Sunday 2014-02-09

Energy At The Crossroads by Vaclav Smil

This was a depressing book to read. First, Smil covers the extent of electrical power production, from dirty coal to the fumbled future of nuclear. Second, he reminds us of how much power we easily have at hand:

But much more power commanded by that affluent American household is installed in the family’s vehicles. Every one of its three cars or SUVs will rate in excess of 100 kW, and a boat or a recreation vehicles (or both, with some of the latter ones equalling the size of a small house ), will boost the total power under the household’s control close to half of 1 MW! This total is also being enlarged by a proliferation of outdoor energy converters, ranging from noisy gasoline-fueled leaf blowers to massive natural gas-fired pool heaters. Equivalent power—though nothing like the convenience, versatility, flexibility, and reliability of delivered energy services— would have been available only to a Roman latifundia owner of about 6,000 strong slaves, or to a nineteenth-century landlord employing 3,000 workers and 400 big draft horses

We have all this power trivially available to us and what do we do with our 6000 workers? Drive around Suburbia. Do donuts.

Electricity’s advantage, taken utterly for granted by populations that have grown up with its cheap and ubiquitous supply, is evident to anybody who managed a household in the preelectrical era, or who lived in places where expensive electricity was used just for inadequate lighting. To all those who have never faced daily chores of drawing and hauling water, preparing kindling in morning darkness and cold, washing and wringing clothes by hand, ironing them with heavy wedges of hot metal, grinding feed for animals, milking cows by hand, pitchforking hay up into a loft, or doing scores of other repetitive manual tasks around the house, farmyard, or workshop, it is not easy to convey the liberating power of electricity. I am aware of no better literary attempt to do so than two chapters in an unlikely source, in the first volume of Robert Caro’s fascinating biography of Lyndon Johnson (Caro 1982). Caro’s vivid descriptions of the repetitive drudgery, and physical dangers, experienced by a preelectric society are based on recollections of life in the Texas Hill Country during the 1930s. These burdens, falling largely on women, were much greater than the exertions of subsistence farmers in Africa or Latin America because the Hill Country farmers tried to maintain a much higher standard of living and managed much larger farming operations. The word revolution is then no exaggeration to describe the day when transmission lines reached the homes of such families
Electricity’s advantages go far beyond instant and effortless access as no other form of energy can rival the flexibility of its final uses. Electricity can be converted to light, heat, motion, and chemical potential and hence it can be used in every principal energy-consuming sector with the exception of commercial flying
In contrast, Alewell et al. (2000) found that even after deep European cuts in SO2 emissions many continental sites have experienced significant delays in returning to their preacidification status, or even no recovery at all. Such contrasting conclusions are the norm, rather than an exception in debates about the real costs of energy
Between 1962 and 2000 the net U.S. disbursements to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan added up to nearly $150 billion, with about three-fifths of this total going to Israel. Clearly a sizeable portion of these expenses—be it for purchase of military hardware, food imports, or industrial development—was spent in order to prop up the two friendly Arab regimes and to strengthen the country’s principal strategic ally in the region, and such investments could be logically seen as yet another cost of Middle Eastern oil
As with so many other twentieth-century developments foundations of this new destructive power were put in place by the discoveries of a new class of chemicals prepared by nitration of such organic compounds as cellulose, glycerine, phenol, and toluene during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Urbanski 1967). Much like the venerable gunpowder these compounds, including Alfred Nobel’s dynamite and ballistite,and Hand Henning’s cyclonite,the most powerfulprenuclear explosive,were self-oxidizing, but they produced a far more powerful blast able to create shock waves
The first kind consists of contingency scenarios preparing us for foreseeable outcomes that may deviate substantially, even catastrophically, from standard trend expectations or from consensus visions. Unusually deep and prolonged global economic depression that would set back average living standards by a generation or two is one such possibility, as is a Middle Eastern conflagration that would result in a loss of at least one-third of the world’s crude oil supply are perhaps the most obvious examples of such contingencies. The terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 had widened tragically the scope of such plausible catastrophic events. Now we have to contemplate also the use of chemical, bacterial, or viral weapons against civilian populations in large cities or the use of jetliners as missiles to attack nuclear power plants, all undertaken by terrorist groups whose eradication presents enormous challenges for any modern open society. The second kind of forecasts encompasses no-regret normative scenarios that should be prepared to guide our long-term paths toward the reconciliation of human aspirations with the biospheric imperatives. While it may not be easy to reach consensus on every major issue that should form a part of such normative outlines it is quite realistic to expect broad agreement on many key desiderata. After all, does anybody favor a rapid global warming with unpredictable consequences for the biosphere, or an even greater inequality of access to basic energy services than is experienced in today’s poor, populous nations
With rare exceptions, medium- and long-range forecasts become largely worthless in a matter of years, often just a few months after their publication. Moreover, these failures appear to be unrelated to the subject of a particular forecast or to specific techniques used. Routinely performed long-range forecasts of national energy demand tied to GDP growth rates and consumption elasticities have not fared better than the appraisals of unprecedented technical innovations by the world’s leading experts, and intricate econometric exercises have not been more successful than simple demand models
while several hundred people a year are accidentally killed digging coal from the earth, the nuclearpower industry remains as safe as a chocolate factory” (The Economist 1986, p. 11). The Chernobyl accident took place exactly four weeks later
Changing energy intensities, be they for sectoral production or for entire national economies, were usually ignored by pre-1975, long-term energy forecasts. Given the U.S. dominance in energy matters there is a very plausible explanation for this crucial omission. Energy intensity of the U.S. economy peaked rather sharply around 1920, and by 2000 it was down by nearly 60%; but between 1952–1974 it remained remarkably stable, fluctuating by less than 5% around the period’s mean and ending up only about 7% lower (fig. 3.19; EIA 2001e). This constancy suggested, wrongly, an immutable long-term link between energy consumption and wealth creation and it accounts for many exaggerated forecasts of the U.S. energy demand prepared during the 1970s
We know that abiogenic hydrocarbons are present on other planetary bodies, on comets and in galactic space. On the Earth hydrogen and carbon under high temperatures and pressures of the outer mantle can form readily hydrocarbon molecules, and the stable ones among them will ascend into the outer crust. All of those unmistakably biogenic molecules in hydrocarbons can be easily produced by the metabolism of underground bacteria present in the topmost layers of both continental and oceanic crust
Blue Energy Canada (2001) is now promoting the use of new submerged or surface-piercing Davis turbines that would be suspended from tidal bridges. Slowmoving blades of these turbines would pose little danger to marine life and would cope better with silt flows. The company predicts low capital cost ($1,200/kW for large facilities) and high capacity factors (40–60%) and it believes that the global potential to be exploited by this technique is more than 450 GW. Its first large design is for the Dalupiri plant built across the San Bernardino Strait in the Philippines whose 274 Davis turbines would have a peak capacity of 2.2 GW. Any meaningful assessments of this technique will have to wait for its commercial applications