Monday, July 31, 2006
Notably, wind-power is at its greatest during the day, and during wintertime, which is highly encouraging news for its proponents. Curiously, some of the "ayes" have commented that the survey's findings undermined one of the main arguments against wind turbines - that the power generated by them is "intermittent and unreliable." Well, it still is for any small group of turbines, and it is only when such inconsistencies in supply are averaged out over the complex scale of the national grid, that the variations begin to disappear into the baseline noise. However, the national grid is less efficient than localised micro-generation of electricity (and space heating for that matter), in view of the energy losses it incurs, and is one of the more cogent reasons for unshackling ourselves from our dependence on it.
The proposal of maximum supplyby wind at times of greatest demand sounds great, but is it true - or likely to still be true in the coming decades? As I type this is the early morning, I am feeling relatively comfortable, but as the sun begins to heat my back, I am reminded that we are experiencing a "very" hot summer. Quod erat, our demands for heating are ( it has to be said) currently minimal. And yet, there were power cuts in London last week, as demands on electricity supply were such that shops had to be closed, and some of the big, pricey stores are muttering about claiming compensation for lost business. Why? Because of the "need" for air conditioning units, sales of which are at a record high. It is often said that where America leads Britain follows (the "lag" seems to be about 10 -15 years, and closing, by my reckoning), and I am reminded of something I read recently to the effect that much of California's troubles with electricity supply (a thorn in the side of the "Terminator") are due to the massive scale use of air-conditioning units. So, it would seem hot British summers may well become more energy intensive, and hence it will not be unbridled wind-power that drives the electric heat-exchangers in these units. At home, so far, we have survived by simply opening all the windows and doors early on in the day, and for the most sultry nights, we find that a simple electric fan in the bedroom (both of us fitted with foam ear-plugs so that the whirr of its tiny turbine doesn't keep us awake) permits a reasonable night's rest.
The figures are a message in themselves. Louise Farrell, a spokeswoman for the national grid, said: "Last week, we informed the market (privatised power companies) that they needed to generate more electricity of use less because we were getting close to out safety margin, which we do not disclose." She said that on the hottest July day demand has been 44,000 megawatts (44 GW), which is higher than that for the hottest July day last year, by about 2 GW. Peak demand in winter is usually around 62 - 65 GW, but the gap is closing year on year. If a norm of hotter summers is to be expected, as some predictions of global warming indicate, then we shall need more electricity, and a more evenly balanced supply of it throughout the year.
As I wrote in "Wind Power - an Unlikely Question of Scale", the infrastructural implementation required to introduce wind-powered electricity on a national scale is stupendous, although it could be of great value in the form of more localised turbine units. Can this be reconciled with future demand? Can the energy-mix be finely enough tuned to draw benefit from various different sources of energy according to the wax and wane of the strength of each, to add up to a constant supply? And how will the underlying base-load be met? Presumably from gas, coal and nuclear, according to current government plans - this seems a certainty in the immediate couple of decades... beyond then, it is anyone's guess, but we are trying to draw more from a strained resource, which we are now seeing begin to snap.
Saturday, July 29, 2006
If, as some think, the world is already at close to the half-way point of oil extraction and consumption, then this might be a good moment to ponder how to achieve a condition of healthfulness in the time that is at hand.
Provision of energy affects everything, and complex equipment in hospitals as elsewhere can only run if there if sufficient electricity to allow it to do so. Otherwise it may just sit monumentally outside in the carparks of such institutions, that are no longer replete with either the means to operate the latest medical breakthrough or indeed cars. Most items, even surgical gloves, are manufactured fundamentally from oil. Hence oil (petroleum) should be cherished as a unique chemical feedstock, and so breaking our dependence on it for fuel, is mandatory, even ignoring all other reasons for doing so. This is an exercise in conservation, not obviously of flora or fauna, but of a precious resource and hence ultimately of the human species.
Food - whether we are healthy or ill, all of us need to eat to live. The same goes for water provision. Modern means of food production and of water purification and the distribution of these commodities all require oil. Heat in winter, and increasingly air-conditioning in summer requires energy, and that is mostly provided from oil and gas.
Will the edge come quickly or slowly? This is an important question, but it is hard to answer. It depends - on lots of things. It will depend on the unfolding of world politics, and who has their hands on the oil reserves in 5, 10, 20 or more years, and whether an individual nation counts itself among their friends or not. In effect it will depend on a world barter system: of goods, of money, of political (including military) support for given regimes, all maneuvering for security of a self- supply of oil and gas.
It is interesting that Cuba, which is the single positive example known of a successful post peak-oil economy, in fact produces more doctors than are needed at home, and Cuban doctors are well known for their world aid work. It is striking that Cubans have a very similar life expectancy and infant mortality rate to the U.S., but use around only 12% (one eighth) of the energy, per capita. The example of Cuba should be taken as highly encouraging - that it is possible to achieve a great deal with a preventative, holistic approach to health overall, rather than just medicine.
Were it not for the overwhelming drive to secure as much money as possible - mostly through oil - as facilitated by the global status quo, we might act more quickly to discover just how much could be "secured" by thinking and acting on a more local level. But this will not happen significantly until there is almost no slack left in the system - when there is really no choice left for oil.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
It is recent events in the Middle East - and fears for what may yet come to pass - that have almost certainly tipped the scales of favour away from the U.S. The Israel-Lebanon situation has yet to improve (praying to God that it will - that He will ultimately bring sanity to the world), and I note the names "Syria" and most dangerously "Iran" being referred to in the British media as effectively rogue states who are acting against the interests of a peace resolution. Iraq continues to provide an unstable backdrop, on the edges of both Syria and Iran, and it seems that an awful curve of conflict might be sketched across a map of this region, from the western Mediterranean shores to and on through Afghanistan, to the opposing cave of the oil-thirsty dragon in the east.
