Corny Energy Policy

July 20th, 2011

Chemical Ed VomitsThis post is Day 3 in the CHEMisperceptions chem-blog roundtable.  Day 1 was at ScienceGeist, Day 2 was at Chemjobber, and Day 4 will be at Leigh’s blog.

Energy.  It’s kind of important.  I’m not going to sit here and bother writing out the hackneyed warnings that you’ve all heard before.  I won’t cite the growth of the world’s population, industrial emergence of less-developed economies, and expanding requirements of new technology as key factors that will multiply our already high demand for power for years to come.  I also won’t repeat the obvious truth that these factors, coupled with the problems associated with the generation of electricity from fossil fuels, necessitate that we develop new ways of providing energy to power all of these applications.

How the world fuels its growing appetite for energy is a problem that involves many stakeholders, but the subject most relevant to the discussion might be chemistry.  The problem falls squarely within the realm of chemical research, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from espousing positions that don’t pass chemical muster.

A blog post on public misperceptions about energy could easily turn into a book.  (My new favorite is from a conversation I recently overheard that high-octane gasoline is “premium” because it burns more cleanly and gives you better fuel mileage.)  While you can find people that believe just about anything, I’m sure that all of us—scientists included—have misconceptions about energy that are based on ignorance, counterintuitive phenomena, and misinformation.  But that’s not my concern today.  My concern is the bigger picture and how our government (not just a few random people) is putting its weight behind ideas that don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Perhaps the worst example has to be the growing use of ethanol from corn as a fuel.  The United States has already invested and is continuing to pour a hell of a lot of money into working more ethanol into the fold of the fuel we use for transportation.  Acts of Congress have ensured the growth of the technology by setting minimum levels of ethanol production, and the Government provides tax breaks for domestic producers and places tariffs on imports.  These subsidies are a signal that ethanol technology is not something that makes the most sense economically, but government intervention can be a good idea for fledgling technologies that show promise for the future.  Is that the case for corn ethanol?

It is very hard for me to believe.  The only real advantage of ethanol is that it removes some of our dependence on oil, whose price is essentially controlled by a cartel run by unfriendly countries.  I appreciate the desire to wean ourselves from “foreign” oil, but ethanol is a drop in the bucket in the energy picture and it introduces considerable costs for (questionable) short term gain.  First, we eat corn, so its use to produce ethanol places a higher demand on the crop and drives up food prices.  This problem will only get worse as the population increases and demands for ethanol fuel grow. Next, we don’t have the infrastructure for using ethanol.  As used today, expanding ethanol production is going to require new distilleries, and increasing the percentage of ethanol in fuels is going to require things like engine modifications and different fuel pumps to support it.  (Congress has already allocated money for getting more of these pumps installed.)  These projects and similar ones would, perhaps, be reasonable investments if ethanol were a long-term solution, but it doesn’t seem to be (for reasons discussed below).  Finally, corn ethanol is woefully inefficient in terms of harnessing energy, even relative to other forms of ethanol production (e.g., sugar cane).  Distilleries are still largely powered by coal, and the best estimates are that when you consider all of the factors that go into producing corn ethanol, it only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by ~25% versus gasoline.  The technology doesn’t quite live up to its reputation as “carbon-neutral”.

Yes, I know many people have made these arguments (and others) against corn ethanol before.  That makes it all the more depressing that the technology continues to be a major focus of domestic energy policy.  Perhaps the better question to focus on is what strategies do seem viable to meet the energy demands of the future?

This is where things get a little depressing—even scary.  Nate Lewis (a professor at Caltech) has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations about how fast the global demand for power will increase and how realistic it is to meet these needs with various forms of energy production.  He’s published his analysis in several easy-to-read papers and he gives a great talk.

What does the analysis have to say about solving the “energy crisis” with…

Nuclear?  It’s “clean” in terms of CO2 pollution, but we’d have to build a standard-capacity uranium reactor every other day for the next 50 years to meet energy demand.  Or…nuclear chemists/physicists could finally invent a fusion reactor.

