Friday, February 29, 2008

Bulgarian Reactors are Not of Chernobyl Design.

The reactors at the Bulgarian Kozloduy nuclear power plant are not of the same type as those at Chernobyl, but of the PWR design with better safety features. I wrote back in 2006 that Bulgaria was due to close two more reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, with severe consequences both in terms of providing for electricity in the Balkans generally and financially in Bulgaria since electricity is sold for hard cash. This was part of the conditions laid down by the European Union for Bulgaria to join it.

There are many issues involved, both social, economic, political and environmental, but I have read a number of implications to the effect that the reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power station are the same as those at Chernobyl. It has been made clear to me that this is not true, and so I wish to put this part of the record straight now. The reactors at the Kozloduy power plant are of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), (VVER-440: V-230) type, and so are entirely different from the graphite-moderated, water-cooled (RBMK) type at Chernobyl.

The designation of the Kozloduy reactors in the public consciousness is especially sensitive since Bulgaria wishes to re-open the two that were closed at the end of 2006 to ensure its inclusion among the enlargement countries in the EU, which considered them unsafe. President Georgy Parvanov has urged the EU to carry-out a peer revue in order to re-evaluate safety features at the two closed reactors with the view that they be reopened. Parvanov said, "There is not a single survey proving the reactors are unsafe to operate." Bulgaria agreed to close two 440 MW reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant thus leaving them with just two 1,000 MW reactors from the six there were originally at Kozloduy, since the two oldest reactors were shut in 2002.

Mr Parvanov said, "If the Commission decides that it does not have the capacity to conduct such a peer review and assigns the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (instead), we will agree. We will accept the result of the review."

Apparently, the IAEA had already checked the reactors immediately before they were closed and found no immediate objections to their operational status. However, the EU's own experts decided that the facility could not be upgraded at an acceptable cost. The consequence is that Bulgaria is no longer a principal exporter of electricity within the Balkans, having decreased its exports from 8 billion kWh to just 300 million kWh in 2007. In order to make up for this lost capacity the Bulgarian government has signed an agreement with the Russian company Atomstrolexport to build a new nuclear plant at Belene which is planned to start operating in 2013 (unit 1) and the second unit in the following year.

I shall watch the details of this highly complex and pressing issue unfold with interest.

Related Reading.
[1] "Bulgarian President Wants to reopen Nuclear Plant." The Bulgarian Post: http://bulgaria.the
[2] "Bulgarian leader urges EU to allow reactors' reopening."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shell say cheap renewable energy is "years away".

Jeroen van der Veer has said that while the world faces a doubling in its thirst for energy by 2050, renewable sources of energy remain too expensive and their full development will take decades. Meanwhile, we will need to rely on conventional fossil sources such as gas, oil and coal, which have a finite supply and makes me think it is touch and go just to what extent renewables might be installed before the world has to confront a major energy crunch. There are three main forces driving human demand for energy, one being the rising population - predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050 - secondly, that many conventional fossil resources that were readily recoverable are now in a phase of depletion; thirdly, that renewables are still far too expensive.

I wonder that if, as has been suggested, the governments of the world joined forces on a scale that has been compared to the "Manhatten Project" which gave birth to the atomic bomb and ended WWII, that the cost of renewables might be borne, in praise of the longer-term survival of humanity, but as yet there is no sign that this will take place, and more likely individual nations will continue to grab what they can of what is left. Ultimately it is not pure economics that will drive political and social strategy, but cooperation or conflict, and surely it should be hoped in the interests of preserving life on the planet the former is the better means. Nonetheless, I am not convinced that the huge amount of energy we currently use worldwide can be provided entirely from renewable sources, especially that for transportation with its own particular requirements.

In the absence of artificial fertilizers and fuel to power farming, it has been estimated that there is so much arable land on Earth to support anywhere between 2 billion and 3 billion people, but not even 6 billion let alone that predicted 2050 number of 9 billion. This raises all kinds of unpalatable issues of controlling population in the face of limited resources.

On the matter of more immediate resources, President Putin has threatened Ukraine that if it allows the Bush Administration to put nuclear missiles on its soil (i.e. on the Russian border) , Russia will point its nukes back at them. Poland and the Czech republic have agreed to allow US missiles to be emplaced in their countries, and Putin said that the real purpose to host the missiles in central Europe is to aim them at Russia not at missiles fired from rogue states like North Korea and Iran. There are already issues between Ukraine and Russia over supplies of gas from the latter and the former's ability to pay its debts for Russian gas. Actual cuts of gas have been averted, however, since the Ukrainian president Victor Yushscenko has promised to pay a bill for $1.5 billion (£750 million) to Gazprom, the Russian state energy company, owed for supplies of gas from central Asia and Russia. Gazprom provides 71% of Ukraine's gas.

