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Natural Gas's Contested Potential

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the short-hand name given for innovations in natural gas recovery that have radically transformed the outlook for production and reserves, not only in the United States but in many other parts of the world as well, including China. But it’s rather a misnomer. The truly disruptive innovation is not fracking as such, a technique that’s been used for many decades in the oil and gas industry, but horizontal drilling into shale formations. Drilling first vertically and then horizontally, using advanced computer controls and seismological techniques, drillers can reach much more gas from a far smaller area of the surface. This makes all the ecological, social, and political ramifications of drilling much more manageable—and if indeed they are well managed, there may be a revolution in gas that will give the world another century’s worth of fossil fuel.

But can the ramifications be managed? A recent visit to Dimock, Penn., one of the most concentrated centers of gas drilling in the U.S. Northeast’s Marcellus Formation, and reports from DISH, Texas, a major locus of drilling in the Southwest’s Barnett Formation, showed that impacts on communities can be worrisome—and that industry claims are not quite what they seem to imply.

In Dimock, a small town north of Scranton, evidence of drilling is all around: arrays of large fresh water and waste water tanks; sizable equipment such as compressors and water filters; convoys of large trucks carrying pipe; hilltop rigs that can been seen for miles away. When operations were at their peak, says a local citizen, hundreds of trucks were coming through the center of town every hour, and supplies also were being delivered by noisy, intrusive helicopters.

Sand and a variety of chemicals are added to fracking water to keep seams open and reduce fluid friction. The industry claims that there’s no documented case of water supplies being contaminated by chemicals, ever or anywhere in the United States. But to judge from what one sees in Dimock, that’s more than a little misleading. Though the companies working in Dimock have refused to concede any wrong-doing, they have equipped some houses with “water buffaloes” to provide the water citizens normally would get  from wells. They’ve outfitted many wells with vents, to allow methane to escape that’s somehow got into the wells. (In one case, claims citizen-guide Vera Scroggins, a well cap actually exploded.)

Admittedly, venting of natural gas may not be a huge issue for local citizens, who are more concerned about toxins and carcinogens getting into their drinking water, to the extent they are concerned at all. (Most support  natural gas development  because of the huge monetary returns it will bring them personally and their communities.) But it’s an issue for the rest of us: Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and if too much of it escapes into the atmosphere during drilling and extraction, that could vitiate one of natural gas’s main advantages—its low carbon content  relative to coal.

What is more, if Marcellus development spreads to upstate New York into New York City’s watershed, it could threaten Gotham’s pristine water supplies. Potential show-stopping problems do not end there.

DISH, a small town north of Dallas, is in the heart of Texas’s Barnett formation, where horizontal gas drilling techniques were perfected in the last decade. Originally called Clark, it renamed itself five years ago in a deal with EchoStar Communications, owner of the DISH network. In exchange for calling itself DISH, each of the town’s citizens get free satellite television for a decade.

That’s been a pretty good deal for DISH, but what about natural gas? According to Mayor Calvin Tillman, who spoke late last year to Pennsylvania’s League of Women Voters about problems the Texans encountered, gas development brought concerns not only about water but also air. DISH, Tillman told the Pennsylvania women (who are preparing a critical report about Marcellus development), is at the hub of the natural gas boom that has brought Texas an estimated $8-10 billion in revenues in the last decade and 100,000 new jobs. Gas and water pipelines criss-cross the town, in which  five companies have installed 11 compressors that are noisy and smelly. But when citizens brought their concerns about the volatile organics associated with the compressors to the attention of the companies and Texas regulators, they got a brush-off. That severed trust between the citizens and the companies, Tillman reported.

When the town commissioned its own study, spending 15 percent of a year’s budget on it, not only methane but a number of known carcinogens were found in “fugitive emissions” from drilling operations. 16 chemicals including benzene were found to be “above the effects screening level.”

The gas industry  has been fighting proposals for Federal regulation. It claims state regulation is adequate. But there are many documented instances of citizens finding state enforcement weak, collusive, and non-credible. And according to a report published by ProPublica, an organization that supports investigative reporting, of 31 drilling states surveyed, only four have detailed regulations governing gas fracking and only 10 require disclosure of the chemicals used.

