ALTERNATIVE ENERGY: SMART GRIDS, SHORTCOMINGS, BIOMASS, FUEL CELLS

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

Renewable energy sources include. wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and ocean power.Renewable energy, excluding hydroelectric power, account for only about 1 percent of the world’s energy supply. Most of this comes from biomass and wood and waster burning. By 2050 perhaps a third of the world’s energy needs could be met with alterative energy sources such as wind, solar power and hydrogen fuel cells. Many feel the best way to approach the futureis to not to rely on just one main source but utilize all the sources available: particularly wind, solar, biomass.

“There was a lot of investment and research in alternative energies after the energy crises in the 1970s but the funding dried up in the U.S. after Reagan came to power in the 1980s and oil prices dropped in the 1990s. Energy growth rates between 1990 and 1999: 1) wind power (24.2 percent); 2) solar energy (17.3 percent); 3) geothermal (4.3 percent); and 4) hydroelectric (1.8 percent).

The current cost to generate nuclear power is 6 cents to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour while thermal power costs 8 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. The purchase price of surplus electricity generated by solar power is significantly higher at around 60 cents.

“In May 2011, a United Nations climate change panel said that nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met with renewable energy by 2050 if the right public polices were put in place. The six renewable energy sources considered were bioenergy, direct solar energy, geothermal energy, hydropower, ocean energy and wind energy.

See Separate Articles for HYDROPOWER, GEOTHERMAL AND OCEAN ENERGY and SOLAR POWER and WIND POWER

Business, Big Oil and Alternative Energy

Billionaire head of Virgin Enterprises, Richard Branson told Newsweek: Don’t think governments can lead alone on anything, really. I think the world is moving much more to a world where the business community has to work closely with governments in helping them get a lot of problems resolved. And I’m a strong believer that business should be a force for good, not just a money-making machine for its shareholders. When it comes to climate change, business has to play its part, because governments have largely forsaken the world and not grasped the nettle. I think if governments were to set the rules by which we all played, to incentivize industry to move in a particular direction, that would really help us get on top of the problem. [Source: Newsweek, December 24, 2010]

“Deborah Gordon and Daniel Sperling wrote in the Washington Post: “Big Oil is investing in alternative energies: ExxonMobil has committed $600 million to algae-based biofuel research and development, and BP has pledged $500 million to biofuel researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois.But while these dollar amounts surpass what the U.S. government and other industries are spending on biofuels research, they represent a minuscule investment for the largest oil companies, which each generate at least $150 billion per year in revenue and $10 billion or more in profit. ExxonMobil's multiyear algae investment amounts to one-half of 1 percent of its petroleum capital and exploration expenditures over the past five years. By contrast, consider that Shell has partnered with Qatar on an $18 billion project to convert natural gas into liquid. [Source: Deborah Gordon and Daniel Sperling, Washington Post, June 13, 2010; Gordon is a former chemical engineer with Chevron and a transportation policy consultant; Sperling is director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis; They are the authors of "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability." ]

The oil industry's involvement in biofuels is best characterized as a fallback plan in case the world's governments implement aggressive climate policies or OPEC and other oil-rich nations -- where state-owned oil companies reign supreme -- further restrict foreign access to oil. Big Oil is fundamentally mismatched to the project of developing alternative fuels. The corporate culture and core competence of oil companies favor large, centralized investments; these conglomerates are skilled at building massive structures and investing enormous amounts of capital in pursuit of oil. Biofuels, by contrast, depend on vast amounts of land and relatively small, labor-intensive production facilities that differ fundamentally from the engineering-dominated oil business. Even the largest corn ethanol plants are a fraction of the size of fossil-energy facilities, for the simple reason that the resource is dispersed and expensive to collect in one large central location. That's not the case with coal or oil or natural gas. [Ibid]

“For the same reasons, other forms of renewable energy -- those derived from the sun, wind and water-- are equally unsuited to Big Oil's talents. The industry's enthusiasm for new fuels is further dampened by the fact that it has more than $1 trillion sunk in oil wells, refineries, pipelines and service stations in the United States alone. [Ibid]

“And so oil companies are, quite rationally, investing the equivalent of pennies in biofuels and other alternative energies, compared with dollars in unconventional oil prospects. But while they are behaving logically in economic terms, they aren't serving the public interest. Drilling in uncharted territory is dangerous, as we have seen, and unconventional oil extraction carries the potential for any number of environmental disasters. The current situation in the gulf, where BP was tapping hot, high-pressure oil almost 3 1/2 miles below the ocean floor, is only a prologue to the saga of how complex and costly our oil habit will become, if left unchecked. [Ibid]

“If the major energy companies don't embrace alternative energy, where will the hundreds of billions of dollars come from to develop and launch renewable fuels? The venture capital community is investing heavily in biofuel technology, but those sums are still tiny compared with what's needed -- and compared with the resources available to oil companies. The large food-processing companies that have played a central role in the expansion of the ethanol fuel industry haven't stepped up to the plate, either. [Ibid]

Problems with Alternative Energy

Many think that renewable energy sources are not up to task of solving the world’s energy problems as some would have us believe. Mark Lynas wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “All energy technologies come with an ecological price tag. Wind turbines kill and injure birds and bats. Solar thermal plants proposed in the Mojave Desert have conservationists up in arms. If we are serious about taking biodiversity into consideration as well as climate change, these concerns cannot be idly dismissed. [Source: Mark Lynas, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2011]

