The Ergosphere
Monday, October 31, 2005

Alternative energy is civil defense

So far as I can tell, George Mokray originated the phrase "Solar is civil defense".  I think this statement is just a bit too narrow.  I believe we should be saying alternative energy is civil defense.

As I noted elsewhere, "Sustainability is security.  A farmer who needs no diesel can't be forced out by rising fuel prices."  I believe this generalizes well beyond farming:

In short, alternate energy eliminates many of the problems which turn natural disasters and economic problems into crises.  Take the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma:  broad swaths of several states were emptied of motor fuel and had no electricity to pump what was left.  People may have had generators, but they only offered a temporary respite:  the ability to resupply them depended on the very infrastructure of roads, filling stations and electrical grid that had been blocked, emptied or disabled as a consequence of the storms.  In engineering terms, these elements are "single points of failure"; any one of them going out leads to the rest failing, either immediately or eventually.  Sustained outages lead to broader and more severe consequences.


I took a look at a solar site just the other day, and I found some large (300 watt) PV panels for sale for a breathtaking $4/peak watt.  Suppose that we were using these panels as post-hurricane backup power.  If this panel derated 10% due to temperature and got the equivalent of 6 hours of full sun per day, it would generate 1.62 kWh/day.  The Japanese have refrigerators which use less than 450 watt-hours per day, but suppose the refrigerator uses 750 Wh/day; that leaves 870 Wh/day.  3 CF lights at 15 watts each from 6 PM to 11 PM would consume 225 Wh/day, leaving 645 watt-hours/day.  This electricity could run a well pump to supply essential water (drinking, cooking, sponge baths) and any surplus could run radios, laptops or charge the battery of something like a Prius+ for a couple miles per day of driving without motor fuel.  Such an existence would be spartan, but these things plus some non-perishable food and cooking fuel (propane, charcoal or even firewood) would allow people to live more or less indefinitely without any health or welfare crisis.  There would be no civil-defense emergency.

All that for a mere $1200, plus inverter/controller and installation; produced and installed by the millions, that overhead might be small.  It could work during non-crises too, offsetting the electric bill and cutting peak demand.  Ten million such units might cost as little as $15 billion, and could generate perhaps 5.9 billion kWh/year.  This is a minuscule fraction (about 0.15%) of the total US electric generation of nearly 4,000 billion kWh/year, but great oaks from little acorns grow.


Consider the other extreme, such as a winter in Maine or New York.  Most homes are heated with natural gas, LPG or fuel oil, but the heating plant does not operate without electricity; a severe ice storm means no heat as well as no light, no well water and impassable roads.  This quickly leads to crisis conditions for many people, and broken pipes and other damage which takes much time and money to repair.  Fuel shortages hurt too; the steep rise in fuel oil prices has caused a shortage of both firewood and fuel for pellet stoves.

This would be far less difficult with cogenerating furnaces.  If the typical oil-burning furnace was replaced with a cogenerator based on a Lister-clone 6/1 diesel (30% efficient, 4400 W mechanical output) driving a generator and/or heat pump, the only electricity required would be a starting battery.  Efficiency could leap:  the cogenerator could supply 60% of the fuel value directly as heat (10% losses), plus another 30% routed through a heat pump to multiply it 3:1 (another 90%).  Total heat supplied could be as much as 150% of the heating value of the fuel used to drive it, cutting cost by a third; the unit would pay for itself even when there was no grid damage.  If electricity could be used to charge batteries in a plug-in hybrid car, the net fuel use might actually be negative due to the greater efficiency of the diesel.

Improvised fuel

Let's not forget farmers and everyone else currently being squeezed by our shortage of diesel fuel.  During both world wars, fuel shortages forced many people to find substitutes for petroleum to run their vehicles.  One common substitute was fuel gas made from the partial combustion of wood or charcoal.  The devices to make this gas were called gasogenes.  More recently, the US government tested a wood-gas generator suitable for tractors and published detailed plans in case of a fuel crisis.

High-octane gaseous fuels can be co-fueled in diesel engines; the fuel gas is ignited by a small amount of diesel oil.  Power is reduced by the displacement of air, but the engine can still accomplish useful work.  Many farms have large amounts of crop wastes which could be used as fuel for a gasogene, and gas generators have been studied both as emergency fuel sources and as waste utilization systems relatively recently.  It seems safe to say that many farms could slash their fuel costs and remain profitable in times of high fuel prices (like now) using fuel gas made from crop wastes.  Yet banks are refusing to loan money for next year's crops rather than promoting self-produced fuels.

An acre of corn may yield 2.5 tons of biomass as stover (stalks and cobs).  At 15.8 million BTU per short ton and 50% gasifier efficiency, a one-ton bale of dry biomass could replace about 54 gallons of diesel fuel.  That's considerably more fuel than it takes to plant, cultivate and harvest a typical acre.  Corn farmers could be self-sustaining in fuel for their equipment, but fuel costs are putting them out of business.  Why?  Shouldn't we have a "victory fuel" effort instead of capitulating?


