Archive for June, 2009

“Clean Coal”???

June 29, 2009

Two important stories about ‘clean coal’ over the past couple of days in the NEW YORK TIMES …. ‘Clean coal’ of course refers to a set of technologies that 1.) reduce the amount of pollutants emitted from coal-generated electricity, 2.) substantially raise the amount of electricity that can be squeezed from a ton of coal, and 3.) makes it easier to capture and ‘sequester’ the inevitable CO2 by-product.

Lots of environmental purists argue that ‘clean coal’ is a lie. And, in fact, they’re right – even the best of coal technologies will be far from clean. From mining to transport to usage and disposal, it’s a nasty business. But, unfortunately, it’s a nasty business we’re going to be stuck with for the next couple of decades. Over half of US electricity today comes from coal, and – like it or not – the cheapest and easiest new large-scale generating capacity (technology-wise and regulatory-wise) comes from coal or natural gas.

The point is that there is a cleaner, better way to turn coal into electricity today – controlled gasification, then combustion of the coal gases in a huge jet engine sort of affair followed by a steam turbine generator. IGCC, as the technology’s called, works, is proven, and – with a hint of regulatory encouragement – is ready to go today.

Gregg Easterbrook, in “The Dirty War Against Clean Coal” (NYTimes, 28June, 2009) argues that a combination of inertia, special interests, economics and Federal vacillation is stalling the adoption of this new coal technology that offers real, large improvements over the best current coal technologies. A misguided effort to hold out for perfectly clean coal technology, according to Easterbrook, is dooming us to years more of nothing but the dirtiest. And according to the TIMES’ Matthew Wald, some major utilities have given up on the Federal FutureGen project in favor of pursuing their own cleaner coal programs.

No matter how much you might dream of combustion-free energy sources powering our increasingly electric future, the uncomfortable reality is that coal will continue to play a huge role in your economy and mine. It’s utter foolishness to stand in the way of the cleanest coal alternatives today, while you dream of a wind and solar future that’s 10-20 years down the road.

The Dirty War Against Clean Coal
NYTimes – Published: June 28, 2009
Advanced-technology coal power exists, but regulators are waiting to see what happens with FutureGen, a project that may be just an expensive boondoggle.

Two Utilities Are Leaving Clean Coal Initiative
NYTimes – 29Jun09
The departure of Southern Company and American Electric Power is a blow to a consortium seeking to build a carbon-capture coal plant in Illinois.

Fuel Alcohol: 1C, 2C, 4C?

June 17, 2009

Up to now, most of the alcohols fuels action has centered on the 2-carbon alcohol, Ethanol (EtOH). The Brazilians have made a 3 decade success of their EtOH experiment – turning the liability of a huge sugar cane processing waste stream into an economic asset largely unencumbered by petroleum imports. And over the past few years, of course, corn-based fuel EtOH has flourished in the US on the strength of Federal mandate and the Midwest farm lobby.

Ethanol enjoys a large experience advantage today, and – in Brazil – a true competitive advantage. In the US, the economics of corn based EtOH is not nearly so clear – not to mention the political liability of diverting farmland and farming resources from food crops to gas guzzlers. But Ethanol isn’t the only potential fuel alcohol – maybe it’s not even the best. Both the simplest alcohol, 1-carbon alcohol Methanol MeOH, and 4-carbon Butanol BuOH present (alike with EtOH) and array of advantages – and, to be fair, some significant drawbacks.

Methanol is already a huge item of commerce, produced and traded in the many tens-of-billions of pounds per year. In a large sense, you can view MeOH as a handy way to move huge amounts of inconvenient and unusable natural gas from the Middle East to industrial users in the US, Europe, and increasingly, in Asia. And since MeOH is easily derived from nearly any carbon source, it may have a bright future as an environmentally less offensive way to tap huge coal reserves in the US and China.

Similarly, there is a large (although a couple of Zero’s less large than MeOH) commercial marketplace today in Butanol (primarily as an ingredient in paints, flexible plastics, etc). Today, nearly all BuOH comes from petroluem sources, so conventional BuOH for fuels doesn’t make much environmental or energy independence sense. But recently, there have been substantial improvements in bio routes to BuOH that (in some cases, at least) start with ag waste, not food or feed grains.

