for fossil fuels—
for fossil fuels—what can be done about it?
is third of a series of briefing documents
on the problems of power consumption, posed by the steady
depletion of fossil fuels and most particularly of pumpable
One of a grouping of documents on global concerns at abelard.org.
|on energy||on global warming|
housing and making living systems ecological
sustainable futures briefing documents
|Tectonics: tectonic plates - floating on the surface of a cauldron|
|How much will this cost?|
|Options:||Microgeneration and conservation||Attempts to clean up coal|
|Methane hydrates||In-situ coal gasification|
|Wind||Coal to oil|
|Tidal and wave||More direct solar methods:|
|geothermal||Solar thermal collectors|
pumpable oil are reckoned to be about one trillion barrels,
another trillion barrels is estimated to be in shale
and tar sands.
From the table below and the electricity usage and derivation table, the USA will probably need to decide to generate seven times as much electricity as at present (that is eight times the present amount, minus the generating capacity we already have in place). You will see from the electricity usage and derivation table that the in-place capital generating plant of the USA is equivalent to 430 big power stations and, therefore, is worth about $430 billion. Seven times this figure, the price of the new plant required, is approximately $3 trillion.
Now a power station may, at present, be expected to last approximately thirty years. Taking both our $430 billion and our $3 trillion, we are referring to a total of $3.5 trillion of plant, and replacing one-thirtieth of this each year, that is somewhat over $100 billion each and every year.
The American economy runs at about $10 trillion a year, and growing. $100 billion is about one percent of the US GNP year in, year out. As can be seen, this is a very large project, but perfectly do-able.
To emphasise the scale of this, it means, for example, the United States building 100 nuclear power stations each and every year, or Britain building ten each year. It has been recently announced (2003) that Germany intends to build the equivalent of 25 power stations, using wind power, by 2030. This is approximately half their present electricity generating capacity. For Germany to reach the level that I am estimating, would require the Germans to add approximately that capacity each and every year, not just once over 27 years. As you will see, this is no trivial project. You may work out similar figures for your own economy, by reference to the Fuel usage efficiency table.
Remember, this is somewhat of a theoretical calculation. For example, we could make our power stations last for 40 years, and it is doubtful that we will attempt to replace all our transportable oil equivalent through electrical fabrication, but again I remind you that my purpose is to enable you to grasp the scale of the problems.
In a Western economy, about 15% of usable power is delivered in the form of electricity, but that delivered power takes about 40% of the total power used by an economy to generate the electricity. The remaining 60% is shared between transport and various heating requirements.
To supply the 30% required for heating, using electricity, would require twice the current electricity generating capacity presently in place.
To produce a transportable fuel from electricity would probably take three or four times the electric power to produce a given amount of fuel. Thus, assuming that 30% of fuel is in a transportable form such as methane, a generating capacity of something like six to eight times the present level of electricity generation would be required just to produce the transportable fuel.
Assuming that the lower factor of three times can be met, with improving technology and large-scale efficiencies, and all power passing through an electrical stage, it will be seen that a Western society would be looking at eight to ten times present electrical generating capacity in order to meet its present consumption desires.
Naturally, some of this processing need not go through an electrical stage, but my whole intention is to accustom people to the scale of the problem posed by depleting fossil fuels.
It is also clear that much can be done in improving energy efficiencies by insulation, and by better buildings and engineering design. Also, much is possible in rearranging our lives and working practices. Meanwhile, material and biotech sciences are racing ahead at such a pace that it is very difficult to guess at the relevant advances and contributions that these sciences will produce.
Now thus far, I have been discussing the power needs for the future and relating that to the concept of a ‘big power station’. However, while we have a mixed power system including pumped oil and other fossil fuels, electricity production involves some inherent weaknesses.
Using the United Kingdom as an example, the electricity produced amounts to the output of around 42 big power stations, but you will recall from Replacing fossil fuels—the scale of the problem there is variation of demand (and there are downtimes). So, to keep people on line requires more than the number of stations allowed for in the supply calculations (in Replacing fossil fuels), quite a lot more stations. In the UK, the peak demand runs at around 60 big power stations.
There is yet more. The installed capacity in the UK is approaching 80 power stations! The difference between peak load plus down time for repairs and the installed capacity is known as overbuild. This overbuild becomes an even bigger problem when attempting to integrate wind power into a electricity grid supply system. In Denmark, peak capacity is about 3.7 big power stations, whereas installed capacity is approaching 7 big power stations. And still the Danish electricity system has to rely on links to the rest of Scandinavia and to Germany.