The inability to resolve the WTO issue over Russia's membership at the G8 summit, and the inadvertent broadcast of Mr Blair's conversation with George Bush there, all contribute to a rising distrust as to what this liaison may yet deliver in the political pipeline to the U.K. Even a majority of Labour supporters who traditionally are more supportive of Mr Blair's position on foreign policy, think that he has miscalculated the demands of the relationship: the opposition among the potential voters runs at 54% (Labour), 68% (Conservative, so that's not too surprising) and 83% (Liberal Democrats, which is even less surprising); however, the trend is one of dissent.
As the fire continues to heat, only 22% of the poll believe that Israel has reacted in proportion to the kidnapping of soldiers and other attacks from militant groups in southern Lebanon. Israel has made emphatic efforts to reassure the international community that its actions are reasonable, in light of the attacks on its own soil, including missile strikes on the north of the country.
At a recent press conference, Mr Blair defended his position and expressed sympathy for the Lebanese. He said, "What is occurring in Lebanon at the present time is a catastrophe. Anybody with any humanity wants what is happening to stop and stop now." Who could not wholeheartedly endorse his words? However, the rider is as he put it, "But if it is to stop, it must stop on both sides." There lies the bugbear.
There are also fears that the U.K. armed forces are working at virtually the limits of their resources, and there is a growing feeling from the survey that British troops are doing more harm than good through their presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Just 19% of those surveyed think that the military presence in Iraq is making progress.
As the news of further deaths, both military and civilian, is broadcast back to Blighty in a constant and near daily stream of desensitisation, there is little to compel any view that "liberation" is anywhere soon the horizon.
Monday, July 24, 2006
The snub will come as a blow to those U.S. companies who are banking on getting access to Russia's huge gas reserves in a time of high energy prices. Presidents Bush and Putin were "barbed" in their comments about each other's democratic records during a G8 conference, and afterwards, Putin spoke highly of Norsk Hydro and Statoil, who are the Norwegian firms competing with U.S. companies for a slice of the Shtokman gas field. Apparently, President Putin was hoping to wrap-up the WTO membership issue in time for the G8 summit in St Petersberg, and its lack of resolution has come as a blow to his prestige.
This is not the only problem threatening over gas - we could end up with rather too much of it, according to Dr Ira Leifer, who is a marine scientist working at the University of California Santa Barbara. Leifer is the corresponding author of a study of "peak blowouts" of undersea formations called "methane hydrates" (see previous posting: "Methane Gas Hydrates - vast energy resource or ecological disaster awaiting") which if they melt could release large quantities of the potent greenhouse gas, methane into the atmosphere. Methane hydrate is distributed over the world in huge quantities and energy companies hope that they may one day come up with the technology to tap this resource, which according to the U.S. Department of Energy might contain 200,000 trillion cubic feet (5,700 cubic metres) of natural gas. To place this in context, the entire Arctic reserves of natural gas amount to just 3.6 trillion cubic metres or 0.06%! However, actually extracting the gas from gas-hydrate is still a pipe dream and may well stay that way, whereas the Arctic field is tantalisingly close at hand.
Leifer thinks that warming surface waters could eventually warm the ocean depths where the hydrates are, and this could cause the gas to be released. It is speculated that the geological Permian-Triassic (P-T or PT) extinction event, known colloquially as the Great Dying, which extinguished 96% of marine species and 70% of land animals about 251 million years ago, may have been caused by the sudden release of vast amounts of methane, leaving fungal species as the dominant global lifeform. Could it happen again?
However we get our methane, so long as we burn it (even if we convert it into gasoline or aviation fuel first and then burn it) we will emit CO2 into the atmosphere. Each and every one of us has our own "carbon footprint", according to how much energy is consumed by our individual lifestyle. To whit, the Environment Minister David Milliband has unveiled a radical plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by charging individuals for the amount of carbon they emit. The idea is that consumers would carry bank cards that recorded our personal carbon usage. Those who use the most energy, running big cars and flying off to the Sun, would have to buy more carbon points, and those who live in rather more "green" ways - without cars or using solar energy etc. - would be able to sell on their carbon points for cash. Under the scheme everyone, including Her Majesty The Queen, and on downwards would be allocated an identical carbon allowance stored as points on an electronic card similar to Air Miles (bad example!) or supermarket loyalty cards. It is seen as an extension of carbon trading.
However, it does little to cut down on carbon use and carbon emissions overall. As a planet we are consuming around three times the total resource that can be maintained. Perhaps carbon points will become increasingly expensive as carbon based "oil" and "gas" becomes harder to procure, and an economic driver will come to hand. Our carbon based fuels and industrial feedstocks must inevitably increase in cost as we continually reach in to spoon more of their dwindling reserves. Something will have to "give" eventually, but I'm not convinced that individual "carbon credits" are a means to that end, beyond creating some form of rationing system - and that has sinister connotations of social control.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
However it is provided, from oil-wells or coal (see for example, "Gasoline from Coal"), the cost of liquid combustible fuel will almost certainly escalate during the post-"Peak Oil" period. There will be an unprecedented demand for all kinds of fuel, including synthetic (made from coal or gas) and biofuels (biodiesel and bioethanol) - really whatever can be brought to hand; and it must follow an upward market curve of cost. Aircraft turbines are in fact very flexible in terms of the kind of fuel they can burn. It seems likely that short-haul and commuter "shuttle" air services will benefit most from alternative aviation fuels, as most of them operate only over stretches of 500 miles or less. Short-haul flights can be made using turbo-prop or turbo-fan engines that run on naphtha (an air-equivalent of diesel for road transport), which is much cheaper than high-octane "jet" fuel. Such aircraft also have enough fuel-tank capacity to carry even lower-energy fuels such an ethanol, which packs only around 60% of the "punch" of hydrocarbon fuel. I remain lacking in my optimism that the equivalent of 12 million tonnes (oil equivalent) of alternative fuel (that's just for the U.K.!) could be provided by alternatives, however.
