Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Is algae bio-diesel (also) a fool's gold?

Everybody loves to hate 1st generation biofuels these days. Inefficient, polluting, do not scale well and net energy losers. In short: totally useless waste of money and energy in terms of energy production. Very useful for political gains though.

Now, some people are more optimistic about 2nd generation biofuels, esp. cellulosic ethanol and similar processes from plant based feed. However, serious doubts have been cast on their sustainability as well (economic, ecological and net energy wise).

The greatest hope has been given to algal biodiesel. It has been touted as the fastest growing (scaling), least energy input and best fuel output biofuel type. It was supposed to become an explosive growth area and solve our biofuel scaling problems.

Up until now.

Two posts, referencing some of the most realistic studies in the field, cast a really big shadow over algal biodiesel.

A direct quotes from Dr. Krassen Dimitrov's paper:

"Fundamental thermodynamic constrains make it impossible for such approach to be commercially viable for fuel prices below $800/bbl, even if flawless technological implementation is assumed." (emphasis added)

"A PBR-based biodiesel plant will have a maximum carbon mitigation potential of less than 30 kgCO2/m2/yr" (read: miniscule, emphasis)

"Biofuel production in PBR-based plants compares unfavourably with other alternative technologies for liquid fuel production, carbon mitigation and solar energy." (emphasis added)
This is not to say that biofuels from algae are not currently among our best bad hopes for biofuels replacing fossil fuels. It's still the best scaling and apparently best net energy ratio biofuel out there. Both currently and in theoretical improvements. (If somebody is thinking CTL, yes it's a probability for non-biofuel alternatives, but the ghg emissions are not pretty compared even to gasoline).

Algal bio-diesel is just not enough.

Nothing known scales to 85 million barrels of use per day. Not even 1/10 of that. It is just not physically possible to grow that amount of biofuel. The land area, energy inputs and logistics do not make sense. Thus, the economic does not make sense either.

Still, algal biofuels will be made, will be improved and I'm betting there'll be an investment bubble around them, just as there's one now around bio-ethanol (1st gen), which is more or less complete bogus.

If you are an investor, you have been warned: don't try to break physics with an investment plan.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Oil & Energy in the world - a month or so in review

Just another month? Perhaps, perhaps not.

A lot of interesting things have happened in the previous month.

Of course, this is all old new to those who have been following any of the usual suspect sites during the past months. The picture is unfolding almost like the overall script dictates: shortages, deniel, more peaks, price rises, speculation, asset bubbles & resource grabbing.

Now the information is being legitimized and published in wider circulation. More people will read it. More people will start writing blogs, discussing and piecing information together. More news on the issue. Definitely papers and politicizing on the issue.

Out of all the noise of news, a picture is starting to emerge. Let's try an exercise, one of many optional pictures:
  1. The energy market as a whole has overheated, following the similar trends on various asset markets. Biofuel markets are slowly merging with food markets, with important consequences
  2. Oil demand growth is still too strong, supply is limited and near future is even more uncertain. Prices are likely to rise, even without supply disruptions (Nigeria, Iraq, etc.) and natural disasters (hurricanes hitting refineries)
  3. Future of worldwide supplies compared to demand is starting to come under serious doubt. Nobody has publicly shown numbers to convince the numbers people that production can scale to projected need.
  4. Future energy replacements for oil (nuclear, biofuels, coal, syn-crude, natgas) are looking less optimistic (scaling, sustainability, energy, carbon offsets). This includes the most optimistic of current biofuels: algae based bio-diesel. The rest, including corn ethanol, is mostly an expensive smokescreen.
  5. The positive feedbacks in the system are getting easier to spot: prices spiraling up -> dash for deep water oil resources -> shortage of equipment and people in oil services sector -> more investments in alternatives -> more hyping of alternatives & new (small) oil discoveries -> more clouding of the fundamentals of flow rates, reserve replenishment and demand growth
  6. Global Warming still reigns supreme as the topmost important topic of our time, but the connection between the two is still rarely made. Everybody seems to assume coal ihas to be gone, but the amount of commissioned plants being built is increasing, not decreasing.
  7. People, politicians and markets are becoming more nervous about the energy issues, especially the price, but still seem to believe that delivery is guaranteed.
If one combines the slow realisation of the above factors (true or not, with timing uncertainty) with the current economic situation, the combined picture doesn't look overly optimistic.

Are we heading for global energy demand destruction via a combination of price increases and slower economic growth?

Right now, with the data available, it sure does look like it.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Review: Heat - How to Stop the Planet from Burning (Monbiot)

George Monbiot has written a fairly ambitious book, "Heat - How to Stop the Planet from Burning". It tries to show through simple arithmetic and several examples, how UK as a country of example could cut it's carbon emissions to 10% by 2030.

That is a 90% cut in emissions.

Stop and think about it for a while. That is a huge cut and not easily implemented.

George Monbiot is not easily daunted however and he puts on a good effort. He details ways to cut emissions in parts of industry, in homes and in various methods transport. The examples are many, calculations simple enough to understand for any reader and arguments mostly convincing. The book doesn't even fall to the over optimistic trap by claiming anything is possible. In fact, it details even more in which methods will not help us reach the goal of 90% emission cuts. Realism is always a needed virtue for anybody who tries to achieve the near impossible.