The deal apparently follows a concert at the Kremlin to mark Gazprom's 15th birthday, for which the company booked Tina Turner and the UK heavy-rock band, Deep Purple. Dmitry Medvedev, the first Russian deputy prime minister, is said to be a "devoted Deep Purple fan" and is marked as a successor to Putin's presidency.

Related Reading.
[1] "Cheap, renewable energy years away: Shell", By Mark Trevelyan, Reuters:
[2] "Putin issues nuclear threat to Ukraine over plan to hist shield", By Luke Harding, The Guardian:
[3] "Russia, Ukraine Reach Last-Minute Deal, Avert Gas Cut (Update 4)", Bu Greg Waleters and Lucian Kim:

Monday, February 25, 2008

The State of Oil.

I noted a while ago that oil-giants such as ExxonMobil, Shell and B.P. are set to get 30 year contracts to exploit the Iraqi oil. There are nonetheless worries, within that nation, regarding multinationals exploiting its natural resources, and without much doubt, having oil will determine the relative economic and social prosperity of nations in the future, including Russia. Basra has been described as the economic "lung" of Iraq since it accounts for around 90% of government revenue and holds 70% of its proven oil resources. There are some 4,000 British soldiers based in Basra, and along with other actions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, would account for the fact that we have apparently run out of soldiers - I note a vigorous military recruitment campaign, currently.

Basra has its own access to the Gulf and could be one of the Middle East's most affluent regions, but it remains assaulted by rival militias which destabilises its infrastructure and the detailed planning of matters there. Nonetheless it is recommended to investors, and as Michael Waring, head of the Basra Development Commission, has noted "if you look at other economies in the world, particularly the oil-rich economies, many of these places are quite challenging countries in which to do business." I have no doubt of that, and the underpinning fact is the enormous value of oil, which has increased five times in the past five years. Since oil underpins the world, both as a fuel and as a chemical feedstock for industry, how much it costs affects everything, and we see the price of fuel, and indeed food, rise without pause. Yes, anywhere with oil will always prove a sound investment during the next few decades, and all efforts to grab it will be made. The Iraqi government has not, as yet, approved a "hydrocarbon law" in which it is established the terms and conditions as to how oil companies will practice and indeed how the overall revenue will be apportioned.

Meanwhile, BP (which used to refer to British Petroleum, but now subtends the phrase "Beyond Petroleum", or "Oil Dearth Era" as I envisage it to become) have been accused of dropping a pivotal stratum in Gordon Brown's policy of "beyond petroleum" per se, and to figure out what we will in reality do when petroleum is not "gone" but its supply is compromised and it costs probably twice or more its current price. What this is about is that BP is going to move into the tar-sands market through a deal with the butch sounding "Husky Energy", and it has almost inevitably been castigated by Greenpeace as a "climate crime". Well, yes, my understanding is that tar-sands is a pretty dirty business, and consumes huge amounts of water and natural gas, and is as popular with environmentalists as nuclear power.

I am trying to track-down some detailed figures, but I noticed a suggestion by Friends of the Earth that we can do without nuclear and produce 50% of our electricity from renewables. This was my position a couple of years ago, and I would like it to be true, but I have yet to be convinced that the engineering can be done in much short order, or if that energy balance works out without us using far less energy than we do now. In a comment from an article I wrote quite a while back, I have been taken to task for expressing that nuclear power can't provide for transportation - now please allow me to elaborate on this. Recently, I visited Prague, which along with many European cities, has a wonderful tram system, of course fuelled by electric power.

My main bugbear refers to transportation fuel, and while I would concede that all forms of electricity generation (coal, gas, nuclear, renewables) could supply localised transportation networks of this kind, it is the matter of longer distance transportation that is at issue. Yes, there are nuclear subs and the prospect of other nuclear vehicles scares me somewhat, especially planes; neither do I do think that the Hydrogen Economy is round the corner, if at all, and we need in any case to confront the "Oil Dearth Era", driven initially by huge hikes in the cost of fuel and all else, but this changes absolutely everything, in terms of how we live, and within 5 - 10 years.

If we can't move around easily then we will, effectively by default, return to a system of mostly localised economies, in smaller communities that demand far less in the way of transportation. Rather than hydrogen, my bet is on liquid fuel, and the best I have come across is diesel from algae, if that can be scaled-up to equal 30 billion barrels of oil a year, worldwide. I think that is a tall order, at least in the short term, again due to the necessary engineering involved, but it may prove our road to salvation.

Related Reading.
[1] "BP goes back to petroleum", By Terry Macalister:
[2] "Oil giants are poised to move into Basra", By David Smith:

Friday, February 22, 2008

UK Gas Prices Soar.

