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Energy, Technology, and Policy across the Pond

As a British native I would like to write briefly on what is happening on the other side of the pond in terms of Energy, Technology and Policy, and in particular the reduction of Carbon Dioxide emissions. This is obviously of great interest to me but I also believe it is very useful as a comparison to the US.

The United Kingdom has a population of around 60million, around 20% that of the US.  In 2006 the UK was Consuming 9802 Quadrillion Btu of Energy a year, this represents 10% of US consumption of 99856 Quadrillion Btu of Energy in 2006. This was broken down by 1738 thousand barrels of Petroleum per day (US: 20,680), 74.21 short tons of Coal per year (US 1,112.39) and 3,202 billion cubic year (US: 21,653).  While per person use in the UK is less this post is not designed to be a tip of the hat to the UK, nor wag a finger at the US. There a lots of reasons for the lower energy usage, milder climate in both winter and summer, higher gas prices,a  more dense population on a national and city level, an economy with very little heavy industry and factory production, and a smaller GDP per person help to  contribute to a lower consumption level. However even despite this the UK is still 9th largest consumer of fossil fuel energy in the world, and as such is a significant part in reducing global carbon usage.

In attempting to reduce Carbon emissions the UK has many physical limitations when compared to the US. Utility scale Solar is a non-starter with regular cloud coverage across the UK rendering Solar thermal impossible and Solar PV of limited use. This leaves wind, wave, and tidal as the main opportunities in the UK, which as an Island nation there are plenty of resources. However there are further constraints on Wind as there is very little undeveloped land in the UK and many of the windiest locations in the UK are in protected national parks. This leaves offshore wind as the biggest opportunity, along with wave and tidal energy. Offshore wind, wave, and tidal have their own problems as they are inherently difficult to engineer and as such is proving expensive to get to scale, however the UK does have expertise in drilling for Oil and Gas in the North Atlantic and hope to transfer these skills in installing these projects.

The UK has signed up to the European renewable energy directive in 2006, which requires them15% of their energy usage  to be from renewable by 2020. In response to this the recently re-branded UK ‘Department for Energy and Climate change’ published  its Renewable Energy strategy in 2009. This detailed how it expected the UK to achieve 15% of energy usage to be from renewable sources.  To achieve this over 240 TWh will have to be produced from renewables by 2015.

This will be achieved 49% in electricity production, 30 % from heat, and 21% from transport fuel. The biggest portions of this will be from offshore and onshore wind and renewable transportation (Hybrids).

The UK, will leverage its expertise in drilling for offshore oil and gas in the North atlantic to install off shore wind installations on both the West and East coasts of England. By 2015 it is hoped that over 5GW of electricity will be produced by offshore wind installations. With a further round of installations hoping to take that to 10GW by 2020.

There is however hope that we will be able to develop both wave and tidal power at significant scale with 2GW of installed capacity in the Ocean by 2020.

If they are successful the UK is hoping to make significant reductions in the use of fossil fuel usage over the next 20 years to the extent that there will be around a 30% reduction in Gas and Coal and 10% reduction in Oil.

With the failure of the Copenhagen summit to produce a binding agreement, it is going to be up to individual states to manage their own carbon reductions. The UK seems to have a plan to make significant reductions, however the plan also illustrates how carbon emission reduction can only achieved slowly over time. The sheer scale of the reductions being targeted by states such as California is put into perspective by this plan. It also illustrates how different parts of the world require different solutions and technology in order to be able to make these reductions.

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Is Ammonia the transportation fuel of the future?

Over the last 100 years, petroleum fuels have dominated due to their high energy content, relative ease of storage, and their abundance.  The age of abundant oil is ending, however, and while the new finds seem to be fewer and farther between, the demand for petroleum fuels has only increased.  The coming scarcity is obvious to many, and while some debate how much oil still exists, nearly everyone agrees that we will reach a point when petroleum will no longer be a viable source of fuel.  While there is agreement on the eventual end of petroleum fuels, there has not been any real consensus on what will be the new power source of all transportation.   Many potential alternatives have been proposed, from corn-derived ethanol to hydrogen, but there are prohibitive problems with nearly all of these methods.  One interesting alternative that has not received much attention, is the use of ammonia as a liquid fuel.