Hydroelectricity?  It’s really a pittance.  You could dam every river on Earth and not generate enough energy for today’s needs.  Furthermore, you’d flood a lot of people out of their homes.

Geothermal?  Again, there’s not enough that is practical to access.

Wind?  In regions with high wind velocity, this technology is definitely economical, but there’s not nearly enough accessible wind energy for everyone.

Biofuels (like ethanol)?  Unfortunately, photosynthesis is only ~1% efficient and CO2 only makes up 0.04% of the atmosphere, which introduces severe mass-transport limitations on how fast plants grow.  If you used the most efficient crops and (impossibly) found a means to farm them without using energy, you’d essentially have to plant all of the arable land on the planet to meet what we’ll need in terms of long-term energy consumption.

Fossil fuels?  Fortunately, there is plenty of oil, gas, and coal around to last for many decades, but this does nothing to solve the problem of pollution/CO2.

Solar?  This is the only real option.  Well over 1,000 times more energy from sunlight hits the surface of the Earth than we need to meet even the least conservative estimates for what the world will need down the road.  Today’s best systems generate energy at ~4-5 times the cost of the same unit produced by burning fossil fuels, which is why solar is not yet a practical alternative.  We (chemists) need to improve the efficiency of these systems, find better catalysts, less expensive materials, and find a way to store energy so that we can run things at night.

I think all of these alternatives should continue to be the subject of research because they are interesting from the perspective of science and engineering.  But, to me, solar is the only thing that makes sense in terms of serious (big $$$) investment.  All of the focus on corn ethanol has been, and continues to be, a distraction and a waste.  The problem is that the public has been sold an incomplete story.

49 Responses to “Corny Energy Policy”

  1. CHEMisperceptions: Day 3 | ScienceGeist Says:

    […] var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};Paul has day three up and running over at ChemBark where he’s talking about energy policy stuff. Go check it out! This entry was posted on […]

  2. Chemjobber Says:

    Okay, I’ll charge the bunker first — what about cellulosic ethanol? That’s gotta be worth something.

    Also, carbon sequestration? I’ve always wanted a cubic mile of polycarbonate in my backyard.

  3. Matt Says:

    Another question that I have is: what technologies do you like? Do you like the liquid leaf that Nocera is pushing. Do you like Nate’s “carpet” solar cell stuff? Are you allowed to/feel comfortable commenting on any of this??

  4. Hap Says:

    Much of the push for corn ethanol is to help corn farmers by increasing the market for corn (also re: HFCS vs. cane sugar). The increase in food prices is for them a feature, not a bug (a feature that limits Congress’s desire to help them, but, well)

    As for photosynthesis – we have an awful lot of coal power plants (and probably some with natural gas) that put out an awful lot of CO2 at concentrations well above 400 ppm. Could algae-growing facilities near power plants (or CO2 depositories, if they were to exist) use that output stream? It would require cleaning the coal output stream (although much of that has to happen now), and finding algae that could grow effiiciently and put out useful products, and getting enough light to them (coal plants and places with continuous sunlight aren’t in the same places), but it would solve at least some of the mass-transfer issues.

    Efficiency would help, although not as much as the initial gains (we’ll just use more, which negates some to most of the efficiency gains). It’s probably still worth doing.

  5. Stephen Bahl Says:

    Not to be overly optimistic, but don’t some of these have a lot of room for improvement? Sure, there are inherent limitations (wind farms or hydroelectric dams require specific sorts of locations and all that). But it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that nuclear could be more productive than it is now, especially with reprocessing. And there’s thorium to consider. Biofuels don’t need to be based on corn. They could be vats of genetically engineered algae or whatever is optimal in a given local area. And perhaps tidal hydroelectric power could help. As you already mentioned, solar can be made more efficient and energy storage can be improved along with that. And we don’t need to do just one of these. We could do all of them in addition to possible engineering things to require less electricity in the first place.