Moderate efforts toward efficiency and alternative fuels could yield huge dividends in fuel cost reductions and reduced vulnerability to energy-supply disruptions.  Our society would be better off both during and between disasters if we adopted some simple measures.  Our organizations from the federal government on down should be investigating to see what works and then promoting it.

We need a program of alternative energy as civil defense.  This has not happened; we need to start asking why not.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

A reconception of marine power

From time immemorial until roughly the 19th century, boats have been powered by either muscle power or the wind.  Galleys were driven by oars and everything else raised sails to be propelled across the seas and oceans.  The advent of steam changed that.  First boilers were fired by wood and coal, and then by oil as ships got bigger and faster with greater and greater range.  Oil, as the densest form of energy available, was essential to both effective military ships and competitive commercial ships.  Some large military ships and submarines are now nuclear, and coal retains a sliver of the market in antique vessels - the SS Badger which ferries cars from Muskegon to Manitowoc is an example - but the vast majority of all shipping is still powered by bunker fuel feeding boilers or diesels.

SkySails artist conceptionAlternative energy has made some small inroads on e.g. pleasure craft for auxiliary electrical power, but major vessels are still running on oil both in and between ports.  This shows strong signs of changing; the high cost of oil is rekindling interest in sail.  Modern materials and automation have reduced the labor requirements to use it.  Roller-furling jibs are one thing, but computer-controlled parafoil kites are a whole new game.  Flying well above the waves, these kites can capture more power than even the highest topsail of a clipper ship.  With favorable winds, even large cargo ships can see substantial fuel savings, greater speeds or both.

All of this begs the questions (I'm sure you're anticipating me by now):

  1. Why should only some winds be favorable?
  2. Why should shippers be satisfied with partial fuel savings?

Solar energy isn't going to manage.  A large container ship might be over 350 meters long and 48 meters wide, for a footprint of 16800 m2.  Even if all of this area could be covered with PV cells at 20% efficiency (yielding ~200 W/m2 in full sun) the total power output would be a mere 3.36 MW.  Large container ships have engines as powerful as 80 megawatts; even if a deck-full of containers could be covered by PV, this is clearly too great a demand to be satisfied by direct sunlight.

Technology to the rescue

SkyWindPower Flying Electric Generator (FEG)Sky WindPower Corporation is attempting to commercialize the "gyromill" concept invented by the Australian professor Bryan Roberts.  The gyromill or flying electric generator (FEG) is an autogyro kite with an electric generator attached; it can be sent aloft by powering its rotors with electricity supplied through its tether, and then return power to the ground when it reaches an altitude where the wind is strong.

Sky Windpower claims a power capability of 1.5 MW from rotors totalling 24329 ft2 (2660 m2) in swept area.  The current wind-power champ is a 5 MW ground-based turbine with a single rotor of roughly 124 meters diameter (12080 m2 area); if a single-rotor FEG could return the same power per unit area, it would generate up to 6.8 MW.  One or two of these would be able to supply a substantial fraction of even a large ship's propulsive power demands.

One thing that's not used in the FEG concept is the tension in the tether.  What good is pulling the Earth around?  It won't go anywhere... but a ship does.  A wind turbine generating 6.8 MW of power from a stream of air moving at 15 m/sec requires a minimum force of 454 kilo-Newtons (~102,000 pounds) just to hold it in place; a flying generator would need even more to compensate for aerodynamic drag caused by lift (induced drag).  A force of 102,000 pounds pulling forward on a ship moving at 15 knots supplies 4700 horsepower, or 3.5 megawatts of tractive power; as the speed of the ship goes up, so does the power per unit of force.  (This force could be increased by flying back and forth across the wind, perhaps at some cost in electric generation.)  The combined electric and tractive power supplied by a 124-meter marine FEG might be 12 megawatts or more.

Two such units on a ship could supply 24 MW.  They would even be able to supply net power when the ship was sailing directly upwind, though the ability to fly the FEG's at different altitudes with different winds would allow the operator to pick the most favorable.  This would allow the ship to shut down its diesel engines and operate on wind power alone.  It would not run fast, but a ship capable of 27 knots on 80 MW would still manage at least 18 knots on 24 MW.  On a route of 5000 nm, the difference in trip time would be about 3 days 21 hours (7.7 days vs. 11.6 days) with the best winds.  A ship generating 80 MW by burning residual oil at 18,830 BTU/lbm1 and 50% efficiency would burn 29,000 pounds per hour; at this rate, a 5000 nm voyage at 27 knots would consume 2540 m3 (671,000 gallons) of fuel.  If this fuel costs $300/tonne, the FEG system could save $731,000 in fuel at the cost of less than 4 days at sea.  If the ship's (and cargo's) time costs less than about $180,000 per day, this looks like a profitable tradeoff.  It will only get more so as petroleum prices rise.