Ammonia, which has the chemical composition of NH3, can be combusted with oxygen to produce nitrogen gas and water.  The reaction is exothermic, and while ammonia’s energy content is about half that of gasoline, the fact that its combustion produces only nitrogen gas and water makes it’s use as a fuel increasingly attractive as CO2 regulation becomes more likely.

I attended a symposium on offshore wind in Houston recently, put on by the Ocean Energy Institute, and one of the speakers spoke of the potential to use ammonia as a transportation fuel, and ammonia production as a means of energy storage.   His proposal centers on using off-peak power from massive offshore wind turbines to run water desalinization plants, and then strip the hydrogen from the purified water to combine with nitrogen to create ammonia.  The draw of this proposal is that it will make use of the typically unwanted off-peak power to produce pure water and ammonia, both of which are already in high demand today.

Is this too good to be true?  Well, no, not really, but there are several hurdles that must be overcome before we are driving around in ammonia powered vehicles.  First,  while ammonia production is already over 150 million tones per year, most of that is produced through either natural gas, and it is mostly used for fertilizers.   Since current ammonia production utilizes fossil fuels, using what we have now as a fuel would not really be any ‘greener’, so the first step is developing commercial-scale ammonia plants that require only electricity, water, and N2 (from air) as inputs.  By using only these three inputs, all of which can be theoretically produced by renewable power, then the cycle becomes carbon-free.  I believe this is not nearly as simple as it sounds, but I do think it is well within our capabilities as a society. While the production of ammonia would have to be scaled up by about a factor of 10, the up-side is that we already know and understand how to store and transport ammonia safely and economically.  Ammonia is a gas at room temperature, but it does compress into a liquid at around 125psia, which makes it much more user-friendly than hydrogen gas.  Ammonia can also be combusted in traditional internal combustion engines with only minor modifications required, which is a huge benefit considering there are over 250 million cars in the US alone.

Overall, I believe that without breakthroughs in electrical storage technologies, liquid fuels will remain the best choice for powering transportation vehicles.  The portability, power density, ease of refueling, and ease of storage is what makes gasoline and diesel and other liquid fuels so popular, and why finding a sustainable fuel replacement is so vital.  Is ammonia the fuel of the future?  It is very possible, but only time will tell.

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Offshore wind energy – Cape Wind vs Visual Impacts

(photo courtesy of Cape Wind – link in test below)

Cape Wind and Associates proposes to build a 130 –turbine, 420MW wind farm in the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound.  (http://www.capewind.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=Sections&file=index&req=viewarticle&artid=24&page=1 )

There are a number of offshore wind projects in various stages of proposal development and permitting, but this project is the furthest along.  If it is permitted it will be the first offshore wind farm to begin construction in the United States.  The arduous permitting process began in 2001 and the project received a mostly favorable Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) last year.(http://www.mms.gov/federalregister/PDFs/NoticeofAvailabilityoffinalEISfortheproposedCapeWindEnergyProject.pdf )  However, the project has not been approved; it faces one last hurdle.

The remaining issue is concern about the “adverse visual effects to 29 properties evaluated as eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places” [FEIS Federal Register notice link above].   Since the FEIS was published, the National Park Service has determined that these properties are eligible for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, which prompted the Minerals Management Service to open a public comment period.( http://www.mms.gov/ooc/press/2010/press0122.htm ) The public comment period ended on Friday and Department of Interior Secretary Salazar hopes to reach a final decision about the project in April, according to the Cape Wind website (linked to above).

The issue of aesthetic impacts is not new to offshore wind projects.  According to Cape Wind’s website the issue of visual impacts was the central point of opposition to a 1995 project in Denmark because citizens thought the turbines would disturb the coast and cause the coastal property values to fall.  That project was built and those fears have turned out to be unfounded.  (http://www.capewind.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=Sections&file=index&req=viewarticle&artid=9&page=1 ).  Also, their website shows several simulations of what the project would look like from nearby shorelines and states that the project would appear one-half inch above the horizon from the closest beach.  (Click the previous link to see them.)

As a society we are going to have to decide how we want our future to be shaped and then move in that direction.  I know such things never will be unanimous, but if we want renewable power then people are going to have to consider looking at things like distant wind turbines that appear an inch or less above the horizon.  Is this is too much of a sacrifice for clean, renewable wind power which is more continuous that onshore wind and naturally matches up with times of peak demand?   My conclusion: I think this is a reasonable trade-off.

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