MIT is the development of extremely small gas turbines for generation of electricity. MIT researchers expect their miniature gas turbine to eventually compete with very large natural gas burning electric generator plants in efficiency.

MIT researchers are putting a tiny gas-turbine engine inside a silicon chip about the size of a quarter. The resulting device could run 10 times longer than a battery of the same weight can, powering laptops, cell phones, radios and other electronic devices.

It could also dramatically lighten the load for people who can't connect to a power grid, including soldiers who now must carry many pounds of batteries for a three-day mission -- all at a reasonable price.

The researchers say that in the long term, mass-production could bring the per-unit cost of power from microengines close to that for power from today's large gas-turbine power plants.

Making things tiny is all the rage. The field -- called microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS -- grew out of the computer industry's stunning success in developing and using micro technologies. "Forty years ago, a computer filled up a whole building," said Professor Alan Epstein of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "Now we all have microcomputers on our desks and inside our thermostats and our watches."

Cheap mass manufactured miniature electric generators could eliminate the need to connect to the electric grid, thereby reducing vulnerability from central system failures. Distributed generation would also cut transmission line losses of electricity due to resistance in cables.. However, large electric generator plants have one really big advantage: Their emissions can be rmonitored, regulated, and controlled.

By Randall Parker    2006 September 18 10:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2006 August 26 Saturday
Emergency Electric Generators Increase Air Pollution

Massive electic generator plants emit much less pollution per amount of electricity generated as comapred to the much smaller electric generators which institutions have for back-up. During periods of heavy demand for electricity utilities which lack sufficient electric generation capacity incentivize customers to activate their own back-up generators and the result is much higher levels of air pollution.

Power plants built since 1970 are subject to stringent pollution controls. But rules for backup generators are far less strict, and, in most cases, there are no pollution restrictions for diesel generators not used more than 500 hours a year. The Pataki administration proposed new pollution rules several years ago, but they have not been put into effect.

Studies have shown that for each watt of power output, diesel generators produce up to 20 times as much particulate pollution, or soot, as the most advanced, natural gas-fired power plants, and up to 200 times as much nitrogen oxides, precursors to ozone, or smog. They even emit several times as much pollutants per watt of power output as the average power plants that burn oil or coal.

“This is pretty much the dirtiest source of electricity you can find,” said Peter Iwanowicz, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of New York State.

A given quantity of fossil fuel will produce less pollution when burned if it is burned in a massive electric generator plant. This makes intuitive sense. The electric utilities can afford to hire full-time engineering staffs to make their combustion chambers burn efficiently and to make sure their scrubbers work well. Smaller diesel burning generators aren't as optimized or as regulated.

There's a lesson here: Regional opposition to big new electric power plants leads to the proliferation and usage of smaller fossil fuel burning electric power generators. So the opposition to electric power plants leads to dirtier air, not cleaner air.

Local generation of electric power is appealing if it is done in non-polluting ways. But use of fossil fuels for local electric generation is both much more polluting and more costly.

Micro wind turbines and photovoltaics provide very clean locally generated electricity. But these sources cost much more and also aren't available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. An acceleration in the development technologies to lower the cost of cleaner energy sources could bring us a cleaner environment and lower costs at the same time.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 26 10:25 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2006 August 12 Saturday
Trend Toward Home Backup Electric Generators

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor Amy Green reports on the rapidly growing trend toward purchasing back-up electric power generators for homes.

LONGWOOD, FLA. – The first power outage lasted five days. So did the second one. And the third. The hurricanes that racked Florida in 2004 were a miserable experience for Andre Biewend and his family - including his 3-year-old twins at the time. They were left in a stinking, sweltering home as Mr. Biewend argued with local store owners for dry ice for the fridge.

Not anymore. Biewend, a real estate developer in this suburb of Orlando, invested $15,000 more than a year ago in a standby power generator that keeps his 5,200-square- foot home running through any outage. He likens the generator to an insurance policy - he hopes he never uses it, but now with a baby at home, too, it gives him a sense of security.

The growth in sales has been huge.

The standby generator industry grew five-fold between 2000 and 2005 to a more than $500 million industry, according to Generac Power Systems, the nation's largest generator manufacturer.