[1] Values for #4 diesel from CRC Handbook of tables for Applied Engineering Science, 2nd Ed. (back)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Quote without comment

westexas writes at The Oil Drum:

"Technology and politics--not geology--determine how much we pump and what it costs."

Every time I hear this argument, I ask "what about Texas?"

We have had essentially zero political limitations on drilling, and we have tried every technological advance known to the oil industry. Exactly as predicted by M. King Hubbert, Texas oil production has fallen relentlessly for 33 years. If Texas were the sole source of crude for the world, for every four gallons of gasoline that we bought in 1972, we would be bidding for one gallon today.

Perhaps when Americans can't afford to heat their McMansions--after they listened to Peter Huber, et al, and bought Hummers to commute to large energy inefficient homes--they can burn books by Huber, et al in their fireplaces to generate heat.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

From bad to worse

I've been a critic of hydrogen hype for some time, largely because most non-fossil energy is captured as electricity and it is very inefficient to convert energy from electricity to hydrogen and back.  But a newly-publicized scheme promises to make electrolytic hydrogen look good by comparison.

A company called Engineuity (plugged by Isracast and picked up by dozens of bloggers from there) is promoting a roundabout way of making hydrogen on-board vehicles, using the chemical reaction of either of the light metals magnesium or aluminum with water.  This is at least somewhat clever, as in a fuel-cell vehicle the reaction of hydrogen with oxygen re-creates water and at least some of the material can be recycled on board (if it is not captured in the reaction products as hydroxides).  But the efficiency is even worse than pumping hydrogen into a tank.

One of the features of both aluminum and magnesium is that they burn quite spectacularly; aluminum is a potent component in many solid rocket fuels, and magnesium gives a brilliant light when ignited.  Both will burn in water, releasing enough chemical energy in their combination with oxygen that they can tear it loose from hydrogen with plenty left over.  This excess energy, aside from creating a safety issue, is exactly the problem for efficiency.

Reviewing some heats of formation of oxides:

Oxide ΔHf
H2O  -70.60 
MgO  -144.09 
Al2O3  -404.08 

We can use this to derive the heat released from the reaction of water with either of the two metals:

Mg + H2O-> MgO + H2 + 73.49 kcal/mol    (1)
2/3 Al + H2O-> 1/3 Al2O3 + H2 + 64.093 kcal/mol    (2)

In all cases the hydrogen yields the same 70.6 kcal/mol when reacted with oxygen.  All this excess energy produced in the reaction with water comes out in the form of heat rather than chemical energy suitable for a fuel cell.  As it makes little sense to add a small, inefficient steam engine to a car with a fuel cell, it appears likely that this heat energy will be discarded, or used for nothing better than cabin heat.

Discarding energy means efficiency is lost.  The production of hydrogen by electrolysis of water is roughly 70% efficient.  Here's a table for comparison:

Method Energy input,
kcal/mol H2
Energy output,
kcal/mol H2
Electrolysis  100.9   70.6   70 
Al oxidation  134.69   70.6   52 
Mg oxidation  144.09   70.6   49 

A system using a fuel cell of 60% efficiency can get 42% throughput using hydrogen from electrolysis, 31% using hydrogen from aluminum, and a mere 29% using hydrogen from magnesium.  Note that these efficiencies do not include the losses involved in the production of the metals from oxide; these will be non-trivial and make the net efficiency even lower.

As we can see, production of hydrogen by combustion of aluminum or magnesium with water is a very inefficient process.  Typical batteries have efficiencies ranging from 70% for lead-acid to 90% or so for nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion.  As the raw energy supply (electric) is going to be a limiting factor for some time, the message is clear:



Seeing what I have not seen before

The Ergosphere did not start with any kind of traffic counter.  I was not overly concerned with quantity of traffic, but with the material facts and (later) the quality of discussions that would be here.  How many people would read this?  I thought, maybe a couple of dozen.  Big deal.

Google finally tempted me one time too many, so I impulsively took up with Adsense last Sunday.  The payment has been trivial (as I expected - I may drop the ads long before racking enough money to get a check) but for the first time I have some traffic statistics.

They surprised me.  On no day this week has traffic been less than 240 page impressions per day.  Unless a lot of the page views are spiders (which I would expect Google to filter), this means there are a couple of hundred people checking The Ergosphere on a daily basis.  Only a very few comment and I get the occasional mail from someone I've never heard from before, but still... wow.

It's nice to know that there's a lecture-hall worth of you out there.  Hope you find it useful and interesting.  (With luck, I'll knock off something else from the post queue or get an impromptu entry done tonight.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Scribblings for October 2005

This post will collect links and calculations posted in comments elsewhere.

Wednesday the 26th:  Item 3 added
Friday the 7th:  Old post, new discussion (links only)
Tuesday the 4th:  Item 1 added
Tuesday the 4th:  Item 2 added

Monday, October 24, 2005

Republicans to lose Red America?