UK gas-bills look set to rise by 17.2% and those for electricity by 12.7%, in consequence of soaring wholesale energy costs, which must be handed-on to the consumer. This reflects a 66% increase in the wholesale costs for electricity and 60% for gas in 2008 from last year, according to Npower. It may not seem obvious that the two forms of final energy should both increase, but much (40%) of the UK's electricity is made from burning gas, and the country is negotiating deals to bring gas in from elsewhere, e.g. Qatar and Norway, since the North Sea fields are declining in production both of gas and oil. The result is to plunge over one million people into a state of "energy poverty", where energy costs absorb more than 10% of their income.

The blame for this is placed on the rising costs of oil. It is also not immediately obvious why this should be; however, 15 - 20% of the world's "oil" is in fact derived from gas in the form of natural gas liquids (NGL) and condensates, and so the two are inextricably linked. Wholesale gas prices have risen as North Sea supplies have fallen, in recent years, and has necessitated investment in gas production and storage facilities, e.g. the giant gas terminal at Milford Haven, which is set to handle one fifth of the UK's gas supply in the form of liquefied natural gas imported from Qatar. European nations have also been pilloried for failing to provide sufficient gas to Britain via an interconnecting pipeline. Now, the latter has disturbing connotations, i.e. if mainland Europe gets a bit short of gas (for example, if Russia cuts its supplies to them), Britain may have to take up that slack in the chain.

There was a fire too at the main Rough Field North Sea gas storage site, off the East coast of Yorkshire, which needed to be closed temporarily, which contributed to a shortage of gas. To reassure consumers, a spokesman from National Grid said that the larger consumers, industry and commerce, can have their supplies interrupted in the case of an emergency, in order to protect domestic consumers, but such a situation is not envisaged in the immediate term.

I note that Fidel Castro has stepped down as the leader of Cuba, after almost 50 years. That history is interesting enough, including as it does, his nationalisation of a number of US owned companies and a commitment of the nation to communism. The latter provided for many years, supplies of oil and fertilizers from Russia, which were abruptly curtailed when the regime collapsed at the end of the 1980's. Cuba is often hailed by the green movement as the superlative example of how we might survive in the Oil Dearth Era, in view of the fact that Cubans adapted successfully to a system of localised economies and farmers markets, and this is indeed a wonderful achievement. However, the price of food from these markets is now such that many Cubans are no longer able to afford it and the nation's economy is struggling overall.

It would seem comforting then to read that the US Geological Survey has estimated that the North Cuba basin in the Gulf of Mexico might contain 4.6 billion barrels of oil (with a high end potential of 9.3 billion barrels), which would be worth quite a lot of money (about $460 billion). There is also reckoned to be around one trillion cubic feet of natural gas there. Meanwhile, despite considerable investments in recovery infrastructure for gas and oil, existing supplies of gas and oil have increased only marginally. Cuba produces 47% of its fuel and imports the rest from Venezuala on a barter system, which exchanges 31,000 doctors and nurses and 8,000 of workers to provide their services there. All current Cuban heavy-oil production is focussed along the northwest heavy oil belt, which is a stretch of coast some 80 miles long, in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas, and has an API (density) rating of 8 - 18, along with a high sulphur content, mostly burned in power stations and for industry. Deals are being done to exploit the North Cuba basin involving several companies, who are no doubt keen, since if the Survey is right, there is more oil down there than is believed to lie under the whole of the Arctic region.

Related Reading.
[1] "UK gas prices soar on new warning",
[2] "Double-digit rise in Npower bills",
[3] "CORRECTED - Cuba oil and gas stagnates despite investments",

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

U.K. Population Unsustainable.

A new study by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) finds that the U.K. is drastically overpopulated and if everyone had to be provided for from entirely its own resources, only 17 million could be supported from a population of 60 million. I knew that the U.K. depended heavily on imported food, and during World War I, German submarine blockades threatened to starve their adversary by torpedoing British Merchant ships. At that time the population stood at just over 40 million, who were obviously very dependent on imports. I thought that now we produced around 60% of our food in total, but using modern agriculture which depends on oil and natural gas to run farm machinery and make fertilizers.

It is debatable just how much we will still be able to import in the future, as oil supplies become stretched and much more expensive - around the turn of the century, ships were powered by coal, and it might seem feasible to return to that means to drive them, although indigenous U.K. coal supplies, and how easy they will prove to extract in reality is another question. It is reasonable that we will be able to still import coal from Germany and Eastern Europe, however, for quite some years yet.

The OPT study have based their startling conclusion on the "carbon footprint" per capita, which suggests that a 70% reduction would be necessary, to maintain 60 million of us, requiring a gearing-down in the sophistication of our lives to that similar to developing nations. The number of population for the U.K. is projected to reach 65 million in a decade and to rise above 70 million by 2031, and yet even if we became carbon neutral the nation could support about 40 million at our existing quality of life. If the entire world population lived as a typical Britain, it would take three and a half planets to keep it going, which is similar to other west European nations but somewhat less than the 5 planets worth of resources if we all lived an American lifestyle.

