Category Archives: Renewable

Is The Obama Administration Good For Nuclear Energy?

Recently, President Obama announced an $8.33 billion loan guarantee to build a brand new nuclear power plant in Georgia. This could be the first new nuclear power plant in nearly 30 years, which is a big deal. Now before everyone gets all giddy about this announcement there are several things that need to be understood.

What is a Loan Guarantee?

A loan guarantee is a promise by a government to assume a private debt obligation if the borrower defaults. Most loan guarantee programs are established to correct perceived market failures by which small borrowers, regardless of creditworthiness, lack access to the credit resources available to large borrowers.
–Wikipedia–

Basically, what this means is that the government is “cosigning” the loan and is responsible for the loan if anything goes wrong. This can be used to help finance projects that are risky, new or are having a hard time getting the amount of credit needed to finance the project.

What About the Radioactive Nuclear Waste?

Nuclear waste can be a scary thing when you consider the harmful potential of this substance. Typically nuclear waste is stored in pools of water or cement caskets on-site of the nuclear power plant. This system has proved to be relatively successful thus far, but a more permanent solution is needed. With the Obama administration’s cancellation of the Yucca Mountain project, which was supposed to be the nations repository for radioactive waste, many are left wondering what will happen to existing and future nuclear waste. With no clear long-term plan for radioactive waste, many are left wondering why the President would be in favor of building a new nuclear power plant.

Personally, I feel relatively safe with the cement caskets being used to store this waste. The cement caskets that store this radioactive waste are rated to be good for 90 years, so we still have some time to get a game plan.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

So the questions that immediately come to my mind are:

  • How long will these cement caskets actually last?
  • What do we do when these caskets start needing to be replaced, do we just move the waste to newer caskets?
  • Why don’t we start reprocessing nuclear waste to generate electricity?

Unfortunately the answers to these questions are topics of much debate. Clear answers to these questions do not appear to be in the immediate future.

Should the Government Be Guaranteeing Loans for Nuclear Plants?

With the pathetic financial state that our government is in, are they really in a position to even offer a loan guarantee? How can a government that is constantly raising its debt ceiling even consider having to pay 8 billion dollars for a power plant. If the government continues offering loan guarantees for nuclear power plants and some of the companies default on their loans, where is the money going come from to pay these loans?

Regardless of your political beliefs, the fact that the United States government is continuing to promise more expenditure should be a red flag. How much longer can we continue promising, borrowing and ‘printing’ money?

But Nuclear Energy is a Good Clean Source of Energy, right?

As many of you know, I am in favor of building new nuclear power plants, see my previous blog post here. Nuclear power offers many benefits and we are in need of diversifying our energy portfolio. There is no doubt in my mind that nuclear energy will play an important role in our energy future because of the increased energy demands and reduced availability of cheap/clean energy. Nuclear energy has been picking up steam for several years and it appears that it may finally be getting some much-needed attention. As nuclear energy continues to garner attention and becomes more cost beneficial, I am confident private investors will start investing in the construction of these plants.

Global Warming, Peak Oil, and Economic Crisis

When Zach and I started this blog, we agreed that it should be in the technical domain, rather than the political one as much as possible. The hope was that with high quality information available to the political class and activists, the “solutions” would be forthcoming. As time goes on though, it seems that even as difficult as our energy challenges are, the political ones are tougher. This reality requires the Energy Strain blog to deal with issues that may be considered to be more in the political domain.

For the moment, the world seems focused on “Climate Change.” Climate change is the new term for what was originally termed “Global Warming.” It is difficult to figure out who changed “Global Warming” to “Climate Change.” I would argue that both of these names are actually very poor names for this problem. One thing that we know for sure is that the Earth’s climate has been changing for the entire time that it has existed. It seems to me that if you wanted to come up with a name to motivate people to action, you would not use a term that describes something that is “normal.”

Peak Oil is an equally poor name for the problems that people are using it to describe. Peak oil, when used in the M King Hubbert sense, is a perfectly correct term. Hopefully we all know of the work of M King Hubbert, and his curves describing how oil fields age. The problem with the way that “Peak Oil” is now used is that it now means hundreds of different things to different people. From the simplest and obviously correct meaning, that a mathematical curve can be applied to the theoretical extraction rate of an oil province, Peak Oil is now also being used as a substitute term for we’re running out of oil, Malthus was right, all problems are caused by running out of oil, and the end is coming.

Economic crisis is also a very poor name for a widely varied set of symptoms. Economists originally called it “Sub-Prime” Crisis, then “Recession,” and now their favorite seems to be “Economic Crisis.” The names are likely to change as the symptoms of the end of the Industrial Age present themselves.