  6. Chemjobber Says:

    I think the thing that’s high up in terms of concerns is the political realities. However depressing it is to realize, we can’t wish away state, local and federal government, nor all the varying interests at play.

    Big sigh.

  7. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I am happy about developing solar but I am also big on nuclear. Solar power by itself won’t be able to satisfy the sheer magnitude of our worldwide energy demands, although it would be very valuable in certain places. Solar should receive all the funding it can get. But unlike solar, nuclear is already here and the problem of waste is important but can be contained. The new generation nuclear reactors which are optimized for size, safety and energy density need to be extensively deployed. Plus, a move toward thorium will result in significant improvements in safety and availability. With the kind of energy demand that will bedevil us in the next few decades, I see a future where solar and nuclear combine to provide the best mix.

  8. RB Woodweird Says:

    The ethanol subsidy has nothing much to do with energy policy and a whole lot to do with the Iowa caucuses.

  9. Magic Acid Says:

    Paul, you forgot to mention methanol and related technologies (such as CO2 to methanol conversion) that are being developed by Olah and coworkers at USC.
    Otherwise, great coverage on a desperately important topic!

  10. Chemjobber Says:

    Worst part: the Iowa caucuses aren’t even particularly important to the presidential primary system. Their overall value in determining the winner or the front-runner isn’t, I assert, particularly high.

    But corn’s grown all over the Midwest, I should note. And all of those states have senators, and all of those senators like political (and campaign moneys) from their farm constituents.

    Carbon capture technology is pretty important; if there’s a place for money to be spent, that’s my vote.

  11. MattC Says:

    I reckon one of the few countries in the world where a photosynthesis based energy system isn’t completely idiotic is the USA, as it is one of the few countries with large arable areas and low population density. It is still a bit daft, especially if you are distilling it, just not as daft as this fad is in the UK.
    @Stephen Bahl:
    With nuclear, yes, there is a lot of energy left over, and we are nowhere near the physical limits (also, the 180 plants a year for 6 billion people doesn’t sound as impossible as one every other day).
    W.r.t the others, we’re pretty much out of luck. Most technologies are physically incapable of producing more energy – they’re already pretty efficient.
    The key figure (as mentioned) with photosynthesis is that a plant is only about 1% efficient w.r.t. solar energy over a year. In ideal conditions, it could be upped to maybe 5% (this is ideal conditions, so you’re probably expending energy to keep your plants happy anyway). If we manage to create a superplant that uses a fundamentally different mechanism of photosynthesis, that would help, but considering we’ve got solar cells that can routinely hit 10, 15 even 20% efficiency, it doesn’t look like biomass of any kind is onto a winner. Unless of course I’ve missed something.
    @Curious Wavefunction
    Why do you say Solar can’t satisfy our energy demands? If you take the amount of energy the sun sends our way (170 PW), and compare it to the amount we use (15TW), it is definitely theoretically possible. And if you start to pave deserts with solar panels, you can see how it works. I’m with you on nuclear being important, too though.
    @Magic Acid
    I’m sceptical of the idea of using our energy to produce large quantities of chemical fuel (as opposed to batteries). Fuels cells don’t reach 50% efficiency, which is really shoddy compared to batteries, and that’s neglecting efficiency of conversion. I think producing fuels from electricity is something that should really be only used in cases that really need it (air travel, perhaps?).

    As always with these kinds of discussions I direct everyone who isn’t aware of it to David Mackay’s Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, which looks at the physical limits of various kinds of energy production and consumption (albeit with a UK focus):

  12. Paul Says:

    Ack…just finished my first rush-hour LAX run…and I’m still not at a real computer. Will fix typos and add links at lunch…promise.

  13. Hap Says:

    Rush hour to LAX – Whee! I love CO!

  14. Hap Says:

    CO = carbon monoxide, not Colorado. Sorry.

  15. psi*psi Says:

    I agree with CW that nuclear is a necessary part of the solution. There are a few new reactor designs that are especially interesting, and I hope there’s not so much NIMBYism that we don’t see them implemented in the next few decades.
    (Interestingly, I was just at a meeting of a certain federal agency that may or may not have a large focus on energy…I’ll just say I saw unanimous eye-rolling toward ethanol policy.)