The gas industry, comparing formations like the Marcellus to Qatar gas and Saudi oil reserves, has been running ads saying that gas could be the bridge to a world powered by wind turbines. It may actually be the other way around: Wind may be the bridge to a world powered by gas. But that will only be the case if the industry plays it straight with the public.

Supercritical Fuel Combustion Could Drastically Improve Efficiency

Transonic Combustion's fuel injection system aims to blow hybrid technologies out of the water. They have demonstrated the ability to get as much as 64 miles-per-gallon on the highway using their TSCi technology, compared to a Toyota Prius's 48 MPG. The technology is likely still a few years away from any degree of mass adoption, but it and similar technologies have the potential to join the alternative fuels movement in ramping up auto efficiency to extreme levels.

The fuel injection system thrives by heating gasoline before injecting it into the combustion chamber; this supercritical state allows it to combust without the need for a spark. While traditional combustion engines end up using only about 15 percent of the total energy contained in fuel, this type of approach could help move toward 30 and even 50 percent. This could drastically reduce the amount of automotive fuel used in the world, significant because, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fully 23 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions came from the transport sector in 2004.

Transonic hopes to begin installing their systems in 2014. The company's VP of business development, Mike Rocke, told Technology Review that at 50 mph cruising speed, a test car was able to achieve 98 mpg.

Elsewhere, other improvements in the standard internal combustion engine are joining in the race for more efficient fuel injection. Last year, Nissan unveiled a dual injector system (left) that by reducing fuel droplet diameter can up fuel efficiency by about four percent.

Biofuels, electric cars and maybe even hydrogen might be on the way, but improving on what we've got won't hurt either.

Photos via Transonic Combustion, Nissan.

DOE Ramps Up "Clean Coal" Initiatives

The Department of Energy recently announced that $154 million in funding will head toward Thompsons, Texas, where NRG Energy will build a post-combustion carbon capture and sequestration project. The CCS technology will theoretically scrub clean the emissions from NRG's W. A. Parish Unit 7, a coal-fired power plant.

The plant will use a company called Fluor Corporation's to capture the emitted carbon dioxide, and the company's press release [PDF] says it will be capable of grabbing 90 percent of the CO2. For the plant in question, this will be equivalent to about 400,000 tons each year.

The captured gas will then be compressed, and used in enhanced oil recovery operations and sequestered in oilfields nearby. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said "Advancing our carbon capture and storage technology will create new jobs in America and reduce our carbon pollution output. It’s another example of our country’s innovation at work."

Of course, it isn't hard to find people to point out the flaws in "clean coal" arguments. Sometimes it's a myth, other times... well, it's a myth a lot of the time, apparently. Environmental groups and renewable energy advocates point out that even if the carbon dioxide can be captured and stored safely - technology that has yet to be rolled out on a large, commercial scale - there is plenty still dirty about mountaintop removal mining, or even about traditional mining.

Still, President Obama has repeatedly touted the idea of clean coal, and Secretary Chu is clearly on board. So for the moment, projects like the NRG Energy plant will move forward, and the myth will perpetuate.

Image via Arnold Paul on Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. Wind Industry Calls for Renewable Energy Standard

This week the American Wind Energy Association assembled a bunch of energy industry executives to make a pitch to the press for a national renewable energy standard, that is, a mandate requiring utilities to generate certain proportions of electricity from renewable sources by certain dates. They argued that such a standard would create jobs, promote green tech manufacturing in the United States, and catch up with other countries that have been leading the way in renewables. "RES is the way we've done it across the world and across the country," said one participant, observing that 29 U.S. states have adopted renewable energy standards.

The trend is real but the assertion dubious. The European countries that have forged ahead the fastest in renewables--Germany, Denmark, and Spain--have done so not primarily with renewables standards but by means of feed-in tariffs: Any party that generates electricity from a designated renewable source is guaranteed definite returns as of specified dates, every such party is entitled to sell the electricity into the national grid, and the added costs are allocated among all ratepayers. The feed-in tariff has an enormously powerful stimulus not just to production but to R&D as well, in that the more cheaply you can make electricity from whatever renewable you use, the higher the profit you're sure to make.

