Headlines claiming that distributed solar will soon overthrow utilities everywhere should be patiently ignored until reality sinks in

Last week there was a typically innumerate article promoting the future of distributed energy “Personal Power Stations”. There is a remarkable amount of informed commentary attached to this article — I highly recommend you read through all of it. I would like to highlight one acute comment by Schalk Cloete:

For the other side of this story, I wrote two articles earlier on the potential for distributed generation and distributed storage & demand response. Here are the main conclusions:

“In comparison to the utility scale alternative, distributed generation (primarily solar PV) has a fairly low potential and, in the vast majority of cases, will be unnecessarily expensive and complex.

This does not mean that distributed generation will not be deployed. Niche markets exist and the ideological attractiveness of this energy option remains very high and extremely marketable. What it does mean, however, is that distributed generation will most probably not make more than a minor contribution to the clean energy revolution that will have to take place this century. Headlines claiming that distributed solar will soon overthrow utilities everywhere should be patiently ignored until reality sinks in. As an example, the highly optimistic hi-Ren scenario in the PV Technology Roadmap from the IEA which has received broad PV-positive press lately forecasts about 8% of electricity from distributed PV by 2050. The vast majority of the remaining 92% will remain utility scale. It should also be mentioned that electricity accounts for only about 40% of primary energy consumption.

The final conclusion from these two articles is twofold: 1) distributed generation is affordable, but far from economic and 2) distributed generation can contribute, but only to a minor degree. For these reasons, the ideological attractiveness of distributed generation presents a particularly difficult problem: we simply cannot afford to aggressively pursue uneconomic solutions with very limited potential when it comes to the energy and climate issues we face today. The time has come to leave ideology at the door and get pragmatic about the challenge before us.”

Carbon Caps & Demand Reductions vs. Better Technology:

Today there is another Twitter discussion featuring “We need carbon limits and demand reduction” vs. “Better technology to improve rate of decarbonization”. My thumbnail summary is the result of “Caps and Limits”, in particular Kyoto which Feels Good while fossil continues to dominate:


And this is the result of better technology (France decarbonizing electrical generation via nuclear in 20 years):

Why this is true is explored in depth by the Hartwell Paper and Kyoto Wrong Trousers.

David MacKay: what energy portfolio would he favour today?


The UK is making more smart energy policy than most of the rich world (who do you think is #1 on the rankings of effective climate change policy?). One of the most remarkable smart things the UK government did was to appoint prof. David MacKay as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) for the period 2010 to 2014. I consider Dr. MacKay one of the top energy policy authorities on planet Earth. It’s unusual when a government selects someone so qualified to such an important position. Even more unusual when the selectee is respected for speaking his views regardless of political consequences.

One of the important deliverables that David MacKay initiated is the Global Calculator where you Dear Reader can experiment with your preferred energy policy options — to see what the consequences are likely to be, what “adds up”. And if you don’t like the model outputs, then you can download the complete code as an Excel spreadsheet. So you can produce your own more-perfect model of how the planet, and planetary economy will respond to your energy policy.

Back to the captioned question “David MacKay: what energy portfolio would he favour today?” I don’t know what Dr. MacKay would propose if he were invited to design the UK (or Earth) energy policy. But I’m completely confident that I would prefer his policy to anything likely to emerge from the UN process.

Today a few clues of the David MacKay preferred policy surfaced on Twitter. I’ll summarize what caught my attention – the conversation I captured is here. I’ll summarize:

Bishop Hill @aDissentient asks “Is there a rational explanation for why governments keep pursuing wind power? One assumes it’s *despite* your book and advice”

David MacKay (@davidjcmackay) replies [in 5 tweets] One rational explanation is “as an option”. I think a hedging strategy is wise given how difficult all the levers are. Another explanation is “because of the legally-binding EU renewable target that Tony Blair signed UK up to“. I concur that I think best vfm hedging strategy wd now steer the grid mix more strongly to non-intermittent low-carbon. [ie CCS/N/very-large-tidal] – though this would lead to legal infringement of EU RT (see pt 2). If there is a huge R+D breakthrough on storage, however, the optimal hedging grid-mix might change.

The most obvious flaws in the OECD policy generally are the special economic/regulatory incentives granted to the “soft path” options of solar/wind/biofuels. I read Dr. MacKay’s “best vfm hedging strategy wd now steer the grid mix more strongly to non-intermittent low-carbon” as an explicit recognition of the real system costs of intermittent generation. And the need to pay more attention to the realities of reliable power, and less attention to “feel good policies”.

