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Is Wave Energy in Our Future?

March 3, 2015

Having had some experience with the ocean, wave energy has always seemed to me to be on the fringe of reality. Especially devices mounted on the surface.

The ocean has the power to destroy anything made by man.

One ship I was on hit a rogue wave, and pounded heavily. While damage was not immediately apparent, it was discovered when the ship went into dry dock.

The wave had buckled the 3/4-inch steel plates on the ship’s bottom inward, by about 4 inches between several frames for much of the width of the ship.

Some may remember pictures of the cruiser Pittsburgh, where 100 feet of its bow section had been shorn from the ship by waves.

These forces will inevitably destroy devices on the surface trying to capture the motions of waves to produce electricity.

There have been several attempts to manufacture devices of this sort. Most have failed.

Here’s a list of a few companies that have had problems with wave development.

  • Voith Hydro decided to shutter its Wavegen operations in Scotland in 2013
  • Irish wave energy converter maker Wavebob shut down
  • Oceanlinx, a wave energy developer, went into liquidation in 2014
  • Ocean Power Technologies, who make PowerBuoys, canceled an Australian project
  • Aquamarine announced plans to lay off a “significant” number of staff

There have been two successful tidal wave projects: One, in France in 1966, the second, in South Korea in 2011. These are rated 240 MW and 254 MW respectively.

Bulb hydro turbines were used in these installations, and have also been proposed for use in some other tidal installations as depicted in this artist rendering, courtesy Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.

Artist rendering of Bulb turbine, courtesy Swansea Bay tidal lagoon

Artist rendering of Bulb turbine, courtesy Swansea Bay tidal lagoon

But the wave sector is having serious problems.

Of 40 projects announced between 2006 and 2013, they are all still in the demonstration phase.

It would appear as though a few tidal projects have some reasonable chance of becoming operational, though the cost of electricity produced by these installations is expected to be very high.

Andritz Hydro has an order for three 1.5-MW tidal current turbines for a planned tidal array at Pentland Firth in Scotland. These units have the shape of wind turbines, and being located beneath the surface, may not be subject to the extreme destructive forces of the ocean.

Wave Turbine of the Configuration Proposed for Tidal Installations

Wave Turbine of the Configuration Proposed for Tidal Installations

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) noted, “Levelized costs of ocean energy technologies are currently substantially higher than those of other renewable energy technologies.”

There is no question that the ocean has tremendous power and virtually unlimited energy, but trying to capture that energy to generate electricity is unlikely to be accomplished economically on a wide scale with any existing technology.

There are few environments on earth that are as harsh as that found in the ocean.

The allure of wave energy is understandable, but the reality is that we won’t be seeing widespread generation of electricity from the motion of waves or tides.

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The American Workhorse

February 27, 2015

Born in the skies over Germany during World War II, it has become the machine that powers America.

Tinkerers in workshops before WWII had dreamed of using energy more efficiently than in the internal combustion engine.

Why use energy from a burning fuel to drive a piston a few short inches, when the burning fuel could be allowed to expand further so that more work could be extracted from the available energy.

Germany was the first to move the workshop model into a viable machine, that had the potential to alter the air war in Europe.

To more effectively use the energy from the expanding gases, the gasses were directed to flow through a series, or stages, of increasingly larger areas formed by buckets mounted on a shaft, where the expanding gasses forced the buckets to move, creating rotational motion of the buckets and shaft.

But this was not enough if the maximum amount of energy was to be extracted from the burning fuel. More oxygen was needed, which could be supplied by compressing the air before it entered the combustion chamber.

A compressor consisting of stages of rotating blades that became smaller with each stage as the volume of air was compressed, was built into the machine, and added in such a way that the rotating combustion section drove the compressor.

This basic gas turbine was the jet engine, where the thrust from the engine propelled the plane to which the jet engine was attached.

Jet engines powering airplanes had to be as light as possible.

Land-based versions could be bulkier, and built to deliver more power.

Gas Turbine Courtesy of General Electric

Gas Turbine Courtesy of General Electric

The first GE land-based versions in 1950 were built to generate electricity, by connecting the gas turbine to a generator, the same type of generator that steam turbines had been powering for half a century. See Growing Role of Gas Turbines in Power Generation.

In the 1960s, the exhaust from the gas turbine was used to generate steam for use in a steam turbine, resulting in the combined cycles power plant that increased efficiency to over 60%.

There were many more applications for which the gas turbine was preeminently suited.

