Monday, October 26, 2009

Sometimes my predictions turn out to be wrong

Last Thursday I posted the first half of a letter that I wrote to OMNI magazine back in 1979, and in it I made some cost estimates for the potential for a satellite in space beaming energy back to the Earth. I then made some additional cost estimates for solar energy.

On a day when there is growing concern that energy prices are again heading upwards, and with OPEC maintaining control by discussing an increase in production I am going to perhaps weaken your faith in me as a prophet (I consider that OPEC can only continue to maintain this control for another year or so before they too run out of enough oil to satisfy demand – providing the price remains reasonable). I am going to do this by adding the second half of the letter that I sent to OMNI. This is where I became less of a prophet than I had expected, and I will discuss some of those inaccuracies in a follow-on post. But first back to that 30-year old letter:
The next alternative is the biomass option. Firstly have seen figures that it takes 80 gal of gasoline equivalent to raise an acre of corn (including fertilizer) and that 4 gal of gas input to biomass gives 2.5 gal of alcohol out not an equitable exchange. Mr. Pohl's argument that "burning biomass does not (add to atmospheric CO2) ." is specious. Not only does accelerating the decay time increase the rate of change and the volume involved, but it also disregards that portion of the material which turns into humus. I'm sorry but biomass is not a significant option either. Hydro electric and wind power are very site selective and, as a practical but mundane point, can a TV oriented society realistically be expected to tolerate that much TV interference (from windmills). No, while every little counts I'm afraid that this is all this will amount to.

And thus we come to the big four; oil, gas, nuclear, and coal (I'd like to leave geothermal until later).

There is no question that our petroleum based oil and gas is very rapidly diminishing. Price decontrol will have very little long term effect on this situation and recent studies have shown that reserves are often even lower that predicted . It hardly bears repeating that the reason this is not too evident at the pumps is that we now import almost half of what is used. The fuel component is significant in almost all manufacturing and if our suppliers abroad put up their prices (as they will continue to do), then the result of course, is that inflation is virtually guaranteed for as long as this continues.

The Iranian oil stoppage, and the declining levels of the international oil pool all urge that something must be done, in the short term as well as the long.

In this regard we need all the domestic fuel supplies we can develop, for at least the remainder of this century until the time in the next that the SPS or fusion becomes practical. I stress domestic, because the need for supplies is critical and must be guaranteed, and from abroad this is not a sure thing.

This, in turn, casts grave doubts on the economic installation of more nuclear reactors. Figures for economically recoverable domestic uranium seem to center about 380,000 tons, while demand projections for the reactors in and currently planned appear to vary up to 1,500,000 tons, depending on whose figures you believe.

In 1974, when the price of uranium was $7.90, spokesmen for the power companies were quoted as saying that nuclear power stations would become uneconomic if the price doubled . The price is currently $15 and this supply will run out in the near future, putting the price up further . To those who start waving the breeder flag, I would rejoin that it takes 20 years to double the fuel supply, that it will take 10 to 15 years to get one built and that already moves us into the next century.

To be honest I don't know who to believe on gas. In 1977 we had a shortage of gas and thousands of businesses closed. I have heard that this caused a lot of companies to switch out of gas and this resulted in the current surplus, not the fact that we found that much more. In either case it is currently a popular fuel again, yet available data would indicate our supply is even worse than that of oil, a point I will return to later.

So far I have been very negative, not through malice but because energy costs are going up and we need to understand the realistic options that face us in the remainder of this century.

It is common these days to hear cries from Washington at something must be done and conservation is the cry. But after adding insulation to my house, turning the thermostat down to 60 and cutting out pleasure driving I don't see that I can do much more in that regard. The population continues to grow and energy demand per capita will grow with it. To give just one reason, the ore required to produce metals gets thinner every year and more must be mined to give us the same volume of material.

There is also a direct correlation between energy levels and jobs, to prove which, I attach a graph from a paper by Congressman McCormick.

To make this point another way, after that well known actor made his walk along the canyon for the TV cameras in the campaign which stopped Kaiparowits we did not see him in Watts explaining to the young unemployed that his actions helped ensure there would still be no jobs in the 1980's.

I say this not meaning to be facetious, but to point out that those whose major concern is with the environment must accept the social burden which is implied. Those who delay the construction of a power station must accept some of the blame for the resultant rate increase when the plant is built, or the unemployment which will result from the ultimate lack of power if it is not.