After studying the end of the Industrial Age for about five years, it all seems quite simple to me. These problems are all related, and must be contemplated and solutions proposed for the actual problems, not just the symptoms, and not with solutions that “feel good,” but rather solutions that fit the physics of the problem.

The problem is simple.
Man found a substance in Earth’s “basement” that allowed him to temporarily overcome the normal limit of living on Earth, that limit being: living on the energy that comes from the Sun. Man used the energy from this substance to continuously increase the amount of energy available from this substance. He also created an economic system that automatically creates more interest debt as time passes, and thus requires economic growth in order that it remain plausible that the interest accumulation could be repaid. As he used this substance, he put the undesired components into the atmosphere, hoping that it would be OK.

Now Industrial Man finds himself in the following situation.
1. The net energy (gross energy minus the energy used in the extraction) from fossil fuel is in decline.
2. His financial system is collapsing because repayment of the interest is not plausible, and the economy cannot grow enough without more energy to make it plausible.
3. The Earths formerly sequestered carbon is now in the atmosphere, and he is not sure exactly what it means. But most agree it’s probably not good.

So Global Warming, Peak Oil, and financial collapse are the same problem.
Maybe we should name the entire situation “DADESFFC” for Dying and Dysfunctional Energy System Feeding Financial Collapse. Ok, so maybe it’s not a sexy acronym. Or maybe it’s too complicated for some to understand. But the point is that without understanding the big picture, and without looking for solutions to the actual problems, we are left in the dark shooting at the symptoms.

Lately “Climate Change” has been in the news with the negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark. Some of the activists seem to be advocating that we solve the problems with massive redistribution of wealth. Their solutions are simple–take money from the polluters and give it to the less fortunate. Problem Solved. If only it were anywhere near this easy.

The reality is that the technologies that are available to “replace” the current fossil fuel technologies are not drop-in replacements. A society created from alternative energy technologies will be profoundly different. Here are some of the technical challenges along with the implications of a post fossil fuel economy:

1. Renewable energy sources are powered by low density energy.
Low density means that the systems will be very large, and consume huge quantities of resources and labor in order to construct. In an economic sense, this by necessity means that the systems will be expensive.

2. Renewable energy sources have low energy return on energy investment (EROEI). Low EROEI means that renewable energy systems will have low profitability for their investors, and will take many years to return their initial investment. It also means that there is not room for mistakes in the implementation of these systems. Small mistakes in implementation that cause increased energy consumption, will convert low EROEI energy “production” systems into energy “sinks,” i.e., they cause consumption rather than provide energy.

3. Renewable energy systems are not a drop-in for fossil fuel technologies. This means that much of the most expensive equipment in our fossil fuel powered industrial economy must be replaced. A replacement society that is powered from renewable energy sources will be less wealthy, and have less complexity than a fossil fuel powered one. This may mean that there is no excess wealth to transfer from the former “wealthy” countries to the “developing” countries.

Simply transferring wealth from the “wealthy” fossil fuel consumers to the “developing” countries is very likely to aggravate the problems. It could leave the “wealthy” countries without enough surplus capital to develop renewable technologies, and it could just cause increased energy consumption in the “developing” countries.

Converting to a post fossil fuel era will not be easy. Resources will be scarce and financial systems very unstable. This means that in order to successfully accomplish it, we will have to understand what we are really up against, not choose one symptom and propose a “solution” for it that aggravates the real problem.

If we cannot solve the technical problems of operating a modern society from renewable energy, the only “deal” that we may be able to make is to lower our standard of living to their standard of living, if they agree not to try to raise theirs.

It goes without saying that this will be a difficult political sell, and I fear that those who are pushing these large redistributions aren’t as concerned about the environment as they claim, meaning that this would not be an acceptable solution, even though it may be the only one that is technically feasible with our current technology.

Living in a “GREEN” world

This whole notion of being “green” seems to be sweeping through every product line in the nation.  Seeing a “green” product at any store is pretty common but, just a few years ago you had to search for “green” products.  The fact that so many organizations are jumping onto the “green” bandwagon is both promising and troubling.

I like to see that companies are trying to improve things like, operating efficiencies of their products, reduce their company’s overall energy consumption, reduce materials used while packaging, among many other things.  In addition to all of the positive environmental impacts, this is good and beneficial to everyone because, it costs the end user less to operate and it can cost less for the manufacture to produce/ship.  Why suddenly are we seeing so many “green” products, well there are several reasons for this but the main reason is that consumers are demanding them.  Energy costs have risen and because of this, consumers want devices that use less energy. For the very same reason companies are trying to reduce their energy consumptions.