I thought that the Republicans might be unassailable in the heartland, until I read this (h/t:  The Watt):

For farmers, a Katrina-like disaster is building. It will soon swamp many family farming operations. Astronomical fuel prices, fertilizer and chemical costs have reached the point that even a modest profit is impossible.

Farmers are receiving the lowest price for commodities that myself or most farmers can remember. Farmers are a proud group, usually not willing to protest. This time, I hope someone is listening. We are literally at the end of the turn row. That's a metaphor for desperation. Agriculture is in serious trouble.

A friend of mine and long-time Central Texas farmer sums up the current crisis in a unique way: "It's a lot easier to do nothin' for nothin' than somethin' for nothin'." Why invest huge amounts, work from daylight to dark and struggle for a profit when you know you have no chance?

Meanwhile, farm programs (which are only required because we've subsidized overproduction) are being cut:
Three billion dollars over the next five years. That's the amount of the cut to the 2006 Agriculture Budget the Ag Committee is required to report under a new Congressional budget resolution approved today by an 11-9 vote. During a mark-up today, voting came down in favor of the plan, proposed by Ag Committee chairman Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). $196 million in savings would be realized in fiscal year 2006.

At its core, agriculture's problem is an energy problem.  From North American gas depletion to the vulnerability of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, every bit of it was not just foreseeable, but projected and warned of years in advance.  Yet from the House and Senate authors of our current energy non-policy to the Oval Office, nothing was done to deal with this or offset its impacts.  They painted themselves as the experts, and yet this trend moving at a snail's pace over a period of years seems to have been caught them completely by surprise.  (When they do act, they violate trade treaties and hurt the economy in cynical attempts to buy votes with e.g. steel import quotas.)

This has not gone unnoticed, and cannot go unremarked for long.  A 21st century flight of neo-Okies from barren farms is going to uncover a great deal of misfeasance on the part of the powers that be in Washington, and particularly the party responsible for our policies since their electoral victory in 1994.  Trade policy has kept the dollar high and exported jobs, while encouraging US consumption of imported goods (oil being just one).  Programs aimed at developing domestic resources have been eliminated.  Now the bill for this is coming due.

While oil prices soar and profits sour, viable alternatives go begging.  I've noted that the surplus corn stover (beyond what's needed for erosion control) left to rot in fields is more than enough to power a year's operation of farm equipment.  If farmers grew next year's fuel along with this year's crop, petroleum prices would scarcely matter to them; if the surplus of crop byproducts fetched a per-BTU price similar to coal (perhaps with an adjustment for low sulfur and near-zero mercury content) they might be sufficient to keep farmers in the black.

Yet programs to encourage this are small.  We spend billions of dollars each year to subsidize the wasteful conversion of maize to ethanol (390,000 BTU per bushel plus distillation fuel goes in, 220,000 BTU per bushel comes out), but almost nothing to promote the conversion of crop wastes to profitable products.  Almost all of this is due to the fossil-centric policies of the Republicans in Congress.  (Speaking of fossil-centrism, have you noticed the urgent push to get corn stoves into American homes so that desperate farmers can sell their crops to families who can't afford expensive natural gas this winter?  Neither have I.)

Sooner or later, someone is going to start making hay out of this (pardon the pun).  It may come as primary challenges from the fiscal responsibility wing of the Republicans (not the neocons or believers in the "end times"); failing that, there may be a resurgence of populist Democratic candidates.  And maybe someone will start making the case to American farmers and everyone who supports them that sustainability is more than just a leftist buzzword off in the cold, that it belongs huddled up tight with hallowed American values like thrift and self-reliance.

Where would this matter?  Unless I've missed my mark, pretty much the entire Red-state Midwest.

Sustainability is security.  A farmer who needs no diesel can't be forced out by rising fuel prices.  The Republican Congress has sacrificed all of the programs which might have led to that security; now the farmer is paying the price.  How soon before the cause of this problem is named out loud, and the political pendulum swings?

Not soon enough for me, but 2006 would be encouraging.


Grass power revisited

Something I never did when I was analyzing zinc cycles was to look at the conversion of biomass to carbon.  There are substantial mass and energy losses associated with the carbonization process, and that energy has to go somewhere.  The author of the paper on carbonization suggested that the pyrolysis gas might be used to run an engine if it was of sufficient quality.  What are the possibilities?

All that's outgassed is not lost

Heiko Gerhauser gave an energy figure of 17.4 million BTU per metric ton (presumably for dried Miscanthus); this is 18.3 GJ/tonne.  If Miscanthus is 4% ash and the carbon yield from the remainder is 28%1, the charcoal produced would contain 26.9% of the original mass as carbon and the remnant 4% ash (total 30.9%).  According to my Rubber Bible2, the heat of formation of carbon dioxide from oxygen and graphite is -93960 cal/mol.  269 kg of carbon is 22,400 moles and would yield 8.81 GJ when burned; the difference, 9.49 GJ/tonne, is released during the carbonization process.  Some of this would be heat and some would be as chemical energy in the off-gas.  (I know I'm not accounting for every component of the char; better computations welcomed as I've no time now to do them myself.)

