Saturday, April 25, 2009

Energy Summit - the second morning

The second day of the Summit began early, but still had all four University Chancellors and the University President in the room at 7:30 am although it took a fair while longer for the body of the room to start to fill. In his welcoming remarks the Chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia noted that by changing to burning tires, switchgrass and an assortment of waste, the campus had cut its coal consumption by 5% this past year.

The first speaker of the day was Robert Dixon of the Climate Change and Chemicals of the Institute for Environmental Security. He was a member of the IPCC, and has been Head of the Energy Technology Policy Division of the IEA. (A glitch meant we did not see his opening slides). He began with the point that the world has areas of extreme energy poverty and that we need to change the way in which we do business. Indonesia will soon pass the United States in the amount of GHG that it emits, yet all our economies are built around the use of petroleum, and this is not a sustainable base.

Having been part of the IPCC and the IEA he commented on the difficulty in explaining positions to world leaders when you only get ten minutes of their time. At the moment we are not on a path to a sustainable future, and that message cannot be conveyed in that small an amount of time.

The world needs not only new technologies, but also a new system that should include energy efficiency, since that is the gift that keeps on giving. Yet, if we are to reduce GHG we need some 24 – 32 new nuclear plants a year, and the world is only installing 1 or 2. To force the change he feels that we should have cap and trade with a $50/ton cost for allocations, but if the world is to get down to the carbon dioxide levels required, then the cost should rise first to $200/ton and then to $500/ton. (On an editorial note, based on Missouri consumption, where a $50/ton carbon cost doubles our electricity price, this is calling for pricing that will take it up, first by a factor of 4 and then 10 – so that electricity will approach $1.00 per kilowatt hour, and if your bill is now $200 it will become $2,000 a month).

Replacing coal will require ALL technologies be advanced forward, and they should be funded, but there are many pathways being proposed and these must be co-ordinated to give a viable roadmap for the future. They will provide many opportunities for investment, but given that the current system has had its investment cost covered there is a challenge to find the funding for replacements. Public sector R&D is down, and so politicians must work to reverse this trend if we are to find the answers that we need. An energy revolution is urgently needed, but there are barriers of funding and timeliness so we must take action to induce change.

Mark Templeton has recently been installed as the new Missouri Energy Czar (coming from heading up Yale Law School). He began by listing some pluses including the first city (Rock Port) that is powered entirely by wind. Yet at the moment Missouri ranks 45th in Energy Efficiency and so there is a need to communicate to the public, giving them ways that they can save. If we could just save 15% of our electric use, and 10% of our natural gas use, this would, over time, add up to $2.8 billion in savings.

Yet we cannot only address the problems of the past (by weatherization etc) but we also have to find new future answers. Missouri is 49th in use of renewables, and 18th in use of wind power. (Ed note: Possibly because we don’t have enough of the higher speed winds we need?) In summer we get as much sun as Florida, and while biomass is not that far along, it is an indigenous resource. If Washington is going to push us, then we might as well move ourselves.

He noted that fuel prices are going back up and we are now at a time where OPEC cuts in supply are controlling cost. Missouri is seeing record unemployment, we need to find and develop the next generation of green jobs. To this end they are working with the Office of Economic Development.

The University President. Gary Forsee, then introduced the Governor of the State, Jay Nixon. The Governor picked up on the theme carried by Mark Templeton, tying Education and the Economy together, and stressing that we need a trained workforce, in the right areas, to move us out of the recession. We need to change our economy but must recognize that the energy demand per capita will not go away, though improved efficiency and conservation are going to be vital parts of the future economy.

He cited the new wind farm, and work on batteries to store excess wind energy, as current indicators of progress, but justified his continued investment in education and retraining . He noted that while normal drivers brake around a curve, NASCAR drivers accelerate so that they can take advantage of the coming straight stretch. He views Missouri’s economy in the same way.

He drew attention to his program to fund young interns to work in future areas of renewable energy with the comment, in passing, that giving kids money was sure to stimulate the economy, since they were certain to spend it. We must both walk and talk the talk, and so, at the podium, he signed an Executive Order lowering the energy use in state buildings.

The Governor was followed by Richard Sayre of the Danforth Center who spoke of the benefits of algae, and some of the paths that are being taken, including using algal species that weep oil and can be milked (using alkanes) and then put back out to pasture, rather than internally producing it and having to be destroyed to recover the oil. He again commented that ice caps could be gone in the summer before long (no I’m not going to put the reality graph up again).

Energy from biomass has the potential to create more “green” jobs than other renewables, and he noted that the United States already produces more ethanol than Brazil. But the parts of the country that have highest solar intensity to help plant growth also have poor soils and a lack of water. He showed a map for the country locating the 30-inch rainfall line as running down almost through Columbia, and questioned, based on it, which biofuels we should focus on. Since oil crops have more energy than starch, biodiesel producers are more logical. At present oil costs from algae are divided with slightly more than half in production, and slightly under half for harvesting. With a pond only containing 0.1% useful product there is obviously a need to reduce the latter costs. Interestingly he noted that, growing algae in Missouri, it is not the cold of the winter that is the problem, but rather the warmth of the summer. He then went on to make a number of the arguments that I have made when I talk of the advantages of growing algae underground (light spectra control, use of the full amount and at levels that algae will grow at optimally). By adding sugars to the water, they have found a dramatic increase in the oil production rate, and by changing the algae to use lower light levels they have doubled the production rates from deep ponds. With the additional change to “weeping” algae they have had a 3-fold increase in biomass production and a 40% increase in the oil production rate.

Rob Duncan the Vice Chancellor for Research at UMC, was on 60 Minutes (video report ) last week talking about cold fusion. He gave an expanded talk on the subject, noting that he had gone from being a cynic to a believer.

After reviewing the history he went on to share some of the photos and experiences from his visit to the Israeli lab doing the work. And in the process of explanation he may have made a number of other converts. When there has been talk before of energy output being greater than input in the experiments, I always got the impression that it was not that much. But he talked of vessels boiling over, and getting a MegaJoule of energy, where there should have been a hundred joules. But more convincing to me was the surface of the palladium rod, which, after the experiment had small “volcanic” pits with molten ejecta.

He could not yet explain it, but he noted that at this stage it does look real. However there is a huge gap between discovery and useful engineering application and so the topic must be approached with less hype and more focus on a scientific method for determining evolution of the technology.

Dr Duncan was the last of the Invited Speakers, and the Summit then broke into two consecutive parts. In the first there were four sets of concurrent papers by Missouri research groups talking about their work, and this was followed by two sets of two panels where there was discussion on Clean Coal, Transportation and Biofuels; Nuclear energy; and Infrastructure. Since this post is getting a bit long, I will summarize these in the next post.

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

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