The downside to seeing so many “green” products is being able to sort out the beneficial and non-beneficial products.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find products that actually have a positive affect both environmentally and in reducing energy.  It seems the term “green” is being so over used that marketing departments are throwing the “green” label on anything they possibly can, in hopes of appealing to consumers.  Whether the product is actually all that “green” or not is besides the question.  Since “green” is the new favorite phrase of marketers, it is very important to be conscious of these tactics and to do some research for yourself. Don’t  buy something just because it says that is “green.”  Next time when you see a “green” product ask yourself some of the following questions:

What makes this product green?

How does this product compare to other products?

Does this green labeling have any actual positive affect on the environment or in reducing energy?

The United States Government is also getting on the “green” bandwagon.  Some of the things the government is doing are good and some of the things it is doing aren’t so good.  For example, the United States Government is planning on improving federal and state building efficiencies.  This is a good thing and it will not only save the government (and taxpayers) money but it will also use less energy.  Also, in order to reduce energy and environmental impact the government passed a bill that will end up phasing out incandescent light bulbs.  This bill requires that light bulbs be 70% more efficient by 2020.  As energy costs have gone up, people have been buying energy efficient products like compact fluorescent light bulbs (instead of incandescent light bulbs) without the government dictating anything.  We are seeing similar behavior with the Cap and Trade bill.  The Cap and Trade bill is going to try and force you to live a “greener” life by raising the costs of energy.  The hope is that doing this will reduce energy usage and benefit the environment.  Again, we are seeing an actual “green” change occur in all aspects of society already but, these changes are occurring because the market is adapting to higher energy prices.

So, Am I against going “green?”  No.  Am I against forcing people to go “green?” Yes.

I am fully in favor of trying to minimize the amount of natural resources we use and to use the resources we do use efficiently.  Also, I am in favor of using products that are more efficient and in favor of replacing incandescent light bulbs with more efficient bulbs.  I am not however, in favor of having someone else dictate to me what I have to do.  If someone does not want to stop using incandescent bulbs then they should not be forced to.  Instead of having big brother breath down our necks let the people and the market make the decisions.  That is how things are supposed to work, after all aren’t we suppose to have freedom and be a capitalist society?

Tell me your thoughts; I would be very interested to discuss some of these topics further.

Methods to Reduce Home Energy Usage

Update 6-11-2011: I added some information in the Space Heating and Space Cooling sections in order to discuss a different alternative, mini-split heat pumps.

 

Homes are one of the largest consumers of energy in the United States.  The unfortunate part of home energy usage is that a large portion of this energy is wasted because of inefficiencies.  Inefficiencies can range from air leaks to poor heating and air conditioning systems.

Increasing home efficiency will not only allow you to save money but it also reduces the amount of energy needed for your home.  Before you can start reducing the energy used in your home, you need to have a basic understanding of where the majority of the energy is used within your home.

US Department of Energy

Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

Looking at the pie chart we see that the four largest users of energy are space heating, space cooling, lighting and water heating.  These four segments account for roughly 66% of all the energy used in your home.  We are going to take a look at these four segments specifically and then cover the remaining segments generally.

Lighting

Typically, a large portion of household lighting uses incandescent light bulbs.  A very simple way to reduce your energy consumption is to use compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL).  CFLs use about 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and CFLs are designed to last ten times longer.  With so many benefits why wait to start converting your lighting over to fluorescent.  If you want more information on the available types of CFLs visit the Energy Star CFL search.  Amazon.com also has a decent CFL webpage that contains some good information on CFL bulbs and it is an excellent source to purchase your bulbs too.

Now I know many of you out there probably don’t believe that CFL bulbs are actually cost beneficial so, in order to help get this point across let me do some math for you.  I’m going to compute the total cost of each bulb which includes the cost of the bulb as well as the cost of the electricity used to run the bulb.  Incandescent bulbs have a maximum life expectancy of roughly 1000 hours while compact fluorescent bulbs have a maximum life expectancy of roughly 10,000 hours.  Since compact fluorescent bulbs last up to 10,000 hours I will compute the total cost of an incandescent bulb for the same duration of time, which will require the purchase of several incandescent bulbs.

Below is an example of how I computed this, following the example is the computation for each bulb type.


