Friday, March 11, 2022

Why you can’t bank on synthetic fuels to save the internal combustion engine

Very costly

Those decrying the decline of fossil-fuelled cars are holding onto a glimmer of hope that synthetic fuels could be the saviour of the internal combustion engines.

Synthetic fuels (sometimes called eFuel or synfuel) are touted as the next steppingstone with regards to a sustainable transport future, due to their environmental benefits and the fact that current petrol-engined cars can use the fuel without modification.

This business-as-usual solution to the climate crisis is an attractive opposition to wider electric vehicle (EV) adoption, which requires vast investment in charging infrastructure and annoyingly long charging times.

Production of the alternative fuel is ramping up, while more manufacturers are getting on board to investigate the technology for their existing fleets of combustion-engined cars.

But while electric vehicles have the ability to be totally carbon-neutral, eFuels can’t quite match that claim just yet. Estimates suggest that synthetic fuels could reduce carbon emissions by up to 85 per cent according to Porsche vice president Dr Frank-Steffen Walliser. Obviously that’s not zero, but it represents a vast improvement on the current status quo.

Does all this mean it’s likely that you won’t have to give up your petrol-powered car in years to come?

I don’t see it happening.

First of all, synthetic fuels describe liquid fuels that basically have the same properties as fossil fuels, but are produced artificially in an environmentally friendly way. Both consist of chains of different hydrocarbon molecules, the universal brick needed to build any type of hydrocarbon fuel such as petrol or avgas. The difference lies in how they’re made.

Fossil fuels are created by the pressurisation of organic matter over the course of millions of years, whereas synthetic fuels are made by imitating these processes using renewable resources.

Although burning synthetic fuels will produce carbon emissions, these should be cancelled out by harvesting that carbon to produce more synthetic fuel.

What is critically important is the fact that these processes use up vast amounts of electricity, and to ensure it’s done in a carbon-neutral (or near carbon-neutral) way. Getting that amount of energy proves difficult.

But more on that later.

Synthetic fuels can be made using a variety of methods, but in most cases they’re produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis. This hydrogen is then processed with carbon dioxide drawn from the atmosphere to make a methanol, which can then be turned into a synthetic raw petrol.

This raw petrol can then be turned into a standards-compliant petrol, which can be used in all petrol-powered combustion engines without making costly modifications.

All petrol-powered combustion engines include anything from planes and ships to truck engines. Synthetic fuels are also beneficial in terms of fuel delivery – fuel stations wouldn’t need a significant overhaul to accommodate the new fuel the way they might for hydrogen fuelling or EV charging.

A good practical example of this process being used is through Porsche and Siemens Energy, which have just invested vast amounts into a new synthetic fuels factory based in the Magallanes Province in southern Chile. The factory is based in the region because of its windy conditions; a resource the factory utilises to wind-power its fuel factory.

Porsche sees the technology as an important hand-in-hand partner alongside its burgeoning brace of electric vehicles, and expects to be able to use it in applications ranging as far as its fleet of classic vehicles to powering its freight vehicles.

The German manufacturer currently uses the eFuel to power its Porsche Supercup motorsport category in Europe, but has just demonstrated the technology works in a production-ready 2022 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS.

Manufacturers such as Mazda are also involved in partnerships investigating the viability of synthetic fuels, and Mazda sees it as one way of powering its enthusiast vehicles such as the MX-5 sports car.

It all adds up to a convenient and promising prospect, though it seems too good to be true.

The reasons why are many, but chief among all is the question mark over production and how supply is meant to meet demand. Using Porsche’s Haru Oni facility as an example, the factory is on track to produce 130,000 litres of eFuel for 2022, which Porsche will use in its entirety. It will then ramp up to 55 million litres by 2024, then over half a billion litres by 2026.

That latter figure sounds like a lot, but when you consider the United States alone used 467 billion litres of finished fossil fuel in 2020, Porsche’s numbers pale in comparison. This is not the only eFuel factory out there producing synthetic fuel, but while the technology is in its infancy, the applications are limited.

Additionally, the cost of producing synthetic fuels is prohibitively high – at least initially. Porsche estimates the eFuel it’s developing costs US$10 a litre (AUD$13.75). That would mean a 50-litre tank would cost nearly $700 to refuel.

