Oil Prices

They’re not going to stop, OPEC is going to bleed the rest of the world for everything they can get. I’d like to draw your attention to this article in the Guardian.

The long and short of it is that OPEC has seen that the worlds economy didn’t totally collapse under the high pricing so they’re going to jack it up some more with additional production cuts.

We need to become independent of OPEC and other foreign sources for our energy needs. By keeping supplies tight, they not only drive prices up but they keep stocks low so that any natural disruption then becomes a major disaster.

In this country we grow our food, transport our food and other goods, with oil. As things currently stand, if we don’t have oil we don’t eat, and most of the folks supplying it to us aren’t our friends. It is best we face up to that and take care of our needs domestically. It’s not that we have a shortage of energy resources here, we just lack the political will to do what we need to do.

Folks, it’s time to ditch the Bronco’s for a Prius hybrid, better yet a modified plug-in hybrid. We have enough surplus generating and transmission capacity on the grid at night to meet almost all of our commuting needs and that would free up a huge amount of energy.

Much of our nations power generation has shifted from coal to natural gas because it’s cleaner and natural gas plants can also be throttled to meet load demand changes better.

What we should be doing now is massively investing in renewables and in bringing controlled hydrogen fusion online. It is something we can do technically, it is only political will that we are lacking.

There are criticisms to both because they raise some potential issues but they are problems that can be solved. First with respect to many renewables, wind and solar for example, there is the fact that the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. That is true, but by increasing the capacity of our transmission line, geographical diversity can do much to alleviate these problems.

Peak electrical demand does correspond to peak sunlight so that’s not an entirely unhappy variable. Down in the south, solar power generation can provide capacity exactly during those times when air conditioners require it.

No matter what we do, increased energy demand is going to require that we boost our transmission capacity. There is a relatively inexpensive way of doing that, convert existing AC transmission lines to high voltage DC. This substantially increases capacity while at the same time eliminating radiative losses. Eliminating radiative losses has a nice side effect, eliminating increased leukemia risks for those who are located near transmission lines.

High voltage DC has many other advantages in addition to reducing costs for lines longer than 500 kilometers, increasing capacity, reducing line losses substantially, and eliminating low frequency AC electromagnetic fields. In addition to these advantages, high-voltage DC lines eliminate the problem of cascading failures. They eliminate problems of phase synchronization and even allow the interconnection of grids with different frequencies. They are immune to space weather.

The last consideration is one we really should give special attention to because the last solar cycle was the most intense on record but indications are that the next cycle will be even stronger. While this is happening, the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening and appears to be headed for a possible reversal (it’s hard to say if it will became in the past sometimes it’s dropped to zero and then rebuilt in the same direction), but regardless it’s weakening and thus will afford us less protection from what the Sun is doing.

The next solar cycle will peak in 2012, so that’s less than five years we have to prepare the grid for this increased activity. By the way, because I know a lot of people believe the world is ending in 2012, or believe that the Earth will flip on it’s axis, let me make it clear this is only a magnetic flip, not a physical one, and the end date of the Mayan calendar is only a function of the number of digits and the number base used, it’s not any different than saying our calendar will end in 9999, in reality if we somehow manage to survive to that time, we’ll just add another digit, and if the Mayan calendar were still in widespread use I am sure the same thing would happen. Our ability to keep track of time is not a prerequisite for the continuation of the planet anyway.

If we convert our grid to using high voltage DC for all the long distance interties, and increase the capacity (which would be an automatic result of converting anyway), then geographical diversity will do a lot to alleviate the issues of reliability of wind and solar. Long distance interties are really the lines we have to worry about anyway, it takes a substantial length of wire for enough voltage to be induced by magnetic fluctuations caused by space weather to blow out transformers.

The reason that AC lines are affected and DC lines are not is because the transformers that terminate long distance lines have close to zero impedance at DC, so very low frequency voltages induced by space weather magnetic fluctuations cause very high currents to flow through these transformers and burn them out.

