Fukushima Fallout

April 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

Some preliminary thoughts as prelude to our upcoming Breakfast Forum

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster will undoubtedly have a marked effect on the energy policies of nations.  There is something about nuclear fission accidents that evokes strong fears out of proportion with the actual threat to human well-being.  People with anti-nuclear views will be emboldened, such as what happened in Germany.

Consider the German situation – A significant move away from nuclear is only possible with massive new natural gas based capacity.  This will apply elsewhere as well as discussed later.  Natural gas replacing coal gives a net improvement in carbon emissions.  Decidedly not so when replacing nuclear.  So, carbon mitigation targets will have to be met in other ways.  The country has already placed a big bet on solar.  But with programmed reductions in subsidies, the future is increasingly cloudy.  The true elephant in the room is Russian gas.  Further reliance on gas for power means increased reliance on either Russia or LNG imports.

An LNG Revival: If one builds on the premise that in the short term, a nuclear future will at least be rendered bleaker, the only fast response alternative is natural gas.  Coal has a longer lead time and makes the carbon emissions situation decidedly worse, unless carbon sequestration is accomplished.  A scant five years ago a massive shift from nuclear to gas would have been untenable from the standpoint of a price explosion brought on by the spike in demand.  Today we know that U.S. gas supplies are abundant and LNG originally destined for the U.S. may now be directed to countries such as Germany.  Japan itself, although seemingly committed to a strong nuclear future, will be a big purchaser of LNG in the short term.

The sudden draw on natural gas supplies could have interesting consequences.  As we previously posited, U.S. natural gas prices will stay in a band between $4 and $6.50, with excursions to $8 for decades due to the unique attributes of shale gas.  The demand increase discussed is unlikely to materially change that.  But, gas price in Europe and Japan, to name just two, will undoubtedly see a sustained uptick.  U.S. gas interests will therefore find a lucrative LNG export business hard to pass up.  While production costs are not as low as in Qatar or Iran, the demand will likely support all sources.  Also, western companies constructing LNG trains will be winners.

European shale gas exploitation will also pick up.  The importance of this resource to reduce reliance on Russia just escalated.  We can also foresee increased efforts to exploit those conventional gas resources which are currently dormant due to high carbon dioxide (for example in Malaysia), nitrogen (for example in Saudi Arabia) or hydrogen sulfide.  All of these require improvements in technology.

Effect on Renewables: Despite the initial flight to gas, the net effect on renewables will be positive, provided the world continues to believe that global warming due to carbon emissions is a concern.  This is primarily because the replacement of nuclear with gas has a negative effect on carbon emissions and means to ameliorate will be ever more important.  The need for this will put increasing pressure on the enablers such as effective storage.  In the near term, wind should be the winner because it is closer than solar to parity with conventional production costs.  So a massive scale up is feasible but is hampered by the diurnality.  Analysts believe that some wind heavy parts of Europe are maxed out.  A greater fraction from wind appears not easy to assimilate.  Smarter grids allowing for better load leveling and cost effective storage will take on greater urgency.  An interesting possibility is that distributed power, including combined heat and power, may acquire greater currency.  Policies governing utilities will need adjustment.

In fairly short order the Macondo oil spill and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster have brought into focus the downsides to two major sources of energy.  In each case, the reactions have been peremptory and the voices against offshore drilling and nuclear energy loud.  The nuclear substitute of shale gas has organized opposition on environmental grounds.  Wind is buffeted by aesthetic arguments.  Lost in the rhetoric is the realization that it is always going to be about choice; picking one’s poison as it were.

Energy: we can’t live without it so we must learn to live with it.

The Energy/Water Nexus

June 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

This piece is loosely based upon the RTEC Breakfast Forum on June 15, 2010

Sustainable energy can fall in two buckets.  One comprises all the means to lower the carbon footprint of current energy sources.  This would include clean coal, using natural gas in place of coal to produce electricity, combined cycle approaches to energy production, and the like.  The second bucket is that of renewable energy.  The outstanding examples of that are biofuels, wind energy and solar energy.

Each of the foregoing has very different water utilization.  One billion persons do not have access to drinking water.  Should efficiency of water utilization be a factor in our choice of alternatives, and not just carbon footprint?  Going further, should water usage be a litmus test in areas in which the citizenry suffer a high level of privation?  This was the subject of the RTEC Breakfast Forum on June 15, 2010.

