Sunday, April 26, 2009

Energy Summit - the last talks

The final part of the Energy Summit in Columbia began with a series of talks from faculty on the four campuses. It was divided into four tracks, Power Generation (which I was at and will write about); Transportation and Biofuels; Energy Infrastructure; and Materials for Energy Applications. Although not up yet, the main site for the Summit is adding videos of the different sections, and I will add those references behind the track titles as they become available. At present the Keynote by Boone Pickens ; the Governor’s remarks and the first day’s speakers after 3 pm (covering my third post) are available. I will list the other posts from earlier in the Summit at the end of this piece.

I was the first of the speakers up in the Power Generation track, and spoke about the predictions that have been made concerning the life of fossil fuels, focusing on that of David Rutledge , which predicts that peak coal will come sooner than is currently anticipated. I expressed some doubt that his predictions are correct, with similar concerns regarding the work of Dr Hall and his students, about the increasing energy cost to mine future coal. To illustrate why I briefly covered the development of three mining machines, that which we call Hydrominer, (a longwall waterjet machine concept that moved from the lab to surface trials to underground trials in Germany); that which we call Rapiers, which was developed in collaboration with folk at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and a waterjet assisted auger. By cutting a deep slot around the outer perimeter of the coal mass to be removed, the constraining surrounding pressure is removed, and the coal is more easily removed and fragmented, with lower energy cost.

I was followed by Mark Prelas, of UMC Nuclear Engineering, who talked (the links are to the paper abstracts) about nuclear energy conversion. The basic method of extracting power from nuclear energy has focused on the steam cycle for 150 years, and he is looking to using a photon path to achieve a better efficiency in energy extraction. It is, perhaps, the equivalent of the nuclear light bulb. The concept has been used by the military, and would go through the stages of fuel to fluorescer to photons to either chemical, laser of electrical energy. He discussed various fluorescers which could be matched with PV cells to improve efficiency of transfer. I this way he could move from 50% plant efficiency to 70% (At present the Calloway nuclear power plant at Fulton, MO operates at around 37% efficiency). Even with pebble bed reactors, and higher temperatures a 50% efficiency is likely to be tops conventionally. This new concept would, however, require a new build and is unlikely to be around before 2040.

Anthony Caruso from the Kansas City Campus then talked about the need for neutron generation detection. He showed that it only required less than 1% of waste to go astray and there would be enough plutonium out that could get into the hands of terrorists and provide a major problem. A racquetball sized sphere would hold 2.7 kg of plutonium and would be safe to carry but small enough and easy enough to conceal to cause serious problems. He then elaborated on the potential risk, and the need to develop more effective detectors (which he is doing).

Jimmy Adegoke from Kansas City, then talked about a program that is being run to assess climate change risks commenting that “we are beyond debate that we have global warming!” (If you look at the top right of the three curves shown on the main page of the Climate Research Unit at Hadley (the main British Climate monitoring site), you will see that all three curves – for Northern, Southern and Global temperature – have been trending down (showing global cooling) for about the last ten years). His group does a carbon footprint assessment with the intent of helping local industry both understand the impacts of legislation, at the local level. He discussed work with Congressman Markey’s subcommittee to establish the impact of climate change on the economy of the Midwest. He is assessing the effects of change on agriculture, water, energy and health at the local level. In his regional assessment he found that the carbon footprint broke down to roughly 2 million tons of Residential; 3 million tons of commercial; and 1.5 million tons of industrial generation. He has a carbon footprint calculator which helps identify where savings can occur for individual operations.

We broke for lunch, and then returned to hear first Lea Kosnik, from UMSL, who had accompanied me to the radio station on the first day and whose subject is small and microturbine use to generate hydropower without the need for the dams across the waterways that are a pre-requisite for larger schemes. Their small size makes them easier to install, and to construct using easily available components of proven reliability. As I corrected back at the original post, there are some 5,000 sites, in Missouri alone, that could be used as installation sites for the technology. This gives a more reliable feed, when needed, to backstop some of the more intermittent sources, such as wind and solar. It also does not require the considerable planning of larger systems, and is unlikely to meet the local resistance that dams not generate.

Curt Elmore of MO S&T was next, talking about an emergency method of creating potable water in crisis. He and his colleagues set out to provide another source of water, after a natural disaster, other than military convoys handling out bottled water. He started looking at alternatives and found that UV is an effective disinfectant for water, and so designed a portable system (running at about $40k at the moment) to run from renewable sources. He began with hopes for a wind turbine as part of the package, but came to realize that this did not contribute enough, and that simple solar panels were adequate to provide the power to run the system and provide a clean water supply. Because it does not leave disinfectant in the water it cannot treat a recontamination problem, short of running the water back through the system. By using an ultracapacitor they were also able to get rid of batteries, and by using the pump on a water bowser that would bring water to the unit, it could be made smaller and more inexpensive. It was simple to get to 10 gpm, and with an individual using about 2 liters/day this would be more than adequate for a community. They are currently investigating commercialization.

