Solving secondary problems first

10 08 2018

Can you run a self-driving car on a desert island?

Of course not: There are no roads; and there is no fuel for the car.

Why do I mention this?  Because the received narrative around climate change and so-called “peak oil demand” is that new technologies like electric self-driving cars are going to ride to our rescue in the near future.  This is a nice fantasy; but I would draw your attention to the fact that while we still have roads, along with much of our infrastructure they are falling apart through neglect.  Without the enabling infrastructure, the proposed new technologies are going nowhere.

Energy, meanwhile, is a far greater problem.  Globally (remember most of the food we eat and the goods we buy are imported) 86 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels – down just one percent from 1995.  Renewable energy accounts for nearly 10 percent; but most of this is from hydroelectric dams and wood burning.  The modern renewables – solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy – that so many people imagine are going to save the day account for just 1.5 percent of the energy we use.

Modern renewables are a kind of Schrodinger’s energy because they are simultaneously replacements for (some of) the fossil fuel that we are currently using and the additional energy to power all of the new technologies that are going to save the day.  And rather like the benighted feline in Schrodinger’s experiment, so long as nobody actually looks at the evidence, they can continue to fulfil both roles.

Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of not having sufficient energy to continue growing our economy, it is psychologically discomforting even to ask why energy costs are spiralling upward around the world, and why formerly energy independent countries are resorting to difficult, expensive and environmentally toxic fuel sources like hydraulically fractured shale or strip mined bitumen sands.  This, perhaps, explains why so many people focus their attention on solving second order problems – something psychologists refer to as a “displacement activity.”

An example of this appeared in today’s news in the shape of an Australian attempt to revive hydrogen-powered cars.  In theory, hydrogen (which only exists in compounds in nature) is superior to (far less abundant) lithium ion batteries as a store of energy to power electric vehicles.  Crucially, unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, hydrogen cell electric vehicles do not need to be recharged, but can be refuelled in roughly the same time as it takes to refuel a petroleum vehicle.  And, of course, hydrogen vehicles do not require tax payers and energy consumers to foot the bill for the upgrade of the electricity grid needed for battery-powered cars.

hydrogen car

The drawback with hydrogen is that it is difficult to store.  Because hydrogen is the smallest atom, it can gradually corrode and seep out of any container; especially if it is compressed into liquid form.  It is this problem that the Australian researchers appear to have solved.  Using a new technology, they have been able to store hydrogen as ammonia, and then convert it back to hydrogen to fuel their cars.  As Lexy Hamilton-Smith at ABC News reports:

“For the past decade, researchers have worked on producing ultra-high purity hydrogen using a unique membrane technology.

“The membrane breakthrough will allow hydrogen to be safely transported and used as a mass production energy source.”

Unlike batteries, which have only succeeded imperfectly at replacing lightweight vehicles, hydrogen is already used around the world to power much heavier vehicles:

“Hydrogen powered vehicles, including buses, trucks, trains, forklifts as well as passenger cars are being manufactured by leading automotive companies and deployed worldwide as part of their efforts to decarbonise the transport sector.”

Step back for a moment and you will see that this is, indeed, a displacement activity.  Insofar as humans are currently imagining a far more electrified world, then there is a competition to be won on the best form of energy storage.  And there are good reasons for believing that hydrogen is a more versatile battery than lithium ion (which also has a tendency to burst into flames if not stored properly).  However, this competition is predicated on the highly unlikely possibility of our having a large volume of excess energy in future.

Currently, almost all of the hydrogen we use is obtained by chemically separating it out of natural gas.  Using electrolysis to separate hydrogen out of water is simply too expensive by comparison.  But gas reserves are shrinking (which is why fracking is being promoted) and are already required for agriculture, chemicals, for heating and cooking, and for generating much of the electricity that used to come from coal.  Given the Herculean efforts that were required to install the modern renewables that generate just 1.5 percent of our energy, the idea that these are about to deliver enough excess capacity to allow the production of hydrogen from water is fanciful at best.

And that’s the problem.  Until we can secure a growing energy supply both hydrogen and lithium ion cars are going to end up on a global desert island.  One where there is insufficient power and unrepaired infrastructure.  To make matters worse, climate change dictates that the additional power we need in future cannot come from the fuels that currently provide us with 86 percent of our energy.  And, of course, whatever we end up substituting for fossil fuels will have to provide sufficiently cheap energy that the population doesn’t rise up and produce something a great deal worse than Brexit or Donald Trump.

UPDATE

It finally seems even renewable energy pundits are starting to see the light regarding Hydrogen…..  Renew Economy has just published an article titled Beware fossil-gas suppliers bearing hydrogen gifts

Recently there has been a flood of announcements about renewable hydrogen. Some seem fully legitimate and exciting. But in some others, are we seeing a red-herring not unlike clean-coal? Will the public-relations power of renewable hydrogen be harnessed by fossil-fuel interests only to maintain business-as-usual?

In the Aeneid, Virgil had a warning for the Trojans. Something along the lines of “you better have a squiz at this big wooden horse and see what’s up”.  So let’s take a quick break from “electrifying everything” and look at what’s up with the green hydrogen being spruiked across Australia by fossil-gas suppliers.

In Western Australia, the fossil oil and gas company Woodside says “Green hydrogen is the holy grail and if people want green hydrogen, we’re happy to deliver.” But then Woodside goes on to remind us “currently, the best way to export hydrogen is via LNG” (liquefied fossil gas).

ATCO, the Canadian owner of Western Australia’s fossil gas distribution networks will use renewable hydrogen in the quest of “maximising existing network infrastructure”.

(Note: After years of experience, we now know that Australian utility companies seeking to “maximise energy network infrastructure” whether it’s needed or not, is code for maximising utility company returns while driving up consumer energy costs.)