This is a very large amount of energy.  Further, much of the gas is produced from solid and thus is an expansion of volume over the biomass.  This expansion is perfect for driving a gas turbine (requires no work from the compressor).  If the carbonizers are built in-line with the gas path of a gas turbine of 38.6% efficiency3, the pyrolysis process would produce 3.66 GJ/tonne (1020 kWh/tonne) of electricity.  A secondary steam cycle powered by the turbine's exhaust heat and running at 28% efficiency4 would yield another 450 kWh/tonne, for a total of 1470 kWh/tonne (55.8% efficiency overall).  In this process, roughly 30% of the carbon in the biomass is exhausted to the atmosphere as CO2.

The solid stream

The solid product of this process is char, rather high in ash content (Miscanthus contains between 1.5% and 4.5% ash, so a carbonization process which converts 28% of the organic fraction to carbon would create charcoal containing between 5.2% and 14.4% ash).  This char is a possible substitute for coal in coal-fired plants (if they can handle the ash), or it could be used in something like the thermochemical zinc cycle.  Unlike the raw biomass, it is not easily biodegradeable and can be stored indefinitely.

Possibilities for zinc

If the zinc cycle was used, the 22,400 moles of carbon would produce 22,400 moles of CO and another 22,400 moles of metallic zinc.  CO is poisonous but stable, and could be stored in old gas wells or used for chemical synthesis.  22,400 moles of CO at 68560 cal/mol yields 6.43 GJ (1780 kWh), of which 60% (1070 kWh) might be recovered using something like solid-oxide fuel cells.  If used in a fuel cell rather than a gas turbine or other heat engine, it would be relatively simple to capture and sequester the CO2.

Zinc oxide has a heat of formation of 84670 cal/mol, so an Electric Fuel-style cell operating at 62% efficiency would be able to take 22400 moles of zinc and squeeze 4.92 GJ (1370 kWh) out of it.  The total product for this process:

  1. As much as 2540 kWh/tonne of electricity between the carbonization system and the carbon monoxide utilization.
  2. Up to 986 kg/tonne of CO2 captured and made ready for sequestration.
  3. A further 1370 kWh/tonne of high-density, mobile, noise-, pollution- and carbon-free energy (as metallic zinc) made available for any purpose.  If used to replace gasoline burned in 20%-efficient engines, this much zinc could replace roughly 185 gallons of gasoline per tonne of biomass5.

Direct use of the biomass (17.4 mmBTU/tonne) in an IGCC plant at 55.8% efficiency would yield only 2840 kWh/tonne (none ready for mobile uses); if burned along with coal in a powerplant with a heat rate of 10200 BTU/kWh, it would produce a mere 1710 kWh/tonne (ditto). 

Land use requirements

Returning to September's scribblings, the 2001 electric demand of Illinois was 92,358 million kilowatt-hours.  Satisfying this demand using the electricity generated from the carbonization process and the zinc-production offgas (2540 kWh/tonne) would require 36.4 million tons of biomass.  If it could be grown at 15 short tons/acre, the production of 2.68 million acres would suffice to supply the state's electric needs with no use of coal or nuclear.  If used in passenger vehicles, the zinc produced would be able to displace a further 6.73 billion gallons of gasoline (about 5% of US consumption and 30% more than Illinois' 2004 gasoline consumption6).

At least for the state of Illinois (and probably many others), this has the potential to replace ALL electricity and ALL gasoline with 100% renewable energy (which can sequester rather than release carbon, no less) in one fell swoop.  This sounds almost too good to be true.  (Then there is the fact that carbon monoxide can be steam reformed to hydrogen [CO + H2O -> CO2 + H2], and the hydrogen combined with more carbon monoxide to make synthesis gas from which almost anything that comes out of a chemical plant can be made... and already is.)


If the biomass crop gets $50/short ton, the cost for the carbon feed to this set of cycles is 1.41¢/kWh (ignoring the possibilities for higher-value products tapped off the carbonization process or produced as syngas).  With current corn yields of roughly 150 bushels/acre and prices of roughly $2.50/bushel ($375/acre, minus fertilizer and cultivation), a farmer harvesting 15 tons/acre of Miscanthus or even 10 tons/acre of switchgrass would be in an enviable position.  (At $50/ton, 2.5 tons/acre of corn stover would yield $125/acre; this would be more than enough to make most farmers profitable.  We're throwing away money.)

Further work

This points to things that bear investigation:

  1. Suitability of carbonizers as producers of fuel gas for gas turbines.
  2. Ash-fusion characteristics and other behavior of biomass-derived char.
  3. Composition of biomass carbonizer off-gas (byproducts of carbonization process).
  4. Zinc recovery efficiency from biomass char-fed smelters.
  5. Efficiency and durability of solid-oxide fuel cells on carbon monoxide fuel.
  6. Small-scale CO2 purification for carbon sequestration.

