St Louis Renewable Energy Conference - Day 2

(Ed note - forgive the tenses, this was written late last night)

It should be remembered, in considering the nature of this conference, that it marks a significant step forward in the changes in supply that America's fuel will have to see. While there are many questions that can be raised about energy costs, nevertheless there is currently a major growth occurring in the number of plants that will supply ethanol, and thus in the amount that will be available to the general public. To those who ask "where will all the corn come from?" comes the answer from a farmer, that "that sure makes a difference from wondering if you are going to have a market, and at what price." From the presentations I heard yesterday and today, it seems that the energy future can be separated into three phases; the immediate short-term, where ethanol production from corn will grow to the point that 10% blends become the rule; some 7-10 years from now when cellulosic ethanol will start to provide significant competition; and somewhere beyond that the advent of biodiesel as the more attractive long-term fuel. And in making the first and second of these his platform, to this audience, Vinod Khosla's presentation resonated well.

Already ethanol volume has passed that for exports, to become the second largest market for US corn, according to today's talks, which included one from President Bush, who arrived to give the last keynote of the Conference. And, as a result, we all had to get to the Hall an hour earlier, in order to clear the enhanced security procedures.

The first talk was by ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, now with Booze Allen Hamilton, and Co-Chair of the Committee on the Present Danger, who had been asked to present a review of the first day's discussions. He was the most relaxed and funny of all the speakers at the meeting, and yet his talk was at heart, a sobering reality check on how our "Just-in-time" manufacturing ethic is highly vulnerable when applied to our energy supply. He divided the problem into malignant interference (a tree branch falls in Ohio and 50 million people lose power) and malignant interference, such as when a terrorist attack hits Abqaiq. And yet there is also the risk, on the one hand, that should the current King of KSA die, then rule may pass to the more fundamental Wahhabi faction, with a greater potential risk to American oil supplies. On the other hand, there was the risk that the market could be flooded with product causing investors to lose money and interest. He was dismissive of the Hydrogen Highway initiative, and pointed out that the success of the American railroad system was that the Government reduced the risk to investors by assuring them of the land, but did not tell them how to design the engine, wheels or caboose.

Matt Simmons usual stunning presentation was a little muted, this time. Possibly because, with the added security, the sessions had started late, and the presenters had to make up the time, and so we did not get the usual relaxed Matt. Further this audience was already working toward an energy solution and so it did not have the concern that often impacts a lay audience when hit with this sort of presentation. Matt pointed out that we may have already passed the peak, that stripper wells in the US now out-produce Alaska, and that the natural gas situation is worse than that of the oil. He referred concerned listeners the EIA production records, to show that the world is down 1 mbd over last year. And he pointed out that the current plans for renewable fuel supplies will not meet the shortfall. He differentiated between a voluntary retreat and (the more likely) forced march back that we will soon encounter.

Pat Wood, the immediate past Chairman of Federal Energy Regulatory Commision addressed, in part, the problems of our aged electric grid, which is unable to handle transmission of the power from Wind in the High Plains to the customers who need it on the East Coast. Turbines in North Dakota could supply 40% of the need, the non-trivial detail how the transmission gets paid for, or installed, is a little more complex, however. Yet the experience that he reported from Texas, with Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) was reported as successful.

Fred Webber, President of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, described himself as "the skunk at the picnic." He pointed out that fuels and new car models must be developed together if both are to succeed. With over 100 models that get more than 30 mpg he singled out the BMW 7 series as part of the future. (He had driven in one that could, at the flip of a switch change from running on hydrogen to gasoline and vice versa). There are already some 9 million alternate fueled vehicles on the road. He also noted that Vinod Khosla has plans to use the discarded orange peel from orange juice factories as a source for ethanol.

After the break we were back to the more political speeches. First the EPA Administrator, Stephen Johnson, noted that airborne pollutants have been dropping and that we can see a clean energy future, thanks to technology. I was not sure he understood the nature of the audience he was talking to, though he did take credit for a methane landfill outreach program that is providing the equivalent of 890,000 bbl of oil a year in production. He also encouraged the "change a light bulb" program, with the energy savings it could bring.

Raymond Orbach, Undersecretary for Science at DOE (a new post) thought that biofuels would pull us back from the cliff that Matt Simmons projected we were about to fall off. He felt that within 5 years cellulosic ethanol would have proved its commercial viability and thus start the path to significant market penetration. In the long-term such biofuels would provide 30% of the nations transport fuels, and in this light he mentioned the two major proposed new Centers for BioEnergy Research that will each be funded at $25 million each for 5 years. He also noted that, to date, we have optimized plants to produce food, now we need to look at optimizing for fuel.