 

Example

(Bulb Wattage) x (Total Hours in Operation) = Watt-Hours

(Watt-Hours) / (1000) = Kilowatt-Hours

(Total Hours in Operation) / (Maximum Life Expectancy) = Number of Bulbs

(Kilowatt-Hours) x (Cost of Electricity per Kilowatt-Hour) = Cost of Electricity to Run Bulb

(Number of Bulbs) x (Cost of Bulbs) = Cost of Purchasing Bulbs For Duration

(Cost of Electricity to Run Bulb) + (Cost of Purchasing Bulbs for Duration) = Total Cost of Bulb

 


Incandescent Bulbs

(60 watts) x (10,000 hours) = 600,000 watt-hours

(600,000 watt-hours) / (1000) = 600 kilowatt-hours

(10,000 hours) / (1000 hours) = 10 bulbs

(600 kilowatt-hour) x ($ 0.10) = $60

(10 Bulbs) x ($ 0.50) = $5

Total Cost of Bulb = $65

 


Compact Fluorescent Bulb

(15 watts) x (10,000 hours) = 150,000 watt-hours

(150,000 watt-hours) / (1000) = 150 kilowatt-hours

(10,000 hours) / (10,000 hours) = 1 bulb

(150 kilowatt-hour) x ($ 0.10) = $15

(1 Bulbs) x ($ 15.00) = $15

Total Cost of Bulb = $30

So if you look at the computed cost of each bulb you see that a incandescent costs $65 for 10,000 hours of operation  and the compact fluorescent costs $30 for 10,000 hours.  Even though the compact fluorescent bulb costs $15, it is still over half the price to own and operate.

Water Heating

Water heating is the third largest user of energy.  Reducing the amount of energy consumed by your current water heater can be accomplished by:

  1. Reducing the temperature of the water heater, as described here
  2. Installing an insulating jacket over the water heater, as described here
  3. Installing insulation on the hot water pipes, as described here

The other way to reduce water heater energy consumption is by purchasing a new efficient water heater.  There are several different types of water heaters available today, which include:

  • High-Efficiency Gas Storage
  • Gas Condensing
  • Whole-Home Gas Tankless
  • Solar
  • Heat Pump

Gas Condensing and Heat Pump water heaters will have all-new models in 2009.  Both of these water heater types offer an easy replacement and significant energy savings.  A.O. Smith makes a gas condensing water heater that looks very promising, called the Vertex™ 100.  This water heater looks like your typical tank water heater but it offers 96% efficiency and can be used to feed a radiant heating system.

You can also use geothermal heat pumps to heat your water, and as you will see later in this article, to heat and cool your home as well.  A geothermal system that will heat your home, cool your home and heat your water typically cost several thousand dollars.

For some more information on water heaters and what type you may want to consider visit the Energy Star – Help me choose page.

Space Cooling

When you think about cooling systems, the first type you probably think about are air conditioners.  Over the years, air conditioner manufactures have continually increased efficiencies.  In addition to increasing efficiencies of traditional air conditioners, many companies have developed air conditioners that use solar panels or ice.  Solar panel systems use the electricity from the sun to help offset the electricity used by the A/C compressor.  Ice based systems will freeze water at night, when there is cheap excess energy, and then use the ice during the day to cool the air.  This saves energy and money because the ice reduces the use of the A/C compressor and the ice is created during the night, typically, when electricity costs are lowest.  For more information on air conditioner efficiencies visit the Energy Star Central Air Conditioners page.

Air conditioners are the typical cooling system but in addition to air conditioners there are several other alternatives that you could consider:

  • Ventilation
  • Evaporative cooling
  • Absorption cooling
  • Radiant cooling
  • Earth cooling tubes
  • Mini-split heat pump (see Space Heating section)

For more information on the above cooling technologies visit Department of Energy cooling site here.  A prime example of an air conditioner alternative is a geothermal heat pump system.  We will discuss how these systems are beneficial and how they function in the last paragraph of the Space Heating section.

Among these several cooling technologies there are also several methods that can be used to reduce energy consumption of your current cooling system:

  • Install a programmable thermostat
  • Sealing air ducts
  • Reducing air leaks
  • Shutting blinds during the day
  • Turn down cooling system, especially when your not home

Space Heating

Heating your home is vital during cold seasons and generating heat can be much more efficient than cooling your home.  Typically improving efficiency in this category is accomplished by the following methods:

  • Purchasing and installing new heating systems
  • Sealing and insulating your home

Replacing your current furnace with an Energy Star rated furnace can help reduce energy usage and costs.  If you are interested in looking at several alternative heating systems I suggest that you read a good article called, Alternative Ways To Heat Your Home on The Greenest Dollar blog.

