Ending Energy Ignorance – Part II

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In “Ending Energy Ignorance – Part I” I introduced us to my primary concern, the general ignorance or apathy of the U.S. populace in understanding energy on the basic levels. You do not have to take my word for it alone, the famous oilman and land speculator, T. Boone Pickens has claimed the same for years, and outside his Picken’s Plan there are no other national figures championing for a greater awareness of energy understanding.

Years ago, I was in full agreement of his message, in particular I was in love with the potential of wind energy and it was one of his key selling points. But a grain of salt was required. Extremely successful or not, T. Boone’s reputation was not established in philanthropy.

In order for us to forge forward, we need to look at our past. It does us no good dissecting the mistakes and ills of the past, the results are with us today. However, understanding our history and what lead us to the problems we are facing today, is key to minimizing those short comings in the future. Hind sight is twenty-twenty, and we would be wise to learn from it.

How did we get here?

In the U.S., the abundance of domestic coal has made it the de facto “King of the Castle” for electricity production, doubling nuclear energy’s consistent 20 per cent national production since the 80’s.

Although, the great dams of the twenties, thirties, forties may have won World War II, notably those on the mighty Columbia River, churning out cheap aluminum to blanket the skies with aircraft over both Europe and The Pacific, as well as the immense electricity required to build Little Boy and Fat Man, their golden era of construction ended in the 1970s.

The electrical output of 100s of mega dams, each engineering feats equally as impressive as the famous Hoover Dam on the Colorado, and thousands of smaller impoundments throughout the country, provide significant regional production. However, flood control; irrigation and household needs; seasonal recharging realities; and storage for fluctuating dry periods and droughts, require often complicated balancing acts to generate electricity on demand. As such, hydro power’s contribution, currently in the high single digits, has been modeled around base load production generators, an icing on the cake made of two layers coal, one layer nuclear.

Outside, the enormous natural gift of the Columbia River’s water from Canada and Idaho’s substantial contribution as well, and the famous water works at Niagara Falls, again substantially accumulated on Canadian soils, U.S. hydro power has mostly been stored as much as possible and released during peak electricity demand hours. Many of the picturesque dams on the over allocated Colorado, in addition to the more generously supplied Tennessee and Ohio River dams have been complimented with either nuclear or coal fired plants. All other factors aside, most U.S. hydroelectric facilities are natural peakers plants, their free but not unlimited energy capacity, scheduled and released during times of greatest demand.

Canada’s wealth of water resources in the distant, cold, non-farmable and scarcely populated north, resulted in construction of a growing arsenal of dedicated hydro electric dams and generators that picked up as the United States exhausted all of its best and then increasingly marginal dam potential. Much of the hydroelectric production increases we have seen over the past decades are the result of our importation of Canadian electricity, and it is a notable cream layer in our electric cake.

And then there is natural gas, not to be confused with gasoline powering our vehicles, rather the fuel that is increasing powering fleets of vehicles; local deliver trucks, city and school buses, and soon long haul tractor trailers.

Natural gas (NG) has long fueled cooking needs in addition to space and water heating, at a higher efficiency than its direct competitor, electricity, based on a simple understanding of the Law of Conservation of Energy. Likewise, it has been used in manufacturing and commercial processes at an equal level.

However, unlike electric distribution saturation of 99.9% of U.S. users, roughly 40 per cent of residential units are not connected. Similar changes to the NG infrastructure regulations, at the same time as Grid deregulation, decreased incentives of for local distribution companies to increase the quantity of residential connections in contrast to more favorable, higher consumption industrial or single point users.

As a fuel for electricity generation, up until the mid-90s, natural gas’s contribution to overall production mimicked that of domestic hydro, mostly in the realm of industrial and municipal users, having a need not only for the electricity, but also the heat energy resulting from burning fossil fuels that is needed in industrial processes or space heating of expansive structures or large multiple building campuses.

Commonly, this resulting heat of fossil, geothermal and nuclear electricity production has no use at the generating plant and is considered “waste” byproduct. Below the threshold to generate more electricity, the waste heat requires disposal, usually through heat transfer in cooling ponds, lakes and the sea or directly into the atmosphere via a water evaporation cycle, frequently mistaken for “dirty pollution” exhausts seen at power plants.

Recent technological advances in the jet engine and their counterpart, the natural gas turbine, notably by General Electric (GE), has ushered in the age of the natural gas peaker, a simple or combined cycle electric generator, where the waste heat may or may not be used. The primary purpose is for the production of electricity on demand to smooth supply – demand dynamic fluctuations in the local area.

Because fuel arrives by pipeline; operational noise can be dampened, unlike an exposed jet engine; initiation to 100% production can be achieved in a matter of minutes; units can be air or atmospheric evaporation cycle cooled; relatively short build times, under two years; and with their small footprint per large unit output, peaker plants have effectively exited the realm of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) limitations. Given all these advantages over traditional fossil or nuclear electricity generation, the deployment of natural gas fired plants within urban and suburban environments, close to demand centers, has sky rocketed the number in operation. This has occurred over the past two decades, irregardless of the recent shale gas discoveries.

As such, even before Oil & Gas (O&G) exploration and production bottomed out natural gas prices at the end of the last decade, generation of electricity from natural gas began its departure in the mid 90s from hydro’s peak performance and surpassed nuclear energy’s contribution around 2005. Its acceptance as a “cleaner” fossil fuel than coal, low natural gas prices to larger, single point users, its dynamic production availability, amongst many other reasons, are accelerating the percentage of electricity generated by natural gas.

As of 2011, natural gas fired turbines have reached fifty per cent of coal’s historical peak electricity generation at the end of the last decade. And this is coming as coal fired power plants are being shuttered and all signs point to a continual decline and eventual phasing out of the industry. Natural gas has morphed from a tasty cream holding our electric cake together, to a distinct and rising layer in its own right.