The number of people living in the U.K. has increased by a factor of six since 1800 and by a fifth since 1950 causing relentless pressures of development on land and natural resources, and also impacts from the U.K.'s consumption of other world resources. What if anything can be done about it is another matter and certainly a political hot-potato than no political party has the temerity to address. As a mean, British parents are having less kids, down to a low of 1.63 per couple. It is suggested that couples should be encouraged to "stop at two children" and "to make greater efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies, especially among teenagers."

London and the south-east of England are rated as being among the world's most densely populated regions, which I can believe since this is where I live. Interestingly, the U.K. is more densely populated than China - which is after all a very large area despite its own huge population. There are around 7.5 million London-dwellers, which has resulted in an increasing drive to move out into the countryside, with rural and suburban regions finding themselves under population pressure.

The OPT researchers conclude that, if there are no dramatic new forms of energy provision (which as seems likely there won't be, or not quickly enough to offset shortages of conventional energy sources such as oil and gas, which are imminent) , an environmentally sustainable U.K. population is probably under 30 million, or half of us, begging the uncomfortable question of what will happen to the other half? These conclusions are based on methods of ecological footprinting, but the underlying trouble is too many of us for the available resources, and is in fact a worldwide problem, not just for the U.K.

On the subject of resources, namely oil, I note that major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, Shell and B.P. all reported falling production despite increasing spending on discovering and pumping the resource. The fall is thought to reflect the way increasing oil prices reduce the amount of money oil companies get back from production-sharing agreements with various governments, but also the decline in supply from ageing fields such as those under the North Sea. It is thought that the latter will cause serious difficulties in building overall production levels, particularly after 2012, which is the expected time of arrival for Peak-Oil. While there are considerable efforts being made, to develop 175 large new oil projects by 2012, it is debatable whether they will be able to offset high levels in decline from existing fields.

Related Reading.
[1] "UK unable to sustain population, says study", By Joanna Corrigan.
[3] "Top oil firms spend more but get less crude", By Alex Lawler.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Phosphorus Shortage for Biofuels?

I read an article entitled "Peak Phosphorus" a while ago and it is referenced below. My attention was drawn back to it again by a more recent one called "Biofuels and the fertilizer problem", also referenced at the end of this posting, to the effect that there may be insufficient phosphate fertilizer to produce biofuels. Phosphorus is an essential element in all living things, from plants to you and me, along with nitrogen and potassium - known collectively as, P, N, K, in the form of micronutrients that drive growth. Global demand for phosphate rock is predicted to rise at 2.3% per year, but this is likely to increase in order to produce biomass for biofuel production.
If the transition is made to cellulosic ethanol as a fuel, because whole plants are consumed in the process, not merely the seeds etc., yet more phosphorus will be required and less of the plant (the "chaff") will be available to be returned as plant rubble after the harvest, which is a traditional and natural provider of K and P.

Now, the original Peak Phosphorus article is very interesting, if a bit doom and gloom, but only because it attests to yet another declining resource, namely phosphate rock. Similarly to the well known Hubbert Peak analysis which predicts that individual oil wells or indeed the global production of oil reaches a maximum, beyond which it declines relentlessly, a similar function can be fitted to world phosphate production. The method can be adapted in terms of the Hubbert Linearization, which I described recently (in the posting "Coal Dearth Era"), and involves plotting the annual production (P) divided by total production to date (Q), i.e. the ratio, (P/Q), against total (cumulative) production to date (Q), yielding an intercept on the x-axis which corresponds to the ultimate recoverable reserve.

The result indicates that the peak for phosphate production happened in the US in 1988 and for the world in 1989. The really telling aspect of the article is the inclusion of a plot of world oil production versus world population, for which the two quantities can be seen to follow one another closely. The conclusion is that we literally eat oil, since it underpins almost all agriculture, certainly in the developed nations, but also N and P, as required by the Green Revolution, which has preserved us from a Malthusian die-off scenario - so far, at least. Population has only grown as it has because of cheap phosphate deposits and cheap energy to produce the mineral and to get it onto farms around the world.

In contrast to fossil fuels, say, phosphorus can be recycled, but if phosphorus is wasted, there is no substitute for it. The evidence is that the world is using up its relatively limited supplies of phosphates in concentrated form. In Asia, agriculture has been enabled through returning animal and human manure to the soil, for example in the form of sewage sludge, and it is suggested that by the use of composting toilets, urine diversion, more efficient ways of using fertilizer and more efficient technology, the potential problem of phosphorus depletion might be circumvented. It all seems to add up to the same thing, that we will need to use less and more efficiently, whether that be fossil resources, or food products, including our own human waste. We are all bound on this planet and depend mutually on the various provisions of her. There are now so many of us that we will be unable to maintain current profligacy. In the form of localised communities as the global village will devolve into by the inevitable reduction in transportation, such strategies would seem sensible to food production at the local level. "Small is beautiful" as Schumacher wrote those many years ago, emphasising a system of "economics as if people mattered".