I see an important implication of this trend: There's a big demand for non-grid electricity. That electricity costs far more than grid electricty. Therefore electricity from solar photovoltaics does not have to become as cheap as big power plant electricity in order to compete. A substantial portion of the population will buy photovoltaics and batteries for their homes once the price allows them some feeling of environmental satisfaction or increased security against natural disasters. Some will also buy rooftop wind microturbines to generate home electricity from the wind.

As living standards rise for the upper middle class and upper class they find they have money to buy things they never bought before. So more people buy second homes, private jet flights, and other luxury goods. While some people buy big $50,000 SUVs others spend far less on a Toyota Prius in order to feel they are doing something for the environment and in order to signal that they are acting on their political beliefs by putting their money where their mouths are.

The combination of rising affluence and eventually falling prices for photovoltaic installations will drive installation of photovoltaics well in advance of when photovoltaics make sense purely from the price standpoint as compared to local utility electricity. Some will be driven by the desire to make a statement. Others will see photovoltaics as utilitarian luxuries that assure they'll never be without electric power. The desires for status, independence, and security will all push photovoltaics along faster than a simple economic analysis would lead one to expect.

In order for photovoltaics to work as a more secure form of electricity in hurricane zones photovoltaics will need to become integrated into roof tiles and siding so that it will stay anchored to roofs under hurricane force winds. Also, home electric battery arrays will need to become cheaper and longer lasting. But the batteries, photovoltaics, and microturbines will make big in-roads in the home electricity market before their prices fall all the way down to the price of grid power.

Update: The willingness to spend money on convenience rises as incomes rise. Once people have satisfied basic needs they tend more toward satisfying desires. One desire is to never be inconvenienced. Loss of electric power for 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 5 days is an inconvenience and people will spend increasing amounts of money to reduce the risk of that inconvenience the more affluent they become.

Pluggable hybrid vehicles and batteries with higher energy density also increase convenience. First off, one can reduce the frequency of trips to get gasoline. Second, the batteries in a car can run a house in event of a power outage. People will spend to save time. People will also spend to reduce the risk of life disruption from natural events or human technological failures. The desire for greater convenience is going to drive the development of better energy technologies.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 12 01:06 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2005 June 02 Thursday
Next Two Generations Nuclear And Coal Plants Considered

The Christian Science Monitor has an article on the rising interest in third generation plus and fouth generation nuclear power plants. Nuclear power could meet projected future demand for electricity.

In the US alone, utilities will need to build 281 gigawatts of new generating capacity by 2025 as demand rises and older coal- and oil-fired plants are closed, the DOE estimates.

Would you rather have 281 1 gigawatt coal-fired electric generator plants or 281 1 gigawatt nuclear powered electric generator plants? In the future wind and solar may add to those choices. But for large scale expansion of base generation capacity the two realistic choices today are nuclear and coal. If you oppose one you have to be willing to support the other.

Nuclear designs most likely in the next wave of nuclear reactor construction will be simplified versions of existing light water reactors refined to have fewer possible points of failure and more passive handling of problems.

The latest designs likely to hit the grid come from US manufacturers Westinghouse and General Electric, as well as foreign companies such as Areva in France.

These designs make extensive use of natural processes, such as convection and gravity, in their emergency cooling systems instead of the mammoth pumps and series of valves found in older reactors, which are prone to failure or operator error, says Per Peterson, who chairs the nuclear engineering department at the University of California at Berkeley. Only a small number of battery-operated valves need to open for the emergency cooling systems to kick in. The combination not only reduces the amount of internal plumbing at the plant, he says, it also reduces the need for diesel generators that keep the cooling system operating in case the plant is shut down for maintenance or an emergency.

Overall, "the new, simplified designs eliminate an enormous amount of equipment inside the reactor building," he says. That reduction leads to plants that are much cheaper to build and maintain, he adds. These designs first emerged about four years ago as "third-generation" designs. They have evolved into what many are calling third-generation-plus designs.

The article also reviews a multinational effort of the United States, Britain, Japan, and several other countries to develop fourth generation nuclear reactor designs with the goal of choosing a couple of new designs by 2012. I think they ought to accelerate their work and develop next generation designs more rapidly.