In my alternative "localised living" scenario, I envisage that some "essential" aviation will continue, possibly fuelled by alternative fuels; however, we will mostly be living in communities "pods" of limited population, connected by electrically powered tram systems. That would eliminate 90% of our current requirement for liquid petroleum fuel, and a substantial fraction of what is finally left over from that subtraction might be provided using coal/gas derived fuel and biofuels. Electricity might be provided on a "county" scale (a British "county" being far smaller than a U.S. "state") from regional sea, hydro, wind and nuclear installations, with micro-generation providing much of the rest.
What "Peak oil" means is the end of luxury. We will no longer be able to squander energy, and that includes transportation fuel, as we do now. If we need to cut back dramatically on road transport - as indeed we do, in relatively short order - we can hardly maintain let alone expand the aircraft industry. It is a nonsense to suggest otherwise.
Monday, July 17, 2006
We will need all of that, and much more, in 25 years, when we will have exhausted probably all the "cheap" light oil; by then, extraction costs will be considerable. Nonetheless, in terms of EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), the return on tar-oil is not great, at 1.5 (3:2), and it is thought that 3 is the limit below which extraction of an energy resource is not worth the effort or expenditure of existing resources (See previous posting "You Need Energy to get Energy - Time is Running Out."). It is a crime that almost all of this precious material is simply being burnt in the mighty fuel tank of transportation, rather than being retained as a vital chemical feedstock - when cheap oil is gone, much of the world's industry and economy in consequence, will find itself without raw materials, let alone fuel to process them with.
Much of the U.S. is well provided for in terms of oil-shale. This is essentially porous rock which contains hydrocarbons, and by heating (which is also highly energy intensive, in similar amount to the oil-sands problem) these are expelled for processing into...yeah, gasoline and aviation fuel. There seem to be no plans to hang on to the stuff for a rainy day, the whole enterprise is aimed just to produce as much as demand will accept, at whatever costs the markets will put up with...and then burn it. It is likely that any market-driven stoicism may skid a little, as the price of oil is now around $70 dollars a barrel, and up from about $22 a couple of years back. Consequently, airport taxes and other charges are being stepped-up, for no reasons of altruism, but because the main cost of flying - fuel - cannot be otherwise born. The knock-on effect will be to make the cost of cheap flights increasingly uncompetitive with the big-boys, and that may well reduce the number of passengers overall.
Mining oil-shale, especially when it is deposited deep underground is a problem, both in terms of accessibility and energy. I have read of one suggestion, which is to use underground nuclear explosions to "break-up" such deep seated shale deposits, in order to make their extraction easier. However, I envisage "radioactive oil" being even less popular than the standard offering: two emissions for the price of one: radiation and CO2. Mmm, I think that one is some way off yet!
More likely to succeed are the Saudi's proposals to unlock their reserves of "heavy oil". Heavy oil is much more difficult to handle, and can be of the consistency of treacle (molasses?). This makes it harder to pump to the surface than light oils. The U.S. giant Chevron is investigating a technique which uses steam to mobilise sludge-like reserves in Wafra, the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - both countries have an equal share of oil from the neutral zone. Heavy oils are also more heavily contaminated with metals and sulphur, and because refineries need specialist facilities to remove the impurities, it is priced lower than light oil, reflecting its lesser appeal. However, there is a growing number of appropriately equipped refineries around the world which can turn heavy oil into gasoline, aviation fuel and heating oil, and Saudi Arabia has announced plans to build more of them to capitalise on its home stocks.
For decades now, Chevron has used steam injection successfully to boost oil production in California and in Indonesia, and it could add many billions of barrels to Saudi oil stocks, obtained from the porous rock formations that are common in the Middle East. Without steam, heavy oil fields sometimes yield as little as 5% of their oil by conventional pumping, as compared with up to 35% from a light oil deposit. To extract oil from the Canadian tar-sands, very high temperature steam is used to recover the bitumen, a substance so viscous it could not be pumped out at all otherwise. Chevron's test in Saudi Arabia is centred around one steam-injection well, four producing wells and one observation well to colect data on the way that oil and steam interact. However, the company has committed itself to an expansion phase that will involve 16 injection wells and 25 producing wells, along with the installation of facilities for water-treatment and steam-production, at a total cost of a cool $300 million.
In Oman, Occidental Petroleum Corp. is preparing to spend $2 billion on a large-scale stem-injection project in the Mukhaizna field, which contains about one billion barrels worth of oil. After four years of negotiations, Occidental has managed to persude the Omanis to let it manage the field, in part by promising them a ten-fold increase in production to 150,000 barrels a day. Kuwait is planning a pilot project to investigate exploiting its northern heavy-oil fields, as part of meeting its goal to raise output to round four million barrels a day by 2020, from a current production of 2.6 million barrels, daily.
The world is draining the tank to the bottom, as technology permits more oil to be squeezed from the bowels of Nature, but inevitably at rising costs.... until when? ... and then what?
Friday, July 14, 2006
I am impressed, in particular because the document addresses energy efficiency in a convincing and meaningful way, beyond the normal rhetoric and lip-service: "white noise" camouflaging real agendas. This is quite right, and if the government are taking this particular aspect as an equal component of their energy balance (no pun intended to the title of this site), it is clear that securing "more" energy to keep the lights on in the U.K. is going to be a problem. It is common sense, really - what does an individual do when faced with a pay-freeze (or worse a pay-cut)? Cut expenses, obviously, or go into spiralling debt; not a scenario that a nation could survive in the currency of energy. The nation needs to cut costs; it's as simple as that.
Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, outlined proposals designed to reduce the demand for energy, to secure a mix of clean, low carbon energy sources and to streamline the planning process for energy projects (http://www.egovmonitor.com/node/6711/print).
"We face two big challenges, climate change and the need to provide secure cleaner energy at affordable prices.
"Here in the UK there are specific challenges. As our North Sea oil and gas production declines, our dependence on imports from the global energy market will increase. Our forecasts suggest that, over the next twenty years, up to a third of our existing generating capacity will reach the end of its life.
"This is a critical moment to make informed choices to safeguard our quality of life for the coming decades. Today's proposals will set out a framework within which the energy market will operate for the coming 30 to 40 years.
