Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The centrality of EROEI

Until 2004 Britain was a net energy exporter. Today, it imports about half its energy. Some of that, in the form of coal and liquefied natural gas, comes directly from Russia, which also supplies a third of Europe’s gas through pipelines. The unprecedented “gas deficit warning” of March 2 was a sharp reminder of our dependence on imports.

Yet Britain is swimming in energy. Enough sunlight falls on the country to power the economy many times over. Wind, wave, water and tidal power cascade over us. There is wood in our forests. There are hot rocks beneath Cornwall and Durham, gas under Lancashire and enough coal under the North Sea to last centuries. We could easily buy sufficient uranium to keep us going indefinitely. And if we were to crack nuclear fusion, all we would need is a little bit of water and some Cornish lithium.

So what’s the problem? The human race has a plethora of options for powering civilisation in the 21st century, not a dearth. The problem is not energy, but energy conversion. Economic growth is effectively a matter of turning energy into complex structures that can be energised to do work. Energy conversion is the lifeblood of civilisation. Just as biology harnesses energy to build bodies and ideas, so human society captures energy to make physically improbable entities such as buildings, governments and social-media platforms. Energy conversion enables us to avoid entropy, the drift towards chaos.

The modern world stands on a cairn built by energy conversions in the past. Just as it took many loaves of bread and nosebags of hay to build Salisbury Cathedral, so it took many cubic metres of gas or puffs of wind to power the computer and develop the software on which I write these words. The Industrial Revolution was founded on the discovery of how to convert heat into work, initially via steam. Before that, heat (wood, coal) and work (oxen, people, wind, water) were separate worlds.

To be valuable, any conversion technology must produce reliable, just-in-time power that greatly exceeds — by a factor of seven and upwards — the amount of energy that goes into its extraction, conversion and delivery to a consumer. It is this measure of productivity, EROEI (energy return on energy invested), that limits our choice.

You could make your own electricity on an exercise bicycle, eating organic ice cream as fuel, but such a system would have wildly negative EROEI once you include the energetics of farming cattle and making ice cream. It would also produce a pathetic trickle of power: about 50 watts (joules per second). The average Briton uses about 4,000 watts, as much energy as if she had 240 slaves on exercise bicycles in the back room, pedalling eight-hour shifts. That’s roughly what “civilisation” looked like in ancient Egypt or China.

By the EROEI criterion, biofuel is a disastrous choice, requiring about as much tractor fuel to grow as you get out in ethanol or biodiesel. Wind power has a low energy return, because its vast infrastructure is energetically costly and needs replacing every two decades or so (sooner in the case of the offshore turbines whose blades have just expensively failed), while backing up wind with batteries and other power stations reduces the whole system’s productivity. Geothermal too may struggle, because turning warm water into electricity entails waste. Solar power with battery storage also fails the EROEI test in most climates. In the deserts of Arabia, where land is nearly free, sunlight abundant and gas cheap, solar power backed up with gas at night may be cheap.

Fossil fuels have amply repaid their energy cost so far, but the margin is falling as we seek gas and oil from tighter rocks and more remote regions. Nuclear fission passes the EROEI test with flying colours but remains costly because of ornate regulation.

Which brings me to nuclear fusion, a process potentially with a wildly positive EROEI (it fuels the sun and the H-bomb) but that so far has proved impossible to control. Fusion’s ever-receding promise suggests caution, but a British company, Tokamak Energy, is increasingly confident it can generate electricity by 2030, ahead of its American rivals. It forecasts ten large (1.5 GWe) power plants a year being built by 2035, and a hundred by 2040. It is a cheeky, private-sector upstart challenging the slow, international, public-sector collaboration on fusion.

The new fusion optimists base their confidence on yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO), a novel superconducting material that allows smaller, less cold but more powerful magnets. Britain is a world leader in YBCO technology, so it is not impossible that we could see a breakthrough here in the next two decades comparable to Thomas Newcomen’s steam invention of 1712.

Suppose fusion does make the “too cheap to meter” breakthrough that fission failed to make. We could then stop worrying about carbon dioxide, but what would we do with all this energy? We could make as much fresh water as we fancied, through desalination, to water the deserts. We could grow food indoors to release the countryside for nature. We could electrify all transport. We could enable Africa to become as wealthy as America.

A green misery-monger called Paul Ehrlich once wrote that giving cheap, abundant energy to humanity would be like “giving an idiot child a machine gun”. On the contrary, cutting the cost of energy is absolutely central to delivering prosperity and fairness. This is why it is so baffling that Britain keeps pushing up the price of energy to encourage the medieval technologies of wood, wind and water power.

