Alternative Energy Options
Below is a list of all the scientifically proven and readily available energy options. What kind of energy will we choose? What are the environmental impact of various energy options?
Also check out my Energy Price Calculator Table for comparing energy costs for different fuel sources at variable efficiency ratings.
This is Oil: While at Foxboro Company we developed new Gasoline and Diesel Blending Software that greatly improved the refineries ability to make reformulated transportation fuels. On the right is the delayed coker at Sincor in Venezuela. It thermally cracks heavy oil into diesel boiling range. R2Controls designed the controls for this unit.
The middle picture shows the various separation layers in a typical oil refinery distillation column, and what uses the various components of crude oil have.
Have we taken oil based product availability for granted? What will the price of gasoline and diesel be 10 years from now? You can form your own answer by looking at the chart below. We can see the discovery of "conventional" oil in the 50's, 60's, and 70's was greater than the production (Black line). Future discovery does not look too promising and drilling in our National Parks and Offshore fisheries will not make a big difference on a global scale. If we add in "unconventional Oil" like tar sands and possible coal , the potential supply is much larger, but the cost of production is also much larger and with current know-how unconventional oil has a much larger CO2 footprint. Technology advances for production of conventional oil and unconventional oil may help extend our production, but it is clear that total oil production will decline and this is not so far in the future.
This is coal and a typical coal fired power plant. The US has more than 200 years of coal, China has less than 50 years
With nuclear reactions, we often think of the conversion of a small amount of mass into a large amount of energy from Einsteins famous equation E=mc2. It is true that the mass of nuclear reaction byproducts is slightly less than the nuclear fuel and this missing mass was converted to energy. This behavior is not unique to nuclear reactions as even exothermic chemical reactions loose mass and endothermic reactions gain mass, proportional to the heat produced by the reaction. Like many power sources nuclear reactions basically make a lot of heat to make steam and then the steam is passed through turbines to convert a fraction of the heat energy into electric power. It is not completely CO2 free as it takes a lot a conventional fuel to mine and process Uranium. Most of the 2.8 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated worldwide from nuclear power every year is produced in light-water reactors (LWRs) using low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. The world has roughly a 230 year Uranium supply. The supply will likely grow due to future discoveries, better extraction, and could grow a lot if reactor design shifts to breeder designs or if Thorium fuel cycles are used. Thorium resources are maybe 5 times that of Uranium.
Nuclear power. We know how to make both fission and fusion bombs, that release large quantities of energy very quickly. We have figured out how to control some fission reactors, but the fission reactions release solids, liquids, and gases that make a number of long lived radioactive byproducts. Different fission fuel cycles can reduce the radioactive waste and extend the fuel.
Nuclear Fusion power has the potential to be relatively clean, relatively safe, and has a massive fuel supply. The world is spending about 5 Billion Euros per year on fusion research (ITER), about the same as we currently spend on ring tones worldwide. Although artistic and personal expression are very important, we might wonder if we have our priorities right. We just have to figure out how to make a working prototype before we can work on the engineering to make cheap power at the industrial level. Three major design approaches are being worked on. These are the Tokomak (Magnetically confined torus), the Laser based Inertial confinement fusion (ICF), and the Pinch method using an Electromagnetic Pulse to implode pellets. The Tokomak fusion reactor design on the top left is the most promising design for controlled fusion. Fusion reactors produce a tiny fraction of the radiation of fission reactors. The fuel supply is enormous and this would be the magic bullet to solve our energy supply problems, but it is very hard to do as decades of research has failed to produce a working prototype. The ITER (Tokomak) in France is the most advanced research reactor. Although ITER is expected to produce (in the form of heat) 5-10 times more energy than the amount consumed to heat up the plasma to fusion temperatures, the generated heat will not be used to generate any electricity. In the photo at the bottom right is the Z-Machine (Laser based Fusion reactor) During the 100 ns discharge, the power output is 2.9*1014 W, equal to 80 times the power output of all the power plants on earth. Rumor has it that 2010 will be the year they produce more power than they consume.
