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Environmental Costliness of Advanced Natural Gas Extraction

A recent post took note of a column by Robert F. Kennedy Jr, in which the environmental activist and Kennedy family scion proposed to change U.S. electricity dispatch rules to encourage rapid replacement of coal generation by natural gas. The basis for his argument is the discovery in recent years of "vast supplies of deep shale gas in the United States, along with advanced extraction methods," as he put it. But not every environmentalist will sign onto that kind of plan—not without serious reservations, anyway.

In a column in today's New York Times, editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg expresses alarm about the impact advanced gas extraction could have in the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation running from New York State’s Catskill Mountains to southwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.  Imagining what the future could look like, Klinkenborg pauses at a clearing on a gravel road in rural upstate New York: "If the state gives the go-ahead, that subtle opening will be replaced by an industrial-sized clearing to make space for a drilling rig and all the machinery needed to fracture the shale and extract and pump the gas. All that equipment will travel on the gravel road we had just walked, which runs along a stream bank."

Juxtaposing Kennedy and Klinkenborg points up the fact that when it comes to the hard trade-offs and choices regarding future electricity generation, there is no single environmental position. Personally, I have disagreed with Robert Kennedy's campaign to close the Indian Point nuclear plant north of New York City and with the Kennedy family's opposition to construction of an offshore wind farm near Martha's Vineyard; Klinkenborg looks to be parting ways on natural gas. There will be many such partings.

Robert F. Kennedy Favors Green Gas

That's natural gas the environmental leader is talking about, not petrol. In a striking column that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had in the Financial Times this week, he advocates a simple regulatory change that would quickly result in the United States relying much more heavily on gas for electricity, and less on coal—an undesirable fuel not only because of its very high carbon emissions but also because of ozone, particulate and neurotoxic mercury emissions, and acid rain. By comparison with coal, Kennedy argues trenchantly, gas is green.

"Since 2007," Kennedy observes, "the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the United States, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century." Surprisingly, he continues, America has more gas generation capacity--450 gigawatts--than coal capacity.

Why, then does the United States produce half of its electricity from coal, which accounts for about a third of its greenhouse gas emissions? Because, says Kennedy, "public regulators generally require utilities to dispatch coal-generated power in preference to gas. For that reason, high-efficiency gas plants are in operation only 36 percent of the time." If that rule were changed, "in an instant" three quarters of the country’s coal-generated electricity could be replaced with gas, cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions an estimated 20 percent.

Kennedy does not discuss the reasons for the current seemingly bizarre dispatch rules. Presumably, large coal plants are generally classified like nuclear reactors as baseload generation, to run as much of the time as possible. Smaller gas fired plants, which can be much more readily ramped up or down, often are reserved for peaking. Taking economies associated with that distinction into account, it may be that suddenly giving gas preference would be more costly than Kennedy implies. Even so, however, he seems to be putting his finger on a policy lever that could induce rapid fuel switching more economically (and more rapidly) than we could hope from cap-and-trade or carbon taxation, which likely would drive up electricity rates considerably more.

Kennedy, besides being the son of the late senator and presidential contender, has been well known in New York State for many years as an effective and ardent environmental activist. Time magazine designated him a "hero of the planet" for his efforts to restore the Hudson River. This year Rolling Stone magazine named him one of its "100 agents of change." Several years ago Kennedy had national prominence with an article in Rolling Stone that argued, rather persuasively, that the Republicans stole the 2004 presidential election with vote rigging in the crucial state of Ohio.

Bioengineering Algae for Fuels

Last week, the New York Times reported that Exxon Mobil had teamed up with Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics to work on the production of algae-based biofuels. As president and founder of Celera Genomics, Venter became a powerhouse of the biotech world in the 1990s, having spearheaded that company's effort to sequence the human genome in direct competition with the public Human Genome Project.

Venter and Synthetic Genomics, along with Exxon Mobil, could add a much-needed boost to the prospect of using algae instead of more conventional feedstocks for the production of biofuels. Indeed, the possibility that algae can be harnessed in this way is about the only reason to hold out much hope that biofuels will ever provide the world with large amounts of renewable transportation fuel that is environmentally benign to produce.