Experts suggest the per-litre cost to be somewhere between $4.50–$7.50, and while costs will come down with production scalability, it will continue to be priced at a premium to other types of energy.

By the time synthetic fuels could feasibly compete on price parity with fossil fuels, it’ll be too late for the world to hit its net zero targets.

Further exacerbating the problem is the necessity for synthetic fuels to compete not only with fossil fuels, but to compete with electric vehicles. The electricity powering EVs is comparable in price (and often cheaper) than petrol, and can even be free if solar power is used.

I will say that we are at the beginning here. Even though synthetic fuels have been around for countless decades, the technology is only ramping up now as an alternative – or partner – fuel.

Future advancements in synthetic fuels could see the above problems addressed, and that would be wholly welcome. But at the moment, it’s hard to see it being offered at your local petrol station and will exist only in niche applications.

Meanwhile, electric vehicles exist now and are capable of being powered using renewable energy. Though they require the purchase of an – often more expensive – all-new car, electric vehicles are still the only way forward en masse.


German operators prepare to fire up decommissioned coal plants

German coal power plant operators are making provisions for a runtime extension of decommissioned stations in preparation for possible energy supply disruptions as a result of the war in Ukraine, business daily Handelsblatt reports.

“We’re inspecting our facilities to remain ready if the government deems such measures necessary,” a spokesperson for energy provider RWE told the newspaper. Besides RWE, operators Vattenfall, EnBW and Steag also confirmed they are reviewing their decommissioning plans.

About 26 gigawatts (GW) of coal power capacity are currently operational in Germany and this could increase to 34 GW next winter by re-starting plants that have already been taken offline or are being held in reserve, in order to partly replace Russian gas imports.

“In light of the attack on Ukraine, calls are growing to revisit the country’s coal phase-out schedule,” the article says, referring to plans by the new government to bring the exit forward from 2038 to 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement. Plans currently include the decommissioning of about 5 GW capacity by 2024.

The director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Ottmar Edenhofer, told the newspaper that “we will need to use coal plants, also in the power sector, especially if we are to reduce hard coal imports from Russia.” He argued that the country faces “an emergency situation that requires well-coordinated action.” Germany currently sources almost half its hard coal imports from Russia, but import companies say these supplies could still be substituted in the short-term. Plants in the country’s capacity reserve mainly run on domestically sourced lignite.

Germany’s economy and climate minister Robert Habeck from the Green party earlier this month said that ensuring energy supply security could take priority over climate action, adding that “this should not obscure the fact that, fundamentally, independence and sovereignty in energy policy and climate-neutral energy production are the same thing.” He said his ministry will assess whether to let coal and nuclear plants scheduled for closure stay open to ensure a secure power supply.


Dreamy Green policies have fatally enfeebled the West

At the Cop 26 climate conference held in Glasgow last November, almost 200 countries ‘committed’ to the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels, especially coal. Conspicuously, two major powers did not.

While China was circumspect, Russia was unambiguous. Moscow said it had no plans to rein in its fossil fuel production in the coming decades. As the world’s second biggest natural gas producer and the third largest oil producer, accounting for about 10 per cent of global supply, the Kremlin understands its comparative advantage.

Meanwhile, Beijing forges ahead with 43 new coal-fired power stations and 18 blast furnaces, promising the Green faithful, as it boosts annual coal production from its Inner Mongolian mines by almost 100 million tonnes, that it will be CO2 neutral by 2060. Although hardly reported in the West, China’s emissions are growing by 15 per cent a year and comfortably exceed the developed world’s total output.

Last month, Moscow and Beijing agreed to partner on energy. Russian president Vladimir Putin confirmed a deal with Chinese president Xi Jinping, to supply 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year to China via a new pipeline. This helps secure China’s energy supply and makes Europe less important to Moscow.

Their approach is in stark contrast to President Joe Biden’s Pollyanna view of the world. To appease green activists, he renounced energy independence by halting oil and gas drilling on public land and by revoking the Keystone XL pipeline permit which was to carry crude oil from Canada to the United States.

The Green Left has also succeeded in capturing Europe’s policymakers. They continue to phase out coal and nuclear energy and have now identified biomass, which accounts for nearly 60 per cent of EU renewables, as climate unfriendly. These policies leave Brussels increasingly dependent on Moscow. Over the last five years alone, imports of Russian natural gas which account for 41 per cent of Europe’s total supply, have increased by 40 per cent.

