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  • Shell Pulls From Shale

    Posted on March 18th, 2014 Jo No comments

    Shell cuts and runs from shale, but there are still believers.


    Friday 14 March 2014


    From: Dave
    Subject: Shell cuts investment in US shale as “fracking takes its toll”

    [...]

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    From: Hugh

    re story at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/10696415/Shell-cuts-spending-and-jobs-at-US-shale-gas-arm.html

    I agree. It seems that only Wall Street, realtors and other fairly useless middlemen are really making serious money at dry shale gas production. The little guys at the serious end all appear to be spending more than they are earning (like Shell). Wait for the bust because I cannot see Henry Hub reaching the $6 – 8/mmBtu (more?) needed for the drillers to make a profit. It is not yet even totally clear that shale oil is a clear winner; many of those drillers’s outlays are greater than income!

    Very confusing!

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    From: Dave

    One conspiracy theory going around is that the shale thing has been funded by the US govt money printing to banks, and as soon as they start tapering the whole thing will collapse.

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    From: Chris

    Money printing provides liquidity – not capital.

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    From: Dave

    Yes but the banks can invest that liquidity by lending to fracking shysters????

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    From: Dave

    Chris, the penny has just dropped. Never really understood what “liquidity” was, but clearly I see it is non-money that has been conjured out of the air by some sort of dodgy promise to pay in future based on a gamble / speculation, most of which at some point will collapse into nothingness or am I being too too cynical?

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    From: Jo

    Hi Hugh,

    For me there are two key points :-

    1. The exploitation of shale resources in Northern America are part of the US trying to build a narrative of energy independence. The notion that the US could ever be free from OPEC is laughable.

    2. However, the official agencies, such as the EIA, do not project strong growth in shale gas, and anticipate a break point in shale oil growth.

    It is a pure propaganda exercise, this “Saudi America” narrative. It too will soon burst. Without sales of hydraulic fracturing to China etc.

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    From: John

    Jo,

    Whatever you do, do not look at the graphs on page 12 from the EUIA!!

    http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/pdf/0383er(2014).pdf

    It will break your heart, it’s a shale gas denier’s worst nightmare.


    15 March 2014


    From: Nick Grealy, nohotair.co.uk

    John thanks for reminding me why I don’t bother with this group anymore.

    I thought they were scientists, not conspiracy theorists. David Icke seems same next to some of this.

    Heres more science to reject http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/drilling/pdf/dpr-full.pdf

    John Gummer ( I don’t go in for that Lord cr@p), recently said that if environmentalists deny the science behind shale, they can’t expect the public to accept the science on climate either.

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    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    The projections in Figure 11 of that chart, showing numbers for growth in Natural Gas out to 2040 are based on very conservative growth figures in shale gas, and the large upwards growth is based mostly on a spurt in coalbed methane production sometime in the 2030s, and a spurt in Arctic production in the 2020s.

    The shale gas and tight gas growth could in reality be even less underwhelming, if you consider economic recovery issues.

    You need to get the underlying dataset and check, or look at other peoples’ attempts to chart it, such as mine :-

    http://www.joabbess.com/2013/10/23/bursting-shale-gas-bubbles/

    Don’t believe the growth hype !

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    From: John

    Jo,

    Take Nick’s advice and drop the David Icke nonsense.

    http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/drilling/pdf/marcellus.pdf

    All the data is on the EIA website up to Feb 2014

    You write this on your blog, you’re not really trying are you!

    I was trying to ascertain current American shale gas production data, and I kept finding myself at this webpage on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) website, and this one, too, which only have shale gas production data up until 2011 (just checked it again – still true).

    Chill out about it, embrace gas and renewables like Texas is doing.

    Golden age of gas can fund and back up golden age of renewables, there is no other alternative, UK incredibly lucky country.

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    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    I embrace gas – in fact, I’m in bed with gas. I just think that we should not be doing unconventional gas.

    First, because geology offers strong possibilities of early exhaustion and patchy production. And second of all, because this delays proper solutions in the field of manufactured Renewable Gas.

    Gas and power are perfectly complementary, and I think we should have growth in Renewable Gas to complement the growth in Renewable Electricity.

    Regards,

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    From: John

    Gas demand is 730 TWh

    Max possible renewable gas is around 20 TWh

    So, the 710 TWh?

    By 2030, Qatar or Russia or Lancashire?

    We cannot afford to import it, we have to produce our own, there is no alternative

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    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    On what do you base your figures ? I would dare to suggest your green gas figure is not optimistic enough.

    I think everything depends on what you think Renewable Gas is. It’s certainly not limited to biogas, or even hydrotreated biogas (to make biomethane through the addition of hydrogen in some way to biogas). Besides all the biological routes to gas, there are a range of other ways of putting Renewable Hydrogen in the company of Renewable Carbon and coming up with much bigger Renewable Gas production figures. Several important ones are being researched and developed. There are also a number of ways of producing Renewable Hydrogen – all in research and development.

    This country used to manufacture a large quantity of gas, and I am quite sure it will do so again in the not too distant future. This time round, however, it will be Renewable Gas, and not just made from gasified coal with all those net carbon dioxide emissions to air. Yes, there will be some EfW – gas Energy from Waste, but that will not be the endpoint. Yes, there will be advanced biological treatments of biological feedstocks, but even that won’t be the end of it. Yes, it will include some high temperature gasification (such as plasma gasification) of carbonaecous material, but even that will not be the end of the story. It will even include some coal and some Carbon Capture and Storage, although I prefer Carbon Recycling to reduce the initial fuel input.

    I think it is important to think in terms of a transition. For now we take the Natural Gas from the -stans, the Russian Federation, the South Stream, North Stream, east-west pipelines, the LNG tankers. But we plan to start Renewable Gas production to ramp up so that in 15 to 20 years time it can be a major substitution option. Swapping coal burning for gas burning will give us some space and time in our Carbon Budgets to develop the Renewable Gas to eventually displace Natural Gas (from all sources).

    The thing that needs to happen is that the major oil and gas companies need to show their hand on their plans for developing Renewable Gas. I’m pretty sure they have them, or if not, they need to start writing them now, because industrial scale start-ups in Renewable Gas are going to pump them out of business otherwise – shale or no shale.

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    From: John

    My figs based on an EU project Green Gas Grids.

    Power to Gas is just gas industry green PR, it’s not credible.

    Reason is first one of efficiency or lack of it.

    Next is a killer – no reliable CO2 source…..P2G works to make H2 when it’s windy, but when windy no ccgt so no CO2.

    Costs are horrendous to match co2 with H2 from wind, complete non starter for the next 100 years!

    Shale gas is long term low carbon option.

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    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    Other people have other figures. I would suggest it’s probably best not to accept just one report.

    It’s interesting that you claim that “Power to Gas” is gas industry public relations greenwash. From my viewpoint the agenda is being driven by organisations like the German Government, and non-majors such as ITM Power. As for the technology research and development, that is mostly academia, with or without energy sector investment.

    It may not be credible to you, but a lot of people are doing R&D into it. Unless you want to claim that they are just intelligent people being kept busy so they don’t get Bolshy, why would they be spending time on Renewable Gas if they didn’t think there was progress to be made in it ?

    Yes, it’s true that efficiency questions are important and limiting, but increasing the efficiency of various processing steps is exactly what most of the research is about. This is what will bring the costs down. Remember when people claimed that solar photovoltaics and wind power could never be cheap enough to be widely deployed ?

    There are many ways to source carbon dioxide reliably, such as through Carbon Recycling, which would lower original feedstock input requirements.

    If you just look at energy, then shale gas might make some sense, but it’s not just about energy. Shale gas development has implications on geological stability, geographical development, local risks of emissions to air, water and soil, and continued infrastructure maintenance costs dragging on for decades.

    Shale gas growth might well be short-term, with field depletion offsetting new drilling in a short timeframe. Who can guarantee more than a few sweet spots in any one field ?

    Why does National Grid only model around 10% of future production from shale gas, and no more ? Why does it model biogas on a par with shale gas ? They’re not particularly confident in either, it would seem.

    To my mind, shale gas is a theatrical diversion from the real business of substituting fossil gas with Renewable Gas and energy-use efficiency. There are more unfounded claims about shale gas than there were about nuclear power, sadly.

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    From: John

    We all follow the subsidies.

    Offshore wind, solar, ITM h2 projects, biomethane, all receive huge subsidies….none are remotely economic….

    One partial well apart we have had no drilling and fracking in UK shale and so we don’t know how much shale gas we don’t know how much gas we will have.

    If it’s like Marcellus then by 2025 all the LNG importation terminals in UK will be mothballed and CO2 will be down 20% for gas, how fantastic!

    Instead if paying £50 billion a year for all and gas with zero tax, we may have £30 billion tax! Can fund more biomethane etc.

    Shale gas is our only hope.

    Germany withdrawing renewable subsidies now because costs too high….this already happening in UK with Ed Milliband opposition to higher energy bills.

    Shale gas and shale gas tax is out only hope.

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    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    “If it’s like Marcellus”. That’s a very big if. Drilling for shale gas in the UK cannot be like the Marcellus, for several reasons – for example :-

    a. Population density – political tendency

    There are large numbers of people who don’t want to see fracking in their heavily populated areas in the UK. A significant proportion of these I would class as having reactionary tendencies :-

    http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/downloads/maps/gpw-v3/gpw-v3-population-density/gbrdens.pdf
    http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/downloads/maps/gpw-v3/gpw-v3-population-density/usadens.pdf

    b. Geology – this is an apples and oranges situation, surely ?

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmenergy/795/79506.htm

    No two shale layers are the same – the stuff in the UK is just not the same kind of stuff as in the USA – for example, complare Bowland Shale to Marcellus Shale :-

    http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Business/Pix/pictures/2013/7/16/1373979376644/Bowland-Shale-008.jpg
    http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02428/frackingguz_2428741b.jpg

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_14SUjHlDtMA/TOApeP2WK4I/AAAAAAAAACw/Jqzf8KoZCQ8/s1600/Marcellus_Shale_5.jpg
    https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTsWDl7lnk6GWzkpm_73mpbzcEg8AeotNh2fzRHv_2lSKpzLrrHLw

    “One partial well apart we have had no drilling and fracking in UK shale and so we don’t know how much shale gas we don’t know how much gas we will have” : there are doubts climbing all over your uncertainty mountains, and yet you still say “shale gas is our only hope”. How can you justify saying this ?

    What kind of impossible economics do you believe in that could convince you that the growth in shale gas production would compensate for the depletion in North Sea production ?

    All new deployments of new (and old) technology require support. Then after a while, the support can “degress”, as it is doing in Germany and the UK as the renewables begin to be able to stand alone. It would be a pretty poor business model to totally depend on subsidies for continued operation. Imagine if the tax and financial breaks for the oil and gas industry were removed…

    On the subject of a shale gas tax – do you seriously believe that any kind of revenue generated on the back of a subsidised energy industry would be hypothecated to the green energy sector ? There’s all that military budget to support, still. Can anybody tell me if any of the “green levy” money is ever put into renewables or energy efficiency ?

    The LNG terminals may well close – due to the beefed up gas pipeline network across Europe and the “harmonised” gas market.

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    From: John

    Let’s pick up this conversation in 2020!

  • Gas Policy : Conceptual Piracy ?

    Posted on March 17th, 2014 Jo No comments

    So, I’m talking with an oil and gas man. I can’t quite say who, or when or where, or indeed, which company he is working for. But he’s definitely a man, and working in the fossil fuel industry. So, I say, I suspect that within the major oil and gas companies there must be a plan about what to do after the shale gas and shale oil public relations bubble has run its course. When it becomes clear that they can never add much to global production, the decision will be about whether to run with sour conventional fossil fuel resources in provinces already well-explored, or go for sweet unconventionals in inaccessible, and formerly neglected, places. Iran could suddenly become our very best of friends, for example, or we could scramble for Africa. The option for sour conventional fossil fuels, he says, it depends on where it is. I assent.

    There’s always mining for methane hydrates, he volunteers. In the Arctic. They’re already doing it in Japan, I agree, but it would be complicated, I counter, to go for deep drilling in areas with significant pack ice for many months of the year. Plus, global warming is strong in the Arctic, and conditions could change rapidly in ten years, and risk the infrastructure. It’s not a very good place to want to be drilling – the challenges of cold and ice, or meltwaters from ice in summer, and climate-changed shorelines. But there’s the permafrost, he said, implying that all the plant they will build will be stable. In my mind I’m asking myself – does he know the permafrost is melting ? There is a shallow ocean, I admit, with a lot of continental shelf at the right depth for stable clathrate formation. One could even pump carbon dioxide into the methane hydrates to release the methane by replacing it with carbon dioxide in the crystalline structure. Or so I’ve heard. Although it might be quite hard to collect the methane coming out. Mining methane hydrates would technically be possible, but it really depends on where it is. There are quite a number of territorial claims in the Arctic area. What is Russia claiming about the Arctic Ocean coast ?

    Wouldn’t it just be easier and safer to mine sour conventionals ? Whichever route the oil and gas industry takes now, they will need to build a lot of new kit. If they choose remote sweet gas, they will need to build remote mining plant, pipelines and ship terminals. If they choose sour gas, they can then choose to methanate the Natural Carbon Dioxide that comes out of the wells as part of the Natural Gas. This would uprate the gas and so increase its value, and it wouldn’t be necessary to Capture the carbon dioxide for burial or reinjection. If the gas industry chooses to produce Renewable Hydrogen to enable methanation of acid fossil gas, they can then also be ready for the switch to a fully Renewable Gas without a second phase of building loads of new kit – and that would surely be a bonus ?

    I said that I didn’t really believe in the narrative that significant volumes of methane could be mined cleanly or reliably from underwater hydrates. And that’s where our conversation came to an end.

    I don’t believe that scrambling for the methane locked in undersea “fire ice” is an appropriately-scaled or workable plan. I wonder what the real plan is…and if the oil and gas industry haven’t got one, I wonder if the rest of us should help them ?

    None of the pictures of alternative fuels painted by the oil and gas industry in the last decade have turned out to be meaningful. Let’s talk historical evidence. In oil, the “advanced biofuels” meme is pretty much exhausted, and production plateauing. Is anybody still promising large production volumes of algae biodiesel ? Can second-generation ethanol rise to the challenge of displacing big number percentages of petrodiesel ? Natural Gas Liquids and condensate from Natural Gas processing in the USA could well all be destined to be additives for thinning the bitumen from the oil sands in Canada – but will production ever be high ? Shale and tight oil production is growing overall in the United States of America, but there are disagreements about how significant it can become (and remain, given the likely depletion rates). In gas, the shale bubble could almost be at bursting point. Can we trust future projections ? I suppose it depends on who they come from.