What I also am seeking to establish is that we are in a mess and while we need the long term solutions which will perhaps be brought about by fusion or the SPS system we are also in desperate need for some short term solutions as well.

In this regard I would like to take exception to the remarks by Mr. Pohl who writes off coal mining in a short paragraph. I regret this because it is a very common occurrence when one reads reports on the current energy situation by a wide variety of people and unfortunately the attitude it conveys is pervasive. If one might first of all point out the fact that soil is dirty does not stop farmers from growing crops, and the thousands of fatalities a year do not stop Americans from driving cars. The dirty characteristic which is attached to the industry is, regrettable and based on history; more than current fact. It is not true, for example, that strip mining ruins everything it touches and there are areas in Texas and Wyoming, among others which would show that the 1,000 plus dollars put into each acre of reclaimed land have left the land in much better condition than it was before strip mining occurred. This does not make strip mine coal ruinously expensive and once a recognized set of regulations can be established and operated under I would expect that coal mining prices will stabilize. I would point out in this regard the experience of the National Coal Board in Britain would indicate that land can be restored to at least as good a condition after strip mining as it was beforehand.

One must accept that people are killed in coal mines and that much of the coal contains sulfur but surely these should pose challenges to science (as does developing "cheap" solar cells) rather than be shrugged off as absolute disqualifiers. Surely if we can develop robots to operate on Mars we can develop robots to operate within a thousand feet of the ground surface in coal seams and thereby make mining operations safe so that miners aren't killed.

This is perhaps a challenge for the future, however, in the short term while coal mining will produce as much energy as is required of it surveys indicate that, since its major use will be in power generation that to the turn of the century the supply will be demand limited rather than supply limited. Coal mines also take somewhere between 5 and 10 years to develop as do the power plants which must supply them.

Where then can we turn for more answers to the energy problem in the short term and what other techniques can possibly be used in the medium term. I would like to put forward two suggestions. Firstly, there is within the United States somewhere in the region of 4 trillion tons of coal of which proven reserves down to 3,000 ft run at levels of approximately 1,700 billion tons. This coal contains anything from 140 to 700 cu ft of methane per ton, and therefore gives a readily available additional volume of perhaps 500 trillion cu ft of gas. We currently use approximately 20 trillion cu ft of gas a year with conventional resources estimated at 220 trillion cu ft. (Hence my earlier comment about gas supplies.) One therefore would triple the amount of natural gas available if this resource were adequately developed. Since this supply occurs in deposits less than 3,000 ft from the surface it can very easily be accessed for utilization. It is, however, a reserve which is currently not being exploited mainly because of legal entanglements as to who exactly owns it.

It is frequently said that Congress cannot legislate technology however, in the situation which faces us, as we move towards a solution to an energy crisis, this is one instance where a move by Congress in regard to deciding on the exact ownership of this gas would free up a major resource rapidly as a means of supply. It would also, serendipitously, make later mining of the coal a much safer operation. In regard to the CO2 build up, one must accept that there is a problem which must be addressed. But, while we are responsible to future generations we are equally responsible to the current and past generation. Those people now returned have as much if not more right to power in their lifetimes and must also be factored into any solution.

The second option I would propose in relation to more proper use of underground space. This last winter a house built relatively close to mine with approximately the same sq footage was left unoccupied and unheated. The temperature inside never fell below 56 degrees.

As I have mentioned earlier it cost me up to 5,500 kilowatts/month to maintain the temperature inside my house at only 6 degrees higher. There would thus be great savings if a move were made to put at least part of future construction underground. To those who say it is expensive, traumatic, and unsafe, I would add three further facts, firstly, that the underground house cost $32/sq ft to build and this $32 is the same price as current super surface house construction in the Rolla area. Secondly, studies in Texas have shown that school children are if anything less anxious when taught in an underground school than they were on the surface. Thirdly, caves in Missouri survived, with no evident damage the worst earthquake in U.S. history. These structures are of course safer and much better able to withstand tornado, wind storms, ice storms, and other hazards of the weather which are prevalent in these times. The development of this technology is really already with us. It of course can only be applied to novel construction but nevertheless the savings which it would lead to in the long term would be not only in energy but quite frequently also in aesthetics and also in other potential areas since one can for example grow vegetables on one's roof. (Something one could not do underneath the solar collector which would cover my backyard.)

Well that is my response to the energy articles in your last issue. You must forgive me for being a little long winded but the matter is a little complex.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Respectfully I remain,

Yours sincerely,

Well that was the letter - we'll talk about how it really turned out next time.

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