Climate change

January 7, 2010

Unnatural gas

Guest Post by Tom Blees. Tom is author of Prescription for the Planet – The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Tom is also the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives.

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Last month Bobby Kennedy Jr., a tireless advocate for the environment, gave a talk in New York City to a packed house. He spoke about the devastation wrought by coal mining and argued that we must get away from fossil fuels if we’re to deal with climate change. He also, to my chagrin (since I know he’s got my book), threw in some tired clichés about how bad nuclear power is. He then waxed enthusiastic about wind and solar power, asserting that if we build a smart grid and pour enough resources into building a lot of wind and solar production, we can have “free energy forever.” The crowd ate it up. Bobby’s a very good speaker, he’s definitely got the Kennedy knack for that.

Later, as he expanded on the renewable energy topic, he pointed out that we have abundant natural gas in the USA that we can use to fill in when the wind and solar production is insufficient. Bobby is certainly not alone in having a huge blind spot in this regard. Virtually every prominent advocate for a renewables-only future includes natural gas as a big part of the mix. Though it’s usually de-emphasized by wind and solar promoters, this embrace of natural gas generation is a tacit admission of the logistical and economic impossibility of providing all the energy humanity needs from renewables alone.

The willing acceptance of increased natural gas use by so many who consider themselves environmentalists is stunningly inconsistent with the science of anthropogenic climate change. The nearly religious fervor of the windies and sunnies virtually ignores this devil in the details. The most classic example of such willful blindness is the elevation of T. Boone Pickens to the status of environmental hero because of his plans (since scrapped, ironically) to build a huge wind farm in Texas. Back in 2004, T. Boone was infamous among these same people as the nefarious money man behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the abominable smear campaign that helped keep George W. Bush in power for a second disastrous term. T. Boone’s transformation into a darling of environmentalists is reminiscent of the “rehabilitation” of political pariahs in Maoist China. How quickly we forget.

A cynic (or realist) might well observe that T. Boone Pickens is a gas guy. That’s his stock in trade, it’s what made him the billions that freed him to support arch-conservative interests until his recent foray into the world of lefties. His political chameleon act, though, is much easier to understand if one keeps in mind the fact that the more massive the deployment of wind turbines and solar farms the more dependent we will become upon natural gas. It’s telling that T. Boone eventually abandoned plans for his mega-wind farm, attesting to his recognition that the economics simply couldn’t justify it. Ironically, he’s still pals with the big shots on the left. Ah, sweet redemption!

The use of the term “natural” has long been a problem in the food industry, where everybody and his brother wants to put the term on their packaging if their product is produced anywhere short of a chemistry lab. Consumers are suckers for the word, and the food industry knows it. So does the natural gas industry, though the use of the term for their product is one of those serendipitous appellations that predates the era of Madison Avenue spin. But let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Natural gas is no more natural than coal or oil. And it’s high time that self-styled environmentalists stopped acting as if coal is the bad guy but natural gas is our friend.

Natural gas (aka methane) is a potent greenhouse gas, with an effect at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Though considerably shorter-lived in the atmosphere, as it breaks down it converts to the much more persistent CO2, so it is far from environmentally friendly any way you cut it. But with the widespread awareness that coal is bad news, the comparative cleanliness of natural gas (which doesn’t leave mountains of ash in its wake nor release heavy metals and other nasties as it burns) has made it the fuel of choice for filling in the massive gaps that are the inevitable corollary of increasing reliance on wind and solar power.

Like coal and other fossil fuels, though, natural gas is subject to sometimes wild fluctuations in price. The more we use it, the higher those prices are likely to rise. Reliance on supplies outside one’s own country (the case in most nations of the world) can also create real problems, as when Russia decided to use its natural gas a political fulcrum.

When it comes to the arguments between renewables and nuclear advocates, many of which have been conducted on these pages, those who argue against nuclear power have often cited it as being poor at load following, unlike natural gas turbines that can spin up and down relatively quickly. These are pretty weak arguments on a couple of fronts. For one thing, the newer nuclear power plants are quite good at load following. But any type of power plant is going to experience undue wear and tear from the increased variability that is part and parcel of wind and solar integration into the grid (particularly wind, for obvious reasons, though solar power can dip quickly when clouds move in). In areas where gas turbines have been used to compensate for the vagaries of renewables, utility companies are finding that they’re taking quite a beating, with an expected diminution in their service lives.

So how can wind and solar be best integrated into the power grid without relying on gas? And how can we do it without investing up to two trillion dollars in a smart grid?

Let’s not.

Let’s forget about integrating wind and solar power into the grid at all (except for small solar installations like rooftop solar, for those who want to go that route). Let’s remove the urgency of building a smart grid and rely instead on the gradually smartening grid we’ve already got. This relatively dumb grid works pretty well so far and we could take our time revamping it. If Gen III and Gen IV nuclear power plants are used to replace coal- and gas-fired generators we’ll get clean electricity quite reliably no matter how intelligent our grid is.

This is not to suggest that we should abandon the building of wind and solar farms (the question of their economics is another issue beyond the scope of this article). Instead of hooking them to the grid, though, we could easily and cheaply build electrolysis systems at each site to generate hydrogen, and with that hydrogen we can make ammonia (That’s NH3. The nitrogen is simply taken from the air). Indeed, the economics may warrant building ammonia plants right at the site of wind and solar farms, or at least producing the hydrogen there and trucking it to nearby ammonia plants.

