ENERGY – What does the future hold?

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ENERGY – What does the future hold?

There is much debate today about energy, whether it be renewables versus fossil fuels, nuclear, or the Armageddon view that by 2020 the lights will go out. I find these debates emotionally charged, and far from any form of reality.

Having been invited to express my views on the future for energy as someone engaged in energy in one form or another all of my working life I would like to expand these arguments and attempt to present a more sober and objective view of the energy requirements of the future, and how mankind, in its perpetual thirst for discovery, will most certainly overcome, and indeed it will be our contempt of the forces of ‘mother earth’ that are likely to prove the more formidable than anything that the consumptive excesses of mankind can create. So let me move away from the typical discussion about energy and take a more controversial, or as someone remarked, a ‘Clarkson approach’ to the future of energy.

Let us start with a short trip back into the 18th century to the start of the industrial revolution. Prior to this time wood had been the main source of energy in Britain, used for fuel in homes and small industries. But as the population grew, so did the demand for timber. As forests were cut down, wood had to be carried further to reach the towns. It was bulky and difficult to transport and therefore expensive.

Coal was the fuel which kick-started the Industrial Revolution – and Britain was very fortunate to have plenty that could be easily mined. Coal is a much more potent form of power, providing up to three times more energy than wood. Political, economic and intellectual conditions would all contribute, but at the heart of the industrial revolution was our use of this new and abundant energy source. Throw in the thoughts of Isaac Newton for good measure and we have the transformation to make the world in which we live today. Indeed coal is still in use today, some 250 years later, and there are still vast reserves throughout the world.

Since then we have developed oil and gas as energy sources, and yet again, and contrary to the view of the doomsayers, there are still substantial reserves of both. Experts in the USA are now stating that fracking for oil and gas in the USA will make the USA self-sufficient for at least another 100 years, and energy prices in the USA are already reduced by some 20%. It would appear that fracking will realise substantial supplies of oil & gas in the United Kingdom and many other countries.

So what are the issues that will determine the energy requirements of the future?

  • The impact of the continued use of fossil fuels
  • The development of renewable/clean energy generation
  • The (increasing) demand for energy
  • The Malthusian controversy (population increase)
  • New technologies

We are told that carbon emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels are causing global warming and/or adverse climate change. As a nuclear physicist by training at the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, and working on such projects as fission control in fuel element tubes in nuclear reactors, flow dynamics of oil and gas throw pipelines in different climatic conditions, and nuclear geophysics techniques for the in-field analysis of boreholes in the search for minerals, oil and gas I am used to public outcry at new technologies – my first University degree course had to be renamed Physical Electronics to avoid the onslaught from Michael Foot and his ‘Ban the Bomb’ movement.

One project that I was aware of in those days, and still persists in the shadows, is the attempts by scientists to alter our weather. We are all aware of the use of cloud seeding by the Russians in the Communist era to prevent rain on their May Day parades, and even by the Chinese during the 2008 Olympics. The story is far bigger. The first such experiments were an attempt to change the fierce weather patterns in the Bay of Biscay because of the continued loss of shipping – indeed I vaguely remember that Lloyds of London may have been a sponsor. Later the computer simulations moved to a reliable irrigation of sub-Sahara – the common view of recent heavy snowfall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is that it is not the result of climate change from greenhouse gasses. Then we have the urgent desire in Australia to irrigate the mineral rich outback of Australia so that these massive reserves can be exploited – could this explain the recent severe flooding in regions of Australia.

The earth’s climate has been significantly affected by the planet’s magnetic field that could challenge the notion that human emissions are responsible for global warming. “Our results show a strong correlation between the strength of the earth’s magnetic field and the amount of precipitation in the tropics,” claim the two Danish geophysicists behind the study, Mads Faurschou Knudsen and his colleague Peter Riisager of the geology department at Aarhus University in western Denmark.

Actually changing weather conditions is well within the power of man as this involves disturbing the earth’s magnetic field in the depths of the oceans where weather patterns are determined. However the vast array of variables in the equations have to be reduced to a manageable level of primary, secondary and tertiary impact, discounting the lesser impact variables, as decided by man, to facilitate ‘solutions’ that should work – or maybe not. All of this experimentation is undertaken with good intention, but……………..

Then we have the problem of the ‘eminent’ climate change scientific community, and one particular group who I refuse to give them editorial credit because of their celebrity over fact status, who wrote a critically acclaimed book in 1999 stating that the earth’s contribution (volcanic activity, etc.) was only around 1% of current greenhouse gas emissions, and have since had to revise this significant upwards over 3 subsequent revisions, and I now hear that there has been a gross miscalculation of deep sea geothermal activity contribution plus the release of once frozen methane gases from the ocean bed (as was witnessed during the recent BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico). I often wonder if the climate change scientific community are aware of the experiments described above, or even alive to the reality of the impacts due to the natural progression of ‘mother earth’.