The shaft from the gas turbine could be connected to many other mechanical devices such as pumps and compressors.

For example, gas turbines drive compressors on natural gas pipelines. Gas turbines drive pumps for injecting water into oil wells to enhance the recovery of oil. And, they drive the rotor blades on helicopters.

They can also use a variety of fuels, including oil, kerosine, syngas and natural gas.

Their varying configurations can be adapted for applications having special requirements.

For example, the aircraft jet engine, with its lighter weight, has been adapted to provide propulsion for ships, such as destroyers and frigates.

The aero derivative version has also been adopted to provide backup power generation because it can be brought to speed quickly to replace the lost power from wind and solar when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining.

Gas turbines are akin to the precision and delicacy of renowned swiss watches.

The tolerances are miniscule. Materials must be able to withstand very high temperatures. Machining must be delicate and precise. Minute air pathways are formed within buckets and blades so they can be cooled with air. Ceramics replace steel for extremely hot conditions, or are sprayed onto buckets to provide protection from heat and erosion. Wheels holding the buckets are shrunk fit onto the shaft. The rotor must be precisely balanced so as to prevent vibration. Forgings must be free of the slightest defect, or centrifugal forces can cause them to explode.

Gasoline and diesel engines still provide power for specific applications, but the gas turbine powers America on the land, on the ocean and in the air.

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Fracking and the Oil Crisis

February 24, 2015

Efforts to prevent fracking are threatening all Americans.

Fracking has created an abundant supply of inexpensive natural gas, creating a surplus where an emerging shortage a few years ago was dictating the need to import natural gas from the Mideast.

Unlike the mental image projected by environmental organizations of oil spewing over the country side, fracking has been proven safe, with no contamination of water supplies, and very few spills of any kind.

Spindletop January 10, 1901

Spindletop January 10, 1901

Henry Hub prices are now below $3.00 per million BTU, while they were above $11.00 per million BTU only 7 years ago.

Lower prices have benefitted consumers who use natural gas for heating (22% of total U.S. usage), industry that uses natural gas as feedstock and for processes (30% of total U.S. usage), and power generation for producing electricity (26% of total U.S. usage).

Lower prices for natural gas have meant more jobs for Americans with the revival of the chemical industry, and lower costs for American consumers.
Fracking has also put the United States on the pathway leading to independence from foreign oil.

Total U.S. oil production in 2015 will be around 9.3 million barrels per day (mb/d), essentially the same as in 2014. Of this, approximately 4.5 mb/d will be shale oil, and the result of fracking.

Oil output from fracking has resulted in a large drop in the trade deficit, from over $40 billion for oil in 2009, to around $15 billion for oil in 2014.

This administration, together with environmental groups, have consistently proposed policies that would prevent or curtail fracking, which would kill the goose that has laid the golden egg.

The Saudis have undertaken a policy of maintaining oil output regardless of the price of oil, in, what some believe, is an attempt to kill shale oil production in the United States.

This would put this administration and environmental organizations in pursuit of the same objective as Saudi Arabia.

One measure of the effect of low oil prices will be the number of drill rigs operating in the United States during 2015.

The largest number of oil and natural gas drill rigs operating in the united States during 2014 were 1,582 oil, and 369 natural gas.

As of February 13, there were 1,056 oil rigs and 300 gas rigs in operation, a drop of 526 oil rigs and 69 natural gas rigs.

By one estimate, the number of oil rigs will need to fall below 1,100 before the output of oil begins to fall by the end of 2015. Currently, total oil production in the United State is still increasing.

We are still fracking, and it will be a simple matter to increase drilling once the price of oil is in balance with supply.

Perhaps the best weapon the United States has against the oil cartel is fracking.

Some cartel members, especially Saudi Arabia, can produce oil at around $20 per barrel, but these countries get fewer dollars when prices are low which threatens their stability. Many cartel members must get a much higher price for their oil.

The Gulf oil states may be able to recycle petrodollars to bolster their economies and provide support for their populations, but their bank accounts will eventually be depleted and they will need to raise their prices.

Whether they raise their prices this year or next, or the year after, the frackers will be able to quickly go to work and increase oil production in the United States. It requires only two months to drill a new shale oil well and large numbers of rigs are waiting to be put back to work drilling for oil.

Fracking is strategically and economically important to the United States, and efforts to kill fracking, in the name of stopping global warming, will harm all Americans.

