OPEC, Get Your Claws Out of Us You Bloodsucking Bitch

Sorry for the delay in this post, folks. Life intervened.

It doesn’t do us any good to have a country full of fuel cell, electric and hybrid vehicles if we can’t produce the hydrogen and electricity to run them. It would also be nice to have enough electricity to power our homes, businesses and factories without the need to use non-renewable sources. That leads us to Part Three of my plan, “OPEC, Get Your Claws Out of Us You Bloodsucking Bitch

But, before we get into power generation there’s another area of technology that we have to address first. If you go into a MacDonald’s at noon, it’s almost a given that “fast food” won’t be. Odds are you’ll stand in line for a while before you get to place your order. Go into the same MacDonald’s at 2:45 PM and you’ll probably have three order takers staring you in the face. Everybody eats at the same time.

We have the same problem with electric power generation. During peak periods, when businesses are all open and factories are all humming then we use nearly all the power that we can generate. Conversely, at 3:00 AM, the grids are full. Electric power plants, whether nuclear, coal fired or hydroelectric, work best when they’re running at or near full capacity. Cycling them up and down is inefficient. The problem is that there hasn’t been a good way to store the energy created during off-peak hours for later use during times of high demand. If we’re going to become truly energy independent, we have to make the best use of all of our generation capabilities and that means we have to “level load” electricity generation. We have to develop a means to store the energy.

My boss, Tom, is unusual in the world of bosses. On fairly regular basis, he says things that actually make sense. Because of this little quirk that he has, I tend to listen when he and I have a conversation. Well, pretty much anyway. A while back he and I were talking about this subject. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, he veered off and started talking about the movie “The Graduate”. He recounted the scene where Mr. McGuire walks up to Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and they have this exchange:

Mr: McGuire: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word.”

Benjamin: “Yes, sir.”

Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”

Benjamin: “Yes, I am.”

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics”

Tom looked at me and said, “Are you listening”

“Yes I am.” I replied.

“Batteries.” He said.

He’s right. Battery technology is going to be crucial over the next couple of decades. Fortunately, battery technology is one of the areas that hasn’t been totally neglected since the last oil crisis. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot to be done. Also unfortunate is the likelihood that any significant breakthroughs in battery technology will use elements that aren’t easily found in the United States. The recent advances made by Subaru with Lithium Vanadium batteries are an example. Lithium is commonly found in granite. Granite we have. Vanadium can also be found in some areas of the Great Plains, but the largest deposits are in China and Russia. So, while battery research and development is key, it can’t be the only direction we look for energy storage.

As luck would have it, most of the needed technology is already available for the best option for storing excess electricity. That option is hydrogen. Excess electricity could be used at the generation site to split water into oxygen and hydrogen using electrolysis. The hydrogen can then be stored for later use in fuel cells to produce electricity when loads increase, the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. While not terribly efficient, systems like this are in place and being used in Italy and Japan. Even more important, recent advancements are addressing the inefficiency issue.

The problem with electrolysis is that it requires too much energy and that the catalysts required are very expensive. Riding to the rescue is Daniel Nocera, a researcher at MIT who has developed a cheap catalyst that solves a big part of that equation. There’s still work to be done, but by building on his discovery we are literally months or at most a few years away from being able to cheaply produce hydrogen. Solar cells are the first choice to exploit this technology, but the reality is that any excess electricity could be used with his process. Once the hydrogen is produced, it can be used in any fuel cell.

So, we’ve got a plan to handle problem of level loading. but which way do we jump to produce the electricity? Mr. Pickens is right, wind power is a piece of the puzzle. But, filling the center of our country with windmills is not the way to go. Wind power should be used as a supplement in those areas of the country where the prevailing winds are sufficient. It is not a great candidate for a primary source of power for several reasons. First, wind is fickle. Although the plains area is the best candidate we have, there’s no way to guarantee over a given period of time how much electricity could be produced. Second, the center of the country is not where we need the electricity the most. The big users are on the east and west coasts. Building the transmission pipelines to service those two areas will be costly and time-consuming. The most cost effective solutions involve using the power near where it is generated. The third reason is one that is often overlooked, and that is maintenance. As an engineer I’m often a part of the preventative and repair maintenance that machinery in constant use requires. I don’t want to think of the time and money involved with maintaining several hundred thousand wind turbines. Use the technology, yes. But use it where and how it makes sense.