“Utilities don’t like wind and solar power because they are unreliable and vary in accordance with the availability of wind and sun. Wind and solar power require large amounts of space. An aging natural gas well generates 60,000 cubic feet per day, more than 20 times the watts per square meter of a wind turbine. Nuclear power plants produce about 56 watts per square meter, eight times as much is derived from solar photovoltaic installations. Add to this transmissions lines necessary to carry the power from energy farms in unpopulated to populated areas where the energy is needed. [Ibid]

“In the developed world alternative energy projects are often held up by regulations, disputes and lawsuits from local people using laws that were designed to protect property rights and local interests. These laws are often given precedence over laws that favor large energy projects on the grounds they they help the greater good. [Ibid]

“Electric vehicles---a widely touted solution to energy probelms---need lithium and rare earths, meaning that one resource addiction becomes replaced with another. What is alarming about of rare earths is that China is virtually the only source. At least with oil there are a number of sources: at least 20 countries produce more than 1 million barrels of oil a day. Hydrogen cell cars are not really an answer either. Separating the hydrogen requires more energy than the hydrogen produces. [Ibid]

Many are dismissive of the claims made by solar and wind energy supporters. Bjørn Lomborg wrote in Project Syndicate: Being a pioneer is hardly a guarantee of riches. Germany led the world in putting up solar panels, funded by $59 billion in subsidies. The lasting legacy is a massive bill, and lots of inefficient solar technology sitting on rooftops throughout a fairly cloudy country, delivering a trivial 0.1 percent of its total energy supply. Denmark...led the world in embracing wind power. The results are hardly inspiring. Denmark’s wind industry is almost completely dependent on taxpayer subsidies, and Danes pay the highest electricity rates of any industrialized nation. Several studies suggest that claims that one-fifth of Denmark’s electricity demand is met by wind are an exaggeration, in part because much of the power is produced when there is no demand and must be sold to other countries. [Source: Bjørn Lomborg, Project Syndicate, December 10, 2010]

“The shift away from fossil fuels will not be easy. Policymakers must prioritize investment in green-energy research and development. Trying to force carbon cuts instead of investing first in research puts the cart before the horse. Breakthroughs do not result automatically from a combination of taxes on fossil fuels and subsidies for present-day green energy: despite the massive outlays associated with the Kyoto Protocol, participating countries’ investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP did not increase. [Ibid]

Impact of Fukushima Disaster on Nuclear Power

The New York Times reported: “The Fukushima disaster damped the nuclear industry’s hopes for a worldwide revival of reactor building. With demand for electricity and concerns about global warming both growing, the industry had projected rapid expansion, but Japan’s nuclear crisis had already caused several countries to become skittish about nuclear power. After the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant there large protest against nuclear energy in places where nuclear power plants are scheduled to be built in India, Taiwan and other places. Italy proposed halting its plan to develop nuclear power. Germany, for instance, declared a temporary moratorium on building new plants. [Source: New York Times]

Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “In the aftermath of the disaster, the European Union decided to put all nuclear plants within its jurisdiction under review to check their earthquake resistance and other safety arrangements. In Germany, where 17 nuclear plants are in operation, seven that were built in 1980 or earlier have suspended operations for three months. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government previously had decided to extend the lifetime of the existing nuclear reactors, in a reversal of the previous administration's policy. After Fukushima Germany reversed itself again and said it would phase all of its nuclear reactors. In a regional elections the Greens, an ecologically oriented party, made major headway against a backdrop of a surge in antinuclear public opinion. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 29, 2011]

“At the time of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear crisis and also after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, misgivings about the safety of nuclear power plants became widespread in the United States and European countries, forcing them to put construction plans for new nuclear power plants on hold. From the standpoint of protecting energy security and fighting global warming, however, nuclear power plants, as long as they are managed safely, are certain to remain an important source of electric power. [Ibid]

“In the United States, which has more nuclear power plants than any other nation, some members of Congress have called for a freeze on the construction of new nuclear power plants. U.S. President Barack Obama, however, has remained committed to his policy of encouraging nuclear power generation, saying Washington needs to "take lessons learned from what's happening in Japan." France, which has the second largest number of nuclear power facilities, has vowed to go ahead with its construction plans for new facilities. Its sale of reactors to other countries also is continuing as scheduled. South Korea also has kept its posture of encouraging nuclear power generation unchanged. [Ibid]

According to the New York Times: “Experts and nuclear industry representatives said that they expected demand in two important markets---China and India---to remain strong even though those counties had said they would proceed more cautiously. Both nations have rapidly growing demand for electricity, and neither has nearly enough domestic fuel to meet its needs. A downturn in reactor construction would hurt Japanese companies that export nuclear plant designs and components, including Toshiba, which owns Westinghouse, and Hitachi, which is in a worldwide partnership with General Electric. Companies in France and South Korea also have a big stake in reactor building. [Ibid]

“After the Fukushima nuclear power plant U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a review of all nuclear power plants in the United States. Within two months the U.S. Nuclear regulatory Commission gave all U.S. nuclear power plant the all-clear. In Europe stress tests for all nuclear power plants were ordered. Stress tests are designed to measure how force nuclear power plants can bear during an earthquake and tsunami or other disaster. In many cases they are carried out using computer models with specs and other data from the nuclear power plants as well as on site tests of steam generators, pumps and other equipment. [Ibid]