Lots of sources compare the properties of these fuel alcohols with the gasoline they might replace. I think this version (from ButylFuels, LLC – is especially easy to use.

Source: ButylFuel, LLC

Source: ButylFuel, LLC

Both 1-carbon MeOH and 2-carbon EtOH suffer from low energy density (poor miles-per-gallon) and an inconvenient propensity to pick up corrosion causing moisture from the air. The more carbon-rich BuOH behaves much more like conventional gasoline in the fuel tank. Indeed, some claim that most US cars on the road today can run quite well on BuOH. And some industry heavyweights – DuPont and BP, for example – are pushing for Butanol as the next motor fuel.

So, bottom line, there is no single right answer to the 1 vs 2 vs 4 in the alcohol fuels question. (And, indeed, there are strong manufacturing arguments favoring a mixture of these and other alcohols.) Each has it’s place – except the truly wasteful diversion of food resources into fuel tanks – and each can make important contributions during our transformation from a fossil fuels economy to one fueled by renewable energy.

“Global Trends in Sustainable Energy”

June 12, 2009

The new United Nations report on “Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment” paints a pretty optimistic picture of alternative energy growth, showing 2008 investments ($105B worldwide) almost equalling investments in conventional energy ($110B). Worldwide, wind projects dominated (48%), with approx 22% going to solar capacity and 15% to biofuels.

Half of the new investment total went into Europe, 30% into North America, 24% in Asia and Oceana, and 12% in South America.

Worldwide, alternative energy (excluding large hydro-electric projects) represents 6.2% of global power generating capacity, but only 4.4% of power production.

Brazilian biofuels, according to the report, did not fare so well ….

“The Brazilian market saw investment [in biofuels plants] more than double to $6.3 billion from $3.0 billion in 2007.

“However, the international financial crisis is taking a heavy
toll on Brazil’s ethanol and sugarcane industry. The cheap
and plentiful US dollar-denominated debt that fuelled
tremendous growth is now crippling many producers as
the value of the Brazilian real has tumbled against the dollar.
New Energy Finance research shows that investment in
ethanol producing assets fell by half in Q4 2008 and by an
even greater degree in the first quarter of 2009.”

Source: “Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2009” United Nations Environment Programme, 2009.

Toward an Alternative Energy Dead End?

June 4, 2009

In my first post, back on Apr 3, I talked about the rollercoaster trajectory of alternative energy development over the past 30 years or so. The centerpiece of that discussion is this graph of crude oil price history – and my fear that we’re about to repeat the 1980s as far as alternative energy goes.

Constant 2007 Dollars

Constant 2007 Dollars

What causes me to be skeptical of the staying power of today’s interest in alternative energy developments? Look at 2 key similarities between today and the few years following 1974:
– Rapidly rising energy costs and restricted availability created panic demand for energy conservation and new energy sources. After about 1982, the Western economies enjoyed the benefits of improved energy efficiencies for the next 2 decades, but …
– Solar, geothermal and wave and tidal developments that flourished under briefly high energy prices withered away under cheap oil. The ‘feel good’ incentive of energy independence and environmental responsibility was insufficient to overcome the higher cost of unconventional energy.

Readers here will not be surprised that I do not expect – in the absence of reliable, long-term economic incentive – that many of the current flurry of alternative energy developments will have much staying power or much impact on our energy economy.

My concern has little to do with the state or quality of the alternative technologies – in most cases, the requisite science and engineering is already well developed. My concern has much more to do with sustaining the political will to assure a predictable, long term economic climate which nurtures the growth of new energy technologies to economic maturity. Oil prices that bounce from $50 to $140 and back, and natural gas prices that vary as widely, undermine any other incentives in place in today’s American economy.

One doesn’t have to be a political radical to see that a purely free market is not especially efficient here. But the political element of a solution is so controversial and emotion-charged that I doubt we can ever adopt an energy policy that permits more than a fits-and-starts progress in alternative energy.

What do you think??? Am I being too pessimistic? What are some good approaches?