  16. JRnonchemist Says:

    @MattC A key concern with use of solar for baseline power (24/7 constant power) is energy density. While the amount of energy passing through an area the size of the Earth’s cross section is huge, building and maintaining a set of panels a thousandth or even a ten thousandth of that size is likely non-trivial, and will involve disciplines outside of chemistry.

    The two numbers you want for a back of the envelope examination are solar flux (maximum or average) and total power used (USA or world.) By thermodynamics, no solar panel can get more electrical power than is actually passing through it, so power over flux should give you some idea of what sort of square footage or mileage you are talking about for pure solar generation. Compare this number to the areas of various polities until you get a feel for the geography you are talking about. Keep in mind that as you reduce the magic handwaving, you have to multiply this area by a higher number to account for things like storage losses, collection inefficiencies, factors of safety and acts of God, like flooding.

    As agricultural methods improve, the amount of non-arable land decreases some, and we have a lot of hilly terrain to begin with. Then consider that many deserts have plant life, huge installations will crowd the plant life out to some extent, making necessary additional measures to control dust. (Dust storms and clouds are bad for solar generation for three reasons. One, they block the light, two dust is abrasive, and three, dust coatings will be bad for generation.)

    Then there is the issue of actually building and maintaining the things. First, that many panels will not be cheap, even if one assumes the price of galvanized sheet metal. Then, there is the replacement costs, because any solar panel made by humans will have a finite lifespan. My understanding is that there are trade-offs between how efficient a solar cell is, and how long it lasts. Then there are supports, wiring, concrete, dust control and so forth. Then consider the manpower for keeping everything in good operating condition.

    My numbers suggest that Solar only works as the sole source for baseline power if and only if one is willing to impose starvation level limits on energy usage. Even then, the effects on the population may impair the technical infrastructure enough to limit things.

    As an aside, batteries are essentially a way of creating fuel by means of electricity, and then burning it to generate electricity again. They are a form of chemical fuel, just with more reuse, and at reasonable prices much less energy density. Energy density and energy storage per unit weight are important for all vehicles. Greater density means greater range.

  17. Billyziege Says:

    I just wanted to emphasize something that others have touched upon, but needs to be explicitly said.

    One thing that I remember about this issue from an ecological engineering course I sat in while I was at Purdue was the professor’s emphasis on diversity. While some authors have noted that solar power is great in the US, specifically in the south west, this technology is not as efficient at higher latitudes (like in England) where the intensity (and hence available energy) of incident light is not as great. Therefore local, environmental characteristics need to be taken into account, and no single solution is a panacea. While hydroelectric and geothermal may provide pittances overall, these technologies may be able to partially elevate demand within a community that has little options else-wise. It would then be optimization of such diverse, available technologies within the local environmental parameters that would hopefully be the strategy to solve this issue.

    Another point along this line, a point I always associate with anarchy for some reason, is that long distance transmission of energy costs energy, which leads me to compare energy consumption to food consumption. The “think global, act local” mantra associated with the local production of food which has become a fad in many US cities can then be applied to energy consumption. That is, community-based energy providers, if not facilities for individual household’s in more rural settings, would be the energy-production option instead of large corporate entities supplying large swaths of the country. Of course, the energy demands of cities would require supplements from traditional energy sources (like nuclear or industrial wind farms). While the short-term economics of such an energy strategy are politically unfeasible, I personally think that such a strategy is much more likely to be sustainable.

    One cost/benefit that needs to be mentioned is that the de-centralization of energy production would require more workforce to maintain. Again, this may be economically infeasible, but on the other hand, more job opportunities would be available in an economy that is becoming more and more automated. So, anyway, this was my takeaway from the course.