PS: When you think about UK energy policy were you aware of “because of the legally-binding EU renewable target that Tony Blair signed UK up to”? I was not. Be careful what you sign!

I hope you will explore the Global Calculator. It is a remarkable resource. Thank you UK Taxpayer.

James Hansen calls out “Big Green” (Part 2)

James Hansen

More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media.

A year ago James Hansen published a “draft opinion” on the Columbia University website: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? The PDF received surprisingly little attention considering the importance of the issues covered. I found the piece when I was researching thinking on how we could dramatically increase China US Nuclear Cooperation.

Here I’ll just highlight some of Dr. Hansen’s remarks on the how he sees the workings of the anti-nuclear lobby. In his closing paragraphs What Can the Public and Scientists Do? he writes

(…snip…) I also recommend that the public stop providing funds to anti nuke environmental groups. Send a letter saying why you are withdrawing your support. Their position is based partly on fear of losing support from anti-nuke donors, and they are not likely to listen to anything other than financial pressure. If they are allowed to continue to spread misinformation about nuclear power, it is unlikely that we can stop expanded hydro-fracking, continued destructive coal mining, and irreversible climate change.

(…snip…) The public is unaware of pressure put on scientists to be silent about nuclear power. After I mention nuclear power I receive numerous messages, often heart-breaking in their sincerity as they repeat Caldicott-like unfounded assertions and beg me not to mention nuclear power. More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media. Each large environmental organization has a nuclear “expert” (often a lawyer, not a physicist) with a well- developed script to respond to any positive statement about nuclear power. Liberal media follow precisely the “merchants of doubt” approach that the right-wing media use to block action on climate change; raising fears about nuclear power is enough to stymie support. The liberal media employ not only environmental organization “experts”, but former heads of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) appointed during Democratic Administrations.

These NRC talking heads are well-spoken professionals with a spiel that has been honed over years. And they have a track record. The NRC, despite its many dedicated capable employees, has been converted from the top into a lawyer-laden organization that can take many months or years to approve even simple adjustments to plans. It is almost impossible to build a nuclear power plant in the United States in less than 10 years, and this is not because an American worker cannot lay one brick on top of another as fast as a Chinese worker. Anti-nukes know that the best way to kill nuclear power is to make it more expensive.

Given this situation, my suggestion to other scientists, when they are queried, is to point the public toward valid scientific information, such as the “radiation 101” page written by Bob Hargraves. “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay lets the public understand calculations as in the footnote above, thus helping the public to choose between renewables and nuclear power in any given situation – there is a role for both.

James Hansen calls out “Big Green”, its the money that drives their anti-nuclear dogma

James Hansen

It is not always easy to speak truth to power, but all citizens have the opportunity if they choose. I have one minor, easy suggestion for you to consider, and another requiring more effort.

The first concerns “Big Green,” the large environmental organizations, which have become one of the biggest obstacles to solving the climate problem. After I joined other scientists in requesting the leaders of Big Green to reconsider their adamant opposition to nuclear power, and was rebuffed, I learned from discussions with them the major reason: They feared losing donor support. Money, it seems, is the language they understand. Thus my suggestion: The next time you receive a donation request, doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear or the like, toss it in the waste bin and return a note saying that you will consider a donation in the future, if they objectively evaluate the best interests of young people and nature. — James Hansen October 11, 2014

If you think about this a bit, isn’t it obvious that the leaders of “Big Green” are driven by the same motivations as politicians — Power. Power is increased by raising more money every year. That is their goal. It is that simple. I’m talking about the rich and famous NGOs: Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, National Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, and so forth. 

 Please don’t let your friends donate to Big Green! If you’ve not read ‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power‘ this would be a fine time.

Can Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy Learn to Get Along?

Here’s my contention then: If you want an ultra-low carbon renewable energy system, you need storage and flexibility. And if you have storage and flexibility, then renewables play just fine with nuclear.