We tend to use fresh water for everything when something less could do the job.  This is likely an artifact of water being relatively cheap.  If some of the major users were able to tolerate less than fresh water, water would be freed up for human consumption. An extremely topical area for this thought is shale gas drilling in the US.  Each well uses up to 5 million gallons per well as the main component of fracturing fluid.  Only about a third of the fluid used returns to the surface.  Currently it cannot be re-used because of contaminants, salt in particular.   Even if this were to be cleaned up for re-use, the other two thirds would need to be made up from fresh water sources.

Fortunately, industry is taking a hard look at the problem and is moving to modify formulations to be able to tolerate significant salinity.  So, not only would the flow-back water be re-usable, but other saline waters of convenience, such as sea water, come into play.  In an odd twist, it turns out that salinity is actually good for the operation (it stabilizes the clays).  Lemonade from lemons, as it were.

While not particularly applicable to the shale gas play in the eastern United States, a lot of “tight gas” exploitation occurs in the middle of the country, in areas that are severely drought prone.  Here, water for energy competes with that for agriculture.  The ability to tolerate salinity would be huge.  This is because saline aquifers are plentiful.  Supporting technology would be required in areas such as benign biocides.  Bacteria in these waters are often pernicious, some being sulfate reducing, and thus producing hydrogen sulfide in situ when used for fracturing fluid.  But these are all tractable if the major issue of some level of salinity is traversed and if innovations in cost effective water treatment are forthcoming.

The key to water treatment is to have a fit-for-purpose output.  Potable water is the most expensive.  An intermediate product could be adequate and meet the economic hurdles.  Today almost all desalination approaches have fresh water as the output.

Agriculture tolerant of brackish water is a new area without significant currency today.  The most obvious example is algae for bio fuel production.  Algae, of course, thrive on salt water (and consume carbon dioxide as another plus).  A class of plants known as halophytes make themselves saltier than the salt water, thus causing fresh water to flow into them by osmosis.  Most such would likely be for biomass for energy production, not food.

Water used in conventional energy production is also highly variable.  The paper by Mulder et al describes water efficiency of different energy production methods.  Any eye-opener is the significant difference between closed and open loop cycles.  An interesting nuance is also the difference between water withdrawal and water use.  For example, if a facility such as a nuclear plant, withdraws water from a river, and then returns hotter water, the subsequent evaporation downstream is not counted in some measures.  The withdrawal number remains low, even though the net usage was higher.

Using less water is not always productive.  Apparently in some areas drip irrigation leads to salt build up around the plant.  Also, drip irrigation returns no water to the aquifer.  But on balance that must still be more effective than spraying, where evaporative losses may not necessarily be returned as convective rainfall.

Drought tolerant biomass is highly touted these days.  Jatropha in India and elsewhere is seen as an important crop for biodiesel production.  However, an interesting twist on this is that these plants can tolerate drought, but they grow much faster with more water.  A farmer with water access will draw on it.  So, what is needed is clever business models and associated policy drivers to encourage water conservation in the face of a compelling economic driver to use more.  An interesting problem for a behavioral economist.

Natural Gas as a transition fuel for Carbon Mitigation

February 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Synopsis:

Natural gas is increasingly being proposed as a transitional fuel for carbon mitigation; even by NGO’s that in the past were firmly opposed to all fossil fuels.  RTEC has examined the underlying premise and concludes that it is well placed as an organization to play a significant role in informing on the policies that will drive the energy sector in this area.  This is in keeping with a key RTEC goal for this year: to be a more visible player in energy.

Why Natural Gas?

The most popular carbon mitigation strategies center on renewable energy sources.  The foremost among these are wind, solar and biofuels, with just the last addressing oil replacement.  This discussion will focus solely on power production.  The majority of power is produced from combustion of coal, especially so in China and India.  Despite strong support for coal in Washington, and the technical viability of clean coal, a confluence of events suggests a slow down in coal combustion is likely.  These are discussed below.

  • California has already taken the lead to require coal plants to reduce emissions to the levels of natural gas plants, which is a fifty percent reduction, as opposed to ninety percent that previously was seen as a target.  Federal legislation is likely to emulate this in some manner.  This means that gas burning plants require no CO2 sequestration.
  • The lower requirement reduces the cost for sequestration at coal plants.  For post combustion capture, depending on the technology, the cost is likely to be in the general vicinity of 3 to 3.5 cents per KWh.  The current cost is about 6 to 6.5 cents per KWh.  So the fully loaded cost will be close to 10 cents.
  • The cost of electricity from natural gas can, as a rough rule of thumb, be estimated to be one cent per KWh for every $ per MMBTU.  So, at today’s natural gas price of about $4 per MMBTU, the cost is roughly 4.5 cents per KWh.  At $10 per MMBTU the cost would be about 9.5 cents per KWh.  In the last two decades, gas spot price has been above $12 for only four months, non contiguous.   If domestic supply holds up from the new shale gas reserves, few expect the price to go beyond $8, certainly not $10.  $10 is the effective breakeven with cleaned up coal, and with much lower capital investment.   Consequently, purely on economics and environmental compliance, gas plants make a lot of sense.
  • Gas plants are an effective complement to renewable sources, which have diurnal and other variability.

