26 April 2008

Looking at 'bio-fuels' and long term policy

This has been a topic I have gone over before, and will now extract the basics from previous articles and commentary given to address the problems of 'bio fuels'.  First, however, my background links to previous work:

First the outlines of an Energy Independence Policy for the US.  This gives the first glossing over to 'alternative energy sources', looking at the variety and types of production involved.  Wind, tidal, solar, Geothermal, biomass, and traditionals like coal, oil and natural gas all get looked at.  I then set the criteria for what a good energy source would look like:

  1. Renewable. Self-renewing is better and somewhat efficient in conversion capability.
  2. Continuous. 24/7 is optimal.
  3. Low maintenance cost. You don't want to have to keep worrying about the conversion area and tinkering it all the time.
  4. Do-able with modern technology. No additional wheels need to be invented.
  5. Low cost per conversion unit. You want a nice low cost to power ratio.
  6. Relatively low up-front cost for startup. To get at any renewable you will need to push hard to get an industrial base going to support it for large-scale deployment.

Each of the 'alternatives' suffer in 1-6 as compared to the sunk cost of the infrastructure for traditionals and cost of conversion.  This does tease out, however, areas that are not readily considered when looking at the energy formula.  The general end result is that of Gerard K. O'Neill's Princeton group from 1968 which utilized then known technology to proposed a space based solar power satellite system, along with orbiting manufacturing and lunar mining industries.  That is a long, 30-50 year transformation, but offers the ability for very low cost energy gathering with the bonus of getting industrial capacity out of the biosphere and into the vacuum of space.

My second article utilizes the purely mechanical view given by Popular Mechanics on the transformation of biomass to useable energy source.  Each of the major biofuels examined have costs and problems in production efficiency, transport, storage and needing to either add in a new infrastructure for such things or having to seriously upgrade all parts of the old one.  The startling conclusion is that any biomass system converts, at best, 10% of sunlight into useful end energy product. 

The problem is that this high overhead system of crop production, transport, reduction to fuel and such is negatively comparable to something like solar cells:  solar cell arrays have low maintenance cost and the work (currently unexamined) of nanosolar utilizing roll-fed offset presses, is changing the cost of production and ability to place large amounts of solar-electric systems cheaply. 

Each of the bio-alternatives of methanol and ethanol require large investments in production and delivery systems, particularly as both are highly corrosive in the current gasoline/diesel pipes.  Your vehicle won't notice it much, but the fittings in ships and pipelines will all need to be overhauled for this work. 

Natural gas is a little better, having a set system for compression and transport... save for the problem of driving around a fuel-air explosive vehicle, it isn't that bad.  Biodiesel looks better but here, again, the conversion ratio is still under 10%, even with better per-unit energy storage as compared to the ethanol/methanol systems, the actual output percentage is still low.

Direct electricity is running out of the large scale production areas (hydroelectric) and can be usefully changed over to third or fourth generation nuclear plants which have none of the problems of first and second generation plants.  That is a multi-year to multi-decade investment, depending upon current environmental laws and the NIMBY/BANANA problem.

Hydrogen would be excellent if it didn't have to be cracked from water and that energy input is high as compared to resultant energy of hydrogen itself.  Fuel cells are very efficient and need newer capabilities to scale up for industrial use, which currently is a 'slow-go' arena.

In an add-on article to look at Iowa's subsidies for corn to ethanol conversion, I cover the algae to oil concept in the commentary.  While it is sound technology, the company that bought the patent, DeBeers, is not known for its industrial might in the energy sector but for diamonds.  It being on patent, the company can do as it pleases for the length of that (with any extensions) short of government fiat to take the patent away.  The main problem with algae-oil production is the high cost of manufacture and the slow rate of manufacture.  Even at the steepest ramp up of production one can imagine, cross-licensing it to every major industrial concern on the planet and getting these systems retrofitted into industrial plants, the ability to get the US *current* oil needs met is measured in DECADES.  While it sounds like wonderful technology and it *is* those production concerns along with comparison of amount of output to current input needs yields a curve well beyond 2030 for a purely terrestrial and continued polluting oil source.  Short of Communist or Fascist take-over of that industry, and the resultant problems with that, nothing will get that done faster than the best possible timeline for it.

The third article of mine is a Stop-Gap Energy Policy that addresses the gap between current systems and the future one proposed in the first article.  Here government plays little role in subsidizing industry and plays a larger role in setting up goals and objectives for industry to get to, along with incentives and guaranteed short-term contracts.  It is this system that was used to help offer incentives to the aircraft industry back in the 1910-1940 timeframe.  There government offered contracts for air mail delivery with bonuses for timeliness over given distances and for bulk carrier operations.

Utilizing that outlook, then, government can offer things like 'X-Prizes' for each of categories of need for long term energy self-sufficiency.  This is also not a 'first past the post' system, and encourages multiple organizations to reach goals via different means and even incentivizes *that*.  America cannot be stuck with a sole-source method of energy production, transport or storage and in each of these realms there is a high need to shift from current, costly infrastructure, to one of low cost and easy deployability.

The incentive areas include: Biomass, Solar Conversion, Space Based Power Generation and Transmission, Superconductors, Nanotechnology.  Each of these is given incentives and guaranteed contracts for the creation, transport and storage of energy, plus incentives to form the foundation of a purely space-based private industry.  The goal of moving polluting industries out of the biosphere and to economically transition to an majority electric system will be neither easy nor fast, but by offering incentives and rewards the government can play the more traditional role of standards-setting and reward for performance that gave us the modern aviation industry.

