A big If
I Would love to see this as possible and happening.
I see alot of these technologies come and go, to be never heard from again.
It's a distinctly lonely intellectual position to have — agreeing with the IPCC that climate change is a problem, one we're causing, and something that we might want to do something about but thinking that we've probably already done what we needed to do. The extent of the Arctic ice cap during the last ice age I'm no expert …
Rather than aim at "fossil fuels", why not aim at the subset that is coal?
Using nuclear power or natural gas or hydro (instead of coal) to make electricity is rather well developed, but nuclear-powered airliners seem to be a more distant prospect. So why don't we humans implement a multiphase approach where we practice with dirty old CO2-inefficient coal a bit first, and then leaving the more difficult-to-replace liquid fuels until a bit later?
Here's the implementation plan:
1) Stop issuing permits for coal mines (easy, zero direct cost)
2) Slowly ramp up the import duties on coal imports (a money maker)
3) Slowly and carefully buy up local coal mines (a few hundred billion $)
4) Slowly and very carefully shut them down over 15 years, gently transitioning the staff
The goal is to raise the cost of coal so that coal fired power plants will be converted to natural gas (half the CO2 per unit energy), or replaced with nuclear or hydro or whatever. Within about 15 years, coal would be relegated to a niche product. Not banned, just move it way down the list.
Obviously this is not without costs, but the cost-benefit is off-the-scale efficient and effective.
Nobody even seems to have an ordered priority list. They're all scatter-brained idiots with zero capability to manage things. It's not the 'deniers' that are the problem; it's the environmentals with zero management skills.
I was with you till, like, step 2. But who is financing step 3 ? Tax payers ? That'll fly... (not).
- How about reporting health conditions of workers in coal mines ? Eg: fund more studies like: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2011-172/pdfs/2011-172.pdf
- Or, how about a study of goods that were manufactured in coal based energy plants.
- How about making it affordable for China to move to alternative energy via technology sharing ?
- put some more reasearch in CCS : http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/carbon-capture1.htm
- How about publishing reports on listed companies whose business relies on coal mining - instruments, mining and transportation... that should make wall street nervous ?
- How about sharing FB post on open pit coal mines ? http://www.nativelegalupdate.com/2011/02/articles/alaska-native-village-asks-united-nations-to-help-stop-open-pit-coal-mine-in-tribal-territory/
AC: "...who is financing step 3 ?"
The word "trillions" is often used in these discussions, and with two digits.
Hundreds of billions is less than the cost of a medium size war, and we engage in those by the dozen. Governments might consider raising such funds by, for example, no longer allowing major corporations to avoid paying any income taxes. Perhaps by applying import duties on "Trademark Rights" or other vehicles used to balance the books when sneaking profits out.
Buying up coal mines (etc.) is probably THE most cost-effective possible solution. And, by comparison to all the other hair-shirt suggestions, is relatively painless and fair. Electricity stays on. Nobody gets hurt.
If we'd started this in 1999, then we'd be pretty much done this single suggestion by now.
And we'd would thus have been a big chunk of the way towards the totality of CO2 reductions required. Find another two similar bight ideas and the ENTIRE CO2 thing can be marked done.
"a big chunk of the way towards the totality of CO2 reductions required"
Er, what do you mean "required". If you believe in CAGW (note the use of the word believe, as in not supported by facts), then it may be logical to also believe you need to reduce CO2 output. But transferring consumption from coal to oil won't actually solve anything.
We have far more coal available for extraction than oil. Limits on availability of coal are hundreds of years away. Oil, a few decades. It makes no sense to cut out coal consumption and replace it with oil consumption. Rather, we need to do the reverse.
"...transferring consumption from coal to oil won't actually solve anything."
Please pay better attention. I didn't mention oil as an alternative to coal powered power stations, because that would be a poor replacement. I did mention nuclear, natural gas, hydro, or 'something else' (does NOT imply oil).
Let's take Natural Gas as the least best of the alternatives mentioned. Per unit energy, it emits one-half the CO2 as compared to coal. Or put another way, coal emits twice the CO2 as compares to natural gas. Did you know that? If you don't know these details, then the whole debate would become a confusing swirling cloud in one's mind.
Coal is more than one-third of all CO2 emissions, so if we could slowly but firmly move that down to less than one-half of its existing volumes (a practical change, not a 'religious' outright ban) by raising the price in an orderly manner, then this one change would provide a significant fraction of the total CO2 solution. Address Cement Making and Deforestation, and we'd be pretty much done already. And nobody gets seriously hurt as we would coddle the miners during their transition to early retirement..
This proposal is the best first step. Obviously. No argument.
Climate skeptics play a useful role. They'd be double-checking the math and fact checking the assumptions. It's a key role in science. It's literally anti-science to tell them to shut up.
But it doesn't mean that anyone needs to actually debate with them, any more than NASA would debate orbital mechanics with the Flat Earth Society.
I quite agree - coal is only useful for two things that I am aware of: smelting iron and burning for heat. Oil, on the other hand, is an essential input for massive numbers of chemical processes, and should be reserved for that use.
Natural gas is great for pumping round to people's homes, and is totally wasted on leccy production.
"Coal is only useful for two things that I am aware of: smelting iron and burning for heat."
Other than the (minimal) carbon requirement to make steel (and coal isn't consistent enough quality/contaminant-free to do that anyway), you can get the necessary heat from a LFTR reactor.
As far as using solar PV to store energy, to then use to generate heat: with an overall efficiency of less than 5% (PV efficiency, electrolysis efficiency, etc) you'd be better off putting the solar heat directly into hot water or molten salts and extracting that heat for warmth or to drive a stirling motor for AC/power.
Solar is currently a seriously booming industry, even in the US.
The U.S. installed 1,133 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) in the second quarter of 2014 to total 15.9 gigawatts (GW) installed capacity, enough to power 3.2 million homes. SEIA and GTM Research forecast that PV installations will reach 6.5 GW in 2014, up 36 percent over 2013 and more than three times the market size over just three years ago. "
Installers in many countries cannot keep up with demand.
What are you guys talking about ? These numbers are clearly made up.
In case you were sleeping, the "G̶l̶o̶b̶a̶l̶ ̶W̶a̶r̶m̶i̶n̶g̶ Climate Change" fad is already over. Free market has prevailed and communists have lost. Time for America to get back to work and you looser hippies are not stopping us this time.
"Yes, I know, hydrogen is difficult to get"
It's not difficult to get, but it is difficult to store and distribute when compared with hydrocarbon fuels; so being able to make hydrogen using solar power and then make electricity from hydrogen is not a complete solution.
And scaling these technologies is usually the problem; a few years ago bio-fuels were all the rage, until it was pointed out that there isn't enough farmland to grow enough to replace even a fraction of the fossil fuels that we use.
Economists love to count chickens before they're hatched, so don't go encouraging them.
quote: "It's not difficult to get, but it is difficult to store and distribute when compared with hydrocarbon fuels; so being able to make hydrogen using solar power and then make electricity from hydrogen is not a complete solution."
I'd argue that the completeness of that as a solution is merely one of scale. If you can get enough H2 and electricity from solar to be able to completely replace your current energy providers, it becomes a complete solution. Home gas appliances can all be replaced by electric appliances (electric cookers and heating), and transport can be run on H2, it's just less energy dense than petrol. Make it cheaper per unit energy than petrol, and people are naturally going to switch when the choice becomes pertinent to them.
Then there's just the safety issues to address; personally I don't think H2 as a fuel is any more dangerous than LPG or petrol overall, but irrational public fears are still fears. Make sure that H2 powered vehicles are crash tested to the same standards as petrol vehicles (including passenger safety) and we should be good to go :)
" If you can get enough H2 and electricity from solar to be able to completely replace your current energy providers..."
Yes that would be lovely but it aint gonna happen. The sun is dropping x amount of sunlight on the planet, the energy stored in the oil we use is the result of the sun doing that for thousands and thousands of years. And we've used up half the oil in in 150 years. and the other half will take more energy to get it out that we'll get from it.
The geological process for producing oil, coal etc is immensely inefficient. Current global energy usage is a tiny fraction of total insolation. Look it up.
So we can easily* (even with current technology) meet all our energy requirements from sunlight. What we can't do is store it in an energy-dense form that can be as effectively distributed as petrochemicals can.
* Easily, in the sense that we'd need to invest trillions in solar farms and electricity grids, but the numbers work.
"we've used up half the oil in in 150 years. and the other half will take more energy to get it out that we'll get from it."
"Just how wrong can one short post get? Is this one a record?"
Care to share, for the readers who aren't so well informed as you clearly are?
Then there's just the safety issues to address; personally I don't think H2 as a fuel is any more dangerous than LPG or petrol overall, but irrational public fears are still fears. Make sure that H2 powered vehicles are crash tested to the same standards as petrol vehicles (including passenger safety) and we should be good to go :)
Not quite. You could easily open up an LPG tank to atmosphere and let it sit there for a while without problem. (People have done it, replacing the fill gauge on a tank while it's filled is not really THAT dangerous). Petrol is also very docile. It'll just sit there all day long, happily exposed to the atmosphere and requires quite a lot of energy to ignite. A lit cigarette won't do.
