Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's the Batteries, Stupid

Barring an unforeseen technological breakthrough of monumental proportions we simply have to come to grips with the FACT that we will be dependent on fossil fuels for a long, long time. According to the author of "Gusher of Lies" and "Cronies", Robert Bryce, we are deluding ourselves with talk of energy independence - or more precisely we are being lied to.

Bryce is a high energy individual (pun intended). He is a journalist/author and pulls no punches with the liberal left, the conservative right and especially the fool hardy greenies. He is currently making the rounds promoting "Gusher of Lies" and he is making a lot of sense. His recent CSPAN Book TV appearance was a real eye opener for yours truly.

Politically he hails from the liberal left - but, to paraphrase him - he was a liberal who was mugged by reality. He now considers himself a centrist with conservative leanings when it comes to energy policy. He is extremely critical of the Bush administration, but not for the reasons you'd think. It's the Administration's schizophrenia on energy policy and ecology that gets him wound up. Me too. He is equally critical of the liberals and the "greens" and the whole alternative energy zealotry that abounds in the media today.

His message is not all doom and gloom, in fact he is actually optimistic about the energy future provided we all take off the blinders and act reasonably and realistically.

He believes the decarbonization of fossil fuels - something that has been happening for centuries anyway - is the solution to pollution. Natural gas, methane, butane etc are the fossil fuels of choice. Clean coal and nuclear power are also important components in the energy mix. What he doesn't put any stock in is wind, solar and ethanol to replace a significant portion of our energy needs we now rely on with oil. He has particular ire for ethanol which he believes is the biggest scam ever perpetrated on this country. I tend to agree on the grounds that it is highly subsidized with tax dollars and does very little to help the overall energy situation and/or pollution issues. He thinks using corn for fuel instead of food is immoral. Solar and wind are neither immoral nor effective. Hydro-electric may be the single most effective power source for electricity, emitting no carbon and producing highly reliable energy. But it also is so environmentally destructive that few places outside China are building new hydro dams.

It's the Batteries, Stupid
The problem with renewables is the intermittent nature of the wind, sunshine and crop availability. The Holy Grail in this scenario is the ability to store the energy - make hay while the sun shines - for those times when the wind isn't blowing and the sky is overcast. Bryce's most creative recommendation is the establishment of a Superbattery Prize of $1-10 billion for the development of a super-high-capacity battery system. The prize to paid by the government, of course. The point here is that the government would not be betting on the winner or the loser (read: ethanol) it would "incentivizing" all scientists and inventors in a competition.

His other thrust is the continued growth of Natural gas usage as a huge part of the solution for the so-called greenhouse gas problem. CO2 emissions from natural gas are half of those of coal. Natural gas is being found at a rate faster than that of new oil reserves, it is relatively abundant, and our reserves are longer lived than our oil reserves. As Bryce explains in his interview in Mother Jones Magazine "And yet, in the current energy discussion, natural gas is kind of the redheaded stepchild. It does not get the kind of attention it deserves."

As it stands right now oil is king. Nothing short of the aforementioned breakthrough is going to supplant it. Many analysts conclude that it is going to take a mix of approaches to get us to the promised land without said miracle. The current alternatives in the renewable arena of solar, wind and bio-fuels combined will not amount to a hill of beans as the world population increases and steadily moves out of poverty. As for his particular ire for ethanol Bryce makes some good points:

...the stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there's a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn. Other boosters, including Woolsey, claim there are huge energy gains (as much as 700 percent) to be had by making ethanol from grass.

But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser.

All this on top of huge subsidies from federal, state and local governments. There are many other irons in the fire when it comes to making bio-fuels that look far more promising than corn based ethanol. Are they getting the attention they deserve? No. Even after reading Herbet Meyers impassioned defense of bio-fuels I still can't get past the subsidies and the tariffs imposed on imported ethanol.

Meyers rightly points out that fuel and food price spikes are more a result of increasing demand as more and more people on this planet rise out of poverty. This is fine, but it still doesn't explain our country's totally insane energy strategy or lack thereof.

One thing that Bryce says that is entirely true: the energy business is the most important and the most complicated of human institutions. I don't entirely agree with all his conclusions or his slash and burn style, particularly when it comes to politics, but, the points he raises and the evidence he cites is compelling food for thought.

Could advanced battery technology be the breakthrough we are waiting for? I for one hope so.



al fin said...

Craig: Thanks for the plug over at Birdnow's blog.

Biomass energy is essentially solar energy with built-in storage. The energy comes from the sun, just as in PV. PV can be more efficient than photosynthesis, but it lacks good storage at all scales, and will probably not have that multi-scale storage for decades. (2030 etc)

Cellulosic energy processes return approx. 6 units of energy per unit consumed. The problem with biomass is also its strength--the low density compared to oil and coal. That gives local and regional infrastructure and industries an advantage over the huge nationals and multinationals.

You will see more modest profit margins with biomass than with oil and coal, so that the bigger industrialists will not be as interested. That leaves plenty of opportunities for small and intermediate scale business startups at the local/regional levels. Vinod Khosla's interest is something of an anomaly.

Anything with Pimental's name on it seems to turn up as garbage, mathematically. Anyone who quotes Pimental liberally (eg Bryce) will be viewed skeptically by myself, until proven that they know what they are talking about.

I criticize corn ethanol frequently, yet on many levels even corn ethanol performs far above Pimental et al's criticisms. Of course, sorghum will probably become a much better crop feedstock than maize and even cane, and eventually cellulosic feedstocks will probably be the most economical.

No one is more critical of the global warming orthodoxy than myself, but I find too many people confusing the drive toward bio-energy with the holy warmer orthodoxy. The two issues should be kept separate.

StaticNoise said...

I knew bio-fuels and the so-called global warming mitigation should not be coupled, but by God take a look at the commercials on TV for GM cars and British Petroleum... The implication is clearly that if you use E85 you're saving the world.

But what about the transport issue? I keep hearing that ethanol doesn't travel well. It that true of all the bio-energy offerings? Surely if it is to be an important part of the energy picture you have to be able to distribute it.

Regarding Bryce I just found him an interesting counterpoint to my idealist friends who just think we can snap our fingers and this intertwined, interdependent world we built on the back of oil can be magically transformed. He seems to have a realistic outlook.

al fin said...

Butanol and other longer chain hydrocarbons and alcohols will replace ethanol eventually.

Ethanol travels well for me. Single malt travels the best, but other forms will do as well in a pinch. ;-)

I always say that ethnanol is for drinking, not for driving. But apparently the high octane of ethanol does improve some characteristics of low octane gasoline.

The thing that gets my goat about this "let's demonize the biofuels" fad is the people who make a political cause out of something that should be a dead serious energy issue.

I don't know enough about Bryce yet to put him in that category.