Impact of Not Having Nuclear Power and the Expense of Building New Reactors

Bjorn Lomborg of Project Syndicate wrote: “While America’s commitment to nuclear power was quickly reaffirmed by President Barack Obama, some European governments took the knee-jerk decision to freeze all new nuclear-energy projects immediately, and, in the case of Germany, not to extend the life of existing reactors. For Germany, this will leave a gap that it cannot fill with alternative energy sources, leaving it little choice but to rely more heavily on coal power. [Source: Bjorn Lomborg, Project Syndicate, April 13, 2011]

“We see coal as a polluting but reasonably “safe” energy source compared to nuclear energy. Yet, in China alone, coal-mining accidents kill more than 2,000 people each year---and coal is a leading cause of smog, acid rain, global warming, and air toxicity. As a result of Germany’s decision, its annual carbon emissions are now expected to rise by as much as 10 percent---at a time when European Union emissions are rising as the continent shakes off the effects of the financial crisis. Germany doesn’t have a low-carbon alternative if it shutters its nuclear plants, and the same is true of most other countries. Alternative energy sources are too expensive and nowhere near reliable enough to replace fossil fuels. [Ibid]

Case for Nuclear Power After Fukushima

Mark Lynas wrote in the, Los Angeles Times; In the messy real world, countries that decide to rely less on nuclear will almost certainly dig themselves even deeper into a dependence on dirty fossil fuels, especially coal. In the short term, this is already happening. In Germany -- whose government tried to curry favor with a strongly anti-nuclear population by rashly closing seven perfectly safe nuclear plants after the Fukushima crisis began -- coal has already become the dominant factor in electricity prices once again. Regarding carbon dioxide emissions, you can do the math: Just add about 11 million tons per year for each nuclear plant replaced by a coal plant newly built or brought back onto the grid. [Source: Mark Lynas, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2011]

“In China the numbers become even starker. Coal is cheap there (as are the thousands of human lives lost in extracting it each year), and if the hundred or so new nuclear plants previously proposed in China up to 2030 are not built, it is a fair bet that more than a billion tons can be added to annual global carbon dioxide emissions as a result. [Ibid]

“Japan is also heavily dependent on coal, so it is a fair bet that less nuclear power there will add substantially to the country's emissions. No wonder the Japanese are insisting on backing off from the Kyoto climate treaty. Looking at the entire global picture, I estimate that turning away from nuclear power could make the difference between whether the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius (bad but manageable) and 3 degrees Celsius (disastrous) in the next century. [Ibid]

“Those debating the future of nuclear power also tend to focus on out-of-date technology. No one proposes to build boiling-water reactors of 1960s-era Fukushima vintage in the 21st century. Newer designs have a much greater reliance on passive safety, as well as a host of other improvements. Fourth-generation options, such as the "integral fast reactor" reportedly being considered by Russia, could be even better. Fast-breeders like the IFR will allow us to power whole countries cleanly by burning existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, depleted uranium and military-issue plutonium. And the waste left over at the end would become safe after a mere 300 years, so no Yucca Mountains needed there. IFRs exist only on paper, however; we need to urgently research prototypes before moving on to large-scale deployment. [Ibid]

Nuclear Power Verus Alternative Energy

Mark Lynas wrote in the, Los Angeles Times, “Most environmentalists assert that a combination of renewables and efficiency can decarbonize our energy supply and save us both from global warming and the presumed dangers of nuclear power. This is technically possible but extremely unlikely in practice. [Source: Mark Lynas, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2011]

“In terms of land use, nuclear scores very well, because the comparatively small quantities of fuel required means less land disturbed or ruined by mines, processing and related uses. According to some recent number crunching by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist environmental think tank, phasing out Japan's current nuclear generation capacity and replacing it with wind would require a 1.3-billion-acre wind farm, covering more than half the country's total land mass. Going for solar instead would require a similar land area, and would in economic terms cost the country more than a trillion dollars. [Ibid]

History of Alternative Energy Promotion in the United States

Bjørn Lomborg wrote in Project Syndicate: In April of 1977, President Jimmy Carter warned that the hunt for new energy sources, triggered by the second Arab oil embargo, would be the “moral equivalent of war.” He nearly quadrupled public investment in energy research, and by the mid-nineteen-eighties the U.S. was the unchallenged leader in clean technology, manufacturing more than fifty per cent of the world’s solar cells and installing ninety per cent of the wind power. [Source: Bjørn Lomborg, Project Syndicate, December 10, 2010]

“Ronald Reagan, however, campaigned on a pledge to abolish the Department of Energy, and, once in office, he reduced investment in research, beginning a slide that would continue for a quarter century. “We were working on a whole slate of very innovative and interesting technologies,” Friedmann, of the Lawrence Livermore lab, said. “And, basically, when the price of oil dropped in 1986, we rolled up the carpet and said, “This isn’t interesting anymore.” By 2006, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. government was investing $1.4 billion a year---less than one-sixth the level at its peak, in 1979, with adjustments for inflation. (Federal spending on medical research, by contrast, nearly quadrupled during that time, to more than twenty-nine billion dollars.)