More at the link……..





Peak fossil fuel won’t stop climate change – but it could help

26 02 2015

The Conversation

Peak fossil fuel means it’s unlikely the worst climate scenario will come to pass. Gary Ellem explains.

What happens to coal in China will play a big role in deciding which climate road we’re all on. Han Jun Zeng/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Fossil fuels are ultimately a finite resource – the definition of non-renewable energy. Burning of these fuels – coal, oil and gas – is the main driver of climate change. So could the peak of fossil fuels help mitigate warming?

The short answer is maybe … but perhaps not how you might think.

In a paper published this month in the journal Fuel, my colleagues and I suggest that limits to fossil fuel availability might take climate Armageddon off the table, although we will still need to keep some fossil fuels in the ground for the best chance of keeping warming below 2C.

But more importantly, the peak of Chinese coal use is changing the face of global alternative energy industry development, and is soon likely to impact on international positioning for a low-emissions future.

Now for the long answer.

Predicting climate change

Predicting future climate change is dogged by two fundamental uncertainties: the dosage of greenhouse gas that human civilisation will add to the atmosphere, and how Earth’s climate and feedback systems will respond to it.

In the absence of a crystal ball for the future of emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has adopted a scenario-based approach which highlights four representative concentration pathways (or RCPs). These are named after how much extra heating they add to the earth (in watts per square metre).

The relationship between emissions, and temperature projections. IPCC
Click to enlarge

From these scenarios the IPCC has developed temperature scenarios. So the RCP2.6 scenario is expected to restrict climate change to below 2C, whereas RCP8.5 represents catastrophic climate change of around 4C by the end of this century, rising to perhaps 8C in the ensuing centuries.

Fossil fuels forecast

The key thing to note here is that the emissions scenarios are demand-focused scenarios that have been developed to reflect possibilities for potential fossil fuel consumption. They explore a range of scenarios that include increasing global population and living standards, as well as the possible impact of new alternative energy technologies and global emissions-reduction agreements.

Instead of examining demand scenarios for fossil fuels, our work has focused on supply constraints to future fossil fuel production. Our work is not a forecast of future fossil fuel production and consumption, but rather seeks to determine the upper bounds of the geological resource and how it might be brought to market using normal supply and demand interactions.

We developed three projections based on different estimates of these Ultimately Recoverable Resources (URR). URR is the proportion of total fossil fuel resources that can be viably extracted now, and in the future (this accounts for some resources that are technologically inaccessible now becoming extractable in the future). The low case used the most pessimistic literature resource availability estimates, whereas the high case used the most optimistic estimates.

We also included a “best guess” estimate by choosing country-level resource values that we considered most likely. We then compared the resulting emissions profiles for the three upper bounds to the published IPCC emissions scenarios, as shown in the figure below.

Our projections for fossil fuel supply (black) matched with emissions scenarios (colours). RCP8.5 is the worst, RCP2.6 the best. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

In comparison to the published emissions scenarios, we found that it was very unlikely that enough fossil fuels could be brought to market to deliver the RCP8.5 scenario and we would recommend that this be removed from the IPCC scenarios in future assessment reports.

Mining out the optimistic fossil fuel supply base could perhaps deliver the RCP6 scenario, however, our best guess limit to fossil fuel availability caps the upper limit of emissions exposure to the RCP4.5 scenario (roughly equivalent to a median estimate of 2C warming).

But even under the low resource availability scenario, it will be necessary to leave some fossil fuels untapped if we are to meet the conditions for the RCP2.6 scenario or lower (to have more than a 90% chance of avoiding 2C temperature rise).

To sum up, our supply side assessment suggests that even if the climate Armageddon of the RPC8.5 scenario were desirable, it is unlikely that enough new fossil fuel resources could be discovered in time and brought to market to deliver it. To be clear, there is still much to worry about with the RPC4.5 and RPC6 scenarios which are still possible at the limits of likely fossil fuel resources.

So a simple reflection on global fossil fuel limitation won’t save us … but nations don’t face peak fuels at the same time. A country-level analysis of peak fuels suggests the possibility of a very different future.

How China could shake the world

As part of our assessment we looked closely at the fossil fuel production projections for four countries including China, Canada, the United States and Australia. Of these, China is by far the most intriguing.

China has little in the way of oil and gas resources and so has established its remarkable industrial growth on exploiting its substantial coal resources. Our projections indicate that the rapid expansion in Chinese coal mining is rapidly depleting this resource, with Chinese peak coal imminent in the mid-2020s under even the high fossil fuel scenario, as seen in the projections below.

Various scenarios for China’s fossil fuel supply. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

China is well aware of this and is currently scrambling to cap coal consumption and develop alternative energy projects and industries. Its leaders understand that the alternative energy sector is really an advanced manufacturing sector, and have moved to position themselves strategically as the world leader in solar, wind, hydro, battery and nuclear technology construction and manufacturing.

As fossil fuels start to fail China as a path to economic and energy security, China will join other regions in a similar position, such as the European Union nations, which have largely depleted their fossil fuel reserves.

For these nations focused on alternative energy investment for energy and economic security, global action on climate change is strategically aligned with their industrial strength. We can therefore expect them to pressure for increasing global action as a method of improving their strategic global trading position. We may see the beginnings of this transition at this year’s international climate talks in Paris this year, but it will take a few more years for the Chinese shift to play out as they exploit the remainder of their coal resource and gain confidence in the ability of their alternative energy sector to scale.

The question then becomes “can the USA manufacturing sector afford to be out of these global alternative energy markets?”. Our guess is “no” and a global tipping point will have been reached in the alternative energy switch.

This is perhaps the most profound way that peak fuels may contribute to a low-emissions future.