You can take the soul out of an engineer with a boring, stressful or ethically suspect career, (like the Manhatten Project), but you can’t take the engineer out of a soul.
I have a persistent interest in things engineering, and some say I waste too much of my time thinking about systems engineering and the Laws of Physics.
I also have a persistent interest in the minds of engineers. How do we work ? What makes us tick ? And do we have an overview on social organisation that could be useful ?
Over the last five years or some, I have been trying to express the concept of Resource Limits to all and sundry. There are real, unbreachable limits to exploitation of the Earth’s resources, but sometimes it seems as if people don’t understand the implications of this.
The Atmosphere is a limited Carbon Sink for excess Carbon Dioxide Emissions from mankind’s activities, both in burning Fossil Fuels and in taking down trees. We have to get control of, and reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions, or we face deathly Global Warming.
There are also limits to the amounts and quality of the raw products that can be mined from the Earth. There are reasonably justifiable projections of less than 100 years supply of good quality Coal, Petroleum and Uranium.
Perhaps more worryingly, there are reasonably good projections on the short-term hard limits to mining of elements and minerals that are the backbone of industrial production, such as Zinc, Platinum, Nickel, Copper, Gold and Silver.
Engineers deal with this kind of information internally by focussing their concern on inventing systems to manage the resource limits, some more bizarre than others. Here’s a story about my first Gillette of the day :-
From : “Inventing the 20th Century : 100 inventions that shaped the world” by Stephen van Dulken, ISBN 0-7123-0889-X
“[King Camp] Gillette was born in 1855 in Wisconsin. His family soon moved to Chicago, where they lost everything in the great fire of 1871. The young Gillette tried to earn a living as a travelling salesman. He also came up with some minor inventions as a sideline…The idea of a [safety] razor with a cheap disposable blade came to him ‘in a flash’ one morning while shaving…In 1903 168 blades were sold but in 1904 over 12 million were sold [following the “freebie marketing” technique of giving away the actual razors]. Gillette’s own face was on the wrapper of each one.”
This story is often touted as one of the first examples of mass consumerism, as a proud moment in social development, leading to the great Economic Growth Paradigm. But there’s more to this man than at first meets the eye.
“Gillette soon became a millionaire and retired from active management in 1913, although he stayed on as President until 1931. He moved to California to grow fruit and to spend more time on his other passion, establishing a new economic order. Since 1894 he had been writing about abolishing wasteful competition and allowing engineers to run the world. There would be huge communal dining halls to eliminate the waste of each household cooking its own food, and Niagara Falls would power all industry. In 1910 he offered ex-President Theodore Roosevelt $1 million to head his World Corporation in the then Arizona Territory.”
And so the engineer begins to shine through in his clear pursuit of efficiency, and his wish that we should all obey the natural limits of resources :-
“Before perfecting his invention of the safety razor and founding what became a major American industrial and sales enterprise, Gillette authored several books and pamphlets calling for radical changes in the country’s economic and social system.” After Gillette retired from active participation in his company in 1913, […] he shifted his focus to writing books, in which he publicized his views on utopian socialism…Gillette also imagined, […] a “Utopian city”, a “Metropolis,” which would be located near Niagara Falls for maximum efficiency and water supply. The population would live in huge apartment buildings and house millions of people. Mundane day-to-day tasks would be minimal because of the housing set-up. There would be “universal cooperation” […] and no economic competition. Although some of Gillette’s ideas, such as government-provided work for the unemployed, have been realized, his plans for a “World Corporation” and “Metropolis” did not become a reality.”
It is clear that people did not take his central arguments seriously, or didn’t believe that Hydrological Power could be sufficient for their needs, or didn’t like the idea of overall State management of their lives.
This is the faultline between the thinking of engineers and the thinking of social “scientists” : the managers of society cannot appreciate the real data, the worrying projections, the logical solutions. And the engineers cannot understand why other people feel they’re proposing Fascistic control of their lives, like some kind of Big Brother universe.
My view is that Gillette may have been slightly batty, but that he had a good deal to offer the world, and we should look into some of his ideas to glean useful principles of resource management and social structure. There are many other engineers still living who have expressed similar concerns about Economic Development and Resource Limits, and I think we should analyse their offerings also.
The reason why I think we need to do this kind of thinking, and do it in the public sphere is that we are coming up against some hard Resource Limits that must be factored into the policies being developed to tackle Climate Change.
This is where I roll on the other Gillette of the day : Edward.
