Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are biofuels truly carbon neutral wonder fuels?

DSCN0896-web.jpgDuring a speech by President Obama on Tuesday (Oct 27, 2009) about a new program of funding for smart grid technology he talked about the need for an all-hands-on-deck mobilization such as the ones which won World War II or the Apollo space missions.  He then went on to discuss legislation which would make clean energy profitable naming "clean coal technology, safe nuclear power, sustainably grown biofuels, and energy we harness from the wind, waves, and sun" as the candidates.  Whether coal or nuclear power could ever be made 'clean' is a matter of derision in many quarters (note: there is more to consider than carbon emissions).  However a recent article in the journal Science has set off a debate about the accounting which leads many to believe biofuels are carbon neutral wonder fuels.

The pair of studies in the Oct 22 issue of Science demonstrate that the way biofuels are currently produced is nowhere near carbon neutral.  Current biofuel production involves actions like cutting down rain forest in 3rd world countries to plant palm or sugar cane plantations, then converting palm oil to biodiesel or sugar cane syrup to ethanol.  Under Kyoto Protocol accounting methods the environmental impact of clearing the land to grow these crops is not counted in the carbon footprint of the fuel.

The supposed advantage of biofuels is that the carbon in the fuel came from today rather carbon which was sequestered millions of years ago.  Fossil fuels are created from biological organisms which lived and died millions of years ago, were buried, and through geological forces became oil.  Biofuels are derived from biological organisms which live today, are harvested, and the biological material converted into oil.  In both cases the result is oil but burning fossil oil causes a net increase in carbon while burning oil from biofuels does not cause a net increase in carbon.  At least that's the theory, the reality is not so clear.

What's at issue is the indirect impact of each biofuel source.  Cutting down a rainforest releases a massive quantity of carbon which otherwise would have remained sequestered in the trees.  Further the loss of rainforest means that much less global forest to convert carbon dioxide into the oxygen we animals breath.

On Oct 23 the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance issued a press release stating several assertions supporting the argument that biofuels are clean.  Perhaps the best is: Advanced biofuels are now beginning to be made from non-recyclable municipal solid waste (i.e. garbage), forestry and wood waste, algae, and agricultural residues.  An article in Biomass magazine goes further to discuss how any release of carbon from "recently living organisms" has no overall effect on atmospheric CO2 levels and is therefore carbon neutral.

A recent study by the United Nations Energy Program comes to a different conclusion, namely that biofuels should be considered climate-friendly (or not) based on the source. Whether the biofuel was made from a crop grown specifically to create that fuel, or whether it came from crop residues, this has very different implications.  The report also talked about acreage requirements for different energy sources.  For example the land required to grow biofuels can be enormous, while much less land is required to generate an equivalent amount of energy from wind or solar.

Reposted from: Are biofuels truly carbon neutral wonder fuels?

For more info: 
Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error

REALITY CHECK: Journal Science Abandons Real Science for Science-Fiction

Ethanol Groups Refute Science Article

Science article on GHG accounting misses the mark on biofuels

U.N. Study Urges Caution on Biofuels

Biofuels Error Stated Carbon Advantage?  

Carbon advantage of biofuels may be overstated

Tallying Biofuels' Real Environmental Cost

Is Global Scale Biofuels Production Good or Bad for Climate Change?

Proposal To Place Biomass, Biofuels Under CO2 Emission Cap Is Based On Flawed Logic, BIO Says

Sins of Emission



Wednesday, October 21, 2009

U.S. EIA Expects Lower Home Heating Costs This Winter

eia-price-summary.jpgIn a recent press release the Energy Information Administration said it expects lower heating costs this winter. "We expect household bills for space-heating fuels will be 8 percent lower than a year ago, with the average household spending $960 in the October through March winter heating season, a decrease of $84 from last winter," said EIA Administrator Richard Newell. "The lower bills primarily reflect lower fuel prices, although slightly milder weather than last winter will also contribute to less fuel use in many areas. We expect the largest decreases in fuel expenses in households using natural gas and propane."