We got a brief economists view from Keith Collins, Chief economist at the USDA (An economist is one that pours cold water on the bad ideas of others - his quote). He pointed out that in the recent past ethanol has filled 31% of the increased demand for fuel that the nation has seen. Currently 19% of the corn crop goes to ethanol and he projects this rising to 25%. We have seen rising production, from 40 to 160 bushels an acre, and each increase reduces the overall acreage required to meet that need. However, once we move from the most fertile land then we must find new plant varieties to keep up production. Cellulosic ethanol poses significantly greater challenges and he provided this table:

Andy Karsner the Assistant DOE Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, brought us close to the end with the note that "everything has been said, but not everybody has said it yet!" He noted that Science, Markets and Policy must all work together if we are to move forward. He spoke more as a businessman looking at the potential for the fuel. He noted that time was not on our side, but expects cellulosic ethanol to have proved itself viable by 2012, so that we can displace 30% of foreign fuels within just over a decade beyond that. However, we must not only do the right things, we must also do them right.

And as a final speech of the regular program, Tom Dorr, Under Secretary at USDA for Rural Development, felt that this challenge provided the greatest opportunity for wealth creation in the history of the nation. We are at the start of a profound change and yet have barely reached the 10th milestone on a long journey that lies ahead of us. He had been responsible for the Conference, and must therefore have been quite pleased to see this effort rewarded by the appearance of a final speaker.

Following about a half-hour wait, and the arrival of the White House Press Corps (I wondered if writing for this blog would have got me credentialed to that group today) Pesident Bush strode out from behind the curtains, and gave a 30-minute talk (with one demonstrator being hauled off about half way through). It was very much along the lines of the Energy Plan that he has proposed, and to that extent there was no new material. His presence however underscored the successful nature of the current view of the program. He mentioned the need for more exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, and recognized that Louisiana should get more money from that. (He used the recent results from Jack 2 to suggest we might have doubled our oil reserves). He felt we should permit more NG exploration offshore, and LNG terminals onshore. He also promoted clean coal technology, wind, solar and nuclear contributions, pointing out that technology means that investing in these will not be a zero sum game. And he liked the idea of the plug-in hybrid, that runs for the first 20 miles on batteries, though not being that ideal for the rural population it would have attraction in the more dense suburbs.

And the Conference was over - yes I learned a fair bit about the prospects for ethanol, corn ethanol will likely double, though production issues will start to have an impact, and cellulosic is further away and a bit more questionable than I had thought before coming. Biodiesel got much less mention than I had thought, and algal production thereof was mentioned on one exhibit poster (if you wanted to interpret the phrasing right). It must be further into the future than cellulosic.

For my errors and omissions please forgive me - there were times I could not write fast enough. The proceedings will be sent out as a CD in about 4 weeks I gather, and will likely be on the Agency web pages.


Heading out,
Thanks for the write-up, it was very interesting.
"Currently 19% of the corn crop goes to ethanol and he projects this rising to 25%."

And yet, thus far, Ethanol has only provided 31% of the increased demand for fuel. Given the already large percentage of the corn crop that is being used, it is remarkable that corn ethanol cannot even take care of increased demand.  Even if we used 50% of the corn crop, we would not be able to take care of increased demand.  Could we even take care of the demand if all current E85 capable vehicles actually used E85?  

Putting even one egg in this particular basket might be overkill.  


Thanks for the report. I see the theme of the conference is boiling down to "you'll pry this steering wheel from my cold dead hands you damn dirty apes." Or something along those lines.

the whole situation now very much reminds me of that.
guess I'll just enjoy the ride while it lasts.
don't get me wrong i still hope i can survive whats coming, it's just that i do not think realistically i have much of a chance.
Was there anything other than "change your lightbulbs" that talked about conservation or is it all still about supply side right now?

Did anyone address the conflict between food vs fuel issues related to corn to ethanol?


This was oriented toward supply, rather than conservation, and thus the conservation aspects did not really come up much.  Matt Simmons suggested that we start looking at re-arranging work so that more folk could do it at home, and cut down on the traffic, but other than that I can't immediately remember any other comments.

There was some debate over fuel vs food, the comment that ethanol has overtaken exports carried a comment about the potential problem this raised.  However Monsanto were assuring folk about the increases in yields that they could project, which would resolve that worry.  However since there is some effort to change the optimal parameters of corn to aim them toward better fuel production it may lead to a farmers choice as to which seed he buys, rather than the current decision as to where he sells the results.

