I Love Fossil Fuels

OK, no, seriously I'm not ready to join the "I love fossil fuels" crowd, however, having said that we do need a dose of reality.

Fossil fuels are not going away soon. What's more, even though their market penetration might begin to drop, their absolute use is still increasing and will continue to rise in the short / medium term.

Let's face the fact that our current world economy is almost fully dependent on fossil fuels.

As an example, let's mention Apple, a company that apparently is not connected to the fossil fuel industry. Well, the news is that it fully depends on fossil fuels and without them even that mighty technology company would probably go bankrupt.
  • It produces most of its hardware in China: a coal powered economy.
  • It transports its products halfway around the world in oil powered ships, trucks and airplanes.
  • The electricity with which its devices are operated by the final user comes mainly from coal and natural gas.
  • The customers visiting its stores don't precisely live next door, so they have to transport themselves to get the products (almost always in oil fueled private or public transportation).
  • Will the disposable income to buy Apple products even exist if its customers (or the parents of its customers) didn't have a job that is ultimately supported by fossil fuels?
  • We can go on and on, but I think we get the picture.
Now, if this is the picture for Apple, try to visualize the companies that are directly dependent on fossil fuels:
  • Car companies
  • Airlines
  • Electric utilities
  • Transportation companies (FEDEX and the like).
  • Oil, Gas, Coal companies.
  • Supermarkets (they ship their food and products from all over the Earth).
  • Travel companies (global tourism would practically disappear).
  • Again, we can go on and on.
More than 80% of the total energy of our civilization is fossil fuels based, but that doesn't mean 80% of the economy is fossil fuel based. No, essentially 100% of it is. Without fossil fuels, even renewable energy companies will go bankrupt. Why? Because overwhelmingly they need a pairing fossil fuel plant to operate, not to say anything about them needing fossil fuels for their manufacture, transportation and installation.

Yes, the electricity production sector is the "easiest" to convert to low carbon sources such as nuclear, but we need to understand two things:
  • Electricity is only a fraction of our total energy consumption.
  • "Easiest" doesn't mean "easy."

IEA data from 2014 report:* 

Close to 330 million automobiles were produced between 2010 and 2013 and almost all of them have an internal combustion engine. ** Today, in total, close to one billion vehicles are on the roads.

Yes, electric vehicles are increasing their market share (from nothing to almost nothing) but in absolute numbers, the internal combustion engine ones break a new record every year.

Electric cars already lost the war at the beginning of the 20th century. Will this time be different? I doubt it. As mentioned, in absolute terms, they fall farther behind every year. And, in any case, most of the electricity for EVs on the road today comes from coal or natural gas.

So, does this mean that fossil fuels will forever dominate the energy markets?

No. Independently of their supposed effects in warming the Earth, we cannot expect them to last forever. Yes, every year and in spite of all we consume, we seem to increase our reserves but inevitably the age of greatly diminishing returns will arrive.

So, what is my recommendation?

1. Stop thinking that renewables are the solution. They are not. Period. We are just kidding ourselves.
2. To massively replace fossil fuels, we need something with the potential to be better and by that we mean denser, cheaper and reliable. Today, the only thing we have that could eventually meet all those attributes is nuclear (all sorts of designs in either fission and / or fusion).
3. Sure, efficiency can reduce energy consumption, but no matter how much it is reduced we'll still need primary energy. So, yes, let's make things more efficient but that cannot be the only game in town. 

Some alarmists say: "if we continue using FF, we'll all die!"

Well, it is better to die than to commit suicide. 

Finally, a comment. Before you join the "I hate fossil fuels crowd" think about yourself and your family. Without FF would you:

  • Be able to drive / ride to your job?
  • Your children would be able to drive / ride to school?
  • Would you even have a job?
  • If you are an entrepreneur, would you even have backers / customers?

Thank you.

Feel fee to add to the conversation in Twitter.

* http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/key-world-energy-statistics-2014.html

** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_motor_vehicle_production


Carbon Taxes

Are carbon taxes a good idea?
Why are so many people asking their governments to implement carbon taxes?
Isn't asking for carbon taxes defeatism? In other words, does it mean that current alternatives to fossil fuels "know" they cannot compete with the leader and thus, instead of focusing on improving their own technology, prefer to try to ruin the party for the other guys?

Let's remember that at the end of the day carbon taxes are just taxes. So thanks, but no thanks.

On the other hand, technology is more important than taxes.

Did Apple demand a BlackBerry tax before releasing its first iPhone?
Did Apple demand a Kodak tax?
Did Apple demand a Nokia tax?