That’s Jesse Jenkins’ wrapping up a provocative essay at Energy Collective. I disagree with the implication that ultra-low carbon energy systems must have huge amounts of classical storage and flexibility. Yes, if the system design followed the German Energiewende concept. No, if the system is designed to achieve the optimal nuclear-VRE contributions by exploiting productive variable demand or load-shedding to substitute for most of the storage and flexibility. The variable demand would be products with high value in the region of generation – e.g., syn-fuels, desalinated water, ammonia fertilizers, etc. Nathan Wilson explains the concept of using syn-fuels as the variable demand in the comments:

Should we over-build electrical generation and add fuel synthesis? It depends a lot on whether we need the liquid fuel for other purposes. There will always be some nations that can’t grow enough bio-fuel for their transportation system (maybe most nations). For these nations to get off fossil fuel, their syn-fuel industries will be roughly 1-2 times the size of their electricity industry.

Such a nation would need very little energy storage, since the syn-fuel plants would constitute enough dispatchable load. To put down some ball-park numbers, say the baseload power plant costs $6/Watt (plus fuel for nuclear at around 2¢/kWh) and the hydrogen plant costs an extra $1/Watt, including several days of storage. Then baseload electricity is around 8¢/kWh, and dispatch load at the syn-fuel plants adds 1¢/kWh to the cost of baseload for the idled equipment; this is really cheap peaking power (it does assume that as with today’s costs, per-Watt the chem plant is much cheaper than the nuke, and of course a cheap chem plant is crucial for applicability to low capacity factor off-peak wind and solar).

Thermal energy storage at nuclear plants or advanced batteries (for a few hours) might also fall to the $1/Watt point, but we would still have to pay depreciation for the storage, even on days we didn’t need it. When we don’t need the syn-fuel plant to load-shed, it makes product for its fuel customer, so it does not burden the electricity economics (in reality there would likely be a small payment).

I mentioned several days of hydrogen storage, but note that if liquid fuels (e.g. ammonia or DME) are produced, or if the local geology is suited to underground hydrogen storage, then seasonal energy storage is feasible.

Providing syn-fuel for the entire transportation market using plants configured for dispatchable load is such a powerful tool, that nuclear and renewables can almost be mixed freely on such a grid.

Note that the energy prices given (8¢/kWh for baseload electricity, $1/Watt for hydrogen plant) and 70% conversion efficiency suggest a hydrogen cost of $4.60 per gallon of gasoline equivalent. Conversion to ammonia fuel would add another 5-25%, depending on the technology (this improves storability/transportability and allows simpler ICE cars rather than expensive fuel cell vehicles).

This cost would not be attractive in the US unless the hydrogen/ammonia car got much better mileage than gasoline cars (20-50% better is likely). However, it is possible that the very high temperature nuclear plants in development coupled with thermo-chemical hydrogen production could reduce the cost substantially. Also in China and India nuclear power is only one third of what it costs in the US, so the retail price of ammonia syn-fuel would easily beat imported fuel.

I recommend going directly to the Jesse Jenkins essay Can Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy Learn to Get Along? which is generating a lot of well-informed discussion.

Update: later in the comments Nathan Wilson summarizes the specific case for ammonia instead of synthetic hydrocarbons.

Yes, fuel synthesis is a great way to utilize otherwise-curtailed sustainable energy.  But instead of making methane or other hydrocarbons we should make carbon-free ammonia (NH3), to get several benefits:

  • Capturing the needed nitrogen (which is 80% of air) is much cheaper than trying to capture CO2 from the air, sea, or biomass.
  • Like diesel fuel, ammonia can be burned in high compression internal combustion engines (ICEs), which deliver higher energy efficiency than is possible with gasoline engines; ammonia burns cleaner than diesel, with zero-particulate emissions guaranteed.
  • When leaked, ammonia is not a green-house gas (unlike methane), but it is a buoyant gas (unlike methanol and MTBE which can find their way into waterways).
  • Ammonia use would not create another dependence on continued fossil fuel use to assure CO2 availability.
  • Unlike hydrocarbons, ammonia does not release CO2 when burned, so ammonia (which is made today from fossil fuels for a price competitive with gasoline) can be used to allow fossil fuel with CC&S to join sustainable energy in providing non-CO2-emitting energy for transportation, construction, combined heat & power, or electrical peaking applications (so even countries and regions with deeply entrenched fossil fuel industries can achieve deep reductions in CO2 emissions).
  • Ammonia can be economically stored in large above ground (refrigerated) tanks for seasonal energy storage (applicable to all locations, unlike underground methane storage which requires special geology). 

see also:  http://nh3fuelassociation.org/ 

Update: Jesse Jenkins inserted a comment that nicely illustrates the arithmetic of the curtailment impact on VRE of more or less nuclear contribution:

Hi Alan,

I grant that without lots of economic storage/sinks, you’d hit the cieling on renewables faster if you have a share of nuclear in the system as well. So if your goal is to increase renewables to their highest penetration before hitting their cieling before needing storage, then you’d want to back off of nuclear. But if your goal is to get to the lowest carbon power system as possible before needing storage, then I doubt that’s the best way to go.