Yet, for 30 years Russia’s relations with the West have festered over Moscow’s contention that Nato’s expansion breached a 1990 agreement. Tensions boiled over in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. Six years later, as Nato watched on, President Putin illegally annexed Ukrainian Crimea. Not even when Nato began equipping and training the Ukrainian armed forces prior to membership, did Brussels seek to lessen dependence on Russian gas. It’s not as though Europe was unaware of Moscow’s hostile response which made a full scale invasion of Ukraine highly likely.

Four years ago, President Trump called out Europe’s complacency. To universal condemnation, he said Nato members were spending too little on their own defence. But Trump was right. Even now, only one-third of Nato members spend the agreed two per cent of their GDP on defence.

Trump was also right when he claimed ‘Germany is a captive of Russia’. Chancellor Angela Merkel, countered she was ‘in a better position to judge her country’s dependence than the current US president’. Yet so dependent is Berlin on Moscow, it initially baulked at sanctions to suspend the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and, the proposal to exclude a number of Russian banks from the Swift payment system.

Eating his former chancellor’s words, German finance minister, Christian Lindner cautioned, if the EU took such a step, ‘there is a high risk that Germany will no longer be supplied with gas or raw materials’.

Now Germany is saying it will bring defence spending above two per cent of GDP and will create a strategic gas reserve. Do we hear stable doors closing?

Russia’s extraordinary power belies the reality that its economy is only slightly bigger than Australia’s. However, its military budget as a percentage of GDP is twice as big. Of course, it possesses nuclear weapons. But, it is no Soviet Union. Its relative power comes not from the size of its economy, its military hardware or troops on the ground. It comes from intent and the incompetence and naivety of its adversaries. Time will tell how effective the latest sanctions are and how Moscow retaliates.

That EU policymakers consciously opt for climate change over national security raises legitimate questions about their rationality. It’s as though Europe’s ‘Green Deal’, which aims to reduce inequality by changing the economics of energy, construction, agriculture and taxes to incentivise ‘decarbonisation’, was framed by the Russians and Chinese. Either that, or it was devised by modern Walter Mitty types.

But then EU policymakers appear to inhabit the same delusional world as US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry. Despite Moscow’s unashamed declaration that it has no intention of reining in production of fossil fuels, Mr Kerry told the BBC he hopes when Russia’s invasion is complete, ‘President Putin will help us stay on track with respect with what we need to do for the climate’. No doubt Ukrainians will be cheered by that.

One thing is certain. Presidents Putin and Xi are not taking orders from Greta Thunberg. Rather they have been emboldened by their adversaries’ weak defence and reluctance to put troops on the ground. They are realists and not governed by hope. Of course they are also dangerously hierarchical and prone to over-reach. But they are deliberate.

By contrast, rather than action, the West resorts to symbolism, like US members of Congress sporting Ukrainian colours. It smacks of impotence; like chanting ‘Je suis Charlie’ after the Paris Charlie Hebdo slayings. Certainly, it is unlikely to deter China from its Taiwan ambitions. Beijing boasts the world’s second largest economy and wields the largest military. It dominates the United Nations and is intent on global hegemony. Biden’s record of incompetence and the West’s lack of intent only offer encouragement.

For too long the West has banked on hope. It’s where the deluded, the naive and the complacent take refuge from reality. But it is a dangerous asylum in which its leaders are unaccountable and its believers unprepared. Inevitably, reality will prevail. But can a rational mindset?


Deception from Australian meteorologists

The recent torrential rains in South East Queensland are not unprecedented. The Australian 24-hour rainfall record of 907mm is still Crohamhurst in the Brisbane catchment recorded on 3 February, 1893. We don’t know how much rain fell at Crohamhurst in February 2022 because that weather station (#040062) was closed by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) in March 2003.

The Bureau has a habit of closing inconvenient stations. It closed the Charlotte Pass weather station which holds the record of −23.0 °C for the lowest daily minimum temperature in Australia, set on 29 June 1994. That weather station was closed in March 2015. Meanwhile, in June 2017, the Bureau opened several new stations in very hot western New South Wales. One of these stations, Borrona Downs, had a hardware fault and in August 2017 was spuriously recording temperatures as low as –62.5 °C. At the same time, in the cold Australian alps a limit of –10.4 °C had been set on how cold temperatures could be recorded.