No, no, no. They just brought better technology to market and made the entrenched players irrelevant.

Sure, if you artificially inflate the costs of fossil fuels, alternatives might seem relatively more attractive but at the cost of decreasing the affordability of energy for all. Also, since almost every product (including food) has a heavy energy component, a carbon tax would certainly increase the price of almost everything.

Some may say that a carbon tax for fossil fuels "levels the playing field."  Really?  But then we should start charging a "grid tax" for renewables to compensate for the additional costs the electrical grid has to incur to receive the intermittent / non-dispatchable energy they dump into the grid. 

Before long others will certainly think of other clever taxes and governments would be all too willing to comply.  So no, let's not open (another) Pandora box of taxes. Enough is enough.

Better technology is the solution. If you are in the alternative energy business, stop whining and bring to market something better.

The world will receive you with open arms.

Thank you.

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter.

Renewable Energy Appeasement

I was mildly shocked yesterday because one of my nuclear friends started "supporting" renewables.*

His intention was to "appease" renewable backers so they may eventually agree not to oppose nuclear.

Well, in my opinion that is the wrong approach. Scientists pinpoint the problems but it is us engineers that need to solve those problems.

Renewables, in general, make no sense.


Because they are intermittent, unreliable, diffuse (in other words, they require loads of material and area to produce significant amounts of power), expensive (particularly when the "system" is considered), short lived (compared to other options) and do not particularly reduce carbon emissions (again, once the system is considered).

Yes, they have and will continue to have a niche in the global energy market, but it makes no sense to subsidize them to push them above and beyond their "natural" market penetration.

Solar, for example, makes a lot of sense in off-grid remote localities but eventually inhabitants in those locations will demand "real" electricity.**

Governments are creating a monster that will damage the economy (see what has happened in Germany with the Energiewende) if they don't curtail, and fast, all overt / covert subsidies for renewables.

Yes, if somebody wants to spend money from their own pocket in renewables, that is OK. What is not OK is for society to pay for their hobby. 

Yes, yes, yes, fossil fuels also have subsidies, but when you measure them per unit of energy actually produced they are lower than the renewable ones. Sure, we have no business subsidizing fossil fuels either, but two wrongs don't make a right.

Renewables, for the most part, are already mature technologies. That is one of the reasons why China is the #1 producer of solar panels and wind turbines.

As mentioned, renewables (since they capture diffuse power) require loads of "material" to produce meaningful amounts of energy. Some of the elements being consumed in the renewable trade are quite scarce and are badly needed in other sectors. Should we even be sinking them into renewables? This is a question we should definitely ask. ***

Finally, we have to understand that our financial / material resources are not infinite and thus we must use them wisely. Are we going to waste them in renewables, or invest them in better options such as nuclear, natural gas (replacing coal with it), and efficiency?

Appeasement won't work. We have to stand firm and defend our convictions on what works better for a) reducing our carbon emissions and b) begin to gradually reduce the market share of fossil fuels in the global energy diet.

Thank you.

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter. 

* By renewables I mean mainly solar PV and wind turbines. There is nothing wrong with supporting hydro which is, was, and will continue to be the premier renewable source. 


*** http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2011/January/CriticalThinking.asp


Fusion, the Future of Energy?

Will we ever master fusion to produce useful electricity?

I think the answer here is a resounding yes.

However, that is not the important question.

The important question is: what would be the anticipated cost of the kWh produced by a fusion reactor once the technology is mature?

If fusion cannot compete with fission, then it will never provide significant amounts of power for humanity.

We need to consider fission is a moving target, since it is improving and promising new designs are in the pipeline.

ITER is currently one of the most important fusion projects getting funded and its building costs have increased to US$ 16 billion.* This reactor is designed to never produce a single MWh of electricity.  It will only produce heat and then be shut down.

This is my bet: fusion would provide (if at all) less than 1% of our total primary energy supply by 2050.

Today, fission costs are low, and they will probably get lower in the years ahead.**

Conclusion: it doesn't really matter if fusion is technically feasible. To be an important component of our energy diet it would have to eventually be cheap enough to compete with fission. My opinion is that it won't get there this century.  Thus, should we be spending so many billions in trying to solve the energy problems of the 22nd century? Shouldn't we better use that money to improve fission and thus solve the energy problems of the 21st century?

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter. 

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITER

** http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Economic-Aspects/Economics-of-Nuclear-Power/


Keep Grinding Out that Sausage

Year in, year out we keep grinding out that sausage that the only solution to combat global warming is reducing our CO2 emissions, and thus to reduce our fossil fuel consumption (or, even more to the fringe, to massively implement CCS).

