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Imagine a world with clean energy - lots of it
February 21, 2012 11:35 AM   Subscribe

How do we get to a future of abundant, clean energy? Last year at the Euqinox Summit the Waterloo Global Science Initiative brought together a group of scientists and other thinkers to try to answer that question. The result of thier work is the Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030 [pdf]. The report lays out five key areas for advancement: battery storage, enhanced geothermal, advanced nuclear, off-grid power (using flexible solar cells) and smart urbanization.

You can find a brief overview of the Blueprint here, [pdf] an article about the Summit in Policy Options magazine here [pdf], and an article on the Blueprint in Globe and Mail here.
posted by Dasein (36 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Call me a bit behind the bleeding edge but I was unaware that "Enhanced Geothermal" was anything close to a major player in this debate. I read through that section in the pdf attached and while it makes a grandiose sounding claim that the

estimated Enhanced Geothermal resource base in the United States is some 13 000 times the current annual consumption of primary energy in the country. Using reasonable assumptions regarding how heat would be mined from stimulated Enhanced Geothermal reservoirs, the extractable portion still amounts to 2 000 times that of annual consumption.

The key part is how they define 'extractable' since the economic costs of well drilling they outline later only seem to be about a 10-25% reduction of costs in drilling, which while significant, don't seem to be all that wonderful since they're test predictions and all that. Moreover, they also report that geothermal *could* be representing as much as 3.5% of worldwide electricity supply. Again, not negligible, but not exactly 1/5 of your answer to the future's needs.

That may come off as a bit negative-nancy, but if someone has earthshattering data / innovations in geothermal I'll be glad to hear it. I like the concept, but it's kinda niche as things stand now with regards to the big picture.

Cue soapbox, shouting to the wind: People are just going to have to settle for consuming less...
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:59 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Haven't clicked the links yet, but geothermal heat pumps can be a MAJOR player in house heating/cooling, which in turn is a MAJOR cost of energy, at least in the US.
posted by DU at 12:02 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


V2O5 batteries are really cool until you start to talk about them. Vanadium's a rare earth element with well-established uses in metallurgy, so supply protection from the steel industry kicks in, and so the price goes up. Then suddenly the batteries become too expensive, all goes quiet, and vanadium pricing goes back to normal.

RolandOfEld, I'll join you on that soapbox, if there's room.
posted by scruss at 12:16 PM on February 21, 2012


DU: Valid point, and I agree with your statement completely, and additionally there's no reason why geothermal heat pumps are as expensive as they are currently, but that's an aside with regards to this paper/discussion.

They're talking electrical power (and heat where applicable?) generation via geothermal wells. While I did hear an interesting piece on NPR the other day about a new drilling method to get down there and allow for geothermal utilization in areas where it wouldn't otherwise be practical (via some method of pumping down X, letting it fracture the rock, and then X coming back up the pipe, not unlike fracking but without the awful chemicals, instead relying on groundwater pressure perhaps?), I wonder if this is what they're counting on... but it didn't seem to be addressed in the paper, so I can't see it as the case.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:17 PM on February 21, 2012


Glad to see the Summit mentions Thorium as part of its "advanced nuclear" pillar.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 12:22 PM on February 21, 2012


Vanadium's a rare earth element

No, it's a first-row transition element. It's at least three times more abundant than the most common rare earth. It's a bit more common than chromium. It's not produced much because it's not got a lot of uses. If necessary, it could be produced in much greater quantity.
posted by bonehead at 12:26 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vanadium is not a rare earth. It's a transition metal.
posted by oonh at 12:28 PM on February 21, 2012


The cleanest source of energy is conservation. Increasing efficiency and eliminating waste promise more greater savings and lower greenhouse emissions than some of the technologies here.
posted by Tashtego at 12:37 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some? Some of the technologies!!?? I'll take it further and say efficiency is, hands down, more promising dollar/dollar than anything else we can do (at least here in the good 'ole USA). Most times it's free or only some up front implementation costs that pay for themselves in the short/medium/long-term.