Let me try to defend that brash statement. For argument's sake, consider the production of biodiesel, a gallon of which can run a car virtually the same distance as a gallon of petroleum diesel. To keep things concrete, let's also say that the target is to have all of the diesel used as transportation fuel in the United States be biodiesel--according the Energy Information Administration, that's about 45 billion gallons a year. (Keep in the back of your mind, too, that this is but a small fraction of the gasoline Americans use: some 141 billion gallons a year.) 

If you made all that biodiesel from, say, rapeseed oil, how much land would it take? For that you need to know that an acre of rapeseed can generate about 100 gallons of biodiesel a year. So the math is simple: It would take 450 million acres--about a fifth of the all the land area in the United States. This is roughly equal to all the cropland in this country (406 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

And that just satisfies the need for diesel fuel; it does nothing to put a dent in the petroleum used to make gasoline.

How environmentally friendly would it be, after all, to double the area under cultivation? Replacing vast areas of fallow farmland and forests with monoculture would be a high price to pay for making the use of diesel in our cars and trucks be carbon neutral.

And it probably wouldn't even do that, if you account for the carbon released from the soil in process. This argument is well quantified by Joseph Fargione of the Nature Conservancy and four colleagues in a report last year in the journal Science.

So what's an environmentally conscious biofuel advocate to do? One answer is to look for a feedstock that provides many more gallons per acre.

Which brings us back to the possibility of using algae. These single-celled organisms grow much, much faster than more familiar plants, allowing perhaps several thousand gallons of biodiesel to be produced from each acre. That's almost two orders of magnitude better than rapeseed. So, in theory, it would be possible to satisfy U.S. needs for diesel fuel using a reasonable amount of real estate. Indeed, you can even imaging displacing the petroleum used for gas this way without sacrificing too great a fraction of U.S. land. 

The problem is that nobody has yet figured out how to turn algae into fuel economically. 

Closed bioreactors, in which you can control the growing conditions, would be terribly costly at the scale required. Shallow open ponds are a lot cheaper, but they are susceptible to being taken over by algal species other than the one was intended to be grown. Researchers ran into this problem in the 1980s when they set up demonstration facilities for growing algae as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Algal Species Program.

Here's where I suspect that modern biotechnology can give this enterprise a real boost. Maybe molecular biologists will be able to engineer an oil-rich algal species that grows happily under conditions that would kill off the competition--say, a Monsanto-approved "Roundup Ready" species of algae that can thrive in water laced with this herbicide. Okay, maybe Roundup is too nasty to want to spread over an area the size of a small state. But perhaps some other tactic can be used, say, the absence of a key nutrient that only the genetically engineered species can compensate for. 

I don't claim to know what plant genetic engineers might pull out of their sleeves in the quest to make algae into a practical feedstock for biofuels, but I suspect that their contribution will prove larger than what the mechanical engineers working on closed bioreactors can come up with. That's why I'm excited to hear that Venter has this problem in his sights. Maybe, just maybe, he or others like him will finally figure out how to produce vast amounts of biofuel without doing great harm to the environment. Until then, though, it'll be strictly petroleum-based fuels for me.

Photo of algal bioreactor by Umberto Salvagnin, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Hillary Clinton Advances Nuclear Sales to India

It was announced today, July 21, that India has promised the visiting U.S. secretary of state that two nuclear power plant sites will be reserved exclusively for U.S. bidders. It’s the payoff resulting from the immensely controversial U.S.-India nuclear deal that was finalized during the final year of George W. Bush’s administration, ending decades of nuclear embargo. And as such it’s being hailed as a small victory for U.S. diplomacy and an opportunity for hard-pressed U.S. business. Yet it’s a strange world in which a country, described until just the day before yesterday as a defiant nuclear outcast, suddenly is being welcomed into a nuclear club in which few restrictions apply.

