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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Electrification Nation--Why Natural Gas Won't Save Our A**

Right click on the above figure to open it in a new window. Note the modified text on the left.

The DOE report of their first Quadrennial Technology Review strongly suggests, at least to me, that we must greatly increase electrification of transport, manufacturing, and even home heating, using the lowest carbon sources available, which would be nuclear and renewables. In other words, we must generate much more electricity and all of it must come from nuclear and renewables.

By replacing all coal in the United States with natural gas (more than doubling the amount of natural gas burned today) we would reduce our total GHG emissions a mere 15%. In comparison, if we replace coal and natural gas with 30% renewables (which is as far as wind and solar photovoltaic can scale because they are so intermittent) and 70% Gen III reactors of the small modular variety, we would reduce GHG emissions about 57%.

Once electricity generation has been decoupled from GHG production, it can be used to power compressors to turn natural gas into liquefied natural gas (LNG) without incurring an additional carbon penalty associated with LNG today that uses coal or natural gas sourced electricity to compress the gas. This lower carbon LNG can in turn be used to replace petroleum in many applications. By replacing petroleum for transport with a combination of plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, LNG vehicles, we would be approaching the needed 80% reduction in GHG releases. Some petroleum could still be used for things like aircraft where there simply is no other less environmentally destructive alternative fuel to be used.

What is a Gen III reactor? From Wikipedia:

A generation III reactor is a development of any of the generation II nuclear reactor designs incorporating evolutionary improvements in design developed during the lifetime of the generation II reactor designs. These include improved fuel technology, superior thermal efficiency, passive safety systems and standardized design for reduced maintenance and capital costs.

What is a passive safety system? From Wikipedia:

The mPower is designed so as to make loss of coolant accidents impossible due to the Integral Reactor Vessel which contains the entire primary coolant loop within the reactor pressure vessel. If secondary cooling is lost, creating an effective loss of standard heat removal, there are water supplies located above and within the containment that can be used to cool the IRV with gravity driven-cooling. Further advanced means of heat removal can be used in the event that these systems are exhausted, such as by flooding the containment and establishing natural circulation.

What is a small modular reactor? From the DOE report:

And from Wikipedia:

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are part of a new generation of nuclear power plants being designed all over the world. The objective of these SMRs is to provide a flexible, cost-effective energy alternative.

Small reactors are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as those with an electricity output of less than 300 MWe, although general opinion is that anything with an output of less than 500 MWe counts as a small reactor.

Modular reactors are manufactured at a plant and brought to the site fully constructed. They allow for less on-site construction, increased containment efficiency, and heightened nuclear materials security.

Large nuclear power plants are generally rather inflexible in their power generation capabilities. SMRs have to have a load-following design so that when electricity demands are low they will produce a lower amount of electricity.

Why small modular reactors? Again from the DOE report:

The policy and market risks make it easier to finance assets with low capital and uncertain operating expenses (e.g., natural gas generators) than those with high capital and low operating expenses (e.g., renewable and nuclear power plants).

Because planning, regulatory, physical, security, and capital risks increase with scale, investors and policy makers have preferred modular deployment of new technologies at the scale of a few hundred megawatts, ... Smaller-scale technologies also enable consumer deployment of generating technologies—a trend in the residential,commercial, and industrial sectors. Generators closer to the load also provide more reliable service and lower transmission costs, although there can be local resistance to new deployment. generating capacity distributed over many locations can also increase reliability and energy security.

Translation: SMRs are a lot cheaper than conventional nuclear plants. The market is hesitant to spend so much up front on large conventional nuclear power just as I am hesitant to spend $60 grand on solar panels although I know they will pay for themselves over time.

And some more on this subject from the DOE:

As other technologies mature and attempt to enter the electricity market, easy integration into the established system is a competitive advantage. Generators that run on fuel [natural gas and small modular nuclear] can be sited more flexibly than those that directly capture a diffuse, renewable resource. In particular, they can be located near load centers and existing transmission infrastructure, lowering barriers to deployment.

...of 442 civilian nuclear power reactors and an additional 65 reactors currently in some stage of construction, civilian nuclear energy sits at the nexus of energy, climate, and security.

Let me take a moment here to point out some problems. If the United States were to accomplish the above, we would have a glut of oil and natural gas. Just as we export coal and corn ethanol today, and import Canadian tar sand oil, we would likely export our oil, coal, and natural gas. There would be a lot of money made but no progress on global warming if countries like China burn all that we do not.

The asinine idea that our military should go green and use biofuels to kill people would also go away because they would have all the oil they need to fight any just or unjust wars with.

Following are some more charts (modified by me) from the report.

Most of the rest of our emissions essentially come from liquid fuel for transport--petroleum. So ...what options does the DOE think we have for liquid fuel for transport?

According to the report, after two decades of government subsidies and five years of mandated use, ethanol replaces only 7% of gasoline, usurps 40% of our corn crop and would require the most massive build out of infrastructure (fuel pumps, pipe lines, tanker trucks/trains), of all transport energy options. Oh, and it exacerbates increasing food prices and land use change around the world, does not reduce the impacts of price or price volatility on the consumer ...and as you can see above, does next to nothing (if anything) to reduce GHG emissions (because most of the energy in a gallon of ethanol comes from natural gas).

According to the report, for mass transit (urban buses, passenger trains) and light duty transport (cars and small trucks), our best option is electrification and efficiency--not replacing petroleum with biofuels. You certainly don't want to use natural gas to make electricity for transport because you would generate about the same amount of GHG as burning petroleum because about 40% of the energy in the natural gas is lost at the generator and power lines and another 30% from the electric motor inefficiency.

We really don't have any non-petroleum options for airline travel. And although this DOE report claims we don't have any options for long haul vehicles like semi-tractor rigs and ships, I don't see why truck stops could not provide natural gas and the rigs could certainly carry very large tanks. I also don't see why ships can't run on natural gas as well because they certainly can carry tanks of methane big enough to get across an ocean.

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