The Ford Nucleon: the atomic car of the 1950s. Another wonderful technology that never made it to reality

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Humankind's Tragic Mistake: How we Blew our Chances of Survival


A chronicle of how our civilization (if we want to call it in this way) blew its chance of survival. If we had invested in what really mattered, energy, we could have made it. But we preferred to invest in the toys we like so much: military hardware. And think that these 6 trillion dollars of hardware were used to make sure that some foreigners would send us the energy the US needed. With the same money, we could have had the same amount of energy produced at home. So much money thrown away, and that doesn't count the damage done on the receiving end. And now we are throwing away another good chunk of our remaining resources to follow the impossible hydrogen dream
An amazing article by Paul Gipe.


We Could Have 100% Renewable Electricity If We Had Invested in Wind and Solar Instead of War in the Middle East

Yes, the United States could be generating 100% of its electricity from renewable energy if we had used the money spent on our ill-advised wars in the Middle East to build wind and solar systems, as well as battery storage, here at home.

That’s the startling conclusion of a simple calculation my colleague Robert Freehling and I made after the latest reports on the economic cost of our wars in the Middle East.

This is, after all, not rocket science. Money spent on war–anywhere–is money lost. It’s not an investment in the future. It’s money quite literally that goes up in smoke.

In contrast, money spent on building wind and solar farms or putting solar systems on rooftops is money invested in the future that will be earning returns–in the form of electricity–for 20 to 30 years.

I’ve followed this topic since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I posted my first article on this subject on July 4, 2005, and I’ve been updating that article periodically since then as the cost of our wars continued to grow.

On the anniversary of September 11th this year, news articles on the cost of the war in Afghanistan prompted me to take another look at our lost opportunities to invest in infrastructure here at home for the direct benefit of Americans.

What I learned shocked me. Using what I call a back-of-the-envelope method, I calculated that we could have installed enough wind turbines to more than provide 100% of our electricity with what we’d spent on war.

That just didn’t seem right. These are big numbers and it’s easy to get them wrong. After all, we’ve been told for decades that it’s simply too expensive to install that many wind turbines and solar panels. We could never afford it, critics warned.

So I called my colleague and renewable energy analyst Robert Freehling for help. I’ve relied on Freehling to sort out such thorny problems in the past.

His conclusion? Yes, we could be generating 100% of our electricity in this country from just wind and solar; that is, not counting existing hydro, geothermal, or biomass generation. Freehling, though, goes even further. We would be generating so much renewable electricity that we could store huge amounts in batteries–electricity storage that also would be paid for with our “war savings.”

How did we reach such a conclusion? Did we use a supercomputer to calculate all the possible permutations of what a renewable electricity supply would look like?

No. We kept it simple. We looked at two respected estimates of what our wars have cost in economic terms to the US taxpayer, not what they’ve cost in human suffering, nor what they’ve cost the countries on the receiving end of our expenditures.

The National Priorities Project calculates that the wars in the Middle East since 2001 have cost $4.9 trillion, a sum that continues to rise. The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates $5.9 trillion through Fiscal Year 2019. Their latest estimate raises that to $6.4 trillion through FY 2020.

To paraphrase Senator Everett Dirksen, “A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon it adds up to real money.” For a sense of perspective, one billion is 1,000 million. Thus, a trillion is one million million. That’s a one with twelve zeros behind it–a very big number.

We made no attempt to match the annual costs of the wars to the deployment of wind and solar. Again, we kept it simple. We simply prorated the costs over two decades with the exception explained below.

Freehling’s simple spreadsheet model assumes ramping up installations from a low base over a decade to reflect the necessity of scaling up manufacturing to meet the demand. Then he held installations constant for another decade until he reached 100% renewable generation from wind and solar. If we had started in 2001, the whole conversion would be accomplished by 2020.

Shockingly, there was a lot of money left over. So Freehling plowed the remainder into battery storage using the same approach as with wind and solar. He scaled installations up from a low base until the industry was likely to reach maturity.

Existing renewable generation from hydro, geothermal, and biomass was then shunted into the mass of new storage. Batteries would be used to equalize the grid when winds were light or the sun had set. The remainder could then be used to charge electric vehicles.

Wind and solar are cheap today. That was not so, two decades ago. Freehling accounts for this by using historical figures for the cost of wind and solar.

He dropped the initial cost of wind from $2,500 per kilowatt of installed capacity in the year 2000 to about $1,400 today.