Most of us know about Natural Gas, it is mostly methane (CH4). Natural Gas has a slightly lower CO2 footprint than oil. New advances in extraction from US shale deposits have improved production, but like oil, production is exceeding discovery and we have likely already reached peak productions. Russia, Iran, and Qatar have most of the worlds Gas reserves. Currently Natural Gas is a bargain for the US consumer due mainly to government price regulations. The improved gas production techniques are more costly, and this does provide a hedge against steep price increases. Propane is not regulated in the same way and it is noticeably more expensive than natural gas on the basis of $ per BTU.
Hydro power is great from a CO2 and energy efficiency perspective; As no fuel is consumed Hydro power is typically very cost effective. Hydro provides roughly 10% of our current electric power, but unfortunately we cannot rely on Hydro power for much additional expansion as most, but not all, hydro sites have already been developed. Dams do disrupt fish migration, flood land area, and disrupt the natural cycles of water flow, but overall these problems are small compared to the alternatives.
Using the Sun for creation of biofuels has many possibilities. The term Biofuels, as currently used, only describes a small subset of Solar driven biological processes. The sun is the source of energy driving most (but not all) of the biological cycles that maintain life on earth.
It does not appear that biofuels can be produced in the quantities required to replace our current hydrocarbon consumption. It has been estimated that using available know-how, that biofuels might be able to provide about 30% of our current liquid fuel consumption. Lets take an example to illustrate. Suppose we use the classic "Energy Balance" to roughly compare the land required to propel a biofueled car vs. the land required to propel a photovoltaic powered solar electric car.
Photovoltaic Electric Car:
It's no contest, the Solar electric car wins hands down. It takes roughly 38 acres of Biofuel farmland to produce the fuel to propel a biofueled car the same distance as the same sized electric car charged from 1 acre of solar photovoltaic desert. Keep in mind this is only the energy balance and many other factors are involved. The technology of Solar electric and the mass production of electric vehicles is not so well developed as Biofuel infrastructure. Recent advances in Algae farming to make Fuel could improve the energy balance of biofuels.
It is interesting to note that the EPA departed from the science based regulation of transportation fuels when they mandated 10% Ethanol in gasoline. Previous to that each gasoline quality regulation had a scientific basis to have a net reduction per the 1990 Clean Air act, i.e. Tetra Ethyl Lead, Sulfur, CO, and unburned hydrocarbons. The MTBE debacle points out that we cannot always predict problem regulations create and that we are still learning how to use liquid fuels and keep a clean environment.
There is a lot of discussion and research in the area of Biofuels, genetic plant engineering, improved farming yields, sustainable farming methods, BioChar, soil preservation, Ocean farming and fish management, and many other very important topics that will determine the maximum number of people the earth can support.
Solar energy is our main long term option. We have explored enough of the neighborhood to know that the planet Earth is the only decent real estate likely to support any quantity of frail humans. The Sun should be around for a few billion years but even the most bold futurist might find it hard to predict how life on earth will evolve over that timescale. Solar power has the potential to provide all of our power needs. So far it has not been as convenient (as easy to make it work) as exploiting the stored energy in coal, oil, gas, and Uranium. The sunlight hitting the earth in less than 10 minutes could supply all of the world’s current electric power for 1 year if it could only be captured and used cheaply and efficiently. The amount of Sunlight energy that hits 1 acre in Arizona on an average day is equal to about $4000 of electrical energy @ $0.15 per Kw-Hr. Orbiting solar generators have been proposed and solar energy does power most of our satellites and the space station too. On a clear day the solar flux is about 1000 Watts per square meter at the earths surface. That is basically the energy of a hair drier every 3 feet. Compared to biofuels, solar electric power would use a relatively small amount of land (or ocean) area. The sunniest places are generally in dry regions that do not compete with farming. Photovoltaic cells and solar thermal engines can be used to generate electricity, but currently the cost is higher than most of the alternatives. We are finally starting to do a small amount of basic research in the area of solar technology and there has been some progress in developing more efficient solar cells, heat engines, and related technology. Generally solar electric approaches trail wind as a cheap source of renewable electric power, but that could change if solar cell cost and efficiency are both improved as a result of research breakthroughs.