Where'd I put my soapbox, let me get this... oh, there it is directly below me.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:41 PM on February 21, 2012


The kind of wells you need for geothermal heat pumps are very different from the wells you need for geothermal primary energy production.

For heat pumps, you basically just need to get down deep enough below the frost line that you have a thermally-stable place to pump heat from or sink heat into. This requires the same equipment that water wells do in many areas. Not very high tech, and there are lots of people around who know how to do it. Depending on the amount of heating/cooling power you want from the system, you may need to bore a lot of wells, because there's a limit to how much heat you can source/sink from a single well. I recently saw a geothermal power project for a municipal building in New England, and they had something like 100 wells, regularly spaced out on a grid about the size of a football field, to provide the heatsink for the building. (They put them under the parking lot, which I guess was due for repaving anyway.) The resulting system is more efficient than any other sort of heating/cooling, I'm told, but still requires an energy input from some other primary energy source. It doesn't run itself, although it's 10x or so more efficient than heating with the primary energy directly would be.

Geothermal power, in contrast, involves not just using the ground as a heatsink or stable-temperature source, but actually getting primary energy from it. In all but a few areas (Iceland, the Yellowstone caldera, some hot spring areas?) you need to drill pretty deep to get to significant heat. So it's more like oil drilling than water-well drilling. And there is some evidence that it may increase geological activity in areas where it is done, limiting its application to sparsely-populated areas. (Although it still seems better than natural gas 'fracking' ... and we allow that basically everywhere it seems.)

I suspect there probably is enough energy available from geothermal sources to power the US several times over ... heck, there's probably almost enough energy bubbling up through the Yellowstone caldera on a daily basis to power most of the US. But tapping into that energy isn't necessarily easy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:45 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


efficiency is, hands down, more promising dollar/dollar than anything else we can do (at least here in the good 'ole USA).

Yes, but this project is trying to envision how we supply clean energy to the whole world, not just that part which already has abundant energy.
posted by Dasein at 12:45 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


efficiency is, hands down, more promising dollar/dollar than anything else

That's a false dichotomy. It's not a question of increasing efficiency or finding better sources of power or better batteries. There's research and manufacturing capacity enough to do all of those things.

If you think there's money to be made in efficiency savings, great, go out there and invent the next CF lightbulb or hybrid car. There's still room for algal biofuel producers or better battery research.
posted by bonehead at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2012


if someone has earthshattering data / innovations in geothermal I'll be glad to hear it

An SMU geothermal mapping study has found enough geothermal energy in the US - "realistically accessible using current technology" - to produce ten times as much energy as coal currently does.

I won't linkdump here, but renewable energy is my primay journalistic beat, and if I had to sum up what I've learned in the past five years in one line, I would say that the pace of innovation, refinement and industrial production in almost every renewable energy technology is moving so fast that anything more than a couple of years old is out-of-date information (and tedious as hell to have to repeatedly debunk). Last year alone, Germany and Italy each added new solar capacity to their grids equivalent to all the solar there was on earth in 2005. Offshore wind is already up and running at industrial scale in the North and Irish seas. Und so weiter.

It'd be great to just once talk about renewable energy around here without having to first rehash at length the efficiency vs. technological implementation debate and/or the overpopulation vs. mitigation debate. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but it'd be great.

Or what bonehead just said.
posted by gompa at 12:56 PM on February 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Just yesterday, for example: Ireland could turn into a net energy exporter from wind-driven hydro power.

My only takeaway from being at the periphery of the biofuel industry for the better part of the decade is that there won't be one or even ten solutions to fossil fuel replacement; there will be hundreds. Efficiency has a role to play, but so do many, many other fuel sources.

The Equinox roadmap isn't horrible. We need better batteries for vehicles, our electrical grids need better decentralization, for off-grid uses, and increased efficiency has it's place: smart urbanization". I don't know enough about nuclear or geothermal to comment about their relative merits, but I am a little surprised 3rd-/4th-gen biofuels weren't on the list. Maybe they felt that the fuel secotr was getting enough attention already.
posted by bonehead at 1:04 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Conservation is great, but unless you conserve to zero, you're going to have to produce that energy somehow. It's not just one or the other.
posted by the jam at 1:06 PM on February 21, 2012


Haven't clicked the links yet, but geothermal heat pumps can be a MAJOR player in house heating/cooling, which in turn is a MAJOR cost of energy, at least in the US.