Consider the history: following a nuclear weapons test in 1974, which the Indians disingenuously characterized as the demonstration of a "peaceful nuclear explosive" (as if such radioactive bombs were going to be used in civil engineering projects), nuclear suppliers strictly limited sales to India; India had used material in the test that had been produced in a Canada-supplied reactor, circumventing international safeguards. During the next decades, India refrained from further testing but also refused to endorse the principle of non-proliferation on grounds that it "disarmed the armed while leaving the unarmed free to keep arming." Why, asked Indian nuclear strategists, taking their cues from French theorists, would an Indian nuclear bomb increase the risk of war when, as all could see, U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were deterring the two superpowers from going to war?

In the aftermath of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998, which resulted in both countries' openly becoming nuclear weapons states, efforts to maintain restrictions on nuclear trade with India gradually lost steam. Naturally companies that stood to make sales to India urged their governments to lift restrictions: they made that argument loud and clear, and it was hard to resist. But there was also a second argument, hardly if ever made explicitly, but perhaps in the back of some policymakers' minds--an argument not considered respectable in the United States during the previous decades, but now quietly gaining ground.

During the 24 years separating the first and second Indian tests--years in which, by the way, opportunities to keep the subcontinent nuclear-free were squandered--nobody in the United States wanted to indulge India's notion that possession of nuclear weapons would make the world more peaceful, not more violent. Pushed to its logical limit, a world in which every Tom, Dick or Harry had a nuclear arsenal, the idea seemed utterly insane. But ask yourself, confining your attention to the subcontinent, whether war between Pakistan and India is more or less likely now that both have nuclear arsenals. To judge from many recent events, notably the way both countries handled the terrorist attack in Mumbai last year, the honest answer would seem to be that their going nuclear has reduced the likelihood of war between them.

To look ahead, will the Iran story play out along essentially the same lines? Once it has acquired all the wherewithal needed to make an atomic bomb and actually makes one, will Israel then come out of the closet and openly declare itself a nuclear weapons state too? Will war between Israel and Iran then become absolutely unthinkable? And will that soon imply that U.S. companies can sell Iran anything they want?



Immelt ist Verschimmelt

To borrow a Yiddish expression with roots in German, the CEO of General Electric is confused. Writing in the July 9 issue of the Financial Times, Jeffrey Immelt argues that the U.S. government should adopt “an industrial strategy built around helping companies to succeed with investment that will drive innovation and support high-technology manufacturing and exports.”  Immelt seems to have forgotten that the U.S. government has already adopted that strategy: the stimulus bill provides more than 10 billion dollars in funding and loan guarantees for smart grid and green technology (among other things), of which GE undoubtedly will be the Number One beneficiary.

Not bothering to acknowledge that, Immelt proceeds to argue that the U.S. government should also subsidize companies like GE not just to make U.S. workers more competitive globally but also to make its workers in China, India and UK (to name the countries he happens to name) more competitive. In other words, the U.S. government should pay General Electric to undermine the fundamental objective of the stimulus bill and other economic legislation, which is to improve U.S. competitiveness vis-a-vis other countries, not reduce it.

Either Immelt is verschimmelt or, even by the standards of corporate barons, he has a lot of chutzpah.


ExxonMobil and Venter Team Up to Develop Algal Biofuels

At the beginning of 2007, at a conference in La Jolla, Calif., dedicated to biotechnology and biofuels, I was privileged to hear a banquet address by C. Craig Venter, the biotechnologist who cracked the human genome, beating the U.S. government. He made, I felt, a highly schizoid impression: on the one hand, charismatic, all-encompassing, omniscient; on the other . . . megalomaniacal mad scientist.

Perhaps ExxonMobil executives have been mulling over similar impressions, as they contemplate the potential of biofuels and biotechnology. But this week, as  the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing approaches, the company announced it is partnering with Venter’s Synthetic Genomics to develop liquid fuels from bioengineered algae. The $600 million that ExxonMobil is investing may be but a pittance for a company that earned $45 billion last year, but if Venter turns out to be of sound mind and delivers on his promises, this may someday be seen as another huge leap for humankind.