On a DC line, induced voltages cause some change of the voltage at the terminating station but the chopper electronics that convert the power back into AC simply adjust for it and no harm is done.

On long AC transmission lines there is also a problem of power phase shifts. If a line is near capacity, the heat causes it to sag more, the longer length of the span increases the distance the current has to travel and introduces a phase shift. With DC lines this is not an issue.

DC lines require less buffer around them and so have a smaller right-of-way foot print. If AC lines are converted to DC, some of that land can be used for additional lines or reclaimed for other purposes.

There are many renewable sources which are more constant in nature. Geothermal produced constant output and we have abundant geothermal resources in the west, and in spite of the comment from someone saying aside from Mt. St. Helens and Yellowstone, they are not proven, that is not the case. The USGS has done drilling and other research projects have been funded. There are also, contrary to popular belief, geothermal resources on the east coast, however, they are much deeper and thus costly to tap.

Another source of power that is more consistent is ocean current generation. Essentially like a wind turbine under water. The ocean currents are much more constant than wind and thus offer a relatively stable source of power.

Other sources of power are ocean thermal, which takes advantage of temperature difference between surface and deep water, and off the western Washington and Oregon coasts where the mid-ocean rift is very close, there are large sources of heat difference that can be exploited.

There is wave technology that simply uses a float riding on the waves, working against something anchored to the ocean floor, to drive a generator and produce electricity. The waves are of coarse variable, but the more diverse our sources the less problematic the variability of any one source is.

To whatever degree we can replace the use of natural gas for electricity generation, that natural gas can be liquefied and used to displace imported crude oil. So without converting our transportation system to electricity or hydrogen power (the hydrogen is generated from electricity) we can still displace imported oil even in the transportation sector. Of coarse one area where we could replace oil directly with electricity is in the railroads, North America being the one continent where this hasn’t been done, and the one that can probably benefit the most from doing so.

It is now possible to find solar panels for under $3/peak watt, last year it was around $5, the year before that around $6. Now the sub $3/peak watt panels are mostly thin film types which do not have the high efficiency of mono-crystal silicon panels, but they still can contribute significantly to our energy needs. Even silicon panels though I’ve been able to find under $5/peak watt new.

Given that oil is going to only continue to go up over time, an investment in renewable energy will only get better with time.

Controlled nuclear fusion has also met with some criticisms but they are based upon outdated information and narrow thinking. The first criticism I’ve heard is that we’re still 50 years away. Presently, we invest only as much money in 20 years as we spend on imported oil in two days, so yes, if we continue investing at that rate it is 50 years away, but it’s not 50 years for any scientific reason, the science has largely been done, these things could be built today.

The second objection, it was claimed that they were too large for commercial applications, around 10GW when the typical nuclear plant is around 1GW (typically two 500 MW reactors). China built the three gorges dam, presently producing 14 GW and they plan to go to 23 GW at completion, and they’re not only getting that power to the grid but transporting it half-way across the country just fine. High voltage DC transmission lines are doing the job. The Grand Coulee dam generates 6.8 GW, we manage to get that to the grid even with old fashioned AC infrastructure.

With hydroelectric projects we don’t have the luxury of locating them where the load centers are. Even with nuclear fission we don’t have this luxury because of the needs for large amounts of cooling water and the safety concerns of locating a nuclear fission plant near a population center. With controlled hydrogen fusion we do have this luxury because we don’t have the risk of meltdown or massive radiation leaks and thus can locate them near population centers without safety concerns. In such an environment, the waste heat can be utilized instead of spent heating up a river. Even in circumstances where it must be radiated, the availability of almost free and inexhaustible fuel make achieving the absolute highest efficiency not quite as important and thus we don’t have to heat a river to get the lowest possible sink temperatures.

The 10GW figure is based on old information anyway. Today it would be entirely possible to build a fusion plant in the 500MW range. The reason for the higher power specifications earlier was because plasma confinement improves with scale, and a certain minimal confinement is required to reach commercial break-even. Commercial break-even is where the energy produced by the fusion is commercially viable after all the energy requirements are considered, that is after you heat the plasma, run the plant refrigeration to cool the magnets, account for thermal and generating efficiency losses, and the over all cost of operation, after you do all of these things you can still generate enough power to be commercially viable.

