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Best and Worst in Energy Arena

September 3, 2013

We are only a few years into the 21st century, but already there are important hits and misses, or successes and failures in the energy arena.

In view of the media frenzy surrounding energy, it might be interesting to review the three best and worst energy innovations thus far in the 21st century1.

Then, in the next article, we’ll look at what could be the three most important upcoming energy ideas by 20352.

The three most important energy innovations thus far in the 21st century:

  • Fracking

Fracking, together with horizontal drilling, has produced immense reserves of low-cost natural gas for the United States, and is leading the United States towards independence from foreign oil.

  • LEDs

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are the most important energy saving innovation in this century, and possibly for the latter half of the last century.

Lighting represents about 12% of all electricity used in the United States, and 13% of residential usage. LEDs use only 15% of the electricity used by incandescent bulbs, and about 15% less than compact fluorescent lamps (CFL). In the next fifty years, nearly all the incandescent bulbs in use today will have burned out, while CFLs will likely have fallen out of favor because of their mercury content.

LEDs could potentially cut residential usage of electricity for lighting from 13% to 3%.

Replica of 1879 Edison bulb used by GE at its 100th anniversary, alongside a modern LED lamp.

Replica of 1879 Edison bulb used by GE at its 100th anniversary, alongside a modern LED lamp.

 

  • Ultra-supercritical coal

Ultra-supercritical cool-fired power plants are approximately 45% more efficient than coal-fired power plants commonly used in the United States or elsewhere in the world until now.

China is building about one new ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant each week. Europe is also building them, because of their higher efficiency and lower emissions.

Power Magazine, the leading publication in its field, named the John W. Turk, Jr. power plant, as the “2013 Plant of the Year”.

This is the only ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant built in the United States.

It is the true future of “clean-coal”.

 

The three most ballyhooed and least worthwhile innovations thus far in the 21st century:

  • EVs

Electric vehicles (EV) and Plug-in electric vehicles (PHEV) are, with the possible exception of climate change, the most ballyhooed ideas of the 21st century.

Sales thus far, to say the least, are far lower than the media hype would have predicted. There is no chance, unless mandated by the government, that EVs and PHEVs combined, will reach the target set by Obama for 1 million vehicles by 2015.

High battery costs are not likely to fall very far, which will deter the average person from buying EVs and PHEVs3.

Recharging stations are needed to allow people to travel for more than a few miles on battery power alone. There are around 160,000 gasoline stations in the United States, and most cars can travel 300 miles without stopping for gas. EVs and PHEVs will be hard pressed to provide the convenience of the traditional gasoline-powered vehicle.

Leaf with HOPE

 

  • CCS

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is an idea that falls apart with only the most cursory examination.

Carbon capture has several drawbacks, not the least of which is that it hasn’t been proven to work at scale.

Carbon capture, if applied to existing coal-fired power plants, requires derating them by 30%. In other words, the energy required to capture the CO2 and then compress it for transmission in a pipeline requires using a third of the output of the power plant.

The cost of building an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant capable of capturing CO2 is about the same as the cost of building a nuclear power plant.

Carbon capture is useless without sequestration.

Sequestering all the CO2 produced by the United States, let alone the world, underground, forever, has never been proven to be possible. The cost of building high pressure pipelines for transporting liquid CO2 to where it can be pumped underground is astronomical. How to monitor sequestered CO2 to be sure it doesn’t leak back into the atmosphere remains an unknown.

  • Smart meters

Smart meters are supposed to allow homeowners to determine where they can save on energy. They are virtually useless for this purpose because there are too few opportunities for homeowners to significantly cut their use of electricity.

The most obvious way for homeowners to cut their use of electricity is to use LEDs … and smart meters aren’t required for that.

Performing some activities during off peak hours, such as doing the dishes at night, can save small amounts of electricity, but again, turning off the lights and doing dishes at night don’t require smart meters.

Smart meters that control your home’s thermostat is the objective of extreme environmentalists, but this is an uncalled for invasion of privacy.