The more that I learn about heating and cooling systems the more intrigued that I get with heat pump systems.  Heat pump systems can heat and cool your home.  These systems can either use outside air or groundwater as their heat source. The outside air heat pump systems are cheaper and easier to install than groundwater heat pumps but they are also less efficient.  Groundwater heat pump systems, also known as Geothermal Heat Pump systems, offer excellent efficiencies as well as a combined heating and cooling system.  Geothermal systems have a relatively high up-front cost, about $10,000 for a 1500 square-foot home, and require enough land in order to bury piping full of heat exchange fluid.

Geothermal systems offer high efficiencies for both heating and cooling.  As an added bonus, many geothermal systems can also heat your water.  If you can afford to go this route it allows you to increase your efficiencies in water heating, cooling and heating. For information on how geothermal systems operate visit California’s Consumer Energy Center site here.

Update:

In addition to centralized heat pump systems, there is also a smaller modular type system that can be used.  These systems are called mini-split heat pump systems.  They offer the same type of benefits as a typical heat pump system but these systems are ductless and can be added to an existing system (like wood, forced air, etc…).  Mini-split heat pump systems are primarily intended for retrofits or for installations that are difficult to install a large centralized heat pump system (think old house, or rental property).  These systems use an external compressor/condensor and indoor air-handling units, like your typical heat pump system.  The key difference is that they are linked to the compressor/condensor using tubing or conduit instead of ductwork.  By not using ductwork the mini-split system installation is simplified and the energy loss from the ductwork is eliminated.  For more information about this type of system please visit EnergySavers.gov here.

Computers & Electronics, Appliances, Refrigeration and Other

The remaining four categories would seem like large energy users but when you add the percentage from each of these categories together they equate to 34%, which is only 3% higher than space heating alone.

The three easiest methods to reduce energy in these four categories is the following:

  • Use Energy Star rated products
  • Install smart power strips
  • Unplug or turn off unneeded devices

Computer & Electronics

One of the largest problems with computers and electronics is that they continue to use small amounts of power when they are turned off.  Using smart power strips, like the Smart Strip LCG3, is an easy, relatively inexpensive method to reduce energy in the Computers & Electronics category.  Purchasing Energy Star rated devices when purchasing future devices or replacing existing devices are also ways to reduce energy costs.  When replacing existing devices it is crucial to compute how much your current device costs you per year and how much you could save with the purchase of a new device.  Many times you do not experience savings for several years, in some cases, waiting until your current device is in need of replacement is the beneficial thing to do.

Appliances

This category includes items like dishwashers, microwaves and ovens.

These devices, like all electronic based devices, use small amount of electricity when not in use.  Combating this is slightly harder in this category.  Using smart power strips and turning off these devices are not as easy or convenient as with computers & electronics.  You can unplug items like toasters but you can’t easily unplug a dishwasher.  Typically the only method that can be used to reduce energy consumption in this category is the purchase of Energy Star rated devices.  Replacing your current device may or may not be cost effective depending on the cost and savings of a replacement device, make sure you consider this.

Refrigeration

The refrigeration category does not allow you to reduce electricity consumption by turning off devices.  Just because you aren’t using a refrigerator does not mean the refrigerator will not need electricity at some point to cool itself.  With refrigeration, there are only two options for combating energy usage:

  • Purchase Energy Star refrigeration units
  • Consolidate and eliminate unneeded refrigeration units

Conclusion

Implementing practices that reduce energy waste like turning off lights, using smart power strips, installing CFL bulbs and purchasing only energy star rated products can greatly reduce your energy bill and usage.

Every small thing that you can do to reduce energy usage will save you money and will reduce the amount of energy used.  With many tax incentives available it makes these efficiency upgrades even more affordable.  All you need is a little bit of time and, in many cases, little money.

My next post will show you some of the things that I have done and am considering in order to reduce the energy usage in my home.

Helping Reduce Energy in the Industrial and Commercial Sectors

It is relatively difficult for you, as an individual, to have a large-direct effect on the energy usage in the commercial and industrial sectors.  These sectors consist largely of corporations and businesses that you have little control over.  This does seem like a large problem at first but, there are things that you can do to suggest increased energy efficiencies.