Simple math here but I think this gets at the gist of it: if your system is say 20% nuclear, then you’d hit the renewables cieling roughly when their energy share = their capacity factor x (100% – nuclear’s share). So for solar at 10% CF, you’d hit the cieling at 10% x (100% – 20%) = about 8% of the energy mix from solar instead of 10% if you had no nuclear in the system. For wind at 33% CF, you’d hit the cieling at 33% x (100% – 20%) = about 26% of the energy mix from wind instead of about 33% if you had no nuclear in the system.

So yes, you lose a few percentage points of renewables share if you have 20% nuclear in your system versus if you don’t. But if carbon is your priority, it makes no sense to give up that 20% from zero-carbon nuclear in order to get 2% more solar or 7% more wind!

So again: if you want an ultra low-carbon energy system with high penetrations of solar or wind, you need massive amounts of economic storage and sinks and DR. And if you have those, nuclear and renewables seem to work just fine together. And if nuclear and renewables aren’t mutally exclusive, the lowest CO2 for the least money may very well be a hybrid system.



The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health

For bioenergy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through plant growth, it must lead to additional plant growth.

NewImageI have been seeking authoritative but accessible sources on whether the current fashion for biofuel subsidies and mandates is a good idea or a bad idea. Questions: are biofuels…

  • Mitigating GHG emissions for transportation fuels?
  • Raising food prices for the poor?
  • Threatening global forest cover?
  • Negatively impacting soil quality?
  • Negatively impacting fresh water supplies?
  • What if cellulosic biofuels can be made to work at scale?

To cut to the chase, I have concluded that encouraging biofuel production may be good for farmers but biofuels are bad for humanity and bad for the planet. While there are some exceptions, my main concern is the broad sweep of public policy, which I find in the rich world to be going in the wrong direction. If you are also wishing to know the scorecard for biofuels I have some sources to recommend. First is the captioned January 2013 workshop organized by the USA National Academy of Sciences. This workshop was convened specifically to investigate the current state of knowledge on biofuels. The workshop proceedings are available at The National Academies Press: The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health where you can purchase the paperback for $35, download the free PDF or read online. The Workshop video is all available on YouTube in 48 segments.

There is a heap of depth in the proceedings so you will be rewarded if you can invest a few hours digesting. For motivation here are a few excerpts from the beginning of first presentation — which is by Timothy D. Searchinger (see end note).

Many governments around the world have either goals or mandates for biofuels, Searchinger said, and if these goals and mandates are met, biofuels will account for about 10 percent of the world’s transportation fuels by 2020. This represents about 2.5 percent of the world’s total energy budget, but Searchinger said, when the energy that it takes to make biofuels is taken into account, biofuels would be providing about 1.7 percent of the world’s delivered energy by 2020.
How much of the world’s crops would that take? By 2020 biofuels would require that about 26 percent of all the energy contained in the present production of the world’s crops. By 2050 that figure would rise to 36 percent, he added. “So, that gives you some idea of the challenge, which is that it takes a large amount of biomass to get a small amount of energy.”

Of course, liquid biofuels are only one form of bioenergy that people are interested in, he noted. For example, there is also a big push in Europe as well as in some U.S. states to produce electricity from wood products.

Governments are encouraging the use of bioenergy in various ways. The European Commission has required, for instance, that 20 percent of all energy in Europe be renewable by 2020—not just the energy from utilities, but all energy. It is expected now that more than half of that will come from bioenergy, Searchinger said. A number of states have renewable energy targets, he said, although they are not quite as stringent and are just for electricity.

The Effect of Biofuels Usage on Carbon Dioxide Levels

One of the main reasons that people support the use of biofuels, Searchinger said, is the belief that “when you switch from burning a fossil fuel to burning a biofuel you get some kind of direct greenhouse gas benefit.” But, he said, a close examination indicates that this is not the case and that the belief that there is a direct benefit stems from an “accounting error.”