"First, we must save energy. The new measures we're bringing forward will help us save energy in our homes, in businesses and in our public buildings, saving carbon and saving money. There'll be more help for homeowners to understand and reduce their energy bills, the phasing out of inefficient electrical goods and a consultation on new incentives to reduce emissions from large organisations like supermarkets and hotel chains.
"In parallel we're proposing measures to ensure that the energy we do use is secure and emits as little carbon as possible. It is clear that we need a mix of energy and that the challenges are so great that we cannot afford to rule out any low-carbon energy source that could help.
"The proportion of electricity generated from renewables needs to increase substantially so we are strengthening and reforming the Renewables Obligation to push this towards 20% - a five-fold increase on today's level. We're proposing major reforms to promote this and other clean energy sources, including steps to remove barriers to carbon capture to ensure cleaner coal and gas. And, although the North Sea oil fields are mature, we will press ahead with measures to exploit remaining reserves, including west of Shetland.
"Nuclear power already accounts for almost a fifth of our electricity but this is likely to drop to just 6% by 2020. Our analysis suggests that, alongside other low carbon generating options, a new generation of nuclear power stations could make a contribution to reducing carbon emissions and reducing our reliance on imported energy.
"At the heart of our policy will be the incentives we give business and individuals to reduce carbon emissions. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme generates a value for carbon which helps to drive improvements in energy efficiency, investment in renewable electricity and other technologies that reduce carbon emissions. We need to strengthen the scheme so it can do this more effectively.
"Critically, the planning system needs to be streamlined and it needs to deliver. We'll be acting to ensure that energy companies, whether seeking to build gas storage facilities, wind farms or any other kind of large energy installation, are not faced with costly uncertainties and delay. Local concerns about specific sites must be taken into consideration but the right balance has to be struck with the national need for our vital energy infrastructure."
Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks, who headed up the Review, said:
"It's not possible in 2006 to make all the policy decisions needed up to 2050. Circumstances will change, technology in particular will advance, but today's proposals set us more firmly on track to achieving our energy policy objectives.
"Together our proposals would result by 2020 in a reduction in annual carbon emissions of 19-25 million tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of the annual emissions of Austria or Greece. Together with the steps we have already announced, these ambitious proposals are a significant step in the right direction, getting us on course to achieve real progress in emissions reductions by 2020 and on the right path to achieving our goal of cutting the UK's CO2 emissions by some 60% by about 2050. The measures will also reduce our over-dependence on imported gas and will help bring forward substantial new investment in generating the electricity on which we all depend."
Major proposals, many for further consultation over the coming months, include:
- Driving the least efficient domestic appliances and consumer electronics out of the market.
- Further work on a radical plan to transform energy supply companies into champions of emissions reduction.
- Strengthening the EU Emissions Trading Scheme post 2012.
- Measures to incentivise carbon savings for large organisations like supermarkets and hotel chains and large local authorities.
- Using Government's purchasing power to drive efficiency standards.
- Changes to boost renewables investment - reshaping the Renewables Obligation, banding the support to give more benefit to emerging technologies such as offshore wind, wave and tidal projects, and a new Statement of Need.
- Aggressive implementation of the Microgeneration Strategy to remove barriers to household renewables.
- A series of measures and review of ways to bring on more localised 'distributed' generation.
- Fundamental change to the planning system for all types of energy projects, including timelines for inquiries and a high-powered inspector for complex and controversial projects.
- Measures to facilitate new nuclear power stations - streamlining the licensing process, clarifying the strategy on decommissioning and waste. A consultation is launched today on a policy framework, including a Statement of Need. It will lead to an Energy White Paper around the turn of the year.
- Removing regulatory barriers to carbon capture and storage, intensifying international cooperation with partners such as Norway and further work on the costs of demonstration.
- Maximising exploitation of North Sea reserves, refocusing the Stewardship initiative and a Taskforce with industry on infrastructure to the west of Shetland.
- A new Coal Forum bringing together coal-fired generators, coal producers, power plant suppliers, trade unions and others to seek solutions to securing the long-term future of coal-fired generation and UK coal production.
- Pressing the European Commission to bring road transport into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Also a Transport Innovation Strategy to bring on alternative fuels and possible extension of the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.
- A review of the effectiveness of current gas security of supply arrangements.
Welcoming the publication of the Energy Review, Environment Secretary David Milibrand said:
"Climate change is the biggest environmental threat that we face. And so all parts of society need to act if we are to cut the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
"As the Energy Review concludes, the sensible first step is to be smarter about the way we use energy. We can save money and the environment if we tackle the amount of energy wasted in our homes and businesses.
"In facing up to the climate challenge, the UK needs a balanced energy policy with a good mix of low carbon energy sources. Today's proposals are a major boost to renewable and localised energy and will put us on course towards the necessary long-term reductions in carbon dioxide which are essential if we're to avoid dangerous climate change.
"Moving to a low carbon economy need not be at the expense of our economic of social goals. Ignoring climate change would have much greater economic and social costs."
It is interesting that during last year (2005) 18% more coal was used to produce electricity than in 2004, which is almost exactly matched by the fall (17%) in gas, consumed for the same purpose. My summing up of the situation is that "energy efficiency" will be "encouraged" by rising fuel prices - to insulate home and business premises, and install energy efficient devices, e.g. light bulbs. We will begin to shore-up our energy supply by switching over to coal - albeit that most of that is imported from Germany - but once the technology has been retooled into coal-fired power stations, then we could mine more of our own coal, which still provides a home-base level of about 20 million tonnes per annum. So the coal-industry did not die-out with the miners' strikes of the mid 1980's and Arthur Scargill. Some of those mines could be re-opened anyway, although it would be necessary to "dynamite" out the concrete used to seal them in a fit of prevailing political pique.
I recall that there is a Chinese blessing or proverb that runs along the lines of, "may you live in interesting times"; undoubtedly we are indeed blessed...
