Al Gore's renewable energy scheme…crop residues may not be a renewable resource…the Model Fuels Consortium
The biggest news this week in the world of alternative energy was Al Gore's exhortation to the nation at large to convert the nation's electrical power networks to exclusive reliance on renewable sources within a decade. Few specifics were given on how this might be accomplished, however.
I have been blogging on the topic in the Clean Energy Journal www.cleanenergyjournal.com, and those interested in some snippets on the topic can go there. Here I'll confine myself to noting that Gore's own estimate of the cost of accomplishing this feat is somewhere south of $3 trillion. Interestingly, European study groups who've addressed the feasibility of accomplishing the same thing in Western Europe estimate the cost at somewhat less than that. But the fact is that no one has ever performed detailed engineering studies in order to arrive at firm cost estimates. I contacted Nicholas Lenssen, an analyst with Energy Insights, a private consulting group, and he felt that there was no sound basis for making projections at present. Lenssen, an ex-NREL official, and an expert on renewable energy and electrical utilities, believes that Gore's estimate was probably low but would not be more specific.
I've been studying the matter myself for some time, but I've never attempted to itemize costs. My hunch is that $3 trillion is a low ball estimate, but I can't prove it, however, I'm doing some specific research on a solar thermal project and I should have a better idea of the economics when I'm finished.
One problem in making estimates is that one is dealing in some cases with technologies that have never been deployed on a wide scale. One is also assuming that manufacturing costs will remain stable or decline which in turn is based on the assumption that fossil fuel inputs to the manufacturing sector will not appreciate greatly in price during the transition period. These may be unwarranted assumptions.
Of one thing one can be fairly certain. An electrical power system based largely or exclusively upon renewable sources will probably carry higher costs per kilowatt hour initially, costs that will be passed on to the rate payers in one way or another. Public utilities will also want to be reimbursed for the fossil fuel plants they are forced to decommission before their useful lives are concluded. Public utilities cannot operate at a loss, and even were the government to nationalize the electrical system, the costs of conversion would still have to be borne, and the public at large would be confronted with notably higher electrical costs on top of already much higher fuel costs. While I certainly believe that renewable sources must be tapped on a much large scale than in the past, and must ultimately become the mainstay, I also believe that the costs of doing so should not be concealed from the public. Presenting the citizenry with unrealistic cost scenarios will discredit advocates of renewable energy. Telling people that cleaner and greener is also cheaper is, at least in most cases, an untruth with regard to current technology.
USDA Scientist Makes a Disquieting Observation
Ann Kennedy, a research scientist with the USDA, threw some cold water on a certain segment of the biofuels industry last week with a report suggesting that use of crop residues for producing biofuels could lead to degradation of the soil.
This is not in fact a new finding, and it brings to the fore the larger question as to whether biofuel production on a massive scale is sustainable. Which in turn brings up a yet more crucial question, whether our current system of mechanized agriculture, which is heavily reliant upon fossil fuel based fertilizers, is itself sustainable. If the answer to the second question is no, then surely the answer to the first is no as well, and, if anything, a more resounding no.
Agronomists are divided on the matter. Most believe that the high yields provided by modern agriculture cannot be duplicated in the main by either traditional methods or modern scientifically informed organic agriculture. Until recently I was inclined to side with the majority, but recently I have been reading articles in scientific journals devoted to high yield organic farming, articles which suggest that current production levels can be maintained without extensive use of artificial fertilizers. Most such advanced organic methods are labor intensive, however, and that might militate against their use in biofuel production. Incidentally, most advocates of scientific organic agriculture do not believe that sustainable practices could support the wholesale replacement of petroleum by biofuels.
On a similar note, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris issued a statement indicating that increased reliance upon biofuels would have little impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and therefore should not be encouraged. This follows hard on the heels of many similar findings by various international economic forums in the weeks preceding, and suggests that European nations may be retreating from their wholesale advocacy of biofuels. But if not biofuels, what? Lately I've been detecting stirrings from the enfeebled hydrogen lobby, but in the two years since I wrote my book length hydrogen report and concluded that the hydrogen highway was not apt to be constructed, I've seen only incremental progress in the development of hydrogen generation, transmission, storage, and power plants. As I've indicated in previous articles, I see rising sentiment in favor of electrical vehicles at present, but whether they will soon gain ascendancy in Europe or elsewhere is difficult to predict. If fuel prices can be stabilized even in the eight to ten dollar range, I see the progress of electric cars as slow and halting. The fundamental shortcomings that rendered these designs uncompetitive a hundred years ago have only been ameliorated, not eliminated. And, in any event, the manufacturers of internal combustion engines are fighting back.
The Model Fuels Consortium
The Model Fuels Consortium headed by Reaction Design, a scientific software company, announced several new members last week. The group, which is devoted to the preservation and enhancement of the internal combustion power plant, presently includes new members Dow, Chevron, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, and Toyota, as well as Aramco, Petrobras, and Cummins.
Reaction Design produces standard modules for modeling combustion, modules which are widely used by engine manufacturers today. A major application for this software among the larger manufacturers is the design of a practical homogenous charge combustion engine which would provide superior fuel efficiency in both diesel and gasoline engines.
Ordinary spark ignition engines utilizing spark plugs achieve only partial combustion of the air fuel mixture because the ignition system cannot ignite the entire volume in the cylinder. Ignition proceeds along a flame front or kernel which expands more or less uniformly from the spark plug gap. But by the time the flame front reaches the walls of the cylinder the power stroke has already been concluded and partially combusted fuel is being pushed out of the cylinder on the exhaust stroke.
Compression ignition diesel engines achieve more uniform ignition because there is no propagation of a flame front from a single point, but they're still not ideal. Which is why homogenous charge combustion (HCC) could bring benefits to almost any size and configuration of internal combustion engine.
In homogenous charge combustion ignition takes place simultaneously throughout the combustion chamber and the fuel air mixture is instantly and uniformly ignited. All of the fuel is consumed and conversion efficiency is maximized. In most instances the engine will utilize compression ignition regardless of the fuel used.
A number of schemes have been developed for achieving HCC, at least one of which uses a highly unusual spark ignition system, but most such schemes have been based upon very complex control systems which vary injection parameters, valve timing, and dispersion of the fuel in the cylinder, and do so on a dynamic basis. They take current electronic fuel injection concepts many steps further.
HCC presents many engineering problems, but then so did fuel injection which was refined and perfected over a span of decades. My guess is that this is not an intractable technology and that its development has only been delayed because of lack of any pressing need. But now there certainly is a need for the 40% improvements in efficiency that are possible by this means and at least in the midterm, the radical improvement of gasoline engines still seems to make better sense than their abandonment and replacement by purely electric power plants.