Related Reading.
[1] "Biofuels and the fertilizer problem", By Tom Philpot, Energy Bulletin, February 14th, 2008.
[2] "Peak phosphorus", By Patrick Dery and Bart Anderson, Energy Bulletin, August 13th, 2007.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Costs of Farms and Shipping.

According to the Farmers Guardian published on August 31st 2007 (but picked-up in the supermarket only yesterday), soaring costs of animal feeds are posing a new threat to the livestock industry. Indeed, the latter is described as being at "breaking point", as a result of food prices not rising in line with rocketing animal feed costs. This was published 6 months ago and the situation has not changed; costs of food in general are escalating too, along with that for fuel which I noted yesterday amounts to £1.02 per litre for petrol (gasoline) and £1.08 for diesel (that's around $8 US a gallon). Supermarkets are now under increasing pressure to pay more for their milk, meat and eggs as concern grows for the ability of livestock farmers to maintain their businesses through the winter.

The price of feed wheat rose to £160 per tonne which is about where it is now, and about double that of 18 months ago. Apparently, feed accounts for about half the cost of pig production, which is a bit like the case for running a business, where salaries comprise the biggest outgoing costs. All animals have to be fed: porcine or human. Bread prices are on the up too, and this is blamed on rising standards of living and more meat consumption in developing countries and the amount of corn that has been taken off the market to produce ethanol as a fuel. This is what I have heard said, at least, but I suspect the root cause is the proximity to peak oil with rising prices for this commodity, underpinning as it does everything, including agriculture. I doubt very much that prices will ever fall, and the signature of the "Oil Dearth Era" is indeed rising prices. The meter is ticking.

In order to import the vast majority of goods, including food, we need ships. Said vessels are often regarded as being highly efficient in terms of fuel consumption/quantity of carriage, certainly as compared with road or air transport, and there is relatively little reference made to shipping in terms of carbon emissions, or at least that I have seen. However, a "leaked report" from the UN, seen by the Guardian newspaper, suggests that the emissions from ships may be three times what has been accounted for them. As noted, shipping is not taken into account by European targets for cutting CO2 emissions in regard to global warming. Nonetheless, it is now estimated that the world's shipping fleet produces 1.12 billion tonnes of CO2, which amounts to 4.5% of all CO2 produced by humans. To make an illustrative comparison, all the world's planes produce a "mere" 650 million tonnes of CO2, or about half that from shipping.

Well, what can we do? I have noted on previous occasions that we can't have it all ways: i.e. continue with a global economy ("village") and cut CO2 emissions. Are we really frying the planet? There is some debate over that question, and probably there are non-anthropogenic forces at work too, according to the geological record which shows that the planet warms-up around every one hundred thousand years or so, but most climate models indicate that we are exacerbating the process. However, since it is also apparent that humankind is using up fossil resources too fast (because there are so many of us), whether it is our will or not, humanity will necessarily curb its CO2 emissions since there will be less available carbon to burn.

By this stage in our development, however, I hope that we are all living peaceably together in localised communities which demand much less in the way of transportation - and that, whether we like it or not, is where we will end up, hopefully as good neighbours, spiritually contented, and all at one... it is the transition from here to then that bothers me though. Personally, I think it would have been better to have been born about 50 years before I was born or 50 years from now: on either side of the energy-crunch that threatens to envelop us.

Related reading.
[1] "True scale of CO2 emissions from shipping revealed", By John Vidal. The Guardian, Wednesday, February 13, 2008.
[2] "Near to breaking point", By Alistair Driver, Farmers Guardian, August 31, 2007.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

UK May Struggle to Meet Energy Demands.

A report concludes that within 5 - 7 years, the UK may face a gap between supply and demand for its electricity. According to the firm Inenco, which offers consultancy on energy and environment issues (as do I for that matter), the number of nuclear and coal fueled power stations that are due to come out of service within this period is likely to cause power shortages. In contrast, other analysts think that new plants can be constructed in time to avert this unwelcome outcome. My understanding is that it takes around 10 years to build a coal-fired plant and 15 years for a nuclear power plant, and so the latter conclusion might appear optimistic or touch and go, at best.

Inenco think that the crunch will hit some time during 2012 and 2015, which coincides nicely with the expected arrival of peak oil. Coal-fired plants have been running more than previously expected as a result of increased gas prices, and their operating hours are limited by EU legislation intended to limit pollution e.g. from SO2. The latter states that such plants built before 1987 must be either fitted with contemporary emissions control equipment or they can only run for a maximum of 20,000 hours between 2008 and 2015, by when they must be withdrawn entirely from service. 20,000 hours is roughly 2 years, and the old unmodified plants are likely to use-up their quota sooner than was planned, resulting in their closure becoming more immediate.