The situation is likely to change radically once power stations become a source of storable fuel, such as methane or even perhaps hydrogen. At that point, power stations will not tend to lie idle during off-peak times (note that is around one third of potential production), nor will any overbuild need to lie idle. The system will be smoothed by production of transportable fuel. This production has another advantage in that remote sites are no embarrassment, as the transportation of liquid fuel will not require a considerable infrastructure to transport electricity from those remote sites. Much cheaper methods like road transport will be available.
See here for proposed nuclear-hydrolysis technology.
This technology is based on a hydrogen model, which has yet to convince that it is viable despite optimistic noises from politicians and government grant receiving car manufacturers. The authors claim that producing hydrogen by electrolysis is around 85% efficient. They also claim that more hydrogen can be produced by sensible reactor design, by using otherwise waste heat to force the disassociation of water into hydrogen and oxygen. This second process is expected to yield efficiencies in the range of 40-50% much lower than electrolysis, but still a tremendous potential bonus.
Methods of methane production from water and air using electric power are said to be approximately 38% efficient at the present time (see several papers by Specht et al. for further details).
The future of energy production will probably involve local community and individual household generation. This is not an either/or situation. Systems will be range from very large and central distribution to the very local systems for personal use and efficiency, including conservation.
I have seen it quoted that there are 10 trillion tonnes of natural methane hydrates in the shallow seas around the world. That is, approximately 70 trillion barrels. Clearly, this is a major potential resource.
number of gases, notably the noble gases and simple hydrocarbon
gases, form crystalline hydrates, called clathrate compounds,
at relatively low temperatures and pressures. A clathrate is a
solid in which one component is enclosed in the structure of another.
summary of present coal generation problems
This document is also recommended:
futuregen clean coal project agreed
Coal is a considerable potential resource, but is presently inherently filthy. This proposed project is a step towards attempting to alter that situation.
Note the growing co-operation that is being built by the USA with the obvious intent on spreading leading edge technology to developing countries. A rational approach to Kyoto-type objectives.
This next article has a typically foolish heading and spin that could only be written by people who do not understand the United States and the American approach to government.
California, if treated as independent of the USA, would be one of the world’s leading economies all on its lonesome! The silly sideswipes at George Bush primarily indicate ignorance on the part of the writer.
The numbers being discussed here are absolutely trivial compared with the size of the potential problems.
useful general survey of current projects (2004) [.pdf format
- 19 pages]
The worlds gas system was originally designed for gas from coal.
This technology appears to have considerable potential as a means of using coal with lessened pollution problems.
Thus far, it seems to concentrate on exhausted pits and be of modest scale. Coal gasification is useful, though, for coal occurring at below profitably mineable depths. A helpful addition to the armoury during transition to the post-fossil fuel economy.
A short, reasonably clear, summary of the state of play.
[Site reference from Mel Rowing.]
The waste product is carbon dioxide and, consequently, some means of sequestering this will be necessary.
See also transportable fuels.
There are essentially two ways off extracting power from the movement of the seas:
Both methods are
described in this
This is a description of the La Rance Tidal Barrage in France.
A new offshore system is under way off the Devon coast in southern England.
That is to say, only around 1/10th of the present electricity usage of the United Kingdom, or about 10 large power stations. This looks like a low estimation to me, but I am no engineer. These sea-oriented methods are not discussed in the much quoted Pimentel assessment.
As the article on the English offshore system states
The item headline is “the world's first commercial wave power station is going into action in Scotland”, but no actual start date is given.
The generator is quoted as designed for 1/2 megawatt, but again details are not given. Windmills are now moving towards 3 megawatts and higher, this design also relies on air pressure.
It is further possible to build tidal lakes on the coast which may be very usefully integrated with town planning. As you may see here, people and traffic are more separated than in most town planning. There is a pleasant lake for various activities and views, which includes a circular walk. The lake, if managed properly, is constantly renewed by the sea-tides. Constructing wide tidal ‘rivers’ is also a possibility.
This is one of the most efficient power sources available. Naturally, much of the available source is, therefore, already exploited.
There are ecological problems such as silting, methane production and free river flow. Also, the risk of catastrophic dam failure makes hydro-electric power far from the safest opiton.
A miniaturised rooftop device appears to be nearing production .
Note that this is a hybrid system that combines both photo-voltaic with solar concentration.
email abelard at abelard.org
© abelard, 2003, 16 april
the address for this document is http://www.abelard.org/briefings/fossil_fuel_replacements.php