Solar power is another important part of the energy solution. But, like wind power, we need to think it out. It should be used in those areas that have sparse populations and abundant sun. That means that the southwest is the best candidate. Unlike wind farms which can co-exist nicely with farmers and ranchers, solar farms are much more land use exclusive. It’s hard to farm around a solar panel. Past that, they also have the same logistic limitations that wind farms have.

Coal fired plants are the next option, but it’s a tough one. We have tremendous coal reserves in the United States, more than enough to last for two hundred years. But here’s the thing, coal is the least environmentally friendly way that we have to generate power. Having said that, I’m sure that the entire states of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Kentucky are, as I write, calling up their militias to track me down. But I speak the truth. Despite the rhetoric about “clean coal”, there is no such thing. At best clean coal should be called “not quite as dirty as it could be” coal. But, as often happens, it’s not that simple of an argument. Coal currently provides about fifty percent of our electric generation capacity and we can’t walk away from it. Our current plants must be maintained and research should continue into cleaner coal. But let’s also recognize that even coal advocates say that we’re fifteen to twenty years away from coal technology that is substantially cleaner than what we have now. In addition, to clean the process to that point will increase the cost of coal generated electricity by thirty to forty percent. Here’s the kicker, coal is still a fossil fuel and it’s still going to run out. Like natural gas, it’s better to use coal as a stop gap and concentrate our major R&D efforts on renewable sources. And, despite what the coal industry would like you to believe, renewable means more than wind and solar power.

Hydroelectric power has long been an important part of our electric generation industry. Some states get over half of their electricity from hydroelectric and the United States is the world’s fourth largest generator of hydro power. Despite that, there are no current large scale hydroelectric projects on the planning boards for the United States. There are reasons for that. Hydroelectric power is clean and renewable but it has its own set of issues. First, it’s expensive to build dams and buy the land that’s required for the reservoir. Second, the immediate trade off is usable land for a man-made lake. They aren’t making any more land and some would say that we have enough lakes. Third, and I know Mr. Limbaugh would have a fit if he read this, the plants can be devastating for aquatic life up stream and down stream. Finally, we’ve already done the easy ones in the U.S. From here on, it’s diminishing returns. Keep the ones that we have running a full capacity but it’s not the way to go from here on out.

Geothermal power is a well kept secret in the U.S. It’s the most stable renewable power source we have, but no one talks about it much. One of the big pluses is that the greatest potential for it is in the western states which happen to be exactly where it’s needed. The best part is that the technology is developed, proven and currently in use. We just need to do more. The concept is simple. Dig a couple of really deep holes, say about ten kilometers deep (yep, it’s been done and no we don’t need any laser fired earth melting submarines to do it). Then you pump water down one hole and steam comes up the other hole. The steam runs the turbine and before you know it the lights are on. Yes, you do have to be in a good geothermal field, but the deeper you can drill the more forgiving that requirement becomes. Geothermal power is renewable, dependable and constant. Shame on us for letting it languish.

Finally, for current technologies, we end with nuclear. Yes, I know, there are and always will be the specters of nuclear waste and plant accidents. They’re a problem, but here’s the reality. More environmental damage has been done by fossil fuels in the past sixty years than nuclear power – by a factor of a hundred. There have been no accidents with high level nuclear waste and there have been only two accidents at nuclear plants. Chernobyl was a wake up call for the Russians hopefully they’ve changed their designs. Despite all the bad press, Three Mile Island worked. Yes, there were mechanical failures and yes there were operator mistakes. But, even with both of those, the system worked. No lives were lost. No long term damage was done to the surrounding area. Minimal radiation escaped and there was no proven impact on human life. More importantly, changes were made both in design and procedures that make even that level of accident unlikely in the future. Nuclear power is safe, efficient and even the environmental community grudgingly agrees that it has to be a cornerstone of our future energy plan. John McCain is advocating forty-five new plants by 2030 and an ultimate goal of one hundred. I’m on board with the forty-five. But I’m going to wait until next post to discuss the hundred.

The final part of this series is going to be titled:

OPEC, Yeah, I remember her…….I think.

See Ya,

TD

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