The most obvious means to fill the generation-gap is to build new gas-fired stations, but potential investors may be unwilling to put their money into them when nuclear power has been given the go-ahead, and is considered by some to be the more favourable technology, ultimately. Even if we re not bedevilled by power cuts, there is little doubt that electricity prices will rise in the years to come.

On the subject of coal-fired powered stations, I note that the UK government is anticipated to approve the construction of a facility without insisting that it adopts carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment. This does not surprise me since I noticed an off-the-cuff mention in the recent report about the future of nuclear power in the UK, which overviewed the various issues of energy provision, that CCS technology may not prove viable, in its final actuality. I have seen figures to the effect that it would take about 20 - 40% of the energy output from a coal-fired power plant to implement CCS, meaning that a third power plant would need to be built to cope with the carbon emissions for every two new ones that were so installed, hence it is not a trivial matter.

The new plant is to be situated in Medway in Kent, and there rests the proviso that it might be fitted with CCS in the future. Given the present state of the art for CCS which has no immediate reference for use on a commercial scale, I wonder of it will ever become a feature of coal-powered stations. China, for instance, a nation which opens a new coal-fired station each week does not use CCS, it should be noted, despite using more coal than anywhere else. According to Greenpeace, seven other plants of similar size or larger are expected, which will not ease Britain's way into its commitment to curb its carbon emissions to 40% of current levels by 2050. I suspect by then, CO2 emissions will be the least of anybody's worries and they will be cut anyway by the shortage of fossil fuels, including coal.

Fires in coalmines are well known and some can rage unsubdued for years. In the classic "Miller's Elements of Chemistry", said author describes how a fire in a mine at Clackmannan in Scotland, which had burned for thirty years, was extinguished in the year 1851 by filling it with 8 million cubic feet of a mixture of CO2 and N2 produced by forcing a stream of air through a furnace filled with red-hot coke. The seam of coal was 9 feet thick and extended over an area of 26 acres. It was necessary to maintain the stream of gas for three weeks after the fire had been put out in order to cool the coal-mass so it did not simply re-ignite on returning air to the mine workings. To assist the cooling, water was blown-in as a fine spray with the damping gas.

More recently, in China, a fire was put out that had burned in a mine for over 50 years. The mine is at Terak in Xinjiang, described as a sparsely populated, mainly Muslim, area rich in natural resources. The procedure adopted was to drill into the mine and pump in a mixture of water and slurry, and then to cap the mine-shafts to exclude oxygen. The fire is believed to have consumed 12.5 million tonnes of coal and emitted over 70,000 tonnes of toxic gases per year since the 1950's. In addition to curbing this further toll on the environment, at least 651 million tonnes of coal have thereby been saved.

Related Reading.
[1] "Coalmine fire put out after half a century", By Jane Macartney, Times Online November 22nd 2007.
[2] "Miller's Elements of Chemistry, Part II. Inorganic Chemistry", John W. Parker and Son., London, 1856.
[3] "Britain 'facing energy shortfall'", By Richard Black, BBC News.
[4] "Energy firm wants carbon freedom at new coal plant", By John Vidal, The Guardian.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The "Coal-Dearth Era".

I don't find the topic of fossil fuel depletion, e.g. Peak oil, and the post-peak period which I have dubbed the "Oil-Dearth Era" anything other than depressing, and yet in my more dejected moods, mulling over the subject, I have tended to think along the lines of, "well, at least there's still plenty of coal. We need to use it cleanly, but at least it's there to dig-up and not about to run-out any time soon." Indeed it is sometimes said there is 10 trillion tonnes of coal lying in the ground for us, which could keep the world going for hundreds of years, even if we fended-off the direst consequences of falling oil-production by turning large quantities of it into fuel by coal-to-liquids (CTL) processes.

I have always acknowledged the difference between a resource and a reserve: that reserve is how much of a material there is within acknowledged holdings of it and that as prices go-up, some of the resource (that's the lot, even theoretically estimated amounts) can pass onto the reserve, but it is generally accepted that there are around one trillion tonnes of coal in accessible reserves, worldwide. The rest of that 10 trillion tonnes, including the huge 3 trillion tonnes of coal under the sea off Norway, will probably not be so readily exhumed. At any rate, we still have that trillion tonnes to rely on ...or do we?

