Predicting the future of energy sounded easy, in that major facilities such as power plants can last up to 60 to 70 years, and sources can also last decades, as well as pipelines and tankers. However, new sources of oil and natural gas, cheaper solar, new automobile fuel guidelines, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster have had a profound influence on the present and future energy picture.
In this talk we will also pay attention to: reducing pollution in the forms of smog in Southern California, the US, and in international cities; reducing CO2 greenhouse gases; avoiding water pollution from “accidents” in Gulf drilling and in pipelines through aquifers; and what the size and footprints of renewable power facilities are.
While much political heat has been generated to achieving “energy independence” for oil, in 2011 the US exported twice as much oil as previously, ending the year with oil exports being 15% of the size of our total oil usage. This is due to lower oil use in the US, partly from higher mileage cars, less driving and more use of ethanol. Oil after all is called a fungible commodity since it can be freely traded and used anywhere. The US produces lower sulfur diesel, and it is being exported to South America since the US is closer to them than oil sources in the Middle East. This has kept the price of US gasoline high, and is predicted to keep it so in the future. With this fluidity of shipping oil in the most economical way by multinational oil companies, “energy independence” doesn’t mean much. Also, our leading oil importers are Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. And our strategic reserve can last over two years if one of the other countries that are oil sources enters political difficulties and cuts production.
Canada has nearly 200 billion barrels of oil in its tar sands, though it is more expensive to extract with steam heated by natural gas. That is in addition to the present world proven reserves of about 1,200 billion barrels. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline paid for by TransCanada that runs roughly directly to the Texas and Louisiana refineries and ports would have gone through Nebraska Sand Hills aquifers. For only an additional $1 billion it can avoid these, and plans are being drafted to do that. The tar sands are in the first stage just being stripped mined, at $27 per barrel. At the present price of crude at $100 per barrel, the pipeline might ship $20 trillion worth of oil. My question is what does the US get out of this after construction? If rival Enbridge runs a westward pipeline for sales to China instead, some of that oil could also go to California for our use and for refining. However, the tanker route is through shallow and twisting fjords. Also, the natural gas being used to process the tar sands by heating may be part of California’s source of natural gas in Canada.
The Keystone XL pipeline will initially only carry 900,000 barrels a day or 330 million barrels a year. US oil usage is down now to 15 million barrels a day or about 5.5 billion barrels a year. Eventually the Canadian tar sands could be equivalent to thirty years of US oil consumption. Presently, the Keystone XL oil will only be 6% of US oil usage and 1% of world oil production. Even without the additional pipeline, rail cars and existing pipelines can bring in the oil. It probably will not significantly reduce the price of oil at its present rate of extraction. The Natural Resource Defense Council explains that bringing the Canadian oil from the present Midwest stopping point to the Gulf refineries, which are in free trade zones, will allow the oil to be exported without paying US taxes. A political question is whether the US Congress could or would impose a requirement that the oil be sold in the US. With the eventual large source of Canadian oil, drilling offshore in California, the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, or the West Florida coast plus the Atlantic Coast, with each area only supplying about 10 billion barrels, seems quite unnecessary, considering the environmental risks in these locations.
While obtaining deep-water offshore drilling leases is a major goal of the “energy independence” movement, one of the early deepwater wells, the Deepwater Horizon, was owned by BP, and operated with considerable negligence and lack of oversight, causing many billions of dollars in damage to the US Gulf shore and its businesses.
Natural Gas and Coal
A couple of years ago, it looked like natural gas expansion in the US could only be through increasing our Liquid Natural Gas tanker imports, and the possible dangers of that were being debated. Now there is plentiful natural gas in shale deposits in the East and Midwest that can be extracted by hydraulic fracturing (called fracking), or the forcing open of vertical cracks with a horizonal well by injecting water, sand and proprietary chemicals under pressure. There is a hundred years of natural gas available this way. The vision a year ago was that we could phase out coal plants and switch to natural gas, which creates only half as much greenhouse gas pollutants when burned, and avoids producing mercury, sulfuric acid rain, ash and particulates. This would have reduced the greenhouse gases produced in electricity production by 40%. However, natural gas has 25 times the greenhouse gas effect as CO2 if it leaks out anywhere in the process. Thus it must be contained at better than 4% or it will cause the same greenhouse effect or more than coal burning does. The amount of present leakage is the subject of academic debate, and the much less than 4% leakage really would have to be a requirement on plants and a test to see if it can be achieved in practice. In addition, the pollution of water sources (tap water that can be lit on fire), the unknown fracking chemicals, and the need of local water purifying plants to clean up the wastewater are causing serious challenges to the industry. New York is going to rule on this soon. President Obama is calling for reporting the chemicals being used, and also getting companies to run trucks on natural gas, with natural gas refueling highway stops.
We use about 1.1 billion tons of coal a year. The latest DOE/EIA inventory is that there are 261 billion tons of mineable coal, giving about 240 years of accessible coal in the US, if used at the current rate.
Although the Fukushima meltdown of three nuclear reactors was produced by the fourth largest earthquake and resulting Tsunami of the last 100 years, the whole East coast of Japan is on dangerous subduction faults, which have built up the island in the first place. While Japan has 54 nuclear reactors, only six are currently running, and it is being debated whether to shut those down. Germany has decided to shut down its reactors in the next decade, although they do not have any serious earthquakes. US reactors are under review with new earthquake fault surveys and retrofitting to avoid such problems and any two failure type of problems. Up until this disaster, nuclear power had been looked upon as a reliable non-polluting source of base power. The first new reactor approvals in 25 years have just been issued in the US for two reactors in Georgia at a cost of $7 billion each at a present nuclear plant site. It may be that nuclear reactors will have to avoid earthquake and tsunami zones, or be built with extra margins of safety against both hazards. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has put out a short term report after Fukushima requiring extra preparation for earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, and longer times of backup power should power blackouts occur. A future report is due with more detailed analysis and requirements for US nuclear plants. The local San Onofre plant is now prepared to operate independently for two weeks after a power shutdown.
