China’s Opportunity

This week’s Bloomberg Businessweek had an article titled On China’s Electricity Grid, East Needs West, that explained the mega cities of China’s east coast are consuming resources from the coal rich areas in the country’s far western provinces resulting in lengthy transmission lines and growing instability among the minority ethnic groups there.

coal chinaOne of the biggest problems with having cities so far removed from the natural resources that power those cities is transmission.  In China, freight railroads and river barges are already overloaded and overcrowded.  This led party leaders to push for development of interior regions of the country and build high voltage transmission networks called the West-East Electricity Transfer Project.  By 2020 the total capacity of this project is projected to equal 60 Hoover Dams.

china water scarcityThe second problem with this large-scale coal driven buildup is the lack of water resources available to produce steam in these plants.  Many of these planned coal plants are located in water scarce regions including Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia and has led to tensions with ethic Mongolians and Uighurs who depend on farming and herding for their livelihood.  By tapping already stressed aquifers and wetlands, there could be a larger problem looming.

Coal currently generates 80% of China’s electricity and the country is responsible for half of the annual consumption of coal worldwide.  Following the traditional model of building coal plants located far away from the end users is simply not the answer.  While high-voltage transmission lines are more efficient that shipping coal by rail or barge, much of the electricity produced is still lost in transmission.

solar chinaA better idea would be harness China’s production capacity of solar PV cells and adopt a domestic policy of distributed generation.  DG is sited near the end user of the electricity and therefore less vulnerable to losses during transmission.  PV cells can be placed vertically up the sides of the country’s many skyscrapers eliminating the need to clear land for ground-based systems.  Smart building design is another idea that could drastically reduce demand for electricity and save the country from building expensive, inefficient, centralized power plants.

Distributed generationChina’s massive infrastructure build out has been nothing short of extraordinary.  Now it has the opportunity to leap ahead of other developing nations by committing resources towards building the next generation cities.  Distributed generation, microgrids, and smart integrative building design can all help to make this idea a reality.

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Burning Money . . . by Wasting Energy

If you have ever wondered how much energy is wasted in the United States, then look no further than this chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
US Energy Flow Chart 2011What your are looking at here shows how many Quads (Quadrillion BTU’s) of energy is produced from each source of energy . . . and how much is wasted through inefficient processes or simply lost as heat energy.  In 2011 more than half (57%) of the energy produced was rejected.  In terms of electricity generation, almost 2/3 of the potential energy is lost.  Cogeneration plants achieve a much higher efficiency level than conventional coal or natural gas plants.  In the transportation sector the efficiency ratio is even worse with only 25% of the energy produced actually being used.  If there are any entrepreneurs out there, I see many opportunities for improvements here.  In fact, I think this chart could show the next trillion dollar opportunity!

 

Global Energy Challenge

First, let me start off by saying Happy New Year to all the Greenbacker’s out there.  I apologize for the wait in between posts but it has been a crazy couple of weeks.  Anyway, a few months back BP published their annual BP Review of World Energy 2012.  Below are some key charts created by Jeff Tollefson & Richard Monastersky and published in Nature.com.

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This chart shows the largest energy users as well as the relative breakdown of their energy supply.  Two spikes are clearly noticeable – the US and China.  Notice that the US is reliant on coal, oil, and natural gas for a majority of its energy needs while China is heavily dependent on coal, with oil coming in second.  The recent boom (no pun intended) of natural gas supply in the US has not only dropped the price of natural gas domestically, but also explains the price decrease of coal.  Economics proves if the price of x falls, the price of a substitute of x will also fall in order to keep demand steady.  In effect, the benefits of cleaner burning natural gas are offset by increased use of coal in other countries.

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The above graph simply illustrates world energy use in million tons of oil equivalent.  The final scenario shows what energy consumption would look like if we were to keep the 450ppm limit on carbon emissions.

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This last graph shows several interesting figures – the most interesting in my opinion is that China alone accounts for 49% of global coal consumption.  However, China’s rise these past three decades has been simply amazing.  Already there are more than 170 cities in China with populations over a million.  Fueling this rapid expansion will require significant increases in coal, oil, natural gas, and renewable energy.  By leveraging the power of new technologies and global markets, renewable energy can compete with fossil fuels.  Lets hope that renewable energy plays an even greater role in mankind’s future than current trends predict.

Underground Coal Gassification

An interesting article in the 9/3 Bloomberg Businessweek introduced a new method of coal mining that has the potential to provide energy while limiting GHG pollution and completely avoiding mountaintop removal – one of the most destructive practices known to man.  Underground Coal Gassification (UCG) technology actually dates back more than a century but is only now gaining momentum thanks to the advances in technology as a result of the fracking boom.  UCG involves drilling well into a deep coal seem, igniting the fuel, and harnessing the gas released through combustion.  The CO2 is then pumped back into the ground to keep it from entering the atmosphere.  Many of the most harmful substances such as arsenic, mercury, and lead are left in the ground alleviating the problem of what to do with the waste (remember the TVA holding pond disaster?). 

UCG projects are currently underway in Canada, China, New Zealand, and Uzbekistan – areas where natural gas is expensive and the coal seams are hard to reach. 

There are plenty of downsides to this new technology – most notably the fact that you are in essence starting an underground mine fire (see Centralia, Pennsylvania).  Other concerns are groundwater contamination, water use, and a slew of environmental issues.  However, UCG has the potential to increase the USA’s exploitable coal reserves by a factor of 5. 

It is well established that coal-burning power plants are some of the biggest polluters in our society but their environmental effects are not limited to the generating facility.  From the beginning, whole mountains in Appalachia are blown up to access the coal in the cheapest manner possible.  After the coal is spent there is still the problem of disposing of the coal ash that contains toxins and carcinogens. 

Until our energy needs are fully met through renewable technologies, we are going to have to experiment with new processes that reduce GHG’s and are more environmentally friendly.  UCG is not the cure to our energy problem, but it does address several of the most devastating by-products of using coal as a power source.  To that end, it is definitely a technology worth researching.