They expect the lower 48 states to be 1 percent warmer than last year. Warmer weather obviously requires less fuel for heating. However temperature variations are regional in that the midwest is expected to be warmer but the west is expected to be colder. I live in California and the rainy season seems to have already started, a harbinger for a "cold" winter.

Another factoid is that larger supplies of natural gas means a lower price for natural gas. Their projected 15-percent decrease in average household expenditures results from an 11-percent decrease in prices and a decline in consumption of 4 percent based on the forecast of warmer weather (in the midwest, where natural gas is the primary heating fuel) than last winter.

The Northeast accounts for 80 percent of heating fuel consumption. In that region, the average household is projected to spend 3 percent less ($60) than last winter as a result of a 2-percent decrease in consumption, with regional prices about 1 percent less than last winter.

Homes heated with propane are expected to spend an average of $280 (14 percent) less this winter but that decrease varies broadly by region.

Households heating primarily with electricity can expect to spend an average of $20 (2 percent) less than last winter. The number of households heating with electricity is growing faster, at an estimated annual rate of 2.5 percent, than all the other major heating fuels.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Global Oil Depletion" a report on Peak Oil by the UK Energy Research Centre

The UK Energy Research Centre handles research into energy issues for all of Britain. On Oct 8, 2009 they released an indepth study of oil production, the ways to measure oil reserves, estimate current and future production, etc. They paint a picture of peak oil and the need to move to other energy resources. It's not that they are whole-hog embracers of peak oil, instead this is a serious and indepth explanation of the issues with eye opening charts, data and discussion. The following is my summarization of the main report, they also published 7 additional reports containing a flood of technical data.

Abundant supplies of cheap liquid fuels form the foundation of modern industrial economies and at present the vast majority of these fuels are obtained from ‘conventional’ oil. Conventional Oil is the high quality stuff that got us hooked the potent energy source that it is.

Many forecast a near-term peak and subsequent terminal decline in the production of conventional oil as a result of the physical depletion of the resource. Others claim rising oil prices will stimulate investment that will increase supply to meet demand. But those who point to stimulated investment tend to reply on use of nonconventional oil such as tar sands conversion. Also as we'll see financial troubles raise the doubt of whether the required production capacity investments can be made, because of doubt over availability of capital.

While there is popular attention on peak oil, official attention is scarce or dismissive. "Most governments exhibit little concern about oil depletion, several oil companies have been publicly dismissive and the majority of energy analysts remain sceptical."

Key conclusions

  1. The mechanisms leading to a ‘peaking’ of conventional oil production are well understood and provide identifiable constraints on its future supply at both the regional and global level.
  2. Despite large uncertainties in the available data, sufficient information is available to allow the status and risk of global oil depletion to be adequately assessed.
  3. There is potential for improving consensus on important and long-standing controversies such as the source and magnitude of ‘reserves growth’.
    • "The oil industry must continually invest to replace the decline in production from existing fields. The average rate of decline from fields that are past their peak of production is at least 6.5%/year globally, while the corresponding rate of decline from all currently-producing fields is at least 4%/year. This implies that approximately 3 mb/d of new capacity must be added each year, simply to maintain production at current levels - equivalent to a new Saudi Arabia coming on stream every three years.
    • Decline rates are on an upward trend as more giant fields enter decline, as production shifts towards smaller, younger and offshore fields and as changing production methods lead to more rapid post-peak decline. As a result, more than two thirds of current crude oil production capacity may need to be replaced by 2030, simply to prevent production from falling. At best, this is likely to prove extremely challenging.
    • Oil reserves cannot be produced at arbitrarily high rates. There are physical, engineering and economic constraints upon both the rate of depletion of a field or region and the pattern of production over time. For example, the annual production from a region has rarely exceeded 5% of the remaining recoverable resources and most regions have reached their peak well before half of their recoverable resources have been produced. Supply forecasts that assume or imply significant departures from this historical experience are likely to require careful justification."
  4. Methods for estimating resource size and forecasting future supply have important limitations that need to be acknowledged.
  5. Large resources of conventional oil may be available, but these are unlikely to be accessed quickly and may make little difference to the timing of the global peak.
  6. The risks presented by global oil depletion deserve much more serious attention by the research and policy communities.