The dynamic flexibility of natural gas was limited by its low energy density, requiring pipelines and continuous supply to deliver CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) to the customers. Concentration and storage once supply reservoirs were tapped, was difficult at best, much is diverted to the central plains and temporarily stored in giant underground caverns. Portability without pipelines, let alone from country to country, continent to continent, economically infeasible, until just recently. In the past decade, the compression and cooling of natural gas, into a liquid requiring substantial energy expenditure, has made LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) a globally traded and transportable commodity.

The short, but dynamic history of LNG in the United States merits its own discussion when it comes to energy. One day soon, but not now.


What about renewable energy? Why no mention?

At this point, I have excluded modern renewable energy developments purposely. Discussions of the different technologies; their deployment scenarios, domestically and globally; advantages and disadvantages; most effective uses and replacement comparisons against fossil and nuclear energy, etc., are difficult to discuss without a solid understanding of where we are at currently.

Our uses in the United States lacks a cultural awareness, notably present around the world. I honestly believe, we are energy ignorant, either through choice, apathy or long instill global superiority.

In contrast to engaging in arguments of opinion; common, but often factually inconsistent beliefs; or unnecessary debates focusing on qualitative, but lacking quantitative support, my goal is to establish baseline givens, from which we can progress forward into the future.

As such, it is important to highlight the existent world energy picture, draw attention to regional or national trends, and provide a sampling of evidence to my belief that the global population outside the United States is more culturally aware of energy concerns. This ingrained understanding, bordering on cultural intelligence, is a fundamental advantage and in many regards is fueling the advancement of modern renewable energy implementation in the countries that have the capacity to build it.

Further, those generally disadvantaged countries, likewise will benefit from technological advances innovated by more prosperous nations, and my sincerest hope, they will fully review the energy history, particularly of the United States as there are many lessons to be learned, prior to repeating the mistakes, now revealed in hindsight.


So, off we go on a whirlwind tour of energy around the world…

What about energy supply, demand, transportation and consumption in the rest of the world? How has it molded the understanding and recognition of its importance to those outside the United States?

Those in the developed world; our equivalents in Canada, Northern Europe, Japan and Australia, have a greater understanding of energy’s real costs, having over the years experienced regular scarcity of fuel and/or resources, and the subsequent need to seek them from outside. However, on almost all accounts, they were just as successful in living “their dream” as we were in the energy oblivious US.

As such, their cultures have evolved in many ways to accommodate and adapt to more costly fuel sources, their manufacturing efficiencies driven by more than just cost, their transportation and electricity generation methods have advanced through communal understanding and efforts. Their overall energy consumption per capita, across all metrics, significantly below those of their often times American idols.

Likewise, “developing” countries; Argentina, India, Brazil, China and Russia, have been marked by marginal, but increasing development and productivity. Outside political uncertainties or economic models, energy scarcity is chief “culprit” to limited growth and advancement, measured by Western standards.

Recent fossil fuel discoveries in Brazil and Russia have resulted in recent increases in advancement; however, it requires highlighting, Brazil’s fossil energy scarcity, resulted in the innovated use of “Solar” sugar farming to produce ethanol for transportation and further utilization of the resulting organic waste product, to power electricity generation. This innovation and scaled implementation is unmatched in the world, energy scarcity propelled this advancement.

China’s explosion of growth, outside the US’s insatiable consumption, has been fueled notable by their abundance of coal. The growth in both production capacity and required energy consumption, has shattered all traditional economic projections and modeling. But not only in the rate by which new coal-fired power plants came and are coming on-line, but also in their construction of hydroelectric mega dams; their systematic deployment of wind turbines; projections of the number of automobiles that are being purchased and the rate by which farmers yesterday are becoming middle class citizens today.

The “dump” of Chinese manufactured PV panels on the world market around 2008/9 was both a boom and a bust, start-ups with promising technology innovations were shuttered, but also, much of the world received a bigger bang for their buck as PV modules experienced their first significant halving in cost. The bar was set high, outside of free, the world will never see that level unit price declines again in the technology’s future.

This rapid growth and exponential energy consumption hitting the Chinese population square in the face, literally with life expectancy rates showing hard evidence of declining this early in the race to obtainable prosperity. Memories of the days of the industrial revolution for Westerners, an unlivable, but necessary reality for the average & above average aspiring Chinese citizen.

But this too is driving innovation, innovation of necessity, a necessity that is really difficult do pinpoint within the average US citizen, we continue to remain “energy stupid” as a whole. Countless examples, would fill pages, but while we ignore or “kick the can down the road”, China will forge ahead and build some of the largest, and arguably the first, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) facilities on-line regardless the expense of doing so.

Then there is the rest of the world… they don’t just read about energy scarcity, they live it, day in and day out. Advanced renewable energy does hold many promises for providing that critical and otherwise unobtainable demand. But it will be critical for these countries that want it to review energy development histories and strive aggressively to not repeat what initially was lauded a success, but later revealed there was more than meets the eye.

The rapid deployment and implementation of wireless Telcom and access to the power of the internet, having not invested heavily in hard wired services, is a crowning achievement throughout Africa and other developing countries. It is often used as a model for western projections as to the rate as which modern renewable technologies could be brought to the masses. However, electrons “excited” to move along fixed conductors, just don’t want to cooperate going where we want them to in the air.

Also, the push, notably by the World Bank, IMF and China, for the building and purchasing of mega dams in
these countries is very troubling in my estimation, especially the number agreements that are being inked recently in Africa. The same is true of the past, grandiose promises of “unlimited” electricity, to be delivered in 10 years all at once, while no energy will be available for development until completion, and “it’s a bargain” as one to two times, if not more, of the countries current GDP.



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