Hydrogen needs to either be stored cryogenically (VERY cold and requires constant burning off of the evaporating gasses if they are not used otherwise) or stored under very high pressure.
An LPG tank needs to be heated before it'll create a proper explosion. Just tossing an opened tank into a fire will only create a conflegration. Same with petrol. It'll burn quite spectacularly, probably create a good whoosh, maybe even a bang, but the damage to the surroundings will be limited. A closed LPG tank in a fire (would normally allow quite some time to get it cooled before exploding).
Crash testing to the same level as a petrol vehicle would not do. Some leakage of petrol or LPG is not really a problem. Any leakage of hydrogen IS.
"I'd argue that the completeness of that as a solution is merely one of scale"
And that was my point about scaling; how much area of solar collection is required to provide enough hydrogen to replace the UK's natural gas consumption?
Don't get me wrong, I'm very much in favour of using technology to solve environmental issues, and replacing natural gas with hydrogen would be a very good start for reducing the UK's carbon emissions and achieving energy security. I just know that small scale experiments don't always scale to the required capacity that easily; it often takes decades of development, which these days is compounded by years of legal proceedings to resolve IP battles.
"And that was my point about scaling; how much area of solar collection is required to provide enough hydrogen to replace the UK's natural gas consumption?"
Ignoring cooking and process gas, total space and water heating needs of the UK are 600 TWh per annum (from DECC data). Because at best power-to gas conversion is around 70% efficient, you'd need 860 TWh of solar PV output (ceteris paribus).
At a representative 100 kWh per square metre per year for a PV panel in the real world you'd need 8,600 square kilometres of solar PV, an area about the same as Gloucestershire, Staffordshire, and West Sussex put together.
Can't see that happening myself.
"At a representative 100 kWh per square metre per year for a PV panel in the real world you'd need 8,600 square kilometres of solar PV, an area about the same as Gloucestershire, Staffordshire, and West Sussex put together."
If you added the rooftop area of the uk together you'd probably come close.
A more practical measurement would be "Can the average UK house supply 100% of its annual electricty and heating needs from a roof-mounted solar installation." - the answer being "no, of course not"
" If you can get enough H2 and electricity from solar to be able to completely replace your current energy providers, it becomes a complete solution. Home gas appliances can all be replaced by electric appliances (electric cookers and heating), and transport can be run on H2, it's just less energy dense than petrol. "
Hydrogen at any significant pressure has a nasty habit of embrittling metals, especially if there's any carbon content in them. It is even worse for things like flexible hoses, which will go brittle even at atmospheric pressure or the extremely low pressures used by household delivery systems.
That's quite apart from the issue of throwing more than 50% of the input energy overboard when electrolysing water to make hydrogen (on top of the max ~20% efficiency of solar PV.), compared with what you get when you burn it or pass it through a fuell cell.
"I'd heard they were looking at algae, which doesn't need farmland. Although I'm guessing it might have a negative effect on marine ecosystems."
That depends where you grow it. There is a lot of "unproductive land" which has water resources (pollluted or not doesn't matter for this use), the right climate (warm to hot, with lots of sun) and can be used for the purpose.
I agree that H2 is problematic to store and distribute. But I think Tim is talking about a home-scale operation, where you have cheap solar panels to provide electricity during the day, and you crack the storage problem by generating H2 for use overnight - so you wouldn't need to store all that much of it.
I used to be with a small (compared to SSE, EDF etc) outfit called Flow Energy, who have a cunning plan to use the waste heat from your gas boiler to generate electricity. They reckon that they can afford to install the technology in your home at their own cost, lock you into a five year contract, after which time they've made a profit and let you continue using your new boiler. They have consumer trials going on at the moment, but haven't gone into production yet.
"They have consumer trials going on at the moment, but haven't gone into production yet."
There's a shed-load of micro-generation schemes like this - fuel cells, waste-heat-to-electricity, sterling engines, mini-turbine CHP. I currently work for a company that has interests across this portfolio, and I've seen nothing that convinces me that Tim Worstall's ideas are coming true any time soon, or that local generation will supplant the grid. Even micro-gen CHP struggles when a modern boiler can offer 92% efficiency - how much complexity, additional cost do you want to eke out that 8%, and how effective will be the conversion of it?
It isn't that you can't do (eg) wind to H2 conversions, store energy as compressed air, grid scale batteries, or all the other ideas. And I can say that because my employers have large scale plant doing this already. But the problem is that these assets are capital intensive and often involve multiple lossy conversions, and there's no prospective magic bullet from technology that is going to make them cheaper. All the plants that I'm aware of cannot run commercially when capital costs are allowed for, and were mostly built as technology demonstrators.
CHP boilers don't use the 8% waste heat from boilers. They generate electricity directly from the fuel, then the leftover energy from the heat engine is used for heating; the electricity is is more 'valuable' than heat. Typically the thermal efficiency of the grid is around 40% so electricity is worth 2.5 times as much as heat.
A really good CHP generator will provide maybe 30% of its output as electricity, the rest is supplied as useful heat and a bit of waste. Assuming that the waste is the same at 8%, it would provide 62% of input energy as heat and 30% as electricity which is 'worth' 75%, thus giving an equivalent combined output of 137% rather than 92%.
Similar sums suggest that there might be something to be gained from heating houses using nuclear electricity with a heat pump.
"CHP boilers don't use the 8% waste heat from boilers. "
I do know that, I work in the energy business. I think my language could have been clearer that I'm looking at net thermodynamic efficiency. If your primary alternative (a condensing gas boiler) extracts 92% of the energy from fuel, to be viable micro CHP must involve higher net efficiency, and I'm unconvinced that there's micro-CHP offering better than that, and it has (IME) much higher capital costs, higher maintenance costs, shorter asset lives, and sometimes other downsides like noise and vibration. In the world of large scale custom-designed, professionally operated heating systems you can't economically run heat-led CHP for much above system baseload for similar reasons, so the idea that micro-CHP will be magically more efficient than 92% is a chimera, and that's because any advance on a gas boiler has only that 8% efficiency gap to close.
"extracts 92% of the energy from fuel,"
That's fine if we are looking at fuel as the scarce resourse. For coal, nuclear, gas, we are. But for solar, given insolation, we've not got a shortage of the primary fuel. We've a cost issue, sure. But if we can (an asumption rather made) get cheap solar then eficiency isn't all that important.
Yes, sure, greater eff is better. But if we can get all the W we want at 3 cents a W, then so what?
You have missed the point. CHP does not need to be more efficient that a heating boiler, it only needs to be more efficient than the alternative electrical generating/distribution system plus a separate heating system.
e.g. in separate systems:
1 unit in x 40% = .4 units out (elec)
1 unit in x 92% = .92 units out (heat)
in combined system
2 units in x say 30% = .6 units out (elec)
plus 2 units x 70% x say 80% = 1.12 unit out (heat)
More heat and elec.
"Similar sums suggest that there might be something to be gained from heating houses using nuclear electricity with a heat pump."
In an epoch of higher gas prices, this would make more sense _and_ be signifiicantly less complex (AC systems are long lived and self contained, but micro-CHP Stirling engines need regular maintenance.)
A car going on an uphill stretch of motorway uses some 50 kilowatts of power.
The energy of sunlight is about 1 kilowatt per square metre, and about a tenth of that can be turned into electricity by solar cells.
So the car above, if electric, would need 500 square metres of solar sail. Bit of wind resistance there, one feels, plus problems at night. Worstall's hydrogen cells are unlikely to be significantly better.
Chemical energy is far more concentrated than electrical or mechanical energy. That is why we can make bombs, dammit. There is no sensible substitute for petrol.
And as most of the world's carbon dioxide comes from volcanoes under the ocean, our use of petrol makes no significant difference.
"And as most of the world's carbon dioxide comes from volcanoes under the ocean, our use of petrol makes no significant difference."
Natural sources of carbon dioxide are fairly outmatched by natural sinks of carbon dioxide.
A good chunk of the anthrogenic CO2 is also taken up by natural CO2 sinks and those natural sinks were able to keep up until the industrial revolution really got into high gear.
The problem is that man-made CO2 production is well above the level which natural sinks can absorb, so levels are climbing.
Man-made CO2 emissions account for less than 10% of all CO2 emissions on the planet and volcanoes are a tiny fraction of that, as someone else has already pointed out.
The issue isn't the level of emissions, it's the DIFFERENCE between total emissions and total absorption.
One analogy is filling a water tank with the drain valve open - If your inflow rate can exceed the outflow rate, you'll overfill the tank eventually (or make it so heavy that the structure supporting it will collapse.)
You can achieve that endpoint by increasing the inflow rate (fossil fuel burning), pinching off the outflow rate (chopping down forests, etc) or a combination of the two.
"A car going on an uphill stretch of motorway uses some 50 kilowatts of power."
I see what you've done there. Mixing peak into a discussion of solar. As if energy storage did not exist.
It's still impractical as you conclude; I'm just pointing out a misstep in the argument.
Is that we don't just use fossil fuels for energy. Aside the the obvious uses (plastics, fertilizer), any industry which uses chemicals (pharmaceutical, cosmetics, etc) need them...