    A second point concerning new technologies. Companies, like Amyris, are stepping up to the plate on “biofuels”. While traditional chemistry may be energy- and ecologically- prohibitive for the production of fuels from plants like sugar and corn, Synthetic Biology may be able to reduce some of these drawbacks by using micro-organisms. That is, specific-designed pathways are being placed into organisms so that they may do much of the chemistry work for us. I would be very excited to see if photosynthesis or other ATP generating intracellular processes couldn’t be combined into such organisms to essentially have organisms that could convert energy from one source into useable commodities (like fuel.) However, such technology appears to still be in its infancy, so we’ll have to wait and see if this approach will actually produce results.

  18. Paul Says:

    I think that most all of these forms of energy are going to play important roles for years to come. I have nothing against building more nuclear plants (including those with fuels other than uranium) or even more coal plants, for that matter. Until we come up with something better, we’ve got to find a way to meet the growing demand as it rises. Solar is simply not yet there. Conservation is key, as well.

    I also agree that local constraints will play a big role. This post was US-centric. For a place like Iceland, geothermal would seem to make a lot more sense than solar.

    One thing we know is a problem with solar is that you’re going to need a system/fuel to store it so that you can power your house at night and your car. Lewis/Nocera/Gray (and many, many others) favor hydrogen. It’d be nice to focus on building that infrastructure rather than the infrastructure for ethanol, because it stands a greater chance of being useful in the long term.

  19. AboutChem Says:

    The Cato Institute totally agrees:

  20. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    You forget to mention the obvious solution to the “YEEARGG WE RUNNING OUT OF THE ENERGIES!!!” problem.

    Slow down growth. The idea of imposed (or at least incentiveized) population growth control has a lot of scary connotations, no doubt, but it is a very plausible argument that does not deserved to be dismissed; especially when one considers the repercussions of a large population that quickly becomes resource poor.

    Maybe things are just fine the way they are right now, we’ve got cell phones and internet. Maybe we are doing just fine and don’t need to continue to grow and expand…maybe we don’t have the resources to do it even if we wanted to.

  21. Chemjobber Says:

    @NAA: Can you propose a solution other than the “develop economically and watch your demographics slow” one we’ve been relying on?

  22. excimer Says:

    @Chemjobber: Jonathan Swift had a modest proposal…

    I’d second the diversity in energy policy. Obviously local areas need to adapt to conditions that best suit them: solar in the Southwest, hydroelectric in the Northwest, nuclear in the Northeast, trailer park babies in the South.

  23. Hap Says:

    The idea of making resources really expensive (at least nonrenewable ones), probably by taxation fits in with that – the problem is that people have finite time (also a nonrenewable resource), so limiting energy and resources is going to be very painful. Steady-state economies also mean that when someone gains, someone has to lose – while on an individual scale, we sort of shrug and move on (if we’re not the losers) or try to find something else to do (if we are), nations tend to solve resource limitations by war and mass killing. Which relieves the limitations, at least for a little while. With limitations on resources and energy, the field on which our mental inputs can add value (the other way of adding economic value) is pretty limited.

  24. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    I think you’ll have to be clearer on what exactly you mean by “develop economically” and I am not sure what you mean by “demographics slowing”.

    We may very well find that we *don’t* have the resources to keep growing, the best solution might be to let everyone know and implement policies and plans that optimize human “happiness” (whatever that means) under conditions of negative growth. I am not saying that I know what will happen in the future, it just frustrates me a little to never see dealing with negative growth as a viable alternative.

    A nice book to read that talks a bit about this sort of thing:

  25. Hap Says:

    1) We have to think about our limitations (otherwise killing is what happens), but it’s hard to see how to do it.

    2) More local electric plants would help, but they tend to be..unevenly distributed. (“Are you poor? Here’s a nuclear (or coal-fired) electric plant. Kthxbai.”) Not that that doesn’t happen with anything else, but it’s something to think about. In general, no one wants to lose, and we don’t have the concern for one other to distribute the losses fairly.

  26. Chemjobber Says:

    I suppose I’m suggesting that what we’ve seen over the past fifty years is that once you hit a certain quality of life (perhaps by moving off the farm and urbanizing), you quit having as many kids. Presumably, progress towards gender equity and guaranteed access to contraception is part of this.

