Monday, April 7, 2014

Tech Talk - from 1491 to China, coal, smog and CCS

I have written about my curiosity about the condition of Native Americans at the time that Europeans arrived in the Americas in the past, and so, when I came across Charles Mann’s “1491” at the Brookline Booksmith the other day, I bought a copy. It tells a fascinating story of the developments of agriculture and civilization, largely in South and Central America perhaps pre-dating the time around 10,000 years ago that the first cities were developing in Mesopotamia. He tells, with reference to considerable evidence, of the changing understanding of the state of society, and how it developed pre-Columbus. And if you thought the debate over climate change was rough, apparently that over the changing understanding of such civilizations is at least as intense, although confined to a smaller group.

Conventional theories are that Native Americans crossed over the Bering Straits from Siberia while the land was above water some ten to fifteen thousand years ago. However the discovery of remains at Monte Verde in Chile, with a site that dates back over 13,000 years and with other sites that may date to considerably earlier has thrown this all into debate and controversy – which the book explains in some detail. (It was published in a second edition in 2011, since when DNA tests of skull parts from the Botocudo peoples of Brazil have shown some Polynesian markers suggesting a possible sea route for the first Americans.) I am looking forward to reading the chapter that covers Cahokia.

This is a long introduction to explaining why I was drawn to the cover story in the April Wired that the book's author, Charles Mann, has written on the Future of Coal. It is a fairly rational review of ongoing developments in China to find ways of easing their air pollution problems, while continuing to rely on coal to power the ongoing industrial changes in their society. For as he notes,
Nowhere is the preeminence of coal more apparent than in the planet’s fastest-growing, most populous region: Asia, especially China. In the past few decades, China has lifted several hundred million people out of destitution—arguably history’s biggest, fastest rise in human well-being. That advance couldn’t have happened without industrialization, and that industrialization couldn’t have happened without coal. More than three-quarters of China’s electricity comes from coal, including the power for the giant electronic plants where iPhones are assembled. More coal goes to heating millions of homes, to smelting steel (China produces nearly half the world’s steel), and to baking limestone to make cement (China provides almost half the world’s cement). In its frantic quest to develop, China burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world put together—a fact that makes climatologists shudder.

. . . . . . “Coal is too low-cost, too plentiful, and too available from reliable sources to be replaced,” says fuel analyst John Dean, president of the JD Energy consulting firm. “China is putting in solar and wind power at a tremendous pace, but it will have to use more and more coal just to keep up with rising demand.”

The article then goes on to discuss the facility at Tianjin, where GreenGen is developing a Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) plant. The first phase of the plant was inaugurated in December 2012, and the site is now in Phase 3 construction to develop a 400 MW demonstration IGCC power station.

In the WIRED article, however, lies the sentence “Conceptually speaking, CCS is simple: Industries burn just as much coal as before but remove all the pollutants. “ However, later in the piece this is qualified since one of the problems with the technology is that there is a significant (up to 40%) increase in the amount of power that the station must generate to provide that now needed to capture, liquefy and dispose of the carbon dioxide (by underground injection). Thus the plant burns significantly more coal, for the same effective power supply into the grid. This is one of the reasons that the DOE has concluded that the costs of such a plant will increase electricity costs by 70-80%, making it potentially too expensive. Interestingly that considerable increase in cost is, in part, because power generation using coal is currently relatively inexpensive.

Reading the story in WIRED made me realize that I must be quite a bit older than Charles Mann. Being raised in the North of England in the years after the Second World War I can remember when the UK was in much the same state as China is now, with the need for as much coal as possible to rebuild the nation’s industry and power the restoration of the economy. As a result the UK had vicious smogs when the air pollution mixed with a fog to create a condition when I can remember not being able to see the hand at the end of my arm, in the middle of the day in Leeds in 1962. The Great London Smog of 1952 was reported to have killed more than 4,000 people and severely affected the health of many others. The 1962 smog killed over 750 Londoners and the pollution from burning coal had long since turned most of the buildings in the cities of Britain into black edifices, with the original stone crusted with soot. I can remember that in the mining villages of the North the windows and steps were washed and “holystoned” every week to minimize the soot, and curtains and windows were constantly washed to remove the residue.

Two major acts were passed by the British Government, the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. While the advent of North Sea oil and gas removed the need for homes to burn coal in open fires (which I did until I left the UK in 1968) coal has continued to power the island (31% of power is still generated by coal) but the air pollution that contributed to those smogs is gone. The buildings in the major cities have been cleaned and brought back to the golden sandstone, or white limestone finishes that they had when initially built and the dark clouds that are shown issuing from power stations only occur when the photographer puts the steam emission between his camera and the sun.

The same change has occurred across Europe and in the United States (see photographs of Pittsburgh in 1940) - laws were passed, natural gas played a larger part in domestic energy supply, and the air cleared away.

It is likely that China will be able to achieve the same changes, as they increasingly import natural gas (perhaps from Russia, certainly from Turkmenistan) and provided they impose the same standards for air quality as are found in our power plants, then the air can be cleaned up. In this way the more than a million premature deaths that air pollution is currently causing (according to the article) can be ameliorated, perhaps at a lesser cost than the CCS technology, which is still struggling to provide meaningful demonstrations of its effectiveness. And China has to do something for, as the article continues to emphasize:
More important from China’s perspective, more than one-quarter of its citizens still live on less than $2 a day. These people—more than 350 million men, women, and children, an entire United States of destitution—want schools and sewers, warm homes and paved highways, things that people elsewhere enjoy without reflection. China can’t provide enough energy to make and maintain these things with oil or natural gas: The nation has little of either and not much incentive to import them at great cost. (Asian natural gas prices are roughly five times higher than US prices.) Nor can solar, wind, or nuclear fill China’s needs, even though it is deploying all three faster than any other country. Meanwhile, it has the third-biggest coal reserves in the world.

China, like most of the rest of the world, “pretty much has to use coal,” says Dean, the fuel analyst. “Or, I guess, leave people in the dark.”
And in this view of the future, China is not alone.

Good article (and good book)!

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