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Buying RINs Cheaper than Ethanol

February 20, 2015

Congress mandated the amount of biofuels that must be included in gasoline and diesel fuel.

RIN Requirements from EPA 2015

“Refiners, blenders, and importers can meet their obligations by either selling required biofuel volumes or purchasing RINs from parties that exceed their requirements.”

This year, 15 billion gallons of ethanol from corn must be included in gasoline. See chart.

In addition, during 2015, about 3 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol must also be included.

This has created two problems. Three, if you include the huge bureaucracy that has been created to account for whether the prescribed amounts of biofuels have been included in gasoline and diesel fuel, and also account for the number of RINs created and sold.

The first problem is that cellulosic ethanol doesn’t exist in anything more than tiny quantities, since it’s essentially still experimental. Therefore, refiners are required to buy a product that doesn’t exist.

Looking at the chart, it’s alarmingly obvious that refiners are required to add huge quantities of cellulosic ethanol in 2022, specifically 16 billion gallons of an imaginary product.

The second problem? Not enough gasoline is always being sold to use all the ethanol being produced.

This has led to the EPA’s bizarre proposal to increase the concentration of ethanol in gasoline from 10% to 15%.

Cars built before 2004 will be damaged if ethanol requirements exceed 10%.

Whether newer cars can use gasoline with 15% is debatable.

Car manufacturers have said their warranties will be cancelled if gasoline, used in other than E85 vehicles, contains more than 10% ethanol. Prudent car owners will by-pass any gasoline pump that says 15% ethanol.

RINs have created an ancillary problem affecting the price of gasoline.

Over the past few years, we have seen where the price of RINs has been as high as $1.46 per gallon, increasing the cost of gasoline at the pump, or where, as has been the case this year, it’s below the cost of producing ethanol.

  • Bloomberg recently reported that refiners are buying less expensive RINs to avoid buying ethanol from ethanol producers. Two years ago the high price of RINs was increasing the price of gasoline at the pump. See High Gasoline Prices and RINs.

A major reason for using ethanol was to cut CO2 emissions, but it’s subsequently been determined that ethanol won’t cut CO2 emissions.

Ethanol was also supposed to cut oil imports, but with oil production increasing in the United States, there is no need to use ethanol.

It’s obvious that the entire process is quixotic, expensive and, probably, immoral. Specifically:

  • Mandating the use of a product that doesn’t exist, i.e., cellulosic ethanol, is absurd.
  • Requiring ethanol concentrations to increase to 15%, from 10%, which can damage cars, is definitely not in the interest of consumers.
  • Increased volatility in the price of RINs affects the price of gasoline at the pump.
  • Increased bureaucracy to oversee the production and use of ethanol and RINs is costly.
  • Using food to create a fuel to be burned in a car has been called immoral.
  • Using tax payer money to subsidize the development and production of unneeded biofuels places a burden on tax payers.

Eliminating the biofuel mandates, i.e., cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel and other such biofuels, other than corn-based ethanol, should be one of the first priorities of Congress when addressing energy issues.

While it may not be fair to farmers to suddenly and drastically cut the use of corn-based ethanol, it should be possible to establish gradual cuts in ethanol produced from corn.

Senators Feinstein and Toomey have proposed legislation to eliminate the mandate to use ethanol. How this proposal evolves will be interesting watch.

We don’t need ethanol, of any variety, to reduce oil imports, and we certainly don’t need ethanol to cut CO2 emissions.

The ethanol mandates have been another example of bad legislation that’s not in America’s interest.

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Fossil Fuel Hysteria

February 17, 2015

When the Sierra Club declared war on natural gas, they might just have well declared war on humanity.

Fossil fuels have been targeted by environmental groups who say, oil is bad, coal is bad and natural gas is bad. Drilling must be stopped, fracking must be stopped, coal mines must be shut down, pipelines must not be built.

Environmental groups consistently malign natural gas, coal and oil, yet these fossil fuels are hugely beneficial to mankind.

Here are some of the ways that fossil fuels contribute to society.

Airplanes could not exist without jet fuel and gasoline derived from oil. There would be no travel by air, and companies such as Boeing would not exist.

Railroads could not exist without diesel fuel, coal or natural gas (LNG). The entire industry, including railroad companies, such as Union Pacific, and locomotive and car manufacturers, such as General Electric and Trinity Industries would not exist, including all the associated jobs.

