Category Archives: coal

Pondering a palatable pipeline…

I guest-hosted TWiE podcast episode 137 a few days ago, an episode devoted to the Alberta oil sands / tar sands. If you ask me (and I realize none of you have :) ) it’s well worth a listen!

The week’s guest was US energy analyst Robert Rapier, who had visited Fort McMurray on a Canadian government junket for journalists. He came back with a five-part essay on his experience, and some valuable, contextualizing factoids.

Shockingly, he showed data suggesting that the Alberta tar sands are now only slightly more greenhouse gas-intensive than “average” petroleum. (In other words, the emissions associated with turning the bitumen into usable oil, are only slightly higher than average.) Heavy oil extracted from California is actually worse!

This creates the situation where – for once – the Harper Government™ hadn’t drifted into fiction, in its years-long lobbying effort to prevent Europeans from labeling tar sands oil as a high-carbon fuel. I never saw that one coming.

Rapier spent time with the Pembina Institute as well, to try to get part of the other side of the story. For instance, though industry touts that it only uses one percent of the annual flow of the Athabasca river, seasonal variations are extreme; one percent of annual flow is equivalent to one-third of daily flow, at certain times of year. And while he wanted to visit nearby First Nations communities, that part of the visit got cancelled at the last minute. (Now, there’s the Harper Government™ I’ve come to know and love… to loathe.  :)  )

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December: a podcast premiere

The nice folks at http://www.thisweekinenergy.tv/ (TWiE) invited me to guest on their podcast on their late November episode, Good News, Bad News, Ugly News. While most of their guests are leading experts in their fields, and I’m just a talkative and reasonably-knowledgeable former fuel cell engineer, I heeded Gore Vidal’s wisdom and agreed. :)

It being the first time my comments were being recorded for posterity (well… outside NSA headquarters, that is) I spent a few hours doing homework, researching the backgrounds of the energy stories we were scheduled to discuss, and refining / rehearsing a few talking points.

And in retrospect, maybe I should’ve gotten some vocal coaching instead. Listening to the podcast after the fact, I was struck by how high my voice sounded. I sounded a bit like Preston Manning, the high-talker who led Canada’s Reform Party (or, as he said it, the Re-foooorm Party) out of the political wilderness and into… well, I guess he led them around in the wilderness for awhile. :)

Fun fact: Preston is the son of long-time Alberta Premier Ernest Manning, who – in a twist that would have given Christopher Hitchens an aneurism – led the province six days a week, then spent Sundays leading the most popular radio show in Alberta: “Back to the Bible Hour”.

Manning may have set the precedent that former professional wrestler and Minnesota Governor (yes, Minnesota Governor) Jesse “the Body” Ventura followed back in 1999 when he guest-refereed a WWF match at their Summerslam pay-per-view while Governor. Ventura dismissed the backlash, arguing to the effect of “I work six days a week; what I do on Sundays is my own business”.

Another thing I discovered while listening the podcast was that the care I took to carefully compose my sentences meant that I wound up speaking those sentences. Clause by clause. Just like Captain Kirk used to do. On the old TV series. Never shall I mock. William Shatner. Again!

GCR

I had a couple pieces go up in GreenCarReports in December – the first being the usual monthly assessment of the Canadian EV market. While these pieces are generally about as exciting to read (and write) as financial statements, I was able to weave in a reference to the fact that – hitting a very rough patch after a string of gold and platinum records in the 1970’s – one of the members of Chicago suggested sarcastically that a recent album had gone “aluminum, maybe plywood”.

Henceforth, I’ll be trying to award an aluminum/plywood medal to the lowest-selling electric vehicle in Canada each month. Maybe one day they can add it as an 8th-place medal to the Olympics. That way, the athletes not in the running for the regular medals can have something to shoot for. :)

Speaking of last place finishes, the gold-o-phile Klippenstein investment account sank like lead this past year. Ah, if only I could shrink our life’s other problems half as effectively… ;)

It was classic: just like last time (late 2008/early 2009) I ran out of investible cash before the market ran out of “down”. There’s probably a lesson to be had somewhere in there, but I haven’t the patience to learn it. :)

My other GreenCarReports article featured some data that Waterloo-based MyCarma had passed along, about the effect of winter temperature on electric vehicle range. (It’s also the most popular thing I’ve written for them — at almost 8,000 page views, it’s as if the entire population of the French island of St. Pierre et Miquelon had read it. Canadians may know it as “that tiny island France owns just off Newfoundland”.)

