Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Run Twice As Fast

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

                                        Lewis Carroll

In the energy discourse there is lots of hype. By the way things are being reported we may get the impression that wind and solar power are just about to dominate the energy markets worldwide. Thus, a dose of reality is needed.

If the final objective in our quest to stop global warming is to reduce carbon emissions, then we are not only not advancing, we are actually going backwards. In other words, every year we seem to be breaking a new record in CO2 emissions. 

Why is this?

Because our global energy consumption is growing so fast that we literally have to run as fast as we can increasing our low carbon energy sources just to stay in place. 

Note: all graphs below are from the EIA International Energy Outlook 2013 Report. A link to the full report can be found at the bottom of this page.

Since our energy consumption is still growing at a fast pace, in order to stabilize (let alone reduce) or carbon emissions, the low carbon sources (hydro, nuclear, sun, wind, geothermal, etc.), would need to supply all the growth in energy requirements. This is not happening, not even close. Actually most of the increase in our energy supply is coming from fossil fuels themselves.

That is why our total emissions look this way:

With the exception of the years 2008-9 when the world experienced a serious recession, we seem to be breaking a new carbon emission record every year and it is forecast to continue that way until (at least) 2040.

As we may see in Figure 1, the challenge is mainly the increase in energy requirements in the Non-OECD countries.

Even though electricity is only a fraction of our total energy use, it is the most fitted to being generated by low carbon energy. However, even in this segment the record, so far, is not precisely sterling:

It may FEEL like we are running to a lower carbon future but we are actually badly falling behind. We need to run much faster just to stay even in the climate race and if we want to begin reducing our carbon emissions, then our top priority should be to "run twice as fast as that" in the deployment of low carbon sources.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Nuclear Power for Australia?

Should the electricity production in Australia go nuclear?

In this entry we'll calculate the number of reactors that would be required to produce 50% of the electricity in Australia.

Before even starting, here we state two facts:

1. Australia is the Saudi Arabia of Uranium reserves: they have 31% of the world total. The country in second place, Kazakhstan, has less than HALF Australia's reserves.*

2. Australia has the 4th largest global reserves of Thorium.**

Other countries would certainly kill to own these amounts of fissile material.

Now, let's make the math.

According to the IEA, Australia produced 228,152 GWh of electricity in 2013.  Let's convert this to average power:

     228,152 GWh / 24 hours / 365 days = 26.045 GW.  For simplicity, let's leave it at 26 GW.

50% of the above power is 13 GW. So now let's calculate how many 1 GWe nuclear power plants would be required to supply 13 GW of electrical power.

To be conservative, let's say that the capacity factor of these reactors is 85%. Thus:

     13 GW / 0.85 / 1GWe = 15.29 nuclear reactors.  Let's round it up to 16.

That's it! 16 reactors is all that Australia needs to replace 50% of its electricity and thus dramatically reduce its carbon emissions (in 2013, 86.4% of Australia's electricity was produced with combustible fuels).***

With their current reserves, Australia essentially has enough U / Th to power a civilization "forever."

Sure, the Australian coal industry would suffer greatly, but this is probably the price that has to be paid to reduce emissions Down Under.

The growth in Australia's electricity consumption is projected to amount to only 1.4% per year, so by 2035 they would need 22 reactors to supply 50% of its electricity. China today is building 28, so 22 should be a perfectly achievable objective for a developed country like Australia.

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter: @luisbaram

Thank you.





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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Board of Advisers

In his book, Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill recommends each person to select a "board of advisers" to help him in setting and following the right course in life. This "board" should meet regularly in a person's mind to help her manage life as if it were a sort of corporation.

The persons in the board don't even have to be alive today, they can be selected from a different time and place.

Well, here I will present my Board:

1. Politics: Yes, I was tempted to select FDR, probably the ultimate master of politics among US presidents and also the suave operator, Clark Clifford but settled on Richard Nixon. I want a person fully passionate in his area of expertise and as he once stated before running for president in 1968: 
"I had finally come to the realization that there was no other life for me but politics and public service. Even when my legal work was at its most interesting I never found it truly fulfilling. I told some friends at this time that if all I had was my legal work, I would be mentally dead in two years and physically dead in four. I knew that they thought I was exaggerating; but I was telling the truth about the way I thought and felt."
And before we get all annoyed again about Watergate, let's underline that NEVER in the history of the USA has a person won a presidential election with more plurality of votes than Nixon. This record still stands today: +17,995,488.

2. Business: although possibly the two greatest geniuses in corporate history immediately popped to mind: Edwin Land and Steve Jobs, both of them were... geniuses. Since their genius can hardly be transmitted to another person I chose the person that was named by Fortune Magazine "the greatest capitalist in history:" Thomas J. Watson Jr., the second CEO of IBM and the champion, among many other things, of the IBM 360. 

3. Psychology / well being: Carl Gustav Jung. Who else? Really, nobody touches him. No other person was even considered for this position. 

4. Thinker in residence: yes, Johnny von Neumann, the only real genius in the Manhattan Project according to Hans Bethe was seriously considered, but I wanted a person with a wider scope, if that was even possible. The final candidates were Ludwig Wittgenstein and Leo Szilard. After a long evaluation I couldn't discard any of them so both were invited to join.

5. Art / literature: here I literally had "binders full of candidates," but settled for Federico Garcia Lorca. His poem "A las Cinco de la Tarde" tipped the scales in his favor.  

I already had six persons plus myself, a total of seven. For the group not to get too unwieldy I decided to close it with a total of eight members. There was only one position left.

