Our energy woes aren’t going to resolve themselves unless we continue to let them escalate until enough of us die off that demand is brought within the constraints of supply. That would be an extremely painful solution to the problem but it seems to be the default solution and the one that politicians are heading towards. Without major input from us, it’s not going to get better.
The demand for energy from China and India is going to continue to grow, and it must, because only by eliminating poverty can we hope to have a humane solution to overpopulation. In developed countries, people naturally have fewer children, in fact, excluding immigration developed countries have negative population growth. The same thing needs to happen in Africa as well, Malaria and AIDS need to be brought under control, the food and water issues need to be resolved, and when these things happen we’ll see a similar growth in demand for energy.
In the United States we could totally eliminate our need to import oil by simply addressing waste in the electrical generation and distribution system. What does electricity have to do with gasoline? Well, everything!
50% of our electricity is generated by coal, 20% by natural gas, 19% by nuclear, 7% by hydroelectric, 2% by petroleum, and approximately 2% from solar, wind, and other renewables (excluding hydro-electric).
Coal and nuclear energy, which together make up 69% of the energy supply, can not be throttled down at night. In the case of coal, the thermal mass of the system is just to great to change the energy production rate rapidly, and in the case of nuclear, it takes too long to bring the reaction back up after shutting it down. The electrical demand for energy is much lower at night, so the excess produced is dissipated as waste heat, pollution is generated, but the energy is just wasted.
There is so much wasted energy from these sources at night that they could power our entire daily commute eliminating the need to import oil. We import about the same percentage of oil as goes into powering our daily commute.
If we could take that wasted energy produced at night, use it to power our commute during the day, we would eliminate the need to import oil; we’d go from having a trade deficit to having a trade surplus, we’d see the dollar strengthen, we’d see our economy improve; and we’d eliminate the financial incentives for going to war in the middle east. We’d eliminate all of the carbon dioxide from all of that imported oil being burned, without adding anymore from power plants, because we’re just using energy they’re already producing that is being wasted.
How can we do this? There are a variety of ways we can do this; the one that you hear talked about the most is plug-in hybrid vehicles. These are gas-electric or diesel electric hybrids with enough battery capacity to cover the normal commute and the ability to recharge off the power grid. Problem, nobody in the United States is producing them at present. Chevrolet has a concept car called, “The Volt”, which they claim will be in production in 2010 but not at present because they claim adequate batteries aren’t available.
Yet, the Toyota Prius is readily converted to a plug-in hybrid using existing battery technology. The Prius has a “stealth mode” button that is enabled in other countries but not in the United States that stops the car from using the gasoline engine so that one can drive short distances on electricity alone. The Prius also has space for a second battery pack. Plug-in hybrid enthusiasts have been enabling this button on US models, adding a second battery pack, and adding an off-the-grid charger to convert these cars to a plug-in hybrid.
China has an automobile manufacturer making plug-in hybrids for domestic use in China, a company called BYD makes a plug-in hybrid vehicle that can go sixty miles on electricity alone. BYD developed a rechargeable lithium iron phosphate battery system for their vehicles. They plan to market these vehicles to Europe and the United States in 3-5 years. Meanwhile our automobile industry continues to lose money and lay off workers because they can’t sell the SUV gas hogs they produce when gas is $4/gallon. Why isn’t Detroit producing these? Why does GM drag it’s feet saying that the battery technology is not available when amateurs are converting Prius cars using existing battery technology and China’s BYD is manufacturing and marketing plug-in hybrid vehicles based upon their own battery technology?
Plug-in hybrid vehicles are only one way to use this surplus energy. Another method is to convert surplus electricity into liquid fuel. How can we do this? There are two methods I am aware of for taking electricity, carbon dioxide, and water, and making a 4-carbon alcohol called butynol which unlike Ethanol and Methanol, has an energy density nearly that of gasoline, a road octane of 104, and can be burned directly in unmodified gasoline engines. Because of the characteristics of the fuel, it actually gets better mileage, produces more power, and reduced emissions by 97% relative to gas, and the lower peak cylinder temperatures and lower partial combustion products, longer engine life can be expected. One method involves a kind of reverse fuel cell in which electricity and a catalyst drive a reaction to produce butynol from carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, the other method is to electrolyze carbon dioxide (yes, you can do this) to produce carbon monoxide and oxygen. The carbon monoxide is then mixed with steam to make process gas which can then be converted into a number of useful hydrocarbon liquids, including butynol.
This process CONSUMES carbon dioxide making the butynol fuel! So if we located these adjacent to coal fired plants, we could take that carbon dioxide and instead of pumping it into the ground, which is long term a really bad thing to do for reasons I mentioned in another post; we can make it into fuel! So this is a way that we can shift the EXISTING automotive fleet to using surplus electricity at night and this wouldn’t have the limited range of plug-in hybrids since butynol can be distributed the same way that gasoline is. Because butynol is not hydroscopic, unlike ethanol and methanol, it can be piped through the same pipelines used to move oil distillates.
Now, long term we want to get off of burning hydrocarbons entirely, except those that are created by taking carbon dioxide out of the air such as biomass, or butynol produced this way. We have plenty of sources that we can exploit. There is enough geothermal energy available in environmentally non-sensitive areas of the western United States that we could power our entire electrical grid this way. Presently however wind is the most economical, but wind is not constant. Now if we put these electricity to butynol plants in place, and then just overbuild wind capacity we provide a market for the times when wind produces a surplus by using that surplus to make fuel. Thus making butynol from electricity can shift the commute to using presently wasted energy, provide a market for carbon dioxide and surplus wind power allowing wind power, which is the least expensive source of electricity, to fulfill a much larger percentage of our energy needs.