Solar has seen a dramatic drop in cost during the past two decades. Freehling used $12,000 per kilowatt as the cost of solar capacity in 2000 and dropped it to nearly $1,500 per kilowatt in 2020.

We apportioned how much wind and how much solar were built, based on the work of my French colleague Bernard Chabot. He found that for a temperate climate, such as the United States, the optimum mix of generation is 60% wind and 40% solar energy. This mix minimizes the amount of storage needed.

Batteries are still expensive. The cost of battery storage, however, has fallen 80% in the past decade alone notes Freehling. He suggests that the cost of battery storage would have fallen even more rapidly through economies-of-scale if we had begun deploying them at scale sooner. Batteries for Electric Vehicles (EVs) would also be cheaper today if we had plowed some of our war savings into battery development.

Here in California, the Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) requires 4-hours of storage for it to reliably meet peak demand.” Our scenario calls for one million megawatts of wind and another one million megawatts of solar. This scenario uses some 700,000 MW of batteries to store 3 terawatt-hours (TWh) or 3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. The amount of storage is approximately enough to meet the peak electricity demand for the entire United States for a period of 4 hours.

All together, wind, solar, and storage would be capable of providing 4,400 TWh per year–the amount of electricity generated annually in the United States–for an investment of $6 trillion over two decades.
The United States produces more than 700 TWh per year–about 17% of annual electricity generation–from existing wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass. Existing renewables would be capable of powering more than one-third to as much as one-half of the entire US passenger vehicle fleet with electricity.

If we had instead invested the $6 trillion we squandered on war in the Middle East, we would, two decades later, have made our grid more resilient with battery storage, and be generating 100% of our electricity with wind and solar. Moreover, existing sources of renewable energy would be sufficient to power a substantial portion of our passenger cars with clean, renewable electricity.


What a lost opportunity.
Paul Gipe is a renewable energy analyst and the author of Wind Energy for the Rest of Us. He has worked with wind energy for the past four decades.

Friday, October 15, 2021

The New Paradigm of Renewables: if we want something to change, we need to change something


We can make it: the latest results of the analysis of the performance of renewable energy, photovoltaic and wind, show that their efficiency in terms of energy return on investment (EROI) is considerably larger than that of fossil fuels. It is becoming clear, too, that renewables don't need rare and disappearing mineral resources: the infrastructure to build them and maintain them needs only abundant and recyclable minerals: silicon, aluminum, and a few more that can be efficiently recycled (rare earths and lithium). 

In other words, renewables can't be considered anymore as an emergency replacement for the depleting and polluting fossil fuels, but as a true step forward. They are the new, "disruptive" technology that people expected nuclear energy to be, but that never was.  

Tony Seba -- sharp as always -- has diffused the idea of renewables as the new energy revolution. Seba's ideas have been popularized by Nafeez Ahmed in a two parts series, (Part 1 and Part2). These assessments may be too optimistic in some regards, but they do note how things are changing. We have a chance, a fighting chance, to falsify the scenarios that saw an irreversible decline -- actually a collapse -- of the industrial civilization during the next few decades. 

Can we really make it? It is a chance, but not a certainty. The quantitative calculations made by Sgouridis, Csala, and myself indicate that we can only succeed if we invest in renewables much more than what we are investing nowadays. If we maintain the current trends, renewables will be able to slow down the decline, but not avoid a "dip" in the civilization curve. Then, we will re-emerge on the other side in a new and cleaner world. But we might not be able to avoid total collapse if we don't keep investing a significant fraction of the available resources in the transition.

Unfortunately, this idea faces stiff opposition from various industrial lobbies, and especially from a diehard section of environmentalism that remains stuck to ideas that have been shown several times to be ineffective: exhortations for good behavior, individual energy saving, carbon taxes, and the like. All these things have been proposed for decades and failed to make a dent in the predominance of fossil fuels and the emissions of greenhouse gases. In part, the opposition takes the form of wasting resources for technologies that are known to be inefficient (carbon sequestration) or useless (hydrogen), or both things at the same time. We need to do better than that. We need something different. 

If we want something to change, we need to change something. 

We can make it!!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

More Magical Thinking: Why Hydrogen Trains?


 Image from FranceTv

One more expression of the magic thinking that surrounds hydrogen technologies. Now we see it applied to the one sector of transportation where it is definitely not needed: railroads.

Why would we need a "green hydrogen train" when railroads in Europe are mostly electrified? Electric trains are already the greenest land transportation technology we have, and they become more and more green as renewable energy penetrates the grid. Wouldn't it be easier and more efficient to electrify a line rather than using an expensive experimental technology? Hydrogen is way less efficient than electric motors. 

