June 2016 /// Vol 237 No. 6

Columns

Energy issues

The reality of alternative energy

William J. Pike, World Oil

The population of the world has more than doubled in the past 50 years. So has the demand for, and consumption of, energy. Over that period of rapid growth, the proportion of that consumed energy attributed to fossil fuel has remained fairly steady, falling only about 6%. A portion of that slight drop is due to a fall in global coal consumption. Fossil fuels still provide more than 80% of the energy we use today, and that is in spite of the increasing rhetoric regarding the imminent switch to alternative energies.

I am quite candid when I lecture on energy options at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. When the discussion turns to alternative energies, I tell the audience that I am in favor of them, with a few caveats—well, maybe more than a few. These caveats were substantiated in a paper that I recently found by Dr. M. J. Kelly, professor of physics at Cambridge University. Appearing in MRS Energy and Sustainability: A Review Journal (Materials Research Society, 2016), the article was entitled “Lessons from Technology Development and Sustainability.”

In the publication, Kelly notes, “the first oil price shocks in the 1970s were the trigger for the start of intensive R&D associated with what are today’s first-generation renewables: solar, wind, tidal, and wave power, together with the range of cultivated biofuels from grasses to algae. Together, they produce less than 1% of the world’s energy, and we are now halfway between the 1970s and 2050s, by which time the 80% decarbonization project is supposed to be completed.”

That gives you a sense of where we are in alternative energies. Significant decarbonization will not happen any time soon, and certainly not by 2050. The question is, why? The answer is that it does not make any sense financially, technically or environmentally. Alternate technology by alternate technology, here are the reasons:

Biofuels: The problem with biofuels is that they are not economically viable. To compete with fossil-based fuels, they have to have significant subsidies. A 2009 article by Doug Koplow at Earth Track, Inc., predicted that biofuel tax credits, tariffs and mandates in the U.S., alone, would total $420 billion in federal subsidies to the biofuels sector between 2008 and 2022. It is those subsidies, alone, that allow biofuels to be competitive cost-wise.

Interestingly enough, another study—published in 2014, in Energy Policy (Grafton, et. al., Elsevier, volume 68, May 2014, p. 550-555)—failed to identify any contribution to the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels. To the contrary, the report noted that results indicate that subsidies for first-generation biofuels, which yield a low level of per-unit CO2 emission reduction compared to fossil fuels, might have contributed to additional net CO2 emissions over the study period. Most countries in the developed world now have, and have had, biofuel subsidies programs. Some, such as those in the UK and Europe, are much more vigorous than U.S. subsidies.

Wind Power: I live in Texas, the most intensive wind energy state in the U.S. I have driven past miles and miles of windmills generating power. They are an eyesore, whether they are turning or not. Some of the time they aren’t, and no power is being generated. When they are turning, they are noisy. And, it takes a lot of windmills to produce electricity in large amounts, although these amounts may not measure well against traditional generating plant output. The second-largest wind farm in the U.S. produces 781.5 MW of power per day. A large, but by no means the largest, coal-fired plant may produce 2 GW by comparison.

Photovoltaic: Now, this is a cool idea, if you live in a fairly flat place with reliable amounts of sunshine, and you are not living by a dirt road. The site needs to be fairly flat to capture the full amount of sunlight each day, and it needs to be in an arid environment. Rainy, cloudy days don’t support good electrical generation. And that dirt road? It will cover your photovoltaic array with dust, reducing generation capacity. When you are ready to get rid of the panels, be careful. They generally contain some pretty nasty, non-environmental chemicals and components.

Geothermal: This is my favorite option. It combines a bit of oil and gas technology in a novel, HSE-compliant generating system. First, a “hot rock” reservoir is located—really hot. An injection and a production well are then drilled into the formation. Clean water is subsequently circulated down the injection well, through the hot formation and out the production well as steam. The steam is used to turn a turbine which, in turn, drives a generator. The steam exits the turbine into a condenser, which converts it into clean water again for another cycle. The technology is clean, efficient and self-sustaining, at least until the reservoir cools to the point that it can no longer turn the water into steam.

The largest problem with this alternative generation source is whether the locations of hot reservoirs are close enough to the surface, so that an expensive set of wells is not required. In the U.S., as in other parts of the world, these shallow reservoirs are in short supply and not necessarily located in proximity to the demand for their product.

There are a number of other alternative power options out there. Unfortunately, they generally don’t do any better than biofuels, wind, photovoltaic or geothermal. So, let’s be rational. We would very much like alternative energy. But in all cases, the costs have got to come down, the reliability has to go up, and the environmental impacts have to be mitigated. Until then, hydrocarbons will remain the answer. Sorry. wo-box_blue.gif

The Authors ///

William J. Pike has 47 years’ experience in the upstream oil and gas industry, and serves as Chairman of the World Oil Editorial Advisory Board.

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