Cracking the energy issue is a start. But it's by no means the full picture.
Cheap 'alternative' energy somewhat disconnects the energy market (and its CO2 effects) from oil as an energy source.
I guess juice's main point is this:
Oil is also a large-scale raw material for industry (cheap plastics come from cheap oil) and for intensive agriculture (cheap fertiliser comes from cheap oil).
Energy sources from something other than fossil fuels are very welcome. But some significant quantity of fossil fuels are used for stuff other than 'just' energy.
>Oil is cheap because it is pulled out of the ground in enormous scale.... but the minute you massively reduce the scale, the per unit costs go up.
Could you expand upon that? My assumption would have been that 1000 oil rigs can produce oil at much the same unit cost as 2000 rigs. For sure, if you did it suddenly there would be the extra costs of making redundancy payments to staff, or employing a caretaker staff on 'mothballed' rigs... but if you simply drilled fewer new wells over time, I'm not clear on why the unit cost would rise much.
You shouldn't be thinking about the existing rigs. Those are sunk costs so in that respect, reducing demand would not increase the price. The issue comes with finding more oil fields and moving or building more rigs. This is very expensive and justified by the fact that the companies will get a huge quantity of oil, thus making the costs of getting new sources of oil worth it and thus spreading out that huge initial cost. Reduce the demand and that initial investment has to be paid back sooner as the business case for taking a decade or two to recoup the cost is not as strong as it was.
Other factors include logistics. Oil is transported in massive supertankers because you get economy of scale benefits even though those tankers can be pretty expensive to build and run. Double the size of a normal big tanker, but not double the costs sort of thing. Now there is less demand, so the operators fill the super tankers up (not worth ordering the smaller ones until the super tanker has to be replaced), but instead of doing 1 or 2 stops to unload, it now does 5 stops to 5 different ports. Every time you go into a port you pay fees, plus that super tanker had to travel more, pay crews to be out for longer etc. That increased cost comes right back into the oil price.
This does not take into account any tax or subsidy changes that might result from governments believing oil is no longer as important as it was. Tim Worstall might be able to explain it in something smaller than a full blown thesis, but right now I don't have enough background knowledge to cover what is a very complex area.
" Oil is transported in massive supertankers because you get economy of scale benefits even though those tankers can be pretty expensive to build and run. Double the size of a normal big tanker, but not double the costs sort of thing. "
There is such a thing as "too big" - contemporary oil tankers are significantly smaller than their 1970s-80s predecessors, so I think we've already arrived at the optimum size.
"Not really. You make fertiliser from natural gas (Haber Process)."
If you have a cheap and plentiful source of process heat you can use water and atmospheric carbon (or any other carbon you can get your hands on) Natural gas is just a convenient carbon source.
"...making some plastic product, and having your customers chuck it in a landfill, would count as carbon capture."
Capture is meant to imply capture from the atmosphere, or of CO2 gas on the way to the atmosphere in a stack.
Plastic is still a good thing, as it helps to support the price of oil. Slightly more expensive oil helps ever so slightly to encourage other alternative. Unfortunately if those alternatives include coal, then it's bad. Probably a wash overall.
Plastic in the landfill is much better than a banana peel (rotting, emitting methane and leachate).
Must Address Coal First. Consider it a practice run.
But surely if we were to stop burning fossil fuels for energy, that wouldn't stop us from drilling for and refining an amount of fossil fuels for use in industry? Petrochemicals would clearly still have value, so there would still be an industry to support them.
Yes Tony I think you are right, but the issue is that wider economic changes would result. Hence those arguing that any kind of move to reducing the use of fossil fuels (including going for hydrogen) will lead to significant economic re-adjustment may have a point.
Those plastics and chemicals made cheaply using oil benefit from being a tiny fraction of the total oil use. Oil is cheap because it is pulled out of the ground in enormous scale. Now I never think we would stop burning fossil fuels in reality (classic car drivers unite!), but the minute you massively reduce the scale, the per unit costs go up. So all those plastics and chemicals present affecting so many things important to daily life will increase in costs. Some people argue this would be a good thing, go back to getting your fruit and veg in biodegradeable paper bags instead of landfill plastics for example.
Hence there is an enourmous vested interest in continuing to drill for oil even though, from an individual economic point of view, going for some kind of renewable tech would be much better. £5000 to power my house for 10 years without paying those utilities more than a token connection charge? Yes please. Run a car from that too? Why not? The answer, as always, lies in finding that very practical (and cheap) technology and bringing it to market despite all the people that don't want it to succeed.
"Some people argue this would be a good thing, go back to getting your fruit and veg in biodegradeable paper bags instead of landfill plastics for example."
For what it's worth, paper isn't a poster child for environmental friendliness. Recycling costs significantly more than making from new stock and as the fibres get chopped each time, paper can only be recycled so many times. Glossy paper is usually varnished and can't be recycled OR composted (most paper is difficult to compost)
Plastics are easy to recyle - once paper contamination is removed. Disposable plastics - bags/bottles/6-pack rings/film can (and should) be made of starch-based plastics which are more biodegradable than paper. These will break down at a known rate and won't accumulate in the guts of animals unfortunate enough to eat them (stomach acids are enough to see to that).
"Aside the the obvious uses (plastics, fertilizer), any industry which uses chemicals (pharmaceutical, cosmetics, etc) need them..."
"Energy" is by far the highest consumer of fossil fuels. Nailing that down would leave a virtually infinite supply of raw materials for manufacturing.
An article I read (dated 1964) once said - "One day our great(^n) grandchildren will say to each other 'Did you know in the old days they _burned_ coal and oil for heating?' " - the context there was the value of the stocks for manufacturing.
What are the comparative scales? How many of our 80m/day barrels of oil go into non-burn use? I think you'll find it a small fraction. Long term, it's actually an incentive to preserve oil by not burning it. Coal? Likely even less non-burn usage.
Second, let's take plastic. It might pollute the oceans and all that, but as long as it is not burnt, the carbon remains locked and out of the atmosphere.
What readers need to remember includes:
1) Capitalism is driven by profit, and in the case of modern globalist corporatism, preferably short term profit. One popular way of maximising short term profit is the exact opposite of what Tim recommends. Cutting investment on technology and on people is good for profits. Just look at offshoring, and before that, GEC. OK it doesn't work for all that long, but by then the board are rich and that's what matters most...
2) Saving the environment is not a short term investment and is not generally conducive to short term profitability, even if a few isolated examples show otherwise. Saving the environment needs joined up thinking, another key skill generally lacking in modern corporatist HQs.
When you've squared those two, I've a couple of things in the Middle East you might be able to help with.
Squaring those two is easy. GEC management were shit, did the wrong stuff. Bye bye company. Other companies do better. GE, Rolls Royce and Google are examples, even Microsoft (though management haven't done very well with the stuff they've had). The whole pharmaceuticals industry have continued to pour billions into R&D (both basic and applied) for year after year.
Market economies work on average. It's a messy business, but we have continued to get richer overall. Mistakes are guaranteed to happen, but there's a survival of the fittest element going on too. So more successful companies can kick out the old-guard if they fail to pass muster. That competition can have bad effects too, as the companies that don't think long-term might out-compete those that are spending on R&D. But that's one of the points of having things like intellectual property. We regulate the market to reward things we want, in the hopes we'll get more of them. Of course if we cock up, and reward things we don't want (patent trolls), we get more of them.
Which leads me to my next point. Government. Planned economies are the less messy alternative to market ones. Compare and contrast the shambles that was the German World War II economy to the far more rigidly planned British and Soviet ones. But that requires competent government that keeps making the right choices. Broadly the British government ran its war-economy brilliantly. But the post war attempt to carry that on failed miserably. And here you have the downside of central planning, as there's no alternative waiting in the wings, hungry to kick out the big boys and take over.
Take another example of government, UK energy policy. I lost track of the different initiatives and pay-back schemes they ran over the years. But in one of their renewable energy schemes they only consulted one company, who were the only ones certified to comply, who therefore hoovered up all the sales before anyone else could get registered. They also had this bizarre obsession with domestic solar power, which in this country is utterly unsuitable. We don't get that much sun, and we have no means of storage, so as most people are out during the day, what's the point? Whereas solar-thermal costs the same to install, but allows you to save about 40-60% of your heating fuel use - and storing heat in a tank of hot water is a well-proven system. And they seemed to ignore heat-pumps. Whereas incentives to have solar PV on office buildings, or even better combined solar-thermal and PV, would have been brilliant at cutting daytime power use.
Much better to let the capitalists fight like dogs in a sack to get your money, and just set the overall rules and watch them do it. So give incentives for not creating CO2. A carbon tax seems the easiest. Spread around liberal amounts of research money. Then sit back and see what works best.
"GEC management were shit, did the wrong stuff. Bye bye company"
OK, but GEC's cash mountain meant they were the darling of the markets till the dotcon phase (and hence the ill-advised purchase of Fore and Raltec) made it blindingly obvious that they'd not invested anything like enough in people or technologies in the previous decade or two. Who needs to develop stuff in-house when you can just buy half of someone else's company and call it a "joint venture"? The rot only became obvious *after* the purchase of Fore and Raltec but the signs had been there before that, and were visible to well informed outsiders, though when the end finally came it was rather painful.