I can see it already.  The food crop gets killed from drought so they start staring at the fuel corn and reassuring us, that hey, it's ok to eat after all!  Whether it is or not be damned.

Or even opposite that, the fuel corn doesnt make it so the food corn is used up instead.  Both choices seem plausible.

Kind of makes me think about our biggest travel day, Thanksgiving.  Do we say our thanks as we start up the cars, just in case the process of getting over the river and through the woods (and off the cliff) leaves less than a feast on the fine china when we get there?  Will there be a there there?

   .. and I just had to bring China into it, didn't I?

You have me wondering what the plan here is for GMO seeds - do companies gain acceptance of GMO corn by saying its all just for fuel? I know some is already being grown here for feedstock and there are concerns about it cross breeding with crops intended for human consumption.

Anyone read "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood? <shudder>

oh don't remind me of the new 'terminator' seed craze all the bio company's are crazy about.
given enough time i am sure of one thing. humans will turn this planet into a semi-lifeless rock(assuming we don't find a way to kill the extremophiles deep in the crust or deep in the ocean while continuing to pleasure ourselves.

Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" is a great literary look at the future, complete with walled corporate compounds where employees work, live, and essentially live their lives.  Until it blows apart, shall we say....

Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is another superb read.  Atwood pretty well described the bizzarre right-wing cross between religious right and political neo-con, and well before Bush came along.

GMO crops are all about control of plant life forms and the ability to make it impossible for the farmer to grow his own seed crop.  Monsanto has sued farmers for growing GMO corn that they did not even plant, corn that migrated from GMO fields to non GMO fields. Whether or not GMO corn is more productive than conventional corn is a side issue.  It is not about feeding the world less expensively; it is about the money and the ability to make the farmer completely dependent upon the chemical companies like Monsanto.


Or mabe there is pollen drift from the fuel corn to the food corn and we wind up eating the fuel stuff whatever the growing conditions are that year :(
This was oriented toward supply, rather than conservation, and thus the conservation aspects did not really come up much.

Contrast with the Community Solutions conference:

"We are no longer attracted by the siren singers of breakthrough technologies that promise us we can continue living in a manner that denies a future for our children," Murphy told conference participants.

"The solutions are not going to come from the same people who created the problem," Murphy said. "The answers are not in the corporations of technology but in the villages and neighborhoods."


Heinberg compared the emphasis today on developing alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power to heroin addicts lining the shelves with methadone instead of reducing their heroin use.

"How about if we just start using less oil? That's the only thing that's going to make any difference, because as long as we're lining the shelves with alternatives we're going keep increasing our oil consumption," Heinberg said.

"So the Oil Depletion Protocol goes straight to the problem and says that each nation shall aim to reduce oil consumption by at least the world depletion rate," Heinberg said. He explained that the protocol can be implemented by organizations and individuals who assess their current oil consumption and plan to reduce the total by three percent per year.

Quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin - For every 100 people who attack the symptoms of a problem 1 will attack the cause.
Our leaders are in the 100 group.  I suspect that your post will generate less conversation than it should..(!)..(!).  IMHO People collectively want a techno fix - to keep a lifestyle that is not sustainable.  I think Easter Island gives us a look at our future unless disease of somesort restores balance.  
Can we just do the light bulb thing already? Just tax the sh*t out of the old incandescent ones or provide incentives for Compact fluorescents... It's such a no-brainer...
This seems like a pretty downbeat outlook. Even if all goes well it look like we'll be pretty short of fuel if 5 years (probably on the order of 15% at a guess). The possibility of shocks to the system still hangs over the US economy like a sword of damocles. It seems that leadership is lacking. Where are the programs forcing the automakers to improve fuel efficiency by a commensurate 15% over the next 5 years?

All we seem to be getting from the political leadership is more drilling in the deep offshore Gulf of Mexico. Wouldn't these facilities be more susceptible than the current shallow Gulf production facilities?

IMHO the light bulb thing is not that clear cut.  Easy savings for places that do not require heat.  In places where heating is required most of the year then the heat that the compacts don't produce might be replaced by something else.  If you are running air conditioning then I agree 100%.  Arguements can be made on the effeciency factors of conversion of fuel to electricity.  My point being it is not crystal clear - the savings at the bulb.
Very good point and one often missed.

Thinking of my parents, with electric heat, in Ontario, an incandescent bulb actually helps heat their house, 7 months a year.  This would be even more true in the UK where air conditioning is rare.