A Decentralized Model for U.S. Nuclear Waste Management

Writing in today’s issue of Science magazine, two well-respected academic experts propose a new national strategy for U.S. nuclear waste disposal. Drawing lessons from the 22-year failed effort to establish a permanent geologic repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Rodney  Ewing (Michigan) and Frank von Hippel (Princeton) say it was an obvious mistake to try to force the facility down the throats of unwilling Nevadans. They also declare unfortunate the very long time it took the Environmental Protection Agency  to produce an environmental assessment, and the fact that the assessment was site-specific rather than generic to any proposed nuclear waste repository.

Taking cues from more successful planning for permanent nuclear waste disposal in Sweden, Finland, and France, Ewing and von Hippel propose that U.S. disposal policy should be regionalized. States in which nuclear power plants operate should develop their own permanent disposal plans, perhaps in combination with each other and perhaps in line with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s zones. EPA should formulate generic performance standards suitable for any facility.

Pickens Pares Plan

It came as little surprise this week when Pickens announced he would have to cut back plans for what was to be the world’s largest wind farm, a 4 GW plantation in Texas. With capital costs high and financiers jittery, Pickens was having a hard time getting the new transmission built that the farm would require. And, ironically, with natural gas prices sharply down and utilities relying more on gas to generate electricity, demand for additional wind capacity has drifted into the doldrums. But although this week's announcement may have been a foregone conclusion, it’s a suitable time to take stock of the Pickens Plan, the idea of ramping up wind generation to produce electricity and use the natural gas freed up by the additional wind capacity to power motor vehicles.

Obviously the  Pickens Plan is highly self-interested--the Texan owns the nation’s biggest network of natural gas filling stations and has huge stakes in gas distribution generally. Nevertheless,  when the plan was first unveiled last year, I advised readers that if they had to choose between just it and Al Gore’s latest ideas, they should go with the T Boone. The estimable Vaclav Smil, writing more recently, agrees: at least, as the University of Manitoba environmental scientist and energy expert observes, the Pickens plan is doable in principle. (Gore’s plan is “utterly unrealistic.”)

Taking stock in the pages of a Yale University environmental website, Smil likes the Pickens Plan’s “cascading simplicity" but worries about it "sheer grandiosity." Taken literally, it would require the country in very short order to go from having perhaps 200,000 vehicles fueled by natural gas to having tens of millions, with all that implies. At the same time, the country would have to build maybe 40,000 miles of new transmission lines to carry electricity from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to its industrial heartlands, though in each of the two most recent decades we have added less than 10,000 miles.

My fundamental concern is different. Though I agree with Pickens that we can and should sharply increase wind generation, I believe we should also ramp up natural gas production and imports and use the extra gas to replace coal generation of electricity, not primarily to power motor vehicles. Per unit energy, replacing coal with gas produces much larger dividends in terms of carbon reduction than  replacing oil with gas.

Broadly speaking, If our fundamental objective is to reduce dependence on unreliable foreign oil suppliers, then the Pickens approach makes sense. But in fact, contrary to widely held preconceptions, though the United States imports most of its oil, only a small fraction comes from the volatile Middle East.  As I see it, climate change--not oil dependence--is the most urgent problem facing us and the world. Though volatile oil prices have been a very serious problem, the answer to that is simple, clear, and not new: tax up the oil price to some predetermined level, and keep it there. 






Doubts Cast on Nuclear Renaissance

Quite a number of recent developments in the nuclear industry, most notably big cost overruns and delays on a Finnish reactor being built by France's Areva, have called into question whether a widely anticipated "nuclear renaissance" is really going to happen. As discussed here and elsewhere, rising construction and financing costs have meant that new reactor projects can get underway only with big government subsidies or pre-construction electricity rate increases. Because of uncertainties about when and how such support will actually materialize, Moody's Investor Services has cautioned potential investors in nuclear projects that risks may not be adequately taken into account. Even though Moody's believes that reactors may well be financially viable once operating, observes University of Vermont economist Mark Cooper, problems with permitting and financing may make it difficult or impossible to get nuclear power plants up and running in the first place.