Whilst I am prepared to accept that man is playing a part in so-called global warming I consider it disingenuous to ‘mother earth’ to think that mankind has control of their destiny on this planet. For example lurking beneath Yellowstone National Park in the USA is a massive underground reservoir of magma, capped by the park’s famous caldera, a huge reservoir of superhot liquid rock and poison which could blow at any time. USGS geologist Jake Lowenstern, scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, suggests that most damage would come from “cold ash” and pumice borne on the wind, and considers it “disasterous” when enough ash rains down that it creates a layer of 10cm or more on the ground poisoning land and waterways – and this would happen in a radius of 500 miles or so. The gasses released would have a global effect on temperatures. “Any big eruption causes a cooling of the atmosphere, especially with that much ash” claims Lowenstern. In 1812 the Mount Tambora super volcano eruption in Indonesia lowered global temperatures, and a caldera-forming eruption in Yellowstone Park would be bigger, so climate change would almost certainly follow, albeit would possibly only last for a few years.

The so-called Thera eruption of Santorini in the Aegean Sea, circa 1630 BC, left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits tens of metres deep (compare depth of ash with the above view of Lowerstern) and may have led indirectly to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 110 km (68 mi) to the south, as a result of a gigantic tsunami. A popular theory holds that the Thera eruption was such a devastating event felt thousands of miles away that is the source of the legend of the demise of Atlantis. Plato quotes Critias’ account of the legend, as told to Solon by one of the Egyptian priests:

 “Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent . . . But, there occurred violent earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of misfortune. . . the island of Atlantis . . .disappeared in the depths of the sea.”

The effect on the climate of the Northern hemisphere of the Thera eruption is being detected in tree rings as far north as the UK. Although the eruption of Santorini is recognized as one of the most explosive volcanic eruptions in historic times, the event is only a single eruption in a continuum of eruptive activity associated with subduction. The island group exhibits on-going seismic activity, and both fumaroles and hydrothermal springs are common features around these islands. It seems clear that we can expect another eruption, and we cannot rule out the possibility of another catastrophic eruption reminiscent of ~1630 BC.

Do the Earth’s volcanoes emit more CO2 than human activities? Probably not, but when a large eruption occurs the results are instant and devastating. The ecologists are speaking of a 2oC rise in temperature by 2100 from man-made global warming, but a major eruption can reduce the earth’s temperature by this much in a few weeks.

Another aspect of greenhouse gas emissions I feel worthy of note is the current debate about all automotive vehicles being compelled to use headlights during the day. If we take an average light wattage of 180 watts per car, with an average population of 4 million cars on the road throughout the day the consumption is equivalent to 720MW – a fairly large power station. Where does this energy come from – the car’s engine (burning fossil fuels). I have occasion to make trips to Switzerland and Italy by car. My preferred travel time is through the night, but returns are typically through the day. My fuel consumption increase through the night versus the day has been measured on a number of occasions and ranges between 5% – 8% of additional fuel to travel through the night. This is the additional energy requirement to power my lights. So this proposed policy not only will increase consumed fuel costs by between 5% – 8%, it also creates additional CO2 emissions equivalent to a large power station burning fossil fuels. Truly a contradictory policy.

Thus I have a cynical view of the man-made greenhouse gas/climate change argument. Indeed had I written this essay some 10,500 years ago I would have been sitting on some 30m of ice which has been melting ever since, mainly as a result of natural climate change.

Of course we must not forget the Malthusian controversy, especially if we reach the estimated planet population of some 10 billion people by 2050. Ironically I do not see this as an energy problem as far greater impacts will be the need for potable water, and the devastation to the animal kingdom.

What of future demands for energy? Propaganda suggests that energy demand will triple by 2050. I have attempted to rationalise where this multiple comes from. 20 years ago we had 100w incandescent lamps to provide lighting. This was replaced by 50w halogen lamps. Today the equivalent is an 8w LED. Think of the old cathode ray tube TV sets consuming around 400w now replaced with 60w LED TVs. When computers were first used in commercial applications in the 1970’s they required many kiloWatts to run them. Today you can have the same computer power using milliwatts of power. Thus the trend is far more function for significantly less power.

Of course there are people whose consumption of energy can only be described as blatant excess, but behaviour change is not possible with these people so ‘save energy’ propaganda or taxation will not achieve anything with such people. I know people from the most ignorant to very intelligent, but all having the common denominator of financially comfortable, and to whom there is no price/elasticity for energy. If you tripled the cost they may moan for 10 minutes, and then continue as before. But their consumption is a microcosm against total energy requirement.