Demand for coal rises relentlessly. China is the world's greatest producer of coal (and also of zeolites, interestingly) but became a net importer in 2007, as its own provision could no longer keep pace with demand. 80% of all energy in China comes from coal and within that overall mix, 80% of its electricity component is derived from burning coal. It is often said that China opens one new coal-fired electricity plant every week, and these are about twice the size of a typical such power station in the U.K. In 2006, China increased its electricity production by 102 gigawatts, which is more than twice that used in total in the UK, and three times enough to power California. There are many examples, but overall, the world is using more and more coal, with the effect that estimates of "how many years worth we have left" have fallen dramatically.

Rather as is the case for oil, it is generally conceded that there are unlikely to be any new major discoveries of coal, and Energy Watch made the forecast that there will be a world peak in coal production in 2025. This is also in accord with the predictions of some analysts in Germany, reported a year or so ago. Thus, if the quantity of the reserve is contained and finite, it is in principle possible to apply a Hubbert Peak analysis as he of the same name did for U.S. oil in 1956, and which when applied to world oil production suggests a peak any time now, and certainly within the next 10 years. This doesn't mean the world is about to run out of oil - far from it - but that the commodity of cheap oil will fall into decline at close to 3% per year, and what remains in the oil-wells will become more difficult to extract and refine so that the price of fuel and all else will soar, while the world stock markets oscillate unpredictably.

To an economist, how much of a particular commodity can be produced is a matter of its price and as prices increase, more reserves will emerge to be costed in the marketplace. Thus coal seams (resources) that are, at present prices, too thin, too far below ground or distant from major consumers, can thence become economic and reclassified as reserves. However, prices of mineable commodities tend to reflect rather more pragmatic aspects, namely how easy or not it is to extract the raw materials themselves and coal is no different in this respect than oil, say, or platinum for that matter. David Rutledge at the California Institute of Technology (CIT) has applied a "Hubbert Linearization" to the matter of world coal reserves.

The original Hubbert peak analysis involves drawing a symmetrical "bell-shaped" (logistic) curve, enclosing production/year plotted as a function of time, and hence the area under the curve requires an estimate of the total amount of oil that will ever be produced from the given resource. Hubbert also applied the method to coal production. The upshot is that the peak is reached when half the resource has been produced while the other half is still in the ground, but to get an accurate forecast, it is necessary to have a good idea of how much of the material there is ultimately recoverable. Now this is the tricky part, since estimates of the latter, particularly for coal, tend to be quite unreliable, but here is where the Hubbert linearization comes in.

In the linearization, rather than plotting the annual production (P) vs the increasing number of years (e.g. from 1930 - 2010, say), (P) is expressed as its ratio (P/Q) to total (cumulative) production to date (Q) on the y-axis, and plotted vs total production (Q) on the x-axis: (y is vertical and x is horizontal). Since the denominator (Q) increases over time, i.e. as the resource is extracted, (P/Q) decreases monotonically and ergo the line has a negative slope. The point at which the straight line ("linearization") crosses the horizontal axis corresponds to the total amount that will ever be recovered, when P = P/Q = 0, i.e. there is no more to be recovered and production has ceased entirely.

Rutlege attempted to validate the model for coal by applying it to UK coal production since 1855, which actually peaked in 1913. Not only does it seem to work, but there are some alarming conclusions. Potentially the result sets some historical excuses to rights, namely that the fall in coal production happened because of Winston Churchill's decision to switch the British navy to oil instead of coal, the various miners strikes, the switch from town-gas (made by heating coal in giant retorts) to natural "North Sea" gas, etc., and explains that the real cause is a fact of geology. This is highly disconcerting, since it suggests we actually have a lot less cheap and readily recoverable coal under these islands than is often claimed. Indeed, it is reported that the UK reserve of coal amounts to 1.5 billion tonnes in existing mine holdings, but that another 190 billion tonnes lies elsewhere if you include areas under the North Sea within British waters. This may be so but the analysis, as in Hubbert's original case for oil, refers to cheap coal which can be extracted relatively easily.

Obviously, if it is necessary to dig a new and enormous mining infrastructure and to access deep seams of coal (half the coal produced in the UK comes from near-surface mines), the process must inevitably incur higher energy and fiscal costs; hence however much coal we might "own" in the UK, whether we can afford to get to it is another matter, and this begins to make coal-gasification look attractive since actual digging is avoided, that is if the technology can be made to work here. [There was, in fact, a pilot study done in Derbyshire in the 1950's with success but the National Coal Board concluded the process was uneconomic. Now it might prove profitable, after all for the UK].

As applied to world coal production, the result of the Hubbert Linearization is not rosy either, since it predicts that there are around 450 billion tonnes of it in readily accessible locations, or less than half the trillion tonne estimate I was banking on. For sure, more coal will be dug, but at increased costs and the resources (oil and gas and indeed coal itself) to provide the energy to do so must be found. Given that coal production must increase by 70% by 2030 to power predicted economic growth, which is coincidentally when "peak coal" is to be expected (2025 according to the linearization model, and in agreement with other forecasts), the world is on its way to an even bigger energy crunch (gap) than is expected to follow peak oil.