  • On Having to Start Somewhere

    Posted on March 15th, 2014 Jo No comments

    In the last few weeks I have heard a lot of noble but futile hopes on the subject of carbon dioxide emissions control.

    People always seem to want to project too far into the future and lay out their wonder solution – something that is just too advanced enough to be attainable through any of the means we currently have at our disposal. It is impossible to imagine how the gulf can be bridged between the configuration of things today and their chosen future solutions.

    Naive civil servants strongly believe in a massive programme of new nuclear power. Head-in-the-clouds climate change consultants and engineers who should know otherwise believe in widespread Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. MBA students believe in carbon pricing, with carbon trading, or a flat carbon tax. Social engineers believe in significant reductions in energy intensity and energy consumer behaviour change, and economists believe in huge cost reductions for all forms of renewable electricity generation.

    To make any progress at all, we need to start where we are. Our economic system has strong emissions-dependent components that can easily be projected to fight off contenders. The thing is, you can’t take a whole layer of bricks out of a Jenga stack without severe degradation of its stability. You need to work with the stack as it is, with all the balances and stresses that already exist. It is too hard to attempt to change everything at once, and the glowing ethereal light of the future is just too ghostly to snatch a hold of without a firm grasp on an appropriate practical rather than spiritual guide.

    Here’s part of an email exchange in which I strive for pragmatism in the face of what I perceive as a lack of realism.


    To: Jo

    I read your article with interest. You have focused on energy, whereas I
    tend to focus on total resource. CCS does make sense and should be pushed
    forward with real drive as existing power stations can be cleaned up with it
    and enjoy a much longer life. Establishing CCS is cheaper than building new
    nuclear and uses far less resources. Furthermore, CCS should be used on new
    gas and biomass plants in the future.

    What we are lacking at the moment is any politician with vision in this
    space. Through a combination of boiler upgrades, insulation, appliance
    upgrades and behaviour change, it is straight forward to halve domestic
    energy use. Businesses are starting to make real headway with energy
    savings. We can therefore maintain a current total energy demand for the
    foreseeable future.

    To service this demand, we should continue to eke out every last effective
    joule from the current generating stock by adding cleansing kit to the dirty
    performers. While this is being done, we can continue to develop renewable
    energy and localised systems which can help to reduce the base load
    requirement even further.

    From an operational perspective, CCS has stagnated over the last 8 years, so
    a test plant needs to be put in place as soon as possible.

    The biggest issue for me is that, through political meddling and the
    unintended consequences of ill-thought out subsidies, the market has been
    skewed in such a way that the probability of a black-out next year is very
    high indeed.

    Green gas is invisible in many people’s thinking, but the latest House of
    Lords Report highlighted its potential.

    Vested interests are winning hands down in the stand-off with the big
    picture!


    From: Jo

    What is the title of the House of Lords report to which you refer ?

    Sadly, I am old enough to remember Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
    the first time the notion went around the block, so I’d say that
    progress has been thin for 30 years rather than 8.

    Original proposals for CCS included sequestration at the bottom of the
    ocean, which have only recently been ruled out as the study of global
    ocean circulation has discovered more complex looping of deep and
    shallower waters that originally modelled – the carbon dioxide would
    come back up to the surface waters eventually…

    The only way, I believe, that CCS can be made to work is by creating a
    value stream from the actual carbon dioxide, and I don’t mean Enhanced
    Oil Recovery (EOR).

    And I also definitely do not mean carbon dioxide emissions pricing,
    taxation or credit trading. The forces against an
    investment-influencing carbon price are strong, if you analyse the
    games going on in the various economic system components. I do not
    believe that a strong carbon price can be asserted when major economic
    components are locked into carbon – such as the major energy producers
    and suppliers, and some parts of industry, and transport.

    Also, carbon pricing is designed to be cost-efficient, as markets will
    always find the lowest marginal pricing for any externality in fines
    or charges – which is essentially what carbon dioxide emissions are.
    The EU Emissions Trading Scheme was bound to deliver a low carbon
    price – that’s exactly what the economists predicted in modelling
    carbon pricing.

    I cannot see that a carbon price could be imposed that was more than
    5% of the base commodity trade price. At those levels, the carbon
    price is just an irritation to pass on to end consumers.

    The main problem is that charging for emissions does not alter
    investment decisions. Just like fines for pollution do not change the
    risks for future pollution. I think that we should stop believing in
    negative charging and start backing positive investment in the energy
    transition.

    You write “You have focused on energy, whereas I tend to focus on
    total resource.” I assume you mean the infrastructure and trading
    systems. My understanding leads me to expect that in the current
    continuing economic stress, solutions to the energy crisis will indeed
    need to re-use existing plant and infrastructure, which is why I
    think that Renewable Gas is a viable option for decarbonising total
    energy supply – it slots right in to substitute for Natural Gas.

    My way to “eke out every last effective joule from the current
    generating stock” is to clean up the fuel, rather than battle
    thermodynamics and capture the carbon dioxide that comes out the back
    end. Although I also recommend carbon recycling to reduce the need for
    input feedstock.

    I completely agree that energy efficiency – cutting energy demand
    through insulation and so on – is essential. But there needs to be a
    fundamental change in the way that profits are made in the energy
    sector before this will happen in a significant way. Currently it
    remains in the best interests of energy production and supply
    companies to produce and supply as much energy as they can, as they
    have a duty to their shareholders to return a profit through high
    sales of their primary products.

    “Vested interests” have every right under legally-binding trade
    agreements to maximise their profits through the highest possible
    sales in a market that is virtually a monopoly. I don’t think this can
    be challenged, not even by climate change science. I think the way
    forward is to change the commodities upon which the energy sector
    thrives. If products from the energy sector include insulation and
    other kinds of efficiency, and if the energy sector companies can
    continue to make sales of these products, then they can reasonably be
    expected to sell less energy. I’m suggesting that energy reduction
    services need to have a lease component.

    Although Alistair Buchanan formerly of Ofgem is right about the
    electricity generation margins slipping really low in the next few
    winters, there are STOR contracts that National Grid have been working
    on, which should keep the lights on, unless Russia turn off the gas
    taps, which is something nobody can do anything much about – not BP,
    nor our diplomatic corps, the GECF (the gas OPEC), nor the WTO.


  • Failing Narratives : Carbon Culprits

    Posted on March 14th, 2014 Jo No comments

    In the last few weeks I have attended a number of well-intentioned meetings on advances in the field of carbon dioxide emissions mitigation. My overall impression is that there are several failing narratives to be encountered if you make even the shallowest foray into the murky mix of politics and energy engineering.

    As somebody rightly pointed out, no capitalist worth their share price is going to spend real money in the current economic environment on new kit, even if they have asset class status – so all advances will necessarily be driven by public subsidies – in fact, significant technological advance has only ever been accomplished by state support.

    Disturbingly, free money is also being demanded to roll out decades-old low carbon energy technology – nuclear power, wind power, green gas, solar photovoltaics – so it seems to me the only way we will ever get appropriate levels of renewable energy deployment is by directed, positive public investment.

    More to the point, we are now in an era where nobody at all is prepared to spend any serious money without a lucrative slap on the back, and reasons beyond reasons are being deployed to justify this position. For example, the gas-fired power plant operators make claims that the increase in wind power is threatening their profitability, so they are refusing to built new electricity generation capacity without generous handouts. This will be the Capacity Mechanism, and will keep gas power plants from being mothballed. Yes, there is data to support their complaint, but it does still seem like whinging and special pleading.

    And the UK Government’s drooling and desperate fixation with new nuclear power has thrown the European Commission into a tizzy about the fizzy promises of “strike price” guaranteed sales returns for the future atomic electricity generation.

    But here, I want to contrast two other energy-polity dialogues – one for developing an invaluable energy resource, and the other about throwing money down a hole.

    First, let’s take the white elephant. Royal Dutch Shell has for many years been lobbying for state financial support to pump carbon dioxide down holes in the ground. Various oil and gas industry engineers have been selling this idea to governments, federal and sub-federal for decades, and even acted as consultants to the Civil Society process on emissions control – you just need to read the United Nations’ IPCC Climate Change Assessment Report and Special Report output to detect the filigree of a trace of geoengineering fingers scratching their meaning into global intention. Let us take your nasty, noxious carbon dioxide, they whisper suggestively, and push it down a hole, out of sight and out of accounting mind, but don’t forget to slip us a huge cheque for doing so. You know, they add, we could even do it cost-effectively, by producing more oil and gas from emptying wells, resulting from pumping the carbon dioxide into them. Enhanced Oil Recovery – or EOR – would of course mean that some of the carbon dioxide pumped underground would in effect come out again in the form of the flue gas from the combustion of new fossil fuels, but anyway…

    And governments love being seen to be doing something, anything, really, about climate change, as long as it’s not too complicated, and involves big players who should be trustworthy. So, you get the Peterhead project picking up a fat cheque for a trial of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in Scotland, and the sidestep hint that if Scotland decides to become independent, this project money could be lost…But this project doesn’t involve much of anything that is really new. The power station that will be used is a liability that ought to be closing now, really, according to some. And the trial will only last for ten years. There will be no EOR – at least – not in the public statements, but this plan could lead the way.

    All of this is like pushing a fat kid up a shiny slide. Once Government take their greasy Treasury hands off the project, the whole narrative will fail, falling to an ignominious muddy end. This perhaps explains the underlying desperation of many – CCS is the only major engineering response to emissions that many people can think of – because they cannot imagine burning less fossil fuels. So this wobbling effigy has to be kept on the top of the pedestal. And so I have enjoyed two identical Shell presentations on the theme of the Peterhead project in as many weeks. CCS must be obeyed.

    But, all the same, it’s big money. And glaring yellow and red photo opps. You can’t miss it. And then, at the other end of the scale of subsidies, is biogas. With currently low production volumes, and complexities attached to its utilisation, anaerobically digesting wastes of all kinds and capturing the gas for use as a fuel, is a kind of token technology to many, only justified because methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it needs to be burned.

    The subsidy arrangements for many renewable energy technologies are in flux. Subsidies for green gas will be reconsidered and reformulated in April, and will probably experience a degression – a hand taken off the tiller of driving energy change.

    At an evening biogas briefing given by Rushlight this week, I could almost smell a whiff of despair and disappointment in the levels of official support for green gas. It was freely admitted that not all the planned projects around the country will see completion, not only because of the prevailing economic climate, but because of the vagaries of feedstock availability, and the complexity of gas cleaning regulations.

    There was light in the tunnel, though, even if the end had not been reached – a new Quality Protocol for upgrading biogas to biomethane, for injection into the gas grid, has been established. You won’t find it on the official UK Goverment website, apparently, as it has fallen through the cracks of the rebranding to gov.uk, but here it is, and it’s from the Environment Agency, so it’s official :-

    http://www.greengas.org.uk/pdf/biomethane-qp.pdf

    http://www.r-e-a.net/news/rea-welcomes-environment-agencys-updated-anaerobic-digestion-quality-protocol

    http://adbiogas.co.uk/2014/01/30/biomethane-qp-could-boost-renewable-gas-to-grid-market/
    http://adbiogas.co.uk/2014/01/30/biomethane-quality-protocol-published/

    Here’s some background :-

    http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/aboutus/wfo/epow/124111.aspx

    To get some picture of the mess that British green energy policy is in, all you need do is take a glance at Germany and Denmark, where green gas is considered the “third leg of the stool”, stabilising renewable energy supply with easily-stored low carbon gas, to balance out the peaks and troughs in wind power and solar power provision.

    Green gas should not be considered a nice-to-have minor addition to the solutions portfolio in my view. The potential to de-carbonise the energy gas supply is huge, and the UK are missing a trick here – the big money is being ladled onto the “incumbents” – the big energy companies who want to carry on burning fossil fuels but sweep their emissions under the North Sea salt cavern carpet with CCS, whilst the beer change is being reluctantly handed out as a guilt offering to people seeking genuinely low carbon energy production.

    Seriously – where the exoplanet are we at ?

  • The General Lightness of Carbon Pricing

    Posted on February 27th, 2014 Jo 1 comment

    I was at a very interesting meeting this morning, entitled “Next Steps for Carbon Capture and Storage in the UK”, hosted by the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum :-

    http://www.westminsterforumprojects.co.uk/forums/event.php?eid=713
    http://www.westminsterforumprojects.co.uk/forums/agenda/CCS-2014-agenda.pdf

    During the proceedings, there were liberal doses of hints at that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is about to freeze the Carbon Price Floor – the central functioning carbon pricing policy in the UK (since the EU Emissions Trading Scheme “isn’t working”).

    All of the more expensive low carbon energy technologies rely on a progressively heavier price for carbon emissions to make their solutions more attractive.

    Where does this leave the prospects for Carbon Capture and Storage in the 2030s ? Initial technology-launching subsidies will have been dropped, and the Contracts for Difference will have been ground down into obscurity. So how will CCS keep afloat ? It’s always going to remain more expensive than other technology options to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions, so it needs some prop.

    What CCS needs is some Added Value. It will come partly from EOR – Enhanced Oil Recovery, as pumping carbon dioxide down depleting oil and gas fields will help stimulate a few percent of extra production.

    But what will really make the difference is using carbon dioxide to make new fuel. That’s the wonder of Renewable Gas – it will be able to provide a valued product for capturing carbon dioxide.

    This wasn’t talked about this morning. The paradigm is still “filter out the CO2 and flush it down a hole”. But it won’t stay that way forever. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to start mining carbon dioxide from CCS projects to make new chemicals and gas fuels. Then, who cares if there’s negative charging for emissions ? Or at what price ? The return on investment in carbon capture will simply bypass assumptions about needing to create a carbon market or set a carbon tax.

  • Gain in Transmission #2

    Posted on February 24th, 2014 Jo No comments

    Here is further email exchange with Professor Richard Sears, following on from a previous web log post.


    From: Richard A. Sears
    Date: 24 February 2014
    To: Jo Abbess
    Subject: Question from your TED talk

    Jo,

    I was looking back over older emails and saw that I had never responded to your note. It arrived as I was headed to MIT to teach for a week and then it got lost. Sorry about that.