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
The politics of the Arctic region are about to be transformed in part through the development of the Snohvit ("snow white") gas field. The gas will be liquefied by cooling it to minus 165 degrees C. so that it can be transported in tankers around the world, initially to test Europe's first Liquefied Natural Gas Plant, then in 2007 full production will commence with gas being supplied to Norway via a 100 mile long pipeline. Since Snohvit is located entirely within Norwegian waters, there should be no objection, and yet the development project has met with controversy, since it is seen as "the door-opener to the Barents Sea", a potential reserve that is as yet virgin territory for oil and gas production.
Within the Russian sector of the Barents Sea lies the Shtockman field which is ten times the size of Snohvit and is therefore "big-fish" indeed. Russia holds most of the cards in the cat and mouse game, formerly of "chase the submarine" but now "chase the contract", and it is a political chess-game whose outcome will depend on exactly which countries are allowed to be pieces on the board. Arctic reserves of gas are estimated at 3,600 billion cubic metres, which exceeds the known existing Russian reserves of 3,169 billion cubic metres. It is unlikely that the U.S. will get a slice of the action in view of U.S. vice President Dick Cheney's comments to the effect that Moscow was playing power politics with its natural resources, and that oil and gas must not be turned into intimidation or blackmail. This has apparently not gone down well with Moscow. Two French companies, Gaz de France and Total, and a German company, RWE Dea are in readiness to benefit from Russian bad feeling toward the U.S. oil giants, and are already part of the consortium with Statoil in the exploitation of the Snohvit field.
This is yet another serious blow to the U.S., since Washington is working hard to diversify its imports away from Middle East dependency - including, as I have written about in the previous two postings, embarking on a wholesale manufacture of synthetic oil products (gasoline) from coal. The Barents Sea might provide a politically stable alternative supply of both oil and natural gas - a prize indeed!
It is remarkable that the region has remained unexploited purely over a demarcation dispute about where a border lies. Before 1970, the (then) Soviet government drew a maritime line from its north-western coast directly up to the North Pole. However, Norway is now seeking an internationally recognised "median line principle" in which the border is drawn equidistant from each dividing party's coastal borders. In consequence of this lack of resolution, an area of 66,800 square miles, which is estimated to hold 12 billion barrels of oil has remained "pure" from all exploration. However, a compromise between the two sides looks likely, as both Russia and Norway are keen to tap the Barents Sea's resources: huge though they are, it is salient to note that 12 billion barrels is still only sufficient to keep the entire world running in oil for a little more than four months!
Environmental groups are not happy about the prospect of Arctic Development, however, arguing that since the ice-cap is already melting there, the region should be kept free from exploitation. I don't think that's very likely somehow!
Japan and China are also in dispute about how both sides might exploit a giant gas field (200 billion cubic metres worth) located in the East China Sea, since it is straddled by the water-border between the two nations. A tricky one, I suppose, as it is the potentially the same resource that is being tapped even if legitimate "holes" are bored within each of the two jurisdictions. Apparently, there is to be a summit in Beijing to iron-out a strategy on this tricky matter. Meanwhile, both Japanese and Chinese warships have been observed patrolling the area. Beijing has said that it would like to make the East China Sea a "sea of cooperation" between the two nations, but in view of recent comments by Tokyo that China should withdraw from the field, it may well become a "sea of confrontation".
Meanwhile these potential "cold wars" in the North and the East will gather political substance; with as yet ungauged consequences.
Monday, July 10, 2006
The horizon of converting coal to gasoline on the large scale is looking nearer by the day, particularly in those energy-competing nations, China and the U.S. Since one tonne of coal can be made to produce 1.5 barrels of gasoline or of aviation fuel (spirit), the potential hydrocarbon resource that might be so made available is vast, and well in excess of the known world oil reserve. The latest vocal proponent of coal-oil is Brian Schweitzer the state governor of Montana who believes that its vast southeastern coal reserves could be used to produce gasoline and other petroleum products. Montana owns some 600 million tonnes of coal, which is located along with 600 million tonnes owned by Great Northern Properties, and 1.2 billion tonnes owned by the Northern Cheyenne tribe. Schweitzer had originally said that the synthetic fuel technology would become economically viable once the price of crude oil reached $35 a barrel, and the market is running way above (almost twice) that now, so the economic argument (if all the sums have been done on extraction and processing and they add up?) appears compelling.
The first stage is "coal gasification", which is as it sounds: the conversion of solid coal into a gaseous feedstock that can be processed into a hydrocarbon mixture. "Coal gas" was made more than two centuries ago, and is a gas rich in methane, CH4, hence generating up to 20.5 kJ per litre when burned. The product was also known as "town gas" and gained popularity to the extent that most major cities and many small towns installed a local gas house to generate it. Gas lanterns (which employed the device of playing a gas-air flame onto a gauze of thorium oxide, which emits a bright white light when it is heated - the only use for thorium before the days when the "atom" was understood and that it had a nucleus) were eventually replaced by electric lights. However, coal gas remained in use for cooking and heating until the more efficient natural gas (which yielded 38.3 kJ/litre) became readily available, in the U.K. in the early 1970's.
A slightly less efficient fuel known as "water gas" can be made by reacting the carbon contained in coal with steam. Depending on the quality of "coal" it can contain up to 95% of carbon ("anthracite grade"), but anywhere down to around 65% for some grades of "brown coal", with its plant-origin clear enough in the leaf structures etc. that are instantly apparent to the eyes, at least after cracking a lump of it open with a hammer:
|C + H2O CO + H2
|Ho = 131.3 kJ/mol
Water gas burns to give CO2 and H2O, releasing roughly 11.2 kJ per litre of gas consumed. Note that the enthalpy of reaction for the formation of water gas is positive, which means that this reaction is endothermic (absorbs heat). As a result, the preparation of water gas typically involves alternating blasts of steam and either air or pure oxygen through a bed of white-hot coal. The exothermic (heat releasing) reactions between coal and oxygen to produce CO and CO2 provide enough energy to drive the reaction between steam and coal, which cools it down again, until the next blast of air or pure oxygen gas.