What's wrong with relying on renewable energy standards instead? One big thing is that an RES encourages projects of dubious worth, which in the long run can backfire, as concerns about excessive costs and inadequate performance set it. RES implementation also depends as a rule on complicated systems of renewable energy credits that rivals, in terms of bookkeeping and administrative overhead, the cap-and-trade carbon systems that are so much in fashion.

Speaking of which, as prospects dim for congressional adoption of a really effective U.S. carbon trading regime, Columbia University's Jeffrey R. Sachs suggests we revisit the whole question of how to approach greenhouse gas regulation. Writing in the current issue of Scientific American, Sachs takes the White House to task for leaving negotiation of a climate bill to Congress and lobbyists. "The result is sprawling draft legislation, hard for the public to understand and replete with hidden and overt financial transfers to vested interests." (Sound familiar?) Sachs proposes instead that EPA should regulate carbon aggressively and that the government should reconsider a national carbon tax after all. (Cap and trade was supposed to be the more politically palatable approach, but if it's not palatable after all, why not adopt a much simpler and much more transparent tax bill?) Above all, says Sachs, "the public needs to hear a plan." The Obama administration has promised to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent by 2020, but how exactly is that to be achieved?

Surpisingly Modest Solar Growth Is Predicted

Lux Research, in a recent message to energy reporters, predicts that world solar installation will total 26.4 GW or $77 billion in 2015, as compared with an estimated 9.3 GW and $39 billion in 2010. Considering that Lux is a top analyst covering the solar trade (both photovoltaics and thermal), what's striking about its latest projections is how modest and conservative they are. Going to 26.4 GW from 9.3 GW in just five years may seem like an impressive rate of increase, but in fact it's barely over 20 percent per annum. Estimates of how much the solar business grew from 2007 to 2008--the most recent year available as yet--were as high as 62 percent or even 78 percent. Solarbuzz reported around this time last year that shipments of PV panels had increased 110 percent in 2008.

Lux's projection of solar growth rates in the range of 20-25 percent suggests a conclusion by the firm that the boom peaked the year before last. Still, aren't the projected rates still pretty good, and won't it be an impressive achievement if  more than 25 GW of solar are installed in 2015? Yes, but let's keep those numbers in perspective. China alone saw its total installed electrical capacity go from 300 GW in 2000 to 900 GW in 2010--an average of 60 GW per year, if you just divide 600 GW by 10. In fact, the totals installed have been increasing year by year, so that in the most recent years added annual capacity in China has come to well over 60 GW, by any estimates. It's often said indeed that just the amount of new Chinese  coal generating capacity added yearly is roughly equivalent to total British generating capacity, which is somewhat in excess of 80 GW.

So, if countries like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Russia continue to grow at the remarkable rates they've registered in recent years, briskly expanding their power systems, 25 or 26 GW will represent a significant slice of their new generating capacity in 2015--but it will still be just a slice.

Spain Could Get 7 Percent of its Power From Waste

A study published in the journal Renewable Energy found that Spain could produce up to 7.42 percent of its total electricity needs from various types of waste.

Municipal solid waste, sewage sludge and livestock manure all can be converted into energy using various processes, but the investigators, led by Antonio Gomez at the University of Zaragoza, found that the first of those options provides the most cost-effective means of electricity generation. Converting solid waste through incineration and landfill degasification was half as cheap (about 4 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, or about 5.5 US cents) as converting sludge and manure (more than 8 euro cents).

There could be as much as 4.4 million tons of oil equivalent in the country's municipal solid waste, which could produce 15 TWh per year, representing more than 5 percent of Spain's 2006 energy consumption. Landfill degasification could account for another 1.42 percent of the total.

"It gives added value to waste, because it can be seen as a type of fuel with zero cost, or even a negative cost if taxes are paid to collect it," said another of the researchers, Norberto Fueyo, in a press release. Waste in landfills releases the greenhouse gas methane, so using the waste as an energy source reduces emissions both in the avoidance of fossil fuels as well as reductions in landfill gases.