    Some interesting questions. I don’t know anybody working specifically on wind power to gas options. At one time Shell had a project in Iceland using geothermal to make hydrogen. Don’t know what its status is but if you search on hydrogen and Iceland on the Shell website I’m sure there’s something. If the Germans have power to gas as a real policy option I’d poke around the web for information on who their research partners are for this.

    Here are a couple of high level thoughts. Not to discourage you because real progress comes from asking new questions, but there are some physical fundamentals that are important.

    Direct air capture of anything using current technology is prohibitively expensive to do at scale for energy. More energy will be expended in capture and synthesis than the fuels would yield.

    Gaseous fuels are problematic on their own. Gas doesn’t travel well and is difficult to contain at high energy densities as that means compressing or liquefying it. That doesn’t make anything impossible, but it raises many questions about infrastructure and energy balance. If we take the energy content of a barrel of oil as 1.0, then a barrel of liquefied natural gas is about 0.6, compressed natural gas which is typically at about 3600psi is around 0.3, and a barrel (as a measure of volume equal to 42 US gallons) of natural gas at room temperature and pressure is about 0.0015 (+/-). Also there’s a real challenge in storing and transporting gasses as fuel at scale, particularly motor fuel to replace gasoline and diesel.

    While there is some spare wind power potential that doesn’t get utilized because of how the grid must be managed, I expect it is a modest amount of energy compared to what we use today in liquid fuels. I think what that means is that while possible, it’s more likely to happen in niche local markets and applications rather than at national or global scales.

    If you haven’t seen it, a nice reference on the potential of various forms of sustainable energy is available free and online here. http://www.withouthotair.com/

    Hope some of this helps.

    Rich

    Richard A. Sears
    Consulting Professor
    Department of Energy Resources Engineering
    Stanford University


    From: Jo Abbess
    Date: 24 February 2014
    To: Richard A. Sears

    Dear Richard,

    Many thanks for getting back to me. Responses are nice – even if they
    are months late. As they say – better late than never, although with
    climate change, late action will definitely be unwise, according to an
    increasing number of people.

    I have indeed seen the website, and bought and spilled coffee on the
    book of Professor David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy Without The Hot
    Air” project. It is legendary. However, I have checked and he has only
    covered alternative gas in a couple of paragraphs – in notes. By
    contrast, he spent a long chapter discussing how to filter uranium out
    of seawater and other nuclear pursuits.

    Yet as a colleague of mine, who knows David better than I do, said to
    me this morning, his fascination with nuclear power is rather naive,
    and his belief in the success of Generation III and Generation IV
    lacks evidence. Plus, if we get several large carbon dioxide
    sequestration projects working in the UK – Carbon Capture and Storage
    (CCS) – such as the Drax pipeline (which other companies will also
    join) and the Shell Peterhead demonstration, announced today, then we
    won’t need new nuclear power to meet our 4th Carbon Budget – and maybe
    not even the 5th, either (to be negotiated in 2016, I hear) :-

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/referendum-news/peterhead-confirmed-for-carbon-capture-sitebut-its-not-a-bribe-says-ed-dave.1393232825

    We don’t need to bury this carbon, however; we just need to recycle
    it. And the number of ways to make Renewable Hydrogen, and
    energy-efficiently methanate carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide with
    hydrogen, is increasing. People are already making calculations on how
    much “curtailed” or spare wind power is likely to be available for
    making gas in 10 years’ time, and if solar power in the UK is
    cranked/ramped up, then there will be lots of juicy cost-free power
    ours for the taking – especially during summer nights.

    Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide is a nonsensical proposition.
    Besides being wrong in terms of the arrow of entropy, it also has the
    knock-on effect of causing carbon dioxide to come back out of the
    ocean to re-equilibrate. I recently read a paper by climate scientists
    that estimated that whatever carbon dioxide you take out of the air,
    you will need to do almost all of it again.

    Instead of uranium, we should be harvesting carbon dioxide from the
    oceans, and using it to make gaseous and liquid fuels.

    Gaseous fuels and electricity complement each other very well -
    particularly in storage and grid balancing terms – there are many
    provisions for the twins of gas and power in standards, laws, policies
    and elsewhere. Regardless of the limitations of gas, there is a huge
    infrastructure already in place that can store, pipe and use it, plus
    it is multi-functional – you can make power, heat, other fuels and
    chemicals from gas. In addition, you can make gas from a range of
    resources and feedstocks and processing streams – the key quartet of
    chemical gas species keep turning up : hydrogen, methane, carbon
    monoxide and carbon dioxide – whether you are looking at the exhaust
    from combustion, Natural Gas, industrial furnace producer gas,
    biological decomposition, just about everywhere – the same four gases.

    Energy transition must include large amounts of renewable electricity
    - because wind and solar power are quick to build yet long nuclear
    power lead times might get extended in poor economic conditions. The
    sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow (and the
    tide is not always in high flux). Since demand profiles will never be
    able to match supply profiles exactly, there will always be spare
    power capacity that grids cannot use. So Power to Gas becomes the
    optimal solution. At least until there are ways to produce Renewable
    Hydrogen at plants that use process heat from other parts of the
    Renewable Gas toolkit. So the aims are to recycle carbon dioxide from
    gas combustion to make more gas, and recycle gas production process
    heat to make hydrogen to use in the gas production process, and make
    the whole lot as thermally balanced as possible. Yes. We can do that.
    Lower the inputs of fresh carbon of any form, and lower the energy
    requirements to make manufactured gas.

    I met somebody working with Jacobs who was involved in the Carbon
    Recycling project in Iceland. Intriguing, but an order of magnitude
    smaller than I think is possible.

    ITM Power in the UK are doing a Hydrogen-to-gas-grid and methanation
    project in Germany with one of the regions. They have done several
    projects with Kiwa and Shell on gas options in Europe. I know of the
    existence of feasibility reports on the production of synthetic
    methane, but I have not had the opportunity to read them yet…

    I feel quite encouraged that Renewable Gas is already happening. It’s
    a bit patchy, but it’s inevitable, because the narrative of
    unconventional fossil fuels has many flaws. I have been looking at
    issues with reserves growth and unconventionals are not really
    commensurate with conventional resources. There may be a lot of shale
    gas in the ground, but getting it out could be a long process, so
    production volumes might never be very good. In the USA you’ve had
    lots of shale gas – but that’s only been supported by massive drilling
    programmes – is this sustainable ?

    BP have just finished building lots of dollars of kit at Whiting to
    process sour Natural Gas. If they had installed Renewable Gas kit
    instead of the usual acid gas and sulfur processing, they could have
    been preparing for the future. As I understand it, it is possible to
    methanate carbon dioxide without first removing it from the rest of
    the gas it comes in – so methanating sour gas to uprate it is a viable
    option as far as I can see. The hydrogen sulfide would still need to
    be washed out, but the carbon dioxide needn’t be wasted – it can be
    made part of the fuel. And when the sour gas eventually thins out,
    those now methanating sour gas can instead start manufacturing gas
    from low carbon emissions feedstocks and recycled carbon.

    I’m thinking very big.

    Regards,

    jo.

  • In Confab : Paul Elsner

    Posted on January 23rd, 2014 Jo No comments

    Dr Paul Elsner of Birkbeck College at the University of London gave up some of his valuable time for me today at his little bijou garret-style office in Bloomsbury in Central London, with an excellent, redeeming view of the British Telecom Tower. Leader of the Energy and Climate Change module on Birkbeck’s Climate Change Management programme, he offered me tea and topical information on Renewable Energy, and some advice on discipline in authorship.

    He unpacked the recent whirlwind of optimism surrounding the exploitation of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, and how Climate Change policy is perhaps taking a step back. He said that we have to accept that this is the way the world is at the moment.

    I indicated that I don’t have much confidence in the “Shale Bubble”. I consider it mostly as a public relations exercise – and that there are special conditions in the United States of America where all this propaganda comes from. I said that there are several factors that mean the progress with low carbon fuels continues to be essential, and that Renewable Gas is likely to be key.

    1. First of all, the major energy companies, the oil and gas companies, are not in a healthy financial state to make huge investment. For example, BP has just had the legal ruling that there will be no limit to the amount of compensation claims they will have to face over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Royal Dutch Shell meanwhile has just had a serious quarterly profit warning – and if that is mostly due to constrained sales (“Peak Oil Demand”) because of economic collapse, that doesn’t help them with the kind of aggressive “discovery” they need to continue with to keep up their Reserves to Production ratio (the amount of proven resources they have on their books). These are not the only problems being faced in the industry. This problem with future anticipated capitalisation means that Big Oil and Gas cannot possibly look at major transitions into Renewable Electricity, so it would be pointless to ask, or try to construct a Carbon Market to force it to happen.

    2. Secondly, despite claims of large reserves of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, ripe for the exploitation of, even major bodies are not anticipating that Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas will be delayed by many years by the “Shale Gale”. The reservoir characteristics of unconventional fossil fuel fields do not mature in the same way as conventional ones. This means that depletion scenarios for fossil fuels are still as relevant to consider as the decades prior to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

    3. Thirdly, the reservoir characteristics of conventional fossil fuel fields yet to exploit, especially in terms of chemical composition, are drifting towards increasingly “sour” conditions – with sigificant levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide in them. The sulphur must be removed for a variety of reasons, but the carbon dioxide remains an issue. The answer until recently from policy people would have been Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. Carbon dioxide should be washed from acid Natural Gas and sequestered under the ocean in salt caverns that previously held fossil hydrocarbons. It was hoped that Carbon Markets and other forms of carbon pricing would have assisted with the payment for CCS. However, recently there has been reduced confidence that this will be significant.

    Renewable Gas is an answer to all three of these issues. It can easily be pursued by the big players in the current energy provision system, with far less investment than wholesale change would demand. It can address concerns of gas resource depletion at a global scale, the onset of which could occur within 20 to 25 years. And it can be deployed to bring poor conventional fossil fuels into consideration for exploitation in the current time – answering regional gas resource depletion.

    Outside, daffodils were blooming in Tavistock Square. In January, yes. The “freaky” weather continues…

  • But Uh-Oh – Those Summer Nights

    Posted on January 20th, 2014 Jo No comments

    A normal, everyday Monday morning at Energy Geek Central. Yes, this is a normal conversation for me to take part in on a Monday morning. Energy geekery at breakfast. Perfect.

    Nuclear Flower Power

    This whole UK Government nuclear power programme plan is ridiculous ! 75 gigawatts (GW) of Generation III nuclear fission reactors ? What are they thinking ? Britain would need to rapidly ramp up its construction capabilities, and that’s not going to happen, even with the help of the Chinese. (And the Americans are not going to take too kindly to the idea of China getting strongly involved with British energy). And then, we’d need to secure almost a quarter of the world’s remaining reserves of uranium, which hasn’t actually been dug up yet. And to cap it all, we’d need to have 10 more geological disposal repositories for the resulting radioactive spent fuel, and we haven’t even managed to negotiate one yet. That is, unless we can burn a good part of that spent fuel in Generation IV nuclear fission reactors – which haven’t even been properly demonstrated yet ! Talk about unconscionable risk !

    Baseload Should Be History By Now, But…

    Whatever the technological capability for nuclear power plants to “load follow” and reduce their output in response to a chance in electricity demand, Generation III reactors would not be run as anything except “baseload” – constantly on, and constantly producing a constant amount of power – although they might turn them off in summer for maintenance. You see, the cost of a Generation III reactor and generation kit is in the initial build – so their investors are not going to permit them to run them at low load factors – even if they could.

    There are risks to running a nuclear power plant at partial load – mostly to do with potential damage to the actual electricity generation equipment. But what are the technology risks that Hinkley Point C gets built, and all that capital is committed, and then it only runs for a couple of years until all that high burn up fuel crumbles and the reactors start leaking plutonium and they have to shut it down permanently ? Who can guarantee it’s a sound bet ?

    If they actually work, running Generation III reactors at constant output as “baseload” will also completely mess with the power market. In all of the scenarios, high nuclear, high non-nuclear, or high fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there will always need to be some renewables in the mix. In all probability this will be rapidly deployed, highly technologically advanced solar power photovoltaics (PV). The amount of solar power that will be generated will be high in summer, but since you have a significant change in energy demand between summer and winter, you’re going to have a massive excess of electricity generation in summer if you add nuclear baseload to solar. Relative to the demand for energy, you’re going to get more Renewable Energy excess in summer and under-supply in winter (even though you get more offshore wind in winter), so it’s critical how you mix those two into your scenario.

    The UK Government’s maximum 75 GW nuclear scenario comprises 55 GW Generation III and 20 GW Generation IV. They could have said 40 GW Gen III to feed Gen IV – the spent fuel from Gen III is needed to kick off Gen IV. Although, if LFTR took off, if they had enough fluoride materials there could be a Thorium way into Gen IV… but this is all so technical, no MP [ Member of Parliament ] is going to get their head round this before 2050.

    The UK Government are saying that 16 GW of nuclear by 2030 should be seen as a first tranche, and that it could double or triple by 2040 – that’s one heck of a deployment rate ! If they think they can get 16 GW by 2030 – then triple that by 10 years later ? It’s not going to happen. And even 30 GW would be horrific. But it’s probably more plausible – if they can get 16 GW by 2030, they can arguably get double that by 2040.

    As a rule of thumb, you would need around 10 tonnes of fissionable fuel to kickstart a Gen IV reactor. They’ve got 106 tonnes of Plutonium, plus 3 or 4 tonnes they recently acquired – from France or Germany (I forget which). So they could start 11 GW of Gen IV – possibly the PRISM – the Hitachi thing – sodium-cooled. They’ve been trying them since the Year Dot – these Fast Reactors – the Breeders – Dounreay. People are expressing more confidence in them now – “Pandora’s Promise” hangs around the narrative that the Clinton administration stopped research into Fast Reactors – Oak Ridge couldn’t be commercial. Throwing sodium around a core 80 times hotter than current core heats – you can’t throw water at it easily. You need something that can carry more heat out. It’s a high technological risk. But then get some French notable nuclear person saying Gen IV technologies – “they’re on the way and they can be done”.