Policy implications

  1. it seems likely that mitigation will prove challenging owing to both the scale of investment required and the associated lead times.
  2. Even with incentives associated with climate change policy, there will be strong incentives to exploit high carbon non-conventional fuels. (the massive amounts of coal just waiting to be liquified)
  3. Investment in large-scale mitigation efforts will be inhibited by oil price uncertainty and volatility and seems unlikely to occur without significant policy support.


Current economic problems have lead to a major reduction in global oil demand, a major fall in price ($150/bbl in July 2008 to $40/bbl in Jan 2009) and the cancellation or delay of many projects that would act to increase production capacity. Given the long lead time required to get oil production projects underway the cancellation of projects makes likely a supply crunch in a few years e.g. if global oil demand increases again will the demand increase faster than the production projects can get restarted?



These are examples of a couple oil peaks. Conventional oil production raised to a point and then declined once production levels were unable to be sustained.


Classifying the different kinds of oil is key to gauging the problem. When conventional enters terminal decline will there be other resources which can pick up the slack? There's nothing magical about fossil oil, it's possible to make oil through other means. Some questions about this are: Is it possible to replace the supply provided by conventional oil by some other fuel source? Are the replacement fuel(s) better or worse for the environment? Do the replacement fuels have as high an energy return on investment as conventional oil does? How quickly can the switchover to other resources be made?

The energy return on investment (EROI) is a measure of the net energy gain from the production of oil and other resources, once the energy used in extraction and processing has been taken into account.


This is again focused on conventional oil and shows that the peak of discovery for conventional oil was in the early 1960's. Note well above in the key findings that to make up for production decline that new production sources are required at a rate of another "Saudi Arabia" (3 million bbl/day equivalent) every 3 years. The world society has been coasting on the fumes of old oil discoveries for over 40 years. The lack of new oil major field discoveries represents a major problem looming in front of us.


The U.S. DOE EIA produced this forecast of future oil production. Note the two wedges in the middle. They are marked "Crude Oil - fields yet to be found" and "Crude oil - fields yet to be developed". These wedges represent the production shortfall that's looming in front of us. The key phrase is "...yet to be..." because that is production capacity which does not currently exist. For it to exist new oil wells, pipelines, refineries, and transport ships have to be built. Often the new oil is far offshore so "oil well" is an expensive oil platform. Then there are the oil fields yet to be discovered. Where are they and why haven't they been found yet?

Much of the paper is devoted to statistical modeling of recoverable reserves, the claimed reserves, the potential for new discoveries, and the decline rates.

There is a big controversy about claimed oil reserves. Some companies appear to be playing tricks with their claimed reserves and that the publicly claimed numbers are widely thought to be bogus. The root cause is the relative power strength of OPEC decision making is based on their reserves figures. Saudi Arabia claims to have the most reserves but their numbers have been suspicious.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scrubbed emissions from coal plants ending up in the water

This is a case of solving one problem and creating yet another. A NY Times article reports on how scrubbing emissions at coal fired power plants results in toxic chemicals going into the water system. Given that water resources are tight it is insane to make the water unsafe by adding pollution but at the same time it's insane to simply let this pollution go into the air. On the one hand there's a way to reduce the toxicity of burning coal in power plants, the question is what to do with the toxic chemicals once they're prevented from going into the atmosphere. Or as Sen. Boxer said:

“We know that coal waste is so dangerous that we don’t want it in the air, and that’s why we’ve told power plants they have to install scrubbers,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “So why are they dumping the same waste into people’s water?”