Momentum on waste-to-energy ideas has picked up recently, with the US Department of Energy giving out more than $130 million [PDF] to two companies (Enerkem and BlueFire) looking to open plants that will convert waste to cellulosic ethanol for use in vehicles. We also wrote last week about British Airways' new waste-to-jetfuel plant. It took a while, but trash is finally being put to good use.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Cursed Efforts to Diagnose and Correct Climate Panel's Accursed Himalayan Glacier Errors

The discovery of several errors concerning the fate of Himalayan glaciers in a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been an acute embarrassment to a group that recently was awarded a Nobel Prize and which has generally been considered authoritative by the press, public, and policymakers. It turns out that the errors arose from a complicated and seemingly cursed series of attributions and mis-attributions. What is more, according to what is to date the best and most detailed analysis, attempts to set the record straight have themselves been cursed.

"Dozens of articles and analyses of this situation, whether dashed-off blog posts or New York Times coverage, exhibit a curious consistency," say Bidasha Banerjee and George Collins, Yale graduate students. "Not a single article or analysis appears to include all relevant issues without introducing at least one substantial error. It's as though the original documents contained a curse that has spread to infect every commentator and reporter.  The curse seems to stem from not reading sources carefully (or not at all), which, ironically, was the IPCC Working Group II's central failing, and also a major issue in the documents that were the basis of the defective paragraph."

One person who comes in for some criticism both for inadevertently contributing to the IPCC errors and for not adequately elucidating them after the fact is Fred Pearce. It's not damning criticism, however, and Pearce's analysis of the climategate e-mail imbroglio--a separate but almost equally embarrassing matter to the climate community--is still well worth reading for the perspectives it offers. Pearce is a long-time and well-known contributor to Britain's New Scientist magazine; his article can be found at Yale's excellent environment360 website, which has just been honored with a National Magazine Award nomination in digital media.

The article by Banerjee and Collins is to be found at the equally excellent website, the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

Famed Texas Energy Takeover Runs into Heavy Weather

In fall 2007, the world's most accomplished practitioner of the leveraged buyout and corporate reorganization, K.K.R., engineered the biggest private equity takeover in history, buying TXU, the top Texas electricity company. What made the deal especially newsworthy was that K.K.R.'s Henry Kravis formulated it in close collaboration with Fred Krupp, the highly paid and hugely influential CEO of Environmental Defense (now once again the Environmental Defense Fund), as well as leaders of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The executives of EDF and NRDC, arguably the two most technically expert and politcally sophisticated environmental advocacy organizations in the United States, obtained from K.K.R. and TXU a commitment to ditch plans for 8 of 11 coal-fired power plants.

Writing in this space not long after, Spectrum editor-in-chief Susan Hassler raised some pertinent questions: Was the deal as green as it looked? Might the coal plants have been scuttled anyway? Assuming the new coal plants were actually needed, where then would Texas find alternative generation? Would those sources be as green as promised? Hassler quoted one analyst as saying that while the deal showed that climate change had emerged as a big factor in electricity planning, it might also have "provided TXU an escape strategy from its ill-fated plan to build 11 new coal plants in Texas."

At the time nobody seemed to wonder whether the plan was financially sound, probably because it was concocted by one of Wall Street's favorite wizards, with the support of an environmental leader who makes a point of matching the lifestyles of the CEOs he negotiates with. But in a long analytic article that appeared in the business section of last Sunday's New York Times, reporters Jenny Anderson and Julie Creswell suggest that the deal had a near-fatal flaw: It was in effect "a gargantuan bet that natural gas prices would keep climbing," but instead they plummeted; as a result those who financed $40 billion of the $48 billion deal " have seen losses," with their bonds trading at 70 or 80 cents on the dollar.

The Times article, though long, raises as many questions as it answers, and is not always as clear as it might be. Why was the deal a big bet on higher natural gas prices? Because, the authors say, electricity prices in the competitive Texas market are mainly governed by gas prices; thus, if a company like Energy Future Holdings (the former TXU) can generate a lot of electricity using cheap coal, it stands to make big profits if can sell the electricity at prices determined by expensive gas.