The best we can tell is that the Sun has been around for a long time and looks like it will stay running for a very long time to come..
We should be happy that our sun is not too small or too large. If our sun were as large as some stars, it would extend past Saturn! Our sun is barely a single pixel compared to the much larger star Antares. As we look into sky we have observed incredible releases of energy that we are struggling to explain such as Super Novas and Quasars. One quasar's luminosity is estimated at about 2 trillion (2 × 1012) times that of our sun, or about 100 times that of the total light output of average giant galaxies like our Milky Way. Now that could power a lot of hair driers!
Solar Thermal Power
Solar Thermal Power is the use of solar heating power as opposed to photovoltaic (PV) solar power. Mirrors are used to focus light energy onto a single point much like a giant magnifying glass.
The mirrors are usually focused on a boiler aparatus covered in a highly absorbant material. The boiler heats up producing steam which is then use to power anything you want to attach, such as a turbine, etc.
US Wind energy resources could in principle power more than 200% of our US electric power grid. Denmark currently gets over 20% of their electric power from Wind energy. Careful site selection and new turbine technologies are making wind competitive with Coal fired generation when the cost of Cap and Trade for CO2 emissions is considered. Coupled with grid energy storage like "pumped hydro power" or CAES (Compressed Air Energy Storage) Gas Turbine Power Plants, wind can be made to be "dispatchable". Smart Grid technology will also make it easier to put intermittent generators like solar and wind onto the grid, reducing the costs for new transmission lines.
For the best scientific data and information on wind energy, nobody has done a better job than the Germans. Check out the world's #1 premier company in Wind Energy Technology:
These 2 Documents below are all the hard scientific data on wind, from the world's leading professionals.
Wood energy is our most traditional biofuel. Wood is mostly carbon, and the energy content of that carbon came from the sun via photosynthesis and the carbon mostly came from the air. The amount of standing carbon in the worlds forests is quite massive. Forests are great but management is needed, to prevent over forestation, especially as oil prices rise.
In northern Russia and Siberia, wood is burned for heat in order to survive the most brutal winters. Brick or stone fireplaces are often used.
Geothermal energy is heat escaping from the center of the Earth. This heat is mostly from naturally occurring nuclear reactions, so if you think about it we are basically sitting on a Nuclear Pile. It is certainly possible to generate electric power as molten rock (lava) can easily make high pressure steam capable of running a generator. The 2006 MIT study on Geothermal Power claims the technically extractable portion of this energy is some 2000 times our present energy consumption.
EGS technology calls for drilling a well down to the hot rock and then injecting water forcefully enough to open up tiny fractures in the rock and extend them horizontally away from the well. A series of injection and production wells are then drilled into the region of fractured rock. Water sent down the injection wells sweeps through the hot fractured rock and back up the production wells, providing large quantities of hot water or steam to run electric generators at the surface. One of the operation issues is that industrial boilers go to great effort to purify and treat the boiler feed water. Steam direct from the ground will almost certainly contain lots of minerals that will leave deposits, so there are a few maintenance issues. It is hard to imagine a practical heat exchanger to make steam from water with the heat gained from lava flow. There are a number of successful projects, and there is a lot of potential.
We have 2 big energy problems.
Compute your own CO2 footprint on this EPA web page:
The human race is a victim of their (our) own success. We now have only 6 acres of land per person. Some of our economists tend to ignore the Law of conservation of Mass and Energy at our peril. We rate the strength of our economy based on how fast we dig out of acre 1 and make waste dumps on acre 6. Faster would appear to be better. We have run out of new frontiers and there is no place like Earth in our solar system to expand to, and the next closest sun is very, very far away.
Bacteria would simply consume all of its resources and die in its own waste. If humans are smarter than bacteria, they better start acting like it. It does not have to be like this. We need to quickly transition to a sustainable long term energy system, and focus the creative energy of scientists, engineers, blue & white collar workers, farmers and others on transforming our industries, businesses, and communities.
