Our Energy Future is Carbon Free
A message to World Leaders at COP26
By Jerry Jung | November 4, 2021
Energy is a fascinating subject. To fully appreciate the many factors that play into this important topic, one must be well versed in biology, economics, business, geography, geology, physics, chemistry, power generation dynamics and most importantly politics.
Why biology? Because most important is a habitable and healthy planet. The impact of energy production on human health spans the gamut from airborne emissions to electromagnetic fields to ground water to climate.
Why economics and business? Because economics and business inform the proper allocation of resources, most notable of which is human resources. Also critical are natural resources and their relative costs.
Why geography? Because energy production takes up space. The proximity to users, to transportation and distribution as well as the fundamental value of the developed property for other uses all play roles. Weather, especially regarding hurricanes and sea ice play roles too.
Why geology? Fukushima is the poster child for this one, but geology also plays a key role in siting nuclear waste disposal, storage of liquid and gaseous energy and the extraction of hydrocarbons.
Why physics and chemistry? The laws of nature are on full display regardless of how energy is produced, be it hydroelectric; steam turbines; gas or oil powered engines and turbines; wind turbines or solar panels—no matter what the energy source, be it falling water, hydrocarbons, wind, nuclear fission, solar or biomass. Physical and chemical characteristics set the parameters that drive business and political decisions.
Power Generation itself is a function of physics and chemistry with a lot of engineering thrown in too! Dozens of factors impact the economics of power production, but the most important are fixed costs (capital costs) variable costs (energy or fuel costs) and availability characteristics such as uptime.
I do not profess to be an expert in any of these areas, but I do have an intuitive grasp of the basics of each. My considered opinion is that future energy production be predicated on liquid hydrogen produced by remote offshore nuclear power plants.
Here is how such a scenario play out:
Biology: Zero harmful emissions. (Just water vapor) Radiation is limited to remote locations. Disposal of nuclear waste could be accomplished by encasing in glass and dropping in deep oceanic trenches as is done by Norway. Another option is reprocessing expended materials as is done by France. Yet another approach would be to bury the waste as has been proposed by Canada. Each of these methods would be facilitated when the reactors are near each other and to the waste disposal process.
Economics and business: This approach would necessitate large upfront costs but is less expensive than other approaches because the distribution of liquid hydrogen could utilize modified existing petrochemical infrastructure. Also, the variable or fuel costs of nuclear power are a fraction of conventional power production—less than a penny per kWh as compared to a minimum of 5 cents and upwards for conventional plants. Hydrogen can be utilized to create the heat required to produce steam at existing fossil fuel power plants which in turn would utilize existing electrical distribution infrastructure.
Demand for electricity varies widely. Since the proposed nuclear plants produce fuel, not electricity, they could operate at optimal capacity full time. The nature of fuel is that it is a store of energy ready to be used as needed. (It should be noted, however, that liquid hydrogen does create storage challenges.) Liquid hydrogen could fuel the transportation sector as well as modified power generation stations. Gaseous hydrogen could replace natural gas in pipelines.
Geography and Geology: Possible sites for production of hydrogen would include southern Greenland, remote east and west coasts of Canada, the Alaskan Panhandle, the southwest tip of Australia and various oceanic islands. Siting must include geopolitical and perimeter security as well the tradeoff of proximity to markets versus distance from population centers.
Of special interest would be the deep-water port of Halifax. Recent improvements to rail lines with high car access to the United States provide an alternative to sea routes as could pipelines and high Kv electric transmission lines.
Physics and chemistry: The Lawrence Livermore National Ignition Facility recently achieved promising results moving the world one step closer to commercial fusion. Nevertheless, for the near future, nuclear fission remains the only viable option to produce carbon free energy on the scale required. The production of hydrogen would be accomplished utilizing electrolysis of salt water. The oxygen could be released into the atmosphere or captured along with the hydrogen. Capturing the oxygen and combining with hydrogen later would enhance combustion efficiencies. Hydrogen fuel cells are a proven technology that converts hydrogen to electricity, but the concept of a fuel injection system that utilizes hydrogen and pure oxygen in an internal combustion engine deserves study.
