Energy Sources & Demand Sectors
Interstate High Speed Rail Energy Sources must be Renewable to maximize benefits of the system. Continued burning of coal and oil at 2020 levels is a global nightmare. Though natural gas is replacing most coal-powered electric plants, we must ramp-up renewable energies as replacements for coal and oil to meet our growing electricity demand. Nuclear power plants are not immune from the transition either. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
The scope of this series is America’s conversion from oil-powered cars and jets that traveling 5-500 miles to electric-powered rapid transit and high speed trains. Since the latter greatly increase electricity demand, a brief examination of Fuel Sources for the changing Electric Energy sector provides insight to the why, how & when.
Electric High Speed Trains and Rapid Transit are only two solutions among dozens needed to avoid a climate crisis by 2050. Trevor Noah’s video interview of Bill Gates on this subject is a good starting point to understand mankind’s great challenge to avert a climate crisis.
Based on the latest available U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data and as Part 3 of this series explains, America no longer has time to let market forces gradually transition away from Fossil Fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). We must diligently move to Renewable Energies (wind, solar, biofuels, hydroelectric, geothermal) and adapt Nuclear Energy too.
In more specific terms, America needs to transition in 5-10% chunks each 5-10 years away from Coal and Oil towards Wind and Solar energies. Our Transportation sector must transition its fuel source from 90% Petroleum to 95% Renewable Energies by 2050.
With strategic planning and financial aid from American government, private industries have already proven that they will co-invest in technologies to speed those energy transitions.
Coal, The Biggest Danger
Nothing is more environmentally damaging and toxic than mining and burning coal. Due to its high concentration of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, sulphur dioxide, air particulates, volatile organic compounds and mercury emissions, it is better described as “Dirty Coal.”
Dirty Coal consumption by China and America still makes us the world’s two largest contributors to air pollution.
Nuclear, Wind and Solar energy are Near-Zero life-cycle GHG emission sources of scalable energy. Another Renewable Energy, Hydroelectric, is not far behind them. As sourced from OurWorldInData.org, here’s how Coal, Oil, Natural Gas, the least polluting Biofuel compare to Wind energy over a life-cycle of GHG emissions:
• Coal produces 204 times more GHG than Wind
• Oil produces 180 times more GHG than Wind
• Natural Gas produces 123 times more GHG than Wind
• Biofuel produces 20 times more GHG than Wind
Every advanced nation has evaluated technologies for so called “Clean Coal.” Even if Clean Coal Technologies reduced GHG emissions by 40%, as some suggest, Coal would still be a disaster for the environment and Global Warming.
The conclusion of their governments and independent scientists is that the long-term economic and environmental costs of Clean Coal are non-viable compared to Natural Gas, Nuclear and Renewable Energy alternatives. Since the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, signatory nations have committed to replace Coal with Renewable Energies by 2050. In my opinion, America’s energy priority should be to eliminate coal extraction and consumption by 2030.
The Rise of Risky Oil
“Cheap Oil” is easily accessible oil and close to the surface. America’s Cheap Oil is so depleted that a majority of domestic oil is now extracted from deeper, environmentally-risky places, including from shale miles below large underground water aquifers. If a major accident occurs at the aquifer level, it will be another catastrophe.
Thats why is deep underground and deep underwater oil, is better called “Risky Oil.”
BP’s Risky Oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico was a wake-up call. No one can prove that another catastrophe won’t occur deep underwater or deep underground. Companies and governments can only lower risks associated with Risky Oil via a safety-valve cutover well, vigilant safety operations and rigorous federal safety inspections.
America’s second energy priority should be to eliminate oil consumption from Transportation sector, excluding jets, cargo ships and cruise ships by 2040. The latter transport modes will need a mix of oil, biofuel and battery energy for some time to come. Airlines should also pay carbon offsets for their GHG and smog emissions.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Natural Gas
Some people want you to believe Natural Gas is a viable energy solution well beyond 2050. Even if Carbon Capture Technologies cut Carbon Dioxide from Natural Gas by 40%, don’t believe them.
Natural gas requires risky work to extract from underground. After natural gas is extracted from the ground, it is treated to remove hydrogen sulfide, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and moisture to form commercial-grade methane gas used for cooking & heating. America has abundant natural gas and a British Thermal Unit (BTU) of energy from natural gas is currently cheaper than a BTU from coal, oil, biofuel, wind, solar and nuclear energy — if you don’t exclude the environmental costs.
The environmental costs of natural gas is high because all the easy to access natural gas has been extracted. Now companies are pursuing Risky Natural Gas via hydraulic fracturing called “fracking”. Its an industrial process that pumps pressurized sand and toxic chemicals thousands of feet underground, then snakes out horizontally to break up miles of shale rock to release vast quantities of natural gas.
The next stage of fracking sucks out natural gas and the toxic chemical-sand residue to the surface. That sludge has to be stored somewhere.