The second area of the stop gap is current production and refining of petroleum based fuels.  The US has not allowed a new refinery to be built in the US since 1976, which beats Iran in that area.  One of the main bottlenecks for refined fuels is doing the actual refining and the US has been slacking in that area.  Production, too, has been slacking, and the new Bakken formation in the Dakota's along with the oil shales of the Colorado to Montana realm, both offer opportunities now that new technology has made those conversions economical.  Also, the continental shelf has had no new wells drilled for decades, even though Cuba, which shares North American shelf space, has had a viable industry of getting foreign concerns to drill for oil on the Shelf.  As modern systems are cleaner, safer and more efficient than those railed against in the 1970's, the concerns of environmental groups should be lessened.

To address refining the US Government can offer polluted lands under its custodial care to those companies willing to pay a pittance for rent, in return for a guaranteed 99 year clean-up.  By adhering to State regulations and waiving federal regulations for land that is *already polluted* companies can be given an incentive to quickly stand up new infrastructure and research while doing a public good of environmental clean-up that the US Government has been unable to do.

That outlook is to shift away from a majority petroleum based infrastructure and to one of electricity based infrastructure.  Advances in electrostatic contained fusion, also offer a strong way forward for this, and New Mexico will be building the first ever reactor of that kind with help from public and government funds.  This does not obviate the need, however, for better storage and transmission of electricity, itself, to slowly shift away from chemical based systems to ones aligned with superconductive or nanoscale electrical storage.  Nor will fusion or 3rd to 4th generation fission plants address the concerns of industrial production in the biosphere, which has been a constant problem of mankind since the first tanneries were set up in ancient times.  With X-Prize systems already in place for the space based side, the US can augment those and add new prizes for set cargo and turnaround time to Low Earth Orbit all the way to Geostationary Orbit and Lunar deployment and return.  In many areas of basic manufacturing, adding in robotics and removing gravity both remove the need for human based labor for production and as the sunk cost of orbital plants is spread over decades if not centuries, due to lack of environmental damage and maintenance (replaced with lower ones of solar radiation repair and maintenance) the overall system cost is low with the start-up cost being high.  As O'Neill's class postulated, once the basic infrastructure is in place the cost of expansion is miniscule compared not only to the original sunk cost, but to the same marginal cost on Earth.

What is seen, then, is not an argument about 'climate change' but the long-term sustainability of the US and the entire human species by shifting industry, power generation and, more slowly, habitat, to off-planet foundations.  A forward and future looking energy policy must address the fundamentals of not only the use and storage of energy, but its prime motivator, which is industry.  Human administrative needs can be addressed at lower impact if the worst part of the systems no longer impinge upon the common biosphere and are allowed to grow to meet economic needs.  That does require a basic shift away from the dichotomy of 'industry bad/environment good' to one of addressing what it is that industry *does* and seeing if it needs to be in the environment at all.  That is not, however, a yell and scream campaign about carbon dioxide but a rational discussion of what is the best way to get these things at the lowest cost to humanity while providing the maximum opportunity for human liberty.

Activism will not get you from here to there.

And you cannot get to a future that is better for everyone on the planet by trying to forever retain the things that are most criticized when they can be shifted into an arena where they will stop being a problem.

This is a program about industry, economics, energy production and consumption and the best place to put these things in a sustainable way.  Even better the US can do this without consulting ANY OTHER NATION ON THE PLANET and just DO IT and show the best way to go, which is the traditional role of the United States of America.

Stop shouting and get back to work.  Not protests, not forms, not speechifying to edify grievances, but hard, long work that will yield fruits slowly but continuously to make life better for all involved so that a longer term goal can be met.  Go out with a sign and protest and I know you care more about yourself than the planet or your fellow man.

That will be your choice this election and every election that is left until you die: give more power to government and make the problems intractable, or restrain government to a few things and let it endorse good ways to go without controlling them.  NASA is the new Amtrack, and the ability of either to innovate on the scale needed is miniscule and their outlook towards employing bureaucrats, not doing something for the common good.  Which do you want?  Government 'help' like after Katrina or the help of the American people like after the 2004 Christmas Tsunami where individual giving by the people of the US outstripped any other single giver including the US government? 

I can see where the power is in that equation.

Can you?


SwampWoman said...

Sigh. I'm in Florida, where the governor is determined to have the "greenest" energy policies of all.

He doesn't seem to understand the "it doesn't work" part. He's a Republican (I believe he belongs on the other side) and I predict that the other party will win in a landslide after his deplorable energy policies start causing even more economic hardship.

A Jacksonian said...

SW - There is no good State to be in, just less-worse ones.

Neither party can break out of the 'fixed pie, fixed asset' concept of energy policy and that will be our downfall as India can and WILL break out of it first if we don't get a moving. They are ready to go the 'high road' of power and manufacturing, and the US will be playing 'catch up' if we can...

SwampWoman said...

I am not sure that we can; the energy policies are such to discourage manufacturing in this country.

A Jacksonian said...


The space industry is only now beginning to get somewhere with NASA being slowly eased from the idea it is an agent for advancing technology. It can be for one of learning, but technology is far beyond its realm of advancing or creating. Get the government out of the way and we get a new industry... similarly, in energy, we must do that, too and link them.

Fusion, nuclear, nanosolar, SPS, space manufacturing... all of these have their own economics *if* we can keep the government down to things like 'safety standards' not 'regulation' at the price level. Government cannot solve these problems: those are for society to do.

As Paine said in Common Sense about people mistaking government and society, we are doing that and will get the natural result of tyranny. That is not a prediction, just a look at othe societies that have done that and seeing ours as little different. We are special when we trust ourselves and society, and no different from enslaved peoples if we entrust only government to solve our ills.