The Christian Science Monitor also has an article about "capture ready" coal plants build to be more easily upgraded to capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions.

Even environmentalists are wary. Some see the capture-ready idea as another excuse for power companies to drag their heels on a far more advanced clean-coal technology called integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC.


A big question is cost. Although making a plant capture ready represents only a small fraction of a power plant's construction budget, the equipment to capture CO2 would almost certainly run into serious money, experts say. Even if a reasonable technology were found, installing it in a capture-ready coal plant would raise construction costs some 50 percent (75 percent for plants not capture ready), Gibbins estimates. And running such a plant would raise the cost of producing electricity at least 40 percent due to heat loss involved in the carbon-capture process, he adds.

What is the cost of IGCC versus capture ready plants that are upgraded to do CO2 capture? I'm guessing IGCC would be cheaper. Also, I'm guessing that IGCC will be less polluting for other categories of pollutants such as sulfur oxides and mercury. Anyone know for sure?

Also, how does IGCC electric compare to nuclear electric in cost?

See my previous post "Cost Estimates For New Nuclear Power Plants".

By Randall Parker    2005 June 02 09:21 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2004 August 16 Monday
Thin Film Fuel Cells May Obsolesce Large Electric Plants

Small thin film fuel cells may obsolesce large electric power generating plants based on fossil fuels.

"By using materials science concepts developed in our superconductivity research and materials processing concepts in our semiconductor research, we are able to reduce operating temperatures, eliminate steps and use less expensive materials that will potentially revolutionize from where we derive electrical energy," said Alex Ignatiev, director of TcSAM and distinguished university professor of physics, chemistry and electrical and computer engineering at UH. "While there are a number of fuel cell research programs at the university, ours focuses on the application of thin film science and technology to gain the benefits of efficiency and low cost."

Compared to the macroscopic size of traditional fuel cells that can take up an entire room, thin film SOFCs are one micron thick – the equivalent of about one-hundredth of a human hair. Putting this into perspective, the size equivalent of four sugar cubes would produce 80 watts – more than enough to operate a laptop computer, eliminating clunky batteries and giving you hours more juice in your laptop. By the same token, approximately two cans' worth of soda would produce more than five kilowatts, enough to power a typical household.

Keeping in mind that one thin film SOFC is just a fraction of the size of a human hair with an output of 0.8 to 0.9 Volts, a stack of 100 to 120 of these fuel cells would generate about 100 volts. When connected to a homeowner's natural gas line, the stack would provide the needed electrical energy to run the household at an efficiency of approximately 65 percent. This would be a twofold increase over power plants today, as they operate at 30 to 35 percent efficiency. Stand-alone household fuel cell units could form the basis for a new 'distributed power' system. In this concept, energy not used by the household would be fed back into a main grid, resulting in a credit to the user's account, while overages would similarly receive extra energy from that grid and be charged accordingly.

"The initial applications of our thin film fuel cell would probably be for governmental entities," Ignatiev said. "For instance, once the preliminary data satisfies the Department of Defense, we could see our fuel cell research in action in the backpacks of soldiers, replacing heavy batteries to power their computers and night vision goggles and such.

"NASA also is very interested in this research mainly because of the weight and size factors," he said. "Thin film SOFCs offer light, compact, low mass properties of significant interest to them. Right now, the shuttle routinely uses fuel cells that require ultrapure oxygen and hydrogen, use exotic materials and are massive and large. But the thin film SOFCs we are developing at UH are not as sensitive to contaminants and are highly efficient in their design and lightweight size, which is ideal for space applications."

Inherent to the more efficient design of these "cool" fuel cells is quite literally the fact that they operate at a much lower temperature than other solid oxide fuel cells, yet do not need a catalyst. Despite their 60 to 70 percent efficiency, SOFCs, in general, operate at 900 to 1,000 degrees Celsius, a very high temperature that requires exotic structural materials and significant thermal insulation. However, the thin film solid oxide fuel cell has an operating temperature of 450 to 500 degrees Celsius, one half that of current SOFCs. This lower temperature is largely a result of the drastically decreased thickness of the electrolyte-working region of these thin film SOFCs and negates the need for exotic structural materials and extensive insulation. The lower temperature also eliminates the need for catalysts (known as reformers) for the fuel cell. All of these features indicate a reduced cost for the thin film SOFC and positive future impact on the fuel cell market.