"Other companies do better. GE, Rolls Royce and Google are examples"
GE do seem to be doing OK, from the outside. Google? No comment.
Be careful with Rolls Royce (assuming you don't mean the German owned car company).
Presumably you're aware RR have already been rescued once by the UK taxpayer.
In the last few months RR have sold their industrial gas turbine business to Siemens, at a time when there's a fair chance there'll be another "dash for gas" in the electricity generation industry (nuclear's not happening soon enough, coal has to go, wind+solar can't match the demand cycle). Such a "dash for gas" will need lots of gas turbine engines and associated systems, just as it previously did post-privatisation in the UK.
Also recently RR have sold off a tidal power business (Tidal Generation Ltd) bought a couple of years earlier. Alstom bought TGL (just as Alstom bought much of the heavier end of GEC).
RR's accounting practices are under suspicion again this year. Dodgy accounting is what took them under in 1971. And there's a bit of a whiff of overseas corruption.
A huge amount of RR's business is still dependent on high volume passenger air travel. On the five to twenty year timescale, how predictable is that market (especially in comparison with, say, the need for electricity generation capacity).
All of this is on the public record.
Heaven only knows what an RR insider sees.
Other than that, there is much sense in what you wrote: Why so little interest in heat pumps? Why so little interest in commercial-scale heat storage in what used to be called "calorifiers" or modern equivalent? But domestic wind power? What a silly idea that was.
Nice post. Although I think you over-analysed mine a touch... I just picked a couple of companies at random that seem to be investing in new things. Interesting stuff about Rolls Royce. I actaully wrote 2 paragraphs on Google, then deleted them, because I could see myself writing another 5. But they do make long-term bets and spend a lot on R&D. Their R&D is probably only aimed at the next 10 years or so, but then they're in a fast-changing industry.
Android is a great example of Google's vision. A rather disturbingly creepy vision, but nevertheless. They spent billions on it. But it has been instructive and impressive to watch all their bets coming in over the last few years. The fact that an Android phone is a mobile data-collection station for Google has been exploited brilliantly. So they invested in mapping, even drove cars around to collect pictures and that amazingly useful Wi-Fi hotspot database. Then used their phones to maintain that - while they were also using it to improve GPS and their location tracking and local search. Integration, network effects and a willingness to try lots of stuff are doing wonders for them.
Technologically they're doing a very good job, I suspect that they may have mis-understood the power of social change though. If the voters wake up to the amount of privacy they're giving up, and decide they don't like it, Google could find themselves in serious trouble. And I get the impression they don't understand that, and think they can get round it with lobbying. But look at the German public debate on data protection and privacy for an example of how things can also go. And Germany just got their EU commissioner put in charge of all this for the next 4 years. Let's see how nimble and far-sighted Google's management really are...
Why so little interest in heat pumps? Why so little interest in commercial-scale heat storage in what used to be called "calorifiers" or modern equivalent? But domestic wind power? What a silly idea that was.
The under-use of heat pumps is really sad. We spend so much energy in heating water, and yet don't use solar-thermal and heat pumps. We still call them calorifiers, and in combination with under-floor heating you're laughing. Even on a cloudy day you can usually get water up to 40°C, and heat pumps are more efficient when not going to high temperatures.
Another thing you can do is get free ground source piping, whenever you build a tall building. Simply attach plastic pipe to the piles, a few will get broken when they're driven in, but most will survive - and then you just hook them up to a heat-pump. You can then achieve 3kW of heating for 1kW of energy input.
Although domestic nuclear (maybe a car-sized reactor?) would be best. I saw it on that documentary about the future I was watching the other day. What was it called again? Tomorrow's World? No, that was it, Thunderbirds.
"Use your photovoltarics to power your heat pump during the day?"
Believe it or not, it's still an overall win, but a heat engine or Electrolux cycle pump (solarfrost.com) would be a better overall strategy and less fiddly to implement.
Heat engines can also do things like driving water pumps (which generally don't need to run 24*7 if sized correctly)
> Nice post.
> I think you over-analysed mine a touch.
> I just picked a couple of companies at random that seem to be investing in new things. Interesting stuff about Rolls Royce.
I used to know a little bit about GE and a bit more about GEC, and now know a bit about RR, and have consequently got slightly fed up with seeing RR quoted as the poster child of british technology engineering and manufacturing when the RR reality may not exactly match the hype.
"Although domestic nuclear (maybe a car-sized reactor?) would be best. I saw it on that documentary about the future I was watching the other day. What was it called again? Tomorrow's World? No, that was it, Thunderbirds."
Have you read about Terrapower? Backed by Toshiba and some bloke called Gates, who presumably has money to burn.
I agree with Tim, the solutions will have to come from increased research and tech, best delivered by self-interest. On the other hand, a gradually increasing carbon tax is an excellent way to discourage emissions, as long as it is not just a tax grab.
Companies don't really care about oil. They care about profits. If they can sell you the energy you need in another form, they will. So what if some corporate dinosaurs don't adapt? Let them go out of business. And on the consumption side, companies will be happy to minimize their energy costs and well-run ones have accountants to point out energy saving potentials.
Was at a climate march 10 days or so ago. So, so hippy. Discouraging to see how many attendants seem sure that sticking it to the man or hugs will automatically save the day. Really risky to let that bunch drive the agenda but they are admittedly more aware of the problem.
Let's not forget assisting poor countries through the transition. Coal burnt in India is just as bad as coal burnt in near Berlin and limiting population growth is also a big way to limit emissions.
There are two ways to achieve energy nirvana, as I'm sure Worstall has noticed. You can (as he suggested) reduce the price of clean energy relative to fossil, or increase the price of fossil relative to clean. The latter has been achieved through government intervention (subsidies for clean, tax fossil), or as seems likely, destruction of the Middle Eastern oil fields.
It's the height of folly to base the world economy on the stability of a pack of dictatorships. The whole thing is a house of cards. The nuclear fireball icon seems justified.
> neither of those two methods change the amount of energy available.
Obviously not, but they do lead to changes in the techniques we use to harness the available energy.
The amount of energy available is the same as it always has been: inconceivably huge, more than we could ever need. Availability doesn't matter; harnessing matters.
Then remove all the HUGE oil subsidies.
It is obscene to cut food lunches and food stamps for kids to subsidise hugely profitable oil companies. This is sick.
Grain rots in silos in the midwest because railway cars are full of oil now FOR EXPORT.
And do Oil companies pay for all that military in the Gulf? No. Your taxes subsidise the oil routes and drilling there as well.
The real cost of gasoline in the USA is as much as $15 per gallon.
"Such external costs (subsidies, military, tax breaks, etc) push the true price of gasoline as high as $15.14 a gallon, according to a new report released by the International Centre for Technology Assessment."
Oil and gas are enormous net fiscal contributors, they are not in any sense "subsidised". We put duty on the fuel, and tax their profits. If you removed fossil fuels overnight, taxes would have to go up, or drastic cuts would need to be made, or some combination of the two.
The real subsidies and crippling drain on the taxpayer arise from inefficient and uneconomic energy technology. Those wind installation literally would not be there without the subsidies. The oil rigs and gas plants would be.
It's called nuclear. Look it up some time.
Its the ONLY viable option for the production of clean energy we have RIGHT NOW. So it should be what we focus on NOW. We can't keep holding out for technology that will be here "in 10 years" when we have the tech to produce very low carbon emission power right now. All that is needed to make this possible is cut the INSANE amount of beaurocratic bullshit and red-tape hoop jumping needed before construction can even begin (Well over HALF the total cost of a nuclear plant is eaten by licensing, approval and other bureaucratic expenses)
Hydrogen as a power source has been shit in the past, is shit now, and will always be shit. It requires massive amounts of energy to produce (at atmospheric pressure), then massive amounts of energy to compress for storage, then you lose a lot of it while storing it (hydrogen is the Houdini of gasses, it'll leak. No matter what you do), it has a crappy energy density meaning a lot of space needed to store a given amount of energy and finally if given half the chance it'll blow you and the surrounding 3 city blocks into the afterlife. (It has a MASSIVE explosion band. LEL of just 4% and an UEL of 75%) Not to mention the miriad of material problems that have to be overcome when working with hydrogen and the utter lack of ANY iota of common sense on those that would probably use such an installation in the home. It MIGHT, theoretically work for some niche small scale applications, but in general it's just crap.
Hydrogen gas is extremely reactive.
To put that energy density into perspective - there's over twice as much hydrogen in a litre of diesel as there is in a litre of liquid hydrogen.
If you treat carbon as the scaffold which allows you to fit hydrogen into smaller spaces and keep its reactivity down, then you have a better way of handling the stuff.
One problem there is that whilst it's possible to comvert H2 to CH4 and onwards to heavier molecules, it's highly inefficient, so you need a dirt cheap energy source to start with. Something much cheaper than even Nuclear energy promised to be.
Hydrogen is also the most abundant material in the known universe, so no chance of running out any time soon. Fissionable materials are far less abundant, and while I agree they are the obvious short term solution, some people have this irrational fear of an irradiated zombie apocalypse or something if there's a power station within 100 miles. You'll need to fix that before we can start building new reactors.
