Friday, 23 May 2008

Smart Alternatives to Fossil Fuels

In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure.
– Eric Morris, From Horse Power to Horsepower, Access no. 30, Spring 2007

This prediction has something of the character of predictions of the effect of climate change. Of course, what happened in the meantime was that trains and cars largely replaced horses (and despite the apparently exact reference to the Times, it is more than likely that this quote is a myth*, unlike climate change for which there are many verifiable quotes – but still, it's a nice thought to build on). So what will the equivalent changes be in the twenty-first century?

The nineteenth century, despite the ubiquitous horse, was the century of coal – first in factories, later in ships. While the concept of steam power went back further, with the major developments in the eighteenth century, it was the nineteenth century when coal and steam became dominant modes of energy use and conversion.

The twentieth century was the century of oil. While coal continued to play a major role especially in power generation, oil took over as the fuel of choice for locomotion. With the exception of electric trains (and minor exceptions like golf carts and milk floats), almost all transport by the end of the twentieth century was powered by oil.

Now that climate change is becoming a concern and the oil price is hitting record highs almost on a daily basis, we have to contemplate: what next? The answer, according to climate inactivists (thanks to RealClimate for this word), is to carry on as before. Why? Aside from a charming belief that if humans could effect the climate in the past, we can't now, there's the argument that substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emission would trash the economy.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has a science show, Catalyst, which often has good stuff in it. On 24 May 2008, they ran a segment on how London is planning to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2025.

How are they planning on achieving this? Back to horse and buggy, lights out 2 days out of 3, medieval torture for anyone who fails to comply?

No, explains Allan Jones. The trick is to understand the "rubbish way things are done" and do better. What are his tricks? One of the big ones is combined heat and power, actually an old idea, before power utilities managed to persuade everyone that remote power generation was the answer. How does this work? Burning fuel to generate electricity wastes most of the energy produced as heat. Much of the electricity produced is then used to produce heat. Combined heat and power replaces large remote power generators by smaller local ones, placed where the "waste" heat is useful. While the theoretical efficiency of the smaller power station is lower, being able to use the waste heat more than compensates.

Switching from coal to gas completes the picture in terms of greenhouse gas (and general pollution) reduction.

Overall not only are you saving by making use of the two thirds of the energy in the form of "waste heat" but you are saving on losses through the grid.

The result? Not only lower emissions overall, but lower cost.

So much for the notion that radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions has to be at the expense of the economy.

What else is Allan doing? Another part of his recipe is extensive installation of solar power: expensive in the past, but increasingly competitive with fossil fuel-based power.

This is of course but part of the bigger picture. Reducing car usage, moving to modes of public transport that don't burn fossil fuels and addressing industries that produce greenhouse gases by other means (e.g. cement, steel) would all have to go into a more comprehensive solution. All of these are engineering problems, potentially solvable with known techniques. An alternative geo-polymer cement, for example, can be made using a different chemical process, which does not produce CO2 – reported in the same Catalyst show as the London report.

So why is this so hard in most of the world?

Entrenched interests in the way things are now don't help. If you replace decentralised coal power by centralised gas and solar, existing coal-fired power plants will have to be written off at great cost to the operators. Coal mines will also be closed – again, a cost to the operators.

In Australia, the state of Queensland has massive reserves of coal seam methane which can be used at lower cost than coal to generate power to make it possible to replace every coal fired power plant with much cleaner power. The coal lobby of course doesn't want us to know this because they don't own gas infrastructure, and don't want to risk losing their investment in existing plant and equipment.

What the Catalyst segment has done is to show what can be done if you don't put oafs in charge.

As for oil, we should be preserving it for jet fuel, the one application for which there isn't a clear replacement other than oil from coal, which is a very dirty option.

Bring on reliable commuter transport, high-speed inter-city rail, practical electric cars ... in 50 years, oil-based transport will be as quaint as a horse and buggy today. And the notion of CO2 levels rising to double the pre-industrial level will be as quaint as the idea of a city 3m deep in horse manure.

* Why is this likely a myth?
Horse manure did not just lie in the streets. It was flushed down sewers. The true twenty-first century analogue to failure to plan for paradigm change would have been a massive project to upgrade sewers to handle more horse manure – just as today some cities are still building new roads and tunnels on a large scale, as if the private car will be with us in increasing quantity for decades.

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