What annoys me is that, in pursuit of political favour from noisy eco-voters, our politicians have allowed energy companies to extract essentially a duty from all people for so-called ‘new energy’ development. The payment of this duty includes the people struggling to pay for the energy they actually need to support their families. Instead of the Government using a more reasonable proportional taxation process they cause unnecessary hardship to many to win votes by satisfying the eco-lobby and claiming that they are not raising taxes.

So what of the future? We see a major political push in the development of so-called renewables such as wind power and solar with people seriously believing that these can be anything more than secondary or more likely tertiary energy sources. In 2012 I was asked to analyse 4 such projects for financing purposes; in the USA a 100MW solar thermal, a 60MW vertical axis wind, and a biomass still in development, and in Italy a 18MW biomass plant that had already been built, but was now for sale.

In the case of the 100MW solar thermal proposal operating cost was $56 per MWh including State ‘green’ grants, with then base load off-takes around $72 per MWh (they expected to achieve a PPA at $98 per MWh). Fracking results bought base load off-takes below $50 so no possibility of finance.

The vertical axis turbine project was interesting because it offered substantial advantages over conventional propeller-style wind turbines.  Functionality, ease of maintenance and operation, lack of electronic interference, no ground resonance, a more acceptable profile, capable of tolerating a wider range of wind speeds, quieter in operation than propeller-style turbines, and no bird or bat kills in over 12 years of turbine operations. But again this project relied on State ‘green’ grants to make it commercially viable (I am reliably informed that there are no Federal grants for ‘green’ energy in the USA). Again fracking results caused cessation of the State grants.

The biomass plant relied on an energy conversion process that had only been proven on a small scale in a university laboratory thus needed technology transfer finance. However it was clear that this technique relied on so many cost variables that no-one was interested to engage. It is also worth mentioning that I came across a number of bankrupt ethanol plants during this process.

I was invited to analyse the biomass plant in Italy as due diligence just as the investor was about to purchase it. It was already working having received grants from both the EU and the local Municipality. However the operator had taken all of the capital value out of the project, including the carbon credits, and was trying to unload the project on some unsuspecting pension fund at around an 8% yield – but only achievable if the energy subsidies on the feed-in tariffs from the Government were maintained – very unlikely. The owner realised that there was no commercial future for this plant, especially if energy prices stagnated, or reduced. The investor walked away as a result of my analysis.

I have yet to examine any such projects that are commercially viable without subsidies. The exception is waste to energy plants which, if the dioxins and heavy metal issues are properly addressed, can be a very effective use of waste.

Obviously there are a number of other fuels and technologies in the process of research and development, and I am aware of at least one energy source that has been suppressed because it provided direct competition to the majors in that it would be a cheaper fuel than petrol or diesel. This is a fuel developed by the Germans during the war, but they could not stabilise it. A group of scientists found the notes relating to this fuel in a bunker and developed a way to stabilise it such that they could use it in a conventional car engine. The waste product is water, so completely clean, and can be produced in most countries. Unfortunately all 3 of the scientist mysteriously died within 3 months of each other.

If the ecologists can win the argument then nuclear, (and hydro where possible), are the only existing sources of reliable base load clean energy. But why have we not built the reactors that we so desperately need? The anti-nuclear lobby have jumped on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster as an argument to delay the development of new generation reactors. This argument is invalid because the Japanese Government was informed by the IAEA over 10 years ago that these reactors should be de-commissioned. The Japanese economy was in dire straits so the various politicians, since the warning, criminally gambled with the lives of many through wanton negligence. Even when the tsunami triggered the incident they failed to raise the alarm in the international community to seek help that could have avoided many of the problems that subsequently occurred. Don’t blame the reactors, look to the politicians who abused the technology constraints. Those reactors worked well for years fuelling the Japanese economy. Until we have new reactors fossil fuels will reign, regardless of the environmental lobby.

The real future is in fusion. The international nuclear fusion project – known as ‘Iter’, meaning “the way” in Latin – is designed to demonstrate a new kind of nuclear reactor capable of producing unlimited supplies of cheap, clean, safe and sustainable electricity from atomic fusion. The claims are that if Iter demonstrates that it is possible to build commercially-viable fusion reactors then it could become the experiment that saves the world in a century threatened by climate change and an estimated three-fold increase in global energy demand. Of course this statement assumes much in terms of global warming and demand, but there is no doubt that this technology, once perfected, will open completely new horizons in wholesale clean energy generation.

On a final note I consider it an insult to the intelligence of our successors that people of today think that future generations will not find solutions to the problems that we face, or think we face. I appreciate that the loud retort will be ‘sustainability’ but the progress of mankind over the past 100 years has seen incredible exponential advances, and this will continue. Who is to say that some brilliant chemist will not find a digester to extract the CO2 out of the atmosphere if this proves to be a real problem. But let us first check that it is mankind who are causing the real problems, or is ‘mother nature’ relentlessly progressing through her life, and we just have to adapt.

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