But wait a minute: Wasn't TXU supposed to be weaning itself off coal? And didn't it promise, as Hassler reported, to buy a lot more electricity generated by wind? If the company is buying more electricity in the open market, shouldn't it also benefit from lower prices? Which is it?

No mention is made in the New York Times article of nuclear energy. But within months of the K.K.R. takeover and coal plant cancellations, Texas announced plants to invest heavily in nuclear generation. The big Japanese nuclear manufacturers--Hitachi, Toshiba, Mitsubishi--began angling for business. But in the last year Texan nuclear prospects have dimmed markedly, with a San Antonio project hanging in the balance. Could false nuclear expectations have played a part in the 2007 transaction? It would be an interesting question to put to EDF and NRDC leaders, some of whom have turned quietly pro-nuclear because of climate concerns but still hesitate to tell their constituents four-square where they stand.

Radioactive Clean-Up, Venus Flytrap-Style

A Venus flytrap doesn't snap shut for just anything. It knows when something edible lands on its leaves, just as a newly developed framework of metal sulfide knows when a radioactive cesium ion has dropped into its "jaws."

Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago created a rigid structure that carries a negative charge. The substance, made of layers of [(CH3)2NH2]+ and [Ga2Sb2S7]2−, has pores which attract positively charged ions when in solution. Sodium ions, which account for the harmless part of nuclear waste, move freely in and out of the framework when it is immersed in water. The other part, though, is not harmless: cesium atoms are highly radioactive, can leach into soil and water and stay in the environment for decades (like they have at Chernobyl). They also bonded to the sulfide framework, but they didn't escape like the sodium could.

"Imagine the framework like a Venus flytrap," said one of the researchers involved, Mercouri Kanatzidis, in a press release. "When the plant jaws are open, you can drop a pebble in and the plant won't close—it knows it isn't food. When a fly enters, however, the plant's jaws snap shut." The research was published in Nature Chemistry.

Cesium does not bond as freely with water as does sodium, which explains the difference when the cesium atoms enter the framework and can't get out again. The authors say this could eventually be used to aid in cleanup of nuclear waste or disaster zones.

"The dynamic response we describe here provides important insights for designing new materials for the selective removal of difficult-to-capture ions," the investigators wrote in the paper's abstract.

Photo via Argonne Nat. Lab on Flickr.

British Airways to Green Itself Up With Waste-to-Fuel Plant

Traditional biofuel processes have been slammed in recent years for their effects on land use and food prices, as well as apparently limited overall reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Momentum has been growing, though, on some newer sources for biofuel production, like algae and solid waste.

Turning waste biomass into something useful could, if done on a large scale, potentially play a huge role in global warming mitigation. And now one of the biggest industry contributors - airlines - to the global emission of carbon dioxide is jumping on that bandwagon. British Airways will open a biofuel production plant in London that will convert 500,000 tonnes of waste that would otherwise head to a landfill each year into about 16 million gallons of jet fuel. The plan is in partnership with Solena Group, a Washington-based company that owns the process that will convert waste biomass into SynBioGas. From that, the Fischer-Tropsch process is used to produce bio jetfuel and bionaphtha (used as a blending component in gasoline and as a feedstock in petrochemical processes).

The airline promises that the plant itself will be carbon-neutral, and that the production and use of the biofuel in British Airway jets will save 550,000 tonnes of emitted carbon dioxide. For comparison, the airline itself calculated its carbon footprint in 2008 at 17,714,897 tonnes, so if these estimates are correct than the new plant represents about a 3 percent reduction. And at the same time, British Airways continues to stand behind plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport, a plan that would increase the airport's capacity, probably resulting in many more carbon-spewing flights, and has drawn the ire of many who say it will be environmentally disastrous.

But the British Airways announcement highlights the current trend toward the development of biofuels for use in jets. Other than waste biomass, algae has shown the most promise for biofuel production, as it also does not supplant food crops like corn and can theoretically be carbon neutral. Whether or not other airlines follow suit immediately, chances seem good that jet fuel will be at least mildly more carbon-friendly in the near future.

Image: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

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