Scientists were alarmed. The starkest warning came in 2005, from the National Academies, the country’s top science advisory body, which released “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a landmark report on U.S. competitiveness. It urged the government to boost investment in research, especially in energy. The authors---among them Steven Chu, then the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and now the Secretary of Energy, and Robert Gates, the former C.I.A. director and now the Secretary of Defense wrote, “We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost---and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.” They called for a new energy agency that could spur the hunt for “transformative” technologies. Congress approved the idea in 2007, but President George W. Bush criticized it as an “expansion of government” into a role that is “more appropriately left to the private sector.” He never requested funding, and the idea fizzled. [Ibid]

“Other plans withered as well. In January, 2008, the Bush Administration withdrew support for FutureGen, a proposed project in Illinois that would have been the world’s first coal-fired, near-zero-emissions power plant. The Administration cited cost overruns, saying the price had climbed to $1.8 billion, but an audit by the Government Accountability Office later discovered that Bush appointees had overstated the costs by five hundred million dollars. House Democrats launched an investigation, which concluded, “FutureGen appears to have been nothing more than a public-relations ploy for Bush Administration officials to make it appear to the public and the world that the United States was doing something to address global warming.” [Ibid]

Grid-Connections

One of the big challenges to making wind and solar power and other renewable energy sources truly useful, competitive and efficient is figure out good ways to get energy from its sources to where it is needed. Direct-current lines, for example, need to be constructed to carry solar and wind energy from sunny, windy areas to where most people live. Storage mechanisms need to be invented so that power is not interrupted whenever there is no sunshine or wind. A key step for achieving this is connecting alternative energy sources to the electricity grid system. [Source: Bjørn Lomborg, Project Syndicate, December 10, 2010]

“The costs of extending a power line to the electricity grid can be quite high, ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 per mile in the United States. Currently, requirements for connecting distributed generation systems---localized or on-site power generation systems like small renewable energy systems---to the electricity grid vary widely. However, all power providers face a common set of issues in connecting small renewable energy systems to the grid that include regulations regarding safety and power quality, contracts (which may require liability insurance), and metering and rates. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

Smart Grids

“Smart grid” power transmission technology relates to next-generation power networks that will optimize supply to residential and other properties. Smart girds are efficient power transmission networks that can handle fluctuating power generated by solar and wind power and other renewable sources. They are expected to encourage the use of renewable energy such as solar and wind because they give stability to the output of electricity supplied by such fluctuating natural power sources.

By using a network utilizing information technology, the amount of residential and corporate electricity consumed can easily be checked and more efficiently managed. The government is also considering developing an energy storage system and expanding the use of light-emitting diode equipment.

Japan is a leader in “smart grid” power transmission, technology. A bill submitted to the Diet in 2011 for a special measures law on renewable energy sources includes a system that obliges power firms to purchase electricity generated from clean energy sources such as solar and wind power. The renewable energy special measures bill is intended to promote the use of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, by obliging utility firms to purchase electricity from such sources. The envisaged law would make it easier for individuals and corporations to make back the initial investment of installing power-generation facilities that use renewable energy. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 15, 2011]

“Under the proposed system power firms are obliged to purchase all electricity generated from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass facilities that have been constructed by businesses and other organizations. The power firms are obliged to purchase surplus electricity generated by private households that have their own solar power generators. The obligation on utilities to purchase renewable energy-derived electricity from companies will remain in effect for 15 to 20 years, and for 10 years for solar-generated electricity from private households. Power firms already purchase surplus electricity from private households with solar panels. But under the new system, the government-set purchase price will initially be raised to a much higher level, before being gradually lowered over time. [Ibid]

“The increased costs imposed on power firms will be passed on to their customers in the form of higher bills for electricity consumption. According to government calculations, an average household's monthly electricity bill be $2 to $3 yen higher for 10 years following the new system's introduction. [Ibid]

Off-Grid Systems

For many people, powering their homes or small businesses using a small renewable energy system that is not connected to the electricity grid---called a stand-alone system---makes economic sense and appeals to their environmental values. In remote locations, stand-alone systems can be more cost-effective than extending a power line to the electricity grid. But these systems are also used by people who live near the grid and wish to obtain independence from the power provider or demonstrate a commitment to non-polluting energy sources. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

Successful stand-alone systems generally take advantage of a combination of techniques and technologies to generate reliable power, reduce costs, and minimize inconvenience. Some of these strategies include using fossil fuel or renewable hybrid systems and reducing the amount of electricity required to meet your needs. [Ibid]

In addition to purchasing photovoltaic panels, a wind turbine, or a small hydropower system, you will need to invest in some additional equipment (called "balance-of-system") to condition and safely transmit the electricity to the load that will use it. A typical, alternating-current, battery-based system includes wiring, grounding circuits, a charge controller, an inverter with electricity plugs, a battery and a portable, box-shaped fan, called the electric load. [Ibid]

The amount of equipment necessary depends on what you want your system to do. In the simplest systems, the current generated by, for example, your wind turbine is connected directly to the load. However, if you want to store power for use when your turbine isn't producing electricity, you will want to purchase batteries and a charge controller. Depending on your needs, balance-of-system equipment could account for half of your total system costs. [Ibid]

Reengineer Grid Systems Around Electric Vehicles

In February 2012, With the EV revolution in full swing, University of Michigan mechanical engineer Jeffrey Stein says the time is now to integrate the electrical grid with the transportation infrastructure and ensure the country’s carbon emissions drop as a result of the introduction of electric cars. [Source: Discover, February 16, 2012]