Some of our corporate leaders and business managers often find it easier to lobby our government to avoid change and competition, than to transform their business to serve societies real needs. Few companies today would act the way DuPont managers did when they became aware of the Ozone depleting effects of Freon. DuPont managers closed down the business, found alternatives, and transformed the business segment. These actions have clearly made improvements to preserve our protective ozone. Actual ozone levels while still somewhat low appear to have bottomed out since about 1995. Unlike a relatively diversified DuPont, the Oil business tends to be purely hydrocarbons, so it is hard for them to support a transition away from carbon. Oil companies make products we love and are part of the solutions, but it will take changes in many areas to achieve a sustainable energy infrastructure. At one time oil companies had massive research and development to develop oil production and refining technology. Exxon had Florum Park and Mobil had Princeton. In the 80's we cut back on research and focused on low cost production.
Perhaps it is time spend money on research for a new energy infrastructure.
Some other useful links are:
I hope that every Scientist, Engineer, and Business manager, is upholding their own responsibility and code of Ethics (AICHE).
Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties.
CO2 is now regarded as a pollutant, and the EPA has the technically and politically difficult assignment to control the CO2 concentration.A friend asked me, if you were in charge of solving this problem, what would you do? This is a great question for an engineer. Here are the answers of this engineer. Luckily I am not a Politician that would need to sell these solutions to the public, as it is clear that these solutions would be politically difficult, even if they are the right medicine for the ailment. Here are 10 things I would do:
My 2018 Energy Predictions:
Many people shrug and say I'm not worried, they will come up with something. It would be fabulous if some secret technology being hidden by the government or the oil companies, etc., would be suddenly revealed and make the energy problem go away. Remember the too cheap to meter comment for Nuclear power? Yes we do have some dreams, and we do have some of the worlds most brilliant minds working on the problem, but I think our world will change a lot in just 10 years.
When it comes to how consumers behave with energy prices:
PRESSURE moves FLUIDS
MONEY moves PEOPLE
Most consumers and businesses act on the economics involved. So with this in mind I thought it convenient to see the motive force that determines how people consume energy in May 2008. The graph above shows how the prices over a few time periods I happened to collect data. It is no surprise that all energy prices have been increasing, but the important question is where will they be and what should you do.
How can I heat my home?
Now this comparison may not be accurate for your prices or your equipment, so I've created AN ENERGY PRICE CALCULATOR to help you calculate a more accurate comparison.
In Northern Russia they use these style wood stoves to survive the winters by burning a handful of sticks every day, and sleping next to the stove. You can heat a decent size house with this type of stove on just 2 cords of wood per year.
So what kind of car should I drive?
The data above show some possibilities. Now depending on your vehicle, your efficiency might be different. Gasoline engines only convert about 25% of the fuel energy into shaft work; diesels convert about 35% and thus have an advantage even when the fuels are priced equal based on energy content. Turbines can be over 45% efficient, they can handle high altitude, and with low weight they are a good fit for aircraft. Combined cycle turbines at a stationary power plant can be about 57% efficient with hydrocarbon fuels, and when used in a co-generation mode the waste heat can be put to useful commercial functions like making steam or hot water. Electric vehicle is 80-90% efficient. H2 Fuel cells are in the range of 80-90% efficient. It is inherently difficult to obtain high efficiency for heat engines, as the second law of thermodynamics limits efficiency due to the operational temperatures. Higher efficiencies can be obtained with higher combustion temperatures and lower sink (air) temperatures. External combustion engines like steam engines are a possibility, and a wood powered car is possible, but unlikely unless we can make a much more efficient external combustion engine than the old steam engines. Electric and hydrogen cars will be the future, but only when we convert our power industry to reduce it’s massive CO2 footprint. Regardless of the type of engine it should be obvious that moving an aerodynamic lightweight car and planning for the most essential travel will save fuel, extend your cars life, and reduce your CO2 footprint.
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