The tradeoff in my parents case would be different, if they were using gas heat.

Then the tradeoff would be energy produced at a CCGT (55% thermal efficiency) and then transferred to the house (10% transmission loss, say).  (if the calculation is coal, it is completely different again.  Ontario happens to be 60% nuclear or hydro electric in its electricity supply, so a more efficient lightbulb could be a net loss from a global greenhouse gas point of view).


the efficiency of a gas boiler.  Now a modern 'combi' condensing boiler (no hotwater tank) has a 85-90% rated thermal efficiency

however I'm not sure that is effiency taken on the same basis, and there is (some) transmission loss in gettting the gas to the house

and combi boilers don't work for big houses.

No, light bulbs are inefficient for heating:

CFL's have another advantage: they run cooler. Regular light bulbs generate a lot of heat, making you spend more on air conditioning in the summer. CF's not only use less electricity to provide light, but they don't dump extra heat into your home. (But don't think that this means you should use regular lights in winter; sure they create heat, but they do so inefficiently. When you need  to add heat to your home, light bulbs are the most wasteful way to do it. Short answer, CF's are best no matter what the season.)

I noticed an immediate and dramatic drop in my electrical usage by changing to CFLs.  I've been using them since the mid 90's when they first became available.  

Note, they don't work well outside when it's cold.  It takes a long time for them to come to full brightness from a "cold" start.  

Hello, um, excuse me for interrupting, but I just wanted to see if I understood this.

Is this really a discussion about how using different light bulbs will help us deal with peak oil?

Because if it is....

Silver BB's are the hope...I think thats the idea
In an energy constrained future electricity might be needed for rail or ?. Alot of it is produced using nat gas and coal both carbon fuels.  Will it directly help with a lack of oil <no> but conserving it will be important no matter what.  I think we need to be careful about what we embrace - not all things will work in all locations - it isn't that easy.
And Global Warming.

There really are no magic bullets in energy, because it represents the embedded capital of the whole economy (from aluminium smelters through cars through HVAC systems through lightbulbs).

But when one reads that power supplies (as in the 'instant on' feature on appliances, mobile phone chargers etc.) could be as much as 10% of California power demand then one realises that there is much that can be done.

CFLs certainly fit into that rubric.  See the Fast Company article last month on Walmart and CFLs.

As we say here in NC, let me "splain it" to you.  

In a world where the trucking industry believes that homeowners that use oil to heat their homes should be thrown into jail (peak oil threatens the trucking industry's 5% annual growth as they continue to truck the 3,000 mile salad) and that even natural gas heating of homes as well as all gasoline powered cars should be converted to electricity so that more oil is available for transporting "stuff," a (brief) discussion of CFLs is appropriate. This was the stated position at the  NC CAPAG meeting No. 3 on July 25th, 2006.

As an aside, nearly 10% of all "on-road" diesel fuel is burned by trucks sitting and idling in truckstops and other rest areas to meet the driving time requirements of the federal law.

With the electricity demand growth at something over 2% and with this push, I don't think we have anywhere near the generating load that could support even a fraction of this.

Besides, 3% of our electrical load is generated using oil.  It's small compared to other fuels but oil is oiland peak oil will affect the generating capacity.  

Does that connect the missing dots for you?

how about I "splain" something to you. I was not missing anything. I was incredulous at inanity of the discussion.
it's called treating the symptom not the cause because if they would too treat the cause it would end what they don't want to give up witch is how we live today.
in the end it just shuffles around everything but doesn't really remove a thing.
I don't agree with you.  We have to start somewhere.  Changing to CFLs make people feel empowered and they actually work.  It can be done by anyone.  We will never change Congress so this is the next best thing.
Most of that 3% of oil used for generating electricity is for islands.  Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Alaska villages, Northeast islands that don't want wind turbines within sight, etc.  Add some emergency generation.


 I'm not a lighting engineer however my understanding is that they create both heat and light and this = 100% of the energy they use.  Unless they produce something I'm not aware of like radio waves, I'm missing the point of the rebuttal.
The CFL is the most efficient bulb. If you want to heat with electricity more BTU's are pumped in the house via groundsource heatpump.
This I can understand - thank you!
Down here in Tampa, Florida, we air condition year-round.  Changing all my lightbulbs to CFLs was a no-brainer.  Left the incandescents in the bath and powder rooms as they are on very little and the wife wanted the 'natural' light.  I date them with a felt marker when I install them so I get some idea of how long they last.  They never seem to last as long as they are advertised to (but they do last a long time).  Another point is the generation and transmission losses to the point of use in the house.  These can be up to 200% of the actual amount of electric used in the bulb, so a CFL really saves quite a bit.  The savings are: 1.  They use 1/4 the electric of incandescent 2.  They don't heat up the house and cause the AC to use more electric to cool the house down 3.  They only incurr 1/4 the generation/transmission losses of incandescent 4.  For businesses, they have less labor costs for bulb replacement.  These are really good synergistic effects for a simple product.
He pointed out that in the recent past ethanol has filled 31% of the increased demand for fuel that the nation has seen.

