Friday, November 30, 2007

A Manhattan Project

Charles Cooper wants a Manhattan Project to fix our dependency on foreign oil. The Manhattan Project was a good deal for most folks (U.S. of course, but I'll claim Japanese too) because a bunch of people they never met toiled away and produced something they never had to interact with which eliminated the need for all these people to fight and die.

Trouble is, we need to be saved from ourselves. It can be done, but we're all going to have to do the toil.

The most obvious thing we can do is switch to plug-in hybrids for our cars, so that the energy comes from something domestic (coal, hydro, nuclear) rather than something imported (gasoline). But that's just not enough. Look at the numbers:

EIA Petroleum Imports

EIA Petroleum Usage

For the week ended 11/23/2007, we imported 13.4M of the 15.5M barrels of oil we used. We turned that into 9.0M barrels of gasoline, 4.3M barrels of diesel fuel, and 1.4M barrels of jet fuel.

Just converting our car fleet to plug-in hybrids won't cut it. Even plug-in hybrids burn gas, just not as much. If, starting today, all cars sold in the U.S. were plug-in hybrids, then in two decades you might eliminate the equivalent of 6M barrels of today's consumption.

What else could we do? How can we convert that diesel usage to electricity? We could electrify our frieght trains, and use trucks only for local hauling of cargo from business to frieght terminal and back. That might eliminate half of diesel usage, call it 2.2M barrels/week. Together with the plug-in hybrids, that get's us down from 13.4M to 5.2M barrel, every week. Not enough to ignore OPEC.

Carving into that remaining 5.2M barrels/week will be really hard. A rationalization of our transport network might move a lot of frieght and some people onto electric trains from planes. There is opportunity there: between parking and security, it takes two hours to get on a plane. If you can get on a 200 MPH train in 10 minutes vs 120 minutes for a 600 MPH train, it's faster for journeys shorter than 550 miles.

Mr. Cooper thinks we should be investing in nuclear energy. But nuclear doesn't help us break free from OPEC. Nuclear saves the environment from all that CO2. It's a seperate issue, also very important, and very interesting, really, since nuclear waste, even if it gets out, isn't really going to bother most birds and bees, but it's a problem for us bipeds who live to 70 years old and care about property values. If anything, nuclear transfers risk from the rest of the world back to us. Seems we don't like that, even if the total risk is reduced.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Geologic CO2 sequestration?

A friend of mine sent me a review of geologic CO2 sequestration in Australia and the United States. Quite interesting, very upbeat. I'm not buying it.

I think costs are a big problem here. Powder river basin coal costs $5/ton at the mine mouth, and by the time it gets to the various powerplants, it's anywhere from $9/ton to $30/ton. The coal burned is about 75% of the cost of electricity generated, if you believe these guys. That means, in summary, the costs of electricity in the U.S. are driven by the costs of transporting coal from mine to powerplant via rail.

Zoom on the loopy thing at the bottom, that's a friggin COAL TRAIN at the mine mouth for what I think may be the Black Thunder mine in Wyoming. These mines are operating at gigantic scale and are very efficient. Coal transport is handled by two competing train operators who are also efficient.

View Larger Map

Now for the problems with sequestration: CO2 weighs about 44/12 = 3.7x as much as the coal that it came from. Right there, big problem. More mass to move costs more.

Worse still, you can't just transport CO2 in an open coal car on a railroad. Instead, you have to cool it (costs energy, capital equipment, access to water or some heat sink, etc), compress it (this costs energy and some capital equipment), then pump it through a high pressure pipeline. That's going to cost more than moving the coal did.

So, if the CO2 is useful for something, like oil or gas extraction with a result worth $0.25/pound or more, then that value can cover a lot of transport costs for the CO2. But if not, the transport cost of the CO2 from powerplant to sequestration site will come to dominate the cost of electricity in the U.S. And I think that any fix for the coal addiction we have now will have to be something that makes electricity for less money, not more.

Anyone want to argue that CO2 pipelines are going to be at least 4x cheaper than coal trains, or that deep CO2 sequestration is going to be more conveniently located than coal mines?

P.S. Southern California's scheme of having a mine-mouth powerplant ship electricity to beautiful people far away from the black stuff is just stupid. Transporting electricity is way more expensive than transporting coal. The scheme only makes sense because beautiful people are willing to pay extra to have their powerplants well downwind and out of sight. It's only a matter of time before Mexico wakes up to this fact and builds a bunch of nuke plants in Tijuana to ship the power across the border.