Living Hysterically

It seems to me 2014 was not so much the year of "living dangerously" as of living hysterically regarding global warming. 2015 might still bring more of it before (I hope) sobriety begins to return to the energy / climate discourse. 

The first thing we probably need to understand is the MAGNITUDE of the high carbon energy we should replace with lower carbon varieties.

Here we see our total primary energy consumption in 2013*:

As we may see, fossil fuels overwhelmingly dominate the current energy market and this is not due to cute political tactics but to the fact that fossil fuels excel in many of the most important energy attributes (per Peter Tertzakian):

1. Versatility
2. Scalability
3. Storability and transportability
4. Deliverability
5. Energy density
6. Power density
7. Constancy
8. Environmental sensitivity
9. Energy security

Not to mention that most of the current energy infrastructure in the world is designed around fossil fuels and that they tend to be the lowest cost alternatives in most uses.

So, let's state it bluntly: today we don't have a cheaper / better alternative to fossil fuels. We don't. Yes, hydro is great in places with abundant hydro resources but it probably is already reaching its peak in global market penetration. Yes, nuclear is very good for generating electricity but very few countries have launched massive nuclear build ups. 

Another point we should bear in mind is that "energy" is not the same thing as "electricity." The latter is only a fraction of our total energy consumption. (IEA data).

Fuels used in electricity generation are relatively "easy" to replace, at least in theory. Fuels used in other economic activities (transportation, industrial processes, etc.) are more difficult to replace. 

Let's also say this off the bat: renewables (solar and wind) will survive and maybe even thrive in the coming decades but they will not replace fossil fuels wholesale. Why? Because they are too diffuse, intermittent, unreliable and require vast amounts of resources (for their manufacture, installation and continuous replacement) even when massive storage is not considered. If their penetration increases high enough then the storage issue cannot be ignored anymore and their appeal would drop even further (higher costs and higher GHG emissions).

So, bar a black swan or two, there will be no silver bullets. Nothing should be removed from the table.

a. More efficient coal plants. Coal is not going away any time soon. Very important CO2 reductions could be achieved here.

b. Replace coal plants by natural gas plants. Arguably this could achieve the fastest CO2 reductions.** Yes, we can discuss methane leaks all day but let's remember coal is not only CO2 emissions, but also ash and other pollutants. 

c. Nuclear. What is not to like here? Well, upfront costs need to be reduced. Also, better technology is in the pipeline that would make nuclear easier to sell.

e. Efficiency / thrift.

f. CCS. This is THE most controversial of all but why eliminate it preemptively? Let CCS proponents carefully make their economic / environmental case. 

g. Hydro was, is, and will continue to be the premier renewable resource. However, as mentioned, it is probably peaking in global market penetration.

h. Other renewables: the EIA estimates that by 2040 wind & sun will produce 6% of global electricity. Let's say the EIA is wrong and they will actually supply twice that amount: 12%. By 2040 electricity should be about half of our total consumption, so let's say other renewables will supply 6% of our total primary energy supply. Fine. Don't fight it. Write it off. Now let's stop investing inordinate amounts of time in these technologies and focus on the other 94%.

i. Geo-engineering. Why not? No matter in how much hurry we are, it takes time to bring an elephant to term. Thus fossil fuels will continue to dominate the market for decades to come. 

Dogbert says it is better not to do anything rather than doing the wrong thing, so here we have a message for the Pope, Leo DiCaprio, Al Gore and Greenpeace:

Your "help" is not required or even welcomed. Let engineers lead the design of low carbon energy systems. Well intentioned persons not expert in the required disciplines can do more harm than good.

As a plus, we engineers will pledge not to forgive the sins of others, act in Hollywood movies or deliver advice in subjects we know nothing about.

Thank you.

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram

* http://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/Energy-economics/statistical-review-2014/BP-statistical-review-of-world-energy-2014-full-report.pdf



Low Carbon Electricity

According to the EIA in 2012 the world consumed 21,081 billion kWh and we are on track to raise our consumption to ~38,000 billion kWh by 2040.

Let's make a first approximation on how much generating capacity we would need to supply the latter amount with low carbon sources.

I want to underline this is a simplification since we are just going to consider the average annual electricity consumption while in the real world:

1. Electricity use varies locally by the hour and throughout the year.
2. We don't have a single global grid and thus we need spare capacity all over the globe.
3. There will never be a single technology supplying all the electricity.
4. The cost of the kWh is paramount, so electricity supply is more an economic consideration than a technical one.

However, having said the above let's just make the calculations to arrive at a ball park figure per technology.

The average global annual consumption would be:

     38,000 billion kWh / 24 hours / 365 days = 4,338 GWe.