“Gillette Coalfield, Wyoming : November 24, 2008 : USGS has released an assessment of the Gillette coalfield, within the Powder River Basin in east-central Wyoming. “It is the most prolific coalfield in the United States. In 2006, production from the coalfield totaled over 431 million short tons of coal”…
“The original settlement in the area that would become Gillette was a small tent town east of present day Gillette on Donkey Creek. This community known as Donkey Town became a temporary base camp for survey crews from the Burlington and Missouri Railroad who were planning to build a line through Northeastern Wyoming in the late 1880s. Engineer and surveyor Edward Gillette was in charge of surveying the area. The original survey was to follow Donkey Creek and move to the south of present day Gillette, but Edward Gillette found a shorter route that saved the railroad many miles of track and many bridges that would be needed. Because of his efforts, the area that would become Gillette was named in his honor.”
Gillette (the Coal region) may have been a significant Coal and Coal-bed Methane reserve for many decades, but a recent re-assessment is that it does not hold the future promise that many ascribed to it.
This backs up what other researchers, geologists and engineers have been claiming about Coal worldwide for some while now : that we have more or less reached “Peak Coal”, and decline in production is the only future. Here’s what David Rutledge at CalTech says :-
“The projection is that we will have consumed half of the ultimate world oil, gas, and coal production by 2019. This means that the current intense development of alternative sources of energy can be justified independently of climate considerations. When these projections are converted to carbon equivalents, the projected future emissions from burning oil, gas, and coal from 2005 on are 520GtC. The projected emissions for the 2005-2100 period are smaller than for any of the 40 SRES scenarios. This suggests that future scenarios should take exhaustion into account.”
Lord Ron Oxburgh of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, rejects David Rutledge’s research, by the way. Who should we listen to ?
“Are we approaching peak coal? Part 1 : The imminent reality of peak oil production should be clear to all by now […] Now some very serious people are suggesting that there is a lot less accessible coal out there than most folks believe. If we are nearing peak coal (and peak oil), then we would need to embrace the rapid transition to a clean energy economy almost as urgently as we need to embrace it to avoid destroying the climate. Let’s start with the U.S. Geological Survey’s stunning 131-page analysis from December, “Assessment of Coal Geology, Resources, and Reserves in the Gillette Coalfield, Powder River Basin, Wyoming” : “The Gillette coalfield, within the Powder River Basin in east-central Wyoming, is the most prolific coalfield in the United States. In 2006, production from the coalfield totaled over 431 million short tons of coal, which represented over 37 percent of the Nation’s total yearly production.” ”
“Now Clean Energy Action has issued a new report, Coal: Cheap and Abundant … Or is it? that goes beyond the analysis in the USGS study and concludes: “It appears that rather than having a “200 year supply of coal,” the United States has a much shorter planning horizon for moving beyond coalfired power plants. Depending on the resolution of geologic, economic, legal and transportation constraints facing future coal mine expansion, the planning horizon for moving beyond coal could be as short as 20-30 years.” A top priority of Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the Obama Administration must be a detailed mine-by-mine analysis to resolve the issue of the U.S. coal resource.”
“U.S. Foresees a Thinner Cushion of Coal : Geology; Reserves; Oil FieldsEvery year, federal employee George Warholic calculates America’s vast coal reserves the same way his predecessors have for decades: He looks up the prior year’s coal-reserve estimate, subtracts the year’s nationwide production and arrives at a new official tally. Coal provides nearly one-quarter of the total energy consumed in the U.S., and by Mr. Warholic’s estimate, the country has enough in the ground to last about 240 years. A belief in this nearly boundless supply has led officials to dub the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia of Coal.” But the estimate, recent findings show, may be wildly overconfident. While there is almost certainly as much coal in the ground as Mr. Warholic’s Energy Information Administration believes, relatively little of it can be profitably extracted. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey completed an extensive analysis of Wyoming’s Gillette coal field, the nation’s largest and most productive, and determined that less than 6% of the coal in its biggest beds could be mined profitably, even at prices higher than today’s. “We really can’t say we’re the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore,” says Brenda Pierce, head of the USGS team that conducted the study. WSJ : Posted on Monday, June 08 @ 08:11:13 PDT by Leanan”
“Peak coal: sooner than you think by Richard Heinberg : Published May 21 2007 by Energy Bulletin / Online Opinion”
“Lump sums : Posted on Wednesday, March 5th, 2008 : First published in the Guardian, 5th March 2008 : For weeks South Africa has suffered rolling blackouts caused in part by a shortage of coal. Gripped by unusually bitter snowstorms, China recently banned coal exports for the next two months. And at Newcastle in Australia, the world’s largest coal export terminal in the world’s largest coal exporting country, the queue of bulk carriers waiting to load has been known to stretch almost to Sydney – 150km to the south. Coal, so long the Cinderella of fossil fuels, is not just in demand but in desperately short supply. The world’s biggest producers and exporters are struggling, and the price of imports to Europe has doubled to almost $140 per tonne over the past year. “It’s a global crunch”, says John Howland, managing editor of McCloskey’s Coal Report. The immediate reasons for the price spike are soaring demand, inadequate infrastructure and bad weather. But now there are also gnawing doubts that global coal production may within the next few decades face fundamental geological constraints, or “peak coal”.”