When water gas is formed by the reaction of coal with oxygen and steam, it is a mixture of CO, CO2, and H2. The ratio of H2 to CO can be increased by mixing in more steam, to exploit the "water-gas shift reaction", which reduces water to form more hydrogen:
|CO + H2O CO2 + H2
|Ho = -41.2 kJ/mol
The concentration of CO2 can be decreased by reacting the CO2 with coal at high temperatures (since heat is absorbed to make it go) to form CO:
|C + CO2 2 CO
|Ho = 172.5 kJ/mol
The resulting CO2 depleted gas is called "synthesis gas" because it can be used in the manufacture of a variety of organic and inorganic compounds; for example as the source of H2 in the synthesis of ammonia:
N2 + 3 H2 2 NH3
It can also be used to make methanol:
CO + 2 H2 CH3OH
Methanol can then be used as a starting material for the synthesis of alkenes, aromatic compounds, acetic acid, formaldehyde, and ethyl alcohol (ethanol). Synthesis gas can also be used to produce methane, or synthetic natural gas (SNG):
CO + 3 H2 CH4 + H2O
2 CO + 2 H2 CH4 + CO2
Synthetic fuels are made from synthesis gas using the Fischer Tropsch process, in which essentially, the mixture of CO and H2 is passed over a catalyst of iron or cobalt (other metals e.g. nickel may also be employed). The process is an old one, dating back to 1923, when Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Coal Research, developed a catalyst that converted CO and H2 at 1 atmosphere pressure and at a temperature of just 250 to 300 degrees C. into a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons. By 1941, Fischer-Tropsch plants produced 740,000 tons of petroleum products per year in Germany. It is interesting that the "Allies" initially laughed at Hitler's plans for world invasion believing that Germany would run out of fuel long before their army got very far, especially under the naval blockade they imposed which precluded imports of fuel from the Middle East into Germany. That the German war machine was kept running to the extent that it did is a testament to German determination and ingenuity.
However, it is the greatest tragedy of human history that so much effort and sacrifice was wasted by both the Allies and the Axis countries in this senseless conflict, as it slid increasingly out of hand; rising on the wave of the Great Depression in the aftermath of WW1, which had already cost so much.
Fischer-Tropsch type technology (it is no longer a single process, and many variants have been developed in the past 80 years) is based on a complex series of reactions that use H2 to reduce CO to CH2 groups attached to the metal catalyst surface, which link up with each other to form hydrocarbon chains:
|CO + 2 H2 (CH2)n + H2O
|Ho = -165 kJ/mol
The water produced in this reaction reacts with CO via the "water-gas shift reaction" to form more H2 and CO2:
|CO + H2O CO2 + H2
|Ho = -41.2 kJ/mol
The overall Fischer-Tropsch reaction is therefore described by the following equation:
|2 CO + H2 (CH2)n + CO2
|Ho = -206 kJ/mol
Since both reactions have a negative enthalpy (i.e. both give out heat), the process is overall a highly favourable one.
By the end of WWII, most of the industrial nations were undertaking research into synthetic fuel production using Fischer-Tropsch technology; however, the ready availability of cheap crude oil led to a decline in such efforts to convert coal into liquid fuel. The only commercial plants which currently employ the technology are based in the Sasol complex in South Africa, and consume 30.3 million tons of coal per year. They were built as a political expedient to keep the country replete with fuel during the trade sanctions imposed as part of a world protest against the apartheid regime.
As I have mentioned "zeolites" in previous postings, it is worth pointing out an alternative approach to the manufacture of liquid fuels, which is based on the reaction between CO and H2 to form methanol, CH3OH:
CO + 2 H2 CH3OH
Methanol can be used directly as a fuel, as employed in internal combustion engines or in fuel cells (mindful that being partially oxidised, it only delivers around 50% of the energy "punch" that say methane does). It can also be converted into gasoline using catalysts, notably the zeolite ZSM-5 zeolite developed by Mobil Oil Company in the 1970's, which underpinned the "Methanol to Gasoline (MTG) Process."
As we now witness a dwindling supply of cheap crude oil to process into transportation fuel and as a chemical feedstock for almost everything that modern life has come to depend upon, governments may well shift toward the manufacture of hydrocarbons from coal. This would provide a "home supply" of petroleum rather than running political, geological and military guantlets to bring the "black gold" back from the Middle East, and furthemore increase the world supply in total of a resource that is probably at or past its "Peak". One final point is that while "Peak Coal" is a very long way off, unlike "Peak Oil", can we physically extract and process sufficient of it on the scale required to substitute for a substantial fraction of the 90 million barrels that the world uses daily? That amounts to about 32 billion barrels every year, which could in principle be got from around 20 billion tonnes of coal. Current combined extraction of coal annually in the U.S. and China amounts to around 3 billion tonnes, as a benchmark; clearly, the infrastructure needed to be emplaced to seriously provide that amount of coal-oil is stupendous. Energy efficiency and a break in our heavy oil-dependency by implementing sustainable alternatives remains the best way forward. Coal-oil is at best a sticking plaster on the wound. And what about the CO2 emissions...?
Friday, July 07, 2006
There are, even the optimists agree, some drawbacks to this bright horizon, however. For a start, to implement the technology on the scale necessary to supply the U.S., which uses one quarter of the entire world's production of oil (and wants more of it, in competition with China - an interesting tug-of-war game) would require an enormous capital investment, and the implementation of a Manhattan Project scale infrastructure. By this, I mean that the level of resource needed to be thrown at the problem would leave little left for other kinds of exploration and development, for example of renewable energy sources, and long-term nuclear energy production, e.g. using thorium as the fuel (by breeding it into uranium-233). Given that economic considerations are the only ones that actually make anything happen, there would need to be confidence that an immediate fall in oil prices was highly unlikely, otherwise cheap imported hydrocarbon stocks would continue to dominate the market. A viable scenario for coal to oil conversion depends on imported oil becoming harder to get both for reasons of geology and politics, and hence inexorably more expensive, following the downward side of Hubbert's Peak, which inevitably follows the maximum in oil production, known as "Peak Oil".