“Transportation is responsible for 27 percent of America’s carbon emissions. Power companies’ heavy reliance on coal-fired plants means that electricity generation accounts for even more, about 33 percent. “At first it may seem counterintuitive that making cars electric will help us limit greenhouse gases,” Stein says. “But in fact we can reduce carbon emissions by adopting vehicle electrification.” The keys will be limiting the need for new power plants and engineering the electrical grid to increase the use of clean energy sources. [Ibid]

“Designers of both the electrical grid and future EVs will have to take into account when and how owners charge their vehicles. “Eighty percent of charging is expected to take place at home or the workplace,” says Genevieve Cullen, vice president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Influencing when people recharge their cars could have huge implications for the effect of evs on the environment. [Ibid]

“During off-peak hours, electric companies rely on the base load power generated in large part by carbon-neutral nuclear power plants; when demand rises during peak hours, they bring dirty, coal-fired plants online to meet increased need.”Utilities need to give electric vehicle owners preferential pricing for charging during off-peak hours, when energy is cleaner,” Stein says. The other half of the equation, he notes, is engineering a smart power grid that can distribute renewable energy, from solar or wind, for instance, to charge fleets of EVs. “If a power company has the ability to selectively charge groups of vehicles based on when renewable energy resources are available,” he says, “it makes electric vehicles useful not only for reducing petroleum consumption but for reducing the amount of greenhouse gases overall that we produce.” [Ibid]

“Cullen points out, today’s EVs are far too costly for the average consumer, even with substantial tax breaks. “We need public and private investment in research and development, particularly in batteries and advanced technology that can help bring down manufacturing costs,” she says. In the last five years, improvements in batteries have driven down the price per kilowatt-hour of electric storage in an ev from $1,000 to $600, and the industry hopes to reach $300 by 2015. Cullen also suggests new state and local efforts to jump-start the ev infrastructure. “We need new policies to give electric vehicles parking preference and new building codes to ensure the development of charging stations.” If costs come down, electric vehicles could become very appealing, since their driving cost per mile can be extremely low. They also make an enticing environmental case: If you have a car that runs on electricity, any improvement that makes the electrical grid cleaner will make your own vehicle cleaner, all without your having to do a thing. [Ibid]

Biomass

We have used biomass energy, or "bioenergy"---the energy from plants and plant-derived materials---since people began burning wood to cook food and keep warm. Wood is still the largest biomass energy resource today, but other sources of biomass can also be used. These include food crops, grassy and woody plants, residues from agriculture or forestry, oil-rich algae, and the organic component of municipal and industrial wastes. Even the fumes from landfills (which are methane, the main component in natural gas) can be used as a biomass energy source. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

Biomass can be used for fuels, power production, and products that would otherwise be made from fossil fuels. The use of biomass energy has the potential to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Burning biomass releases about the same amount of carbon dioxide as burning fossil fuels. However, fossil fuels release carbon dioxide captured by photosynthesis millions of years ago---an essentially "new" greenhouse gas. [Ibid]

“Biomass, on the other hand, releases carbon dioxide that is largely balanced by the carbon dioxide captured in its own growth (depending how much energy was used to grow, harvest, and process the fuel). However, recent studies have found that clearing forests to grow biomass results in a carbon penalty that takes decades to recoup, so it is best if biomass is grown on previously cleared land, such as under-utilized farm land. [Ibid]

The use of biomass can reduce dependence on foreign oil because biofuels are the only renewable liquid transportation fuels available. Biomass energy supports agricultural and forest-product industries. The main biomass feedstocks for power are paper mill residue, lumber mill scrap, and municipal waste. For biomass fuels, the most common feedstocks used today are corn grain (for ethanol) and soybeans (for biodiesel). In the near future---and with NREL-developed technology---agricultural residues such as corn stover (the stalks, leaves, and husks of the plant) and wheat straw will also be used. Long-term plans include growing and using dedicated energy crops, such as fast-growing trees and grasses, and algae. These feedstocks can grow sustainably on land that will not support intensive food crops. [Ibid]

Biofuels

Unlike other renewable energy sources, biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels, called "biofuels," to help meet transportation fuel needs. The two most common types of biofuels in use today are ethanol and biodiesel. Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol (usually methanol) with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease. It can be used as an additive (typically 20 percent) to reduce vehicle emissions or in its pure form as a renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

Ethanol is an alcohol, the same as in beer and wine (although ethanol used as a fuel is modified to make it undrinkable). It is most commonly made by fermenting any biomass high in carbohydrates through a process similar to beer brewing. Today, ethanol is made from starches and sugars, but NREL scientists are developing technology to allow it to be made from cellulose and hemicellulose, the fibrous material that makes up the bulk of most plant matter. [Ibid]

Ethanol can also be produced by a process called gasification. Gasification systems use high temperatures and a low-oxygen environment to convert biomass into synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The synthesis gas, or "syngas," can then be chemically converted into ethanol and other fuels. Ethanol is mostly used as blending agent with gasoline to increase octane and cut down carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions. Some vehicles, called Flexible Fuel Vehicles, are designed to run on E85, an alternative fuel with much higher ethanol content than regular gasoline. [Ibid]

