Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"The Economist" On-line Debate: "Solving the world's energy crisis."

We are invited to take part in the following, and so please would you let me have any thoughts, which I will moderate and pass-on. I am opening-the batting from here with a few bullet-points, posted below the copied message below.


"Hi Chris -

Starting tomorrow The Economist Online Debate Series is starting a two-week long online, Oxford-style debate on solving the world’s energy crisis. Since this topic is highly relevant to you and readers of Energy Balance, we wanted to give you and your readers an early invite to participate and be heard alongside notable experts and debaters in this intellectually stimulating, global conversation.

Would you be interested in supporting the discourse on this topic by posting about this debate and your response to our proposition on your blog? To help out, we’ve included a preview of tomorrow’s opening statement by moderator and Economist correspondent, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran.

The proposition is: “This house believes that we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.” What do you think? Will the reduction of global energy consumption be enough to sustain current fossil fuel reserves? Or should all efforts be directed toward discovering new technologies that broaden the world’s energy portfolio?

In his opening statement, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran details both the Pro and Con arguments. Joseph Romm, Pro expert and Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress argues that “the world must deploy staggering amounts of low-carbon energy technology as rapidly as possible.” The Con argument made by Peter Meisen, President of Global Energy Network Institute argues that a “design science revolution is required.” Do you agree? Is it more important to support conservation or innovation? Given that both efforts are currently being explored in parallel, where should the center of gravity lie?"


Energy Balance responds:

There is no either/or answer to this question, since both energy-efficiency and potential new-technologies have a part to play. The issue of providing energy is rather akin to all other kinds or budget, personal or national: i.e. you earn more or spend less in order not to exceed it. Providing anywhere near the amount of energy currently generated from fossil resources, i.e. oil, gas and coal, by alternative means is a challenge of staggering proportions. The most pressing issue is replacing liquid-fuel based transportation by other means, and in relatively short order, which all signs indicate is not possible (or not on that same immense scale), and hence societies will need to relocalise into smaller communities that are far less reliant on extensive transport. The consequences of this, including the deconvolution of cities into smaller volumes, are likely to be profound.

All alternatives so far offered, e.g. biofuels or the putative "hydrogen economy", require massive resources, of land or other materials, such as platinum for fuel cells, beyond what can reasonably be provided. Growing crops for fuel ultimately competes with land for food, while even if the chain of problems of manufacturing, storing and distributing hydrogen could be overcome, there is only enough recoverable platinum per annum to provide around 10% of the world's car fleet within 20 years, all of which points toward the end of personal transport.

Electric vehicles might be a solution, but there are resource pressures there too, in order to make batteries on a vast scale, e.g. for lithium. For both platinum and lithium, while there is plenty in the ground, it is not the volume of the resource but the rate of recovery that is rate-limiting to the implementation of technologies based on them. I note there are around 700 million vehicles on the world's highways, now powered entirely by oil-based fuels. If the supply-demand gap is to be met within 7 years (according to the CEO of Shell, recently), compounded by the arrival of peak-oil, we almost certainly do not have time to find alternatives. Local transport using light-railway and tramways, powered by electricity which can be made from different sources, might prove a useful complement to whatever existing road and rail transport there remains by then.

On this topic, I am puzzled as to the necessity to build a third runway (and fifth and possibly sixth terminals) at Heathrow Airport, "to cope with a tripling of air transport by 2030" when there will by most analyses be a dearth in aviation fuel by then. So, even if there are more planes and more runways etc. to launch them from, what will be put in them by way of fuel?

In order to conserve fuel and ease the supply-demand gap that is predicted any time soon, fuel efficient engines would be very useful, as would all manner of more locally-focussed living schemes that burn less oil overall. Apart from transport, the other major use of energy is in heating buildings. In this case, better insulation is a must. There are very clever designs, e.g. 40% house, passivhaus, which can make huge energy savings, but in a relatively short time, it is debatable how many new dwellings could be built, and so insulating and implementing all kinds of energy efficiency into existing accommodation is a must, e.g. terrace houses in the U.K., which are in principle quite energy-efficient, with only two external walls on average for each.