“Peak coal by 2025 say researchers by Dr. Werner Zittel and Jörg Schindler : Published Mar 28 2007 by Energy Watch Group : Excerpts from the report on coal just published by the Energy Watch Group (Coal: Resources and Future Production -PDF): This is the second of a series of papers by the Energy Watch Group which are addressed to investigate future energy supply and demand patterns. The Energy Watch Group consists of independent scientists and experts who investigate sustainable concepts for global energy supply. The group has been initiated by the German member of parliament Hans-Josef Fell.”
The point is that even if we have 100 years of coal, with the extra demands on coal fuel from Carbon Capture and Storage, and with projected growth of Coal use, pretty soon that projection will be counted in terms of decades, not centuries :-
“Peak Coal, Global Warming Policy and Exponential Math : Three reports say coal is not nearly so abundant, or cheap, as we think it is. : June 14, 2009 at 4:45AM by Jim DiPeso : If there is a lot of usable coal left, then spending a lot of money on carbon sequestration technology is worth doing. If there isn’t, then low-carbon energy sources ought to get the lion’s share of the R&D pot. There’s another angle to keep in mind. Estimates on how long a finite resource is expected to last include a critically important caveat that often is overlooked – the resource will last a given number of years at present rates of consumption. If the rates of consumption rise, the resource won’t last as long. Even modest rates of growth will shave a resource’s lifetime considerably. If, for example, we have enough coal to last 300 years at current rates of consumption, it will last less than half that long if consumption grows 1 percent per year. Double the growth rate to 2 percent and it lasts less than a century. As Al Bartlett, the guru of exponential math and resource economics, is fond of noting: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” ”
“June 8, 2009, 10:38 AM ET : Peak Coal: What Do Tighter Coal Supplies Mean for ‘Clean Coal’? : By Keith Johnson : Because worries about peak oil, peak uranium, and peak lithium just aren’t enough, get ready for peak coal. The WSJ reports today that U.S. energy officials have scaled back their estimates of U.S. coal reserves. Recent government surveys of coal resources suggest that coal isn’t so abundant after all—with plenty of implications for a country heavily dependent on coal for generating its electricity. From the paper: ” “We really can’t say we’re the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore,” says Brenda Pierce, head of the [U.S. Geological Survey] team that conducted the study. No one says the U.S. is facing a coal shortage. But the emerging ranks of “peak coal” theorists argue that current production levels may be unsustainable and, if anything, create a false sense of security. David Rutledge, an electrical-engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology who has studied global coal production, figures the U.S. has about half as much recoverable reserves as the government says, which would work out to about 120 years’ worth.” It’s not that vast deposits of coal suddenly disappeared. It’s just that government geologists for the first time are applying to coal fields the same kind of math that’s long been applied to other resources, such as oil and gas. That is—how much stuff is economically recoverable? … The USGS survey—which came out last December and prompted a mini-avalanche of “peak coal” reports—zeroed in on the country’s largest and most productive coal field, in Wyoming. At prevailing prices, only about 6% of the field could be profitably mined. If coal prices skyrocketed to $60 a ton, then half the coal would be recoverable—but it wouldn’t be such a cheap energy alternative to natural gas, wind, or solar power. If U.S. coal supplies are tighter than thought, that could have big implications for the great black hope of U.S. energy policy: so-called clean coal, or coal-fired plants that capture and store their emissions of greenhouse gases. That’s because capturing coal’s emissions requires a lot of energy. A new book by Harvard University’s Belfer Center estimates that clean coal plants use 30% more energy than traditional plants—that is, clean coal plants require more coal to produce the same amount of energy as dirty coal plants. The push for clean coal already faces numerous obstacles, including hefty costs, regulatory uncertainty, and simple geology. If cheap and abundant coal is actually neither, clean coal’s future starts to look even blacker.”