Smart meters can help utilities locate failures on their distribution system, and also save utilities the cost of paying meter readers. Smart meters as part of a system of measuring devices applied across the transmission and distribution system can play a role in controlling costs and preventing failures.  Smart meters are a very small part of what’s needed to reap the benefits of data acquired throughout the system, such as transformer temperatures, voltage drops, etc.

Typical smart meter

Typical smart meter

 

Ethanol could easily be substituted for smart meters. Using food for fuel by putting corn in the gas tank is immoral, and unnecessary.

 

Looking ahead, what are potentially the most important energy developments between now and 2035?

Will it be using drones to link seismic readings with topographic features? Or, will it be solar installations in space, as proposed by some astronauts? Or, will it be a breakthrough in superconducting cables? Or, something else?

The next article will single out three possibilities.

 

 

Notes:

  1. While these choices are mine, you can tell me which ones I have overlooked.
  2. The year 2035 was selected as it is the time frame used by the EIA for its forecasts.
  3. Manufacturers may be willing to lose money on the sale of EVs and PHEVs so as to meet government mandated quotas, but even this may not result in reaching the 1 million target.

 

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Greener permalink
    September 3, 2013 9:31 am

    Once again, very informative and interesting.
    (Also, it makes me glad that I’ve been replacing LED bulbs throughout my house and properties without even knowing that it’s the most important energy saving innovation in this century!!!)
    I’m feeling very smart this morning:)
    Great article!
    Nancy

  2. September 3, 2013 10:02 am

    Donn,

    This is how PG&E is marketing control over your AC system:
    “Participating in the SmartAC program is something to feel good about. It means you’re helping to prevent power outages and keep the power grid strong without sacrificing comfort or control. And you get $50 just for participating.
    Visit http://www.pge.com/EasySmartAC

    I assume PG&E was required to put this program in place as part of a demand response program. I am sure they have a few rather smart IT guys who have figured out that they can also cycle a large number of SmartAC devices to minimize expensive generation capacity they would have had to secure in the market ;).

    I’ll bet they can even get some carbon credits out of this plan.

    • September 3, 2013 2:51 pm

      Thanks. PG&E’s AC program can cut peaks, and defer investment in new generation.
      Eventually, the investment will have to be made, assuming the economy grows, as today’s peak becomes tomorrow’s norm.

  3. Neil Jones permalink
    September 3, 2013 12:40 pm

    Donn,

    Thanks for yet one more reality check. Don’t quit.

    Neil

  4. September 3, 2013 1:42 pm

    Very good write up.

    LEDs are what I install in my home and I have been doing it slowly due to cost.

    The thing that we are not told about mercury cfl bulbs is that when they break it can create a toxic mess Inside of your home. The amount of mercury is small, but if the mercury is vaporized this cloud is indeed poisonous for all. It’s about the method of delivery as mercury in the lungs is much more dangerous than on the skin or even ingesting it.

    The small amount in one cfl would be hard-pressed to hurt an adult, but a child near to the ground could indeed get hurt by this cloud(or pets). And that is why it was a terrible idea in the first place.

    • September 3, 2013 2:47 pm

      Thanks. I appreciate your comments. Mercury in vapor form is potentially dangerous, as you said. CFLs are a bad alternative to incandescent bulbs, and as LED prices come down, they are definitely the right choice.

  5. neilfutureboy permalink
    September 9, 2013 1:31 pm

    I think LENR (“cold fusion”) will have produced something important before 2050, possibly well before. If so it has the potential to be a tabletop power source, useful anywhere, while all the others tend to be for massive systems.

    Perhaps LENR is not as certain & certainly has had a bad press but there have been an enormous number of repeatable results which is supposed to define a science.

    • September 9, 2013 5:25 pm

      Thanks for your comment.
      Personally, I am suspect of cold fusion.
      With respect to ITAR and fusion, it’s been just around the corner since the 1950s and will probably still be so in another 50 years from now.

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