There are 104 nuclear reactors in the US, with 5 generating power for California, and 435 in the world, generating 368 gigaWatts of power. Nuclear generates 16% of California’s electricity, 20% of US electricity, and 17% of world electricity. Next to the US, France has 58 nuclear power plants, Japan had 50, and Russia has 33. There are 63 plants under construction, with a capacity of 61 GW. 26 of these are in China, which has 16 plants. Next in construction comes Russia with 10, India with 6, and the Republic of Korea with 5.
The remarkable advance in solar power is that the price of solar cells manufactured in China has come down to one dollar a Watt. This has brought the cost of large utility scale installations down to $3 to $4 per Watt. For comparison, home rooftop solar installations at $7 per Watt cost twice as much. Solar power only has an average efficiency of 20% of peak power, due to nighttime, daily variation, seasonal variation and clouds. But the cost of a 5 billion Watt plant peak power that on average gives a billion Watts is now $15 billion or so. But this can now come close to compete with nuclear power where plants start at $7 billion dollars. The footprint of such a solar photovoltaic facility would be about 10 square miles. There are also solar thermal plants that heat up oil or liquid salts, which can last heated for a extra hours into the night and generate power through heating water to steam and using a steam generator. These have not been pursued much compared to the simplicity of deploying solar photovoltaic arrays. The Brightsource solar thermal tower plant at Ivanpah near Nevada, if scaled up to providing a gigaWatt of total energy year round of a nuclear reactor, would have 75 towers, over 3 million garage door sized mirrors, and cover 50 square miles.
Wind power is also competitive, but also fluctuates on all time scales, and only has an average output of about 33% of its peak power due to fluctuations and variations in the wind. You also have to find a windy area which is in mountain passes in the West, or in the Midwest, or offshore. To build a wind turbine array capable of generating an average power of one gigaWatt requires a thousand giant 3 megaWatt wind turbines. They also need a footprint of a football field each in order to not interfere with their neighboring wind turbines.
Since solar and wind power are so variable, they have to be backed up with expensive natural gas peaker plants, or expensive battery arrays, and need a smart grid to be able to shift power around. They also cover a large area for deployment, with environmental impacts that often cause opposition.
California has a required Renewable Portfolio Standard to reach 33% renewable power by 2030. SC Edison has close to a 20% renewable portfolio now, with geothermal being the largest contributor. Since SC Edison’s is now generating about 38% clean power including hydro and nuclear, this may increase it to about 50% clean power. The rest of the power is from natural gas which is much cleaner than coal. This decreases the usefulness of rooftop solar power for those who are seeking to be green oriented.
However, no utility can heat your home’s water in a green way, and rooftop hot water heating is much cheaper than solar electric installations, with solar hot water costing only about $7,000 per home, and with government rebates funding half of that. In China, $200 is enough for a solar water heater, and their goal for 2020 is 300 million square meters of solar water heating installed. Israel has 0.79 square meters per person, while the US has only 0.01 square meters per person.
In the US we are really only in the first decade of taking seriously the greenhouse gas threat. Since simple coal and natural gas only have an efficiency of 1/3 due to the old steam generator production of electricity, any energy you can save pays off threefold in the greenhouse gases generated. Since solar cells are only 15% efficient in converting direct sunlight, any use of natural sunlight for light or warmth pays off seven fold. Better insulation saves natural gas for heating. In the US, 86% of power is lost from doing useful work.
The efficiency of natural gas plants can be greatly improved by using the plants to also heat water for air conditioning or hot water. Thus installing local plants for a campus of buildings or a city center pays off. Individual building size units to generate electricity and heat also pays off.
Water also requires power, especially in Southern California where a lot of our water comes from hundreds of miles away and must by piped over mountain passes to get here. Water conserving practices also lessen our overall power needs.
These steps will follow naturally just by being more economical, apart from their usefulness in avoiding pollution. The costs of conservation are only one half the costs of fuel use and power by not conserving.
There are new fuel economy standards for 2025 that will bring the auto and small truck average to 54.5 mpg. There are many exceptions to this to allow consumers and automakers to keep up the same ratios of large vehicles as they have now, although all will be improved in mileage standards. The actual average will be about 43 mpg, up from the 27 mpg now. This will be a reduction of 37% in fuel usage and CO2 pollution from the auto sector.
While public transportation has difficulty covering as broadly spread out an area as Southern California, my hope is that with the new generation of socially networked citizens, car pooling will become more common. It saves on car costs, gasoline, parking, and allows access to carpool lanes. It effectively doubles, triples or quadruples the mpg per person, and beats out hybrids or electric cars at no extra cost.
This reduced fuel usage will be especially important for Southern California, where we will cut the production of smog composed from NOx, sulfates, particulates, and ozone. We currently are out of compliance with smog standards something like 150 days a year, with Houston being a close second. These cause problems for many, especially those with asthma, exacting a price in hospitalizations, deaths, and lost work hours. The new standards for diesel trucks are most important, since that is where much of the particulates come from.
So this summary cannot be so much a forecast as it is a summary of still to be resolved difficulties and potential progress in energy.