I'd use H2 at home as a fuel. I already have a gas cooker and central heating, and methane has explosive limits of 4.4-15% and is being piped though the whole ground floor of the domicile. Gasoline surprisingly has an LEL of a mere 1.2%. I'm not saying H2 is not dangerous, just that all combustible fuels are dangerous yet we use them anyway. Sensible design of the storage and generation equipment (including protective enclosures) can minimise explosive risk.
I'm not saying H2 is not dangerous, just that all combustible fuels are dangerous yet we use them anyway.
I met someone from South Africa a decade or so ago. He was absolutely astounded (when he first arrived) that we pipe natural gas into our homes.
A lot of it comes down to what we are used to. If we were given a container full of H2, we would treat it very gingerly. However, we are happy to have simple plastic containers full of petrol chucked in the boot of our cars. I even ride a motorcycle at motorway speeds with 4+ gallons of the stuff nestled against my nads. We have large quantities of natural gas pumped into our houses constantly, without batting an eyelid.
If cars had never been invented, and someone came along now with the idea of a metal box weighing over a tonne, powered by a highly flamable liquid, capable of 100mph+, spewing noxious gasses out of the back, it would not be allowed.
"so no chance of running out any time soon"
Stars are pretty abundant in the universe too. I heard theres loads of em. And I gather they are all giving off heat. Why dont you toddle off and put a few in a wheelbarrow and bring them back. All our enrgy problems will be solved , and you'll be a hero
I'd use H2 at home as a fuel. I already have a gas cooker and central heating, and methane has explosive limits of 4.4-15% and is being piped though the whole ground floor of the domicile. Gasoline surprisingly has an LEL of a mere 1.2%. I'm not saying H2 is not dangerous, just that all combustible fuels are dangerous yet we use them anyway.
There is a BIG difference between natural gas/methane and hydrogen. Methane is, comparitively, a pretty large molecule. It needs fairly large pores to escape the pipes or solder joints. I'll trust most monkeys to be able to solder a gas tight solderjoint in copper gas pipes or screw together threaded steel pipes with a gastight seal. A quick check with some soapy water and you're done.
On top of that, at any concentration, gasoline and methane do not self ignite. Hydrogen will. Gladly and with gusto.
Hydrogen is a WHOLE different beast. It'll escape from the tiniest of pores (and do so quite fast as it's a very low viscosity gas). Place a hair or some dust on the sealing gasket and it'll leak enough to create dangerous concentrations within hours. Reuse an old gasket (because, you know, they DO cost like a buck apiece) and it could very well leak. Hydrogen embrittlement and corrosion are major factors and only select materials are suitable, not the standard uncleaned low grade steel pipes from the local DIY. Most hydrogen installations use double walled pipe. The only way to properly leak test a hydrogen installation is by vacuum leak testing. All this is stuff I wouldn't trust a low grade mechanic or home DIYer to service or touch, which makes the tech unsuitable for home use.
I perform maintenance on machines using hydrogen in a vacuum system. All spaces these machines are installed in are equipped with triple redundant hydrogen detectors. Full evacuation of the entire building is required if any of them detect a level above 0,4%. All vacuum exhaust streams are strictly isolated and routed through hydrogen abatement systems which actively burn off any remaining hydrogen. Special flushing routines using nitrogen are performed before shutting down any of these things, etc, etc. This may seem like paranoia to some, but from what I know it's the industry standard for working with hydrogen. For good reason.
Nuclear is not the answer. It may not even be a significant part of the answer. Why not?
No, it's not because nuclear is an evil big-capital outgrowth of the military-industrial complex. (It might be just that, there are certainly some people who think so, but for our purposes that question isn't relevant and we do not need to answer it.)
No, it's not because nuclear is horribly dangerous and produces very, very nasty waste products. (People argue that point too, again with some reason, and other people argue that it is in fact very, very safe with proper management and modern technology; they even claim that the long-term waste problem can be solved too, and provide some credible evidence to back that up. But again we don't need to decide this; again the question isn't relevant.)
No, it's not because there is a shortage in the medium to longer term of uranium ores. (There isn't. At least not enough of one to matter.)
No, it's not because widespread use of nuclear energy could and in fact does lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of people we don't trust. (Let's face it, those people we don't like, if they have the will and the ability to make an atom bomb - which isn't something you can knock up in a handy basement over a weekend with your Acme Home Scientist kit - equally have the ability to develop and deploy any number of other only somewhat less dangerous and destructive things; so don't decide your entire future energy policy on this point either.)
It is because of one great, unanswerable, insoluble problem: money. Nuclear energy is very, very, very expensive. Why do we still use coal even though we know for certain that it's doing us and our children massive harm? Because it's cheap. That's pretty much the only reason.
In broad, we use whatever energy is the cheapest and easiest to get. In the past, that was mostly coal and oil. Today, the cost difference between fossil fuels and renewables is quite small. Take away the substantial subsidies for fossil fuel (mostly hidden away in the national accounts under other headings, different ones in different countries) and the cost difference is smaller yet. Throw in a reasonable allowance for the unpaid external costs of fossil fuels (notably carbon pollution, but there are others) and it turns out that renewables are often cheaper than new-build coal or gas plants. (That's for electricity generation; transport will take a lot longer.) Finally, add the very rapid and sustained reductions in the cost of mainstream renewable generation and storage year by year as economies of scale take effect and the technology improves, and it is - as the article says - entirely to be expected that renewables will overtake fossil fuels simply because they are cheaper.
Current expectations are that the break-even cost point for households, the price point where it makes economic sense to disconnect from the grid and be self-sufficient using rooftop solar with storage will arrive in about 5 years. (That's for warm temperate places like Australia, South Africa and the US; it might take a little longer in colder climates, and the mix of technologies will vary from place to place.) On the utility scale, similar change towards break-even is taking place. Large-scale wind installations are particularly cost-effective and have already reduced the wholesale price of electricity in many countries, and utility-scale storage is dropping in cost very fast. All the publicity goes to ever more efficient battery technology but pumped hydro storage is a real game changer - it's moderately expensive to build but that's a one-off cost: the infrastructure lasts lasts for decades, even centuries, and the running cost is practically zero. Amortised over the life of the facility, pumped hydro + wind and/or solar is already cheaper than new-build coal. It's not yet cheaper than existing coal using legacy plant which was built and paid for years ago, but that's just a matter of time. (Of course, people holding large investments in coal mines and thermal generation facilities are trying desperately hard to delay the end, and doing everything they can to hold back the tide of new, clean technology, but they can't and won't succeed.
But where is nuclear in all this?
Basically nowhere. It costs too much. way too much. No-one is building nuclear plants anymore unless they can wangle a huge subsidy or permission to massively over-charge consumers, or both. (The latest trick to get new-build nuclear plant up seems to be to trick a government into agreeing to pay you for all the power you could produce if anyone wanted to buy it even if you don't actually produce it at all. The technical term for this sort of gun-to-head contract is "scam". Don't fall for it.
technology is not "evil". The politics are malign, no argument from me.
But nuclear fission is one of the single most advance inventions of human kind, and it cannot just be ignored. Nuclear fusion is perhaps 10^6 more energy than fission.
The costs are the accumulated costs of massive capital infrastructure with sub-optimal political constraints.
Read about the nuclear physics, it is nothing short of astonishing humanity built it in the first place.
Nuclear doesn't have to cost that much in comparison to fossil fuels. For instance, look at this article <url>http://depletedcranium.com/hope-this-works</url>. A 2 gigawatt plant comes up to about $1000 dollars per kilowatt installed capacity. That is cheaper than a modern coal plant and cheaper than any gas fired plant. If all the bullshit is cut from the regulations then this could be substantially lower still.
Nuclear isn't expensive because of excessive bureaucracy - although that's part of the reason. It's expensive because of all the failsafes that need to be built into the station, and the fact that you need to employ highly qualified people for all of the important jobs in the station. The actual fuel is pretty cheap/GW compared to other fuels.
Why do we need all the failsafes? Because if something goes catastrophically wrong at a coal plant you get devastation within about a mile of the station at worst. If the same happens at a nuclear plant it could be because some fissile material has achieved critical mass and is the right type to actually cause an explosion, at which point you could be looking at devastation within 5-10 miles and problems outside that area.
The result of all this is that Nuclear power is the safest source of power/GW in the world.
Please explain under what possible circumstances a nuclear plant could concentrate fissile material at the required purity to reach critical mass for even a fizzle, let alone a full explosion. Even with a full meltdown of brand new rods couldn't cause this, because there would be too many impurities present. It might be really hot for a really long time and have lots of nasty byproducts, but it will never be at risk of detonation.
The consequences of nuclear disasters have been shown well by Chernobyl and Fukushima. Making stuff up about the chance for a nuclear explosion (rather than a simple hydrogen explosion breaking containment as with those disasters) doesn't serve your point, it just makes you sound like a loon.
If they weren't caring about that possibility and making sure that it couldn't happen then there's nothing to stop them using the same material they use in bombs in pure enough concentrations that if there was a failure in the system they could form a critical mass.