Well, we have news for you: bar a black swan or two, significantly reducing our FF consumption in the next few decades ain't gonna happen. Period. End of story. Elvis has left the (choose one: coal mine, oil rig, gas well). 

Renewables are growing fast but at the same time going nowhere.

Hydro has pretty much maxed out in percent of out total energy.

Nuclear seems promising but it is taking forever to ramp up. Will nuclear be the energy of the 22st century? Probably. But that is still far in the future. 

Consequently, fossil fuels will continue to provide most of our total primary energy supply at least through 2050 and possibly for the rest of the century.

Let's, as an example, review projections for China. Since China is, by far, the #1 CO2 global emitter, the example is pertinent:

Between now and 2035 these are the energy projections for China: 

"Demand for all fossil fuels expands with oil (+67%), gas (+270%) and coal (+21%) covering 66% of demand growth. Renewables in power (+580%), nuclear (+910%) and hydro (+50%) also grow strongly." *

However, even though renewables grow like crazy, and nuclear just seems to go off the charts, in absolute terms fossil fuels grow even more and thus:

"China’s CO2 emissions increase by 37% and by 2035 will account for 30% of world total with per capita emissions surpassing the OECD by the end of the Outlook." *

(This increase in China's emissions are loosely equivalent to 25 current Australias worth of emissions).

Thus, on the one hand that dream that some have of a 350 ppm future is impossible.  On the other we should really be preparing for an atmosphere with CO2 concentrations of 500, 600 ppm, maybe even higher.

Is that good or bad? We don't really know. Like everything else, it will probably have negative and positive consequences. What we do know is that, bar our friend in the picture above, it is the world our civilization will deal with in the short / medium term.

Burying our head in the sand won't do us any good. Let's confront the brutal facts. Let's prepare for that new reality. Just saying "it won't happen" or "it can't happen" is useless, and irresponsible.

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter.



The Sensible Believer

I consider myself a "sensible believer" in Global Warming.

In my definition, what does "sensible believer" mean?

I believe that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and thus that increased concentrations of it in the atmosphere would tend to increase the amount of heat trapped by that same atmosphere.

Also, I believe there is enough relatively unbiased evidence to state that over the past 50 years, the average temperature of the planet has increased by ~0.64°C.

So far, so good, but then come some "inconvenient" questions, like, for example:

  • Of the ~0.64°C, how much is man made?
  • Is all this temperature increase due to increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere?
  • Are there other mechanisms that would provide positive / negative feedback to the effect of the CO2?
  • Would all the effects of an eventual warming of the planet be negative? Or, could there be positive consequences also?
  • If there could also be positive consequences, would they compensate, at least in part, the negative consequences?

Now, as a "sensible believer," let me state what I don´t believe in:

  • That we know for sure how much the average temperature of the Earth will increase vs the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
  • That there is a "carbon budget" we shouldn't exceed.
  • That Global Warming is the most serious problem for humanity.
  • That any cost / suffering is justified to fight Global Warming.
  • That renewables (in particular Solar and Wind) are the best solution to reduce our CO2 emissions.
  • That the IPCC is perfect and that it's intentions are purely the presentation of science. 
  • That the believer side is "pure" and thus that no paid lobbyists are pursuing interests that have nothing to do with Global Warming.
  • Carbon taxes. When you boil them down to their essentials, carbon taxes are just another tax. So thanks, but no thanks. 
  • "Freak" energy such as wave, tide, etc. They are "interesting" but will continue to be almost irrelevant in our total primary energy supply.
  • That we have all the questions and all the answers: in other words, we are too arrogant. If the persons in 1915 would have tried to prevent our problems today, they would have failed miserably. 