So, with great fanfare, the French announce their hydrogen train. No reason for why such a train would be desirable is given. It is pure magical thinking at work. Hydrogen is good for the environment because it is hydrogen. 

The beauty of the story is that they even mention at the end of the article that, you know, this thing is "a little expensive." 14 million Euros for a one-track line. But -- hey -- don't you feel the magic?

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Magic World of Hydrogen, or how to Create Useless Gadgetry.


So, let me see..... The idea of hydrogen as a fuel started in the 1960s when the first practical fuel cells were developed. So, people (Rifkin, for instance) started saying: See? Since fuel cells are more efficient than a thermal engine, then a hydrogen-based economy is a good thing. 

Then, we saw that fuel cells were not the wonder they were said to be. Yes, more efficient than a thermal engine, but not so much. And, anyway, they are complicated and expensive and, more than all, they need platinum as catalyst, which is in short supply. I spent years of my life studying ways to use less platinum in the cells, and I can tell you that it is not easy. 

Now, miracle! You know? If fuel cells have all those problems, why not use a thermal engine? And, presto, here it is, the new miracle of technology! Too bad that the first hydrogen fueled thermal engine was developed already in 1851 and here they present it to you as a major innovation. 

This is not meant to disparage the work of the engineers of Aquarius Engines and their engine may have advantages and be good for many purposes. The point is how even in scientific matters "magical thinking" soon becomes prevalent over logic.

There are various versions of magical thinking, but it is based on a perversion of logic. Once you have established that "A is good" (or bad), then everything that has some of the properties of A will be good (or bad). It is typically used in advertising. If you show a product being used by handsome people, then if you use it, you'll become handsome too. Another example: 1) Einstein was a genius. 2) Einstein had long hair. 3) A scientist with long hair must be a genius.

It is the same for hydrogen: once you have decided that hydrogen is good because it uses fuel cells, then it will be good even if used in a thermal engine. 

You can read on IEE spectrum a criticism of a similarly ill-conceived idea of a fuel cell powered cell phone. One more case of magical thinking.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Where's the Hydrocarbon Beef? More Hype about Synthetic Fuels


One more hyped report does the rounds in the scientific media. A catalyst supposed to turn CO2 into fuels. Nice idea, but what does it mean, exactly?

We can't say because the report is behind a paywall (as usual) (*) and all what we get is an abstract and the exaggerated claims on the press releases. I don't mean to disparage the work of the authors, who surely aimed at doing some basic research in catalytic chemistry. But the title is misleading: it says "turning CO2 to fuel" and this catalyst doesn't do that. Not at all. 

From the abstract, we learn that what it does is to turn CO2 into CO which is the first step for the various reactions that can create fuels at great expense. But is it a real catalyst or just a toy for scientists? What is the yield of the reaction? How long does the catalyst remain active? What poisons it? We are not supposed to know. 

This kind of hype just means that scientists continue to dig the hole into which science is falling. 

 (*) as a general rule, as taxpayers we should refuse to pay money to access the results of research that was already paid by public money, which seems to be the case, here.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Hydrogen planes: the scam goes on

Tim Watkins says what's to be said about "Green Planes" powered by hydrogen, and other useless stuff. And even assuming that the UK government is well-intentioned, this kind of fake news is destined to backfire. We need real solutions, not silly dreams. 

The limits of green idealism

by Tim Watkins -- Jul 14, 2021

Cynics will no doubt point to the coincidence of the UK government announcing a “plan” to decarbonise transport just as preparations for the COP26 conference are gathering pace.  After all, having signally failed to decarbonise the 20 percent of our energy which comes in the form of electricity – fossil fuels still generate 34.7 TWh of UK electricity – there is no reason to believe that the UK government is about to decarbonise the 40 percent of our energy – mostly oil – which powers our transportation.

While the plan is doomed to failure, its announcement provides two key insights into government thinking and philosophy which help us understand how this is going to play out.  The first – and easiest – of these is that the government approach is techno-utopian.  What do I mean by this?  The plan provides no serious attempt to curb carbon emissions in the only way currently possible – to cut back on our use of fossil fuels, with the most profligate users cutting back the most.  Rather, we are treated to a raft of supposedly “over-the-horizon” technologies which will magically save the day without anyone having to take a hit to their standard of living.