Heating is a major element of total energy consumption in every developed country, outstripping electricity in both demand and carbon emissions. A number of countries have posited scenarios wherein ground source heat pumps are a major contributor to making heat delivery more sustainable, usually along with biomass combustion and solar thermal, and district heating in more enlightened locations. The UK scenarios suggest between 1 and 8 million systems installed by 2020.

GSHPs are not really geothermal though, anything down to about 10metres is actually a result of solar adsorbtion.

The link makes some interesting points but misses out on some really key stuff. It is plain crazy to simply leave out wind energy, the installed capacity is way beyond any other new renewable electricity source, the potential is huge and the technology is the closest to being economic.

The whole thing is pretty much about electricity so its probably not fair to have a go about the absence of renewable heating and cooling but it does set itself up by going on about energy and energy emissions to start off with.

Ireland could turn into a net energy exporter from wind-driven hydro power.

I really struggle to see pumped storage becoming economic for this kind of application, its been talked about a lot but pumped storage is not economic for other (cheaper) generating technology and there is little reason to think it will be for wind, though the changes to the UK electricity market might change the economics of it a bit and it might depend to some extent on how storage fits with the Irish renewable electricity support tariff.
posted by biffa at 1:37 PM on February 21, 2012


It's all about the batteries, isn't it?
posted by LarryC at 1:39 PM on February 21, 2012


...the pace of innovation, refinement and industrial production in almost every renewable energy technology is moving so fast that anything more than a couple of years old is out-of-date information

And that's all well and good, but when are we ever going to get the chance to implement this technology that's so up-to-date? I keep hearing this stuff about how X is cutting edge; sorry, suddenly X is outdated. Another excuse is this or that particular technology is too expensive to implement/maintain/update. Mainly the excuse seems to be that a certain technology is only #% efficient. If the US sunk half as much into R&D for alternate energy forms as it gives the oil companies, and gave 1/3 the subsidies for production we might have a fighting chance.

Talk's cheap.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:00 PM on February 21, 2012


> a future of abundant, clean energy?

Energy corrupts. Unlimited energy corrupts without limit.
posted by jfuller at 2:44 PM on February 21, 2012


Acid rain corrupts.
posted by biffa at 2:53 PM on February 21, 2012


Talk's cheap.

The Germans are not just talking. In the US, meanwhile, the (deservedly) most loathed Congress in history just killed the thing that had made wind much more than talk in the Midwest in recent years.

R&D would be nice and all, but what's really missing in the US is any kind of stable long-term incentive scheme. The Germans guaranteed theirs for 20 years, and there are now more than 300,000 people working in renewable energy. It will rival the German automotive sector in size by decade's end. It's a question of political will, not technological readiness.
posted by gompa at 3:45 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


While I did hear an interesting piece on NPR the other day about a new drilling method to get down there and allow for geothermal utilization in areas where it wouldn't otherwise be practical (via some method of pumping down X, letting it fracture the rock, and then X coming back up the pipe, not unlike fracking but without the awful chemicals, instead relying on groundwater pressure perhaps?)

That is fracking (the word is a contraction of fracturing), you can frac gas wells without toxic chemicals too, it's just more difficult.
posted by atrazine at 5:24 PM on February 21, 2012


It's a question of political will, not technological readiness.

The question is whether the technology is ready to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. You can create any industry if you subsidize it enough, but it won't be, well, sustainable.
posted by Dasein at 5:34 PM on February 21, 2012


Wow, gompa, that's big news. That practically guarantees the industry to the Koreans and the Germans for the next few years. The Chinese too, when they finally get their bearings to stop blowing up.
posted by bonehead at 6:29 PM on February 21, 2012


The question is whether the technology is ready to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. You can create any industry if you subsidize it enough, but it won't be, well, sustainable.