Commercial Sector

The commercial sector consists of things like: stores, restaurants and offices.  The commercial sector is mainly concerned about reducing operating costs.  As energy costs increase, the benefits of increasing energy efficiency also increases.  Some methods commonly used to improve energy efficiencies include:

  • Using Energy Star rated devices
  • Modern, automated HVAC systems
  • Efficient lighting
  • Occupancy and/or photosensors to dim or shut off lighting
  • Solar panels to generate electricity or to heat water

Most of the items listed seem small but when implementing several small changes, you can experience a larger overall change (I feel a reoccurring theme beginning).

Many companies in the commercial sector take suggestions from their employees.  If you are employed in the commercial sector, you can make a friendly suggestion to your superiors that include ways to improve energy and/or operating efficiencies.  This can help you by:

  • Being noticed by your superiors
  • By increasing your company’s profitability, therefore allowing you to keep your job.

So, if you have any ideas on how to improve energy efficiencies in your workplace, do it.

Industrial Sector

The industrial sector consists of things like: farming, manufacturing, mining, construction and water management.  Like the commercial sector, the industrial sector is largely concerned with maximizing profits and minimizing operating costs.  Reducing energy consumption accomplishes both.  The industrial sector can improve their energy efficiencies by using the same methods as the commercial sector, in addition to:

  • Using more efficient equipment for farming, construction and mining
  • Generating electricity from waste using methane gas
  • Improving manufacturing processes to use less energy

Several equipment companies like, John Deere and CAT, continue to improve the efficiencies of their products.  This in turn reduces amount of energy used for related industries, like forestry, construction and mining. Also, farmers who raise livestock are increasingly installing anaerobic biodigesters in order to generate electricity.  Any farmer that has livestock, has manure and will always have manure, so instead of piling it up, why not use it for something useful.  These systems can give farmers a way to use a pesky byproduct to generate:

  • Electricity
  • Bedding
  • Fertilizer
  • Heating fuel

Again, as with the commercial sector, many industrial companies accept efficiency suggests from their employees.  If you make a good suggestion, then this will reduce their energy usage and therefore make them more money.  Whenever you can benefit the company you are working for, it is a good thing.  It is not only good for you but, for your company as well.

Even though most of the efficiencies gained in both the commercial and industrial sectors will come from the companies and businesses making changes, due to increased costs, you as an employee can also help with your suggestions.  We need to remember, we need to work together to reduce energy usage EVERYWHERE in our society.

I tried to list several ideas and methods used to reduce energy consumption but, I could have easily missed something.  If you have any other methods that could be used to increase energy efficiencies in your workplace, leave a comment.

Next week, I will begin to discuss methods to reduce energy consumption within the transportation sector.

Monthly PickensPlan.com Oil Import Data

As I mentioned several posts ago, T.Boone Pickens, each month, reports on three oil statistics, which include:  Barrels of Oil Imported by the U.S. , Money Sent Overseas and % Imported from Foreign Countries.

There is some good news this month, the amount if oil that we imported (339 million barrels) is down from last month (408.7 million barrels). Also, during February the US imported 62% of its oil versus 67.4 percent in January.

It is good to see less oil being used.  The down side to seeing these drops in oil usage is this: the US hasn’t put any dramatic oil conservation measures into place so, this decrease in oil usage is due to the US economy worsening.

When the oil import data for March is available I will let you know (a month from now, of course).

New reactor design can put nuclear waste to good use.

Intellectual Ventures says they have developed a nuclear reactor design, called a wave reactor. This wave reactor is intended to use depleted-uranium as a fuel source. The reactor is reliant on a wave passing through the material to breed plutonium from the uranium. This allows for the use of spent nuclear fuel, without many of the worries of proliferation and contamination. Though the intent of this wave reactor is to run on spent nuclear fuel, theoretically wave reactors could also run using raw fuel as well.

The wave inside the reactor moves about one centimeter per year. According to the designers of this reactor, these wave reactors should be able to run for up to 60 years, without ever being opened. This also limits the amount of risk and cost that is involved with typical reactor designs, which require to be refilled with new fuel every 12-24 months.

Here are some questions that I have regarding this reactor:

  • What type of byproduct (waste) is there?
  • How radioactive is the material?
  • How much energy can be generated?

Unfortunately, these questions don’t seem to be answered, at least not with this initial information.  I’m sure there will be more information available as time passes.

A very interesting video that gives a visual idea of how this reactor works:  TR10: Traveling Wave Reactor Video

To read a more detailed article on the Wave Reactor visit Technology Review.

What is more dangerous, coal energy or nuclear energy?

