Saturday, April 23, 2011

Scale Matters

After my little frustrated rant on Synfuels, I was struck by the variety of attitudes in play by environmentalists, climate scientists, anti-global warmists and the rest of the crowd trying to find labels. There are a lot of very smart people that seem to be clueless. While the arguments may sound intelligent (or not), there is little common sense involved.

Every issue is pigeon holed. The groups have these narrow little tunnels which make them oblivious to the broader picture. They can't or won't see common solutions, that while far from perfect, achieve progress toward common goals. Whether the climate is warming due to man or not, energy insecurity is a common problem. It seems a no brainer to me that progress can be made toward energy security that would have a positive impact on pollution would be an easy sell. Life is not so simple.

Synfuels, to me, are a perfect starting point. They can help resolve several problems with one effort. Thinking far into the future, there will always be a use for Synfuel products. Even if the transportation fuel of the future is something novel, lubricants, backup power, aviation fuels and small power applications can always make use of Synfuels. Properly designed, Synfuel plants can use nearly any fuel source to produce synfuels. It is all a matter of scale.

Scale matters with synfuel plants because the plant has to be large enough to cost effectively produce its product. Large plants, though not MEGA size, plants offer the options to produce meaningful quantities with a variety of feed stocks at high efficiency. This scale, along with uncertain commodity prices, tend to force government backing to be successful. Oil prices have such large potential variability, that big oil producers can easily squeeze Synfuels out of the market for the near term. That is why I think Synfuels are a perfect project for the military to address the main core of energy security. They can budget an average fuel cost over a decade or two to justify fairly large scale Synfuel production. Some large corporations can also the justify the long term investment.

The basic chemical building blocks that can be produced through Synfuel processes can produce more valuable oil based commodities with higher quality control. Synthetic lubricants, which are very expensive, is just one example. There are already examples where Fischer-Trope (F-T) Synfuel processes are being planned in India and China using South African designs.

Synfuel is opposed by the warmists since it does not cut the fossil fuel craving. "Cleaner" in terms of GHG pollution, is not an option they will consider, even though the F-T process can be used to convert CO2 to fuel and other products, albeit at a higher cost. For example, a standard F-T plant can produce gasoline at a cost of roughly $2.40 a gallon and CO2 converted gasoline at a cost of roughly $3.40 a gallon. That higher cost CO2 gasoline is not that attractive. It is close enough to being viable that it should justify some prototype plants to see if co-generation or other applications could make it more competitive. At $2.40 a gallon, the more standard F-T process is competitive as a co-generation process or waste disposal application. It is right at the ragged edge of being profitable as a stand alone application. Future oil commodity prices should only serve to be advantageous for F-T Synfuels.

Solar, the darling energy of the warmist's future, has applications, only on smaller scale. It is being incorporated in numerous communities of the future where it can produce a sizable portion of the community scale energy demand. In areas with high electrical rates, solar can be somewhat competitive, though subsidies are required in nearly all cases. The warmists can rationalize subsidies that match their agenda of course. While they complain about subsidies for other industries, often for research to meet their high demands to begin with, they have no problem with pork if it is in their trough. There are a few actually putting their money where their mouth is. Google has invested substantially in solar, Nanosolar is a main investment, that has promise. Active participation, instead of activist obstruction, is a positive sign that should be expanded.

James Annan, a British Climate Scientist, has been waxing technologically on Japan and solar following the Earthquake and nuclear situation. He does seem to "get" some of the scale issues, but still is a little on the warm and fuzzy side. One part of US government research into solar is the adaption of solar panels as an integral part of residential construction. If the solar panels can replace most of the typical roofing cost of a new home, that will considerably offset the initial cost of solar energy. Nanosolar received a 20 million dollar research grant for solar roofing integration. While that is not a lot of money, it has high potential return on investment. Solar in this case, has very good promise of becoming cost effective. With more improvement is efficiency and/or reduced production costs, solar could eventually be the savior envisioned by the environmental crowd. It is still not ready for prime time though. Active promotion of solar, with that realization, is healthy for pursuing part of the energy puzzle. It will not solve the transportation fuel problem or solve all energy problems. There will have to be a mix of options in the energy mix.

Nuclear, as I have mentioned, suffers from a problem of scale. Bigger is not necessarily better in nuclear as illustrated by Fukushima. The Generation IV technologies have promise, but just like solar, promise don't cut it. Nuclear co-generation is greatly limited with current technology. As I have also mentioned, off peak nuclear power production is well suited for the highly variable supply of energy from wind. You can't just start and stop a nuclear plant of any scale, but you can divert energy output to other processes to balance load. This is a key part of the energy puzzle that seems to be missed by the warm and fuzzy crowds all or nothing mentality. It is all about options and opportunities, which is lost on the negatively thinking crowd.

The same divert to other processes rather than trying to ramp down power on large power plants applies. Efficiency suffers with ramping down output. While not as critical in all cases, maintaining maximum efficiency offsets the less efficient processes of say producing hydrogen through electrolysis and/or F-T Synfuel production. Even if the hydrogen is not used most effectively as a stored fuel, enrichment of F-T or NatGas has promise of increasing overall energy efficiency.

There are logical steps to reducing energy insecurity that also reduce greenhouse gas and other pollution cost effectively. They are not the big bang solutions many dream about, but reality is not a dream. In the background, many governments and private enterprises are actively working on solutions. It would be nice if all the polarized groups would start throwing their support and money at action to solve the issues we face, rather than political actions that stymie progress. Then thinking is much easier than actually doing. Transportation fuels are the main issue and battery power golf carts are not that great a solution.

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