Power Generation utilizing fission has a decades long history. The potential for catastrophic radioactive accidents must be minimized going forward. New failsafe technologies must be incorporated into the design of the power plants. Standardization of design is essential to control costs associated with construction and maintenance. Large scale operations are essential to reduce the unit costs associated with port facilities, hydrogen production, waste treatment, support of workers at remote locations and site security. Envision two sites serving North America (one near the Pacific and one near the Atlantic) each with two hundred nuclear plants each plant providing 1 gigawatt of electricity. Such a scenario would generate 400 gigawatts of electricity or about 3,500 terawatt hours (tWh) of electricity each year. The U.S. currently consumes about an 11,000 tWh equivalent of energy in various forms each year. Electricity accounts for 38% of this total whereas petroleum products utilized by the transportation sector account for another 25% of the total. Converting the annual output of the proposed nuclear generating sites from TwH to liquid hydrogen yields 330 trillion gallons of fuel—the equivalent of 6 or 7 large tanker ships at each of the two hypothetical ports each day. There are currently 642 liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers worldwide. Although hydrogen liquifies at lower temperatures than LNG, these tankers could be repurposed to accept liquid hydrogen instead of LNG. These ships would sail to modified refineries and clean burning electrical power stations with much shorter routes than is currently the case with LNG. The new breed of liquid hydrogen carriers would utilize the gaseous hydrogen that bleeds off of its liquid cargo as fuel.
Strategically located hydrogen gas turbine stations in the 20 to 100 megawatt range could derive their fuel from exiting gas pipelines that would supply hydrogen instead of natural gas. This approach would minimize the need for major electrical transmission investments reducing the need for more high kV lines with their associated real estate requirements—not to mention potentially dangerous electromagnetic radiation. Gas powered turbines cycle on and off quickly making them a good companion to unreliable solar and wind electricity. Known as distributed power, such relatively small power plants close to users provide a cost-effective way to supply the needs of the expanding electric car market.
The fatal flaws of other forms of energy production follow:
Fossil fuels create CO2 when combusted. Greenhouse gases such as CO2 are a major factor responsible for global warming. Natural gas (CH4) is the cleanest burning. When burned, it produces less CO2 and soot than other fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the underground fracking process utilized to obtain this gas risks ground water contamination if the fracking process fractures the top of a formerly impervious layer of reef. Such contamination of ground water can take decades to appear as the lighter gas and associated hydrocarbons move slowly up toward the surface of the earth. Coal is a destructive force both when it is mined and when it is burned. It is the worst fossil fuel in terms of CO2 emissions.
Biomass can be a sustainable source of energy if it utilizes waste products such as the methane produced as garbage decomposes in landfills. The absolute worst form of biomass is the conversion of food crops such as corn and soybeans to ethanol and biodiesel which is most certainly not sustainable. Because agriculture is so fossil fuel intensive, no net energy is produced, and energy consumption is doubled—once to make it and once to burn it in our car engines. Crop based biofuels do not reduce fossil fuel consumption. The use of food crops for fuel also drives up food costs—a social justice issue if ever there was one. In addition, agricultural runoff pollutes rivers, lakes, coastal areas and rural water wells. In the case of the western basin of Lake Erie, excessive nutrients have fed toxic algae blooms that have shut down public water supplies. Massive acreages are required to produce fuel crops resulting in devastating losses of biodiversity.
Wind and solar power production do not produce greenhouse gases, but each of these renewable forms of energy has limited uptime creating the need for energy storage or for back-up sources of electricity such as natural gas power plants that would operate when there is limited sun or wind. Note that wind turbines produce power only 29% of the time and solar does not work at night. Heavy reliance on these two forms of part-time energy sources is a recipe for rolling blackouts. There is increasing resistance to wind turbine visual and noise pollution by local rural residents. Offshore turbines are much more expensive than land-based wind turbines. Wind turbines kill an estimated 214,000 to 368,000 birds and bats each year in the U.S. alone. Solar panels take up a lot of real estate. For instance, 23,000 acres of prime farmland will be required to replace the Monroe, Michigan coal fired plant.