Research into the production of liquid transportation fuels from microscopic algae, or microalgae, is reemerging at NREL. These microorganisms use the sun's energy to combine carbon dioxide with water to create biomass more efficiently and rapidly than terrestrial plants. Oil-rich microalgae strains are capable of producing the feedstock for a number of transportation fuels---biodiesel, "green" diesel and gasoline, and jet fuel---while mitigating the effects of carbon dioxide released from sources such as power plants. [Ibid]

See Biofuels, Under Food

Algae Biofuels

In February 2012, Discover reported, “Corn and sugarcane are well-established sources of biofuel, but algae are more efficient than either---more efficient even than much-touted switchgrass. Some algae species contain up to 60 percent oil, and genetic engineers say they can boost that percentage even higher. And unlike the corn used to produce ethanol in the United States, algae do not compete with food for farmland, one of the biggest problems with current biofuels. “Algae can grow on marginal land, even in agricultural and human wastewater,” says Donald Weeks, a University of Nebraska at Lincoln biochemist. “They are sustainable, highly productive, and easy to cultivate, and they capture carbon dioxide.” [Source: Discover, February 16, 2012]

“If oil-intensive algae were cultivated on a broad scale---the kind of scale now used for other commercial crops---they could eventually replace the 70 percent of the U.S. oil supply used for transportation in the form of jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel, according to Weeks. In the nearer term, “if you look at production, algae get 5,000 gallons per acre,” he says. If 60 million acres of land, approximately the area of Oregon, were given over to algae cultivation, “we could reasonably produce 300 billion gallons of algae biofuels per year.” We would need 460 billion gallons to replace all the gasoline Americans consume in a year. [Ibid]

“The key to cultivating algae as a biofuel is genetically manipulating them to produce more oil than they do naturally. Until now, geneticists have studied only one species in any depth: a common single-celled green alga called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. But thousands of other species are possible sources of biofuel. “The science here is still in its infancy,” says Weeks, who compares today’s algae specialists to the ancient Mesoamericans who domesticated teosinte, the slender, meager grain that was bred into modern corn after some 8,000 years of cultivation. “In terms of algae genetics, we’re back in the teosinte days,” he says. [Ibid]

“A recent breakthrough may help advance the process. Researchers have long known that when algae are starved of nitrogen they produce more oil. Unfortunately, nitrogen-starved algae also grow more slowly. Scientists at Sapphire Energy, a San Diego---based biofuel company, found a way around this problem when they discovered a gene that produced high oil yield even in the presence of nitrogen. By manipulating this gene, the researchers managed to engineer algae that both grow rapidly and yield a lot of oil. “We’ve only begun to tap the science of algae biofuel,” Weeks says. [Ibid]

“Algae biofuels should benefit from recent changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard, a set of regulations that require gasoline in the United States be blended with a certain amount of renewable fuel. The statute mandates that 36 billion gallons of biofuels be produced annually by 2022, a big jump from the 7.5 billion gallons to be produced in 2012. Of that total, 21 billion gallons must come from sources that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent or more---a goal that algae neatly achieve. But Connie L. Lausten, principal of the green lobbying firm cLausten llc, worries that the current regulations are too specific. “The biofuel tax incentives are all over the map,” she says, noting a wide disparity in support depending on which raw material is being used. “We need the same level of tax incentives and grants for all these fuels. “Don’t pull the rug out from under a technology when it’s just taking off.” Ramping algae biofuels up to commercial-scale production will also be a challenge: Going from 0 to 60 million acres will require considerable research, development, and investment. But the oil industry grew similarly dramatically 150 years ago. If the economics and environmental incentives pan out, biofuel made from algae could do it too. [Ibid]

Bacteria as a Carbon-Sucking Fuel Source

Bacteria is also being explored as a fuel source. In February 2012, Discover reported, “Columbia University engineer Scott Banta and his team propose that the ideal microbe for creating a renewable fuel is actually Nitrosomonas europaea, a bacterium that naturally feeds on ammonia and carbon dioxide. The researchers are genetically engineering it to churn out butanol, an alcohol that burns like gasoline. Not only can N. europaea convert ammonia into energy, but the bacterium sucks carbon out of the atmosphere in the process. Banta imagines siting bacteria farms near coal plants to convert troublesome carbon emissions into valuable fuel. He is now working to get the bacteria to produce butanol on a large scale.” [Source: Discover, February 16, 2012]

Biopower

Biopower, or biomass power, is the use of biomass to generate electricity. Biopower system technologies include direct-firing, cofiring, gasification, pyrolysis, and anaerobic digestion. Most biopower plants use direct-fired systems. They burn bioenergy feedstocks directly to produce steam. This steam drives a turbine, which turns a generator that converts the power into electricity. In some biomass industries, the spent steam from the power plant is also used for manufacturing processes or to heat buildings. Such combined heat and power systems greatly increase overall energy efficiency. Paper mills, the largest current producers of biomass power, generate electricity or process heat as part of the process for recovering pulping chemicals. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

Co-firing refers to mixing biomass with fossil fuels in conventional power plants. Coal-fired power plants can use co-firing systems to significantly reduce emissions, especially sulfur dioxide emissions. Gasification systems use high temperatures and an oxygen-starved environment to convert biomass into synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The synthesis gas, or "syngas," can then be chemically converted into other fuels or products, burned in a conventional boiler, or used instead of natural gas in a gas turbine. Gas turbines are very much like jet engines, only they turn electric generators instead of propelling a jet. High-efficiency to begin with, they can be made to operate in a "combined cycle," in which their exhaust gases are used to boil water for steam, a second round of power generation, and even higher efficiency. [Ibid]