    I think we’re all a little nervous about “negative growth” because no one knows what it looks like. Does it look like modern Japan or Western Europe (sans immigration)? Or does it end with the sack of Rome?

    ‘Distributing the losses fairly’ is supposed to be what federal government (small f, small g) is about. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for Nevada to get Yucca Mountain in their backyard in exchange for something big in return ($?). But when they’re telling me “NO, at any price”, that really grinds the ol’ gears of progress.

  27. Hap Says:

    Negative growth has another implementation problem – it requires everyone to renounce growth (because there is a benefit if everyone else reduces growth while an individual or individual nation doesn’t – resources are cheaper and you assure yourself of a greater fraction of them) and hard to enforce because there isn’t really an entity with the power (and the trust) to do so.

    At some point, when reasonable thought has left the building and you have to make a choice, you probably have to summon the will and do so. When two-year old says she’s not going to bed, there isn’t any negotiation (most of the time she listens, but if she is determined not to, well…). Too bad no one is really willing to put Harry Reid over their shoulder and put him to bed (well, other than someone who didn’t seem to have read the Constitution). I also thought that some loss of rationality had gone on in determining Yucca Mountain’s siting (“we’re putting it here, and I don’t care what anyone says.”), and that there might be reasons not to put it there other than NV doesn’t want it.

  28. Chemjobber Says:

    Fair enough re: Yucca Mountain; I don’t know if the origins are “Well, we’ve got to put it somewhere” or “This is the best place.”

  29. Matt Says:

    I visited Yucca mountain about 12 years ago. They were doing studies to measure the direction water would seep through the containment area. Turns out the water was headed right for the underground water table that is the main water resource for LV. So … yeah … more reasons other than Nevada doesn’t want it.

    Also … some cool history might be a lesson for us here. When electricity was just getting its shot, Edison was all about DC and wanted local power units. Tesla (one of my scientific heroes, that guy was a crazy badass) argued for AC because you could send it from a distance. I’m sure people have done this, but it would be really interesting to see what kind of infrastructure the DC people were proposing way back when. Is it reasonable. Could we come up with anything better. I am also of the camp that thinks local is best. We can have nuclear … at a distance. But local sources of renewable would be nice.

  30. Robert Evans Says:

    “Geothermal? Again, there’s not enough that is practical to access.”

    Hot Dry Rock has some potential.

  31. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Matt, a look at DC power would also be interesting because it would eliminate the need for an inverter as part of your solar installation.

  32. eugene Says:

    “My numbers suggest that Solar only works as the sole source for baseline power if and only if one is willing to impose starvation level limits on energy usage. Even then, the effects on the population may impair the technical infrastructure enough to limit things.”

    Yes, solar sucks since you have to pay for all that sheet metal to build solar panels and for the people to maintain them. They even have to be replaced and the source of energy is uncertain, especially on all those hills. It’s not true that an area the size of Lebanon in the Sahara at 20% efficiency could supply more than the world’s energy needs. Plus back of the envolope calculations say that the solar flux is not constant and is pretty low in some places; despite all those non-efficients plants it won’t be good for humans. Solar is much worse than fossil fuels.

    After all, the costs of that are neglibible. You have to just pay a little bit for exploration to find the oil, then you have to pay a little bit more to build a giant well or maybe a big platform in the middle of the ocean to drill only a few kilometers down. But maintaining all that hardware is not that hard and doesn’t require ridiculous amounts of manpower, and the huge amounts of steel to maintain and replace infrastructure such as pipelines and super tankers is not that much. They save on concrete and metal costs all the time! I mean look, the recent oil spill in the gulf just proves that the companies only wanted to save on materials because they were competing with non-reasonable solar pushers who have wacko backers in the senate and who would cause us to spend a lot more money on maintanence in the future if we ever switched to solar.