The belief that burning biofuels contributes less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than burning fossil fuels stems from the fact that biofuels are derived from plants, which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. “So, the theory is that, in effect, bioenergy is just recycling carbon, not emitting new carbon.” That is wrong, however, for the simple reason that land typically supports plant growth, whether it is used for bioenergy or not. For bioenergy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through plant growth, it must lead to additional plant growth.

(…snip…) The key concept here, Searchinger said, is that the benefit from ethanol depends on the existence of an offset that makes up for the fact that producing and burning ethanol actually creates much more green- house gases than producing and burning gasoline. So, the question is: Is there really such an offset? It is true that growing corn leads to a certain amount of carbon dioxide being pulled from the atmosphere, but that is not all that goes into the determination of the offset. The critical requirement for an “offset” is that it be additional. No one can take credit for a carbon sink, such as a tree if that tree already exists anyway—in this case, regardless of whether the biofuels exist or not. One must take into account all of the circumstances surrounding the production of the ethanol and compare what happens when corn is being grown to produce ethanol to what happens when corn is not being grown to produce ethanol.

The first thing that must be considered is the land that is used to grow plants. “Land grows plants whether it’s growing those plants for biofuels or not,” Searchinger pointed out. “So, those plants are already up taking carbon if you’re growing it for biofuels or not.” Thus, the only way that there is a legitimate offset from growing corn for ethanol is if more plants are being grown on that same amount of land or, specifically, if more carbon dioxide is taken up by the corn crop than was taken up by whatever was growing on that land before the corn. “One way to think about it is that if you had a bare piece of land and you allowed it to grow as a forest, that forest would accumulate carbon, and it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, if you simply had a forest that was growing anyway, you couldn’t count that as an offset.”

Ignoring this basic fact is a fundamental error that often appears in calculating the biofuels offset. “Biofuel analysis assumes typically that all plant growth offsets biofuels, rather than only additional plant growth,” Searchinger said.

(…snip…) The most effective approach would be producing cellulosic ethanol—ethanol produced from wood or grasses—on the land, but even in that case, Searchinger said, “you’re simply matching the opportunity cost of using that land for another purpose.” And if the cropland is created by clearing forest, there is a much greater cost in greenhouse gases because plowing up forests will release 12 to 35 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare each year for 30 years. Thus, the best-case biofuels scenario would be to take fallow land and use it for the production of cellulosic ethanol, he said, but even in that case it is only a break-even situation if the land would otherwise come from abandoned land, and it would increase emissions if the land used was previously forest. There is no offset.

In short, out of the three possible indirect effects of growing corn to produce ethanol, Searchinger said, two are bad. (…snip…)

Biofuels and Food Consumption

Interestingly, although reduced food consumption would not appear to be a desirable result, it is exactly what is assumed in the major models used to predict the greenhouse gas effects of biofuels, Searchinger said. “You have to find this deeply in the data,” he said. “It’s generally not reported. Take, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] analysis of corn ethanol, which found relatively little land-use change compared to some other studies. One reason it didn’t find as much land-use change as other studies is that it actually estimated that a quarter of all the calories that are diverted to ethanol aren’t replaced.”

Similarly, the model used by the California Air Resources Board assumed that more than half of the calories from the corn diverted from human and animal consumption to ethanol would not be replaced. A major model used by the European Union assumes that a quarter of the calories from either corn ethanol or wheat ethanol are not replaced.

Thus, the greenhouse gases benefit from using biofuels, as calculated by these models, depends on humans and animals eating less, expending less energy, and thus breathing out less carbon dioxide (and producing less methane). “If you were to eliminate these savings,” he said, “you would not have greenhouse gas savings according to all these models.”

Of course, he noted, the decreased consumption assumed by these models is not a desirable effect because there remains a great deal of hunger in the world—roughly 900 million people are hungry according to recent estimates. Thus, it is particularly worrisome that the frequency of food crises worldwide has essentially tripled since 2005, when the amount of biofuels use began to increase sharply. And according to a recent report by the High-Level Panel on Food Security, of which Searchinger is a member, that is not a coincidence (HLPE, 2013). “We basically conclude that biofuels are the dominant source of food price increases.”