Fracking proponents are correct to claim that well-constructed and well-operated fracking plants are safe. Natural gas fracking also produces many good paying jobs.
If we don’t reduce the rate of fracking for Risky Natural Gas, we’ll be more dependent on that Fossil Fuel to 2070, if not longer. That’s particularly bad news because all fracking companies do not operate at high environmental standards and several state governments are partly to blame.
In their rush to create jobs, several states give tax breaks to attract more fracking activity. As a result, wildcat companies joined in the fracking bonanza. From the long history of oil wells, we’ve learned that wildcatters often cut safety corners to maximize profits. Improper well seals letting small gas leaks reach the surface are common. As more wildcatters exploit lax and inconsistent state standards for well seals and back-up systems, the probability of accidents causing a big gas leak into aquifers or large surface area increases.
It’s no secret. The oil & natural gas industry prefers less federal fracking regulation. After watching the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe that required the federal government to both clean-up and fine BP, more people believe we must have tougher federal standards and inspection of this industry to prevent a fracking catastrophe.
For example, one best practice for deep underwater wells is to have a second emergency pipeline that can cut-over to limit oil spills. For that reason, some nations require a dual emergency pipeline for wells too deep for divers to reach. Periodic, but rigorous federal inspection would insure that the safety and cut-over procedures work, thereby preventing catastrophes.
Even though fracking closer to the surface has been around for decades, there are gold, silver and bronze standards of operation. Given the risks of Risky Natural Gas and Risky Oil, America needs a better funded EPA to ensure that all fracking operates at a gold standard. Those who can’t make money operating at the gold standard, need to shut down.
Fracking has been linked to earthquakes. Fracking got so out of hand that Oklahoma lawmakers issued a new law to reduce it. That is why I argue that fracking should not be done within a 300-mile radius of a major earthquake fault. In other words, there should be no fracking in fault-riddled California, Oregon and Washington.
Considering that corner-cutting by BP or its contractors triggered the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe and BP got hit with a $30 billion fine, the industry should view federal fracking fees and inspections as a Cost of Doing Business. After all, an underground fracking catastrophe without knowing who caused it could devastate the entire industry.
Nextgen Nuclear Safe for Replacements, But Partially Scaleable
Due to two meltdowns and a near meltdown at nuclear power plants and the nasty business of where to store spent radioactive fuel rods, I have harbored a strong bias against nuclear energy for decades. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown caused by tsunami reenforced that bias. But I try to keep an open mind about potential solutions from unconventional places.
By 2010, I questioned my bias based on technology and safety advances of Nextgen Nuclear Plants that are smaller, require less cooling water, prevent meltdowns without human intervention, and reprocess spent radioactive fuel rods from early generation reactors.
No nation was enjoying those advantages more than France. That nation was producing 75% of its electricity for these advantages:
• The Gold Standard limiting GHG & Smog emissions
• Allows France to shutdown all coal power plants by 2022
• Allows France to export less money for foreign oil & natural gas
• Enables France to import money by selling excess electricity to neighbors
• Allows France to reprocess uranium from nuclear bombs in Nextgen Nuclear Reactors
My old bias against nuclear energy was reenforced when Japan’s earthquake-tsunami-nuclear plant meltdown occurred in 2011. No man-made protection could enable the coastal Fukushima nuclear plant to withstand a tsunami.
But every month since 2012, I’ve been reading about glacier melts, sea level rise, ocean temperature increases, more powerful hurricanes and more animal extinctions. A standard line when talking about Bucket List Items in the travel business is, you better take that Alaskan cruise before all the glaciers melt. That line should be funny, but isn’t.
Since 2005, Americans have witnessed the trend of more powerful hurricanes. Climatologists have not declared that Global Warming is increasing the number of hurricanes, but they have confirmed it’s making hurricanes more powerful. Global Warming is also making floods, droughts and wildfires more frequent.
Then I recalled the Great USA Flood of 1993 causing the Mississippi River to crest 45-50 feet high. That was similar to a 50-year flood. If we don’t slow our rate of Global Warming, many climatologists forecast that 50-year floods may become 10-year floods by 2050.
These tragic events alert us to critical safety questions about nuclear power plants. Can all U.S. nuclear power plants withstand a 50-year flood or hurricane? Are they located away from earthquake and tsunami zones?
Precautionary response to these events has led many pro-nuclear nations to recognize that over-dependance on nuclear energy is an invitation to catastrophe. After Fukushima, Japan, France, Germany and Italy plan to dramatically reduce nuclear energy dependence over 2030-40.
Though unknown to most Americans, France also started converting remaining nuclear reactors in safer locations to smaller Nextgen Nuclear Reactors.
Hydroelectric is Renewable, Not Scalable
Hydroelectric dams produce about 3% of America’s electricity. Our nation has huge concerns about repairing 4,000 deficient dams and restoring ecosystems surrounding them. Repairing old hydroelectric dams will be very expensive.