Hence I was saying that the reason nuclear is expensive is specifically to avoid those sorts of situations and to make it the safest form of electricity generation currently available.
In short, if you ignored all of the safeguards that we have in place for nuclear and used the wrong radio active material, you could indeed get an explosion. Which as I said not so directly in my previous post, would be stupid.
Designing a reactor to not be able to go explosively critical is not really all that hard. Basically: "Is it designed as an atomic bomb, with explosive lenses, high speed detonators, a very acurately shaped core and a sparkplug?" No? then it won't go go explosively critical.
BTW, any current design uranium based reactor has a supercritical core. Insertion of neutron absorbing materials (the regulator rods) makes it behave somewhat like a subcritical mass (but not quite).
"No, it's not because nuclear is horribly dangerous and produces very, very nasty waste products."
Many of those "very nasty waste products" have remarkably short lives. The danger of commercial scale water-based reactors stems from the intrinsic dangers of using water to cool a process which if uncontrolled can get hot enough to split water molecules and thus create an explosive atmosphere without external assistance. It's that explosive atmosphere (and the results of such) which ends up causing short-lived crap to be sprayed into the atmosphere, not helped by the fact that the casing of nuclear fuel rods (zirconium alloy) melts at too low a temperature(*) - which is why all that crap is in the water and able to to be sprayed around in the first place.
(*) That's what melts in a "meltdown". The uranium itself doesn't.
Boiling-water reactors are 1940s-50s technology designed for small-scale use on submarines (where water and overheating isn't an issue) and then scaled up by a factor of at least 100 for land-based use. Better technology has already been developed and discarded - because it didn't easily produce plutonium for bombs.
That "better technology" uses a cooling system which happily works right up to the maximum possible temperature of a nuclear reaction (they're self-limiting at around 1500C) and because it can run far hotter, it results in more efficient power generation on the steam turbine side. (Yup, nuclear reactor power is simply changing the "fire" on a steam engine.)
Yes nuclear fission is dangerous, but every other method of power generation has higher death/injury rates (including wind/solar/hydro) and if nuclear safety standards were applied everywhere, almost every coal plant in existance would be shut down tomorrow.
I hope you're right. The reality is third-world countries just aren't going to accept any measures to save the environment if those measures put a brake on their economies, not while their populations are still poorer than developed countries. And developed countries aren't going to take measures that put a brake on their economies while they're struggling to sustain any kind of growth, and getting caught up by the likes of China and India. So politically, nothing of significance is likely to happen in the forseeable future, regardless of how much talking gets done, and how many climate summits are held.
The only way we will get on top of climate change is if, as you say in the article, the necessary measures actually make direct economic sense, and we'd want to do them anyway. So whether it's the things mentioned in this article, or other technologies that people are working on, such as cost-effective synthetic fuels or biofuels that don't use food stocks, I hope things do indeed come along that make it so switching away from fossil fuels actually becomes a no-brainer, and it certainly doesn't seem impossible.
so no cutting back from any quarter Tony? That seems to say to me that barring a miracle cure we are all doomed. All in the name of "growth" . I guess it should be us that make the scarifice, its our turn. We go eat rice for 200 years while the 3rd world finishes off the fossil fuels.
wont happen thjough:. we wont give , they wont give , we are already in the scrabble for the last drops.
That's part of the point of the article. Of course people won't cut back. Not voluntarily. And there's a limit to what even the most repressive of governments can force people to do. It's the thing a lot of the greens don't seem to grasp. People will take long-term pain in order to get short-term gratification. Especially if they're not sure they believe in the long-term pain. If that weren't true, the UK economy wouldn't currently be sitting on nearly £1.5 trillion of government debt (and rising.
So in the end we can only solve climate change by making the green alternatives cheaper than the dirty ones. People will put up with the price of carbon being pushed up, but as Ed Miliband's popular success with his policy of capping energy prices shows, not too much of that either.
Fortunately I believe that nuclear can be easily pushed cheaper than coal, though probably not gas. But remember that's nuclear with the costs of cleanup being compared to gas and coal without the costs of climate change or mitigation added in.
We should be able to get thorium to work, which should be cheaper and safer. Hopefully fusion too. Solar is getting ever cheaper, and is probably not as great for the UK, but should be wonderful for many other places round the world.
Rural Africa has gone from crap communications to mobile without the expensive step of fixed-lines in between. With solar and local storage they could make a similar leap with power, which should do wonders for their quality of life.
Climate change should be perfectly possible to deal with, by moving our energy to stuff that doesn't emit CO2. Then we can continue with growth perfectly happily. There are other big environmental issues, but making everyone in the world richer should help solve population growth and a lot of the damage done to rainforests and natural habitats. As well as stopping millions from living in misery, starving and dying unneccesarily. So mostly a good thing. Even if it forces us into tother policies to deal with the downsides. It's still mostly upside.
Petrol and diesel are much more practical fuels for road vehicles than hydrogen. And paraffin for aeroplanes, and so on.
And we can burn as much of these as we like with impunity provided (a) we achieve clean burn, no nasty soot or carbon monoxide or hydrocarbon fragments and (b) we do not contribute to increasing atmospheric CO2 levels; need to be carbon-neutral, or better.
Now, if we had a surfeit of cheap electricity as our author seems to be implying one day we could if we wanted, then we could make better use of pyrolytic conversion processes, or even start with CO2 from fractional liquefaction of air, and synthesize lots of squeaky-clean hydrocarbons. Which we could use for purposes other than fuel, too. If we were really ambitious, we could even start making vast slabs of artificial bitumen and stack them in heaps, just to try to reduce the atmospheric CO2 concentration, aiming towards our target of 280ppm.
The technology already exists to do all that; but, as yet, the cheap clean electricity does not.
[And no, wind turbines don't cut it.]
Wind turbines do cut it, if you've got a method of storing power. But we don't, and I'm sure there are better methods of generating leccy anyway. Nuclear is the only viable answer I can see. With lots of solar, still making big gains in efficiency, also looking like a possible good thing.
Sorry but windmills in the UK are producing 1.61GW (from an installed 8GW) of a 38.22GW demand (recorded at 16:09 on 01-10-2014 see http://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk/ for all generation stats).
They don't cut it no matter how you slice and dice.
But that windmill energy is free. It costs us no new carbon to generate it. Yes I know the turbines cost, and you'll have to burn some gas keeping plants on spinning reserve.
There's a certain percentage of capacity where wind is an advantage, as you get not to run some gas plants, and save some CO2. Obviously that gets more inefficient as you try and get more of your power mix from wind. And I've seen figures that suggest we've reached, or surpassed, that point.
At grid scale, the only solution I can see is nuclear. Which also generates power we often can't use, so it would be nice to have some sort of power storage method for that too. With some gas for back-up and emergency reserve. I guess some wind, as we've got it, and hydro is obviously good. I'm dubious about wave and tidal power, but it might have its place too.
I don't think we can do grid scale solar in this country. But it may have a place locally, especially if we use solar-thermal and PV. Along with heat pumps.
"And we can burn as much of these as we like with impunity provided A & B "
You can burn as much as you can find. There is a HUGE difference. We stopped finding things to burn in 1965. (by which i mean that the rate at which new oil fields are discovered peaked in 1965. We've found less and less every year since , and burned more and more)
> We stopped finding things to burn in 1965. (by which i mean that the rate at which new oil fields are discovered peaked in 1965. We've found less and less every year since
We stopped finding things to burn in 1965. (By which I mean that we did not stop finding things to burn in 1965.)
"And we can burn as much of these as we like with impunity provided (a) we achieve clean burn, no nasty soot or carbon monoxide or hydrocarbon fragments"
This is practically impossible, there's no chance of controlling the mixture and flame propagation well enough to completely eliminate all of these in a piston engine, that's why catalytic convertors were mandated. You can minimise the undesirable carbon compounds by running a lean mixture but you make up for that by spewing out more NOx instead.
A fuel cell is the best bet for a clean hydrocarbon 'burn' because of the degree of control it gives you over the chemical reaction but then you'd get all the extraneous chemicals in affordable hydrocarbon fuels trying to poison or cack up the fuel cell.
Hydrogen is a very poor fuel.
It has very low in energy density (MJ/kg) and it is extremely corrosive, which only gets worse if you use it under pressure and the higher the pressure the worse the problem. Hydrogen needs to be put under pressure if you want to store it, thus it needs expensive (pure nickel) tanks at $20k/ton versus steel at $700/ton. This is also an old technology so the economies of the new do not impact this and if used in a wide scale will only push the prices up dramatically.
Batteries will come down in price and municipal storage will be economic against the current coal base stations so that these old systems will be uneconomic very quickly.
[Hydrogen] has very low in energy density (MJ/kg)
Actually, not true. Hydrogen has a pretty damn high energy density, approx 140MJ/kg. To compare, petrol is 46MJ/kg, so H2 is over 3 times as energy dense.
Where H2 is less impressive is in volumetric energy density. At best, it rates as approx 8.5MJ/l (in liquid form). Again, compare this to petrol, which is around 34MJ/l.
No, no evidence of that at all: for I'm projecting from two pieces of information.