You're under the impression fossil fuels aren't subsidized. That's adorable.
posted by gompa at 9:44 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can create any industry if you subsidize it enough, but it won't be, well, sustainable.

This tends to ignore the potential for temporarily supporting a technology with deployment that would otherwise not be driven by the unsupported market and thus providing the stimulus for growth while it innovates, so that it can reach a point where it is competitive.
posted by biffa at 12:10 AM on February 22, 2012


I'm pretty sure PV solar is cost competitive with most electric generators now in anything less than pretty extreme northern/southern climes if you factor in lifetime costs (the cost of a coal plant over its life vs the cost of PV). If there is some sort of externality cost (carbon tax etc.) then solar is probably cost effective everywhere.
posted by bystander at 3:01 AM on February 22, 2012


I'm pretty sure PV solar is cost competitive with most electric generators now in anything less than pretty extreme northern/southern climes if you factor in lifetime costs (the cost of a coal plant over its life vs the cost of PV). If there is some sort of externality cost (carbon tax etc.) then solar is probably cost effective everywhere.

It isn't. Maybe without all the subsidies to coal and if meaningful externalities were rolled into coal costs then there might be some point of comparison but currently this is just wrong. Your lifetime costs thing is a red herring, do you think when people are considering the costs of a new energy project they only consider the build costs? No, they consider all the costs, including the cost of treating borrowing against high RE capital costs and the cost of fuel, and PV is more expensive.

The point of policy to support PV is that society can invest money now in the grounds that increasing deployment will push down costs (and this is happening) and this will mean lower costs earlier in the future so that there is a public benefit. Hopefully there will be a point when PV is competitive, but we are not yet that at that point for most applications.
posted by biffa at 3:45 AM on February 22, 2012


With regard to energy concentrated more than solar exposure:
Abundant
Clean
Affordable

Pick two.

The disturbing premise behind this discussion is that we're seeking an energy source or combination of sources adequate to current levels of energy consumption. Worse yet, our economic systems are wired to require constant growth, so any energy source that claims to be sustainable must provide increasingly higher output.

How do we do that with alternative energy sources? We don't and we won't. When we get that straight, perhaps we can start making some intelligent policy.

For all Germany's emphasis on renewables, they are one of the highest petroleum consumers. According to the 2009 figures on Wikipedia, nearly 80% of their energy is fossil and they import 2/3 of their energy. I would be interested to see—along with newer figures for nuclear versus renewables—post-Fukushima figures for German fossil fuels and imports. The proposition that they're sustainably cheating the second law of thermodynamics because they're so darned clever just doesn't sound plausible to me.

The geothermal facet of this is interesting, because it points up just how important is the concentration of energy. Diffuse energy uses lower potentials over a long duration, concentrated offers higher potentials to do the same work over a short duration. This is why, with coal and petroleum, the "labor-saving" of machines took such a leap beyond what humans and animals could do with their metabolic engines. Ultimately, moving to renewable energy means accepting that lower potential.
posted by maniabug at 11:35 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


For all Germany's emphasis on renewables, they are one of the highest petroleum consumers. According to the 2009 figures on Wikipedia, nearly 80% of their energy is fossil and they import 2/3 of their energy. I would be interested to see—along with newer figures for nuclear versus renewables—post-Fukushima figures for German fossil fuels and imports. The proposition that they're sustainably cheating the second law of thermodynamics because they're so darned clever just doesn't sound plausible to me.

Both Germany and Denmark have high per capita CO2 emissions as a result of their use of coal, because that is their only indigenous fossil fuel and they maintain industries so they have better security of supply, and RE is an other method of strengthening that. It is worth bearing in mind that much of the emphasis on development of renewables historically has been to address security of supply rather than reducing emissions. Practically all of the successful initial work on wind energy was rooted in Danish efforts to come up with alternatives to limited supplies of oil in the first and then second world wars, nearly all current RE technologies benefitted from substantial increases in R&D funding post 1973 and 1979 oil crises. Danish wind energy (and thus global wind since the Danish concept is entirely dominant in wind) was heavily supported by both government and other actors as an alternative to nuclear which was being mooted as a way to reduce dependence on imports of fossil fuel.
posted by biffa at 12:01 PM on February 22, 2012