Professor Dieter Helm’s official review of government energy policy last year found that we could have reduced carbon dioxide emissions for far less than the £100 billion already spent on renewables by encouraging a switch to gas. But, as he says, governments are bad at picking winners, while losers are good at picking governments. Meanwhile, Germany, which has spent something like a trillion euros on support for green energy, is now building lots of coal-fired power to keep the lights on.

At huge cost, Germany is learning that you cannot have a cheap, reliable, low-carbon grid without the high EROEI of nuclear. The Energiewende is a historic error. But is there any guarantee governments would suddenly be more rational if fusion came along?


Flood, drought and disease tolerant plants —one gene behind all of them

Since there is no ongoing warming, the drought tolerant properties of this discovery will be the important ones

An international collaboration between researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Nagoya University and the University of Western Australia has resulted in a plant biology breakthrough. Since 2014, the researchers have worked on identifying the genetic background for the improved flood tolerance observed in rice, wheat and several natural wetland plants. In New Phytologist, the researchers describe the discovery of a single gene that controls the surface properties of rice, rendering the leaves superhydrophobic.

A gene called LGF1 controls the nanostructure of leaf surfaces. During flood events, the gene enables survival of submerged rice since the wax nanostructures retain a thin leaf gas film; hence the name of the gene, LGF1. The gas films facilitate gas exchange with the floodwater so that carbon dioxide can be taken up during the daytime in order to fuel underwater photosynthesis, and oxygen can be extracted at night.

The LGF1 gene also confers drought tolerance, since the tiny wax crystals reduce evaporation from the leaf surfaces, conserving tissue water.

Superhydrophobic surfaces retain a thin gas film underwater, which enables the stomata to function also during submergence. The stomata regulate the uptake of CO2 (carbon dioxide) for photosynthesis during the day, but also the uptake of O2 (oxygen) during darkness, enabling aerobic respiration. Without the protective layer of gas, the floodwater blocks the stomata and the gas exchange with the environment is greatly restricted; the plants are virtually drowning!

“We have used advanced microelectrodes both in controlled laboratory experiments and in the field situation to reveal the benefits of leaf gas films during submergence,” says professor Ole Pedersen, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen.

Long-term effects are still a puzzle

“We have assessed the importance of leaf gas films during submergence of rice, and in some situations, rice grows equally well above as well as below water – only because rice possesses the LGF1 gene,” continues Ole Pedersen.

The implications of these findings are huge. Worldwide, climate change has already resulted in an increased number of floods, and in order to sustain food supply in a wetter future, the world needs climate-smart crops that better tolerate flooding.

“The superhydrophobic leaf properties that are coded by the LGF1 gene are, however, lost after a few days of submergence; the plants start drowning as the leaves become wet. Thus, our research now focuses on overexpression of the LGF1 gene. The overexpression should coat the leaves with more wax crystals and in this way prime the plants for a flood event. The fact that it is all controlled by just a single gene makes the goal much more realistic,” concludes professor Ole Pedersen.


A potentially scandalous case of Russian collusion — with liberals

Over the last two weeks at The American Spectator, journalist Kevin Mooney reported a significant story he has been investigating for at least a year. The potential political repercussions could expose one of the most disturbing Russia-collusion scandals of the Trump era — and it doesn’t implicate Donald Trump. To the contrary, it would implicate some of Trump’s loudest critics on the left. These leftists, it is alleged, might have worked against some of Trump’s biggest supporters in the Rustbelt; supporters that won him the presidency. And yet, for some reason, the story hasn’t blipped on Donald Trump’s radar screen — or Twitter screen. Trump hasn’t talked about it, including in his raucous rally in Western Pennsylvania on behalf of Rick Saccone in the Saccone-Lamb congressional race in a district that Trump won by 20 points.

Okay, what’s the story?

As Kevin Mooney reported in two exclusives (posted here and here), there indeed appears to be some serious Russian meddling going on. It’s not, however, the meddling being pushed by the party line at CNN and MSNBC. This meddling would be Russian funding of U.S. environmental groups, which, in turn, used those Russian resources to work against fracking in the United States and the Keystone pipeline.

“While allegations of the Donald Trump campaign colluding with Russians to alter the presidential election outcome remain unproven at best,” wrote Mooney, “a clear money trail and U.S. intelligence reports demonstrate Russia’s active campaign of funding U.S. environmental groups.”

To put it succinctly: These reports suggest some sort of collusion or cooperation between U.S. environmental groups and Putin’s Russia, working together to undermine America’s crucial domestic energy sector. This sector is a boom industry, tremendous for our workers. It has resurrected the Rustbelt.