1) The size of backplate etc that Bloom Energy uses in its scandia stabilised zirconia plates and their power output.
2) The volume of that scandia stabilised zirconia (the scandia being the expensive part, zirconia is by comparison free) that you'd need it you used that inkjet printing method (and I used 3 micron, giving three passes to make sure that missed pixels don't lead to incomplete circuits).
I'll admit that that's very much back of a fag packet working out from me.
Given that even scandia based SOFCs operate at 650 oC to 800 oC, they're really best thought of as combined heat and power devices for homes/factories.
Solar and wind will always be too expensive, although solar has the potential to beat wind on price - even in the UK. The main problem with solar and wind is that
* the sun does not shine at night
* short, cloudy winter days can result in very little solar, when we need energy most
* UK can go for weeks on end with a tiny amount of wind energy delivered to its electricity grid (just like the first 3 weeks of Sept 2014).
* energy use is only 1/3 electricity anyhow. What about industrial energy, transport fuels, etc?
This necessitates backup using
1. Dispatchable gas or coal fired electricity AND/OR
2. Energy storage, charged up during times of plenty
If (1), we find that solar and wind are no longer carbon free, and that we need twice as much plant to deliver our electricity. All those coal and gas fired stations must be built and manned 'just in case'; adding greatly to expense.
What about (2) energy storage? When energy storage is factored in to support renewables we find that renewables can't even generate the energy needed to sustain its own production/reproduction. Energy returned on energy investment (EROEI / EROI) studies show that renewables + energy storage won't work. Nor will route 2 stop blackouts.
Countrywide renewables such as wind and solar won't work for the UK. Nor can tidal, wave, geothermal, hydro, ... That's why the Tories plan to build lots of new nuclear power plants and invest in fracking.
Is alternative energy worth it?: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=16729
Catch-22 of Energy Storage: http://bravenewclimate.com/2014/08/22/catch-22-of-energy-storage/
The Spanish proved that wrong though. Their solar panels were generating at night.
Of course the reason was that the feed in tariff was so high that it made sense to use coal produced mains electricity to power the lights to shine on the solar panels to produce electricity at the higher feed in tariff price.......
I've long though that every new law, every new piece of public policy, could be greatly improved by having a group of out and out criminals* consider it for a few months before it's enacted. Just to see if they can find a way to make money out of it and thus uncover the flaw in the proposal itself.
*To the extent that this group does not already include all politicians.
the sun does not shine at night
It's also wrong. The Sun does shine at night. It's just hiding. If we could find a method to coax it out, and make it less shy, then we could have 24 hour sunshine. Has anyone tried sacrifices of virgins at Stonehenge?
[I'm using the smiley face, obviously. Becasue the Sun has got its hat on.]
"The Sun does shine at night. It's just hiding. If we could find a method to coax it out"
If we could flatten out the earth to stop the spinning and maybe use a few rockets to adjust the position a little we could have perma-daylight.
And it would make all those idiots that didn't believe the earth was flat finally admit they were wrong. Mwahahahahaha.
Gaseous fuels typically require expensive compression and liquifaction in order to make them transportable. Otherwise there would not be any room for passengers and cargo, only fuel.
Methane liquifies when cooled to - 260 F cold but acheivable. still expensive to acheive.
Hydrogen liquifies when cooled to - 452 F. There is no way to maintain that temperature economically, you will lose 1-2% per day by volume.
By the way, seperation, compression and liquifaction of EITHER of these gases cost a huge amount of energy. Way more energy than the production of gasoline or alcohol so there is no difference in carbon footprint. In fact those "clean" gases may have a larger imprint than traditional fuels.
Liquid Methane will have reasonable storage pressures (under 100 psi) while liquid hydrogen will be unusually high (could be as high as10,000 psi).
Do you think you can rely on such a system to be leak free? Not really!
Hydrogen is twice as small as helium. Helium is used to detect very small leaks. However Helium does not burn or explode like hydrogen. Did I mention Hydrogen embrittlement that causes ordinary metals to fail horribly?
Methane burns with a nice visible yellow flame while hydrogen burns with an invisible blue UV flame.
Combine invisible flames with very high pressure storage requirements, high leakage, hydrogen embrittlement and you have a rolling bomb that will have a FAR greater statistical chance of exploding. Not to mention the explosion when the tank is crushed during an accident.
This will make the Pinto explosions look like a Boy Scout fart and your monthly insurance costs as high as a car payment.
Apparently, hydrogen stores well in nanotube-like carbon structures. Can we build such structures efficiently and get the hydrogen in/out of it easily? No, not today, not even close! But maybe someday...if we solve that problem we avoid the need to store hydrogen at low temperatures, don't have to worry about leakage, and damage in an impact (like a car crash) doesn't result in the possibility of hydrogen fires/explosions.
There have been a bunch of hydrogen concept vehicles dating back to the nineties, and new ones keep appearing like a hydrogen powered bicycle and a hydrogen powered tractor. The technology has advanced to the point where hydrogen vehicles are practical and even competitive in a few niche markets:
36 fuel cell buses successfully completed a three year trial in 2007.
A hydrogen internal combustion engine fork lift truck has been in production since 2008.
Hydrogen does come with all the problems you mention, but they are solvable and the cost of those solutions is falling. The difficult thing to guess is whether it will be cheapest to store hydrogen, or to combine hydrogen with carbon from CO₂ to make a more convenient fuel.
"Gaseous fuels typically require expensive compression and liquifaction in order to make them transportable."
There's a big menacing truck (several, a fleet) that drives around here. It carries Liquified NG, the gas extracted from a nearby pipeline (and liquified at a facility down the road) out to a huge brick kiln that had previously burned something CO2-wise and Cost-wise worse. It's a Win-Win-Win solution.
Lets start with solar power: about 1.4kWatt/m². Half the time there is a planet in the way, and it you do not live on the moon, there is an atmosphere with clouds. That trims the power available to 100Watt/m² in the UK. You can bump that up a bit if you angle your solar panels towards the sun. If you spin them once per day, you can have 200Watt/m². (Source: Sustainable energy without hot air.). I will use 100Watt/m², so you can multiply it by the area of your home without having to think about the angle of your roof.
A small car can go about 17km with a litre of petrol (For example: Nissan Micra). Wakipedia has figures for the energy density of fuels. Petrol is 32.4MJoules/litre, so I can go 523m with 1MJ of petrol. 1MJ of hydrogen should take me about the same distance. Each square metre of land gives me on average 100x60x60x24=8640000J per day of solar energy. Converting to hydrogen is 12.3% efficient, so I can go about ½ km per day for each square metre of roof.
If I covered 5 by 6 paces of roof with solar→hydrogen panels I would get enough hydrogen for my transport. Someone else in the house could sensibly run a car too, but a third driver requires covering the garden.
Remember: solar power costs the most lives per mega Watt of installed capacity because DIY installers fall of the roof. Hydrogen/Air mixtures are really good at going bang. Test you hydrogen leak detectors regularly.
OK, Worstall, how much have YOU, as an avowed capitalist, invested in clean energy, energy efficiency, fuel cells&storage, and related areas that advance the cause of a future in which our kids can enjoy a developed-world lifestyle in a less-polluted world?
I agree with your thesis in principle: it's just a shame politicians are so two-faced about it (in the current government we have Osborne and Pickles prominently supporting much more pollution). Capitalists work best when we put our money where our mouths are, which is why in the past year and a bit I'm pleased to have added Blighty's biggest and best energy source to my portfolio, with investments in two tidal power projects to add to those in lesser (for our geography) sources like solar.
My current work (a start up) is entirely devoted to extraction of the scandium necessary to power those cute little sofc fuel cells (and possibly to be used in aluminium alloys for wind turbines, those are the two largest markets for the element). So you could possibly say I'm working on it.
In terms of direct expenditure by myself, rather than time, effort and investors' money, perhaps rather less. Perhaps only my subsidy to an academic testing the viability of using Sc in sofcs well over a decade ago.
Since the whole point of carbon taxes is that they make fossil fuel more expensive in order to increase the incentives to develop alternatives, we are all of us paying through the nose for the development of alternative energy. Almost every thing we buy is more expensive as a result of those taxes.
Not true. Storage is the stumbling block and there are many research projects on-going to address this. The currently available power densities of energy storage technologies suggests that averages need to be raised by a factor of three, which doesn't sound undermountable. Also have a look at
Storage is not a stumbling block. This is total FUD.
Current battery tech is good enough and being installed everyday. The idea is to make better batteries and drive the cost below all other forms of electrical generation as well as lower the cost of replacement.
Your simple-minded free-markets-and-the-invisible-hand-and-everything-will-just-magically-work-out-for-the-best faith gives me warm nostalgic fuzzies for the early '80s era of Reaganomics, but it's all long since been discredited as it is entirely unable to explain such basic economic facts as the existence of disposable razor blades.
I hate to break it to you, but this time he's right.
In the US, solar install companies cannot keep up with the demand. A company called Vivint just filed for a $100 million IPO after just 2 years of existence and capturing 9% of the total US market.
SolarCity, another such company, currently has a market cap of $5.7 billion.
That isn't pretend money.