Reducing a nation's dependence on foreign energy is dandy, from a political perspective, but really who cares? What matters is getting global fossil fuel consumption down to 1) avert some of the worst consequences of depletion and 2) slow down anthropogenic climate change.
posted by maniabug at 12:28 PM on February 22, 2012


National renewable energy policies is usually driven by a mixture of motivators: security and reliability of supply, potential for cheaper energy in the long term, potential for new industrial opportunities and new associated additional employment, as well as reduced environmental impacts. Even if the latter is the only issue of interest to you then the other motivators still act to drive increased political interest and to effect the overall perception of the benefits of investing in RE as a nation. They thus all help to justify the policy which drives advan ces in the technology. Since many stakeholders have no interest in the environmental benefits or disbenefits of energy use, but are economically motivated, then these other justifications are central to driving forward support for renewable energy. Further, when justifying the expenses associated with national investment in renewable energy, being able to demonstrate a return in terms of new export opportunities, new job opportunities or reduced imports of fuel can provide a more convincing economic case for investment.

So basically, if you are interested in getting more RE for environmental reasons, right now, you should be making a case which is about the other factors as well. The effectiveness of this strategy is backed up by the fact (as in my previous post) that most of the advances in RE so far have sprung from motivations other than the environment.
posted by biffa at 2:45 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


but really who cares [about foreign energy dependence]

Potentially, a whole lot of people who either don't care about, or don't believe in, anthropogenic climate change. And who also vote.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:18 PM on February 22, 2012


I earlier commented that PV was close to grid parity, but biffa said it wasn't. Where I live, power is 22c per kWh, so parity is a lot easier here. We also get about a 5x insolation (similar to CA or FL).I reworked the numbers for a northern clime. I picked NY as a representative location for insolation at 3.53. I used average figures for US city power at 13c per kWh.
I used pricing from ebay for panels and inverter, and both are German, although I could save about 50% if I went with Chinese. I didn't make any allowance for mounting hardware or installation labour, I couldn't find figures, let's say it is a DIY installation.
A 2kW system (11 x 185w panels) plus inverted is approx $5000. It will average 7kWh of electricity per day, about 91c worth, with power at 13c a kWh. It will take almost exactly 15 years for it to earn the purchase price back in electricity savings.
If we look at the time value of money, what you could have earned on that money if you had invested it, rather than buying solar panels, it takes a little longer. The CD rate is about 1.7% for a 5 year deposit. If we take a more reasonable rate (I picked 3%) after 15 years your money would be worth about $7790, almost another 7 years of power off-sets! And, of course, after that 7 years, the time value of money has grown the nest egg further.
biffa is right.
If you choose premium solar gear, live in a location with average or lower power costs, can make an investment return about double what a CD pays, expect no power price rises for the next 15-20years, and live in a climate as unfavourable to solar as New York or worse, then solar panels are a little short of break even. With no subsidies at all.
For everyone else, solar is probably a reasonable way to supplement your power if you have some roof space.
posted by bystander at 2:30 AM on February 23, 2012


How Big a Battery Would It Take to Power All of the U.S.?
posted by bonehead at 2:26 PM on February 28, 2012


How Big a Battery Would It Take to Power All of the U.S.?

One of the editors on the Oil Drum site has done a series of posts on alternative energy and storage. The upshot is storage is superhard, with scale problems hurting pumped hydro, compressed air and flywheels. A battery is pretty impossible too. Also, he ranked energy sources by scale and intensity (showing, for example, that geothermal is dandy in a few locations, but not abundant enough to seriously put a dent in global demand).
The summary is here.
Personally, I suspect eventually we will bite the bullet and setup PV electrolysis sites in the desert near oceans and use the H2 generated combined with atmospheric carbon dioxide to synthesise methane.
It is hellishly inefficient, but simple enough that it would 'just work' and methane is able to be handled pretty well with current infrastructure, and used as a feedstock to synthesise more complex hydrocarbons.
posted by bystander at 3:32 PM on February 28, 2012


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