The Ergosphere
Monday, August 21, 2006


There are some things that should tell you that you're going the wrong way.

Via Green Car Congress comes news that Ohio may get a $4 billion coal-to-liquids plant.  This plant will take 7 million tons/year of coal and produce 35 million barrels/year of product.

People touting CTL as the solution to our petroleum ills shouldn't take this as cause for optimism.  The US consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of petroleum products in 2005 (20,656,000 barrels/day); this plant can produce only 0.47% of that.  It would take 214 of them to replace our petroleum usage... if we could get the coal to feed them.  The US uses roughly 1 billion tons of coal per year (mostly to make electricity), but that much CTL would require mining another 1.5 billion tons/year.  And shipping it, and disposing of the ash....

Cost is another factor.  Unless those plants get much cheaper with experience, a nation-full of them would cost somewhere north of $800 billion.  That cost has to be paid off, the coal has to be paid for (1.5 billion tons/year @ maybe $35/ton is $52.5 billion/year or $1.05 trillion over 20 years), and we'll need rail lines to transport it and landfills for the ash.  Already we're looking at a couple trillion dollars, ignoring pollution and climate impacts.  And all of that is just to feed vehicles.

The claim of coal consumption is probably low.  7 million tons/year at 25 million BTU/ton is 175 trillion BTU, but 1.47 billion gallons of fuel at 131,000 BTU/gallon (half gasoline, half diesel) is 193 trillion BTU.  Either that plant can make something for nothing, or it is going to turn more coal into less product.

That road looks bad.  Isn't there a better way to go?

Suppose we took the incentives aimed at fossil fuels and instead directed them to... batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries currently retail for about $.69/Wh.  Putting an average of 2 kWh of battery storage on new vehicles would, at US sales of ~13 million/year, require about 26 GWh of batteries per year and cost a hair over $18 billion/year; this figure could be expected to drop rapidly.  If these batteries allowed us to replace 50% of motor-fuel demand with electricity @ 300 Wh/mile, over 10 years we'd spend less than $180 billion on batteries (and much less over the next 10).  Savings would be immense; if the average new vehicle travels 15,000 miles/year and average mileage doubles from 22 to 44 MPG, after 10 years those 130 million new vehicles would be using 44 billion gallons/year less fuel.  At prices northward of $5/gallon, that would save at least $220 billion/year.  Of course, we'd need electricity to make up for it.  That would take roughly 290 billion kWh/year (about 7.5% of current US consumption), but if we got it half from wind at 4¢/kWh, 20% from nuclear at 5¢/kWh and 30% from coal at 10¢/kWh (with carbon taxes) we'd only be spending $17.6 billion/year for power.

Coal consumption would be way down.  Producing 87.8 billion kWh/year from coal in IGCC plants achieving 8400 BTU/kWH would require 737 trillion BTU, less than 30 million tons of coal per year at 25 million BTU/ton.  Compare to 1.5 BILLION tons!  The cost for coal (included in the price of power above) would be maybe $1 billion/year.  And the cost of batteries would probably fall by half within 5 years (allowing even more fuel savings for the same price), and by another 50% within the next ten.

This is how the accounting looks to me just over 10 years and assuming NO battery improvements over that time:

$400 billion in CTL plants$180 billion in batteries
750 million tons/year coal30 million tons/year coal
$26 billion/year for coal$1.05 billion/year for coal
No savings in liquid fuelRoughly 1/3 savings in liquid fuel
Roughly today's noise and pollutionRadically reduced noise and pollution

If we are looking for good investments in America's future, batteries look like our best bet.  The sign for Fischer-Tropsch is pointing down the road to ruin.

And on that note, I'm off until Friday night.  Don't have too much fun without me.


The new me

I gotta get a bigger pocket protector.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Search me

Going through the hit-counter data for The Ergosphere can be... interesting.

A lot of hits show no information for the link in.  Bookmarks?  Fine; you folks are my regulars.  (Welcome back.)  But some hits come here via searches which are downright strange.

Take the person who came here via a Google search for "Dropped Balls".  Was this someone who remembered the post title, or someone just looking randomly?  No way to tell unless they say something.

Then there's the search for "engineers are cheap bastards engineering society".  'Nuf said.