Not on a net basis, though. On a net energy basis, it is next to nothing.

Cellulosic is further away and a bit more questionable than I had thought before coming.

I am writing an essay on this right now. Every time I point out that there are substantial hurdles left to leap, inevitably I get e-mails from a bunch of Silicon Valley computer guys who say that I just don't understand the power of innovation. Of course this is coming from people who don't understand the first thing about how cellulosic ethanol is produced, but as far as they are concerned innovation is all that is needed, and Khosla is the right man for that job.

Read the Chicago Tribune article on ethanol linked to in today's Drumbeat. If you read between the lines, you will see some real pessimism among a lot of people working in this area. This is precisely why I challenged Khosla's claims that cellulosic ethanol is going to produce 200 billion gallons of fuel 20 years from now. It is not a sure thing that we will produce any. Unless they can get the concentrations up higher than 4% ethanol, it will never be economical to purify the ethanol.

Hey Robert,
I am interested in reading your essay but honestly, aren't you sick of writing about ethanol yet? It is impossible to have an intelligent debate about it because no one can predict innovation: we may leap the hurdles or not, no one knows. To even stand on firm ground and describe the hurdles is meaningless too because our current world oil infrastructure was just a laughable idea in the 1850's when the first wells were dug.

Every time you point out a hurdle, someone like me will point out a possible way to jump it. Time will decide who is right, not us posting on this board.

USDA reports US corn yields down

Grain stockpiles at lowest for 25 years

The world's stockpiles of wheat are at their lowest level in more than a quarter century, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which on Thursday slashed its forecasts for global wheat and corn production.

This was precisely what happened in ?1975? when the USSR then had a bad harvest, and bought American wheat in quantity for the first time.

The price went through the stratosphere, and was part of exacerbating the wage-price spiral of the time.

Doing the calculations:

Corn crop ethanol vs USA gasoline consumption

USDA expects an 11 billion corn crop this year.
Gas consumption in USA in 2005 was 320 million gals/day.(not sure about diesel in this statistic)

320 X 365 = 116,800 gals gas/day

Thats 116.8 trillion per year. 116,800,000,000

So if all 11 billion of corn produced 2.8 gals of ethanol then: it would be 30.8 billion gals of ethanol. Not nearly enough. Enough for 96 days?

Its early and my math skills are fuzzy. Seems accurate but I am using the MSFT windows calculator and might have dropped some zeros.

But I suspect that there is never going to be enough corn to satisfy the domestic needs.

Airdale: I have been doing these ethanol numbers so long I have them in memory.
The US uses about
9.5 million barrels of gas per day
400 million gallons per day
3.45 billion barrels per year
145 billion gallons per year
The US produces about
300,000 barrels of ethanol per day
12.6 million gallons per day
4.6 billion gallons per year
Last years (05) ethanol production efficiency was just about 2.5 gallons per bushel or 1.84 billion bushels. That is 17 % of our current corn crop, or ethanol production is about 3.1% of gasoline fuel. 50% of our corn crop would produce about 5.4 billion gallons of ethanol or about 11% of gasoline fuel.
BTW were you ever or are you now an Airdale?
Of course I was an airdale(some spell it airedale).

Flew crewdog(tech) in Navy Surveillance aircraft in 'cold war'.

Was an AT(aviation technician).

This is as opposed to 'black shoe' Navy or shipboard.

3,000 flight hours logged.

On a net basis it is possible to be a bit more specific. If you use Shapouri's numbers which come from a 1995 study (link: The net enery efficiency was 1.24/1 for corn based ethanol. In 2001 Shapouri updated his study to get a ratio of 1.67/1 (link: . Since 2001 the production of corn has probably become more efficient on an energy basis. Increased corn yields have reduced chemical and farm energy per unit. Cogeneration of electricity to run the distillation process and provide process heat reduces fossil fuel inputs. Better siting of the ethanol plants (as demonstrated by the small size of the plants, 40 million gallons per year as opposed to older 100 million gallon per year) have reduced transport costs. The development of by-product markets have also helped the energy balance.  Some further incremental gains in yield and production have occurred since then. I would estimate the current balance at 1.75/1.