There is no need, the minister explains, to cut back on commercial air travel because we already have battery- and hydrogen-powered planes.  Well… sort of.  In June 2020, news channels around the world reported on the largest battery-powered plane to date making its first flight.  For example, Tom Metcalfe at NBC News reported that:

“When a small white-and-red Cessna Grand Caravan plane took off from Moses Lake in Washington State on Thursday, it was flying into history.

“The aircraft flew at more than 100 mph to an altitude of around 2,500 feet, made a few turns and then landed after 28 minutes — an otherwise unremarkable journey for a common aircraft.

“What made history was under the hood. The eCaravan, as it has been dubbed, is powered by a 750-horsepower electric motor, supplied with energy by more than 2,000 pounds of lithium-ion batteries. Weighing in at over 4 tons, with a wingspan of over 50 feet and room for nine passengers, it’s the largest electric plane ever to have flown.”

It is, of course, those 2,000 pounds – 200 pounds per person – of batteries which is the limiting factor.  And that is simply to fly 50 miles.  A commercial airliner carrying some 380 people for, say, 500 miles would require some 760,000 pounds – 380 US tons – of batteries; 215,000 pounds higher than the current maximum take-off weight for a Boeing 777.  And so, as with all things battery-powered, the minister was obliged to follow up with hydrogen… in this instance the false claim that Britain already has a hydrogen-powered commercial airliner.  It doesn’t; it has a part share in a theoretical Airbus hydrogen-powered plane.  Not to be sniffed at, but thus far both types of hydrogen power – combustion and electric fuel cell – have been dogged with problems within the much simpler car industry.

In absolute terms, road transport is a far bigger problem; and the minister is correct to point to the growth in electric car sales.  If we include hybrid vehicles, then electric vehicles accounted for ten percent of new car sales last year; largely because of companies taking advantage of state subsidies to renew their fleets.  And these figures are not quite as positive as they first appear.  As Fleet Industry News reported in 2018:

“Paul Hollick, managing director of TMC, said: “Our data shows that although businesses may have the best intentions when it comes to adopting PHEVs, they are not being used in the way manufacturers intended… data on 1,500 PHEVs shows they have a real-world fuel economy of 39.3mpg – many ULEVs have official combined fuel consumption of more than 120mpg – while some drivers do not charge their cars at all.”

The infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to power fleets of battery-only electric cars; and nobody is planning to build the additional 700 charging stations per day in readiness for the ban on new ICE cars in 2030.  Nor is anyone in a hurry to build the 20 additional nuclear power stations required to provide the electricity.  And these are trifling concerns compared to the real show-stopper of attempting to convert our diesel haulage trucks to electricity.  Even the minister recognised that any truck fitted with sufficient batteries to drive several hundred miles would have little room left for cargo.  This is why he made the absurd suggestion of erecting overhead power lines of the kind that once supplied electricity to Cardiff’s buses (which at the time was the most efficient means of powering road transport with coal).  It is worth noting that his department had to renege on the project to electrify the railway lines between Cardiff and Swansea and between Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads (in the centre of the city) as the cost of just one line between London and Cardiff spiralled out of control.  And yet the same department is now proposing to electrify all the roads that haulage trucks currently operate on!

It might be – although I very much doubt it – that a breakthrough in nuclear fusion or the rapid deployment of fourth generation nuclear might provide us with quantities of useable energy unimaginable in the oil age.  And with that energy boost, technologies as magical to us as ours would have been to Stone Age people may be developed.  But it is foolish in the extreme to bet our species’ continued existence on it.  But in a sense, government is not making that bet at all; which brings us to that second insight about how this is going to play out.

The UK government – along with its counterparts across the Western democracies – has been spending far too much time listening to economists and behavioural psychologists, and nowhere near enough time talking to physicists and engineers.  As a result, they have conjured a vision of a world without fossil fuels which bears no resemblance to what a world without fossil fuels would actually be like.  Call it a green new deal or a great reset if you like.  But as the vision buts up against the physical constraints of life on a finite planet, they have become increasingly concerned that simply waiting for the dream to become real is not going to work.  Free markets, it would appear, cannot break the laws of thermodynamics.

Something more will be needed.  But mired in the legacy of neoliberalism, governments cannot bring themselves to go over to the dark side and start ordering corporations to deliver the necessary changes.  Instead, we have entered this odd halfway house in which governments resort to banning the things that they don’t want – ICE cars and trucks, domestic gas heating and cooking, etc. – in the hope that clever people somewhere else will come up with a practical alternative.  It might work, but again, I’m not holding my breath.  And given the likely consequence of dispensing with fossil fuels before practical alternatives have put in an appearance, it is the policy equivalent of jumping out of an aeroplane and then halfway down throwing away your parachute in the expectation that this will encourage you to fly!