[1] See US Patent 6,790,317 (back)
[2] CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. (back)
[3] e.g. the GE LM2500+.  Some GE simple-cycle gas turbines are rated at 40%. (back)
[4] The average heat rate for steam turbine powerplants is less than 10300 BTU/kWh, corresponding to a thermal efficiency greater than 33%.  28% seems realistic. (back)
[5] If 1370 kWh of electricity is equivalent to 5 times its raw energy as gasoline at 20460 BTU/lbm LHV and 6.167 lbm/gallon, it would displace 185 gallons of gasoline (equivalent to about 278 gallons of ethanol at 84,000 BTU/gallon).  Direct use of biomass to make ethanol might yield a bit more per tonne, but it wouldn't produce anything else. (back)
[6] Per the EIA, Illinois used 14,184,500 gallons/day of gasoline in 2004.  This is 5.19 billion gallons for the (366-day) year. (back)

Related posts:
Zinc: miracle metal?

Sunday, October 23, 2005


After going solo for the last year and a half (The Ergosphere was founded on February 17 2004) things are changing.  I joined the TTLB Ecosystem a short while back, and as of today you will find the Energy Web Ring links at the bottom of the page.

Other changes are probably in the offing, due to personal circumstances and the demands/opportunities which come with them.  I'm not going to go into detail on those unless they are relevant to what's happening here, but expect the look to change more.

Yes, I'm neglecting the queue to post this.  I hope to finish something today.

Friday, October 21, 2005

New sidebar item: the post queue

I've decided that I ought to expose the list of topics I'm working on so that people can bug me about what they find most interesting or useful.  Right now there are four items in it in various stages of completion.

On another topic entirely, is there some trick to getting Blogger Images to work with Netscape?  I'd love to start including more graphics in posts, but there are so many complications involved with off-site hosting (it would take me at least two hours to take care of the deferred administrivia required to use e.g. Flickr) that I've been putting it off for months.  It would be far easier to use Blogger than anything else, but when I click the little picture icon the image-upload popup never ever completes its work.  Other people are using Blogger images, so I wonder what I'm doing wrong.

(Yes, I disable everything in the browser I can get away with.  And it's old.  But I can't find anything relevant in the Blogger help, so I'm asking you.)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Best thing SinceSlicedBread

This is an expansion of my proposal at SinceSlicedBread.  Bleg:  Please go there, make an account and comment.  I need your support.

This concept would deal a severe blow to OPEC, be a death warrant for the oil companies and force a redistribution of their economic and political power to the electric utilities and the American people as businesses, families and individuals.  The conversion of the American economy away from oil was stifled in the 1980's; this proposal would jump-start and then supercharge this long-overdue change.

The bare essentials of the 9-point program (verbatim from SSB):

  1. TAX OIL AND GAS.  Rebate taxes on chemical producers to keep jobs here.
  2. REBATE FUEL TAXES VIA WAGES.  Pay it back as deductibles on FICA, etc.
  3. ALLOWANCES FOR AREA.  Cold/rural gets more, nobody freezes or gets priced out.
  4. UPGRADE insulation/furnaces in buildings, update building codes.
  5. PROMOTE PLUG-IN HYBRID VEHICLES.  Every car should go the first 20+ miles/day on electricity alone, no gasoline.  It will pay and cut pollution too.
  6. LAY ELECTRIFIED RAIL.  Electrify railroads (again).  Put rail down highway medians with power wires overhead, put all the semis on it.  Make freight oil-free.
  7. COGENERATE ELECTRICITY from fuel burned for heat.
  8. MARKETS IN EVERYTHING.  Let everyone make & sell electricity, not just utilities.
  9. NO MORE SUBSIDIES for ethanol/hydrogen/biodiesel/wind.  Not needed.

These individual points need more explanation than SinceSlicedBread's length limit allows, so I'm elucidating them here:

1.  Tax oil and gas.

It may seem silly to tax fuel when it's already shot up so much in the last year, but today's prices are severely hurting the working poor while the rich barely notice.  65% of all oil revenue flows out of the country, so it makes sense to raise prices enough to get even wealthier people to change their buying decisions.  This also yields money for offsets to ease the pain at the bottom.

It will also make change in the auto industry.  Detroit isn't going to build lots of partly-electric SUV's unless people would buy them.  $4/gallon fuel would probably be enough to make that happen.  If they guzzle wind power while schlepping the kids to soccer, they stop being noisy, polluting and beneficial to Al Qaeda.