    Radioactive Waste Disposal Woes

    The point being is – if you’re commissioning 30 GW of Gen III in the belief that Gen IV will be developed – then you are setting yourself up to be a hostage to technological fortune. That is a real ethical consideration. Because if you can’t burn the waste fuel from Gen III, you’re left with up to 10 radioactive waste repositories required when you can’t even get one at the moment. The default position is that radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be left at the power stations where they’re created. Typically, nuclear power plants are built on the coast as they need a lot of cooling water. If you are going for 30 GW you will need a load of new sites – possibly somewhere round the South East of England. This is where climate change comes in – rising sea levels, increased storm surge, dissolving, sinking, washed-away beaches, more extreme storms [...] The default spent fuel scenario with numerous coastal decommissioned sites with radioactive interim stores which contain nearly half the current legacy radioactive waste [...]

    Based on the figures from the new Greenpeace report, I calculate that the added radioactive waste and radioactive spent fuel arisings from a programme of 16 GW of nuclear new build would be 244 million Terabequerel (TBq), compared to the legacy level of 87 million TBq.

    The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are due to publish their Radioactive Waste Inventory and their Report on Radioactive Materials not in the Waste Inventory at the end of January 2014. We need to keep a watch out for that, because they may have adapted their anticipated Minimum and Maxmium Derived Inventory.

    Politics Is Living In The Past

    What you hear from politicians is they’re still talking about “baseload”, as if they’ve just found the Holy Grail of Energy Policy. And failed nuclear power. Then tidal. And barrages. This is all in the past. Stuff they’ve either read – in an article in a magazine at the dentist’s surgery waiting room, and they think, alright I’ll use that in a TV programme I’ve been invited to speak on, like Question Time. I think that perhaps, to change the direction of the argument, we might need to rubbish their contribution. A technological society needs to be talking about gasification, catalysis. If you regard yourselves as educated, and have a technological society – your way of living in the future is not only in manufacturing but also ideas – you need to be talking about this not that : low carbon gas fuels, not nuclear power. Ministers and senior civil servants probably suffer from poor briefing – or no briefing. They are relying on what is literally hearsay – informal discussions, or journalists effectively representing industrial interests. Newspapers are full of rubbish and it circulates, like gyres in the oceans. Just circulates around and around – full of rubbish.

    I think part of the problem is that the politicians and chief civil servants and ministers are briefed by the “Old Guard” – very often the ex-nuclear power industry guard. They still believe in big construction projects, with long lead times and massive capital investment, whereas Renewable Electricity is racing ahead, piecemeal, and private investors are desperate to get their money into wind power and solar power because the returns are almost immediate and risk-free.

    Together in Electric Dreams

    Question : Why are the UK Government ploughing on with plans for so much nuclear power ?

    1. They believe that a lot of transport and heat can be made to go electric.
    2. They think they can use spent nuclear fuel in new reactors.
    3. They think it will be cheaper than everything else.
    4. They say it’s vital for UK Energy Security – for emissions reductions, for cost, and for baseload. The big three – always the stated aim of energy policy, and they think nuclear ticks all those three boxes. But it doesn’t.

    What they’ll say is, yes, you have to import uranium, but you’ve got a 4 year stock. Any war you’re going to get yourselves involved in you can probably resolve in 4 days, or 4 weeks. If you go for a very high nuclear scenario, you would be taking quite a big share of the global resource of uranium. There’s 2,600 TWh of nuclear being produced globally. And global final energy demand is around 100,000 TWh – so nuclear power currently produces around 2.6% of global energy supply. At current rates of nuclear generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, you’ve got around 80 years of proven reserves and probably a bit more. Let’s say you double nuclear output by 2050 or 2040 – but in the same time you might just have enough uranium – and then find a bit more. But global energy demand rises significantly as well – so nuclear will still only provide around 3% of global energy demand. That’s not a climate solution – it’s just an energy distraction. All this guff about fusion. Well.

    Cornering The Market In Undug Uranium

    A 75 GW programme would produce at baseload 590 TWh a year – divide by 2,600 – is about 23% of proven global uranium reserves. You’re having to import, regardless of what other countries are doing, you’re trying to corner the market – roughly a quarter. Not even a quarter of the market – a quarter of all known reserves – it’s not all been produced yet. It’s still in the ground. So could you be sure that you could actually run these power stations if you build them ? Without global domination of the New British Empire [...]. The security issues alone – defending coastal targets from a tweeb with a desire to blow them up. 50 years down the line they’re full of radioactive spent fuel that won’t have a repository to go to – we don’t want one here – and how much is it going to cost ?

    My view is that offshore wind will be a major contributor in a high or 100% Renewable Electricity scenario by 2050 or 2060. Maybe 180 GW, that will also be around 600 TWh a year – comparable to that maximum nuclear programme. DECC’s final energy demand 2050 – several scenarios – final energy demand from 6 scenarios came out as between roughly 1,500 TWh a year and the maximum 2,500 TWh. Broadly speaking, if you’re trying to do that just with Renewable Electricity, you begin to struggle quite honestly, unless you’re doing over 600 TWh of offshore wind, and even then you need a fair amount of heat pump stuff which I’m not sure will come through. The good news is that solar might – because of the cost and technology breakthroughs. That brings with it a problem – because you’re delivering a lot of that energy in summer. The other point – David MacKay would say – in his book his estimate was 150 TWh from solar by 2050, on the grounds that that’s where you south-facing roofs are – you need to use higher efficiency triple junction cells with more than 40% efficiency and this would be too expensive for a rollout which would double or triple that 150 TWh – that would be too costly – because those cells are too costly. But with this new stuff, you might get that. Not only the cost goes down, but the coverage goes down. Not doing solar across swathes of countryside. There have always been two issues with solar power – cost and where it’s being deployed.

    Uh-Oh, Summer Days. Uh-Oh, Summer Nights

    With the solar-wind headline, summer days and summer nights are an issue.

    With the nuclear headline, 2040 – they would have up to 50 GW, and that would need to run at somewhere between 75% and 95% capacity – to protect the investment and electric generation turbines.

    It will be interesting to provide some figures – this is how much over-capacity you’re likely to get with this amount of offshore wind. But if you have this amount of nuclear power, you’ll get this amount [...]

    Energy demand is strongly variable with season. We have to consider not just power, but heat – you need to get that energy out in winter – up to 4 times as much during peak in winter evenings. How are you going to do that ? You need gas – or you need extensive Combined Heat and Power (CHP) (which needs gas). Or you need an unimaginable deployment of domestic heat pumps. Air source heat pumps won’t work at the time you need them most. Ground source heat pumps would require the digging up of Britain – and you can’t do that in most urban settings.

    District Heat Fields

    The other way to get heat out to everyone in a low carbon world – apart from low carbon gas – is having a field-based ground source heat pump scheme – just dig up a field next to a city – and just put in pipes and boreholes in a field. You’re not disturbing anybody. You could even grow crops on it next season. Low cost and large scale – but would need a District Heating (DH) network. There are one or two heat pump schemes around the world. Not sure if they are used for cooling in summer or heat extraction in the winter. The other thing is hot water underground. Put in an extra pipe in the normal channels to domestic dwellings. Any excess heat from power generation or electrolysis or whatever is put down this loop and heats the sub-ground. Because heat travels about 1 metre a month in soil, that heat should be retained for winter. A ground source heat sink. Geothermal energy could come through – they’re doing a scheme in Manchester. If there’s a nearby heat district network – it makes it easier. Just want to tee it into the nearest DH system. The urban heat demand is 150 TWh a year. You might be able to put DH out to suburban areas as well. There are 9 million gas-connected suburban homes – another about 150 TWh there as well – or a bit more maybe. Might get to dispose of 300 TWh in heat through DH. The Green Deal insulation gains might not be what is claimed – and condensing gas boiler efficiencies are not that great – which feeds into the argument that in terms of energy efficiency, you not only want to do insulation, but also DH – or low carbon gas. Which is the most cost-effective ? Could argue reasonable energy efficiency measures are cheapest – but DH might be a better bet. That involves a lot of digging.

    Gas Is The Logical Answer

    But everything’s already laid for gas. (…but from the greatest efficiency first perspective, if you’re not doing DH, you’re not using a lot of Renewable Heat you could otherwise use [...] )

    The best package would be the use of low carbon gases and sufficient DH to use Renewable Heat where it is available – such as desalination, electrolysis or other energy plant. It depends where the electrolysis is being done.

    The Age of Your Carbon

    It also depends on which carbon atoms you’re using. If you are recycling carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels into Renewable Gas, that’s OK. But you can’t easily recapture carbon emissions from the built environment (although you could effectively do that with heat storage). You can’t do carbon capture from transport either. So your low carbon gas has to come from biogenic molecules. Your Renewable Gas has to be synthesised using biogenic carbon molecules rather than fossil ones.

    [...] I’m using the phrase “Young Carbon”. Young Carbon doesn’t have to be from plants – biological things that grow.

    Well, there’s Direct Air Capture (DAC). It’s simple. David Sevier, London-based, is working on this. He’s using heat to capture carbon dioxide. You could do it from exhaust in a chimney or a gasification process – or force a load of air through a space. He would use heat and cooling to create an updraft. It would enable the “beyond capture” problem to be circumvented. Cost is non-competitive. Can be done technically. Using reject heat from power stations for the energy to do it. People don’t realise you can use a lot of heat to capture carbon, not electricity.

    Young Carbon from Seawater

    If you’re playing around with large amounts of seawater anyway – that is, for desalination for irrigation, why not also do Renewable Hydrogen, and pluck the Carbon Dioxide out of there too to react with the Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane ? I’m talking about very large amounts of seawater. Not “Seawater Greenhouses” – condensation designs mainly for growing exotic food. If you want large amounts of desalinated water – and you’re using Concentrated Solar Power – for irrigating deserts – you would want to grow things like cacti for biological carbon.

    Say you had 40 GW of wind power on Dogger Bank, spinning at 40% load factor a year. You’ve also got electrolysers there. Any time you’re not powering the grid, you’re making gas – so capturing carbon dioxide from seawater, splitting water for hydrogen, making methane gas. Wouldn’t you want to use flash desalination first to get cleaner water for electrolysis ? Straight seawater electrolysis is also being done.

    It depends on the relative quantities of gas concentrated in the seawater. If you’ve got oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that would be nice. You might get loads of oxygen and hydrogen, and only poor quantities of carbon dioxide ?

    But if you could get hydrogen production going from spare wind power. And even if you had to pipe the carbon dioxide from conventional thermal power plants, you’re starting to look at a sea-based solution for gas production. Using seawater, though, chlorine is the problem [...]

    Look at the relative density of molecules – that sort of calculation that will show if this is going to fly. Carbon dioxide is a very fixed, stable molecule – it’s at about the bottom of the energy potential well – you have to get that reaction energy from somewhere.

    How Much Spare Power Will There Be ?

    If you’ve got an offshore wind and solar system. At night, obviously, the solar’s not working (unless new cells are built that can run on infrared night-time Earthshine). But you could still have 100 GWh of wind power at night not used for the power grid. The anticipated new nuclear 40 GW nuclear by 2030 will produce about 140 GWh – this would just complicate problems – adding baseload nuclear to a renewables-inclusive scenario. 40 GW is arguably a reasonable deployment of wind power by 2030 – low if anything.

    You get less wind in a nuclear-inclusive scenario, but the upshot is you’ve definitely got a lot of power to deal with on a summer night with nuclear power. You do have with Renewable Electricity as well, but it varies more. Whichever route we take we’re likely to end up with excess electricity generation on summer nights.

    In a 70 GW wind power deployment (50 GW offshore, 20 GW onshore – 160 TWh a year), you might have something like 50 to 100 GWh per night of excess (might get up to 150 GWh to store on a windy night). But if you have a 16 GW nuclear deployment by 2030 (125 TWh a year), you are definitely going to have 140 GWh of excess per night (that’s 16 GW for 10 hours less a bit). Night time by the way is roughly between 9pm and 7am between peak demands.

    We could be making a lot of Renewable Gas !

    Can you build enough Renewable Gas or whatever to soak up this excess nuclear or wind power ?

    The energy mix is likely to be in reality somewhere in between these two extremes of high nuclear or high wind.

    But if you develop a lot of solar – so that it knocks out nuclear power – it will be the summer day excess that’s most significant. And that’s what Germany is experiencing now.

    Choices, choices, choices

    There is a big choice in fossil fuels which isn’t really talked about very often – whether the oil and gas industry should go for unconventional fossil fuels, or attempt to make use of the remaining conventional resources that have a lower quality. The unconventionals narrative – shale gas, coalbed methane, methane hydrates, deepwater gas, Arctic oil and gas, heavy oil, is running out of steam as it becomes clear that some of these choices are expensive, and environmentally damaging (besides their climate change impact). So the option will be making use of gas with high acid gas composition. And the technological solutions for this will be the same as needed to start major production of Renewable Gas.

    Capacity Payments

    But you still need to answer the balancing question. If you have a high nuclear power scenario, you need maybe 50 TWh a year of gas-fired power generation. If high Renewable Electricity, you will need something like 100 TWh of gas, so you need Carbon Capture and Storage – or low carbon gas.

    Even then, the gas power plants could be running only 30% of the year, and so you will need capacity payments to make sure new flexible plants get built and stay available for use.

    If you have a high nuclear scenario, coupled with gas, you can meet the carbon budget – but it will squeeze out Renewable Electricity. If high in renewables, you need Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Recycling into Renewable Gas, but this would rule out nuclear power. It depends which sector joins up with which.

    Carbon Capture, Carbon Budget

    Can the Drax power plant – with maybe one pipeline 24 inches in diameter, carrying away 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – can it meet the UK’s Carbon Budget target ?

  • Gain in Transmission

    Posted on January 13th, 2014 Jo No comments

    It constantly amazes and intrigues me how human individuals operate in networks to formulate, clarify and standardise ideas, tools, machines, procedures and systems. Several decades ago, Renewable Electricity from sources such as wind power was considered idealistic vapourware, esoteric, unworkable and uncertain, and now it’s a mainstream generator of reliable electricity in the UK’s National Grid. Who would have thought that invisible, odourless, tasteless gas phase chemicals would heat our homes ? It’s now just so normal, it’s impossible to imagine that Natural Gas was once considered to be so insignificant that it was vented – not even flared – from oil wells.

    Judging by the sheer number of people working on aspects of Renewable Gas, I expect this too to be mainstream in the energy sector within a decade. What do others think ? I have begun the process of asking, for example, see below.