Cooper is the author of a recent report "The Consumer Economics of Nuclear Reactors: Renaissance or Ripoff?", in which he highlights a fourfold increase in reactor construction costs in the last decade, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of the seven-fold increase seen in the first generation of nuclear construction. What's particularly troubling about the development--though this is a point Cooper does not explicitly make--is that the cost runups in the first generation are often attributed to radically tightened safety regulation and retrofit requirements after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident; in the last decade, no such event is available to explain why costs have gone up so much. On the contrary, the industry was supposed to have learned how to build plants in a more standardized manner, at more predictable costs.

Cooper argues that even if, in the future, it's made much more costly to emit carbon, nuclear reactors will not become a significantly greater part of our energy supply if decisions are made on a least-cost basis. Specifically, the nuclear option will remain for decades to come more expensive than efficiency, cogeneration, geothermal, biomass, landfill, onshore wind, and natural gas (though not coal with carbon capture or, possibly, photovoltaics).

There may, in a sense, be less to this argument than meets the eye. All serious students of the subject agree that energy efficiency is the cheapest and fastest way to address energy shortages and cut emissions: the best kind of new watts are what Amory Lovins has dubbed "negawatts." With the proper price incentives and regulatory requirements, greater energy efficiency ought to make it possible for us to keep total energy consumption at current levels. But if we want, beyond that, to reduce reliance on coal and oil, what are we going to use in their place? The only obvious candidates at present are natural gas, nuclear, and thermal solar--regardless of how expensive they may be relative to one another on average. Not any one of them will be best in every situation, but every one will have its niche.

Nonetheless, Cooper provides a compelling and disturbing analysis of the challenges the nuclear industry will have to surmount if nuclear is to become a bigger player or, in the long run, be a player at all. His lucid account of overnight, all-in, and busbar cost accounting is, by itself, worth the time it takes to download his report.

Setting the Record Straight on FutureGen and IGCC

Gregg Easterbrook is a well-regarded environmental writer and a long-term contributor to the ultra-prestigious Atlantic Monthly. But I hope he never is the one to decide whether I get my next job or publication, because I'm about to correct two mistakes he makes in today’s New York Times. In “The Dirty War Against Clean Coal,” Easterbrook takes the Energy Department to task for resuscitating FutureGen, its futuristic clean-coal project. “This is part of a Washington tradition,” says Easterbrook, ”beginning pie-in-the-sky projects that create an excuse to avoid forms of conservation and greenhouse-gas reduction that are possible immediately. Companies including General Electric have alrady perfected technology to reduce emissions substantially, called 'integrated gasification combined cycle' [IGCC] power."

In other words, instead of going for an unproved new technology, the Department of Energy should stick with IGCC. But there's a problem here. FutureGen IS an IGCC plant and always has been so visualized. (In addition to gasifying coal, it would separate and capture all carbon and permanently store it away.)

There’s another problem. “The first commercial gasification power plant, designed by General Electric for Duke Energy, is being build in Indiana,” Easterbrook continues. Actually, two IGCC plants have been operating for many years: Tampa Electric’s Polk plant near Tampa, and Duke Energy’s Wabash River plant near Terre Haute, Indiana. (We're not bragging, because it's not exactly breaking news, but both ieee tv and IEEE Spectrum visited the Polk plant two summers ago, and descriptions can be found both at IEEE TV and in Spectrum magazine.) Per watthour of electricity produced, the Polk plant's is easily the most expensive in the whole country.

As long as the record is being set straight, Easterbrook’s straw-man conclusion also is very misleading. Green power, that is to say wind and solar, “simply cannot grow fast enough to eliminate the need for coal,” he says. But nobody is talking about eliminating our need for coal. What we can do is sharply reduce our reliance on coal, and to accomplish that, we can turn not only to wind but also to nuclear and gas-generated electricity. Per watt, nuclear eliminates for all practical purposes 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions; natural gas cuts them about 50 perent.






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