Growing food more efficiently is important too. Modern agriculture depends on oil and chemical fertilizers, and depends heavily on oil and natural gas, which are in limited supply. Phosphate fertilizer production peaked worldwide in 1988 and so alternative sources must be found, probably by recycling human and animal waste, again via local farms, which will become the principal source of food, rather than large sale operations that require extensive transportation networks to move the food around to where it will be consumed. If the production is done locally much of this energy-drain is eliminated. The potential phosphate-shortage also impacts on growing crops for biofuels, to what amount this might be done.

In short, solving the world's future energy crisis is not a simple matter of either/or, of efficiency vs technology, but an entire replanning of how we all live, and bringing this to fruition rapidly.

Regards,

Prof. Chris Rhodes.

.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Chris.
I’ve written to you before about the effects of cube-lawing trains, which, then certainly, was an idea ahead of it’s time (I’ve looked up railway blogs but they all seem to be focussed on narrow gauge trains. Some sites talk about “wide gauges” when they mean 7 feet. I’m talking about gauges That would have cars which would allow the carriage of 2 standard containers, side by side. Better still, one standard container 20 feet long, sideways on. Then we double deck them, double decking is quite common abroad). Perhaps the time has not yet come to consider wide gauge railways, clearly it’s time has still not come, but it surely will, simply as the situation gets more desperate. What was good enough for Brunel and Boeing must surely not be bad for humanity. The ships and aircraft both gained in fuel efficiency when jumbo-ised. Why should trains be exempt from the cube law?
Jumbo trains fall into the first category of the debate. Jumbo trains would require not a scrap of new technology, but as Stevenson might have said, “By gum, they’d save a ton of coal or two”.
Brgds.
Peter Melia

Anonymous said...

Stevenson was the narrow gauge "villain of the story"; he would never have said Brunel’s gauge was more efficient than his.
Brunel would never have said “By gum”.
Come to that, neither would Stevenson.
More haste less accuracy.
PM

Yorkshireminer said...

The problem is once you have decide on a gauge you are stuck with it and there is no real way you can do anything against it apart from closing down a line for a couple of years while you rebuild you bridges tunnels etc. you lose both your income from the line and have to invest millions in new capital investment. If you want to double the capacity of a line double the no of train traveling the rail road, it is a lot cheaper. Gauge was standardized by several factors one was how heavy a load could the rails take. The first type of rails were cast iron which had a tendency to break under a heavy load which could be carried by using a broader gauge. It made sense to chose a gauge to match the technology of the time, and even a narrow gauge was more than enough to prove superior to the old pack animals which they were built to supersede. Stevenson engines that were used to haul coal on the Stockton Darlington railway could haul 90 tons at 14 miles an hour. To do the same with pack horses would have taken nearly 1,000 over nearly two days. Rail has always been superior to road transport for moving large loads and vast amounts for lower energy costs. Logistics is always the deciding factor in warfare. The last war stopped in Sept 1944 because the road logistics of bringing up supplies from Normandy couldn't keep up. It only got started again when the Allies had Antwerp in its hands and repaired the railways. It is a little know fact that Brittain supplied 200 specially built locomotives for working on the continent, plus rolling stock. Gauge is not really the problem

Rob said...

Given that petroleum resources are running awfully low, and they might not get us through the time we need to rejig our energy and lifestyle systems for renewables, should coal-based fuel systems be considered?

Yes, they spew CO2 (fingers crossed for CCS), yes, coal mining is dangerous for people and environment, yes they require a lot of water. However, given the right political environment, such technology could be used as a stopgap measure, fuelling production of renewable energy infrastructure. Can we convince ourselves to do it?

I think that's where China is going...CTL and biofuel as short- and long-term stopgaps.

energybalance said...

A nice set of comments.

Coal is certainly going to be part of the final fuel-mix and yes, it has often been commented that Brunel's gauge was the best, and most practical.

On the topic of "coal" apparently it is due to be released in the press soon that the U.K. government are going to implement underground coal-gasification (UCG).

This was tried successfully in Derbyshire in the 50's, but the National Coal Board concluded it was uneconomic... well, now, things are likely to be quite different in this respect.