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A. Sears
    date: Mon, May 2, 2011 at 11:59 PM
    subject: Question from your TED talk

    Dear [Professor] Sears,

    I was intrigued by your TED talk that I recently viewed :-

    http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_sears_planning_for_the_end_of_oil.html

    Yes, I am interested in the idea of “printing” solar cells, which is what I think you might be alluding to with your reference to abalone shells.

    But I am more interested in what you base your estimate of “Peak Gas” on. I recently did some very basic modelling of hydrocarbon resources and electricity, which look somewhat different from the IEA and EIA work and reports from BP and Royal Dutch Shell. My conclusion was that Peak Oil is roughly now, Peak Natural Gas will be around 2030, and Peak Electricity around 2060 :-

    http://www.joabbess.com/2011/02/11/future-energy-tipping-points/

    I am going to try to improve these charts before I submit my MSc Masters Thesis, so I am trying to find out what other people base their projections on. Could you help me by pointing me at the basis of your assessment of Peak Natural Gas ?

    Thank you,

    jo.

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Richard A. Sears
    to: Jo Abbess
    date: Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    Jo,

    I am just now finding a number of old emails that got archived (and ignored) when I moved from MIT to Stanford a few years ago. A quick answer is that I did about what Hubbert did in 1956. No detailed statistical modeling, just look at the trends, think about what’s happening in the industry, and make what seem like reasonable statements about it.

    A number of interesting things have happened just in the last two years since you wrote to me. Significantly, US oil production is on the rise. When you count all hydrocarbon liquids, the US is or will soon be, the world largest producer. This just goes to one of my points from TED. Don’t expect oil and gas to go away any time soon. There are plenty of molecules out there. I first said this internally at Shell in the mid 1980′s when I was Manager of Exploration Economics and since then I’ve felt that I got it about right.

    I did just look at your website and would caution you about extrapolating very recent trends into the future. The rate of growth in shale gas production has slowed, but there’s an important economic factor driving that. Gas prices in the US are very low compared to oil. With the development of fraccing technology to enable oil and liquids production from shale formations, the industry has shifted their effort to the liquids-rich plays. A few statistics. Gas is currently around $3.50/mcf. On an energy equivalent basis, this equates to an oil price of about $20/barrel. Brent currently sells for $110/barrel and the light oils produced from the shale plays in the US are getting between $90 and $100/barrel, depending on where they can be delivered. As a consequence, in the 3rd quarter of 2013, compared to one year ago, oil well completions are up 18% while natural gas well completions declined 30%.

    Yes, you are right. Printing solar cells is an example of what I was talking about with Abalone shells. Similarly, what if you had paint that as it dried would self assemble into linked solar cells and your entire house is now generating electricity. I was totally amazed at the number of people that didn’t actually think about what I was saying and called me an !d!*t for imagining that I was going to transform coal itself into some magical new molecule. [...]

    In any case, I think it’s good that you’re thinking about these problems, and importantly it appears from your website that you’re thinking about the system and its complexity.

    Best regards,
    Rich Sears

    Richard A. Sears
    Visiting Scientist
    MIT Energy Initiative
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A Sears
    sent: Monday, May 02, 2011 3:59 PM

    Dear [Professor] Sears,

    Many thanks for your reply.

    I had kinda given up of ever hearing back from you, so it’s lovely to
    read your thoughts.

    May I blog them ?

    Regards,

    jo.

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Richard A Sears
    date: Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 5:03 PM
    to: Jo Abbess

    Jo,

    I have personally avoided blogging because I don’t want to put up with people writing mean comments about me. But the data is worth sharing. You should also know the sources of that data otherwise you open yourself to more criticism.

    The data on production comes from the International Energy Agency and a research firm PIRA. All of it was in recent press releases. The Energy Information Administration makes similar projections about future production. The data on well completions was recently released by API.

    No need to reference me. The data is out there for all to see. But if you do, fair warning. You will get stupid comments about how I used to be a VP at Shell so of course these are the things I’m going to say. [...]

    By the way, there’s something else that’s very interesting in the world of peak oil and various peaks. I have long believed, as hinted in my TED talk that the most important aspect of peak oil is the demand driven phenomena, not the supply side. It’s worth noting in this context that US oil consumption peaked in 2005 and has declined about 10% since then. This data can be found easily in the BP Statistical Report on World Energy. This is real and is a result of economic shifts, greater efficiency, and the penetration of renewables. Future energy projections (references above) show that this trend continues. A big component of US energy consumption is gasoline, and US gasoline consumption peaked in 2007. I think that data can be found at http://www.eia.gov, although I haven’t looked for it lately. It’s a little factoid that I think I remember.

    Rich

    Richard A. Sears
    Consulting Professor
    Department of Energy Resources Engineering
    Stanford University

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A Sears
    date: Sun, Jan 12, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    Dear Professor Sears,

    HNY 2014 !

    This year I am hoping to attempt the climb on my own personal K2 by writing an academic book on Renewable Gas – sustainable, low-to-zero carbon emissions gas phase fuels.

    I am not a chemist, nor a chemical engineer, and so I would value any suggestions on who I should approach in the gas (and oil) industry to interview about projects that lean in this direction.

    Examples would be :-

    * Power-to-Gas : Using “spare” wind power to make Renewable Hydrogen – for example by electrolysis of water. Part of the German Power-to-Gas policy. Some hydrogen can be added to gas grids safely without changing regulations, pipework or end appliances.

    * Methanation : Using Renewable Hydrogen and young or recycled carbon gas to make methane (using the energy from “spare” wind power, for example). Also part of the German Power-to-Gas policy.

    NB “Young” carbon would be either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, and be sourced from biomass, Direct Air Capture, or from the ocean. “Old” carbon would come from the “deeper” geological carbon cycle, such as from fossil fuel, or industrial processes such as the manufacture of chemicals from minerals and/or rocks.

    Precursors to Renewable Gas also interest me, as transitions are important – transitions from a totally fossil fuel-based gas system to a sustainable gas system. I have recently looked at some basic analysis on the chemistry of Natural Gas, and its refinery. It seems that methanation could be useful in making sour gas available as sweetened, as long as Renewable Hydrogen is developed for this purpose. It seems that there is a lot of sour gas in remaining reserves, and the kind of CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) that would be required under emissions controls could make sour gas too expensive to use if it was just washed of acids.

    I don’t think the future of energy will be completely electrified – it will take a very long time to roll out 100% Renewable Electricity and there will always be problems transitioning out of liquid fuels to electricity in vehicular transportation.

    If you could suggest any names, organisations, university departments, companies, governance bodies that I should contact, or research papers that I should read, I would be highly grateful.

    Many thanks,

    jo.

  • Making The Sour Sweet

    Posted on January 1st, 2014 Jo No comments

    In the long view, some things are inevitable, and I don’t just mean death and taxes. Within the lifetime of children born today, there must be a complete transformation in energy. The future is renewable, and carefully deployed renewable energy systems can be reliable, sustainable and low cost, besides being low in carbon dioxide emissions to air. This climate safety response is also the answer to a degradation and decline in high quality mineral hydrocarbons – the so-called “fossil” fuels. Over the course of 2014 I shall be writing about Renewable Gas – sustainable, low emissions gas fuels made on the surface of the earth without recourse to mining for energy. Renewable Gas can store the energy from currently underused Renewable Electricity from major producers such as wind and solar farms, and help to balance out power we capture from the variable wind and sun. Key chemical players in these fuels : hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Key chemistry : how to use hydrogen to recycle the carbon oxides to methane. How we get from here to there is incredibly important, and interestingly, methods and techniques for increasing the production volumes of Renewable Gas will be useful for the gradually fading fossil fuel industry. Much of the world’s remaining easily accessible Natural Gas is “sour” – laced with high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen sulfide needs to be removed from the gas, but carbon dioxide can be recycled into methane, raising the quality of the gas. We can preserve the Arctic from fossil gas exploitation, and save ourselves from this economic burden and ecological risk, by employing relatively cheap ways to upgrade sour Natural Gas, from Iran, for example, while we are on the decades-long road of transitioning to Renewable Gas. The new burn is coming.

  • Champagne with Michael Caine

    Posted on December 11th, 2013 Jo No comments

    It was like a very bad sitcom from 1983 at the House of Commons this afternoon. “You saw Ed Balls running around in full Santa outfit ?” “Yeah ! The proper job.” “You know what we should do ? Put a piece of misteltoe above that door that everyone has to go through.” “You do it. I’ve heard you’re very good with sticky-backed plastic…”

    Once again Alan Whitehead MP has put on a marvellous Christmas reception of the All Party Parliamentary Renewable And Sustainable Energy Group, or PRASEG. The one flute of champagne in the desert-like heat of the Terrace Pavilion at the Houses of Parliament was enough to turn me the colour of beetroot and tomato soup, so when Alan despaired of getting anything altered, I took on the role of asking the lovely Pavilion staff to turn the heating down, what with Climate Change and everything, which they nobly obliged to do.

    In the meantime, I was invited onto the terrace overlooking the Thames by Christopher Maltin of Organic Power, to refresh myself. The winter night had fallen like a grey duvet, and what with the lingering fog and the lighting schemes for famous buildings, and the purple-blue sky behind it all, it was quite romantic out there. But very, very cold, so we didn’t discuss biogas and biosyngas for long.

    Back in the Pavilion, we were addressed by the fabulously debonair Lord Deben, John Gummer, sporting a cheery red pocket kerchief in his dark suit. During his talk, announcing the Committee on Climate Change confirmation of the Fourth Carbon Budget, and urging us to be “missionary” in influencing others over Climate Change mitigation, across the room I espied a younger gentleman who had, shall I say, a rather keen appearance. Was he a journalist, I asked myself, paying so much attention ? In fact, wasn’t he Leo Hickman, formerly of The Guardian ? No, he was not, but it was a bit shadowed at that end of the room, so I can’t blame myself for this mistake.

    When he had finally worked the room and ended up talking with me, he turned out to be Jack Tinley, Relationship Manager for Utilities at Lloyds Bank, in other words, in Big Finance, and currently seconded to the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), so that was what explained his preppiness. I explained my continuing research into Renewable Gas, and he recommended Climate Change Capital for all questions of financing renewable energy, should I encounter any project that needed investment. Very helpful. Although he didn’t know who Leo Hickman is. Talking with him, and the guy from TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) was so interesting, I absentmindedly ate some…no… loads of party snacks. I need to make a strong mental note not to eat too many party snacks in future.

    After the illuminating and encouraging speeches from Lord Deben and Alan Whitehead MP, we were delightfully surprised by the attendance of, and an address by, Greg Barker MP, a “drive by speech” according to Alan. I was struck, that with his new specs, “Curly” Greg looks astonishingly like a young Michael Caine. During his speech he said that we ought to put the damaging controversy about energy behind us and move on into a year of great opportunity, now that the House of Lords had approved the Energy Bill. And then he pushed his glasses back up his nose in a way that was so Michael Caine, I nearly laughed out loud. Greg expressed the wish that the energy industry would become a “sexy sector”, at which point I corpsed and had to turn away silently laughing with a hand clamped over my mouth.

    Afterwards, I shook Greg by the hand, and asked if he would please unblock me on Twitter. He asked if I had been posting streams and streams of Tweets, and I said I don’t do that these days. When I suggested that he reminded me of Michael Caine, he was rather amused, but he did check I meant the Michael Caine of the 1960s, not the actor of today.

    Other people I spent time talking to at the PRASEG reception were Professor Dave Elliott of the Open University, and author on renewable energy; Steven English who installs ground source heat pumps; and Steve Browning, formerly of the National Grid; all in the Claverton Energy Research Group forum.

    I explained the foundations of my research into Renewable Gas to a number of people, and used the rhetorical question, “Germany’s doing it, so why can’t we ?” several times. I bet the Chinese are doing it too. I mean they’re doing everything else in renewable energy. In copious quantities, now they’ve seen the light about air pollution.

    I ended the event by having a serious chat with a guy from AMEC, the international engineering firm. He commented that the “Big Six” energy production and supply companies are being joined by smaller companies with new sources of investment capital in delivering new energy infrastructure.

    I said it was clear that “the flight of international capital” had become so bad, it had gone into geostationary orbit, not coming down to land very often, and that funding real projects could be hard.

    I suggested to him that the “Big Six” might need to be broken up, in the light of their edge-of-break-even, being locked into the use of fossil fuels, and the emergence of some of these smaller, more liquid players, such as Infinis.

    I also suggested that large companies such as AMEC should really concentrate on investing in new energy infrastructure projects, as some things, like the wind power development of the North Sea are creating genuine energy assets, easily shown if you consider the price of Natural Gas, which the UK is having to increasingly import.

  • Biomass : Chainsaw of Destruction

    Posted on October 29th, 2013 Jo No comments

    This evening I was at a very interesting meeting hosted by BiofuelWatch in the fabulous Lumen Centre near King’s Cross, London.

    The new report “Biomass : Chain of Destruction” was launched with public Skype interviews with colleagues in Brazil and the United States. All very 2013, but the biomass combustion technologies of concern are mostly all so last century.

    Ordinary combustion of any biological material, whether ancient trees, such as coal, or modern trees, in the form of compressed wood pellets, is generally inefficient. But to burn biomass to create heat to vapourise water to make steam to turn electrical turbines to make power is scandalously wasteful.

    In the Executive Summary of the report (downloaded from this website), these demands were made :-

    “1. Large­scale industrial bioenergy to be removed
    from definitions of “renewable energy”. The term
    “renewable” must be formalized to reflect the real
    costs to the environment and public health.”

    “2. An end to subsidies, including targets and other
    state incentives, for industrial bioenergy.”

    “3. A major policy shift away from large­scale energy
    generation through combustion, towards our energy
    needs being satisfied through a combination of
    genuinely climate­friendly renewable energy and a
    substantial reduction in both energy generation and
    use.”

    A discussion arose in my corner of the room about where we should draw the line between “good” biomass applications, and “bad” biomass applications. It was generally agreed that burning local biomass for local heat in an efficient machine, would limit particulate emissions and be very energy efficient and sustainable.

    And at the other end of the scale, I am looking at the potential for the highly-efficient gasification of biomass to make Renewable Gas – the higher temperatures mean that less carbon particulates, tars and poisons remain. For centralised Renewable Gas plants, air quality management would be necessary, through the capture and filtering of particulates and other unwanted by-products, but the cost of this is manageable at this scale.