Last year (2005) corn produced 3.1% of the 140 billion gallons of oil used consuming 17% of the corn crop (thanks to dipchip). However, a gallon of ethanol has only 2/3 the energy value of a gallon of gasoline. So, on an energy equivalent basis, ethanol met about 2.1% of oil use. On a net basis (assuming the 1.75/1 efficiency ratio above) that works out to 1.56% of oil use from renewable sources.

If 50% of our corn crop was used then ethanol from corn would yield about 4.6% of oil use on a net basis.

I am interested in reading your essay but honestly, aren't you sick of writing about ethanol yet?


It is impossible to have an intelligent debate about it because no one can predict innovation: we may leap the hurdles or not, no one knows.

Yes, and we may all migrate to Mars in a few years, because nobody can predict these things. Seriously, we can look at the hurdles and see exactly what the challenges are. There is some fundamental chemistry and physics here that you won't innovate yourself around. So, no, it is not impossible to have an intelligent debate about it. That would be the same as me completely discounting everything that was said at this conference about cellulosic ethanol, since we can't predict innovation.

Every time you point out a hurdle, someone like me will point out a possible way to jump it.

That sounds like a challenge. OK, here's a hurdle. The concentration shown above by HO of cellulosic ethanol is 4%. Even grain ethanol, at 4 times that concentration, has a marginal EROEI due to the large amount of water that must be removed. Jump that hurdle and get the cellulosic ethanol concentration up to where corn ethanol is, as it will certainly need to be.

Of course the real problem is that you have 4 or 5 hurdles like this. That is when I concluded that the hydrogen economy was a no-go. Jumping 1 or 2 hurdles is one thing. Multiple tough hurdles is something else entirely.

It's not to predict where innovation will happen.

But it's rather easier to predict where big innovation probably won't happen:  use the laws of physics.

For instance, it's pretty easy to predict that there won't ever be a fission powered personal car.  Why?  Because the laws of physics tell you what the cross section and radiation products of uranium fission are. It's rather quick to compute that the radiation danger will be far too high for any sort of small, cheap reactor.

The Silicon Valley technooptimists have been living in a world where innovation was far less constrained by the fundamental laws of physics.  

From 1960 to today the prospects were bright because of the laws of physics, namely "There's plenty of room at the bottom".

The size of engineerable structures/electronics in 1960 was far away from fundamental physical limits, i.e. the sizes of atoms.   There was many orders of magnitude left to exploit.   All along, of course there were difficult engineering and physical problems, but not immutable ones.

Once you get to atomic size, you run into major immutable problems: atoms will never get smaller.   We're starting to get there.  Have you noticed that CPU frequencies haven't topped past 4GHz over the last 3-4 years?  This is unprecede

In the field of energy engineering---you are constrained by the laws of thermodynamics in a way that the Silicon Valley crowd is used to.   Existing technology and uses are already far closer to fundamental thermodynamic limits that the opportunities for improvements are much smaller, and alternative energy sources have many handicaps which are profound and immutable (e.g. the solar flux at the surface of the Earth), and cannot be engineered around.

Cellulosic ethanol is another example: maybe gasification will prove more feasible than enzymatic processing, but even then you can compute, now, hard limits on productivity and energy gain even with the most optimistic possible technologies allowable by the laws of physics.

On the other hand, there is nothing fundamental in the laws of physics which forbids an electric battery which can be fully discharged and recharged one million times instead of 500.  

The energy density of batteries (which is constrained by physics) has been boosted up in small steps with great exertion (no order of magnitude leaps), and finally it is just about at the level where it makes an OK plug-in hybrid conceivably acceptable.

It's still not anywhere as nice, and much more expansive, than a hypothetical non-polluting cheap gasoline car, but it will do.

Taking a broad large scale "don't fight the laws of physics" look at the problem, and running some basic numbers, what do I see?

  • There's no good substitute for fossil petroleum.
  • global warming could be globally catastrophic
  • We need every single possible non-greenhouse alternative maxed out
  • those won't be remotely enough, and civilization collapses without including a huge nuclear energy program to carry much of the load

The big danger is when TSreallyHTF the profit motive will encourage reckless coal use, which is climate death.
Sorry, saw typos.  Should read:

In the field of energy engineering---you are constrained by the laws of thermodynamics in a way that the Silicon Valley crowd is not used to.  