If the "Coal Dearth Era" is to provide another seam of depleting energy resources, running parallel with and compounding the "Oil Dearth Era", then the world simply cannot rely on fossil fuels to underpin human societies, and without some new "energy" technology to match the combined scale of oil and coal, or some form of agriculture that can enhance crop yields above the maximum carrying capacity of the planet at 3 billion, what other scenario is there but a die-off from the existing population of 6.5 billion (let alone an increase to 9 billion by 2050, as growth-enthusiasts predict)? I am even less happy than when I began writing this. The good news is, as I have commented before in "Chemistry World", that the inevitable fall in accessible fossil resources will necessarily result in a decline in the world's CO2 emissions, whether we implement deliberate carbon reduction strategies or not - however, we may not have much of a civilization left by then.

Related Reading.
[1] "The great coal hole", by David Strahan:
[2] Chris Rhodes:

Saturday, February 02, 2008

M.I.T. Say "No Time Soon" for Hydrogen Car.

Research done at the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at M.I.T. concludes that "even with aggressive research" the hydrogen fuel-cell car will be no more efficient than the diesel hybrid (a vehicle powered by a conventional internal combustion engine in addition to an electric motor and batteries that are charged on longer oil-fueled journeys) in respect to overall fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The point is made too that although hybrid-diesel cars are already in use, a huge arrangement of infrastructure will be necessary to provide hydrogen at fueling stations. Taken along with the shortage of platinum, which could at most provide enough fuel cells to run just a few percent of the 700 million or so vehicles on the world's roads now, I conclude that hydrogen is not going to get us out of the hole we are heading for in the next 10 years when world oil supplies begin to plummet.

The results of this analysis were published only a month after the US government made its pledge to a billion-dollar commitment to develop commercial hydrogen/fuel-cell cars and one year following the US government-industry programme to produce the hydrogen-fueled "freedom car". I do wonder what is going on sometimes. In comparison, the UK government is apparently committed to cutting CO2 greenhouse gas emissions while it has been claimed that by 2030 there will be three times the number of plane flights and it looks that there will be a new terminal at London's Heathrow Airport. Presumably this is in the interests of short-term money making because, ignoring the obvious inconsistency of more planes but less CO2 emissions (?), what fuel will be used to power all those extra planes when the oil-resource will be running low by then, even for our conventional volume of transportation - both by road and air?

The researchers do not disqualify hydrogen outright, and go on to comment that: "If auto systems with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions are required in, say, 30 to 50 years, hydrogen is the only major fuel option identified to date." I would take issue with this, however, and suggest that making diesel from algae might be the answer. Thus would be completely sustainable, could produce much larger amounts of biofuel per acre than from growing crops, e.g. rape or even palm oil; would pull CO2 out of the atmosphere; not require the use of arable land or freshwater (and hence not impact on conventional agriculture e.g. growing crops for food), since it can be grown in saline tanks, and put anywhere; and if the machinery used for the farming and processing of algae-oil into diesel were run on a proportion of that that same diesel, the result would be a very favourable EROEI. It would also obviate the necessity of engineering a completely new (and gargantuan) delivery infrastructure for compressed hydrogen since this brand of diesel could be simply dispensed using the more conventional means of tanks and tankers. 96% the world's hydrogen (used to make fertilizers and in oil refining) is made from fossil-fuels, mainly natural gas, and that produces CO2; therefore, in order to "significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions" it would have to be made by electrolysing water using electricity generated from renewable resources (also as yet undeveloped on the necessary scale for the task), not fossil fuels as most of it is made from now.

The M.I.T. team has used fairly optimistic efficiencies for fuel cells that are quoted by some of its proponents, but the conclusions are no rosier regarding the wide use of hydrogen cars. As a matter of fact, opinion varies enormously over the viability of fuel cells, both in terms of their efficiency per se and their robustness under real operating conditions. It has also been pointed out that it is not sufficient to quote the efficiency of the fuel cell in isolation, but that of the whole vehicle under mechanical (road) conditions. When all involved is accounted for, a hydrogen car is not so much different from one powered by a diesel or other high-compression engine.

A hydrogen economy is a beautiful idea, and it might or might not come about in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, it is renewable liquid fuel that we need, to replace the source the modern world depends on utterly and relentlessly, namely crude oil, as its supplies begin their imminent dwindling.

Related Reading.
[1] "Hydrogen vehicle won't be viable soon, study says." By Nancy Stauffer, M.I.T. News Office.
[2] "Fuel Cell Efficiency: A Reality Check." By Dominic Crea.
[3] See "Oilgae" Link (top left hand corner of this blog), which describes various aspects of turning algae into diesel fuel.