This would take the problem of intermittency completely out of the picture. Hydrogen production would proceed as electricity supply allows, utilizing every watt no matter how variable its production. Similarly, electrolysis systems could be integrated into the grid at nuclear power plants so that they could run at full capacity around the clock regardless of demand. That hydrogen, too, could be utilized to produce ammonia.

Which brings up the burning question: Are cow farts carbon neutral?

Much has been made of the problem of livestock flatulence. Usually it’s tongue-in-cheek, but those with an anti-meat agenda often argue quite seriously that reducing the vast herds of animals raised for food would help remedy the global warming problem. (These are also often the same people who argue that instead of using ammonia as fertilizer we should use manure, which would necessitate increasing livestock herds from about 1.3 billion to 7-8 billion.) The contrary argument is that since these animals are eating plants their methane emissions are carbon neutral. But are they?

Take a look at how their food plants are grown. It’s almost a sure bet that the plants they eat (primarily corn and soybeans in the USA) have been grown using ammonia as a fertilizer. The food we eat is the same. According to a recent article in The Economist, about half the nitrogen atoms in our human bodies have come through ammonia plants. Ammonia production for agricultural purposes is a huge worldwide business, about $100 billion/year. And the source of most of the ammonia used in agriculture is natural gas. The hydrogen to make the ammonia (NH3) is derived from methane (CH4), a process that strips off the hydrogen and results in a great deal of carbon dioxide. Aside from the approximately 1% of this carbon dioxide that is used by the oil industry to inject into wells (much of which seeps to the surface anyway), all of it makes its way into the atmosphere either directly or indirectly. (Next time you’re drinking a carbonated beverage reflect a moment on the fact that the CO2 you’re ingesting probably came from natural gas.) So ammonia production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions the way we do it today. It might be mentioned here that the single largest producer of ammonia by far, China, produces nearly all its ammonia (28% of the world total) from coal, resulting in over twice as much CO2 per unit ammonia as that produced with natural gas.

Byabandoning the problematic integration into the electrical grid in favor of electrolysis and hydrogen production, wind and solar farms would be decreasing the use of natural gas instead of increasing it. But if we also built electrolysis systems even into our nuclear power plants (along with desalination systems), would the world have a use for the great amounts of ammonia we’d be making?

Ammonia is one of the most highly produced inorganic chemicals in the world, with over 110 million metric tons produced each year, 80% of which is used for agriculture. Clearly it would take a massive amount of electrolysis to produce such quantities, so the question of whether wind and solar could outproduce the demand is moot for the foreseeable future.

There’s yet another area that could create a far greater demand for ammonia, though, since internal combustion engines can be built that burn ammonia and produce no harmful emissions (the nitrous oxides can be removed with a catalytic converter). There’s a company that’s been building ammonia-powered tractor engines for a while now (since farmers have a ready source of fuel at their ammonia tanks). The next project is building an engine for use in over-the-road trucks.

Technology optimists look to the day when battery evolution will allow us all to drive electric cars, but commercial trucks can hardly be expected to be battery powered, and trucking is a huge industry, moving about 60% of commercial goods in the United States. Converting the world’s trucks to zero-emission ammonia power would be a boon to the environment, eliminating the diesel exhaust from millions of these big vehicles. Even if no cars at all ever converted to ammonia power (and why not build ammonia hybrids?), it would be a herculean accomplishment to produce all the ammonia the world would need for both agricultural and trucking needs. Thus there is simply no truly compelling reason at all—aside from ossified thinking—to integrate wind and solar into the grid, with all the costs and difficulties that entails.

So let’s stop the tedious arguments about how nuclear power doesn’t make sense because you have to dump too much of the power during off-peak hours. We can use the extra power for electrolysis or desalination. And please let’s stop with the ridiculous assumption that natural gas is something that’s environmentally benign. If we’re serious about dealing with climate change, fossil fuels—most definitely including natural gas—must be left in the ground.

But most of all let’s take a hard look at the whole idea of hooking wind and solar generators to the grid. The many problems associated with that concept can be eliminated in one stroke, and their energy can be put to good use to eliminate at least some of the natural gas and coal use that is currently employed for ammonia production around the world. If we ever get to the point where we get more hydrogen/ammonia from wind and solar than we can use, then we can talk about smart grids and displacing nuclear power as a primary source of electricity. Until then, let’s use nuclear’s 24/7 capability for our 24/7 electricity demand, and our variable sources for uses that work fine with intermittency. There’s simply no need to go through continual costly contortions to integrate the two.

Oh, and if we save a trillion or two by not having to build a smart grid right away, what might we do with it? Well, at the price China expects to be building nuclear power plants pretty soon, a trillion would build about 1,000 GWe of nuclear power plants (right now the whole world has about 368 GWe of nuclear capacity, 15.2% of the worldwide total electricity production). For a bit over a trillion, we could produce half of all the electricity we now produce from all sources, even if all the current nuclear plants were shut down. And yes, that means that for two trillion—the high end of the smart grid cost estimates—we could produce just about the same amount of electricity from brand spankin’ new nuclear power plants as the world produces now from all sources put together. That sounds to me like a heck of a lot better deal than a smart grid that will make it easier (yet still far from easy) to integrate maybe 20% of our intermittent electricity production into our grid.

How does it sound to you?

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