The Fischer-Tropsch process was developed in Germany in the 1920's by Fischer and Tropsch, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Coal Research, and became important during WWII when naval blockades curtailed much of Germany's petroleum imports. That same technology also kept South Africa running when the world shunned the apartheid regime there and imposed sanctions on trade, which included oil imports. Sasol, the company that has used Fischer-Tropsch technology for many years in South Africa, is conducting a feasibility study on the construction of two giant coal-to-liquids plants in western China. It is no surprise that China, given its own seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil and each and every other source of energy, would be considering joining a new OPEC type club, but based on oil generated from coal (which currently provides 75% of the country's entire energy), albeit mostly for home consumption.
From an environmental perspective, the prognosis looks as a rather sorry vista. This is a highly carbon intensive technology. Energy is needed to run the plants, mine and process the coal, processes which will all produce CO2 in addition to that released when the synthetic liquid fuel is finally burned in internal combustion engines, or some of it in power plants for electricity production. This is the underlying point, that to be any use as a fuel, hydrocarbons have to be burnt in some way (even in a fuel cell), and that produces CO2. Therefore, environmentalists and anyone at all who is worried about the outcome of the "Great Climate Experiment" that we are all taking part in, will surely wring their hands at this whole notion. It is expensive, dirty, and frighteningly appealing because it is a "business as usual" scenario in which we are buffered from confronting decisions about how to change the devil-may-care way we live now into a sustainable future. There are too many of us, asking too much of the Earth... Something will have to "give" at some point, and the sooner we face up to that eventuality, the easier the transition might be. We should quit while we are ahead; while we still have enough resources left to make choices.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Cracks in the graphite brick cores of the ageing AGR's have been noticed for some time, but without any real public awareness of the problem arising until now. In 2004 British Energy warned that it might not be possible to extend the lives of its Hinkley Point B, Hunterston B, Heysham 2 and Torness plants beyond the30 year span initially envisaged for them because of the cracked graphite brick problem. The company are keen to extend the lives of its AGR reactors but the papers, which were obtained by Greenpeace via "Stop Hinkley", a local nuclear watchdog group, suggest that unless British Energy introduces more stringent safety monitoring this might be impossible. The NSD says that it does not believe that there is any imminent public danger from radioactive release, but "some lesser event" is inevitable at some stage, without a "more vigilant precautionary approach... [being] ...adopted".
These revelations have surfaced at a sensitive moment, as the government's energy review is expected to be published within a fortnight, and both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have spoken positively on the pressing need for a new generation of nuclear reactors (of some type yet to be disclosed). In papers from June 2005, an inspector concludes on the subject of the U.K.'s AGR power plants: "I judge that there is significant uncertainty in the likelihood and consequences for the core safety functionality posed by ... core damage. The assessor needs to assume worst case consequences of ... core damage unless the licensee is able to provide robust arguments." Yesterday, British Energy said that it had provided new evidence to the NSD. "If the health and safety executive were not confident in the safety of the reactor cores we would not allow the reactors to operate. The assessment report was part of the ongoing regulatory process ... The Nuclear Safety Directorate is monitoring closely British Energy's work on graphite and, where necessary, is influencing the scope and extent of the reactor core inspections that the company carries out. British Energy has also been working on methods to monitor the cores whilst the reactors are in service. This will provide added reassurance on the condition of the cores."
It is hard to know what actions exactly this rhetoric will translate into. Reading between the lines, it looks that the AGR's are "out" once and for all when they reach the end of their intended life-span, and so the "new generation" of reactors will most likely be of some other design. The whole issue has placed the matter of nuclear safety firmly back on the agenda facing any committee charged with weighing up the pros and cons of nuclear power: now, it is not only the matter of what to do with the nuclear waste, and aspects of terrorism that must be considered, but whether the public will find its sleep disturbed by dreams of a "British Chernobyl", unlikely though that may be. Once more, public relations are likely to become strained over the viability of nuclear power.
Monday, July 03, 2006
As Darling points out, nuclear remains unpopular in a NIMBY sense. Almost no one wants a nuclear power station near to them. It appears that perhaps only two or three reactors will be necessary, in sharp comparison with the 20 or so originally planned. Darling's "energy review" is due out this month, and will promote alternative sources of energy, particularly wind-farms, among the means to collectively keep the lights on once the existing nuclear plants are switched off. As a means to encourage uptake of renewable energy, the bugbear of planning enquiries for all major power projects are expected to be shortened, to prevent local residents pouring legal-treacle over the machinations of such plans which are invariably unpopular with some (noise, skyline-pollution, fears for safety, and all the usual suspects trawled-out under the NIMBY flag). While this sounds as a positive step, there are occasions when lengthly planning mechanisms are useful and necessary. For example, in the area bordering the River Thames in and around Reading, a number of projects have been vetoed when they involved building on a flood-plane. Such unchecked construction can create worse detrimental environmental impacts than "bad" energy provision, in terms of flooding particularly and pollution, and a system of "brakes" should be in place to be applied as necessary.
The shift in emphasis could be construed as a "U-turn", since it was but weeks ago that Mr Blair was speaking all out in favour of a leviathan nuclear revamp. There is an odd conundrum facing this issue, since the message of Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the government, is essentially "go for it", to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel fired power stations, while the Sustainable Development Committee (SODS), chaired by Sir Jonathan Porritt, is far more cautious. It did appear that Mr Blair was listening hardest to the former side, but the new energy report would suggest a rather more muted stance, and one more closely in line with the SDC's conclusions. Either voice is only one of informed suggestions and advice rather than bawled orders - it is the government that holds the final decision. Interestingly David Cameron is taking a "renewable" stance, and Labour may fear being "out-greened" by their strongest adversary, as the next general election beckons.