In particular, the increase in corn prices in the United States can be traced to the cost of oil combined with government tax credits for ethanol production. With crude oil at $80 per barrel and with the current U.S. tax credits for ethanol, it is economical to use corn to make ethanol and to replace gasoline until the price of corn reaches about $6.80 per bushel. “Roughly speaking,” he said, “this is a 275 percent higher price than the long-term corn price in the first part of the 2000s.” Thus, corn prices get bid up until they get close to that level—and as the price for corn intended for ethanol production increases, the price for corn intended for consumption increases along with it, for the crops are the same. Furthermore, as the price of corn increases, the price of wheat and soybeans—and, to a lesser extent, rice—track the price of corn very closely because the crops can, to a significant extent, be substituted for one another. “So, this force by itself is perfectly adequate to explain the vast majority of the price rise that we’ve had,” Searchinger said.


To produce all the crops needed by 2020 for both food and biofuels without any change in land use will require a doubling of the historical yield growth rate, Searchinger said, “and that’s not going to happen.”

What would be the impact of actually achieving EU 2050 goals for biomass and biofuels? The 80% renewables goal is 12% of Total Primary Energy would be biomass. Yikes, what a disaster that would be!

The real challenge with bioenergy, Searchinger said, is that photosynthesis is extremely inefficient. “If you’re really lucky you get half a percent of the solar energy transformed into plant biomass—that’s extraordinary achievement over the course of the year. And eventually maybe a tenth or two-tenths of the original solar energy will end up actually in delivered energy like electricity.” By contrast, a solar cell turns 10 percent of solar energy into electricity. “So, compare one-tenth of 1 percent with 10 percent, and you’ll get an idea of the inefficiency of using land. What that means is it takes a tremendous amount of land to make a small amount of bioenergy.”

The bottom line is that to provide 10 percent of the world’s transportation fuel by 2050 would require 36 percent of all of today’s crop production, and it would amount to less than 2 percent of the world’s delivered energy at that time.

Another way of looking at the inefficiency is that the EROI of biomass is so low (by a factor of two) that it makes a negative contribution to supporting a modern industrial economy. This chart is discussed in The Catch-22 of Energy Storage and EROI — A Tool To Predict The Best Energy Mix:


Timothy D. Searchinger, J.D., is a research scholar and lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is also a Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Timothy D. Searchinger is a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute and serves as the technical director of the next World Resources Report.

A closer look at the flawed studies behind policies used to promote ‘low-carbon’ biofuels

Source: University of Michigan press release — which begins with this:

Nearly all of the studies used to promote biofuels as climate-friendly alternatives to petroleum fuels are flawed and need to be redone, according to a University of Michigan researcher who reviewed more than 100 papers published over more than two decades.

Once the erroneous methodology is corrected, the results will likely show that policies used to promote biofuels—such as the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard and California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard—actually make matters worse when it comes to limiting net emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide gas.

The main problem with existing studies is that they fail to correctly account for the carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere when corn, soybeans and sugarcane are grown to make biofuels, said John DeCicco, a research professor at U-M’s Energy Institute.

“Almost all of the fields used to produce biofuels were already being used to produce crops for food, so there is no significant increase in the amount of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, there’s no climate benefit,” said DeCicco, the author of an advanced review of the topic in the current issue of Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment.

“The real challenge is to develop ways of removing carbon dioxide at faster rates and larger scales than is accomplished by established agricultural and forestry activities. By focusing more on increasing net carbon dioxide uptake, we can shape more effective climate policies that counterbalance emissions from the combustion of gasoline and other liquid fuels.”

The DeCicco paper The liquid carbon challenge: evolving views on transportation fuels and climate is a valuable resource on biofuels. The paper is blessedly OPEN ACCESS. 

WIREs Energy Environ 2015, 4:98–114. doi: 10.1002/wene.133

I recommend a careful read of DeCicco. For a one-graphic-summary I chose Figure 4 which shows that biofuels are not significant contributors to decarbonization if indirect land-use change (ILUC) is “correctly” accounted.


EROI — A Tool To Predict The Best Energy Mix

I’m happy to see that Forbes contributor James Conca has taken on the central EROI issue — what John Morgan termed the The Catch-22 of Energy Storage. In today’s essay EROI — A Tool To Predict The Best Energy Mix Jim engages directly with the reality that affordable utility-scale storage does NOT make solar PV and biomass into big winners in the future low-carbon energy portfolio. Jim contributed an effective new chart that combines both the with-storage and without-storage EROI profiles. The dotted line at EROI = 7 represents an estimate of the minimum performance required to support a modern industrial society, as represented by the OECD countries.


Both John Morgan and Jim Conca based their analysis on the important 2013 paper by Weißbach et al (ungated preprint) published in Energy, Volume 52, 1 April 2013, Pages 210–221.