I’m not exaggerating here.  Get this wrong and undermine the global transport networks and food-growing parts of the world will have crops rotting in the fields even as urbanised places like the UK will be experiencing mass starvation.  Without ships and heavy trucks, almost all of the things we depend upon become insecure to an extent which makes the current pandemic-induced shortages look trivial.  At the very least, while we wait for those clever people somewhere else to deliver those yet-to-be-invented technologies, we might want to embark on a programme of de-growth and re-localisation so that as much as possible of our life support can be maintained locally.  But, of course, that would require that politicians admit that their great green dream was nonsense from the beginning.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The EROI of Photovoltaic Energy is now Higher than that of Crude Oil has Ever Been.

This is an article that I published today in the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano." As a discussion, it is not very deep -- of course, it is written for the general public and these articles have a limit of 650 words. Yet, I think not many people, even among energy specialists, have realized the silent revolution that has turned photovoltaic energy from an expensive, niche technology into something that has an EROEI higher than that of petroleum in the "golden days." Don't expect it to "replace fossil fuels," as some people would expect it to do. It is a different technology, with different capabilities, different applications, with its strong and weak points. But it is starting to change the world, and it will. 

How about hydrogen, the subject of this blog? Well, if we have cheap and abundant energy from PV, we could use hydrogen to store it. But that is an expensive storage solution and will be used (if it is ever used) when all the other possibilities have been exhausted.


Photovoltaic Energy is an Opportunity that the Country Should not Miss

Photovoltaic system rental.

Imagine a bank account that pays you 100% interest  That is, after you have deposited 1000 euros, it gives you another thousand euros at the end of the year, and so on every year. You would like a bank account like that!

Obviously, there is no bank account that yields so much, but there are technologies that yield at such levels, albeit not in monetary but in energy terms. There is an article published this month by Fthenakis and Leccisi which reviews the situation and finds a truly excellent yield of photovoltaic technology due to the technological improvements of the last 5-7 years. In practice, for good insolation, as we could have in Southern Europe, a photovoltaic system returns the energy needed to build it in about a year! We are now at the levels of oil during its heyday, when it was abundant and cheap, and perhaps even oil was not doing so well at that time.

That of Fthenakis and Leccisi is not the only article that comes to this conclusion, all recent studies on the subject come to similar conclusions. A very recent article in “EDP Science” . Basically, the electricity produced by photovoltaic plants is often the cheapest in absolute terms, the growth of installations continues to exceed forecasts, and we are now talking about the "photovoltaic revolution." We face the real possibility of eliminating fossil fuels once and for all from the global energy system.

Now, I know that you are already with your fingers on the keyboard to write in the comments "but the variability?" "I don't want to see panels in front of my house!" "And how about waste ?" and things like that. I know. Everyone knows these things. However, think about that.

We have a technology that costs less than the others, and which is particularly suited to Italy, “the country of the sun.” It allows us to produce energy in our home without having to import it at a high price. We also have the added benefit of having mountains that we can use for storing  energy in the form of hydroelectric reservoirs. There are many other ways to manage variability - it's not an unsolvable problem . Then, about waste and recycling, we will have to invest in it, of course. But keep in mind that photovoltaic systems do not use rare or polluting materials. They can be recycled without major problems and we will certainly do so in the future. At the moment, it is a marginal problem.

In short, photovoltaic energy is an opportunity that we should not miss to relaunch the "country system" in Italy. And, indeed, things are going pretty well. In Italy we have reached 10% of electricity production from photovoltaic energy and it is a good result from which we can start decarbonise to truly the energy system. Certain things seem to have been understood nationally. You can read it in the "Pniec", Integrated National Plan for Energy and Climate, which provides for a fundamental role for renewable technologies, and in particular for photovoltaic energy.

But there remains a resistance rearguard formed by a rather ill-matched coalition that includes the oil companies, the diehard nuclearists, the cold fusion miracleists, those who are still paying the bills for the diesel car they bought, and, in general, a whole section of the environmental movement that rejects any change in the name of a "degrowth" thinking that we'll be happy to stay in the dark and in the cold.

To everyone their opinions but, in practice, at this point the only thing that can block the photovoltaic revolution is bureaucracy, perhaps the only truly "infinite resource" in the universe. On this point too, the government seems to be willing to do something to streamline and speed up the procedures of installation. It won't be easy, but with a little patience, we will get there.