Steel could not be made without coal. Without steel, sky scrapers and suspension bridges could not be built. Jet engines and gas turbines couldn’t be built.

Depiction of Modern City Benefitting from Fossil Fuels

Depiction of Modern City Benefitting from Fossil Fuels

Roads capable of withstanding the heavy traffic of speeding cars and heavy trucks couldn’t be built without asphalt or cement. Asphalt is derived from oil. Producing cement requires the use of oil, natural gas or coal.

Many plastics and other chemicals couldn’t be produced without oil, natural gas or coal. Some plastics, such as PVC pipe, and some textiles, such as nylon, and some solvents, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals couldn’t be made without oil, natural gas or coal. CDs, DVDs and vinyl records are made from oil.

Refrigerators and air conditioning units require steel or aluminum and a chemical refrigerant. Oil, natural gas or coal are required at some point in the manufacture of these products.

Glass for windows, bottles, cars and everyday glassware require the use of oil, natural gas or coal.

Heating of homes and buildings require oil, natural gas or coal.

Other products that require oil, natural gas or coal at some point during their manufacture include cans, for canned food, the manufacture of copper wire, essential for the electrical industry, the manufacture of automobiles, trucks, earthmoving equipment and even toilets.

For a few of these items it might be possible to substitute wood, but it’s doubtful there would be enough trees to meet all these requirements.

Mountainsides are being denuded in Africa by people using wood to heat their homes and cook their food.

The list of benefits derived from fossil fuels is endless, including low-cost electricity that can’t be reliably produced in large quantities by wind or solar.

In short, fossil fuels are essential to modern day living and to maintaining our standard of living.

A war on fossil fuels is a war on humanity.

It is simply another reason why attempts to cut CO2 emissions is a fool’s errand.

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Sun Power, Part 2

February 13, 2015

It was Galileo, using his newly invented telescope, who, around 1600, saw sunspots for the first time in western history. From that point forward, sunspot observations were made on a regular basis by astronomers throughout Europe.

Sunspot observations had also been made by the Chinese around 800 AD.

In 1800, an astronomer, Herschel, was struck by the eleven-year sunspot cycle, and the perceived variation in commerce every ten years. Turning to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, he found data about the price of wheat that varied with the sunspot cycle. When sunspots were few in number, the price of wheat was high, and when sunspots were plentiful, there were abundant harvests and the price of wheat was low.

With this rudimentary idea that sunspots were related to climate, other astronomers, often sustaining criticism from their peers, searched for more data that could establish a stronger link between sunspots and climate.

Dramatic evidence of a strong linkage was provided by another astronomer, Walter Maunder, who at the age of 70, in 1922, linked the lack of sunspots between 1645 and 1715, to the bitter cold of that period.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Dr. Jack Eddy focused attention on Maunder’s work, that the significance of the Maunder Minimum became understood.

Sun Spot chart from NASA

Sun Spot chart from NASA

The Maunder Minimum is believed to have been the cause of the Little Ice Age. The Dalton Minimum is the period during the first two cycles beginning around 1800.

The 20th century seems to have been a period where sunspots were more frequent, especially from 1950 to 2000, while the most recent cycles in the 21st century have had fewer sunspots.

The forecast is for cycle 25 to be smaller in number than cycle 24, shown to the right of this photo, which is the smallest number of sunspots since cycle 14 that reached its peak around 1912.

Sun Spot Cycle 24 as of January 2015

Sun Spot Cycle 24 as of January 2015

Even if there is a causal relationship between sunspots and climate, it has only been recently that a mechanism for the linkage has been proposed.

In 1997, Dr. Svensmark, a Danish scientist at the Danish National Space Institute, proposed that sunspot eruptions affected the strength of the sun’s magnetic field, which in turn, affected the earth’s magnetic field.

When the magnetic fields surrounding the earth were strong, during periods of high sunspot activity, cosmic rays were deflected away from the earth. When there were few sunspots, during periods of low sunspot activity, cosmic rays could enter the earth’s atmosphere and affect the earth’s climate.

Svensmark suggested that cosmic rays could affect low level cloud formation, with more cosmic rays creating more low level clouds. He proposed that an increase in low level cloud coverage would result in lower temperatures as they acted like a shade over the earth, while also reflecting more sunlight away from the earth’s surface.

The major controversy surrounding Svensmark’s hypothesis was whether cosmic rays could induce cloud formation.

In 2007, Svensmark conducted a laboratory experiment that seemed to confirm that cosmic rays could induce cloud formation.