This was awesomely cool to write, as it gave me the chance to shape the messaging around fairly new data about how EV range suffers in cold weather. Keeping with the Seinfeld references, I termed the phenomenon “range shrinkage”. :)

CT

Lastly, I wrote a piece for CleanTechnica on Ontario KO’ing coal, which earned a re-tweet from Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (And a few other folks who don’t merit their own Wikipedia entries. ;) )

On the topic of KO’s, in 2013 Canada’s Liberal Party somehow recovered from Michael Ignatieff’s self-inflicted knockout punch, and ended the year leading in the polls, surpassing both the Conservatives and New Democrats. (The average of recent polls is currently running at 34-27-23.)

And considering how many “please-donate” mailings the Liberals are sending me (a former donor) I’ve got to think they’re for real. Only a few years ago, I practically had to pull a Fry to find out where to address a cheque.

While Stephen Harper’s character-assassins did a fine job on the prior two Liberal leaders, Trudeau is proving a harder target. As Spike Lee might say, “it’s gotta be the hair”. Worse yet for the Prime Minister, the Liberal leader has a well-known charity boxing record: if challenged on his plans to reform the Senate, the son of Trudeau could always turn around and quip:

“Look, I beat Patrick Brazeau into a bloody pulp [in the boxing match]. You think anyone else in the Senate is going to pull any shit after that?”

Heck, given how loose-lipped he is… he just might! ;)

Wiki-immortality!

APSC150 speech

My August Canadian EV car sales stats update went up recently. Which was cool.

Cooler still, I had a chance to wax poetic about sustainability, and my new-found optimism that we’ll avoid the worst of our dystopian horrors. I was invited to be a guest lecturer for an engineering course at UBC (APSC 150) where I had the privilege to slightly shape the minds of about four hundred first-year students. And show them how, here in the first world, #WeAreWhales. (The cryptic comment is described in the slide deck, here.)

Coolest of all, I’ve achieved a Wiki-immortality of sorts! I’m a Wikipedia footnote in the Tesla Model S article! Or, rather, one of my older GreenCarReports columns is. The one describing the vehicle’s Canadian sales figures for the first half of 2013. :)

Wiki Klippenstein

Of course, Wiki’s being the infinitely editable sites that they are, my fame will well be fleeting. Which brings to mind to Hindu parable of Indra and the ants, whose punchline was once majestically translated as “former Indra’s, all“. :) For all our works and purpose, pride and presence, in time’s great fulness we are all returned into the Void from whence we came.

Our Renewable Future part 1: clearing “myth”conceptions

With Obama talking the talk on climate action in his State of the Union address yesterday, now seems a good time to start compiling a planned set of blog entries about renewable energy. Many many others have done so online already (as evidenced by the fact I’m linking to them!) but I’d like to communicate my cautiously nascent optimism in my own words.

I’m growingly confident that I’ll live to see renewables dominate global electricity production, as dominantly as oil dominates global transport today, with immense and commensurate environmental benefits.

That moment won’t come a moment too soon, either, given the calamities that we’ve “locked in” for our children — the last time CO2 levels were this high (about 396 ppm in Jan 2013), sea levels were 25 metres higher than they are today.  The only reason sea levels remain near pre-industrial levels is that the earth’s systems haven’t had time to equilibrate, yet.  To use a baseball analogy, we’re still in the first inning of seeing the effects of our emissions.

Now, when I talk about renewables, I mainly mean wind and solar, which tower over their cleantech cousins like redwoods over a meadow.  (While hydroelectric is renewable and dwarfs these two for now, it doesn’t get the sexy “cleantech” label, being a mature technology.)

But before explaining my new-found confidence — certainty, even — in “Our Renewable Future”, I wanted to address a few major myths, objections and misconceptions about renewable energy — the blogging equivalent of clearing the underbrush, I suppose.  :)

I’ll do so using a Q & A format based on the way John Cook at Skeptical Science addresses common myths about climate change.

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3D electricity (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(written April 13, 2012.  Part of the Great Upload of 2013…)

As a guy whose birthday falls on the 13th, it always bugged me that my 13th birthday was a Saturday… those darned leap years!

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EROEI

One of my concerns in the past several years has been the fact that “energy-return-on-energy-invested” (EROEI) for fossil fuels has been decreasing.  This is most evident in the petroleum sector: in the good old days, all you needed to do was stick a steel straw in the ground, and you’d get oil.  (As an Algerian colleague once told me, “back home, we drill wells looking for water, but all we get is oil.  It’s like, what the hell?  Oil again??”)

In the days of yore (and lost Lenores) for each unit of energy you “invested” to get the oil, you might have gotten 50x or 100x units of energy back.  Alas, this happens “nevermore”.

EROEI has been dropping because, while we’ve become more efficient at extracting oil, difficulty-of-extraction has gone up even faster.  The oil sands are the most extreme case: for each unit of energy you invest to turn the bitumen into oil, you might get… 5x units of energy back.  So if you want to extract 100 units of oil energy, your cost is no longer 1-2 units of energy… but 20 units of energy, plus a bunch up-front!  (This is why it takes many months and mammoth money to increase oil sands production.)