    If ordinary incineration or combustion is being done at the medium to large scale, this is likely to be the cause of major problems, in the event of sharply rising levels of biomass burning for electricity production. The inefficiency of the energy conversion will mean that full air quality protection may be too expensive to apply to the exhaust, and it will be simply vented to air.

  • The Renewable Gas Mandate

    Posted on October 9th, 2013 Jo No comments

    All models are wrong – but there’s only so much that an energy technology can grow or shrink by each year.

    I’ve started to look in detail at the numbers which suggested to me that Renewable Gas will become more important in 10 to 15 years time – and why we need to start developing a policy to mandate it now.

    The chart above is based on the assumptions that :-

    a. There is little in the way of significant extra unconventional fossil fuel production for the next 30 years.
    b. There is a strong development in the provision of Renewable Electricity – principally solar and wind power.
    c. There is no new gas conversion technology that industry wishes to exploit.
    d. Global energy demand continues to grow by around 2% a year.
    e. A plateau in global Natural Gas production is roughly 10 to 15 years behind the current plateau in crude oil production.
    f. There is no significant improvement in energy efficiency or energy demand reduction.
    g. A peak in coal consumption must occur before 2030.

    I think this very experimental model demonstrates the need for Renewable Gas quite well.

    The data in the model was a mix of BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, BP’s Energy Outlook to 2030, IIASA’s Global Energy Assessment 2012, and a couple of other reports on hydrogen and biomass production.

    Next I’m going to draw on the United Nations data for a breakdown of classes of energy to get a closer look at historical and recent trends, and thereby look for patterns for future changes.

  • Wind Powers Energy Security #2

    Posted on August 18th, 2013 Jo No comments

    There’s no doubt about it – wind power is saving the grid. Since the economic deflation (otherwise more sensitively termed a “recession” or a “slowdown”), and the consequent drop in confidence about the growth in electricity demand, and the problem of “missing money” to finance new infrastructure projects, there has not been much investor appetite for commissioning new power plants running on “conventional” fossil fuels. But wind is raging away with 12 gigawatts of wind power capacity added in the European Union in 2012.

    But can wind be relied on ? Well, there’s lots of wind, and so lots of wind power – in the UK, for example, wind turbines generated 16,884 gigawatt hours of power in 2012, more than double the amount in 2008 (DUKES Digest of UK Energy Statistics, Table 5.1).

    But what if the wind dies down when a high pressure weather system sits tight over the UK in the depths of winter ? What “Equivalent Firm Capacity” (EFC) can we expect from wind power ? Ofgem models 17% of the total in their 2013 Electricity Capacity Assessment Report. National Grid modelled 8% in their Winter Outlook Report of 2011/2012, which went up to 10% in the Winter Outlook for 2012/2013, and 10% in the 2013/2014 Winter Consultation Report (but noted that actual availability of wind during the previous year winter high demand conditions had been 9%)

    Views and evidence differ about whether wind power availability is destined to be so low in winter cold highs – whether calm conditions are bound to be experienced at the same time as high power demand. Both the National Grid and Ofgem, the UK Government’s energy market regulator, have modelled this from data, but just as the time series is relatively short, the number of wind generators is rapidly increasing, so the richness of the data has yet to improve.

    The problem with concentrating on the winter is that the excellent contribution from wind power to indigenous electricity generation is obscured. Clearly that’s the intention of the wind power deniers, who dismiss wind power’s valuable contribution because of the risk of some still days in December or January.

    For any time of the year apart from the deepest cold of winter, wind power is a healthy generation resource. In some cases, wind power is embedded into industrial, military and transport facilities and isn’t metered by National Grid, and at times of high wind generation, National Grid experiences a “negative demand” effect on the main power grid.

    And here are just some of the reasons why the contribution of wind power to national energy security is going to improve :-

    1. A wider geographical spread of wind farms

    More wind power will almost certainly be built. And built fast. Wind turbines have a good Net Present Value, so are assets, as opposed to nuclear reactors which start depreciating in return value the moment you start pouring concrete. Wind turbines are also quick to deploy, compared to the interminable struggle to commit to building other sorts of generation. The reason why wind power is fast to grid is because of slight tilts in market conditions caused by government subsidies and other measures to favour their low carbon generation. The only other contender (besides solar electric) for speed to grid generation from first groundworks is new efficient Natural Gas-fired plant. While people are still debating whether or not to deploy other forms of low carbon generation, wind power and gas (and solar electric) will be ripping up the projection spreadsheets. As more wind power comes online, there will naturally be a wider geographical dispersion of resources. If wind power generation capacity is spread over distances wider than the average anti-cyclonic high pressure system, then higher capacity values can be guaranteed. The more wind power there is, the firmer the promise of power will be.

    2. The development of wind power hubs serving a number of regions

    Already we see wind power “hubs” emerging, centres of build and connection of wind farms where conditions, financing and planning are more favourable. Some of these projects are international, such as in the North Sea area. With the plans for growing the integrated wind power market over a larger number of territories comes the flexibility to use wind power where it’s most needed at any one time, almost certainly raising the levels of wind energy that can be supplied to consumers from the same quantity of generation equipment. If “spare” wind capacity can flow through beefed up European power networks to serve regional demand, then there will be more reason to count on wind.

    3. Size of wind turbines – and height

    Data modelling of wind power will need to adjust to new realities – larger and higher wind turbines – capturing more of the wind for power generation. Wind flow is more regular the higher you are from the surface of the land or sea, so stronger dependency on wind power will be possible in future.

    4. The synergy between low carbon generation technologies

    So you’ve hit a rough patch with low wind speeds today – but solar power is doing fine. Or tidal energy. The more renewable energy technologies we develop, the more they can support each other in their respective weaknesses, so firming up renewable energy capacity as a whole.

    5. The development of hybrid wind systems

    Already, levels of installed wind generation capacity mean that there are periods of unused wind. Part of this will be improved by strengthening transmission networks, and this will improve wind’s reliability by getting “stranded” wind power to market. If the spare or surplus, or even “constrained” or “curtailed” wind power could be put to use as part of a Power to Gas hybrid system, more of the wind energy could be captured for a more reliable source of electrical power. This is just one angle of the Renewable Gas story – there are already several wind-to-hydrogen projects testing the concept of using electrolysis of water by spare wind power to produce hydrogen gas that can be stored and burned later on for power generation.

  • Keith MacLean : Big Choices

    Posted on July 15th, 2013 Jo 3 comments

    At last week’s 2013 Annual Conference for PRASEG, the UK parliamentary sustainable energy group, Keith MacLean from Scottish and Southern Energy outlined (see below) the major pathways for domestic (residential) energy, currently dependent on both a gas grid and a power grid.

    He said that decarbonising heat requires significant, strategic infrastructure decisions on the various proposals and technology choices put forward, as “these options are incompatible”. He said that the UK “need to facilitate more towards ONE of those scenarios/configurations [for provision for heating at home] as they are mutually exclusive”.

    There has been a commitment from Central Government in the UK to the concept of electrification of the energy requirements of both the transport and heat sectors, and Keith MacLean painted a scenario that could see the nation’s households ditching their gas central heating boilers for heat pumps in accord with that vision. Next, “the District Heating (DH) movement could take off, [where you stop using your heat pump and take local piped heat from a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant] until there is no spare market capacity. Then [big utilities] could start pumping biogas and hydrogen into the gas grid, and you get your boiler back !”

    Since I view gas grid injection of Renewable Gas feedstocks as a potential way to easily decarbonise the gas supply, and as Keith MacLean said in his panel presentation, “The real opportunity to make a difference in our domestic [residential] energy consumption is in heat rather than power”, I sought him out during the drinks reception after the event, to compare notes.

    I explained that I appreciate the awkward problem he posed, and that my continuing research interest is in Renewable Gas, which includes Renewable Hydrogen, BioHydrogen and BioMethane. I said I had been reading up on and speaking with some of those doing Hydrogen injection into the gas grid, and it looks like a useful way to decarbonise gas.

    I said that if we could get 5% of the gas grid supply replaced with hydrogen…”Yes”, said Keith, “we wouldn’t even need to change appliances at those levels”… and then top up with biogas and other industrial gas streams, we could decarbonise the grid by around 20% without breaking into a sweat. At this point, Keith MacLean started nodding healhily, and a woman from a communications company standing near us started to zone out, so I figured this was getting really interesting. “And that would be significant”, I accented, but by this time she was almost asleep on her feet.

    With such important decisions ahead of us, it seems that people could be paying a bit more attention to these questions. These are, after all, big choices.

    What did Keith mean by “The District Heating movement” ? Well, Dave Andrews of Clean Power (Finning Power Systems), had offered to give a very short presentation at the event. Here was his proposed title :-

    http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/Claverton/message/12361
    “Indicative costs of decarbonizing European city heating with electrical distribution compared to district heating pipe distribution of large scale wind energy and with particular attention to transition to the above methods and energy storage costs to address intermittency and variability of wind power.”

    This would have been an assessment of the relative costs of decarbonising European city heating with either :-

    Strategy 1)

    “Gas-fired Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) generation plant plus domestic (residential sector) electric heat pumps as the transition solution; and in the long term, large scale wind energy replacing the CCGT – which is retained as back up for low wind situations; and with pumped hydro electrical storage to deal with intermittency /variability of wind energy and to reduce back up fuel usage.”

    or

    Strategy 2)

    “CCGT Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plus district heat (DH) as the transition solution; and in the long term, large scale wind energy replacing the CCGT CHP heat but with the CCGT retained as back up for low wind situations and with hot water energy storage to deal with intermittency / variability and to reduce back up fuel usage.”

    With “the impact of [a programme of building retrofits for] insulation on each strategy is also assessed.”

    Dave’s European research background is of relevance here, as co-author of a 215-pager SETIS programme paper complete with pretty diagrams :-

    http://setis.ec.europa.eu/system/files/1.DHCpotentials.pdf

    Although Dave Andrews was also at the PRASEG drinks reception, he didn’t get the opportunity to address the conference. Which was a shame as his shirt was electric.




    PRASEG 2013
    10 July 2013
    “Keeping the Lights on: At What Cost?”
    Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group
    Annual Conference

    Second Panel Discussion
    Chaired by Baroness Maddock
    “Negawatts: Decentralising and reducing demand – essential or ephemeral ?”

    [Note : The term "negawatt" denotes a negative watt hour - produced by a reduction in power or gas demand. ]

    [...]

    Keith MacLean, Scottish and Southern Energy

    Decentralisation and Demand Reduction [should only be done where] it makes sense. Answers [to the question of negawatts] are very different if looking at Heat and Power. Heat is something far more readily stored that electricity is. Can be used to help balance [the electricity demand profile]. And heat is already very localised [therefore adding to optimising local response]. Some are going in the other direction – looking at district [scale] heating (DH) [using the more efficient system of Combined Heat and Power (CHP)]. Never forget the option to convert from electricity to heat and back to electricity to balance [the grid]. Average household uses 3 MWh (megawatt hours) of electricity [per year] and 15 MWh of heat. The real opportunity is heat. New homes reduce this to about 1 [MWh]. Those built to the new 2016 housing regulations on Zero Carbon Homes, should use around zero. The real opportunity to make a difference in our domestic [residential] energy consumption is in heat rather than power. Reducing consumption not always the right solution. With intermittents [renewable energy] want to switch ON at some times [to soak up cheap wind power in windy conditions]. [A lot of talk about National Grid having to do load] balancing [on the scale of] seconds, minutes and hours. Far more fundamental is the overall system adequacy – a bigger challenge – the long-term needs of the consumer. Keeping the lights from going out by telling people to turn off the lights is not a good way of doing it. There is justifiable demand [for a range of energy services]. [...] I don’t think we’re politically brave enough to vary the [electricity] prices enough to make changes. We need to look at ways of aggregating and automating Demand Side Response. Need to be prepared to legislate and regulate if that is the right solution.

    [...]

    Questions from the Floor

    Question from John Gibbons of the University of Edinburgh

    The decarbonisation of heat. Will we be successful any time soon ?

    Answer from Keith MacLean

    [...] Decarbonising heat – [strategic] infrastructure decisions. For example, [we could go down the route of ditching Natural Gas central heating] boilers for heat pumps [as the UK Government and National Grid have modelled and projected]. Then the District Heating (DH) movement could take off [and you ditch your heat pump at home], until there is no spare market capacity. Then [big utilities] could start pumping biogas and hydrogen into the gas grid, and you get your boiler back ! Need to facilitate more towards ONE of those scenarios/configurations [for provision for heating at home] as mutually exclusive. Need to address in terms of infrastructure since these options are incompatible.

    Answer from Dave Openshaw, Future Networks, UK Power Network

    Lifestyle decision – scope for [action on] heat more than for electricity. Demand Management – managing that Demand Side Reduction and Demand Reduction when need it. Bringing forward use of electricity [in variety of new applications] when know over-supply [from renewable energy, supplied at negative cost].

    [...]

  • Hadeo- and Archaeo-Geobiology

    Posted on July 8th, 2013 Jo No comments

    What can deep time teach us ?

    Whilst doing a little background research into biological routes to hydrogen production, I came across a scientific journal paper, I can’t recall which, that suggested that the geological evidence indicates that Earth’s second atmosphere not only had a high concentration of methane, but also high levels of hydrogen gas.

    Previously, my understanding was that the development of microbiological life included a good number of methanogens (micro-life that produces methane as a waste product) and methanotrophs (those that “trough” on methane), but that hydrogenogen (“respiring” hydrogen gas) and hydrogenotroph (metabolising hydrogen) species were a minority, and that this was reflected in modern-day decomposition, such as the cultures used in biogas plants for anaerobic digestion.

    If there were high densities of hydrogen cycle lifeforms in the early Earth, maybe there are remnants, descendants of this branch of the tree of life, optimal at producing hydrogen gas as a by-product, which could be employed for biohydrogen production, but which haven’t yet been scoped.

    After all, it has only been very recently that psychrophiles have been added to the range of microorganisms that have been found useful in biogas production – cold-loving, permafrost-living bugs to complement the thermophile and mesophile species.

    Since hydrogen and methane are both ideal gas fuels, for a variety of reasons, including gas storage, combustion profiles and simple chemistry, I decided I needed to learn a little more.

    I have now read a plethora of new theories and several books about the formation of the Earth (and the Moon) in the Hadean Eon, the development of Earth’s atmosphere, the development of life in the Archaean Eon, and the evolution of life caused by climate change, and these developments in living beings causing climate change in their turn.