So, as a "sensible believer" these are my inputs to the energy / climate discourse:
  • Intensely pursue improvements in efficiency. We have barely scratched the surface here and it is, for the most part, a win-win situation because efficiency does not reduce our standards of living.
  • Aggressively replace coal with natural gas. Aside from efficiency, probably nothing can reduce CO2 emissions faster.
  • In general, increase as much as possible the production of natural gas to not only replace coal with it, but minimize the usage of coal in the first place in developing economies. 
  • Do not go all out for renewables (Solar & Wind), this might end up being counter-productive. Thus, remove all overt / covert subsidies for renewables. They are valuable under some circumstances but let them stand on their own feet. While at it, let's remove subsidies for FF also, however, let's consider that per unit of energy produced renewables are today more subsidized than FF.
  • Let current nuclear continue to flourish, but more important, invest in R&D for future generations of nuclear (fission and fusion). Eventually (say in 100 to 150 years, nuclear may be our #1 energy source). 
  • Support innovation in general. 
  • Help reduce population growth in countries that cannot afford it. 
  • Carefully evaluate other "controversial" partial solutions: CCS, geo-engineering, etc.
  • Our global energy use is of such gigantic proportions that whatever we do, will take decades to show results. "It takes time to bring an elephant to term." Hysteria and doing something (anything) for the sake of doing it might prove counter-productive.
  • Essentially, the Global Warming issue is not primarily scientific. It is a political, economic, engineering, psychological, (plus many other things) issue. 
Both Robert Bryce and Richard Muller consider natural gas the best energy source we have, and the former states that our plan, long term, should be N2N, in other words: natural gas to nuclear.

From the energy point of view of our civilization, this plan seems to me perfectly reasonable. 

Thank you.

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


Moratory on Renewable Investments?

In general, in the quest for lowering our CO2 emissions, efficiency/insulation is the lowest of low hanging fruits. It gives us more bang for the buck than renewable energy. Let me elaborate. 

Let's make here a simple exercise comparing, say, installing solar panels in your house vs. replacing your lamps by more efficient ones.  Sure, this is something that is well on its way in many countries but it is an example of what can be done also with air conditioners (replacing them with units of higher SEER ratings), by the installation of insulation, and literally with hundreds of other efficiency projects.

Again, we'll elaborate on the lamps vs. solar one since it is very easy to present.

Let's say a 100 Watt incandescent light bulb costs $1 US dollar.
Let's say the equivalent to replace the above (23W) CFL bulb costs $3.00. (Your prices may vary, but these are the cost ball park figures I've just checked right now at Amazon.com).

Let's say your cost per kWh is $0.12 (again, your cost may be different and possibly higher).

We'll consider that you use the bulb 4 hours per day.

The question is: how much do you have to invest in CFLs to save one kWh of electricity?

The 100 W bulb consumes in a full year: 
     100W x 4 hours x 365 days = 146,000 Wh.  Divide this by 1,000 and we get 146 kWh.

Following the same steps, the CFL consumes 33.58 kWh.

Thus the costs of electricity to operate each bulb are:

     Incandescent: 146 x 0.12 = $17.52
     CFL: $4.03

So, by investing $3, you are saving $13.49 for four years (considering the CFL lasts ~6,000 hours).*

Thus, by investing $3, in total you are saving $54 dollars.

So your ROI is ($54-$3)/$3 = 1,800%.


Now, let's calculate how much solar installed capacity we would need to power that 100 W bulb.

     146 kWh /24 hrs / 365 days * 1000 = 16.67 W (average).

To produce this number of W (average) in a place with, say, 18% annual solar capacity factor (CF) you would need this installed capacity:

     16.67 W / 0.18 CF = 92.61 Wp

Let's say your residential system will cost $3.50 per installed watt (including inverters, installation, etc.). 

The total investment would be: $324.**

Let's say they last 25 years, so in total you would save: $17.52 x 25 years = $438.

So your ROI is: ($438 - $324) / $324 = 35%

The ROI of efficiency is FIFTY times greater.

Additionally, let's remember that the carbon emissions of the kWh not produced are zero, while the emissions of solar PV is ~46 grams per kWh, so, even in a purely environmental sense, the first option is more effective. 

If there ever was a no-brainer, this is it.

Thus, my humble recommendation is to establish a global moratorium on all new renewable energy installations and to channel all those hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually toward efficiency / insulation. 

Sure, somebody might ask: why don't we do both? However, since the ROI (and CO2 emissions reductions) is so much higher in the first option, renewables would make sense only when we run out of efficiency projects and we are still very far from that situation. 

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

*Another plus is that the CFL lasts longer than the incandescent bulb, but for simplification we'll just ignore this.
** Part of the cost might be covered with subsidies, but society would still be paying for it. 


Energy for Future Presidents

First, I want to thank Katherine for recommending this book.

Before "Energy for Future Presidents" I thought Robert Bryce's books on energy were the best introduction to energy / climate change for non specialists but now, in my opinion, this book by Mr. Muller is clearly superior.