The debate then resulted in the Cloud experiment at CERN, Europe’s premiere research center.

The Cloud experiment proved, with little doubt, that cosmic rays can induce cloud formation.

Professor Nir Shaviv, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, explains all of this, plus the results of computer projections using the effects of low level clouds on temperatures, in a 37 minute presentation. The presentation is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QtnueIJGjc

Svensmark has provided an explanation for how the sun, or more specifically sunspots, can affect climate change.

While this is admittedly only a hypothesis, it has substantial scientific underpinning going back several hundred years, and perhaps longer.

This is in contrast with the CO2 hypothesis that’s based on data going back only a hundred years or so.

In addition, the sunspot hypothesis is consistent for hundreds of years, at least back to 1600, while the data supporting the CO2 hypothesis is not consistent.

From the mid 1800s throughout the 20th century, temperatures increased as atmospheric CO2 increased, but prior to 1860 atmospheric CO2 remained virtually constant while temperatures varied, up and down, including the medieval warm period and the little ice age.

If temperatures varied while atmospheric CO2 remained constant, there must not have been a very strong linkage between temperatures and atmospheric levels of CO2.

The Carrington event demonstrated the power of the sun, while Svensmark has shown how its power could affect climate change.

Couldn’t the sun be a more reasonable answer for climate change than atmospheric CO2?

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Sun Power, Part 1

February 10, 2015

How does the enormous power of the sun affect the earth?

Obviously, life on earth depends on the sun, but does the sun affect the earth in unique, perhaps not well understood, ways.

Light from the sun, i.e., photons, being converted to electricity, is understood, and widely accepted as being beneficial.

The aurora borealis, a thing of beauty, is caused by the sun.

But the aurora borealis is also a manifestation of the sun’s power.

The aurora borealis is caused by sun spots that produce huge changes in the magnetic fields around the sun and earth.

Image os Sun from NASA

Image of Sun from NASA

The largest known geomagnetic storm occurred in1859, and is known as the Carrington event. The 1859 storm was three times more intense than the most severe geomagnetic storm of the past thirty years.

The Carrington event took 17 hours, 40 minutes to reach the Earth, and it produced auroras seen around the world.

It is vividly described in the book, The Sun Kings, by Stuart Clark, with highlights mentioned here.

Telegraph operators in Boston and Pittsburg found their equipment arcing, and were just barely able to disconnect the telegraph equipment from the lines. Immediately after being disconnected the metal frames of the equipment were too hot to touch. The operator in Washington DC, was stunned, and nearly killed, by an electric arc from the telegraph equipment that struck his forehead.

The current in the telegraph lines surged from nothing, to being so powerful that the telegraph keys were locked in a magnetic grip.

The aurora itself, in vivid displays of red and white, could be seen as far south as Key West, Florida. While intense streamers in the sky stretched from the South Pole far north into Chile.

The aurora came in two phases spread over two nights, and could even be seen in some areas during the daytime.

The Carrington event is significant because it occurred in 1859 when the only lines carrying electricity were telegraph lines.

Today, power lines are stretched across the United States, and across other countries, such as in Europe.

Could a sun spot 93 million miles from the earth affect the electrical grid, and all the people connected to it?

The answer became clear in 1989, when a geomagnetic storm caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

The 1989 storm was one-third the size of the Carrington event.

The reason for the grid failure in Canada was, quoting from the government’s report: “Ground induced currents (GICs) can overload the grid, causing severe voltage regulation problems and, potentially, widespread power outages. Moreover, GICs can cause intense internal heating in extra-high-voltage transformers, putting them at risk of failure or even permanent damage.” And, there are “300 EHV transformers in the United States” that are at risk.

A geomagnetic storm the size of a Carrington event could cause the grid to collapse if the EHV transformers fail, as they did in Canada, so that all the people in the northern part of the United States, and in Canada, would be without electricity for months, if not for over a year.

This would mean that all the people living in Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland and New York, and all those living between these cities, could be without electricity for a year or more. The same would be true in other northern areas, such as Europe.

It should be noted that all services that depend on electricity, such as lighting, elevators, gasoline station pumps, refrigeration, and home heating, etc., won’t function when the grid goes down.

Failure of the grid for over a year could end civilization as we know it. See A Carrington Catastrophe.

If sun spots are so powerful that they can bring an end to our civilization, why can’t they also affect our climate?

Have sun spots been linked to climate in the past?

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