Hydroelectric power is clean. Its downside relates primarily to ecological issues associated with migrating fish such as salmon, destruction of bottomland forest and evaporation of surface water—often a scare resource sorely needed downstream. The output of hydroelectric power is limited by geography and weather and can never generate more than a fraction of our total needs.
Political considerations: Many academicians believe that the pursuit of truth is an end in itself. But if this truth is overshadowed by widely publicized money backed jukebox science and left to molder on a metaphorical digit bookshelf, of what value is it? Politics is how science-based policies can become reality, improving the lives of billions of people. The goal here is preserving the great interconnected mosaic that is biodiversity and planetary health.
The nature of politics is that various interests compete for government policies and funding. The existential problem is that concentrated interests are more effective at influencing government action than are the less focused and less influential interests of the general public and future generations. This challenge is heightened by the fact that those that would profit from liquid hydrogen energy are largely absent from “the table.”
The way forward in the U.S. is fraught with political challenges. Key stake holders include the fossil fuel industry, car manufactures, utilities and biofuel advocates. From a domestic political perspective, the biggest impediment to achieving a science-based energy policy is blind Republican allegiance to fossil fuels and the equally detrimental Democratic allegiance to utilities.
A recent example of how Democratic support of utilities influences decisions is the torpedoing of a well thought out proposal to store nuclear waste underground miles from the Lake Huron shoreline on the Bruce Peninsula of Canada. There are currently 88 nuclear power plants in the U.S., each storing nuclear waste above ground—each a soft target for devastating terrorist attacks that could unleash radiation over surrounding areas. In addition to public appearances by Michigan’s U.S. Senators condemning the Bruce peninsula storage plan, so called conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club—more loyal to the Democratic Party than to the environment—joined the opposition. The Sierra Club was also instrumental in undermining nuclear storage underneath Yucca Mountain. To give the utilities credit, perhaps there is a better way to dispose of nuclear waste. In this case, in the sophisticated waste processes associated with the proposed hydrogen production complexes.
Senator Manchin of West Virginia sited injury to the coal industry as his rationale for undermining the $150,000,000 energy package contained in the reconciliation bill up before Congress. Republican Senator Grassely and the Iowa caucus didn’t help the energy provisions of this legislation either when they loaded the bill with counterproductive biofuel provisions.
The biofuel lobby is a front for agricultural input producers comprising chemical companies, seed producers, biofuel producers, farm equipment manufacturers, commodity speculators and misled farmers represented by the Farm Bureau. It is well past time for the USDA to replace its hodgepodge system of quotas and subsidies and with a market-based system responding to supply and demand parameters driven by food and carbon offset markets. Note that the biofuel industry is supported politically by the Bio Innovation Organization that receives a share of agricultural exports amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. Their funding source boomed when the U.S. switched 70,000,000 acres of agricultural land from feedstock production into highly subsidized fuel production. Much of the displaced food production moved to Brazil, which now exports more corn, soybeans and meat than we do. The destruction of South American rainforest and wetlands contribute mightily to the loss of biodiversity and rising global temperatures, yet it was enabled by EPA enforced ethanol and biodiesel mandates and subsidies found in Renewable Fuel Standard legislation passed 15 years ago. The reach of the EPA now also extends to new digester gas provisions that value the gas produced from dairy cattle manure at about 15 times the cost of natural gas. Ironically, the shit from a cow is now worth more than its milk! Basic economics dictates that the new revenue stream associated with milk production will result in the unintended consequence of more concentrated animal feed operations or CAFOs. This is a perfect example of why taxes, not subsidies should drive desired climate outcomes.
The commonsense approach to reducing CO2 emission is taxing CO2 emissions and eliminating subsidies for “clean” energy. New taxes, especially one on carbon, are something most Republicans are unlikely to endorse. Eliminating subsidies aimed at promoting “clean” energy is something that most Democrats are equally unwilling to do. Nevertheless, taxing carbon could give clean technologies a competitive advantage differential akin to what they receive from subsidies. It would have a further beneficial impact by reducing federal expenditures and increasing federal revenues.
How would key stakeholders be affected by a shift to liquid hydrogen production?