    Most of this knowledge is mediated to us by geology, and geobiology. But right at its heart is catalytic chemistry, once again. Here’s Robert Hazen (Robert M. Hazen) from page 138 of “The Story of Earth” :-

    “Amino acids, sugars, and the components of DNA and RNA adsorb onto all of Earth’s most common rock-forming minerals [...] We concluded that wherever the prebiotic ocean contacted minerals, highly concentrated arrangements of life’s molecules are likely to have emerged from the formless broth [...] Many other researchers have also settled on such a conclusion – indeed, more than a few prominent biologists have also gravitated to minerals, because origins-of-life scenarios that involve only oceans and atmosphere face insurmountable problems in accounting for efficient mechanisms of molecular selection and concentration. Solid minerals have an unmatched potential to select, concentrate, and organize molecules. So minerals much have played a central role in life’s origins. Biochemistry is complex, with interwoven cycles and networks of molecular reactions. For those intricately layered processes to work, molecules have to have just the right sizes and shapes. Molecular selection is the task of finding the best molecule for each biochemical job, and template-directed selection on mineral surfaces is now the leading candidate for how nature did it [...] left- and right-handed molecules [...] It turns out that life is incredibly picky : cells almost exclusively employ left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. Chirality matters [...] Our recent experiments have explored the possibility that chiral mineral surfaces played the starring role in selecting handed molecules, and perhaps the origins of life as well. [...] Our experiments showed that certain left-handed molecules can aggregate on one set of crystal surfaces, while the mirror image [...] on other sets [...] As handed molecules are separated and concentrated, each surface becomes a tiny experiment in molecular selection and organization. On its own, no such natural experiment with minerals and molecules is likely to have generated life. But take countless trillions of trillions of trillions of mineral surfaces, each bathed in molecule-rich organic broth [...] The tiny fraction of all those molecular combinations that wound up displaying easier self-assembly, or developed a stronger binding to mineral surfaces [...] survived [...] possibly to learn new tricks.”

  • Good Gas, Bad Gas

    Posted on July 8th, 2013 Jo No comments

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/07/07/1058051/must-see-gasland-part-ii-on-hbo-monday-natural-gas-once-a-bridge-now-a-gangplank/

    That’s the bad gas. Now for the good gas – Renewable Gas :-

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/573418/renewable-energy-kesc-aman-foundation-to-set-up-bio-gas-plant/

    http://www.woodheadpublishing.com/en/book.aspx?bookID=2862

    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl4016655

    Joanna Kargul’s team :-
    http://solar.biol.uw.edu.pl/index.php/lab-team
    http://www.eera-set.eu/lw_resource/datapool/_items/item_795/ampea_2013_kargul.pdf

    Slightly questionable gas (from a biosecurity point of view) :-

    http://sb6.biobricks.org/poster/biohydrogen-production-in-e-coli-a-synthetic-biology-approach/

  • Renewable Gas : Heterogeneous Catalysis

    Posted on June 4th, 2013 Jo No comments

    I had a most interesting afternoon, today, Tuesday 4th June 2013 at the Institute of Physics (IoP), attending a meeting organised by the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

    Entitled “Catalysis and Chemical Engineering“, it was a series of research briefings from a wide range of academic and corporate scientists, outlining the contributions that chemical reaction catalysts make to industry and the energy sector.

    Catalysts are what I call “Nature’s little helpers”, substances that aid and abet chemical reactions, without being used up themselves completely in the process. The perfect catalyst is one that doesn’t degrade over time, either by taking part in chemical reactions, or getting damaged or changed by assisting chemical reactions.

    The perfect catalyst is also something that can be easily mixed with the substances used for the chemical reaction (the reactants or reagents), and also easily separated from the substances that are produced by the chemical reaction (the products).

    Matter is found in four main phases, or states : solid, liquid, gas and plasma. Catalysts that are a different phase from the substances used in the chemical reaction are usually easier to separate. This is called heterogeneous catalysis, for example, where the reactants/reagents are gases or liquids, and the catalyst is a solid.

    What has this got to do with Renewable Gas ? Well, several examples from the research presentations today make this point. There were several posters on the boards, outlining pieces of research. One of these caught my eye – on the photocatalysis of water, basically using sunlight and a catalyst to produce energy gas fuels from water. When tiny amounts of silver was added to the catalyst, the experimental reactor was producing more carbon monoxide gas than other gases, and without silver doping, it was producing more hydrogen gas than other gases. I asked K. Li of the University College London (UCL) Chemical Engineering group if he could send me a copy of the paper when it gets published. (Note: my apologies for not noting the spelling of his first name.)

    Producing Renewable Hydrogen in industrial volumes is a very important part of the Renewable Gas story. The hydrogen is a valuable gas fuel in its own right, and it will also assist in carbon-rich gas recycling, and improving the energy density of mixed gas fuel feedstocks used in combustion for electricity generation, such as those gas resources with low levels of methane. Renewable Hydrogen production is also going to be very valuable for Renewable Refinery – making transport vehicle fuel oils (“Renewable Diesel”) and hydrocarbons (“Renewable Gasoline”) and other substances that are now made from petrochemicals, which could therefore be scarce in future.

    A presentation by Adam Lee, soon to be of the University of Warwick, but still technically with the University of Cardiff was another green energy insight. He spoke about “Green Chemistry“, refining a wide range of industrial and energy chemicals using biomass as the feedstock.

    I spoke with Panagiota Pimenidou at the University of Ulster about the simplicity and thermally balanced operation of chemical looping reformation of biomass – basically a neat trick to produce useful gas fuels from bioenergy feedstocks without using high temperature gasification.

    During one of the tea breaks, an industry professional, who shall remain nameless, theorised that BP, Shell and ExxonMobil have probably already worked out how to run a Renewable Gas economy, but are keeping it all under their hats until we stop believing in the exploitation of fossil fuels, especially since fossil fuels these days are deeper and dirtier than ever.

  • Carbon Bubble : Unburnable Assets

    Posted on June 3rd, 2013 Jo No comments



    [ Image Credit : anonymous ]


    Yet again, the fossil fuel companies think they can get away with uncommented public relations in my London neighbourhood. Previously, it was BP, touting its green credentials in selling biofuels, at the train station, ahead of the Olympic Games. For some reason, after I made some scathing remarks about it, the advertisement disappeared, and there was a white blank board there for weeks.

    This time, it’s Esso, and they probably think they have more spine, as they’ve taken multiple billboard spots. In fact, the place is saturated with this advertisement. And my answer is – yes, fuel economy is important to me – that’s why I don’t have a car.

    And if this district is anything to go by, Esso must be pouring money into this advertising campaign, and so my question is : why ? Why aren’t they pouring this money into biofuels research ? Answer : because that’s not working. So, why aren’t they putting this public relations money into renewable gas fuels instead, sustainable above-surface gas fuels that can be used in compressed gas cars or fuel cell vehicles ?

    Are Esso retreating into their “core business” like BP, and Shell, concentrating on petroleum oil and Natural Gas, and thereby exposing all their shareholders to the risk of an implosion of the Carbon Bubble ? Or another Deepwater Horizon, Macondo-style blowout ?

    Meanwhile, the movement for portfolio investors to divest from fossil fuel assets continues apace…

  • Renewable Gas : Research Parameters

    Posted on May 25th, 2013 Jo No comments

    “So what do you do ?” is a question I quite frequently have to answer, as I meet a lot of new people, in a lot of new audiences and settings, on a regular basis, as an integral part of my personal process of discovery.

    My internal autocue answer has modified, evolved, over the years, but currently sounds a lot like this, “I have a couple of part-time jobs, office administration, really. I do a spot of weblogging in my spare time. But I’m also doing some research into the potential for Renewable Gas.” I then pause for roughly two seconds. “Renewable Gas ?” comes back the question.

    “Yes,” I affirm in the positive, “Industrial-scale chemistry to produce gas fuels not dug up out of the ground. It is useful to plug the gaps in Renewable Electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”

    It’s not exactly an elevator pitch – I’m not really selling anything except a slight shift in the paradigm here. Renewable Energy. Renewable Electricity. Renewable Gas. Power and gas. Gas and power. It’s logical to want both to be as renewable and sustainable and as low carbon as possible.

    Wait another two seconds. “…What, you mean, like Biogas ?” comes the question. “Well, yes, and also high volumes of non-biological gas that’s produced above the ground instead of from fossil fuels.”

    The introductory chat normally fades after this exchange, as my respondent usually doesn’t have the necessary knowledge architecture to be able to make any sense of what my words represent. I think it’s fair to say I don’t win many chummy friends paradigm-bumping in this way, and some probably think I’m off the deep end psychologically, but hey, evolutionaries don’t ever have it easy.

    And I also find that it’s not easy to find a place in the hierarchy of established learning for my particular “research problem”. Which school could I possibly join ? Which research council would adopt me ?

    The first barrier to academic inclusion is that my research interest is clearly motivated by my concern about the risks of Climate Change – the degradation in the Earth’s life support systems from pumping unnaturally high volumes of carbon dioxide into the air – and Peak Fossil Fuels – the risks to humanity from a failure to grow subsurface energy production.

    My research is therefore “applied” research, according to the OECD definition (OECD, 2002). It’s not motivated simply by the desire to know new things – it is not “pure” research – it has an end game in mind. My research is being done in order to answer a practical problem – how to decarbonise gaseous, gas phase, energy fuel production.

    The second barrier to the ivory tower world that I have is that I do not have a technological contribution to make with this research. I am not inventing a chemical process that can “revolutionise” low carbon energy production. (I don’t believe in “revolutions” anyway. Nothing good ever happens by violent overthrow.) My research is not at the workbench end of engineering, so I am not going to work amongst a team of industrial technicians, so I am not going to produce a patent for clean energy that could save the world (or the economy).

    My research is more about observing and reporting the advances of others, and how these pieces add up to a journey of significant change in the energy sector. I want to join the dots from studies at the leading edge of research, showing how this demonstrates widespread aspiration for clean energy, and document instances of new energy technology, systems and infrastructure. I want to witness to the internal motivation of thousands of people working with the goal of clean energy across a very wide range of disciplines.

    This is positively positive; positivity, but it’s not positivism – it’s not pure, basic research. This piece of research could well influence people and events – it’s certainly already influencing me. It’s not hands-off neutral science. It interacts with its subjects. It intentionally intervenes.

    Since I don’t have an actual physical contribution or product to offer, and since I fully expect it to “interfere” with current dogma and political realities, what I am doing will be hard to acknowledge.

    This is not a PhD. But it is still a piece of philosophy, the love of wisdom that comes from the acquisition of knowledge.

    I have been clear for some time about what I should be studying. Call it “internal drive” if you like. The aim is to support the development of universal renewable energy as a response to the risks of climate change and peak fossil fuel energy production. That makes me automatically biased. I view my research subject through the prism of hope. But I would contend that this is a perfectly valid belief, as I already know some of what is possible. I’m not starting from a foundational blank slate – many Renewable Gas processes are already in use throughout industry and the energy sector. The fascinating part is watching these functions coalesce into a coherent alternative to the mining of fossil fuels. For the internal industry energy production conversation is changing its track, its tune.

    For a while now, “alternative” energy has been a minor vibration, a harmonic, accentuating the fossil fuel melody. As soon as the mid-noughties economic difficulties began to bite, greenwash activities were ditched, as oil and gas companies resorted to their core business. But the “green shoots” of green energy are still there, and every now and then, it is possible to see them poking up above the oilspill-desecrated soil. My role is to count blades and project bushes. Therefore my research is interpretivist or constructivist, although it is documenting positivist engineering progress. That’s quite hard for me to agree with, even though I reasoned it myself. I can still resist being labelled “post-positivist”, though, because I’m still interpreting reality not relativisms.

    So now, on from research paradigm to research methodologies. I was trained to be an experimentalist scientist, so this is a departure for me. In this case, I am not going to seek to make a physical contribution to the field by being actively involved as an engineer in a research programme, partly because from what I’ve read so far, most of the potential is already documented and scoped.

    I am going to use sociological methods, combining observation and rapportage, to and from various organisations through various media. Since I am involved in the narrative through my interactions with others, and I influence the outcomes of my research, this is partly auto-narrative, autoethnographic, ethnographic. An apt form for the research documentation is a weblog, as it is a longitudinal study, so discrete reports at time intervals are appropriate. Social media will be useful for joining the research to a potential audience, and Twitter has the kind of immediacy I prefer.

    My observation will therefore be akin to journalism – engineering journalism, where the term “engineering” covers both technological and sociological aspects of change. A kind of energy futures “travelogue”, an observer of an emerging reality.

    My research methods will include reading the science and interacting with engineers. I hope to do a study trip (or two) as a way of embedding myself into the new energy sector, with the explicit intention of ensuring I am not purely a commentator-observer. My research documentation will include a slow collation of my sources and references – a literature review that evolves over time.

    My personal contribution will be slight, but hopefully set archaic and inefficient proposals for energy development based on “traditional” answers (such as nuclear power, “unconventional” fossil fuel production and Carbon Capture and Storage for coal) in high relief.

    My research choices as they currently stand :-

    1. I do not think I want to join an academic group.

    2. I do not think I want to work for an energy engineering company.

    3. I do not want to claim a discovery in an experimental sense. Indeed, I do not need to, as I am documenting discoveries and experiments.

    4. I want to be clear about my bias towards promoting 100% renewable energy, as a desirable ambition, in response to the risks posed by climate change and peak fossil fuel production.

    5. I need to admit that my research may influence outcomes, and so is applied rather than basic (Roll-Hansen, 2009).

    References

    OECD, 2002. “Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys on Research and Experimental Development”, Frascati Manual :-
    http://browse.oecdbookshop.org/oecd/pdfs/free/9202081e.pdf

    Roll-Hansen, 2009. “Why the distinction between basic (theoretical) and applied (practical) research is important in the politics of science”, Nils Roll-Hansen, Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science Contingency and Dissent in Science, Technical Report 04/09 :-
    http://www2.lse.ac.uk/CPNSS/projects/CoreResearchProjects/ContingencyDissentInScience/DP/DPRoll-HansenOnline0409.pdf

  • Renewable Gas : Elemental Fuels

    Posted on May 23rd, 2013 Jo No comments

    It could be said that Climate Change science is an extreme sport – sojourns of several months in Antarctica to drill ancient ice pack, say, or collecting slices of deep sea and lake sediments. Recently, a Chinese team has taken three ice cores from Mount Everest, and a joint European and Japansese expedition have gone pond dipping in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean to try to better understand the global carbon cycle.