For some reason, several people a day come here via searches for "engineer poet".  There was a time when I didn't see any of those; now they're fairly regular.  Did I become famous when I wasn't looking?

A bunch of folks seem to be looking for "listeroids".  I hope they find too, because I sure don't have any.

I see some hits which come here because someone once editted a Wikipedia page and thought I was reference-worthy.  I think this does say something about the reliability of Wikipedia (cough).  (OTOH, if this paid money I'd be happy to whip my page into something resembling scholarly shape.)

Last, I saw something rare:  someone saving "What can you do with 1.3 billion tons?" to their local drive.  Let me remind you, A---, that the contents of these pages are copyright © the author, and reproduction for profit is not only a violation of copyright but of my principles unless you give me a cut.  Not that I'm likely to hire an attorney in Hong Kong to pursue the matter, but still....

And that's all for today.  Come back when ESP tells you that I've written another meta-post.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Due Diligence

My latest open letter, "Due Diligence", is posted over at The Oil Drum.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Europe passes death sentence on hype-drogen

Regular readers will know that I've got little tolerance for nonsense.  For instance, I think it is absurd to take a bunch of natural gas, turn it into ammonia and then nitrate, add a bunch of petroleum as diesel fuel and chemicals, use it all to grow maize, ferment and then add more natural gas (or coal) to yield perhaps 30% more as ethanol.

It appears that others have reached the limits of their tolerance as well.  Hydrogen is one of my sore points, and the European Fuel Cell Forum has finally given up on it (hat tips to Entropy Production and TheWatt):

It is highly uncertain that synthetic hydrogen can ever be established as a universal energy carries. Electricity from renewable sources will be the source energy in a sustainably organized future. The direct distribution of electricity to the consumer is three to four times more efficient than its conversion to hydrogen by electrolysis of water, packaging and transport of synthetic energy carrier to the consumer and its conversion back to electricity with efficient fuel cells. By laws of physics, hydrogen economy can never compete with an "electron economy".

But the laws of physics cannot be changed with further research, investments or political decisions. A sustainable future energy harvested from renewable sources (nuclear energy is not sustainable!) must be distributed and used with the highest efficiency. A wasteful hydrogen economy does not meet the criteria of sustainability. As a result, a viable free-market hydrogen infrastructure will never be established and fuel cells for hydrogen may not be needed. For all applications electricity from hydrogen fuel cells have to compete with the source electricity used to make hydrogen.

The European Fuel Cell Forum is committed to the establishment of a safe energy future. Therefore, it will continue to promote fuel cells for sustainable fuels, but discontinue supporting the development of fuel cells for hypothetical fuel supplies. Time has come for decisions. Keeping all options open is not an adequate response to mounting energy problems.

Therefore, the schedule of the European SOFC Forum will be continued in 2008 with an extended conference every second year. Beginning 2007 (July 2 to 6) sustainable energy topics will be emphasized in odd years. Despite earlier announcements the European PEFC Forum series will not be continued.

(I tried, but I was unable to find a direct link to the above text at the EFCF site.  However, given the tone of the papers hosted by the EFCF, I strongly doubt that it's fabricated.)

Ulf Bossel's highly negative analysis precedes my analysis and position statement by years.  I was not aware of the EFCF until just recently, but I am gratified to see that we both reached the same conclusion for the same reasons.

For those interested in technical issues and policy implications, the EFCF reports look like a treasure trove of analysis (I have only scanned a couple and cannot vouch for all the papers).  This should be good wonk-ish reading for quite a while.

It's been my suspicion that US (and foreign?) oil interests have been using hydrogen cars as a means of diverting news coverage and research funds from MCFC's, SOFC's, zinc-air fuel cells and various types of batteries.  The end of PEM FC coverage beneath the ECFC umbrella indicates that this tactic may have come to the end of its usefulness.  The political and economic cost of remaining dependent upon oil (and OPEC) is becoming undeniable as well.  Does this mean that we might finally get research actually aimed at making product and changing the status quo?  Only time will tell.

One way you can help:  write your congresscritter.  Demand the end of hydrogen-car programs and the re-allocation of the money to fuels we really have or can make efficiently with biomass.

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