The book also tries to instill the reader with a sense of hope and urgency, with the balance tipping more to the side of hope. Yes, we can do it. Yes, the cuts will be enormous in scale. Yes, modern way of life (esp. tourism and world goods trade) as we know it, will not be the same if we pull off the required cuts. But we can do it.

It does have major omissions, like only mentioning peak oil, net energy and scaling of alternatives very broadly. Recently the author has also stated that he thinks peak oil is fairly far off and as due to technological advancements not a major problem. Unfortunately, he isn't clearly as read on the oil issue as he seems to be with carbon emission cuts. The climatologist superstar James Hansen has suggested that peak oil may not be a disaster in regards to carbon emissions, if we do not start burning massive amounts of coal to replace the oil with. And burning lots of dirty coal is exactly what we are planning to do. This is a major issue and could completely undermine most of the other savings dealt with in the book.

On the positive side the book even deals with Khazzoom-Brookes postulate and Jevons paradox, which is rare for a book that tries to encourage efficiency increases. On this issue Monbiot is also wisely cautious: not all efficiency increases result in overall reduction (of energy or resources). In fact, it may often be the case that on the macro-scale of things, it results in overall increase of usage.

Even with the net energy and peak energy omissions, the book has another - even bigger omission. And this is a big omission.

The book falls short on the most important factor dealing with the question "how?"

How do we actually implement:

  1. Major legislative overhaul in housing, construction, energy, transport, taxation and subsidies
  2. Almost complete restructuring of our transport systems (cars, roads, rail, air travel, etc.)
  3. Major revolution in housing construction and renovation (esp. design, heating & insulation)
  4. Huge changes in electricity production and end-use efficiency along with grid overhaul
  5. A transition to a culture less dependent on consumption growth: one that is less materially and energy intensive
  6. Almost complete replacement of hydrocarbons (gas, oil and esp. coal) with pure and efficient renewable energy sources and alternative liquid fuels that are sustainable both in net energy and emission calculation
... when the actors able to influence these things are:
  1. Politicians who pontificate with each other and put out study papers one after another and make wonderful excuses about why most measures are too drastic and should not be implemented (at least not in their term)
  2. Companies who only claim to provide what the consumers want and oppose almost all new legislations aiming for higher efficiency, less carbon emissions or higher costs for emissions
  3. Consumers, who want to consume more for less and think it is the job of the companies and the politicians to get us out of this mess
That is the ultimate challenge. The world is not short on methods or current technologies.

Monbiot bows out of this discussion by saying that it is us, the readers of this book, who have to come up with the way to make things happen. The methods and technologies are there (according to his research), now we need just the economic and political will to do it.

In a sense he is right. We can only demand things from others, if we do it ourselves. So, let's start (paraphrasing from the book and from other sources):
  • re-insulate our houses, change the boilers and install a heat-exchange capture in the ventilation house
  • stop using a personal car 90% of the time: walk, bike and use the public transport
  • stop flying
  • start buying seasonal, locally produced and preferably organic food (buy & eat it fresh, don't refrigerate)
  • stop eating beef, pork & poultry (a bit of fish and game may be allowed, otherwise a vegetarian diet)
  • start family planning (perhaps already unintentionally overdone in most OECD countries)
  • shop only what you need (not what you want), shop it locally, shop 2nd hand goods, use mail order if you have to shop from afar (don't drive there yourself) and buy services and goods with low energy/emission impact (how to identify these is a real dilemma)
  • if you run a company, redesign it's whole material and energy flows and restructure the whole process (TPS & VSM are a good place to start, but you can't stop there)
  • if you are a politician: legislate, tax and set up consumer and company incentives. That is, make it possible and required to aim for the cuts. And oh yes, stop going to war for oil and natural gas. Make cuts your primary goal and everything subject to that, even if it makes you unpopular and risks re-election.
If we do all that and succeed with a 60-90% efficiency - worldwide - then yes, we might be able to stop the planet from burning. Nobody really knows for sure. The models just aren't that accurate to tell with certainty.

And even if you don't believe in anthropogenic global warming, there are other equally compelling reasons to start implementing the above measures.

So, the task is daunting and it is meant for everyone of us.

And no, you can't buy your way out of flying restriction through carbon offsets. They just do not work well enough (read the book to if you really need to find out why). And no, techno-fixes are not a solution either, but more like aching to believing in the second coming of Christ - perhaps useful if you are able to abandon reasonable principle of precaution, current scientific knowledge and can wait a couple of thousand years. And if you are still guaranteed a reserved seat in the paradise if all goes to hell in a hand basket.

And that, in short, is the main failing of the book and most likely us, the readers.

The task may be just too daunting, too painful, too requiring in synchronicity of action and mass enlightenment to be able to be pulled off.

A more apt title for the book would have been "Heat - How we could stop the planet from burning, but probably won't because we are too lazy and complacent to really do anything about it, until it's probably too late". Then again, maybe the would have run out of cover space for that one.

Still, the book should be recommend heartily as it does offer hope and a summary of methods, required you can look past the omissions. But you don't really need to buy and read the book. You can start to cut your own emissions today. In fact, you can make the first cut by not buying the book. It's a small thing, but it's a start. After that, all you need is to continue with the cuts.

Just don't get complacent and don't let the rest of us do that either.

Obligatory FAQ: What does this have to do with energy? All anthropogenic carbon emissions are a direct result of consuming energy, especially fossil fuels like oil. When you cut your oil use, you not only make your life more resilient to oil shocks, but also cut carbon emissions.