Climate change

March 12, 2009

Total energy independence in 12 years

Stepping aside for a moment from my six-part overview of Prescription for the Planet, I’ll briefly look at another interesting recent book on energy futures.

I’ve just finished reading “Total Energy Independence for the United States: A Twelve-Year Plan (Possible, Affordable, Sustainable)” (2008), by engineer and inventor, Robert M. Wical. It’s an interesting little (108 pg) book, and of relevance for a number of reasons. First, here is the publisher’s blurb:

The Alternative to Energy Wars Like the One in Iraq

What if the United States could be energy independent? It’s not just a good science fiction plot. In twelve years, the country could be free from its need of foreign oil, not only helping to level the international economic playing field, but also aiding in the repair of the effects of global warming.

Although it will take a Herculean effort, Bob Wical’s two-part Twelve-Years-to-Hydrogen Plan provides a detailed roadmap to change. The oil from phase one will satisfy the nation’s addiction and enhance national security by making the nation self-reliant for its oil supply. Tax revenues from phase one will finance phase two, allowing for the development of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure. Wical’s dual strategy is currently the most cost-effective, expedient, and safest plan publicly available.

Because of the growing tension in the Middle East and the climate changes that the planet has experienced in the past several decades, now is the time to act. Total Energy Independence clearly shows us how a hydrogen-centered plan is possible, affordable, and sustainable, guiding us to a cleaner, more environmentally friendly future.”

With an added note from the author, which summarises the main message quite succinctly:

A 90% Self-Funding Answer to the U.S. Energy Crisis: If you find the solutions to the United States’ energy crisis currently being offered by our politicians to be half-measures sometimes bordering on ridiculous, then you will enjoy reading about the real, practical, viable solution to the U.S. energy crisis offered in ‘Total Energy Independence for the United States‘. We already have enough practically FREE fuel to power the Twelve-Years-to-Hydrogen Plan for 500 to 1,000 years. In the first six years of the plan, the U.S. becomes oil independent. By the end of the twelfth year of the Plan, there will be a hydrogen fuel infrastructure sufficient to power our national transportation fleet. Liquid hydrogen fuel would be available at the pump for 50 cents per gallon. The technology required to implement the Plan already exists and is well-documented. A bonus of the plan is that the approximately 60,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste stored in 125 locations throughout the U.S. will be safely consumed. This will essentially eliminate the problem of disposing of massive quantities of toxic nuclear waste. The plan is also a bargain for taxpayers because it is 90% self-funding. The total cost to implement the plan is estimated to be about $1.5 to $1.75 trillion. In other words, just a little more than the cost of ‘George’s War’.”

As you may have guessed from these two descriptions, one of the key technologies underpinning Wical’s plan is Integral Fast Reactor nuclear power, either as a sodium-cooled fast reactor (e.g. General Electric – Hitachi’s  S-PRISM blueprint) or another GIF-selected design, the lead-cooled STAR-LM (Secure Transportable Autonomous Reactor – Liquid Metal; also being researched at Argonne National Laboratories). What is interesting to me is that Bob Wical seems to have come, independently, to the same conclusion as Tom Blees about the huge potential IFR (a third author has also done this — I’ll review his book soon).

Wical’s plan for achieving oil independence (written with the US in focus, but it’s broadly applicable to many nations which are dependent to a large extent on foreign oil — Australia included), depends on accelerated development and rapid  commercial up-scaling of the following core technologies and infrastructure:

– Integral fast reactors (SFR and LFR) — about 500 over 12 years for the US

in situ conversion processes for oil shales

– electrolysis of water and electrochemical hydrogen compressor

– hydrogen distribution and dispensing systems

– hydrogen-powered automobile and truck technology

proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells and parallel path magnetic technology

The plan is described as 90% self funding [plenty of details given], due to oil import and military savings and increased fuel-to-wheels efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

My overall assessment is that Wical has thought a lot about this plan, and his arguments for the feasibility of a ‘hydrogen economy’ (where hydrogen is the primary liquid fuel energy carrier) are reasonably convincing. You’ll find a lot of literature out there which criticises the ‘hydrogen hype’, and many of the arguments have merit. But it has always struck me that the critics of hydrogen seem to be massively overplaying their hand.

Yes, there are issues with the energy required to compress hydrogen and transport it over long distances, in the large size of storage tanks (due to its lower energy density compared to oil and gas derivatives such as petrol [gasoline] and diesel), and in the added expense in containing hydrogen leakage. But there are also advantages, such as its clean burning property (water is the combustion product), high efficiency of fuel cells (about 2.7 times that of the internal combustion engine), and the great strides being made in electrochemical (not mechanical) compression of hydrogen to 10,000 psi, based on a process with no moving parts!

Time will tell how much of an impact hydrogen has for energy storage and transport in our energy future, compared to alternatives such as metal-combustion (my bet is that the latter will prove to be a superior technology, e.g., due to its avoidance of the chicken-or-the-egg syndrome — no fueling/distribution infrastructure is needed to kick it off) . But I do think that it would be grossly unwise to rule out hydrogen, produced by IFR energy, out on the basis of incompletely formed notions about the economic and technological viability of a hydrogen infrastructure today.

Wical recognises the urgency of dealing with global warming, but his primary motivation is to get the USA unhitched from the OPEC bandwagon as fast as possible. An element of his plan therefore involves a stop-gap exploitation of America’s Rocky Mountains shale oils (short-term Government lease of lands to oil companies), via in situ ‘cooking’ to release oil and gas (it has an EROEI of about 3:1). He envisages about 10-15 million barrels a day being produced by this method, using IFRs as the heat source, for a period of 15-25 years, until the hydrogen economy is fully realised. The danger in this approach is that this source of fossil carbon cannot be exploited if we are to have any chance of keeping CO2 levels to below 350 ppm by the end of this century, and that the ~1 trillion barrels of ultimately recoverable oil from this source will prove too tempting a target to forego, should initial exploitation by successful. My bottom line: there has to be other, better ways, to get the vehicle fleet off foreign oil without opening the Pandora’s box of heavy hydrocarbons, even as a temporary ‘fix’.

Overall, this is a well-researched, well-written road map for an alternative energy future. I’m fascinated that Wical has, like Blees, concluded that IFRs are the optimal energy source for rapid decarbonization. I have problems with some elements of the 12 year plan, but am quite impressed with the logical, systematic way in which Wical has treated the pathway to large-scale hydrogen-based fuel infrastructre. It’s certainly not pie in the sky. I honestly doubt that we’ll ever have a fully-fledged ‘hydrogen economy’, but I’m now far more convinced than before that hydrogen can, and will, be a useful energy storage and carrier medium for a post-fossil-fuel society.

I recommend you read Total Energy Independence if you wish to have a broader view of the hydrogen economy, or if you want another perspective on the possibility of IFR as a major future energy source. We need more people like Wical and Blees, who are willing to think big, and fast, on total energy solutions. Governments should start paying more  heed, if they really are honest about tackling climate change and peak oil before the worst in upon us.

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