If supplied with 1 GWe nuclear power plants at 85% CF we would need:

     4,338 / 1 / 0.85 = 5,104 NPP.

If supplied with 1.5 MW wind turbines at 30% CF we would need:

     9.6 million turbines.

If supplied with 230 watt solar panels at 15% CF we would need:

     126 billion panels.

However, it is important to note that both wind turbines as well as solar panels would require gigantic storage capabilities that would have to be added to the "material" above. All these devices would require massive mining operations. 

Finally, we should consider that by 2040 only ~50% of our energy consumption will be represented by electricity. The other 50% is more difficult to replace with low carbon options.

Let's say (again, for simplification purposes) that we reach steady state consumption by 2040 and that nuclear plants last 60 years, wind turbines 20 and solar panels 25.  How many of each would we need to replace annually?

Here we are:

     NPP = 85.

     Turbines = 480,000

     Panels = 5 billion

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter: @luisbaram


Renewable Project

This report is for my friends Lars and Francis.

The problem: 
We consume ~ 21 GWh per year and want to switch over to 100% renewable energy.

The first steps:

We already had preliminary meetings with two renewable electricity companies.

Interestingly, one is a "pure play" solar and the other is an almost "pure play" wind.

This is the solar one:


This is the wind one:


In essence, both offer the same thing:

1. No upfront investment.
2. We are required to sign a multi-year supply contract.
3. Our electricity cost will be 10 to 15% lower versus the regular utility.
4. We will not physically be connected to either their solar panels or wind turbines but the respective energy we consume will be virtually assigned from the renewable production. In other words, there will be no change in our connections to the current electricity company.
5. Even if a catastrophe wiped out the wind or solar farm, physically nothing would happen to our supply (although the price would increase to the original level).
6. Some of our buildings might require smart meters but they also cover this investment.
7. We will be able to claim some (although not all) the CO2 credits. These credits will be split between the producer and the consumer. The exact split should be published by the government early next year.

These are the generation costs that the second company shared with us:

a. Natural gas combined cycle plant: 2 to 4 cents (US).
b. Wind: 4 to 7 cents.
c. Solar PV: 9 to 10 cents.

That is why they in particular won't do a large solar project unless there is no other option.

The delivery time for their respective project is 12 to 24 months (the solar company is somewhat faster).

If you ask me (this is not the way they explained it), any of these renewable propositions is a win-win-lose situation.

The generating companies above make money (even though they cannot compete with natural gas, see above, they have other "green" incentives); we (the large consumer) make money (since we will be paying less for the electricity); the loser is the state electricity company that will have to manage all this intermittent power and whose operating cost will probably increase.

Then, why is the state electricity company game in these type of projects? The answer seems to be that the Mexican government has pledged to a 30% renewable capacity goal by 2024 (the country is currently at 20%). So, in a way, it is also a win for the country and the state utility: meet the internationally committed renewable objectives.

As of today we have met with executives from both supplier companies. With the first one we have already signed the respective NDAs and the next step is for our lawyers to review the contract. Simultaneously we'll share with them our electricity bills from all our buildings so they can prepare a specific proposal. The same steps will be followed with the second company.

The only real surprise for me was the stated annual capacity factor of their wind turbines (second company): 38%. These are NOT offshore turbines; actually they are less than 100 kilometers from my office. Also, this is not a sales pitch because, again, we are not buying the turbines, only energy at a guaranteed discount. 

Another plus of this project for us, if it is finally approved and implemented, is that we'll request part of the electricity savings channeled for employee motivation. ;)

Friends, I'll keep you posted. Once we have all the information my lobbying with the CEO of our company will continue. 



Feasibility of Moon Energy Project

I do concede this is a project where costs would be quite difficult to estimate.

However, first there is a fundamental technical question that needs to be answered:

1. What percent of the microwaves sent from the moon antennae network will be received by the respective antennae on Earth?  I don't know if it is physically possible to focus microwave beams so most of the energy hits relatively small antennae more than 350,000 kilometers away. 

Once the above question is properly answered, we can move to the cost. The following list is not comprehensive, it is just to start the conversation:

  • Establishing of the mining/manufacturing/deployment moon base. How many tons of equipment would be sent from Earth? How many people will work there full time? How often will they come back to Earth? We'll obviously need to know the cost per ton of delivery to the moon.
  • According to the IEA, the Earth will consume 40 trillion kWh by 2040. Translating 10% of that amount to average consumption would give us ~457 GW. If we consider the solar capacity factor in the Moon (feel free to challenge this number) at 40% (much higher than on Earth where it averages ~15%), then we need the following installed capacity: 1,140 GW (for 10% of global consumption). As a reference, the total solar PV installed on Earth at the end of 2013 was ~139 GW.
  • If the panels are going to be located in the near and far side of the moon, the transmission lines need to be considered also.
  • However, we first have to answer question #1 above. If the answer is, say, 33% then the capacity would need to be increased accordingly.
Again, all the above does not mean it cannot be done, but it does mean that a lot of homework needs to be done to calculate its feasibility.