Using a similar thermochemical process but different conditions (totally excluding rather than limiting oxygen, in a simplified sense) will pyrolyze biomass to a liquid rather than gasify it. As with syngas, pyrolysis oil can be burned to generate electricity or used as a chemical source for making fuels, plastics, adhesives, or other bioproducts. [Ibid]

The natural decay of biomass under anaerobic conditions produces methane, which can be captured and used for power production. In landfills, wells can be drilled to release the methane from decaying organic matter. Then pipes from each well carry the methane to a central point, where it is filtered and cleaned before burning. This produces electricity and reduces the release of methane (a very potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. [Ibid]

Methane can also be produced from biomass through a process called anaerobic digestion. Natural consortia of bacteria are used to decompose organic matter in the absence of oxygen in closed reactors. Gas suitable for power production is produced, and possibly troublesome wastes (such as those at sewage treatment plants or feedlots) are turned to usable compost. [Ibid]

Gasification, anaerobic digestion, and other biomass power technologies can be used in small, modular systems with internal combustion or other generators. These could be helpful for providing electrical power to villages remote from the electrical grid---particularly if they can use the waste heat for crop drying or other local industries. Small, modular systems can also fit well with distributed energy generation systems. [Ibid]

Bioproducts

The petrochemical industry makes a myriad of products from fossil fuels. These plastics, chemicals, and other products are integral to modern life. The same or similar products can, for the most part, be made from biomass. Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, which are various combinations of carbon and hydrogen. Biomass components are carbohydrates, which are various combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The presence of oxygen makes it more challenging to create some products and easier to create others. In addition, the wide range of types of biomass should make it possible to make new and valuable products not made from petrochemicals. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

“The processes are similar. The petrochemical industry breaks oil and natural gas down to base chemicals and then builds desired products from them. Biochemical conversion technology breaks biomass down to component sugars, and thermochemical conversion technology breaks biomass down to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Fermentation, chemical catalysis, and other processes can then be used to create new products. [Ibid]

The biorefinery concept posits that some of these products, while possibly small in volume, could be high in value. A particular biorefinery would make a mix of low-volume/high-value products and high-volume/low-value fuels to meet energy needs. [Ibid]

Bioproducts that can be made from sugars include antifreeze, plastics, glues, artificial sweeteners, and gel for toothpaste. Bioproducts that can be made from carbon monoxide and hydrogen of syngas include plastics and acids, which can be used to make photographic films, textiles, and synthetic fabrics. Bioproducts that can be made from phenol, one possible extraction from pyrolysis oil, include wood adhesives, molded plastic, and foam insulation.

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells

Hydrogen---a colorless and odorless gas---is the most abundant element in the universe. However, because it combines easily with other elements, it's rarely found by itself in nature. Hydrogen usually combines with other elements, forming organic compounds called hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons include plant material and fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Water is produced during the burning of any hydrocarbon. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

Hydrogen can be separated from hydrocarbons through the application of heat---a process known as reforming. Currently, most hydrogen is made this way from natural gas. An electrical current can also be used to separate water into its components of oxygen and hydrogen. This process is known as electrolysis. [Ibid]

Currently, hydrogen has great potential as a power source for fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells can provide heat for homes and buildings, generate electricity, and power vehicles. Hydrogen can also join electricity as an important energy carrier. An energy carrier moves and delivers energy in a usable form to consumers. [Ibid]

Hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier that can be used to power nearly every end-use energy need. The fuel cell---an energy conversion device that can efficiently capture and use the power of hydrogen---is the key to making it happen. Learn about fuel cell applications, benefits, how they work, and challenges and research directions. [Ibid]

Fuel Cell Applications and Advantages

Fuel cell applications include: 1) Stationary fuel cells can be used for backup power, power for remote locations, distributed power generation, and cogeneration (in which excess heat released during electricity generation is used for other applications). 2) Portable devices with fuel cells can power almost any portable application that typically uses batteries, from hand-held devices to portable generators. 3) Fuel cells can also power our transportation, including personal vehicles, trucks, buses, marine vessels, and other specialty vehicles such as lift trucks and ground support equipment, as well as provide auxiliary power to traditional transportation technologies. Hydrogen can play a particularly important role in the future by replacing the imported petroleum we currently use in our cars and trucks. [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

Advantages of fuel cells: 1) They are environmentally friendly. Fuel cells directly convert the chemical energy in hydrogen to electricity, with pure water and potentially useful heat as the only byproducts. 2) They are simple. Fuel cells operate quietly, have fewer moving parts, and are well suited to a variety of applications. 3) They increase efficiency. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are not only pollution-free, but they can also have more than two times the efficiency of traditional combustion technologies. A conventional combustion-based power plant typically generates electricity at efficiencies of 33 to 35 percent, while fuel cell systems can generate electricity at efficiencies up to 60 percent (and even higher with cogeneration). [Ibid]

The gasoline engine in a conventional car is less than 20 percent efficient in converting the chemical energy in gasoline into power that moves the vehicle under normal driving conditions. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which use electric motors, are much more energy efficient and use 40-60 percent of the fuel's energy---corresponding to more than a 50 percent reduction in fuel consumption, compared to a conventional vehicle with a gasoline internal combustion engine. [Ibid]