Note that SOFCs would not obosolesce nuclear power plants. If nuclear power could be made cheaper than coal or natural gas electric power plants then nuclear plants might still have a future. But as a means to generate electricity from fossil fuels large centralized plants are probably going to be obsolesced by smaller cheap and highly efficient fuel cells that can be located quite close to the devices that run off of electricity.

I think a really nice energy future would be based on the use of sunlight to run artificial photosynthesis systems to generate synthetic hydrocarbons. Such systems could be either biologically based with genetically engineered plants or the systems could be based on non-living catalyst materials that are like photovoltaic cells but which drive the fixing of hydrogen with carbon. Another approach would be to run nuclear power plants to generate power to supply the power to run artificial photosynthesis systems. All these approaches could produce gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons for burning in fuel cells and in existing engines while we transition to fuel cells.

Update: See Tim Worstall's post Solid Oxide Fuel Cells where after analysing the work of Professor Ignatiev he opines:

Insolation is at roughly one horsepower per hour per square yard for seven equator equivalent hours per day just about anywhere with extensive human habitation. That's 5 or so KWatts per sq yard per day. What's the size of the average American houses' roof? 1,000 sq foot? 100 or so sq yards? 500 Kwatts a day? Solar cells with 30% efficiencies are out there (Berkeley, GaAs/GaN/InN). 150 KWatts. As I don't know the efficiency of a process to separate the hydrogen from the water, I'll assume 50%. OK, we've got 75 KWatts of usable power now. Our SOFC produces electricity at 60% efficiency: 45 KWatts per day of storable power. From land that's already in use for something else. Average US household daily electricity usage? 30 KWatts.

OK, OK, there's a number of leaps in those numbers but we are getting there, we really just on the cusp of being able to power a household from the ground it already occupies.

By Randall Parker    2004 August 16 02:47 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (89)
2003 October 24 Friday
Microfluidic Water Flow Generates Electricity

A large number of microchannels is needed to generate even a small amount of power.

Professors David Kwok and Larry Kostiuk squeezed a syringe of water through a two-centimetre wide glass disc cut by 480,000 holes, or "microchannels". When electrodes were attached at each end they were delighted to find they had generated just enough power to light a small bulb.

By itself this is not a new energy source. Some source of energy must be used to make the water flow.

Each channel is very small.

Thanks to a phenomenon called the electric double layer, when water flows through these 10-micron-diameter-wide channels, a positive charge is created at one end of the block and a negative charge at the other - just like a conventional battery.

The amount of electricity generated was very small.

They held a reservoir of water 30 centimetres above the array and allowed it to flow through the disc under hydrostatic pressure, generating a current of 1500 nanoamps in the process.

These researchers see both small scale and large scale applications for this approach.

The research team led by Professor Daniel Kwok and Professor Larry Kostiuk, of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, claim they have created a new source of clean non-polluting electric power with a variety of possible uses, ranging from powering small electronic devices to contributing to a national power grid.

Can this be useful for mobile phones?

"The applications in electronics and microelectronic devices are very exciting," says Kostiuk. "This technology could provide a new power source for devices such as mobile phones or calculators which could be charged up by pumping water to high pressure."

Their proposal to use their device as a battery really amounts to using highly pressurized water as the medium for storing energy. But that sounds impractical. The casing that holds the water would have to be strong enough to hold it under fairly high pressure. The water and the case would both add mass. Plus, the case has to have an incredibly strong valve that can open and close to let the highly pressurized water out as necessary. Fuel cells powered by a liquid hydrocarbon fuel seem like they'd have a better energy to mass ratio. Both compressed air and compressed fluids are being explored as energy storage methods in cars. But for something as lightweight as a cellphone compression of water has to compete against fuel cells and, perhaps further into the future, lithium polymer batteries.

There are of course lots of places where water flows already.