Bottom line, I think the fundamental activity would be to answer question #1 and then establish a pilot plant of, say, 1 MW. When would this happen?

On the other hand, this project (at much smaller scale) might be just right for supplying a moon base with energy.

Thanks for your interest in energy.


No energy technology should strive to label itself as fail-safe because... it would be setting itself for failure.

Nothing is safe in an absolute sense. Hundreds of persons die every year in airplane accidents and yet plane travel is the safest mode of transportation.

More than a million persons die every year in car accidents (and close to 20,000,000 are harmed) and yet nobody is seriously considering banning the automotive industry. 

Even if we focus on electricity itself, just in the USA, ~60 persons die every year in accidental electrocutions.** Are we going to ban electricity? I don't think so. 

So, nuclear should label itself as what it really is: the safest energy source our civilization has access to, bar non.*

And yes, just like the aviation industry has gotten dramatically safer over the years, nuclear will certainly continue to improve to maintain, long term, its badge as the safest energy we have.

Today nuclear accounts for 4.8% of the world's total primary energy supply (IEA data).  If nuclear participation eventually reaches, say 50%, in absolute terms we may see more accidents although in relative terms it will probably continue to improve.

Somebody once said: "there is nothing more risky than taking too many precautions."

We need loads and loads of low carbon, scaleable, dense, reliable, constant energy. And nuclear fills these requirements better than any other energy we have. Sure, even better and safer designs are in the pipeline and they should soon hit the market.

Conclusion: nothing is perfectly safe but in reality nuclear is and will probably continue to be the safest energy humanity has access to. 

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram




Technical Feasibility

In the energy discourse, we see all sorts of interesting possibilities to generate electricity but the first thing we have to understand is that electricity is a commodity and thus price is all important. One cent per kWh can make or break a technology.

Consequently, all technologies aspiring to a significant participation in the energy market need to calculate what the cost of their kWh will eventually be.

Just yesterday, this idea was brought to my attention:


Their value proposition is:

"Harnessing solar energy using solar panels on the moon would not be an easy undertaking, but if you consider what we stand to gain, Lunar Solar Power is not just a solution for our power needs as a country, it is the solution for the power needs of the world!" 

It sounds interesting, but we have to make the pertinent engineering questions:

1. How will they deal with the (long) lunar night. On Earth the intermittency of solar is bad enough and it tends to cycle in 24 hours. The lunar night lasts for a full fortnight.

2. What would be the efficiency of the conversion / transmission / conversion of the system? In other words, there is an efficiency conversion in the moon between the solar panels and the microwave transmitters, then there are losses in the space between the moon and Earth, then only a fraction of the energy emitted by the moon antennae reaches the receiving Earth antennae, and then there is further loss in the conversion of that microwave energy back to electricity.

3. What would be the useful life of the solar panels on the moon? The moon does not have an atmosphere to shield the panels from micrometeorites and thus in space the useful life of panels tends to be considerably shorter than on Earth.

4. What will be the size of the area dedicated on Earth for the receiving microwave antennae? Where will they be located? What percent of the total microwave energy emitted from the moon will hit the receiving antennae on Earth?

5. Would the population around these antennae experience any negative health effects? Would there be significant NIMBY opposition to such a project?

6. What is the time frame for a "proof of concept?" In other words, when can we expect to have running a say, one MW experimental unit on the moon beaming microwave power to the Earth?

7. And finally, all important, what would be the anticipated cost of the kWh produced by these means? If the ultimate cost is say, more than 15 cents (US), then it is probably time to go back to the drawing board.

What is the probability of more than 1% of the Earth's energy requirements supplied by this Lunar Solar Power project in 100 years? 

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram


Green Leaders

It seems to me that current "environmental leaders" don't preach by example. They travel all over the world (in airplanes, not in bicycles or wind powered boats).

Of what magnitude are the annual carbon footprints of Al Gore, Kumi Naidoo and of the newly minted green spokesperson, Leonardo DiCaprio?

In my opinion, trying to push the green agenda by jetting all over the world all the time is the equivalent of "smoking against tobacco," or "fast fooding against obesity," or "drinking against drunk driving."

No, we all should DEMAND higher standards from the "green leaders."