How Fuel Cells Work and a Comparison of Technology

A single fuel cell consists of an electrolyte sandwiched between two electrodes, an anode and a cathode. Bipolar plates on either side of the cell help distribute gases and serve as current collectors. The power produced by a fuel cell depends on several factors, including the fuel cell type, size, temperature at which it operates, and pressure at which gases are supplied. A single fuel cell produces barely enough voltage for even the smallest applications. To increase the voltage, individual fuel cells are combined in series to form a stack. (The term "fuel cell" is often used to refer to the entire stack, as well as to the individual cell.) Depending on the application, a fuel cell stack may contain only a few or as many as hundreds of individual cells layered together. This "scalability" makes fuel cells ideal for a wide variety of applications, from laptop computers (20-50 W) to homes (1-5 kW), vehicles (50-125 kW), and central power generation (1-200 MW or more). [Source: U.S. Department of Energy]

In a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which is widely regarded as the most promising for light-duty transportation, hydrogen gas flows through channels to the anode, where a catalyst causes the hydrogen molecules to separate into protons and electrons. The membrane allows only the protons to pass through it. While the protons are conducted through the membrane to the other side of the cell, the stream of negatively-charged electrons follows an external circuit to the cathode. This flow of electrons is electricity that can be used to do work, such as power a motor. On the other side of the cell, air flows through channels to the cathode. When the electrons return from doing work, they react with oxygen in the air and the hydrogen protons (which have moved through the membrane) at the cathode to form water. This union is an exothermic reaction, generating heat that can be used outside the fuel cell. [Ibid]

In general, all fuel cells have the same basic configuration---an electrolyte and two electrodes. But there are different types of fuel cells, classified primarily by the kind of electrolyte used. The electrolyte determines the kind of chemical reactions that take place in the fuel cell, the temperature range of operation, and other factors that determine its most suitable applications. [Ibid]

Reducing cost and improving durability are the two most significant challenges to fuel cell commercialization. Fuel cell systems must be cost-competitive with, and perform as well or better than, traditional power technologies over the life of the system. Ongoing research focuses on identifying and developing new materials that will reduce the cost and extend the life of fuel cell stack components, including membranes, catalysts, bipolar plates, and membrane-electrode assemblies. Low cost, high volume manufacturing processes will also help make fuel cell systems cost competitive with traditional technologies. [Ibid]

Pushing Household Fuel Cells in Japan

Tadaaki Inoue wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: In Japan “the domestic natural gas industry is aggressively promoting sales of an environmentally friendly fuel cell called "Ene-Farm" for ordinary households. Four major gas companies, including Tokyo Gas Co., have set a total sales target of about 15,000 units for fiscal 2012, up 30 percent from sales in fiscal 2011. At the same time, gas companies are trying to reduce the costs and size of the cells, two major obstacles to making them more popular. According to Tokyo Gas, the cells can reduce use of primary energy by a household about 35 percent and carbon emissions by nearly 50 percent. [Source: Tadaaki Inoue, Yomiuri Shimbun, April 24, 2012]

“Ene-Farm cells generate electricity and heat through a chemical reaction of atmospheric oxygen and hydrogen extracted from natural gas or propane. It is estimated the cells can generate about 60 percent of an average household's electricity needs, saving about 50,000 yen ($630) to 60,000 ($757) a year in fuel and lighting expenses, as it also can heat water. Ene-Farm was introduced in the market in 2009. About 11,000 units were sold by four major gas companies in fiscal 2011. [Ibid]

“A drawback to the fuel cells is that they cannot operate without electricity, making them useless in a power outage. To solve this problem, Tokyo Gas, the largest company in the industry, started selling storage batteries separately in February. The batteries can generate power for household use for several hours. Tokyo Gas hopes to sell 7,100 Ene-Farm units in fiscal 2012, up 25 percent from the previous year. [Ibid]

“Osaka Gas Co. plans to launch a new model, codeveloped with Kyocera Corp. and other companies, on Friday. According to the company, its power generation efficiency is the world's best, and it is capable of covering about 80 percent of the power needs of a normal household. The company aims to sell 6,000 units in fiscal 2012, up by 46 percent over the previous year. Toho Gas Co., based in the Tokai region, has set a sales target at 1,300 units, up 12 percent, and Saibu Gas Co., based in northern Kyushu, also set its target at 850 units, up 90 percent from the previous year. [Ibid]

“One Ene-Farm unit costs at least 2 million yen ($25, 230). Even if buyers take advantage of a government subsidy, the units cost at least 1.5 million yen ($18,900) each. The current subsidy system will expire in fiscal 2015. All major gas companies are cooperating with Ene-Farm makers to lower prices. A Tokyo Gas official said, "We'd like to lower the unit price to less than 1 million yen [$12,600)." An Osaka Gas official said his company's target is between 500,000 yen ($6,300) and 600,000 yen ($7,570) per unit by around the late 2010s. [Ibid]

“It is also necessary to reduce the size of the units. For example, the fuel cells sold by Tokyo Gas, made by Panasonic Corp., are 1.9 meters high, 1 meter wide and 50 centimeters deep.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: World Almanac, United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program, Investopedia Industry Handbooks, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy and National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011


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