    Geophysicists are clearly a hardy bunch, and persistent. Recently there has been a number of breakthroughs into extremely old water, such as a Siberian lake formed by a crater millions of years ago and covered by ice, and water perhaps billions of years old circulating in a Canadian copper mine, an environment that may be older than the development of the earliest lifeforms. A brief article in New Scientist magazine intrigued me – the description of the water which they are studying for signs of microbial activity – “it is packed with hydrogen and methane – chemicals that microbes love to eat [...] perfect for life.”

    It seems that science has still to uncover the full family of microbes and what they consume and what they produce. Many microbes manufacture hydrogen and methane, and some eat. The migration of microbial life into all parts of the Earth’s crust, including their reach to the bottom of the oceans, was responsible for altering atmospheric chemistry, which enabled the development of oxygen-breathing multicellular lifeforms to evolve. And yet methane and hydrogen have remained vital. These are some of the most energy-packed molecules and some of the most basic. I started to reflect. What struck me was the simplicity and universality of the early chemistry of Earth life, and how these elemental fuels that are good for micro-organisms are also good for humans too.

    Methane is the major constitutent of Natural Gas. As one of the most common products of bacterial decomposition of ancient biomass, it is present in deposits of most fossil fuels, including coal seams. Most of this “Natural Methane” in the form of Natural Gas energy fuel produced today comes from fields where it is associated with petroleum oil. Natural Hydrogen is much less common, but research is showing that there could be significant resources in some places. Hydrogen is also a key component in some forms of biogas production – using the decomposing power of microbes to source environmentally clean fuel from harvested plant matter on the surface of the Earth.

    Methane and hydrogen are involved in a range of chemistry. Chemical reactions with methane and hydrogen are relatively easy to reverse, because of their molecular simplicity. This makes them highly suited as energy vectors for storage, and the energy they give off when burned in oxygen makes them valuable for human industry, for domestic heating and in the power sector.

    Although methane is widely used in energy systems, hydrogen has not been up until now, although there has been talk of a “Hydrogen Economy” eventually supplanting the use of hydrocarbon fuels. This is unlikely to come about in the very near future, although a transition away from fossil fuels is likely to be mediated through the use of Renewable Hydrogen from sustainable, aboveground resources. Why is hydrogen so important ? Because hydrogen chemistry can be used to recycle carbon gas – both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, making it a genuine possibility that one day carbon dioxide will be a vital component of energy systems, not a waste gas from combustion.

    The most efficient way to use the energy in fossil fuels and biomass is to gasify them for use in combustion, and the common products of this “syngas” or synthesised, synthesis or synthetic gas are hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Convincing hydrogen and carbon-rich gas to become methane packs the chemical energy into a small space and easier and safer to store than hydrogen on its own. Burning methane in oxygen produces carbon dioxide, which, can be coaxed to combine with hydrogen to make more gas fuel.

    So there we have it – Renewable Gas : methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Using spare Renewable Electricity from our future abundance of solar and wind farms we can make useful gas fuels that can be stored to burn on demand when the air is calm and the sun is not shining. Renewable Gas can cover for the intermittency and variability of other forms of Renewable Energy. To develop Renewable Gas will take some investment, but it will not be an extreme sport like mining ever-more-inaccessible unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas, tar sands and deepwater Natural Gas.

  • Renewable Gas : An Introduction

    Posted on March 6th, 2013 Jo 3 comments

    I always enjoy seeing the light come on in somebody’s mind, or hearing the bells starting to chime, as I start to ramble on about the potential for decarbonising the gas supply.

    It happened again today, and this time, my correspondent took eager notes. I met a fresh new researcher for the Green Party in the UK – one Bryn Kewley – at the PRASEG event on Germany’s energy transition out of fossil fuels – the “Energiewende”.

    At first, I covered the usual ground – yes, many people are exploiting Biogas, and upgrading it to Biomethane to inject into the gas grid. Natural Gas is something like 75% to 85% methane, don’t you know ? They’re all fairly small projects at present, but it could scale up and replace several percent of the gas supplied.

    And then there’s Renewable Hydrogen. One of the speakers mentioned “Power to Gas” :-

    [...]

    [Question from ARUP] “…your views on the role of gas in Germany ? Gas contracts – do they need to change with respect to Russia ?”

    [Answer from German Energiewende presenter] “Gas has a role to play [as backup for renewables]. It needs to be interim [a bridge, a transition]. German business is quite happy with the relationship with Russia. If we’re going to have 80% renewable generation of electricity by 2050, what will be the 20% ? Russia believes that 20% will be in gas. Others, [flexible] lignite [generation]. I believe that by 2050, 100% renewable electricity is possible – the gas you will have will be biogenic [Biogas, Biomethane] – or synthesised by excess wind – Power to Gas. You can store gas for a long time – there’s a 30% cost in [energy] conversion – but this is achievable in the margins…”

    [...]

    I explained the two parts of Power to Gas to the young researcher after the seminar was over. First of all, the production of Renewable Hydrogen – hydrogen produced using methods that use no biological components. And then the methanation of Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane. And for methanation, you need carbon-rich gases.

    The young man started to do internal calculations – leaps of thought. His brain almost audibly hummed. “And where do you get this carbon-rich gas from ?” he asked, “from Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) ?” “From Carbon Capture and (Re)Utilisation (CCU)”, I explained.

    I told him that ITM Power, together with a number of other industry players were looking at the prospects of injecting Renewable Hydrogen into the gas grid, which in addition to injected Biomethane, could total 10% to 15% of the gas supply – more if Renewable Methane were included. This would not be a small number. Again, I could almost hear the young man’s mind whirring.

    Gas, we agreed, is the answer to backing up Renewable Electricity whilst capacity is being developed. And therefore, the decarbonisation of the gas supply is a useful goal.

    [ NOTE : Of course, if carbon-rich gas feedstocks resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels are used in the methanation of Renewable Hydrogen, this would not create truly Renewable Methane. However, if a good proportion of "Power to Gas" gas is used in electricity generation, and the carbon-rich exhaust gases from that recycled, then eventually, the methane end product becomes more renewable. ]

  • New Nuclear : Credibility Strained

    Posted on February 26th, 2013 Jo 1 comment

    As rumours and genuine information leak from central sources about the policy instruments and fiscal measures that will be signed into the United Kingdom’s Energy Bill, the subsidy support likely to be made available to new nuclear power is really straining credibility from my point of view. I am even more on the “incredulous” end of the spectrum of faith in the UK Government’s Energy Policy than I ever was before.

    The national demand for electrical power is pretty constant, with annual variations of only a few percent. It was therefore easy to project that there could be a “power cliff” when supply would be curtailed from coal-fired generation under European legislation :-

    https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-of-energy-climate-change/series/energy-trends

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21501878
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2013/feb/19/ofgem-higher-household-energy-bills
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/9878281/Ofgem-boss-warns-of-higher-energy-prices-in-supply-roller-coaster.html
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/9878281/Ofgem-boss-warns-of-higher-energy-prices-in-supply-roller-coaster.html
    http://metro.co.uk/2013/02/19/consumers-face-higher-energy-bills-as-the-uk-becomes-more-reliant-on-gas-imports-3503130/
    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/decc-statement-on-alistair-buchanan-s-comments-on-energy-security-and-rising-gas-prices

    The pat answer to how we should “Keep the Lights On” has been to wave the new nuclear fission reactor card. Look ! Shiny new toys. Keep us in power for yonks ! And hidden a little behind this fan of aces and jokers, a get-out-of-jail free card from the Coal monopoly – Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. Buy into this, and we could have hundreds more years of clean power from coal, by pumping nasty carbon dioxide under the sea bed.

    Now, here’s where the answers are just plain wrong : new nuclear power cannot be brought into the National Grid before the early 2020s at the very earliest. And options for CCS are still in the balance, being weighed and vetted, and very unlikely to clean up much of the black stuff until well past 2025.

    When put through my best onboard guesstimiser, I came up with the above little graph in answer to the question : how soon can the UK build new power generation ? Since our “energy cliff” is likely to be in one of the winters of 2015 or 2016, and we’re not sure other countries we import from will have spare capacity, we have little option but to increase Natural Gas-fired power generation and go hell-for-leather with the wind and solar power deployment.

    So no – it’s of no use promising to pay the new nuclear reactor bearer the sum of 40 or more years of subsidy in the form of guaranteed price for power under the scheme known as Contracts for Difference – they still won’t be delivering anything to cope with the “power drain” of the next few years. If this is written into the Electricity Market Reform, we could justifiably say this would destroy competition, and destroy any market, too, and be “central planning” by any other name – this level of subsidy is not exactly “technology-neutral” !

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/feb/19/edf-40-year-contract-nuclear-plant
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9879257/Government-drawing-up-ludicrous-40-year-contracts-to-persuade-power-companies-to-go-nuclear.html

    And offering the so-called Capacity Mechanism – a kind of top-up payment to keep old nuclear reactors running, warts and all – when really they should be decommissioned as they are reaching the end of their safe lives, is not a good option, in my book.

    Offering the Capacity Mechanism to those who build new gas-fired power plant does make sense, however. If offshore wind power continues with its current trajectory and hits the big time in the next few years, and people want the cheap wind power instead of the gas, and the gas stations will be feeling they can’t run all the time, then the Capacity Mechanism will be vital to make sure the gas plant does get built to back up the wind power, and stays available to use on cold, still nights in February.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/66039/7103-energy-bill-capacity-market-impact-assessment.pdf
    http://gastopowerjournal.com/regulationapolicy/item/1405-eurelectric-discards-eu-wide-capacity-mechanism-as-premature
    http://www.eaem.co.uk/news/doubts-gas-strategy-will-lead-new-plants

    Oh, people may complain about the idea of new “unabated” gas power plants, and insist they should be fitted with carbon capture, but new gas plants won’t run all the time in future, because renewable electricity generation will be cheaper, so forcing gas plant owners to pay for CCS seems like overkill to me. And, anyway, we will be decarbonising the gas supply, as we develop supplies of Renewable Gas.

    I say forget the nuclear option – build the gas !

  • Energy Futures : Elemental Fuel

    Posted on January 31st, 2013 Jo No comments

    Over the buffet table at the UK Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association meeting in Westminster last evening, I shared a vision of the future of energy with a representative of the Carbon Trust.

    “It’s just amazing to think that the future of our energy is going to be not only renewable, but essentially electrons and protons – as we liberate protons to make hydrogen gas. We are going to be using the basic building blocks of the universe for power and gas.”

    “You can’t really get more simple than that – or greener.”

    “Forget messing about with complex hydrocarbons or uranium…”

    “…or naphtha…”

    Making fuel gas from seawater…we’re not exactly going to run out of that.

  • Energy Bill : Hydrogen Ready ?

    Posted on January 31st, 2013 Jo No comments

    Forget capturing carbon, the key test of the usefulness of the United Kingdom’s upcoming Energy Bill will be whether it’s designed to be “hydrogen ready”.

    It is almost certain that there will be a second “dash for gas” – that Britain will sanction and possibly underwrite a new fleet of gas-fired power stations. Those who wield modelling software are insistent that this will break the carbon bank – that new “unabated” gas plants will prevent the UK reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

    The proposed solution technology – to be fitted to both coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, is known as Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS.

    The British Labour Party are pushing for the Energy Bill to enshrine CCS on all new gas-fired power plants after 2020, in order to meet the carbon targets set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act.

    “The Labour Party has put itself on a fresh collision course with the Government over its dash-for-gas policy, proposing that after 2020 all new, gas-fired power plants be forced to install technology to reduce their carbon emissions that will double the cost of the electricity they produce … Dr Robert Gross, director of Imperial College’s centre for energy policy and technology, said: “I welcome Labour’s sentiment on CCS. It’s saying that if you want new, gas-fired power plants, then that’s fine, but you have to make it consistent with emissions targets.” … Bloomberg New Energy Finance calculated that fitting CCS to new gas-fired power plants would add up to £200m to the building cost, doubling the price of the electricity…”

    http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2239904/labour-challenges-coalition-to-decarbonise-energy-bill?WT.rss_f=&WT.rss_a=Labour+challenges+coalition+to+decarbonise+Energy+Bill&utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Twitterfeed&utm_campaign=BusinessGreen
    http://www.bellona.org/articles/articles_2013/1359479253.19

    Although I have met a number of people who believe that widespread CCS is not only desirable, but viable, the carbon capture capability of Britain has not yet been proven – particularly whether CCS can be made marketable, as it is likely to be costly.

    CCS is just a way to make carbon dioxide “disappear” – in most designs by pumping it underground. It is a caveat – it permits the energy industry to plan to continue to burn fossil fuels. It is not entirely clear if it can ever be secure or cheap enough to meet the UK’s plans. Just one leak from a carbon dioxide storage cavern, and the whole programme would be rendered irrelevant.

    However, even if CCS becomes law, there is another clause that should be inserted into the Energy Bill, and I was discussing this with some industry players at Portcullis House, Westminster yesterday evening.

    If European plans for low carbon, renewable gas production take off, what will matter for new gas-fired power plants is if they are flexible enough to combust a range of gases with varying chemical composition and energy density.

    Deploying suitable flexible gas turbines is likely to happen – but for another reason. The UK is rapidly advancing with the capacity and supply of wind power, and solar power. Like Germany, pretty soon there will be so much spare, unused wind and solar power, that it will be sensible to consider using it, rather than shedding the load, particularly at night.

    An excellent way to make use of spare and “stranded” wind and solar power, and balance the power grid at the same time, is to make gas when people don’t need power, and burn gas when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. Gas can back up variability in wind and solar power. But for gas-fired power plants to be able to “follow” wind and solar power and fill in the generation gaps, the power stations need to be highly flexible – something that new gas turbines can provide.

    From now on, as an increasing amount of the gas the nation burns for backup will need to be Renewable Gas, a range of green gas streams that include Renewable Hydrogen, the new gas power plants that are built must utilise flexible gas turbines.

    Of note – there are several plans for Carbon Capture and Storage on power plants that use a gasification technique to separate the carbon from the fuel before burning it – and the end result is gas that is high in hydrogen. This “incidental” production of hydrogen could become a useful addition to the country’s Renewable Gas stocks.