The final speaker in the track was S.K. Loyalka from Columbia, describing a $3 million program that they have looking at very high temperature nuclear reactors. These are generally either Prismatic or Pebble Bed reactors, with the pebbles being spheres about the size of a tennis ball and stacked at around 400,000 in the reactor itself. In the process of passage they undergo some degradation and the study is looking at the fate of this dust, as well as “ball” behavior.

There was now a break, after which I wandered into the Clean Coal breakout panel, under the Vice Provost for Research at MO S&T, Dr Krishnmurthy. . Although less structured, with the panelists first making short remarks, before engaging in Q&A with the audience, Wandering in after the introductions I missed who was who, but there were some very realistic views presented from venture capitalists, a state senator, and others. After Dr Al-Dahhan had described some of the paths forward to generate clean coal, one of the panelists commented that this is not the sort of environment a venture capitalist likes to work in. He contrasted it with medical investment, where the funds required are reasonable (say $75 million) and the risk and rate of return are acceptable. In contrast CCS is larger by two orders of magnitude and this takes it beyond the interests of the venture capital market. This is a tough space to live in, and there are very few (2 out of 300) who might be interested in playing in this sandbox.

The Navy panelist (John Pazik) noted because of the way military budgets are constructed, rapid rises in fuel prices come out of the operating budgets of the commanders, and thus require sacrifice of something else.

Senator Shaefer, in looking at the political side, commented on how hard it is to get legislation through. Missouri relies on coal for 82-86% of its energy. With EPA mandated to rule on CO2 that leaves the state very vulnerable. And he commented that “scientists may say that this is the right thing to do, but politically it may not be possible.” He thinks that soon it will be impossible to build a coal-fired power station, and that the best CCS injection sites are shallow enough that the CO2 won’t stay liquid.

Vic Svec from Peabody pointed out that natural gas generates carbon dioxide, just as coal does. It is becoming the new method of power generation, but bear in mind that while we pay $0.065 per kWh, CA and NY are paying around $0.15 - $0.20 per kWh. We are going to continue to use coal, it is just going to stop being cheap to do so. He talked of doing CO2 injection to help oil EOR and that Missouri had the potential to do this in the Western part of the state. We have lost a decade however in making progress on this issue, where there are also concerns such as “can I inject CO2 under your house ? How deep? Etc” We need technology and technicians to control and bring down the price to make systems viable.

In the wide ranging Q&A the need for better communication was emphasized but the problems of finding qualified people remain, at all levels. And it was clear that campaigns to wean the country from coal in the next 10 years are unrealistic.

The final panel I went to was on infrastructure under Dr. Mariesa Crow of MO S&T.

Linda Martinez of MO DNR pointed out that with Missouri seeing 261,000 unemployed, the emphasis in getting jobs with green technology is paramount. Retraining is essential but we need to get all stakeholders involved in the planning of that. There are only a limited number of green jobs at the moment and we need to find how to grow them.

Barbara Kenny of NSF spoke of the goals of the Administration, and that the new stimulus money to NSF that would be used to give a higher success rate to proposals sent in to the agency. There is an interest in Renewable Energy Storage and in Green Building Technology.

In discussion the panelists concurred that improving Energy Efficiency is the first priority for moving forward and having a success. The State has just produced a wind may, and thus wind may be the second stage in the process.

Bill Downey of Kansas City Power and Light, looked at building a new plant, and how they assessed viable alternatives. He has been impressed with the speed of growth of renewable sources, and expects that they will generate 20% of power in the future. However getting public policy changed is a long struggle, even with gains in efficiency, though that is a bridge forward.

Brian Clevinger is a Venture Capitalist and he talked of the technologies at Universities and that “it was the worst of times, it was the even worser of times.” Venture Capital is down 40% in general but clean coal investments dropped 80%. New creative money is almost non-existent.

We have failed to focus on replacement energy for the systems that we currently use, so that, since the population has doubled, and is on its way to double again it is going to take all that we have got. Unfortunately many of the answers are yet to be palatable politically.

Given that many of the panel had mentioned efficiency as the logical first step and the low hanging fruit, I raised the question of Jevons Paradox. Which it appeared that no-one had heard of. (Which means that I will try and make it my topic for a tech talk tomorrow).

Similarly raising the question of Peak Oil and oilfield declines such as in Cantarell got no response. Rather they talked to public policy and how to get jobs. They talked of smart metering and some of the complexities of running controls on home energy systems from a central system. The comment was that, to date, the incentives are not enough to drive behavior.
And then we were done.

Earlier posts in this series covered the program; the keynote address by T. Boone Pickens; and the first invited speakers; the end of the first day; and the first part of the second day.

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