Labour and the Conservatives do appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet on one issue, namely to support proposals for micro neighborhood power stations, which would use heat generated in producing electricity to supply hot water for nearby homes. They are presumably referring to CHP (combined heating and power) systems, which it is thought could eventually meet up to one fifth of the U.K.'s energy needs - i.e. for electricity and space heating.
The overriding message is "energy efficiency", which is endorsed by the Institute of Public Policy Research who argue that energy use could be cut by 30% through such measures. Energy companies could assist the process by supplying their customers with energy efficient bulbs, loft insulation and "smart" meters which provide a warning when energy is being wasted. Indeed, if efficient lighting systems were adopted globally, the world could knock around 10% off its electricity bill (i.e. production demand). In addition to easing the stress on fuel, this would make a considerably greater contribution to cutting global CO2 emissions than has been met so far by implementing solar and wind power.
Encouraging energy companies and its citizens to use less energy in the first place has got to take pride of place on the list of energy commandments written by all governments. Only then can we judge precisely what the level of necessary energy production during the coming decades is, and so make informed decisions about how to ensure (or replace) an adequate supply of energy sources such as oil and gas, for which we have become increasingly dependent on foreign imports.
Saturday, July 01, 2006
Lined up according to traditional battlefield strategies, and led by cavalry officers, the blood of nations was poured into conditions of such horror and atrocity as to fall beyond our imaginings. "Lions led by donkeys", was how the German soldiers referred to their British counterpart. "Rat food", was how I heard an old man describe his comrades, on a recent documentary. There are now only three veterans left alive from WW1, including just one who had fought in the Somme, a man aged 110.
The Battle of the Somme was planned as a joint French and British operation, being devised by the French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre, and meeting with the approval of General Sir Douglas Haig, who was the British Expeditionary Force commander. Intent both on a gain in territory and an assault on German manpower, at first Joffre intended to use mainly French soldiers. However, the German attack on Verdun in February 1916 turned the Somme offensive into a large-scale British attack. Haig adopted responsibility for the operation and with the help of General Sir Henry Rawlinson devised his own plan of attack. The central component of Haig's strategy was a preliminary eight-day bombardment which he thought sufficient to completely destroy the German forward defenses. As it turned out, neither the German barbed-wire nor the concrete bunkers, which provided protection for the German soldiers, were destroyed.
Haig used 27 divisions of men (750,000 men in all) against the German front-line of 16 divisions. This meant that the Germans were able to exploit their good defensive positions on higher ground. When the British and French troops attacked at 7.30 on the morning of the 1st July (90 years ago today), the BEF suffered 58,000 casualties (a third of them killed), the greatest loss in any single day of the British Army's history. Remarkably, Haig was not disheartened by these heavy losses and ordered General (Sir Henry) Rawlinson to continue the offensive against the German front-line. A night attack on 13th July did achieve a temporary breakthrough but German reinforcements arrived in time to close the gap. Haig believed that a war of attrition would break German morale, and that they were at the point of collapse. He was wrong.
It was bad winter weather with heavy snow that finally compelled Haig to call an end to the Somme offensive which since the 1st July, had incurred 420,000 casualties upon the British. The French lost nearly 200,000 and it is estimated that German casualties were in the region of 500,000.
My grandfather would never talk about the war. He died aged just 60, when I was a year old, so this is among the few scraps that I know him from, according to what my father and grandmother told me. He joined-up at 14, in 1914 - a tall boy claiming to be 18, the minimum age for active service. Perhaps they believed him or just didn't ask too many questions. During his military career of four years, he was gassed with chlorine, shot and blown-up. The latter not fatally, but his right arm was partially severed, and in the field hospital he pleaded with the surgeon not to amputate as was common practice under those conditions, and so he was sent home as an invalid, the broken tendons having been repaired with "silver" wires.
"Silver wires" were how my grandmother described them, I suppose they may have been made from platinum, to provide an inert framework around which new tissue might mend. He also served in the Royal Flying Corp (the precursor to the Royal Air Force - RAF), as a "bomber". The plane was kitted out with hand grenades hanging from meat-hooks over its sides and would be flown over the German positions; the bomber would pull the pin out, and aim by hand to drop the grenades onto the enemy below. Returning from one such sortie, the plane lurched and my grandfather fell through its underside, which was flimsily patched from canvas and "bacon boxes". He landed in a tree and survived with just a few scratches. He was a resourceful man who managed to avoid "trench-rot" (gangrene of the feet caused by continual immersion for days or weeks in cold mud) by filling his boots with the grease they used to oil the wheels of the carts, drawn by horses, upon which most supplies of food, water and ammunition were transported. It was horse-power too that pulled the field guns; these animals frequently suffering a similar fate to their human comrades. My grandfather suffered from shell-shock (post-traumatic stress disorder), and probably his war-shattered nerves couldn't bear the stress of working all hours of his spare time to qualify as a "City of London" accountant, and the high-powered job this proved to be. The outcome was that although he was very successful for a number of years, he suffered a nervous breakdown aged 38.
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (who was a Welshman), are defined in English poetry among the "war poets". Their lines portray some of the most emotionally shattering images that could be expressed, delineating collective horrors in terms of the suffering of individuals. Underpinning but almost overwhelming this is the knowledge that the men writing these words were only too aware that all of this misery and loss was utterly pointless; the futility of WWI being enshrouded back home in terms of "Honour" and "For my country", as transparently as the "Emperor's clothes".
Sassoon wrote, "Does it matter, losing your sight? There's such splendid work for the blind, And people will always be kind...."; surely among the most bitter ever written of ironies.
To me, Wilfred Owen trumps even this and opens the ironic wound still deeper in his Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori ("It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country").
This poem makes especially poignant reading given that Owen was shot to death at the age of 25 only a week before the armistice of the Great War, and describes an unfortunate Tommy who has fatally breathed in mustard gas (2,2'-dichlorodiethyl sulphide):
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
I dedicate this article to my grandfather, Ronald Victor Rhodes, who was awarded the Military Medal in 1919, and all the other very brave men - English, German and of all nationalities - who have sacrificed so much "pro patria" in all wars.