"It's a mistake to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What they want is their own individual comfort. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was cigarettes that did not encourage cancer. When it became obvious that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, but the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines".
True 40 years ago, true now.
Until we can revoke Carnot's theorem we are stuck with engines that operate based upon a disequilibrium between two thermal environments. That remains as true for electrical systems as it does for systems running on combustion sources. So, replacing hydrocarbons as energy sources comes down to how great a gradient can be developed between ho the energy is stored, how it is extracted as work, and how it is dissipated as heat after the work is completed. If you can develop a high energy (battery, fuel cell, photoelectric unit) that can release energy in a flow equivalent to hydrocarbon combustion, and costs no more to fabricate than gasoline costs to extract from petroleum, you might have something.
However, there's very clear evidence from nature that this probably won't happen. Life - as we know it - is carbon based. Primary producers (plants) use hydrocarbons for energy storage as oils, sugars and starches and all the rest of us carbon based life forms consume those very same stored energy sources at one or more removes. Life is not only the movement of energy through the ecosystem, it is the movement of fixed carbon. Less available carbon means - inevitably - less life. There are no ifs, and or buts here. Less carbon means less living mass, regardless of how much light falls on the planet.
If we can make hydrogen, we can make methane from it easily. That's something we know can easily store and transport today, and if we've already got a utility connection that provides natural gas that's our "backup" capacity if we have too many cloudy days in a row and our stored supply of self-made methane runs out.
"But as a rough guide, a UK yearly household gas and 'leccy bill is some £1,400. So, if anyone comes along with a piece of kit that works for 10 years and costs, say, £5,000, then people will buy and install it."
Having learned a fair amount of situational psychology, I feel confident asserting that far fewer people than you expect will rush out and buy it. The slow adoption of more-efficient light bulbs may be instructive here.
Thumbs-up anyway because I'm always happy to hear about new advances in cheap energy.
> far fewer people than you expect will rush out and buy it.
How do you know how many people Tim expects will buy it? And why specify that they buy it promptly? All he said was "then people will buy and install it". Economics happens at the margins, so that's all we need.
There are too many vested interests to allow a truly disruptive technology like renewables catch on.
Apart from the real possibility of a reduction in energy prices due to overproduction the possibility of almost every home to be a producer rather than a consumer does tend kick the stockmarket the other way.
Most renewables are not mass produced - a 1kw generator in a car costs about £50, the same for a windmill £400. The monolithic silicon for a grid connected inverter could easily reduce the cost to 1/4 of current prices. Mass produced but slightly less efficient windmills could be stuck anywhere the wind blows. Hydrogen generation and then reuse in fuel cells was demonstrated a 82% efficiency in the early 90's and that's before you use any O2 generated to increase the thermal efficiency of burning things you have to burn.
We have all the bits to go very largely renewable but the people who would normally invest in this stuff have too many shares in the incumbent technology to see electricity drop to 3 or 4p a unit.
Mass production of windmills on a scale needed to meet UK government targets on renewable energy would drive up the cost of materials - if you could find a place to install them.
Years ago, you could install X mega Watts of wind capacity and expect to get 33% of X because the wind does not blow all the time. Later, that load factor dropped to 30% because all the good sites where you could get planning permission already had a windmill. These days a good site is 27%, and it is likely to be in the sea. One of the Orkney Islands was really happy about their site having a load factor of over 60% - until they found out how much a power cable to Scotland would cost them.
Windmills are not limited by a conspiracy of coal and oil merchants. They are limited by the number of good sites, and a bunch of NIMBYs blocking construction on most of the accessible sites. All the numbers you need to estimate the consequences of an energy policy are here. I am sure oil merchants would love to put the boot into renewable energy. In real life, they do not have to do a thing.
> There are too many vested interests to allow a truly disruptive technology like renewables catch on.
A list of truly disruptive technologies that overturned (or are overturning) massive and powerful vested interests:
Nuclear electricity generation
Gas electricity generation
The Suez Canal
It's an incomplete list.
"Yes" to everything in this article. There are giant leaps being made in the alternate energy sector. Huge leaps. Things that were only science fiction just ten to twenty years ago.
Already, businesses and homes around the world are converting to self-power solar and wind so fast that in some places, laws are being created to slow it down. Yes, you heard that right. Laws created to slow it down. Mostly in the form of taxes, but that won't stop the inevitable. Every time a captive market finds a viable alternative, they flee as fast as they can from the walled garden. Think AOL.
In the US alone, the market is finally reaching critical mass. Vivint, a residential solar installation and equipment lease company, just recently filed a $100 million IPO.
So yes, there is finally money to be made disconnecting people from the monopoly utilities. A win for everyone except the the old utilities.
As for install and payback of self power system, in the US, a solar power system that can power your house every day even in cloudy conditions, now costs about as much as a used economy car and is guaranteed for 25 years.
You may ask why people aren't standing in line for these systems and the answer is, they are. Solar install companies cannot keep up with the demand in most countries. Vivint is going IPO because in just 2 years of operation, they have captured 9% of the US national market. (read the article) Think about for a minute.
$100 million IPO. Yes, the hippies are long gone.
"Given that you can, just about, run an internal combustion engine on H2, then cheap H2 production solves that transport problem too."
Well, you can, but then you could pump that H2 through some C and get something that works better has a higher energy density per gallon and doesn't leak out of every container known to man.
We spend money on oil, that money goes to people who spend it on trying to kill us
If we placed say 5c tax/litre of fuel and spent it on getting industrial scale Thorium-MSR + Haber process
We would, cut the cash going to the people who fund the people who are trying to kill us
provide electricity, provide a locally made alternative to petrol, diesel & oil etc
Also means no retro-fit for our exiting vehicle fleet
Cheaper than another war; No?
I have often said that, regardless of the arguments about the economic justification for subsidising alternatives to oil in order to cut pollution, there is a decent justification for spending some of the defence budget on them.
I believe that's also Sarah Palin's argument for drilling in Alaska.
Same with agriculture, actually. We currently pay farmers to produce food we don't need because of some romantic idea that no farmer should ever have to change career, which seems like a collosal waste of money. Surely it would make more sense to spend some of our defence budget on farmers in order to ensure that we always have the expertise and infrastructure to produce our own food, just in case.
Perhaps I missed it, but there wasn't any mention of what fuel the H2 generating fuel cell will use. Water? Who needs it? Rainy days just mess things up. Alcohol? Distillation can use passive solar heat and transportation fuels can be worked out later. Grain or wood feedstocks can be grown without fertilizers or pesticides. The frames to hold the solar cells can be made of wood. Surely, we'll discover a non fossil based material to make solar cells. Cars can be made of balsa wood to compete with lightweight aluminum, plastics and carbon composites. If those that needed it would get a craniumectomy,(removal of cranium from gluteus orifice), they would realize the man made greenhouse gas is their own and the computers and 3D printers would not have a plastic case, ink or feedstock to operate without oil, gas or coal. If carbon taxes are to be assessed, then do it like the Value Added Tax with no carbon credit trading schemes.
I think there's one point a lot of people are missing, the speed of global warming seems to correlate to the deforestation of the Amazon river basin (and other tropical areas). Brazil and other countries that own real estate in the basin are either rapidly harvesting woods, or simply clear cutting & burning 10's of thousands of acre's every week, for cattle pasture.
South and central americal have always been called the "lungs of the world" because it is the single largest producer of o2 and other gasses needed for us to breathe. Additionally, those forests suck a lot of the CO2 and other crap out of the air.
That being said, you know it's bad when you can see the smoke from all the areas where they're just disposing of all those trees, rather than harvest it responsibly. I'll go a little further out on a limb and suggest that one of smokes key components is CO2.
the solution has been around for years, its called my perpetual generators
theres a 10Mw video on youtube somewhere, and many more
this what a 5kw motor can do
"...Even if it's lying about everything, it's still going to be the basis for public policy..."
If you are actually happy to leave things there and not complain about using lies as the basis for public policy, then our society will have problems compared to which issues of energy generation will pale into insignificance.
Is it really the case that no one cares about the truth any more? Really, not being ruled by lies is SO fundamental. It underpins EVERYTHING. And you don't care...?
Nice article Tim, some very spirited comments, just a quick question about the economics model,
Does the model have an ability to incorporate politics into it? If not why not, if so what political changes are required?
As anyone in the UK has seen, closing large numbers of coal mines can lead to a very negative public reaction.
The UK in 2013 used 21.9 million tonnes of petrol and diesel which roughly is equivalent to 8 million tonnes of H2, to produce that much H2 with electrolysis would at 100% efficiency need about 2 billion gallons of DISTILLED water, so we are not only talking about the 40kWh to electrolyse the water, we need to distill it first. In addition there is the 1100 gallons/ Kg need for cooling in the production stages. I think if the UK goes hydrogen powered there may well be a hose ban.
If I read it right, numbers based on this: http://phys.org/news/2007-10-analysis-requirements-hydrogen-economy.html
Also consider when your hydrogen has been used each Kg of gas will make 9.6 litres of water (a Kg of H2 has about the same energy as 4 litres of petrol) so London fogs could make a comeback on a chilly day with all that water vapour condensing in the rush hour.