Here are some suggestions:

1. They should live in Paraguay or Albania (100% of the electricity in those countries is hydro). Or, at the very least, they should live in France (thanks to nuclear, less than 6% of the electricity in that country is produced with combustible fuels). 

2. They should pledge never again to travel by plane. Nothing to negotiate here. If they need their faces to be seen all over the world, they can rely on video-conferencing.

3. Live in a small dwelling with little furniture in weather that requires no heating in winter and little cooling in summer. (I think Paraguay is beginning to look like the only viable option).

4. Don't own a car, what's more, they should do all their (local) transportation walking, or in a bicycle. (No public transportation since it is mostly diesel).

5. In general buy as little "stuff" as possible and for the most part concentrate mainly in purchasing food. No meat, though. 

Sure, the above would corner them into living a dull life with little opportunities, but hey, this is exactly what they are trying to impose on all of humanity so, why not start with themselves?

Aside from modifying their behavior, we also have a request for modifying their thinking, in particular:

a. Stop blocking that premier / scaleable / reliable / dense / low carbon energy: nuclear. Sure, current nuclear is not the greatest, but it is good enough while even better designs hit the market.

b. Move from a blanket opposition to GMOs to requesting that GMOs (on a one to one case) be properly vetted.

Today, what these environmental leaders seem to be saying is: "do as I say, not as I do."  This is NOT leadership.

We demand they do as they say.

Thank you.


Go Solar

This chart is deceiving in so many ways that it makes you wonder if there is a deliberate effort to confuse people.

Here are some pertinent questions:

1. That amount of land is supposed to cover all our energy needs or only the electric ones?
2. Does that amount of land include the space needed for the pairing fossil fuel power plants (to supply power at night or during cloudy days)?
3. If no pairing fossil fuel plants are being considered, then, does that area include the massive storage capability that would be needed (banks of industrial batteries, lakes, etc.).
4. Is the area needed by the inverters and transmission lines already included?
5. And probably the most important of all: do those areas include the massive mining / manufacturing / assembly operations required for such a solar PV build-up and for the regular replacement of all the components in this global system?
6. Let's not forget that also massive amounts of transportation / construction equipment would be required for that build-up: ships, trucks, cranes, forklifts, etc., etc., and all this equipment needs space to be build (and mining operations to obtain the raw materials). 

Some renewable promoters bend backward in such awkward and painful positions to try to justify the unjustifiable that the word that comes to my mind is: dishonesty.

Maybe I'm wrong and they are just overeager.


Grid Connected Solar PV

This post is for Suzy:

Difficult for 140 characters, so please bear with me.

Grid connected solar is very easy to calculate.

Say your annual electricity consumption is 6,000 kWh and that the annual solar capacity factor (CF) where your home is located is 15%.

First, let's calculate your average power use:

Av Power Use = (6,000 kWh / 365 / 24)*1000 = 685 Watts.

How much solar installed capacity would you need to produce that average power =

     685 / 15% CF = 4,567 W, or 4.567 kW.  Let's round it off to 5 kW.

That's it! Easy!

Sure, during April you'll probably produce MORE energy than you need and the excess would be dumped into the grid, then in December you'll probably produce much LESS energy than you need and the grid will supply the difference.  Let's say in April you produce 150% of your needs and during December only 20% of your needs. But the fact is you don't have to worry at all if the days are cloudy or short or long or if there is snow all over. The grid will guarantee that you will enjoy a constant supply 24/7/365.

Now, if you decided to disconnect from the grid it would be an entirely different and much more complicated situation.

The first question is, how much energy would you decide to store?

One day would be completely out of the question. Most certainly you would have to store weeks to have a somewhat reliable supply (see December).

To simplify (depending on the weather your consumption increases or decreases, usually the lowest consumption would be in Spring and Fall) let's consider every month you consume the same amount of electricity = 6,000 / 12 = 500 kWh.  So to be somewhat on the safe side you pretty much would have to store one month of energy or 500 kWh (actually more, because there are efficiency losses both during the discharge of the batteries as well as in the power inverters).

This amount of batteries wouldn't be cheap or environmentally friendly and you'll need the space to store them protected from the weather.

However, there is another important drawback to disconnecting from the grid:

Even though your average consumption is only 685 W, at any particular moment (air conditioner + microwave + coffee maker + etc.) you could be consuming, say, 10 times that amount.

For the grid that is a no issue, but if you are independent then your inverters and batteries need to be able to supply those surges. Again, not cheap.

So, bottom line, technically it is (somewhat) feasible to wean yourself from the grid but it wouldn't make economic or even environmental sense.

Thank you!