CCP.jpgWhile she has a very good point her question is rather disingenuous. Obviously if the toxic chemicals are removed from gaseous emissions the toxic chemicals still exist and have to be put somewhere, the question is "where"? The NY Times article goes on to discuss that "no federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills" and that some regulators attempt to use the Clean Water Act to regulate such emissions. The Clean Water Act is insufficient for this purpose and in any case the NY Times article reports even for plants who are regulated under this act the vast majority are in violation and are not fined or otherwise sanctioned by the agencies who would be regulating them.

The NY Times article states that often states fight against stricter regulations. An example is this listing by the DOE of state regulations in Kentucky ("Coal, Kentucky's Ace in the Hole"):

Current Regulations Governing Coal Combustion By-Products - Kentucky: Under Kentucky regulations, CCBs (including fly ash, bottom ash, and scrubber sludge produced by coal-fired electrical generating units) are exempt from regulation as hazardous wastes but are classified as special waste. Excluded from this regulation is boiler slag and residues of refuse-derived fuels such as municipal waste, tires, and solvents. Under Kentucky law, CCBs (as defined above) may be reused under permit by rule regulation 1) as an ingredient in manufacturing a product; 2) as an ingredient in cement, concrete, paint, and plastics; 3) as an anti-skid material; 4) as highway base course; 5) as structural fill; 6) as blasting grit; 7) as roofing granules; and 8) for disposal in an active mining operation if the mine owner/operator has a mining permit authorizing disposal of special waste. Specific conditions for reuse of CCBs include: 1) the CCB reuse may not create a nuisance; 2) erosion and sediment controls must be undertaken; 3) the CCB reuse must be at least 100 ft from a stream and 300 ft from potable wells, wetlands, or flood plains; 4) the ash must be "non-hazardous;" and 5) the generator must submit an annual report. Mine applications must be specifically authorized under the terms of a permit issued by the Department for Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

Another example of the problem is this report by Califormia's Air Resources Board on Disposal of Scrubber Wastes (PDF). It's a very long report but begins with a discussion of the total scrubber waste which would come from eight utility and four utility sites being studied. Among the wastes is 9700 tons of "purge water" which would be produced and require disposal. The purge water was said to contain 70 percent solids so maybe the word "sludge" is better than "purge water"? In any case their casual use of this phrase, "purge water", indicates that for them this is a routine matter of course issue. Hence Sen. Boxer's incredulity quoted above seems misplaced or misinformed as someone in her position ought to already know about this issue.

Perhaps proving that "what goes around comes around", EPA Says Scrubbers Necessary for Health Protection Under Coal Conversion Plan is a historical press release from 1977 going over how "President Carter's Energy Plan calls for maximum conversion of this nation's electric power plants from oil to coal combustion". An issue facing the U.S. during the 1970's was repeated oil embargo's and additionally President Carter famously addressed the nation about the future danger that we now know as Peak Oil. Pres. Carter was prescient enough to see that oil supply problems would only get worse due to the majority of oil reserves being located in unfriendly countries. So he led the country to switch from oil fired electricity generation to coal fired electricity generation.

One of the already known phrases for this is "Coal Combustion Products" which are the byproducts generated from burning coal in coal-fired power plants. These byproducts include fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization gypsum. Astonishingly these CCP's are routinely used in a variety of building materials.

CCP Production In Tons
Concrete/Concrete Products/Grout 14,515,690
Blended Cement/ Raw Feed for Clinker 4,989,988
Flowable Fill 127,406
Structural Fills/Embankments 10,598,118
Road Base/Sub-base 1,179,509
Soil Modification/Stabilization 1,371,228
Mineral Filler in Asphalt 102,723
Snow and Ice Control 781,346
Blasting Grit/Roofing Granules 1,449,561
Mining Applications 6,701,910
Gypsum Panel Products 8,254,849
Waste Stabilization/Solidification 2,800,031
Agriculture 180,100
Aggregate 1,013,373
Miscellaneous/Other 1,973,173

The EPA claims some benefits of using these CCP's include

  • reduction of greenhouse gasses that would otherwise be created during concrete production
  • concrete with fly ash is stronger than other concrete
  • doesn't need to be put in landfills
  • reduces the amount of "virgin materials" which have to be mined

The EPA also lists some of the risks.