You’ve heard the politicians talk about clean coal technology and you’ve probably seen the clean coal advertisements as well. Both the politicians and the advertising campaigns have failed to answer two questions directly, “What is clean coal technology, exactly, and what benefits does clean coal technology promise to bring to your typical coal power plant?”  Both of these questions are fair questions that seem perfectly normal to ask.  I asked myself the same two questions, but no one could really answer either of them directly.  Clean coal technology is a technology that exists mainly in theory but not in practice.  At the time of this writing there isn’t a single coal power plant in the United States that has any sort of technology being used that you could classify as “clean coal technology.”  The beauty of clean coal technology is that is doesn’t have to exist yet.  When enough hype is created over something that is still in its infancy, then eventually you begin to believe it is real and that we should invest in it in order to make our future a cleaner one.  Since clean coal technology basically doesn’t exist, and since no one can give a exact definition of what this technology will do, I have come up with my own basic definition.

Essentially what clean coal technology is promising, is to clean up what is coming out of the smock stack(s) of a coal power plant. Clean coal technology is defined on Wikipedia as:

Clean coal technology is an umbrella term used to describe technologies being developed that aim to reduce the environmental impact of coal energy generation.[1]. These include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, gasification (see also IGCC), treating the flue gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide,carbon capture and storage technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and dewatering lower rank coals (brown coals) to improve the calorific quality, and thus the efficiency of the conversion into electricity.

Clean coal technology usually addresses atmospheric problems resulting from burning coal. Historically, the primary focus was on sulfur dioxide and particulates, due to the fact that it is the most important gas which leads to acid rain. More recent focus has been on carbon dioxide (due to its likely impact on global warming) as well as other pollutants[2]. Concerns exist regarding the economic viability of these technologies and the timeframe of delivery[3], potentially high hidden economic costs in terms of social and environmental damage[4], and the costs and viability of disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter[5] [6].

I believe all of these ideas are novel, but the idea of CO2 being captured seems to be quite prevalent. This seems to be a very important thing on everyone’s agenda. Even on President Obama’s site, the only thing he mentions in the clean coal technology portion of his site is carbon sequestrating. It seems like we should focus on some other major issues with coal as well, like the fact that coal power plants emit radioactive particles. Coal plants emit more radiation into a surrounding environment than does a similarly sized nuclear power plant (Source: Scientific American and ORNL). Studies have shown that people experience more radioactivity next to coal plants, so why isn’t the general public afraid of coal power like they are nuclear power? Perception. Nuclear power has gotten the reputation as being highly radioactive and extremely dangerous. Nuclear power can be all of those horrible things, if it isn’t handled correctly.

Nuclear power isn’t a perfect energy producer, it has some drawbacks since it uses uranium, a finite resource, which, like crude oil or coal, does not have an endless supply, and long-term storage of the nuclear waste can be dangerous. Handling nuclear waste is a very serious problem, but coal power has a very similar problem with coal ash. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal combustion and it contains several toxic trace elements like uranium and heavy metals that are dangerous in certain quantities. Why then isn’t coal getting scrutinized for its byproduct, coal ash? Why isn’t there the same amount of panic towards a coal ash spill as there is for a nuclear waste spill? Again, I would have to blame this on perception and ignorance towards nuclear energy. The general public is afraid of nuclear waste because of the negative attention it generally gets, but much of the general public is unaware that coal ash is also a very dangerous substance.

Several dangers of coal ash are known, for example, it is said to increase the chance of cancer in surrounding communities and it can contaminate water with toxic metals and chemicals (See EPA Map for some known contaminated water sites).  Coal ash contamination is a very serious issue that needs to be dealt with, but for some reason the EPA has only been “promising” action since 2000.  Promises don’t help people much, especially when coal ash spills kill wildlife, destroy homes, pollute soil and contaminate water.  Below is a picture from the December 2008 Tennessee coal ash spill.

Courtesy of Brian Stansberry on Wikimedia

Courtesy of Brian Stansberry on Wikimedia

Without much doubt, coal will continue to be a important source for producing electricity. The need for clean coal technology is valid, but what part of coal is getting cleaned? Are we going to start storing coal ash in safer more contained places, instead of in open ponds, landfills and abandoned caverns?  Coal ash has the potential of being used for many things like cement, paints and metal castings, but very little of it gets used for any of this.  I hope coal ash begins to be disposed of properly, in a more environmentally and human friendly manner.

Neither coal power nor nuclear power are perfect solutions.  Coal, however, will continue to be used and it makes some sense to use coal. In a country that is in need of electricity and a country that has a significant amount of coal, it only makes sense to use it in certain applications.  Pushing for alternatives other than nuclear and other than coal would be the ultimate goal for generating societies electricity.