And might it one day power everything? "You'd need a really big area, like a coastal region," said Dr Kostiuk. "But then again, I guess, those are available, aren't they?" For a clean, free form of electricity, the answer must surely be yes.

One problem with using ocean water to generate electricity is that the water would have to be filtered before passing into the microchannels. But large scale manufacture of nanodevices might eventually provide the ability to use this approach to make devices that could generate electricity from waves or tide flow.

There is also the prediction of 1964 CMU professor Fletcher Osterle that this method of generating electricity will turn out to be very inefficient.

"Probably the reason no one carried on Osterle's work is that he concludes the efficiency can never be better than .04 percent. We haven't done much better than that so far, but we do think that we can do much better — we have much better technologies today, like [microelectromechanical systems] than they did in the 1960s," said Kostiuk.

Water can already flow thru turbines at dams in order to generate electricity. Though turbines today are big things it will probably eventually be possible to make microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) turbines. Therefore MEMS microchannels are not the only imaginable approach for the use of MEMS devices to generate electricity from flowing water. MEMS turbines might turn out to be a more efficient than MEMS microchannels as a way to harness very small water flows.

By Randall Parker    2003 October 24 11:31 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2003 January 31 Friday
Fuel Cells First Big Use To Be Stationary Power Sources

The engineering problems in fuel cell development are easier to solve for fuel cells as stationary electric power generators than for transportation. Fuel cells in vehicles have additional design requirements such as low weight and ability to handle vibrations. Therefore fuel cells will first be widely used for electric power generation.

"We really see fuel cells starting to be viable by the generators toward the end of the decade. We're past science and we're into engineering," said Greg Romney, vice president of fuel cells and fuel processing at Chevron Technology Venture Co.'s Houston headquarters. "We're not there yet in terms of entering the market with real products. Some foreign markets may develop first because (the demand for and cost of) electricity is higher."

Decreasing costs for smaller turbine electric generators has led to the growth of the use of turbines by companies to generate their own electricity instead of buying from electric utilities. The advent of cost effective fuel cell electricity generators that convert natural gas to electricity with greater efficiency than turbines can achieve will surely accelerate that trend. So one consequence of the development of fuel cell technology will be a reducing in the centralization of electricity generation combined with the growth in the distribution of natural gas to more end-points.

The article argues that fuel cells will first be used in more developed countries because the technological infrastructure and natural gas availability exists to support their use. But in developing countries the ability to generate reliable electricity to fund, for instance, software development and services technology parks will make fuel cell electric generators attractive where reliable natural gas supply can be arranged.

By Randall Parker    2003 January 31 10:04 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2002 November 24 Sunday
Fuel Cells Set To Grow As Electric Generators

The use of fuel cells to generate electricity in the US is set to rise dramatically.

The market for fuel cells that generate electric power is expected to be $3 billion by 2005, says Principia Partners, a market research firm. Meanwhile, the current $40-million stationary fuel cell market used for onsite generation is predicted to grow more than $10 billion by 2011, adds Alliance Business Intelligence. That's a jump from a generating capacity of 75 megawatts today to 15,000 megawatts by 2011.

To put that in perspective the total US electric generation capacity in 2000 was 639,429 megawatts.Coal fired plants represent nearly 38 percent of that capacity. In terms of actual generated electricity coal represents a larger percentage.

The US Department Of Energy is forecasting a fairly slow rate of rise in renewable electric power generation.

Total renewable generation, including CHP, is projected to increase from 298 billion kilowatthours in 2001 to 476 billion kilowatthours by 2020 in AEO2003, an increase of 2.5 percent per year. Growth in renewable generation was projected to grow at a slower 2.1 percent per year between 2001 and 2020 in AEO2002. Total renewable generation reaches 495 billion kilowatthours by 2025 in AEO2003.

I don't think that a forecast like this is going to turn out to be accurate because it seems reasonable to expect dramatic breakthroughs in an assortment of energy technologies. A lot of money is flowing into energy research.

PALO ALTO, Calif. - Stanford University said this week that a roster of corporate giants in energy and engineering had donated $225 million to fund research in developing less-polluting power sources, one of the largest such tie-ups between a university and major corporations.

By Randall Parker    2002 November 24 11:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
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