  • fly ash contains toxic materials such as "heavy metals" but "for all practical purposes" there is no leaching of those toxic materials
  • workers handling dry coal ash are of course exposed to these toxic materials
  • there is also "unencapsulated" uses of these materials (making concrete is an "encapsulated use") in which there is leaching of elements such as mercury and metals into ground water, contamination of vegetation and the impact on other elements on the food chain, and airborne dust.

The Recycled Materials Resource Center contains an extensive set of guidelines for reusing various "by-product materials" for use in "secondary applications". As they point out "virgin materials" are becoming scarce and the volume of "by-product materials" is increasing. Hence it makes sense to use those "by-product materials" in some other way, with highway construction being seen as a primary potential use. The guide is "intended to provide the reader with general guidance on engineering evaluation requirements, environmental issues, and economic considerations for determining the suitability of using recovered materials in highway applications".


Tres Amigas Project in New Mexico promises more renewable energy through better electrical grid connectivity

A criticism of renewable energy resources like wind or solar power is the places where it's abundant are places with few people, and the places with many people don't have much of either wind or solar power. Thus to utilize wind or solar power means long distance electrical transmission through what's been characterized as an aging and inefficient national power grid. American Superconductor aims to undo this bottleneck with the Tres Amigas project which intends to be a highly efficient interconnection hub for the three main portions of America's power grid.

renewable-power.jpgThe "Saudi Arabia of Wind" is in the U.S. mid-west region, primarily a corridor from North Texas, along the front range of the Rockies, and into Wyoming and Minnesota. Similarly the deserts of the South West are prime places for solar power installations. Lots of wind and sun with few people, meaning that electricity from facilities installed there has to travel a long distance to reach their market. Further for that power to reach the east or west coast requires traversing what are said to be inefficient transfers to the Eastern or Western Interconnect.

tres-amigas.jpgThe design of the Tres Amigas project is a large triangle of underground superconducting cables connecting the three power grids. (get it? three power grids? tres amigas?) Each leg of the triangle can carry 5 gigawatts of electricity and the whole station will be on 22.5 square miles of land near Clovis NM.

A key component of the design is the "Superconductor Electricity Pipelines" product developed by American Superconductor. These pipelines have a copper core in a cryogenic environment maintained by a liquid nitrogen bath. Hence this form of superconductivity is created by supercold temperatures. The cables are buried underground by digging trenches creating an advantage over current long distance transmission using those tall towers which criss-cross the country. Their website is full of pictures of untouched rural landscapes which one supposes would result from widespread use of their electricity pipelines.


They claim the advantages of the "Superconductor Electricity Pipelines" include the following. However the claims are made for 1000 mile long transmission cables, and the Tres Amigas project is only due to cover a 22.5 square mile exchange point. It is not said whether this project includes any truly long distance transmission facilities beyond the exchange point.

  • Higher efficiency (97% rather than 91%) resulting in less transmission loss
  • Smaller land use impact (25 foot right of way versus 600 foot)
  • Good esthetics (buried cables are out of sight)
  • No electromagnetic field
  • Efficiency and CO2 emissions savings (presumably due to higher transmission efficiency)

Tres Amigas LLC claims these advantages:-

  • First system to connect America’s three power grids (Eastern Interconnect, Western Interconnect and Texas Interconnect)
  • Enhances the capacity, reliability and efficiency of America’s power grids
  • Assists the U.S. in achieving its renewable energy targets by carrying gigawatts of “green” power from region to region
  • Creates the nation’s first renewable energy trading hub
  • Utilizes the latest power grid technologies, including DC superconductor power cables, HVDC voltage source converters and energy storage systems

The project seems geared to tapping New Mexico's potential as a leading supplier of renewable energy. That and other state's of the South West have vast potential for producing renewably sourced electricity.

The information from Tres Amigas includes this curious statement: "Creates the nation’s first renewable energy trading hub". This raises echo's of Enron whose primary purpose was to operate an energy trading system.