Why Not Natural Gas?

  • A shift away from coal to natural gas has to meet the critical hurdles of affordable gas and supply assurance.  The UK took this step in the belief that North Sea natural gas would be plentiful. This forecast did not hold up, and now the UK is forced to import, often at high cost.  For the US, reliance on foreign sources of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) would present issues, not the least being the high carbon footprint of LNG.  Alaskan gas, while plentiful, has deliverability issues.  So the future of such a shift relies upon the ability to exploit the massive shale gas reserves.  As noted above, if available, the price of gas is likely to be competitive with that of cleaned up coal.  Also, unlike oil, gas will not have any hidden military costs associated with assurance of foreign supply, since it would be entirely domestic.
  • The bulk of the shale gas potential is in New York and Pennsylvania, states that are substantially unused to petroleum production (despite Pennsylvania being essentially the birthplace of oil in the US).  Public push back has been substantial, on the grounds of pollution believed to be caused by the fracturing operations essential to the production.  Drilling in parts of New York has ceased on account of this.  When ExxonMobil purchased XTO for over $30 billion, they considered the threat material enough to make closing of the deal conditional on freedom to operate.  Resolving the looming impasse could be critical to any strategy to replace coal with natural gas for electricity production.

Role for RTEC

  • There does not appear to be any entity that has knowledge in the areas of the issues mentioned above and yet is non-aligned.  This is the opinion of executives at two petroleum related companies and two NGO’s with whom we have spoken.  A stated goal for RTEC is to identify compelling energy issues and play a key role in matters pertaining to a select few of these issues.    RTEC members have in depth understanding of the technology and economics associated with clean coal and natural gas production.
  • In the critical area of economic viability of producing shale gas in an environmentally acceptable manner, RTEC will enter the debate with insights regarding the validity of public angst and the ability of industry to be responsive to the issues with merit.  In particular, we have been approached by the Sierra Club to work with them and others to craft legislation in Pennsylvania.  The Sierra Club, World Watch and EDF have all realized that their absolute objection to new coal derived electricity is not reasonable without support for an alternative.  Consequently, they are backing natural gas as a transitional fuel.  However, they want this to happen against the backdrop of environmentally secure production of shale gas.  Hence their need for a respected third party to weigh in on the issues.  RTEC expects to source one or two other non-aligned experts to augment its expertise, provided the costs are borne by the Sierra Club or another entity.  The Sierra Club is clear on the point that RTEC does not support their opposition to clean coal and is merely acting as a resource to resolve shale gas issues.
  • If we feel we are making a real difference, we will consider measures to have a cadre of experts on call for consults from NGO’s and government bodies.  This may require seed funding, especially if a relational data base is part of the solution.  Ultimately, this could be a free standing unit whose span of influence could expand into other areas.


Potential Impact on US Energy

If natural gas fired plants are employed for new capacity, either for demand growth or replacement of ageing coal facilities (Progress Energy just closed thirteen coal fired plants in North Carolina), it provides breathing room for alternatives.  In particular, it gives time to resolve the issues surrounding clean coal, whether real or perceived.  RTEC continues to hold the view that clean coal is a viable part of the energy mix, especially when one considers the world at large.  Specifically, we expect post combustion capture and storage to be strongly in play for existing coal fired plants, especially those with many years depreciation remaining.

Eventually new base load capacity could go to Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), the long term clean coal solution.  We would expect also, that in the next ten years or so the nuclear option will be selected for new base load capacity and natural gas will begin to be phased out.  Price and availability of gas will determine the rapidity of this decline.  This is where the shale gas comes in.  If the known reserves can be accessed, there is reason to expect availability to be high.  Unlike offshore reservoirs, the time horizon between decision to drill and actual production is relatively short.  This is likely an effective antidote to rising demand driving up prices to double digits per million BTU.  Much of the new shale gas is profitable at $5 per MMBTU.  All of this leads to the hypothesis that natural gas prices will stay in single digits.  If they do, gas will remain competitive with clean coal and with lower up front investment, and so a shift away from it may not happen until nuclear power build up is significant.

In conclusion, if shale gas can be recovered in a fashion acceptable to the public, the reserves could be sufficient to support natural gas as a transitional fuel until cleaner alternatives become viable.  RTEC is positioned to play a key role, possibly a deterministic role, in the outcome.

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