Once you get to atomic size, you run into major immutable problems: atoms will never get smaller.   We're starting to get there.  Have you noticed that CPU frequencies haven't topped past 4GHz over the last 3-4 years?  This is unprecedented.   Quantum computing?  We are in the same position as electronics was in 1870.  Remember that by the early 20th century vacuum tubes were a major commercial product.  We aren't remotely there with quantum computing.  

Well said.
  • There's no good substitute for fossil petroleum.
  • global warming could be globally catastrophic
  • We need every single possible non-greenhouse alternative maxed out
  • those won't be remotely enough....
Current human energy consumption:  ~400 quads/year.
Calculated available wind power worldwide:  72 TW (~2150 quads/year, NO CONVERSION LOSSES).

The only thing that can't possibly be enough is carbon capture and production of ICE-compatible fuels through higher plants; the cycle is just too inefficient.  There are cycles which are efficient enough, and we already have working examples from laboratories.

It's soluble.  The problem isn't physics, it's a little engineering and a whole lot of politics.  I say politics, because when you think of the various horrendously profitable industries which will be left beside the trail of history like a dead steer on a Texas cattle drive, you can see just how much money and power are threatened and will be used to delay or even prevent such changes.

I absolutely agree. A short look at the earths energy budget should suffice to put the matter into some perspective:

    * solar radiation (99.978%, or nearly 174 petawatts; or about 340 W m-2)
    * geothermal energy (0.013%, or about 23 terawatts; or about 0.045 W m-2)
    * tidal energy (0.002%, or about 3 terawatts; or about 0.0059 W m-2
    * waste heat from fossil fuel consumption (about 0.007%, or about 13 terawatts; or about 0.025 W m-2

The rather puny contribution from fossil fuels is divided further into oil, gas and coal, so oil is contributing only a minority share to this number.
Industrial civilization was not built upon fossil petroleum (this honour belongs firmly to the good old coal) and it will not fall to due to its absence. I can imagine quite a few scenarios were civilization is bound to fall and collapse, but a lack of alternatives to oil is not among them.

It's the use of fossil fuels which might kill our civilisation.

That an absence of investment in alternatives, fast enough.

I think you have nailed it.  The powers in control do not want decentralized anything.  IMHO they will fight to retain power to our collective detriment. I think that they are a big if not the biggest challenge that we face.
While you may be correct about political motivations. Consider that all the decentralized alternatives are actually quite expensive to implement. While I am all for decentralization in general. Decentralization of energy production without corresponding changes in our underlying economic and social values will mean that the wealthy (inluding middle america who are amonthe the top quintile in world wealth) have electricty while the poor will not.
I wholeheartedly agree that decentralized electicity production is expensive.  I wonder if we might get the same results (rich people having) if we do nothing at all.
  My son said it best - how many things have actually made our lives better, not just easier. "easier" uses alot of energy.
Don't know how old your son is, but he is wise, whatever age. Most people in the modern world go through their entire lives not understanding that distinction.
I think Carbon Sequestration (in electric power generation) will be part of what gets us there. In transport applications, I agree it doesn't look feasible.

An interim technology to be sure, but so is nuclear fission.

Your point about politics (which I would also summarise as  'economics' or 'political economy') is germane and an excellent one.

In the complexity science literature, you see this phenomenon of civilisations (and companies) having this flurry of construction and activity just before they go extinct.

The elites belatedly realise they should do something, but they do the wrong thing.  Or they keep building ever higher temples to appease the Gods (the Maya) whilst the ecology collapses around them.

You could argue the same thing was going on with Gothic Cathedrals in the middle of the 1300s: medieval Europe was in a mess of trouble from overpopulation, war, economic disruption (and possibly the end of the medieval warm spell) before the Black Death hit, and finished it off.  Many of the greatest Gothic Cathedrals were either never finished, or finished much later in different styles.  From roughly 1330-1430, Europe ran backwards (see Tuchman, Barbara 'A distant mirror: the calamitous 14th century').

I think we are at that point now.  There is a whole host of solutions to the problem of Global Warming (and more elusive ones, to the problem of Peak Oil) but all the entrenched interest groups have a massive vested interest in avoiding making those investments or switches.

The Chinese government has to deliver economic growth to maintain political stability.  So cars and cheap coal are favoured.  China is already the world's second largest car market, I believe, and its cities are fast abandoning the lowly bicycle.  After all the West caused Global Warming, and China is still a poor country on a per capita basis (Brasil is twice as rich as China, per person).  Indians are perhaps even more likely to view talk of Global Warming as a Western colonial plot to keep India backward.  