Let’s start with the fossil fuel industry. The industry is often divided into three segments: upstream, the business of oil and gas exploration and production; midstream, transportation and storage; and. downstream, which includes refining and marketing. The Deepwater Horizon disaster highlights both the ecological harm associated with upstream activities as well as the advanced technologies developed and implemented by the industry. The U.S. is the world leader in this regard, offering unmatched expertise in raising capital; advanced engineering; geophysical knowledge; construction management and deployment of remote work forces. These homegrown skill sets are vital to transforming the energy sector to a carbon free future.
The upstream and midstream activities of transportation and storage apply equally to liquid and gaseous hydrogen as they do to oil and gas. Modification of refineries; pipelines; tanker ships; trucks and rail; would create meaningful and well-paid jobs.
The automobile industry would not be adversely impacted by a carbon free future. In fact, the transition to hydrogen fuel and upgraded distributed electrical infrastructure would hasten their successful transition to non-polluting engine and motor platforms. Goodbye to burdensome regulations that thwart consumer preferences!
Like the fossil fuel industry, utilities can be divided into three segments: power production, transmission on high kV lines, and distribution to end users. The production of hydrogen will require a massive investment in remote nuclear stations but provides an exit strategy from nuclear power plants located near population centers. The power production segment would utilize hydrogen as fuel for steam turbines as well gas turbines. Hydrogen pipelines would provide fuel to smaller distributed power stations. Proximity to railroads or waterways would no longer be a necessity. There would be no waste disposal issues. Some of the capital requirements required for new power stations would be offset by a reduction in the need for high Kv transmission lines. The distribution of electricity, the final step before electricity is consumed, would see few changes, but wouldn’t it be nice if these lines were buried creating better reliability, less visual pollution, and saving carbon sequestering trees?
Biofuels, currently an influential political force, would not play a meaningful role in a hydrogen-based energy future. Coal with its attendant downsides of mining and combustion characteristics, would be the first fossil fuel to be phased out. Economists call this creative destruction. Politicians might call it a big headache—leadership and strength will be required in Washington D.C. Regardless, the fact remains that the benefits of biofuels and coal do not offset the associated deleterious health and ecological impacts. A significant share of voters in Iowa are opposed to ethanol as evidenced by polling and Ted Cruz’s presidential primary triumph there in 2016 when he was the only candidate opposed to ethanol mandates. It would not be surprising if significant numbers of voters in West Virginia are likewise opposed to coal mining.
With recent announcements by the military that global warming is a national security issue, they should have input into energy policy as well. The closer proximity to energy supplies associated with carefully chosen sites will lessen the strategic burden of protecting U.S. flagged tankers and oil supplies in the far reaches of the world. Expenditures in the Middle East have exceeded $2,000,000,000. Military priorities would shift from defending oil supplies there toward providing perimeter security to the mega-hydrogen production facilities much closer to home. The scaled-up economies of readily accessible nuclear waste processing would serve our Navy well. Such a plan would certainly be safer, more cost effective, and better for international relations than shipping nuclear waste to the Philippines on Air Force cargo planes!
Sadly, however, the military is not immune to politics as evidenced by their foolish use of bio-jet fuel made from soybeans—a fuel that takes three times as much energy to make as it yields. Picture a bomber that consumes an acre of annual farmland crops in less than a minute!
Another political issue complicating the adoption of nuclear power production of hydrogen is the public’s understandable aversion to nuclear power. This aversion can be reduced by remote siting of hydrogen production facilities as well as tying their introduction to the elimination of spent fuel rods near populated areas. Spent nuclear fuel from off-site plants could share a home with waste processed at the proposed mega-sites.
Given the political challenges in the U.S., the best way forward may be working with other countries. Canada has a long history of energy innovation and has a true appetite for infrastructure as evidenced by their funding of the new Gordy Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River, including the U.S. customs facility! They also have close ties to France, the acknowledged world leader in building nuclear power plants and repossessing the associated waste.
Jules Verne wrote a century and a half ago in his novel Mysterious Island (a book my father read to my sibs and me) that water would be the coal of the future. This proposal describes a carbon free process that starts with water and ends with water. It is the best path forward and likely the only feasible path forward if we are to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050.