    The output of a well is not that constant and gets less over time, but you just scrap everything and move onto the new site. You only lose a little bit in efficiency from all that methane you flare off that you can’t really use, because well, who cares? And it’s only a few tens of millions of dollars to pay off some Yemeni or Somali slack-jawed yokel with an RPG not to shoot at your tanker as it passes through the straits of Aden. You also only have to give a few little tax breaks to the oil companies to make sure that they can make it to the next quarter and keep the whole thing running smoothly.

    Come on, you can’t put solar panels in the desert. The desert has plant life that will be killed because it has no access to the sun and that’ll create dust storms and solar panels don’t like that. In fact, it’s better to dig up all of northern Alberta to get the oil out of it and create a desert wasteland behind you. It’s too cold there to cause dust storms because the snows keep the dust down and no one can see the wasteland under the snow anyways. Plus it’s too far north to have good solar flux. Northern plants are stupid also. Not like desert plants which have to fight to survive in a harsh environment and that solar panels will finish off. A salary of a worker there is a lot, like 100,000 Canadian dollars (which is actually like 105,000 US now) for the cheapest Canadian redneck driller, but you only have to employ a few tens of thousands of workers and you don’t really have to clean up behind you. In the Missile East we only put a little tube down below the ground and suck the oil out, leaving the precious sand plants above in peace. The yearly desert oil spill is a true ecological tragedy that kills many, many scorpions, but the oil companies clean it up very quickly.

    But the energy of oil is a lot and is very efficient. Last I’ve heard is that the latest combustion engines get something like 99% efficiency out of it and generate no heat at all. And come on, it wold be stupid to use solar electricity to make inefficient fuels like methanol or charge batteries. Why the hell would you want to do that? So that it would be easier to transport and so that at night you don’t get a decrease in electricity production? Please… I mean sure, for some reason we burn fossil fuels now to make syngas, from which for some reason we make billions of tons of methanol every year, but that’s just dumb. Okay, maybe solar can do that (why the hell do we need syngas again?), but oil will be needed for everything else.

  33. bad wolf Says:

    “…an area the size of Lebanon in the Sahara “–Luckily there’s never been any problems caused by displacing local Arab populations.

    Does anyone have the link to the Wikipedia article about the solar collector design that folks were discussing here last time? I remember there was a huge collector in the middle of Libya that could supply power for the EU and i just thought, “sure, Libya, let’s just keep basing our energy needs there.”

  34. Robert Evans Says:

    “Last I’ve heard is that the latest combustion engines get something like 99% efficiency out of it and generate no heat at all.”

    If you had stated 99% of theoretical max I’d only be skeptical, but I’m absolutely dismissive of this statement.

    Theoretical maximum efficiency of a combustion engine that could be built and operate on Earth (without a container as energy intensive as a tokamak) is far less than even 90%.

  35. Robert Evans Says:

    “for the cheapest Canadian redneck driller, but you only have to employ a few tens of thousands of workers and you don’t really have to clean up behind you.”

    And this totally boggles my mind. The US shares watersheds with Alberta (looks to intersect the Cold Lake oil sands), and Alberta shares watersheds with much of the rest of Canada. Alberta land is important for people, plants and animals; the job they’re doing now to clean up isn’t nearly as good as it needs to be.

  36. Robert Evans Says:

    Ok, this was sarcasm right?

  37. The ‘O’ word « the bunsen boerner Says:

    […] CHEMisperceptions bloggy roundtable. Please read the other entries at ScienceGeist, Chemjobber, and ChemBark for your own enlightenment and […]

  38. eugene Says:

    “…an area the size of Lebanon in the Sahara “–Luckily there’s never been any problems caused by displacing local Arab populations.

    Haven’t you heard the latest from Libya and Morocco? There aren’t that many Arabs there. It’s all about the Berbers now. Ooops… I mean the Amazigh.

    “Ok, this was sarcasm right?”

    Yes… it was. I felt that someone needed to respond to the ‘JRnonchemist’ post that had mysterious ‘back of the envelope calculations’ and ‘facts’ pulled out of nowhere in a similar vein. None of you guys did it for a day, so I decided to waste ten minutes of my time.