“Published Mar 2 2009 by Agora Financial : Archived Mar 4 2009
How much coal is out there? : by Byron W. King : I’ve been following the U.S. and world energy predicament for over 35 years. If there’s one common thread in the discussion over the course of nearly four decades, it’s that someone is sure to say something like, “The U.S. has a lot of coal.” Depending on who is doing the talking, maybe the comment will be even more specific, along the lines of “Heck, the U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal.” Or if the speaker really wants to impress you with precision, it will be, “The U.S. has a 250-year supply of coal.” In other words, relax. It’s OK. Don’t panic. No matter how bad the energy situation gets out there in the rest of the world, here in the good old U.S. of A., we can always just dig some more coal. That’ll let us stay warm, run our industries and keep the lights on. Right? Well, let’s take a peek under the rocks and examine the state of U.S. coal reserves. In fact, here’s a map from the U.S. Energy Information Agency. And based on the map, it sure looks like there’s a lot of coal out there. But is there?”
“USGS revises coal estimates : By BOB MOEN : Associated Press writer : Saturday, August 2, 2008 2:06 AM MDT : CHEYENNE — The U.S. Geological Survey has lowered its estimates of the amount of recoverable coal in the nation’s most prolific coal field, but not enough to jeopardize the characterization by some that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal. The USGS report released this week estimates there are 77 billion short tons of recoverable coal in the Gillette field, down 29 percent from the 109 billion short tons estimated in 2002 in generally the same area. Fred Freme, coal industry statistician with the federal Energy Information Administration, said Friday the new estimate may sound like a significant change, but considering the billions of tons of mineable coal in the country it’s not. “It’s not like that change means we’re going to run out of coal in the next 10 years,” Freme said…Wyoming is the largest coal-producing state, digging out 453.6 million short tons of coal in 2007. The Gillette coal field alone produced 431 million short tons, or about 38 percent of the nation’s entire annual coal production. “This is why we started with the Gillette coal field in this new assessment,” Luppens said. “It is the single most important coal field in the United States right now in terms of total production.” Luppens said the USGS had more and better data to analyze the Gillette coal field than it did in 2002. The information showed an ancient river channel, the dimensions of which geologists had not fully understood, that limited the formation of coal. “If you got a channel out there and no coal, that’s obviously going to cut the previous estimates of coal,” Luppens said. “So that’s one of the main reasons we came up with the lower estimates this time.” ”
They’ve tried “greening” coal in Gillette. One of the techniques being heavily and globally promoted is “Carbon Capture and Storage” (CCS), where Carbon Dioxide is pumped back underground after the Coal is mined and burned for power. The trouble is : it uses up to 25% more Coal fuel to capture and store up to 90% of the emissions. Fitting CCS will eat up the world’s Coal faster than ever.
“Evergreen Energy built a test plant north of Gillette in 2006 and tested its K-Fuel process on Powder River Basin coal. It pressurized coal to increase its heating value. Officials from Evergreen said earlier that the process was successful, but the company idled the plant in March and is now looking at building a plant elsewhere, including overseas. Campbell County also is one of the counties hoping to attract a coal gasification facility sponsored by the University of Wyoming and General Electric Energy. All those clean technologies are aimed at strengthening the marketing value of Wyoming coal, which is known for its high moisture and low sulfur. While the area attracts cleaner burning technologies, direction from federal government is necessary to guide the evolution of these technologies, industry officials say.”
“Jeff Goodell: How Clean Coal Cooks Your Brain : “Clean coal” is not an actual invention, a physical thing – it is an advertising slogan. Like “fat-free donuts” or “interest-free loans.” Several years ago, in Gillette, Wyoming, I fell into a long conversation with the vice-president of alarge American coal company about coal’s public image problem. Gillette is inthe center of the Powder River Basin, the epicenter of the coal boom in America, where 60 foot seams of coal lay just below the surface. This vice president, who did not want his name to appear in print, was deeply concerned about coal’s future and expressed frustration with environmental attacks on coal, suggesting that it was all a problem of perception: “People don’t like coal because it’s black,” he told me. “If it were white, all our problems would be solved.” Whenever one of those slick ads for “clean coal” pops up on CNN, I think about that conversation in Gillette. The $35 million “clean coal” campaign, spearheaded by a coal industry front group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (formerly known as Americans for BalancedEnergy Choices), is nothing less than a nationwide effort to paint coal white. Here’s another: mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive things human beings do on this earth. It destroys mountains, poisons water, pollutes the air, and warms the atmosphere. True, if you look at it strictly from the point of view smog-producing chemicals like sulfur dioxide, new coal plants are cleaner than the old coal burners of yore. But going from four bottles of whiskey a week down to three does not make you clean and sober.”