And while recent developments such as North Dakota’s “tight oil” probably have a better EROEI, they won’t reverse the drainward trend.  Coal is in much the same boat, though natural gas is a different story — we only started to tap the world’s largest natural gas field in the past few years, so its EROEI will probably stay high for awhile.*  Since the hydrogen for most fuel cells comes from natural gas, that’s good news.  (Plus, it’s easier to obtain natural gas equivalents from renewable resources, than liquid fuels…)

Declining EROEI is kind of depressing from a societal perspective, because it suggests that we’ll have to work harder and harder to acquire the energy we’ve accustomed ourselves to — as anyone who’s bought gasoline recently can attest.  ;)  (As if environmental damage, converging debt crises and aging populations weren’t enough!)

EROEI for renewables

Fortunately, EROEI is increasing rapidly in the renewables sector, helping it continue its exponential growth — and that is a cause for optimism.  At the end of 2011, there was enough installed solar and wind capacity to provide 3% of the world’s electricity.  (That number already factors in the fact that it’s sometimes nighttime, and windless.)  And the growth rate is high enough that it could hit 20% by 2020.  That’s a lot of coal plant closures!  Much beyond that, though, and you start to run into realistic limits for wind power**, though solar would still have a lot of “blue sky potential”, in the business parlance.  I hope to ramble about the physical laws governing whales and wind turbines sometime soon…

In terms of solar, the main energy input in making a solar panel comes from creating ingots of 99.999 999 9% pure silicon.  These parts-per-billion impurity levels are so low, you have a better chance of winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket, than randomly picking a non-silicon atom out of an ingot!  Companies slice thin wafers off using the industrial equivalent of a deli-meat slicer, and the wafers undergo post-treatment to become the solar panels US Republicans love to hate.***

About ten years ago, solar companies would use wafers about 0.33 mm thick (330 microns), and EROEI estimates for solar panels in reasonably-sunny areas were in oil-sands range, roughly 5:1.  Today’s photovoltaics are a bit more efficient, and based on wafers about half as thick (180 microns), meaning that for roughly the same starting energy input you can get two solar panels, and thus, twice the electricity.  So in the time since George Bush won election 5 votes to 4 in the Supreme Court, solar’s EROEI has doubled to about 10:1.  The physical limit is apparently about 20 microns, which two Silicon Valley startups already claim to be able to achieve… if given enough investor money.  :)  While most startups shut down, solar panels are almost certainly going to get thinner, meaning their EROEI will get better.

On the financial side, the panels aren’t even the cost-prohibitive component of solar arrays anymore: installing rooftop solar in the US will cost you roughly $6/Watt up-front, of which the panel only represents $1.  (The rest is associated electronics, and labour.)  That’s about double the cost in Germany, whose feed-in tariffs allow for project financing of the rest.  This means there’s a big incentive to figure out how to capture more solar energy from a given square metre of rooftop — people with a choice of $6 per Watt or $7 per 2 Watts, are inevitably going to choose the latter, eh?

Into… the third dimension!

Part of the solution will probably be to extend solar panels into the third dimension, in the manner these MIT guys did.  It’s a bit like the moment 400 million years ago when the first Cooksonia pertoni told a friend, “I’m tired of competing with lichens and mosses for sunlight in the x-y plane; imma grow me in the z-direction!”

As such, it’s possible that instead of flat slabs, solar-panelled houses of the future will have bristly, antenna-esque solar panels protruding from their roofs — kind of like the branches of trees.  The “treeing” of photovoltaic arrays makes sense, since trees have had a zillion generations to figure out how to maximize sunlight collection.  Of course you’d figure with all that time, some of them would’ve realized the evolutionary advantage of, oh, being able to move by now…  :)

And while such a future would be aesthetically great for those of us who enjoy the look of Gothic churches or Thai wats (Buddhist temples), for minimalists like Steve Jobs on the other hand…  ;)

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* that is, unless something destabilizes Qatar or Iran, but c’mon, how likely is that?  ;)

** alpha nerds can peruse this link; the rest of you can shake your heads in despair…  :)

*** technically speaking, Solyndra was a thin-film solar company using glass substrates, not silicon.  But such subtleties are not the stuff of Fox News…

Newsflash: Canadian PM’s American Idol supports Stephane Dion-esque carbon tax shift

Note: for non-Canadian readers (or, indeed for Canadian readers who don’t follow politics) Stephane Dion was the milquetoast who led the Liberal Party of Canada to its then-worst-ever federal election result in 2008.  He ran on a campaign of a carbon tax shift (“The Green Shift“), for which the Conservative Party mocked and savaged him.

We’ll get to Stephen Harper and his erstwhile idol after the jump, but a bit of background discussion is necessary to provide a proper context…

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