Mooney did a major story on this last August, which failed to gain any traction in the mainstream media. He reported in great detail that “some [U.S.] environmental activists who pressure politicians to halt production of natural gas [in the United States]” were acting as “agents of influence” on behalf of the Kremlin’s energy profits. As students of the Cold War know, agents of influence were a prime asset for covert Russian activity inside the United States. The Russians learned during the Cold War that agents of influence could be just as effective (if not more so) than outright KGB spies on the payroll.

Mooney cited and quoted (among others) retired CIA officer Kenneth L. Stiles, who analyzed the “money trail” between certain U.S. environmental interests and Russian energy interests. Stiles said these environmental groups “are, without a doubt, agents of influence to Moscow through [a] networking system of shell companies and foundations.”

What followed in Mooney’s story was a stunning array of information that truly cannot be ignored. He has since followed up with additional reports — one on U.S. green groups, the Russians, and the Foreign Agents Registration Act — as well as his pieces here at The American Spectator.

Mooney interviewed me back in October, for a story that was again completely ignored by the media. He sought me out for historical context, given my knowledge of the dramatic behind-the-scenes story of what the Reagan administration did in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan and a handful of key advisers, led by Bill Clark at the NSC and Bill Casey at the CIA, undermined Russia’s energy sector as part of a larger plan to undermine the USSR.

And thus, as I told Mooney, it’s fascinating to see Russia today working to undermine the construction of two natural gas pipelines on U.S. territory when, in the 1980s, Reagan worked to undermine the construction of two huge natural-gas pipelines on Soviet territory. Reagan and his administration succeeded in slowing and blocking the development of those pipelines. It was one of the most devastating forms of economic warfare ever waged against the Evil Empire.

Now, today, Russia seems to want to turn the tables. That is, Russia is apparently trying to block U.S. pipelines, and then some. Russia would also like to hinder other forms of energy development (i.e., fracking) thriving in the United States. Russia is doing this to protect and enhance its own energy sector.

It’s like an old Cold War powder-keg that went dry is suddenly being reignited with reverse fuses.

But what makes the current situation more nefarious is the possibility — if Mooney’s suspicions are indeed accurate — of Russian manipulation of domestic environmental groups inside the United States, and their willful cooperation. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had a heck of a time trying to enlist the support of Western allies in blocking the Siberian gas pipeline. Even Margaret Thatcher balked, because she wanted Britain to have the cheap Russian gas and British firms to have construction contracts in building the Kremlin’s pipelines. The same was true for the West Germans and French. Ronald Reagan boldly proceeded essentially alone, and the results were beautifully lethal to the Soviet economy.

But here today, we have the extremely troubling possibility of our own U.S. citizens being targeted and tapped by the Russians to undercut our own domestic industry, our workers, our consumers, our prices, our overall economy.

Of course, an essential consideration is whether these domestic forces know they’re being exploited. If they’re willfully working with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, that would be a very serious matter. If they’re mere dupes, then they have a legal and moral obligation to mend their ways once made aware of any malfeasance, especially if in violation of U.S. law.

Finally, politically speaking, consider the striking irony here: we have the apparent possibility of liberals from the environmental movement helping Putin and the Russians at the very moment liberals have been screaming about cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

A critical factor in Donald Trump winning Rustbelt states like Pennsylvania and Ohio was the energy sector. Forget “Build the wall” or “Lock her up,” Trump’s 2020 slogan ought to be “Drill, baby, drill.” Across party lines, Americans are widely sympathetic to harnessing our vast energy reserves to create jobs and economic growth, from white-collar Wall Street to blue-collar Democrats. If Trump is looking for a winning policy issue that’s not partisan, this is it. If he’s looking to repeat his winning Electoral College strategy, this is an ideal issue. Most normal Americans, outside the loony left, express great frustration at why we don’t drill, drill, drill. Trump should drill — and out-drill Putin. If the environmentalists want to protest that one, let ’em, and let Trump unleash on ‘em.

As Kevin Mooney wrote at The American Spectator: “Russia, the world’s largest oil producer, figures to watch the U.S. surpass it within five years. Killing fracking and the pipeline stand as two ways for Russia to avert this fate.”


And so, to return to the central point, is it true that U.S. environmental groups have been aiding and abetting Putin and the Russians against our own domestic energy sector? Is this a case of political-economic collusion?

Well, the Republican Congress, to its credit, isn’t ignoring the question. On March 1, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee released a report titled, “Russian Attempts to Influence U.S. Domestic Energy Markets by Exploiting Social Media.” The media response? Crickets.

Donald Trump typically responds to crickets by creating his own firestorm. Well, where is he? This could be one of the biggest scandals out there, and fully in line with Trump’s political and economic thinking. Why isn’t he going bonkers with his Twitter account? Is he not reading The American Spectator? Surely he is.