I want to emphasize that not only is this paper a major conceptual contribution to the energy policy, it is also a model of transparency. Included in the supplementals of the Weißbach et al. paper – are the spreadsheets containing all the materials reference data, assumptions and the EROI and EMROI computations. This means that any motivated reader can audit every detail of the energy inputs, material requirements and computations.

If any reader objects to any of the assumptions they are free to amend the Weisbach spreadsheets to compute their own preferred EROI profiles.

An excellent example of the transparency benefit of the Weisbach spreadsheet contribution is Keith Pickering’s GETTING TO ZERO: Is renewable energy economically viable? Keith used the Weißach model to analyze the progressively improving EROI of nuclear fission. 

With 100% centrifuge, nuclear will have an EROI of 106, EMROI of 166 according to Weißbach’s analysis.

Here’s an earlier 8/13/14 Seekerblog post on the Morgan and Weißach work.

Can you build a wind turbine without fossil fuels?


Robert Wilson addressed the captioned question in Wind Turbines and Fuel Used in Creation. Robert summarized the materials required for wind nameplate generation capacity:

On average 1 MW of wind capacity requires 103 tonnes of stainless steel, 402 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fiberglass, 3 tonnes of copper and 20 tonnes of cast iron. The elegant blades are made of fiberglass, the skyscraper sized tower of steel, and the base of concrete.

I think of the captioned question from a slightly different angle:

If we have a grid powered only by wind power — will we be able to replace the aging turbines at their 20 to 25 year end-of-life?

I think the answer to my question is

  1. We must synthesize a substitute for the diesel fuel.
  2. We will still need coal and/or natural gas for steelmaking and cement.
  3. Regardless of chemistry we will need a LOT of reliable, clean energy to manufacture the replacement wind turbines every 25 years or so.

To synthesize all those fuels you will want to have plenty of low-carbon nuclear electricity. And the chemistry of both steel and concrete production will continue to produce large volumes of CO2 (absent innovations I’m not aware of).

Robert walks the reader through the steel supply chain from ore mining and transport, to the blast furnace that converts the iron ore into steel. Every step requires (steel) heavy machinery and copious fossil fuel to power the engines. The final stages require either or both coal (coke for the iron ore to iron reduction) and natural gas. From Chemistry Explained:

Steel furnaces. In the steel furnace, sulfur and phosphorus impurities and excess carbon are burned away, and manganese and other alloying ingredients are added. During the nineteenth century most steel was made by the Bessemer process, using big pear-shaped converters. During the first half of the twentieth century, the open hearth furnace became the main type of steel furnace. This gave way mid-century to the basic oxygen process, which used pure oxygen instead of air, cutting the process time from all day to just a few hours. In the twenty-first century, most new steel plants use electric furnaces, the most popular being the electric-arc furnace. It is cheaper to build and more efficient to operate than the basic oxygen furnace. In the electric-arc furnace a powerful electric current jumps (or arcs) between the electrodes, generating intense heat, which melts the iron scrap that is typically fed into it.

The most modern process for making steel is the continuous process, which bypasses the energy requirements of the blast furnace. Instead of using coke, the iron ore is reduced by hydrogen and CO derived from natural gas. This direct reduction method is especially being used in developing countries where there are not any large steel plants already in operation. 

The 402 tons of concrete per MW of nameplate capacity requires the similarly challenging cement supply chain (from US EIA)

NewImage(…snip…) the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries, with a share of national energy use roughly 10 times its share of the nation’s gross output of goods and services. (…snip…) Cement is also unique in its heavy reliance on coal and petroleum coke.


 And because wind capacity factors are typically 25 to 35% in excellent productivity areas, and because we are assuming that the electric grid depends entirely on 100% wind power, then we will have to build 3 to 4 times as many wind turbines as the nameplate capacity promises. That’s a lot of concrete and a lot of steel. Back to Robert Wilson, who concludes with this:

Total cement production currently represents about 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, to go with the almost 7% from iron and steel production. Not loose change.

In conclusion we obviously cannot build wind turbines on a large scale without fossil fuels.

Now, none of this is to argue against wind turbines, it is simply arguing against over-promising what can be achieved. It also should be pointed out that we cannot build a nuclear power plant, or any piece of large infrastrtucture for that matter, without concrete or steel. A future entirely without fossil fuels may be desirable, but currently it is not achievable. Expectations must be set accordingly.