Chemical producers sell to a world market, and should not be put at a disadvantage.  They should be exempted from the taxes on oil and gas; if any taxes are levied, they should be on the products (foreign or domestic) when sold in the USA and not on their raw materials.  (link)

2.  Rebate fuel taxes via wages

If you burn 500 gallons of gasoline a year, a $1/gallon gasoline tax will cost you $500.  A tax of $5 per million BTU of gas will cost the average gas-heated household roughly $250.  Giving every wage-earner a FICA exemption on the first $10,000/year would pay them $1530, or more than enough to pay the extra taxes.  The bonus is, they could use it to buy more efficient vehicles, insulate the house, install CF bulbs or move closer to work too.  Anything they do that cuts the need for imported fuel will save money, and that money will tend to stay in the USA and make jobs.  (link)

3.  Allowances for area

Rural areas and cold climates will have higher added costs from the taxes.  There need to be offsets until new vehicles and upgraded structures have worked their way through.  (link)

4.  Upgrade insulation/furnaces, update building codes

For at least 20 years we've known how to make ultra-efficient furnaces, furnaces which cogenerate electricity, buildings which need next to no heat, and other advances over today's typical practices.  It's time to fix existing buildings (if they can be made affordable), and update building codes so that sloppy, leaky buildings are no longer considered acceptable.  We've got a lot of ground to cover, and we've run out of time; a lot of builders will spend the next few years tightening up structures instead of building new ones, but that keeps builders employed even if the housing market tanks.  These high energy prices are hurting the economy; we'll need some recession-proof jobs, I think.  (link)

5.  Promote plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Electricity is already so cheap compared to gasoline that it would take over if people could only get it everywhere they park.  Tax breaks are barely needed, if at all.  The promotion of plug-ins will come in other forms, which make it easier to use and manage.  I am specifically thinking of:

Getting electricity at home should just mean plugging in a cord, whether home is a mansion or an apartment.  Buying electricity anywhere else should be as easy, and anonymous, as getting a calling card at the 7-11.

Running cars on electricity means that they can get energy from something other than oil.  That something could be coal, nuclear, wind, solar panels on the roof, cogenerating furnaces... literally anything that makes electricity would provide "fuel".  Just about every cent spent on it would stay in the USA, making jobs and investment.  The potential savings are enormous:  some calculate up to 85% reduction in gasoline requirements.  That would be 7.7 million barrels per day at 2004 rates, or most of the output of Saudi Arabia.  Most of the Gulf Coast refineries would be excess capacity, so we'd be hurricane-proofed again without moving a thing.  (link)

6.  Lay electrified rail.

Rail is more efficient than rubber tires on pavement, so if we want to save energy we should move everything we can to rail.  Not necessarily out of trucks, mind you, but the trucks themselves should be able to get onto rails.  Rails could be laid down highway medians to get the big semis and cars out of the same lanes, which would also prevent the semis from slowing traffic and reduce the number and severity of accidents.  Old rail rights-of-way in and out of cities could be revived, creating new and uncongested truck routes.

Most or all rail, both truck-bypass and freight, should be electrified.  Overhead wires would supply power to run trucks and trains.  Diesel fuel accounts for nearly a third of US motor fuel consumption and about 20% of all petroleum products supplied, so taking a big chunk out of that would slice imports a lot.  It would slice import costs even more, due to depression of the world price.  If diesel demand could be cut by 75%, the total savings (diesel plus gasoline) would just about equal Saudi Arabia's output.  If trucks become all-electric and use batteries for their runs between deliveries and the rails (where they recharge while driving), on-road savings could approach 100%.  Pollution and noise would plummet.  (link)

Reference for semis-that-run-on-rails:  Blade Runner Update (read this, seriously)

7.  Cogenerate electricity.

If all of this stuff is going to run on electricity instead of petroleum, the electricity has to come from somewhere.  The total energy of electricity required is going to be a lot smaller than the oil displaced (even truck diesels are only about 40% efficient at best, while electric motors are around 90%) but it's considerable.

It will pay to get lots of this electricity via cogeneration.  Just about any process which burns fuel to make heat and doesn't need an open flame (grills, stoves) is a candidate for conversion to cogeneration.  Steam boilers, gas and oil furnaces, water heaters, and many industrial processes could make electricity as part and parcel of their other operations.  The effective efficiency (extra fuel burned per unit of electricity) can be over 80%.  Some of the oil not burned in vehicles will be needed to make up the difference, but the overall savings will be huge.

Despite lots of cogenerators, wind turbines and everything else, there are bound to be times when electric generation falls short.  We can burn oil for these occasions if we have nothing else.  GE gas turbines are as much as 40% efficient and combined-cycle plants hit well over 50%; burning oil in stationary turbines would be at least twice (maybe three times) as efficient as burning it in gasoline engines, even in hybrids.  If you only need them when the wind is calm and the sun isn't shining, you won't need them all that much anyway.