  39. bad wolf Says:

    Ah, i was thinking of the “Desertec” proposal. All i can say is, at a minimum, any good energy future proposal has to include “non-involvement/dependency in the Middle East” as a major criterion. So, the mixed-origin, local-based proposals have that as a bonus. I just hope the desire to wean ourselves from foreign dependencies outweighs the NIMBY attitudes.

  40. Hap Says:

    We want to wean ourselves from foreign oil – as long as someone else is downwind of the coal plant. Since anything we do for energy will probably make it more expensive, the main benefit of doing minimizing our dependence on others’ oil is diffuse and not easily separated from other effects, while the costs of having a power plant nearby are much more tangible and negative. (The benefits of one – jobs, tax revenue – generally accrue to other people.) I don’t see NIMBY getting outweighed by much.

  41. WB Says:

    I think nuclear energy will become the dominant source of electricity in the near future, more out of necessity than anything else. I believe France, Japan and even China are looking at thorium-based reactors which are less susceptible to runaway reactions. Hopefully this will free up the petroleum reserves for land transport needs.

    Perhaps more research should look into converting waste materials (cellulose etc) into fuels. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could develop an industrial process for converting CO and H2 into gasoline?

  42. Moiety Says:

    I would suggest visiting

    The problem with cellulosic ethanol is that it only removes the concerns about food. The other technical problems with producing ethanol in the first place are still in place and worse e.g. fermentation of corn gets around 12% etOH/88% water. Cel;ulosic not proven at large scale can only get 3-5% ethanol.
    The problem with wind is the random nature of the power. Our societies depend on available energy at all times and wind cannot produce that. This it has to be backed up.

  43. Robert Evans Says:

    Another problem with wind (and even solar) is that it draws energy directly from the weather system with the potential for significant impact on the environment if they are used to generate a significant portion of energy needs. It depends on how these resources are harnessed.

    Hot Dry Rock geothermal has the proven negatives of needing a 50 – 300 years to regenerate after it has been used for a few decades, and the likelihood of causing earthquakes if done in the wrong places, and has the negative of tapping the Earth’s internal sources of heat (a more finite supply of energy than the Sun), but does look to have potential to generate a significant share of baseload power if done right.

  44. goober Says:

    Three comments:

    1. On a topic like this, where the literature is repleat with data, I would include some references when you make statements like “You could dam every river on Earth and not generate enough energy for today’s needs”.

    2. Your small discussion on biofuels implies that it all comes via photosynthesis. This is incorrect. you have neglected the work of solazyme, amyris, LS9 etc…. all produce biofules via fermentation.

    3. The current issue with solar is that the average Joe needs significant rebates and tax breaks to put enough panels on their house to make a difference.

  45. Paul Says:

    Goober, I’m confused…

    1. Read the Lewis papers I linked to.

    2. What reductants are these organisms/systems using? Are they not derived from plants?

    3. I talked about how the cost per kw-hr of solar can’t yet compete with coal.

  46. Vader Says:

    I see nothing impractical about building up nuclear power to the necessary levels, at least from a technological perspective. There are large political barriers, particularlyl to reprocessing. I am skeptical that it is any less impractical to build up a massive solar infrastructure than the equivalent nuclear infrastructure.

    But I do see solar as a valuable adjunct to nuclear. The others are all boutique technologies.

  47. Rebecca Says:

    Odd logic. Nuclear isn’t the way to go because we’d have to build a lot of plants. But solar is a good solution because once we solve all the problems with high generating cost… then what? The solar collectors, battery banks, and distribution systems will just build themselves?

  48. Rebecca Says:

    (I am violently agreeing with Vader, in case that is unclear).

  49. wolfie Says:

    “Solar? This is the only real option.”

    Just invested some Euros in German Solar stocks, and lost some of them. Many of them may go bankrupt,as the Chinese are taking over the business…

    Ethanol is NOT the only option.

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