Let me present some of the key points developed in the book:

  • Global warming is real, however, there is no alarmism or catastrophism here. The science of warming by CO2 is presented, but also the deliberate efforts by some scientists to make it seem worse than it actually is to "spur people to action." He also states the obvious: the real challenge to emissions reductions is not anymore in the "developed" world but in "developing economies." Interestingly, the best thing the USA can do to reduce emissions is helping China develop its shale gas (so they may replace coal with natural gas).
  • Electric Vehicles: the cost challenge of batteries is probably an insurmountable obstacle, so, ironically, the best battery types are not the most advanced ones but our old friend the lead-acid one. Sure, the range of cars using them wouldn't be that great but might be cheap enough to be attractive in developing economies. For the developed world, he pretty much writes off EVs. He makes the numbers for several battery chemistries and the cost per mile (considering the depreciation of the batteries) is way above gasoline (in the USA) except for lead-acid. 
  • Hybrid Cars: these not only are here to stay, but may eventually dominate the global market. They make economic and environmental sense. Go, Prius! However he does warn that plug-in hybrids are not a good idea. 
  • Natural gas is the benchmark and all other fuels (including nuclear) ultimately have to compete with it. Natural gas is extremely abundant and liquid fuels can be produced from it. Around the world already millions of cars run on natural gas. In electricity generation, it produces ~half the CO2 emissions of coal and even though fracking has some issues, they can be minimized with the right controls. 
  • Nuclear: he makes a review of many technologies (fission and fusion). He even mentions the original "cold fusion" as well as the new one (the one from the University of Utah). Essentially, very in favor of fission. Fusion, he pretty much positions it in the future and cold fusion (the Utah one) is written off as a mistake or worse. 
  • Efficiency: the no-brainer if there ever was one. Go for it!
  • Geothermal, wave, tide energy: might make sense in some specific localities but in the overall picture for the whole of our civilization are almost irrelevant. 
  • Solar PV: better suited for developing economies (in other words, where wages are low). In high wage countries PV is just too expensive. 
  • Oil: the reserves depend on the price point. If this price point goes high enough the reserves increase dramatically. Canada's reserves, in particular, might go off the charts if the price point increases enough. 
  • Coal: natural gas is better in almost every single parameter. We should try to replace coal with natural gas. 
The above are only some of the points covered in the book, however it is highly recommended because the author is very thorough, there are no black and white assertions. If everybody in the energy / climate discourse read this book, perhaps we could all come back to Earth and begin building from a realistic platform.

Warning: the green extremists will almost certainly find the information presented here very painful, but, as they say, "no pain, no gain."

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


Climate Believer

Yes, I'm a climate change believer, but I will be siding with the deniers.


Because many of the actions proposed by vocal believers are worse than doing nothing.

Here are some examples:
  • Renewable* energy targets. Why take this indirect and probably counter productive approach? Who says renewables reduce emissions system-wise? Show me one country with emissions below 100 grams per kWh that has achieved it primarily with solar and wind. The silence is deafening. 
  • Subsidies (overt and covert) for renewables. Let's not overlook that priority access to the grid by renewables IS a sort of subsidy. Why are reliable producers penalized to accommodate random energy dumps from renewables? It is not fair. 
  • Label wood as "renewable" and shamelessly burn it. And since Europe doesn't have enough, then let's burn the forests of North America!
  • Block energy access to the poor (particularly in poor countries). Oh, yes, India doesn't have the "right" to burn coal. Let them "leapfrog" to the newest technologies, like solar. Never mind it is not reliable and very expensive. Never mind the Energiewende has been a failure. WE know better than these bunch of Indians. 
  • Campaign against nuclear. This almost seems like a bad joke: campaign against the premier low carbon energy! Are they kidding? Can you consider yourself an environmentalist and be against nuclear? Can you consider yourself an environmentalist and NOT be pro-nuclear?
  • Tax incentives for electric vehicles (so, the poor have to pay for the toys of the rich? Wow!). Yes, divert more public funds to the ultimate cool toy of the rich: a Tesla!
  • Carbon taxes: when you boil them down to their essentials, they are just another tax. So, thanks, but no thanks. 
  • Oh, and finally: scare the population to death. Yes, no doubt the best way to get everybody on board is to create panic. And nobody is too young to escape this: let's begin by planting fear in the hearts of children at the most tender age possible. 

So yes, even though I am a believer in climate change "officially" I am now siding with the deniers.

Lately, they seem to make more sense respecting the well-being of humanity.

If a "solution" implies vast suffering for billions of humans, then it is not a solution.

Stay tuned, a future post would deal with the subject: the sensible believer.

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

Thank you.

* By renewable I mean solar PV and wind turbines. Hydro is the premier renewable resource. It has led, leads and will continue to lead in electric energy generation. Kudos to hydro!