If all else fails and there really is no electricity to spare for charging, the plug-in hybrids can fall back to being like regular hybrids.  (link)

8.  Markets in everything.

In a nation where all the basements might hold cogenerators and every roof might have solar panels, just about anyone could have electricity to sell sometimes.  People should be able to get a fair price for what they have, where "fair" is determined by who's buying:  buyers and sellers should be able to deal on a scale of days to minutes, with the utility managing reliability and taking only a cut for transmission.  The price someone pays to charge their car at work should be close to the price they're being paid for the electricity made by the Honda in their home boiler, chugging away to re-heat the water tank from their morning shower.  Electricity should be cheap when the wind farm outside of town is cranking on a temperate day, and all the misers should buy the cheap electricity to make ice for the summer's heat waves so they can sit out the dog days with only small fans blowing and count their savings.  And why shouldn't we all be misers, and let our computers do the dealing and counting for us?  We can all save, by better use of what we have.  (link)

9.  No more subsidies

One thing that is absent from this proposal is subsidies for alternative energy.  This is deliberate; if petroleum fuel costs an extra dollar per gallon, this gives the alternatives a cost advantage of the same amount for everything above the fuel involved in making them.  This rewards real energy production and eliminates differential tax subsidy, e.g. taxing the diesel used as road fuel but not the diesel used to cultivate corn for ethanol.

This appears likely to promote biodiesel from waste grease (large cost advantage), not be so good for biodiesel from virgin oil, and kill ethanol from corn (1.34:1 EROEI cuts its cost advantage from 52¢/gallon with current subsidies down to about 25¢/gallon after the fuel for cultivation and distillation are taken out).  Taxes on natural gas will make wind power pay all the better ($5/million BTU costs an extra 3.5¢/kWh to a generator using 7000 BTU/kWh, more than twice the wind production tax credit), and also prompt generators to get the most out of coal, nuclear and everything else domestic.  All projects with good rate of energy return would be promoted, and that's good for both the country and the environment.  (link)


My little 173-word blurb for SinceSlicedBread has grown to over 1900 words here.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; it was a very abbreviated synopsis of a much bigger concept (or set of concepts).  I could go on further, but I think this is enough for a broad overview and real detailed analysis should go in separate posts.  If I do this, I'll add hyperlinks both out of this and back to the individual sections.

Analytical readers, tell you what:  if you want to expand on these things in your own blogs, I'll link to solid analyses that aren't my own.  And if I win anything from SinceSlicedBread, the beer and pizza are on me when I come to town.


I can't think of anything that needs footnotes, but if anyone brings up something that needs that kind of clarification I'll put it here. 
Friday, October 07, 2005

Immediate responses: Revive the PNGV

Up until about 4 years ago, the USA had a program to develop ultra-high mileage vehicles.  The goal of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) was to produce full-size passenger cars achieving 80 miles per gallon.  Prototypes such as Chrysler's ESX-3 were achieving 72 MPG at a projected cost premium of roughly $3500.  Delivery of the first production models was set for 2008-2009.

This program, on which about a billion dollars had been spent, was cancelled by the Republican majority.  As a consolation prize, we got... another research program, but aimed at hydrogen vehicles.  This effort is not projected to yield cost-competitive vehicles for another 15 years or more, and the viability of hydrogen vehicles is questionable when natural gas (the cleanest feedstock) is plummeting in production and skyrocketing in price.

There ought to be a groundswell of support for bringing back the PNGV.  Amazingly, there are people involved in the energy discussion who have never heard of it.  This boggles my mind.

The PNGV could have been a strike, but it was mis-thrown by the right and wound up as a gutter ball.  Is it time for a letter-writing campaign to our legislators, newspapers, and others to at least try for a spare?

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Sounds much too familiar

From Tarek Heggy:
Twenty years of working closely with leading establishments in the advanced societies of Western Europe, East Asia and North America have taught me that the presence of too many ideology-driven individuals in any society will invariably impede it from going through the necessary three stages on the road to progress.  Indeed, advanced societies tend to look upon ideologists as suffering from a condition that warrants serious study and treatment, and there is not a single advanced society on the face of the earth today whose leading and ruling elite is driven by ideology.  Finding solutions to the complex problems of contemporary life entails using a scientific approach based on empirical verification and adopting practical solutions that were tested and successfully applied by others, not doctrinal formulas dreamt up by ideologists to fit their rigid worldview.


An ingredient the prescription for progress does not include is ideology.  Indeed, once an ideological mindset takes hold among the opinion-makers of any society, that society’s prospects of making any headway on the road to progress are severely diminished.  By definition, ideologists are driven by moral certainty in a system of belief, a certainty they can only sustain by suspending their critical faculties and building up a defense mechanism against any challenge to their core beliefs.  They tend to take refuge in a bunker mentality which leaves little room for self-criticism and even less for breaking the wall of denial isolating them from reality.  Such criticism as they do engage in is reserved for others; when it comes to evaluating their own performance, there is nothing but self-praise.
The Bush administration's bunker mentality, exemplified by the praise for Michael Brown just before he was removed from his post at FEMA, shows that our own government has fallen into the grasp of ideologues.  If we don't get it back, we're well and truly screwed.  (The PoMo PC ideologues in academia are a lesser problem, as they do not exercise legal authority.)
... I now believe that another step should precede the acceptance and practice of criticism, namely, the dismantling of the wall of denial behind which we have sequestered ourselves....
These words need to come from many places, from the ivory towers to the halls of Congress and the Oval Office. 
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