6. Lead adviser: nobody would have my ear more than him and his advise would be a tie breaker if any subject got gridlocked. Just like with Jung, no other person was offered the position, it went straight to Emanuel Swedenborg.

What an unbelievably powerful team has been assembled! I can hardly wait to start the sessions.

Do YOU have a Board of Advisers?

Feel free to add to the conversation in Tweeter: @luisbaram

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Monday, June 09, 2014

ALL Are Here to Stay

Today, in the energy discourse there are constant skirmishes between the proponents of different types of energy.

Depending on the respective camp, people want to eliminate (pick one) fossil fuels, nuclear, wind, solar, what have you.

Well, we have news for all the groups: NONE of the current energy sources is going away, at least not this century. Whether we like it or not, on a global scale, we'll have to learn to live with them.

Now, after saying the above, it doesn't mean we should write a blank check to any particular technology without FIRST doing our homework.

As an example, let's analyse solar photo-voltaic (PV).

What is the highest PV penetration that makes economic / environmental sense in a national grid?*

Since PV is intermittent, it probably makes no sense to go much above low single digits. Why? Let's do our homework with an example:

Say a country uses, on average, 40 GW of electricity. At peak hour, they consume 40% more than the average, in other words, 56 GW.

Thus, the maximum output of the solar panels at any particular moment should not exceed 56 GW (unless we want to embark in expensive / environmentally challenging massive storage which today is not ready for prime time).

Consequently, the PV installed capacity in this country should be capped at 56 GW.

If the solar annual capacity factor in this country is 15%, then the average annual production of the PV installation will be: 56 GW x 0.15 = 8.4 GW.

The country itself consumes 40 GW average, so the PV component would be: 8.4 / 40 = 21%.**

The above means that at peak solar production ALL other generating capacity would need to be idled / shut down. At night (and to a lesser extent during cloudy days), the other types of generators would have to supply the electricity requirements.***

Non intermittent power sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear are not constrained by the above mentioned "cap."

Hydro is somewhere in the middle since its intermittency is not daily but seasonal or from year to year.

Conclussion: intermittent energy has a "natural" cap that would make no economic / environmental sense to exceed.

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter: @luisbaram

* Sure, one country could "dump" excess power into another, but if that second country uses the same type of technology to produce its electricity, they would have surpluses at the same time.

** This is really an optimistic number since, for example, in Europe more electricity is required in winter when solar produces the least energy. I propose the "rule of thumb" for solar should be to cap it at the annual capacity factor. e.g. if the annual capacity factor is 15%, then at the most 15% of the annual electricity should be solar. However, even this number might be too high.

*** The costs per GWh of the modulated / idled / shut down power plants are higher than if they could produce continually at their capacity. These costs ultimately affect the overall prices of the electricity in the grid.

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Nuclear Energy: Let's Get Real

First let me say off the bat that I consider nuclear power one of the best energy sources we have. Why?

Because nuclear is dense, reliable, constant, low carbon, relatively safe, scalable and proven technology.
It also generates little (although dangerous waste).

Actually, nuclear is so good that if humanity didn't have it, we would need to invent it.

Again, off the bat let me say that I consider that eventually nuclear will supply more than 50% of humanity's energy. By nuclear I mean fission and fusion. In fission we are including uranium and thorium and all sorts of reactor designs. On the other hand, "eventually" doesn't necessarily mean soon.

So, after stating the above, we don't want to sound like Greenpeacers promoting renewable energy and thus here is a dose of reality:

In a previous post,* we calculated that to expand nuclear generation to comprise 50% of global electricity requirements (and say, 25% of global energy requirements) we would need to commission 87 one GWe nuclear reactors every year for 30 years. Or, if you prefer, half that amount of reactors for 60 years.**

Today, only China seems serious about massively increasing their nuclear capacity and currently have 28*** reactors under construction. Comendable, but hardly enough.

Remember, if we want to produce 50% of our electricity with nuclear by 2040 we need to commission 87 reactors in 2014; 87 more in 2015; 87 more in 2016; 87 more in 2017; 87 more in 2018; 87 more in 2019...

Sure, we might say, we are not starting now, but later, still it is inescapable that a dramatic nuclear buildup is required. 

Thus, we have to differentiate what is technically feasible from what is probable.

Is it feasible to produce 50% of the global electricity with nuclear? If France is already producing close to 80% of its annual electricity with nuclear, there shouldn't be any insurmountable technical limitations for the world to "go the way of France." 

However, now we have to ask how probable it is that we will commission 87 reactors (average) per year for 30 years. I would say the probability is extremely low, almost zero.

OK, what about 43 per year for 60 years? Hmmm... that seems more probable.

And what about 29 for 90 years? This looks awfully more probable.

The EIA estimates that by 2040 nuclear energy will supply 14.1% of global electricity (and say, half of that for total energy usage).

For the other low carbon energies, the EIA estimates the following penetrations in global electricity generation:****

Hydro: 16%.
Wind: 4.7%
Solar: 1.2%

Adding all of the above (including nuclear) we reach a total of 36%. Thus the rest, 64% would still be comprised of combustible fuels by 2040.

And let's remember this is only electricity generation. The rest of our energy requirements would be even more heavily represented by fossil fuels.

Thus and if you ask me, the responsible thing to do is to plan for a world where fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy market for the rest of this century.

Conclusion: nuclear energy will eventually supply more than 50% of humanity's energy. "Eventually" means 100 to 150 years in the future. From now until then, fossil fuels will continue to provide the heavy lifting for our civilization.

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter: @luisbaram


** Considering energy requirements won't continue to increase after 2040.



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