The idea of such a limit on cold days does sound conspiratorial and it was reluctantly acknowledged in an official report from the Bureau – but only after I alerted Josh Frydenberg, then the minister responsible for the Bureau, to the problem at the Thredbo and Goulburn stations in July 2017. I could go on. The Bureau deleted what was long regarded as the hottest day ever recorded in Australia – Bourke’s 51.7°C on the 3 January, 1909 recorded at an official recording station in a near-new Stevenson screen with a mercury thermometer. It was scratched from the record in 1997 and replaced with the lower 50.7 °C recorded at Oodnadatta, South Australia, on 2 January, 1960.

These stunning examples of unacceptable behaviour pale into insignificance when compared with the industrial-scale remodelling of the historical record over the last 20 years that has stripped away the natural climate cycles, so even cool years now add warming to the official trend. In denying the very nature of Australia’s climate, which is dominated by wet and dry cycles, the experts are now unable to anticipate extremely wet weather because they have lost all sense of history. February 2022 was extremely wet in South East Queensland. The city of Brisbane flooded again. There were tens of thousands of homes inundated. It is a tragedy. This is the second time in eleven years.

The flooding in 2011 was caused by the emergency release of water from Wivenhoe Dam, a dam built for flood mitigation following devastating flooding in 1974. The 2011 flooding was the subject of a class action with the Queensland government, SunWater and SEQ Water (the dam operators) recently found negligent.

During the worst of the flooding this year the dam operator again kept releasing water as the city flooded. Though the torrential rains had stopped, water kept being released because the Bureau forecast that more – even worse – rain was imminent. Rain that never eventuated. As usual, the Bureau’s skill at forecasting proved dismal with devastating consequences. I benchmarked the skill of the Bureau’s simulation modelling for seasonal rainfall forecasting in a series of papers with John Abbot published in international peer-reviewed journals, conference papers and book chapters from 2012 to 2017. Our conclusion was that the Bureau’s simulation model POAMA, developed over a period of twenty years in collaboration with other IPCC-aligned scientists, had very limited skill at rainfall forecasting despite being run on an expensive supercomputer.

Back in late 2010, it was evident from the very high Southern Oscillation Index that we were likely to experience a very wet summer. But there was no preparation – Wivenhoe Dam was kept full of water until it was too late. This last summer it was not as obvious that we were going to experience torrential flooding rains. It could be that the relatively mild La Nina conditions this year across the South Pacific were made worse by an atmosphere exceptionally high in volcanic aerosols from the explosion of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai a month earlier.

Very high rainfall totals in Hong Kong in 1982 correlate with the arrival of stratospheric aerosol plumes from the eruption of El Chichon, which spewed 20 million tonnes of aerosol.

Atmospheres high in aerosols can contribute to exceptionally high rainfall, but this is ignored by mainstream climate scientists who continue to run simulation models mistakenly emphasising the role of carbon dioxide in climate change.

The most accurate seasonal weather prediction systems rely on statistical models using artificial intelligence software to elucidate patterns in historical data. So, the integrity of Australia’s temperature and rainfall record is paramount. Yet both temperature and rainfall records are being constantly eroded by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Important weather stations are being closed and the available temperature data remodelled, stripping away evidence of past cycles of warming and cooling that correspond with periods of drought and floods.

Back in 2014 an investigation of these issues was proposed by then prime minister Tony Abbot but prevented because of intervention by his environment minister Greg Hunt. He argued in Cabinet that the credibility of the Bureau was paramount so the public would heed weather warnings. No consideration was given to the accuracy, or otherwise, of these warnings.

I was in Brisbane just after the recent flooding (3 March) helping with the clean-up. Tools were downed at 2pm because of the Bureau’s weather warning that described our situation as ‘dangerous’ and ‘potentially life threatening’. All the while the sun kept shining. Not a drop of rain fell from the sky. As I drove out of Brisbane that evening, on my way home, the flash flooding forecast for that same afternoon was cancelled by the Bureau. Next, on the radio there was discussion about the ‘Rain Bombs’ of five days earlier. How they had been ‘unprecedented’. More than one metre of rain had fallen at some locations in just a few days. There was no mention of the more than two metres of rain that fell at Crohamhurst in early February 1893 or the 24-hour record of 907mm that still stands as the highest 24-hour total for anywhere in Australia.




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