I’m surprised by his silence. I’m sure his Rustbelt voters would be as well.


‘UK must boost fracking to reduce reliance on Russian energy’

The UK Government needs to speed up the development of fracking to improve the country’s energy security and make it less reliant on imports from Russia.

That’s according to the Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF), which says in light of the “crisis” in British-Russian relations, planning laws regarding the controversial energy source need to be changed as quickly as possible.

It suggests this is necessary for the UK to avoid becoming too reliant on foreign imports for its gas supply in the near future.

Recent winter shortages forced Britain to import emergency gas supplies from Russia, which the GWPF stresses is an “unsustainable situation”.

The group says the first step is to change the law to class initial drilling as permitted development to stop activists from delaying the early stages of exploration.

A spokesperson from the group said: “The length of time it has been taking for shale gas extraction to get planning approval demonstrates that the system is utterly failing.

“An approach is needed that can bring about swift but considered planning decisions and that also provides the necessary reassurances for local communities that the environment is protected and disruption minimised.”


China to the rescue of the Australian power supply?

Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce have both used the Coalition partyroom meeting to urge Malcolm Turnbull to do more to keep the Liddell coal power station open.

According to a government MP, Mr Abbott raised an article in The Australian this morning and asked why the government did not attempt to facilitate a sale of the plant to Chinese group Shandong Ruyi.

Mr Turnbull responded by saying the government was not Liddell and could therefore not sell the coal-fired plant in the Hunter Valley. He added the government was agnostic on energy sources.

Mr Joyce spoke in the partyroom to say it was important the 45-year-old power station stay open.

Former Australian rugby union great Nick Farr-Jones wrote to the Prime Minister’s ­office in December declaring that his client, Shandong Ruyi Group, was interested in buying the 45-year-old plant, which AGL is closing in 2022.

Mr Farr-Jones, the director of consulting firm Taurus Funds Management, wrote that Shan­dong Ruyi, which has a controlling stake in the $240 million Cubbie Station cotton farm in southwest Queensland, wanted to invest in clean-coal technology and become a player in the Australian energy market.

The captain of Australia’s 1991 World Cup-winning Wallabies rugby team suggested the government should raise Shandong Ruyi’s interest in Liddell when it lobbied AGL to sell the coal-power plant to a third party.

AGL so far has refused the government’s request to extend the life of the 1800-megawatt power station, instead planning to replace Liddell’s power capacity with renewables, gas and a planned battery.

The Australian reported last week that Liddell’s closure may cause power outages because only 100MW of the replacement capacity has been funded.

In an email sent to Mr Turnbull’s deputy chief of staff, Clive Mathieson, on December 15 last year, Mr Farr-Jones said a senior representative of Shandong Ruyi met Scott Morrison in the middle of last year to detail the company’s ambition to invest in Australia’s power sector, including in thermal coal assets.

Shandong Ruyi, which is chaired by Qiu Yafu, specialises in textiles but in recent years has expanded into other industries including energy and real estate. The group bought the 96,000ha Cubbie Station in 2012, sparking intense criticism from the Nationals, but must reduce its initial 80 per cent stake in the farm to 51 per cent by late this year.

“Following the recent announcement by AGL that they ­intended to close the Liddell coal-fired power station in coming years, I thought I would drop you a quick note regarding a client of ours who would definitely be prepared to invest in latest-­technology, low-emission, coal-fired power,” Mr Farr-Jones wrote. “To that extent they would review the current Liddell plant with a view to extending the life of the plant to provide reliable, lower cost power to NSW. They would also look to invest in Queensland, particularly north Queensland.

“Around six months ago I met with the Treasurer (Minister Morrison) with the son-in-law of the president of Ruyi to make sure he was aware of Ruyi’s intentions to invest in the power sector in Australia.”

A spokesman for Mr Turnbull earlier has said no response was provided to Mr Farr-Jones, and that the Prime Minister’s office did not raise Shandong Ruyi’s interest with AGL.

Shandong Ruyi, one of China’s largest integrated textile companies, has partnered with Chinese state-owned company ­Huaneng Power on power projects globally, including building low-emission, coal-fired plants in Pakistan, Mr Farr-Jones’s email said.




Preserving the graphics:  Most graphics on this site are hotlinked from elsewhere.  But hotlinked graphics sometimes have only a short life -- as little as a week in some cases.  After that they no longer come up.  From January 2011 on, therefore, I have posted a monthly copy of everything on this blog to a separate site where I can host text and graphics together -- which should make the graphics available even if they are no longer coming up on this site.  See  here or here


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