There is another way butynol can be produced, and that is by using concentrated sunlight to break down carbon dioxide to produce the same process gas, which ultimately can be made into butynol and other hydrocarbons.
These things can only be ramped up so fast. We need to be doing everything we can to encourage them. We also must stop the outflow of capital from this country to the middle east. To that end, in the short term we need coal-to-liquid plants. If we did this concurrent with displacing coal generation with solar, geothermal, wind, and other renewables, it would result in less resistance from the industry to the transition, and at the same time provide more capital for the implementation of new clean and renewable technologies. We can not afford to allow our economy to go down the tubes any further because it will make conversion impossible and in the end all we’ll have is a lot of people starving to death, riots, and war.
Our current energy situation is so dire that we really need to exploit all our alternatives to the max, but even so it may not be enough to keep our farm equipment moving producing food and our distribution network distributing it, and get us to work and back. We need to do what we need to do in the short term but we need to focus on the long-term.
To this end I believe we should look at adding an import duty tax on oil of around $20/barrel, and then taking that money and using it to develop all of these alternatives as fast as possible.
Another area we could obtain a huge amount of energy from, and that would also increase the degree to which we can depend upon wind and solar, would be to drastically modernize our grid system. Presently, long distance transmission lines lose an average of about 17% of the energy put into them. Nationwide this results in a loss of approximate 10% of our electrical production capacity.
The particular modernization that we should consider is converting all AC transmission lines that are longer than 300km to DC high voltage transmission lines. Doing that would cut that 17% loss figure to 2-3% by eliminating radiative losses which are the largest portion of transmission line losses.
Switching to DC transmission eliminates electromagnetic radiation from those AC transmission lines which is a leukemia hazard to anyone living near them. Low frequency magnetic fields have been determined to have carcinogenic effects. One suspected mechanism is that a low frequency AC magnetic field causes ions to spiral as they pass ion transport channels in cell walls reducing their ability to cross these channels. Drugs which reduce ion transport have also been shown to increase cancer rates. For many people, particularly those living in houses with older wiring where the source and return path are not always cabled together, the magnetic fields generated inside are often far higher because you are very close to them. Never the less, there is a statistical correlation between leukemia and living in proximity to AC high voltage transmission lines. DC high voltage lines do not radiate and thus eliminate both the majority of their power losses and this cancer threat.
Switching to DC eliminates susceptibility to space weather. Space weather, solar storms, induce very low frequency currents in long distance transmission lines. In AC lines, the transformers have very low impedance to this low frequency current and the current causes the transformer core to saturate. This results in the destruction of the transformer and failure of the transmission line. In DC transmission lines, this same current is induced, but simply slightly increases or decreases the voltage and the far end and the inverters compensate in real time and no damage results.
Switching to DC eliminates cascading failures. In an AC line, if one source of capacity is lost or load increases, there is no way to limit the load on the line except through load shedding which may or may not happen fast enough, and if it doesn’t happen fast enough, failures result. When one line goes down, it increases the load on the next, phase and voltage fluctuations result which increase the load even further, and additional lines go down. In this way, a localized failure can cascade across an entire grid. But with DC lines, the inverter technologies limit the power in real time and keep the phase constant, so no cascading failures result.
Switching to DC adds significant capacity in two ways. In an AC transmission system, the peak voltage is 1.414 times the RMS or average voltage. So a line designed to carry 500KV AC has to have insulators designed to carry 1.414 times that value or 707KV. So we can take an AC line designed to operate at 500KV and operate it at 707KV DC, at the same current that is a 141% improvement in transmission capacity. But it gets even better, because on long transmission lines, the factor that limits current is heat induced sag. When wires are warmer they expand, when they expand the total length of the line changes and that changes the phase relationship of the voltage at the far end. Out of phase power just heats the wires and so current has to be limited to values that are much lower than the line is physically capable of carrying. With DC transmission, the phase is determined by the inverter and is independent of the line length, and thus sag induced phase shift is no longer a limiting factor. Of coarse the current still has to be limited to values above which sag would represent a physical danger to the line but this value is significantly higher. So switching to DC transmission increases both the current carrying capacity and the voltage capacity of the line.
For new lines, the costs are less for DC lines than AC lines for distances longer than 300km. DC lines require less right-of-way because there is no AC magnetic field radiation. They require only two conductors instead of three (or in some cases six). For a given conductor power and insulators they can carry significantly more power. These factors all combine to make them much less expensive for distances greater than 300km.
Reducing the losses substantially while increasing capacity makes it cost effective to transmit power over greater distances and allows for greater geographical diversity. This in turn allows wind, solar, and other variable sources to contribute to a greater share of the load because geographical diversity can be used to advantage. When the wind isn’t blowing in one location, it is blowing somewhere else. Currently in the United States, we have an eastern grid and a western grid. We should add DC interties and make it one grid. Peak loads occur at different times because of the different timezones, so full east-west connectivity would reduce the peak-to-average load ratio allowing us to use our generating capacity more effectively.
I know that I dwell on this particular subject a lot but it is of major importance and getting next to zero attention. The deregulation of the power industry has resulted in a situation where nobody wants to contribute the maintenance and upgrading of the power grid and this is absolutely critical towards the end of solving our nations energy issues and adopting renewable clean energy sources on a large scale. Our congressman appear to be completely ignorant of these issues, it’s up to you to educate them!