In principle UCG can allow access to huge amounts of coal under these lands which it is not feasible to get at through conventional mining, including vast deposits under our share of the North Sea. On the other side, the Norwegians have about 3 trillion tonnes of it which they can't mine either!

I do wonder about subsidence, however. i.e. if you remove a layer of coal as a supporting structure between layers of rock, leaving a big hole, there mist be some chance that the upper layer will cave-in?

Regards and thanks for the comments,

Chris.

Yorkshireminer said...

Dear Chris,
just a few comments concerning coal, subsidence might be less of a problem with UCG I would assume after the process that what would be left would be a substance with a structure like coke which has a high compressive strength, this would eliminate subsidence. Subsidence has always been a problem with coal mining but was always more prelevant when mining seams close too the surface. There is a rule of thumb which I have forgotten which gives a ratio of subsidence in feet on the surface with the thickness of the seam and the depth. The deeper and narrower the seam the less subsidence. Subsidence is also very short lived until the land settles. I don't know the no. of years but it is not very long. It is quiet interesting to see as it rolls across a field in a sort of wave as the coal is taken out from underneath. It can have quiet unexpected effects. The coal board when I worked for them used to pay compensation and employed quiet a few builders doing repairs to houses as the wave of subsidence rolled under a house you watched cracks develop and the house tilted and finally settled on to a new solid foundation. They went under a very old church as a place called Baxterley in Warwickshire. The subsidence opened up a crack in the church exposing a plastered over secret niche. It contained a medieval Bishops crosier. There was speculation that it belonged to Bishop Latimer. There are also very strict rules governing mining operation. You can drive tunnels under rivers and railways but you cannot mine coal within 150 meter of them on either side. These rules have sealed in many millions of tons of coal
I myself have a few doubts concerning UCG. I think you posted an article several weeks ago about a firm in Aberdeen who were going to test these ideas down in Warwickshire. From what I read I assumed the technique to make the gasification of the coal more profitable and feasible was to use horizontal drilling techniques developed in the oil industry to follow the coal seams. I think that they stated on the website that they could track a seam 6 foot thick. This made me somewhat skeptical about there claims. The only place I could think where they could try out the technique was south of Coventry where the Ryder, 7 foot, High Main, Low Main, Bench and Staffordshire Hard coal come together to for a seam 30 feet thick. They shouldn't have much trouble keeping a drill bit in that thickness. Now I am also not a geologist or a Chemist, but I would have thought that if they wanted to test out the new techniques and they had such an ability to track 6 foot seams they would have tried it out in Yorkshire in the Barnsley Bed seam. Which if my memory serves me correctly is a good 6 foot thick and very gassy. I have seen blowers literally blow out drilling bits when they have been drilling bore holes to put in explosives and they have hit a pocket of gas. The gas comes out of the bore hole at very high pressure and can last for several minutes. It is advisable to be on the fresh air side of the bore hole as it stinks like hell.
By the way Chris have you decided where you are moving too when oil production goes into terminal decline?

energybalance said...

Hello David,

that's a lot of good "first-hand" information! I agree, UCG seems the only way to go, and the gas could be used for all kinds of purposes including making synthetic oil/fuels.

Glad the coke is likely to support the weight of the overlaying rock! I believe the Russians have been gasifying coal since the 50's. Whether there has been any issue (i.e. a rockfall) I don't know, but probably not as they still do it.

Where to live is still a good question. When we were on holiday in Switzerland a few weeks back, the feeling that it would be good to live there came back, as we have felt many times before.

However, they are very shirt on natural resources, including coal, so it's hard to say. A bit cold in winter but Norway might be an option - or Canada, basing the thinking around who has the most in terms of natural resources.

If the latter were the only consideration, Russia and Kazakhstan would be great, but I think there are other things to be considered, so perhaps these destinations are not our first choice!

I still remember your suggestion about Denmark!

Cheers,

Chris.

Anonymous said...