Ultimately, I hope to give an increased awareness of coal power and the major issues inherited in using it as a source for electricity. Hopefully coal stops being, what seems like, the first choice in power generation and maybe the EPA will actually start regulating the disposal of coal ash.

T.Boone Pickens Reports on Oil Imports

I am on the Pickens Plan mailing list, so periodically I receive emails containing various types of energy information. Today I received an email from Pickens Plan giving the amount of oil imported, during the month of January.

Sadly, January saw a 7% increase in oil imports over December, totaling 408.7 million barrels of oil. Ideally the amount of imported oil should go down or at minimum stay relatively close to the same.

Every month the Pickens Plan website will post how many barrels of oil were imported, along with the costs associated with those imports. Feel free to check out their web page, Monthly Oil Imports.

When will oil production peak?

When will peak oil happen?

One of the most common questions people ask when first learning about peak oil is when will “it” happen. People want to know “When will we run out of oil?” and later, “What is the date of Peak Oil?”

Unfortunately, these questions probably do not address what people really want to know. One of the most difficult things in educating people about peak oil is that you have to start off by telling them that their questions are incorrect. These questions stem from a lack of understanding about the world’s tiring oil production system and the extremely complex interaction between fossil fuel production and the economy.

Energy that can be summoned up at man’s command is his wealth in the physical world, and fossil fuel currently provides the vast majority of this wealth. At any given time, the net energy available for use by industrial man is given by the formula:

Eg – Ep = En

Where:

Eg is the gross energy extracted.

Ep is the Energy that has been consumed in the production of energy.

En is the net Energy that is available to power the industrial economy.

The net energy that is derived from fossil fuel production sets the possible wealth that our economy can potentially create. How much fossil fuel is produced over a given period of time is determined by a great many factors.

One of the most interesting and poorly studied factors in fossil fuel production is how the economy is affected by the decreasing availability of high quality oil reserves. While the U.S. Department of Energy and IEA show that gross oil production has been approximately flat over the last few years, this data does not take into account the increased amount of energy consumed in the extraction of decreasing quality reserves. Nor does it take into account the large amount of diesel fuel energy that has been converted into less desirable Ethanol or that the increase in the world’s population has decreased the quantity of oil energy available per person.

As the quality of a fossil fuel resource declines, the net energy available from its production decreases and the strain on the economy increases. Eventually, the economy will reach a point that it cannot afford to increase production, and thus will be resized for lower energy consumption. For a time, the price of oil may decline. This decline in price will actually further reduce the supply of oil because the new, more expensive production and recovery projects will be canceled or scaled back. And while the decreased oil prices from the economic downsizing may encourage the economy to grow again, this growth will quickly be stopped by the limited supply of high net energy resources.

Consider how the long-term, global trends of increasing energy consumption in oil extraction have affected the U.S.

In 1965 when the oil industry was just starting to experience declining results from increased efforts in oil production, the U.S. was the world’s largest creditor nation, and the wealth of the U.S was growing each year. In 1970, U.S oil production peaked and began to decline in spite of the greater amounts of energy expended in attempts to increase production.

Move to the fall of 2008, with the U.S as the world’s largest debtor nation and its wealth declining each year. Not even global oil prices in the $100 range and above for several months could raise oil production substantially above the level that it was in 2005 when oil prices were in the $45 range. Now in the winter of 2008, the economy has given in and oil consumption and oil prices have crashed. This cycle can be expected to continue unless proper management is implemented.

Without correct management of the economy, it is possible that the economy can be stimulated enough to get a short economic up cycle with oil prices and production higher than ever before. However, this becomes increasingly unlikely with each cycle.

I am convinced that no one understands all of the things that would be necessary to predict when global oil production will be at the highest level. There are just too many factors, including some that are completely unpredictable like the weather and politics.

I think that the question “When will oil production peak” is more accurately addressed by the following two questions:

1. When will increasing energy intensity of fossil fuel production begin to limit the wealth that can be created with the U.S. economy?

That already occurred in approximately 1965.

2. When will the increasing energy intensity of fossil fuel production really show up as a serious problem to the global economy?

That too has already happened, in the fall of 2008.

As for when the all-time peak of oil production will occur, each month that passes with the economy in decline increases the likelihood that the peak is now past. The reason is that high net energy reserves are being depleted, and low net energy reserves are not being developed. This makes it unlikely that any economic up cycle can last long enough and allow oil prices to be high enough to ever increase production above levels that were seen in the summer of 2005 – fall of 2008. But we will have to wait for the history books to be written for the best answer.