A few years back, you did in fact need to build a plant of around 10GW to achieve this, given the state of the art at the time. However, improvements in the understanding of the plasma physics, combined with new controlling techniques that use neural networks to dynamically control the containment field, combined with better magnet technology particularly in the superconductive realm which is required in a commercial plant, all of these things have improved enough to where a 500MW plant is now doable, and with a spherical Tokamak design that can probably be reduced to about a third of that.

A Tokamak fusion plant will be capital intensive, although, the same British group (now part of the EU) that designed the START and MAST reactors (both of which outperformed their design specifications) went on to design a 500 megawatt commercial spherical tokamak reactor that would cost less than an equivalent sized fission reactor to build, yet it has not been funded. Once built, the fuel for these is essentially free, or at least so inexpensive that it won’t even be a measurable component of the overall expenses.

I do believe the Bussard fusion reactor, if someone actually will fund a full-sized prototype, has the potential for being several orders of magnitude less expensive to build, and can be physically small and light enough that it will find applications in transportation. Probably not small enough for a passenger car or truck, but definitely small enough for ships, airliners, trains, and large trucks. In a ship you could build the capacity for extracting deuterium from seawater and never have to fuel. Just run the thing until the ship rusts away.

But, the Bussard design needs more development before we’ll know for sure if it will be practical, the Tokamak’s could be brought online as power producers now, not 50 years from now, if only we had the political will.

5 thoughts on “Oil Prices

  1. The plan for the Bussard design (if it works) is to output DC at 1.5 to 2 MV DC direct.

    The Tri Alpha guys are working on something similar.

    Plants like these would almost force HV DC lines.

  2. Actually that isn’t entirely true, there are two animals.

    The first uses deuterium-tritium as a fuel, it would not produce DC output but rather would use a thermal cycle like a conventional plant to drive a turbine.

    Because of the relatively low energy required for deuterium-tritium, such a plant could be physically not huge but would require extensive shielding because of the neutron production.

    The other design would use aneutronic fuels that require a higher energy level to fuse and as a result a physically larger machine, but because the products are all charged particles, something akin to reverse MPD can be used to convert the kinetic energy of these charged particles directly into electricity with no thermal cycle.

    There are some neutrons produced by secondary unwanted reactions but the level would be orders of magnitude less and require far less shielding than deuterium-tritium fueled machines.

    The latter though has the potential to be useful for things like airlines where the heavy shielding of a DT fueled machine would be too heavy for aircraft.

  3. There is a vast potential source of energy in Wave power.

    Alan Burns of SeaPower Pacific claims has used his previous experience in the oil business for good, not evil. 😉

    His CETO device uses wave power to push high pressure water down tubes up onto the land where it drives a turbine. He is using the marine experience of the oil industry to develop simple systems that could just work. At night, the excess power could be used to desalinate water. Just 60 hectares of ocean used this way could supply all of Sydney’s water. Just 2000 hectares would supply all Sydney’s electricity.



    click here

  4. m. simon, with respect to your link to the article Iter is no good; I wouldn’t completely agree with you.

    I think the money could have been much better spent but I think if nothing else develops in the next 20 years, Iter will still be useful for testing various material engineering aspects of fusion energy and paving the way towards commercial reactors.

    That said; a full scale spherical tokamak could reach break-even at about 1/3rd the size of ITER and thus much more economically. A more economical reactor is one that is likely to draw money from investors for commercial development.

    Also, I think the Bussard reactor, the Z-pinch reactor, and the Levitated Dipole reactor all are deserving of better funding and have the potential for operating with aneutronic fuels which I do not believe a Tokamak will ever do (with the possible exception of He3 if we had cheap space travel to the moon) and the Bussard reactor has the potential for producing super-cheap fusion power because it is so basic and devoid of the need for exotic materials.

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