The question being asked is, I think, something like “..can we handle our energy problems by optimising what we have, or must we sit around on our little tushes (1) and wait for the next magic potion to come along..?”
yorkshireminer has raised many interesting points about cube-law trains, so many in fact that a new thread could well be established to examine the question in more detail.(2)
Suffice to say that the train idea was an attempt to contribute to the question raised.
Consider ships, which are by far the largest segment of the global transport industry, so trains are by far the largest segment of inland transport industries.
The worldwide shipping industry is a shambles of thousands of owners, each competing with all others, and the common experience has been that, where the trade permits, large is best, and diesel engines are best.
The result is the China phenomenon, enormous quantities of stuff produced in China and sold at rock bottom prices throughout the globe.
On the other hand trains have scarcely changed in size since the beginning, but speeds have increased enormously. Fares are high, running costs are high, subsidies are out of sight.
These economic consequences, for both ships and trains, are a direct reflection of energy usage, and it is my contention that railways are in dire need of a serious rethink starting from scratch. It is my further contention that we should move away from high speed, narrow, long trains towards medium speed, fat, high, shorter trains. They would operate on the canal principle of slow but sure and energy efficient, rather than the present “gosh gee-whizz, ain’t that superfast train great” principle.
Brgds
Peter Melia

(1) Noun1. tush - the fleshy part of the human body that you sit on
(2) Wasn’t it an eminent president of some British science organisation, who immortalised himself by declaring, on the day before the first Sputnik, that “…space flight is impossible…”

Anonymous said...

The question being asked is, I think, something like “..can we handle our energy problems by optimising what we have, or must we sit around on our little tushes (1) and wait for the next magic potion to come along..?”
yorkshireminer has raised many interesting points about cube-law trains, so many in fact that a new thread could well be established to examine the question in more detail.(2)
Suffice to say that the train idea was an attempt to contribute to the question raised.
Consider ships, which are by far the largest segment of the global transport industry, so trains are by far the largest segment of inland transport industries.
The worldwide shipping industry is a shambles of thousands of owners, each competing with all others, and the common experience has been that, where the trade permits, large is best, and diesel engines are best.
The result is the China phenomenon, enormous quantities of stuff produced in China and sold at rock bottom prices throughout the globe.
On the other hand trains have scarcely changed in size since the beginning, but speeds have increased enormously. Fares are high, running costs are high, subsidies are out of sight.
These economic consequences, for both ships and trains, are a direct reflection of energy usage, and it is my contention that railways are in dire need of a serious rethink starting from scratch. It is my further contention that we should move away from high speed, narrow, long trains towards medium speed, fat, high, shorter trains. They would operate on the canal principle of slow but sure and energy efficient, rather than the present “gosh gee-whizz, ain’t that superfast train great” principle.
Brgds
Peter Melia

(1) Noun1. tush - the fleshy part of the human body that you sit on
(2) Wasn’t it an eminent president of some British science organisation, who immortalised himself by declaring, on the day before the first Sputnik, that “…space flight is impossible…”

energybalance said...

Thanks Peter,

I have posted this as in my latest posting on this blog, on The Economist site.

Yes, keeping transportation going - that is the real challenge!

Regards,

Chris.

André Sautou said...

I have some difficulty in answering the question raised by The Economist.

On one hand, I do not see how we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, as long as the world economic system remains addicted to continuous growth fed by the growth of energy production. Improving energy efficiency may help to prolong growth, for a while, when global energy production begins to plateau and then decline, but will by no means prevent contraction to happen sooner or later.

On the other hand, I doubt that breakthrough innovations with clean renewable (intrinsically diffused) energy sources can provide us with energy as cheap as the one we get from concentrated sources such as conventional oil (the best one), gas or coal. It seems to me that such innovations, together with nuclear energy, can at best postpone reaching the plateau and at best delay the happening of economic contraction.

Thus I am in full agreement, Chris, with everything you say in your response. As you express your doubts about the necessity to build a third runway (and fifth and possibly sixth terminals) at Heathrow Airport, "to cope with a tripling of air transport by 2030", I also have been puzzled, about one year ago, by the assumption that air transport would probably grow steadily by about 3 or 4 % until 2050 (assumption written in an article published in the French scientific magazine La Recherche ; author : Cécile Michaut ; issue n°411, September 2007). Does this author ignore that 1.035 raised to the power 43 equals 4.4 or does she believe that quadrupling our present economic power in the span of the following four decades is realistic enough so that there is no point in being doubtful about such prospect ?