Due to their collateral damage to local biospheres however, hydroelectricity is not a scaleable energy solution. Building more dams would be trading Global Warming impacts for Damage to the Environment.
Geothermal Energy is Renewable, Not Scalable
Geothermal energy is cost effective when used as a local exchange for residential and commercial heating. In that manner, its renewable energy reduces local demand for electric and natural gas heating. To go beyond local service, we would need utility-grade geothermal generating electricity and plugged into the electric grid.
For utility-grade electricity generation however, a order of magnitude larger BTU volume is required. Private industry or a utility company would have to drill deeper for Higher Temperature Geothermals sufficient to fuel large-scale electric plants.
As mentioned earlier, deep fracking for oil, natural gas or geothermals can release a lot of GHG by accident. It may even be more dangerous. Hence, Geothermal energy is not scalable to meet more than 1% of our electricity needs.
Wind & SolarEnergies are Scalable Energies
American utility companies are rapidly expanding Wind Turbine generation, but need more tax subsidy for manufacturing volume that will let it unit cost drop below natural gas. At that point market forces will purchase more Wind-powered electricity as the prime replacement for both coal and natural gas-powered electric plants.
Germany, a top-tier country without many hydroelectric dams and fewer sunny days than America, is already meeting 25% of its electricity demand via Wind energy, particularly along coastlines. As it shutters coal and old nuclear power plants, Germany’s trajectory is towards Wind powering 50% of its electricity generation by 2030.
America has a lot more windy coastlines and mountain passes than Germany.
Solar energy has consumer breakthrough promise. Last decade, solar panels only converted about 16% of the sun’s energy into electricity. Recent advances have pushed solar panel efficiency to nearly 23%. Engineers are making Advanced Batteries to store excess solar energy on wall-mounted battery storage units. As Cost per Watt of Solar Panels and Advanced Batteries reduce, each year it is becomes affordable to more Americans.
With federal incentives to consumers, Solar energy can reach 12% of our energy generation by 2030 and continue to grow to 20% by 2050.
Biofuels are Scalable Energies
An estimated 1 billion dry tons of biomass can be collected sustainably each year in the United States. These resources include corn grain, oil seeds, algae, greases, agricultural residues, forestry residues, wood mill waste, municipal solid waste streams and dedicated energy crops. Some estimate that they can produce 50–60 billion gallons of low-carbon biofuels.
Aircraft manufacturers and airlines are investing large amounts of R&D to make those biofuels into Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). Aside from making commercial planes more efficient, they are creating a new fuel ecosystem to reduce carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions — the principle air pollutants from airplanes.
These vast biomass resources are sufficient to meet the projected SAF demand of the U.S. aviation industry, with plenty leftover bio-diesel fuel for freight trucking, freight rail, cargo ships and cruise ships. Growing, sourcing, and producing sustainable fuels from renewable and waste resources can also create new economic opportunities in farming communities. We know this is true because Brazil did it with bioethanol fuels for automobiles.
SAF are currently more expensive than jet fuel, and this cost premium is a key barrier to their wider use. Fuel cost is the single largest overhead expense for airlines, accounting for 22% of direct costs on average. We are going to need the Advanced Nations with high air travel co-funding plants that make SAF to make its unit cost competitive with jet fuel. We also need oil companies investing R&D to make SAF cost come down.
We are some distance away from enough similar standards on sustainable fuels for freight rail, freight trucking, cargo ships and cruise ships, but we have an important milestone to aim for by 2030.
Emphasize Renewable Energy & Smart Electric Grid
America is racing against the Global Warming clock to change its energy mix for Electric Energy, Transportation, Industrial, Residential and Commercial demand sectors. President Biden and Congress must first remove $11 billion/year in tax breaks for Natural Gas, Oil and Coal extraction and consumption.
The electric grid is so inefficient, it loses 65% of the energy generation from power plants. Nor is the grid optimized to receive excess current sell-back from residential solar customers. As a result, unit costs for electricity (Watts) are higher than they should be. Electric-powered passenger trains & rapid transit need lower Watt costs to run electric vehicles more frequently at the same energy costs.
As President Obama first requested, America must make big investment in proven technologies to make a Smart Electric Grid. We are going to need $50-60 billion investment in Smart Electric Grid in the next 5-6 years to start the process. We also need tax credits for Solar Panel installations, Electric Vehicles and Advanced Batteries for home electricity storage units.
As we build Smart Electric Grids, accelerate Renewable Energy, eliminate Coal & Oil as fuel, and better manage Natural Gas extraction, America, Europe Union, China and Japan will be more influential leading the Paris Climate Accord.
It is critical that our “Best Practice” examples influence India, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Collectively, they are forecast to become a larger economy than North America and the European Union combined by 2050.
Lastly, since we must transition energy sources, we must also help coal and oil workers transition to other jobs.