“Greenwash: Why ‘clean coal’ is the ultimate climate change oxymoron : The people who told us for years that climate change was a myth now say it’s all true – but something called ‘clean coal’ can fix it. This is pure and utter greenwash, says Fred Pearce : guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 February 2009 12.13 GMT : [ ‘Clean’ coal in Gillette, Wyoming : No clean-coal plant that buries carbon has yet been built. ] Hopefully, that science battle is slowly being won. But now the big greenwash is coming from another direction. Now, we have a technology battle. The people who told us for years how climate change was a myth now say it is all true – but something called “clean coal” can fix it. It’s hard to keep track of the differing organisations behind this. First there was Americans for Balanced Energy Choices. Last year that merged with the Center for Energy and Economic Development to create the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE). That body is now headlining as something called America’s Power. The one thing they have got is money. Money to try and persuade us that coal is good, coal is green and coal is the solution to America’s energy needs. The ACCCE spent $38m last year buying TV, newspaper and magazine space to persuade Americans that coal can be clean and carbon-free. The money mostly came from its members in the coal mining, transportation and burning industries. You don’t see much coal in these ads, though in December its website did feature some singing lumps of coal called the “clean coal carollers”. Sadly they went shy about that and the carollers now seem to be on indeterminate holiday leave. The money doesn’t all go into airtime and column inches, of course. According to SourceWatch, almost $1m goes to pay the salary of its president and chief executive officer Stephen L Miller. But the big PR question, the one that must earn Miller his remuneration, is how to rationalise this oxymoron “clean coal”. How to square this carefully created image with inconvenient facts about the fuel’s huge carbon footprint – greater than other fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. The genius is that they don’t really try. Blink and you might miss it. That word “clean” is highly flexible. It can mean what you want it to mean. So for instance, ACCCE claims that modern coal power plants are “70% cleaner”. It sounds good. It sounds like coal really is cleaning up. Perhaps the greenies are behind the times. Call off the demo. But check more closely and you’ll notice that the ACCCE doesn’t mention which gases are covered by this claim. In fact, the industry has cut emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides under acid-rain legislation enacted years ago. That’s what the 70% refers to. But it has not cut planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions. Its other key strategy is to promote carbon capture and storage (CCS). That is, the idea of catching carbon dioxide before it goes up the stack of a power plant, and burying it out of harm’s way underground – forever. It promotes the idea and not the technology, because there is currently no such technology. But ACCCE has faith. It doesn’t argue that CCS can solve coal’s environment problems. If it did, it might have to defend its case. Instead, it says “we believe that American can continue to make great progress in improving environmental quality while at the same time enjoying the benefits from using domestic energy sources like coal … In a word: we believe in technology.” Good for them, but technologists generally rely on more than faith. As I have reported here before, this technology is scientifically conjectural, especially at the storage end. And even on an optimistic view of its feasibility, it is at least two decades and several tens of billions of research and development dollars away from actual commercial operation on any scale. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s study on the matter. Or this study by the International Energy Agency. Bear in mind these reports were written before the US government last year pulled out of FutureGen, its only large-scale R&D programme for carbon-capture technology.”
Although FutureGen was wiped off the map, it’s now back on the menu, so the “Clean” Coal-ers have clearly won another mini turf war for the minds of the Americans.
“Clean Coal: Fuel of the Future or Fallacy? : Mon Jun 15, 2009 9:39am EDT : By John Gartner – Matter Network : In a surprising reversal of a reversal, the Department of Energy has announced new funding for the “FutureGen” clean coal project, less than 18 months after the previous DOE Secretary pulled the plug. DOE Secretary Stephen Chu, who previously called coal “very, very bad,” said the government will spend more than $1 billion on research on a prototype coal power plant that will capture and sequester the CO2 produced. That’s more than double the amount that the private sector will spend on the joint venture. Though the DOE’s plan has turned plenty of heads, down under they are acting even more decisively on clean coal technologies. German company Direct Invest will put $1.5 billion into clean coal development in Australia. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is also reportedly working on a deal on a clean coal plant in Australia.”
Whatever is happening to Coal in the United States will inevitably be reflected in what happens to Coal around the world.
China may be “building two coal-fired power plants each week” as the common legend has it, but these will become stranded assets pretty soon unless they, like we, de-Carbonise out of Coal.