The US has many oligarchies built up on the old industries: King Coal, Oil & Gas, automobile.  I would include the UAW and its ties to the Democrats in the latter, this isn't simply a Republican thing!  And look where the states are that are so critical to different electoral coalitions: Texas, one of the largest electoral states, and whose switch from solid Democrat to solid Republican has transformed American politics; Wyoming, home of the richest coal fields in the world-- former Congressman, Dick Cheney, enuff said? West Virginia- a well planned assault by Karl Rove cost Al Gore West Virginia, and was a significant component of the 2000 victory.

The Canadian equivalent is Alberta, where the PM (a GW sceptic) hails from, and the keystone of the governing Tory Party.  And the largest oil reserve outside of Saudi Arabia, but an extraordinarily dirty extraction technology.

I would include the UAW and its ties to the Democrats in the latter, this isn't simply a Republican thing!
John Dingell.  Voted for him myself more than once, on issues unrelated to GW.  But you're right, he's not the most forward-looking sort.
Wyoming, home of the richest coal fields in the world-- former Congressman, Dick Cheney, enuff said? West Virginia- a well planned assault by Karl Rove cost Al Gore West Virginia, and was a significant component of the 2000 victory.
I don't follow politics there.  Did anyone try to sell wind turbines to West Virginians as an alternative to mountaintop removal?  The slogan "One way, you'll still have the mountain" suggests itself.  And I wonder how long it would take turbines on a mountain to generate enough energy to replace the coal beneath it?  Unfortunately, the wind-energy maps I've got show almost all WV sites as class 1, with one class 5 site bordering VA.
The Canadian equivalent is Alberta, where the PM (a GW sceptic) hails from....
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." -- Upton Sinclair
West Virginia is, AFAIK, a socially conservative state that votes Democrat because of its close relation to US Federal government money, dating back to John Kennedy (and even FDR).

Politics in the state capital is heavily influenced by the lobbying activities of a few private mining families.

Rove launched an operation months earlier than Gore in 2000 (Bush had more than twice as much money to spend) focusing on social conservative issues, especially gun control and the Democrats, and also that Gore's environmental leanings would take away miners' jobs.

There isn't a strong 'environmental movement' in West Virginia, as I understand it-- that comes from Federal initiatives.  What there is is strong coal mining lobby.  That will keep the tops coming off mountains.  It is, after all, their private land.

Wind power will be opposed because it might damage tourism revenues, and also a lot of people live there for the natural environment-- they may have made their money in Washington and retired or downshifted back there.  They don't want their views cluttered with windmills.

Engineeers (not picking at you!) think engineering will solve the world's problems.  What they often miss is that politics (and economics) decide what engineering actually gets applied.

"lot of people live there for the natural environment--"

That's hilarious. I guess all those mountain tops dumped into the valleys and all that horribly polluted water is their idea of a great natural environment. What the coal companies are doing to West Virginia is truly a crime against humanity and nature.  Yeh, I can see how the esthetics of having wind generators on mountain tops would be a huge problem. But wait!! At least they would have some mountain tops.

I am surrounded my mountains and mountain tops at my home here in Colorado.  Having some wind generators scattered around on those mountaintops versus destroying those mountains and streams would be a no brainer. Destroying the stream from which I get my drinking water would destroy this town in a heartbeat. There is no substitute for water.

If you are well enough off, you can insulate yourself from the activities of mine owners, by where you live.

Resource extraction based economies often have this pattern of a small number of plutocrats who live a fairly feudal life, and the rest.

I see you caught the typos.  

I will disagree with you only slightly on one point:

"On the other hand, there is nothing fundamental in the laws of physics which forbids an electric battery which can be fully discharged and recharged one million times instead of 500."  

Actually, there is a fundamental issue that shows up in the second law of thermodynamics.  The question about batteries hinges upon "reversibility" and reversibility is tied quite squarely to the second law.  

In general, lower entropic processes can be ones that are highly reversible whereas high entropic processes are not.  And the problem is one where we need high entropic (high energy output) to do "work."  One manifestation of this entropy is the heat that the battery reactions produce (and that limit cell life).  The TESLA, for example, has a relatively elaborate battery cooling system to keep the more than 6000 lithium ion batteries from going into meltdown/flameout.  That adds weight and decreases energy density.  

We either need a mechanism to carry away the heat or have a very slow discharge rate to avoid the heat (energy) losses.  Now if it's a matter of making the battery components "more pure" then the question becomes how much initial energy is required to achieve that purity (and its probably a non-linear relationship)?  If it takes 10-11 orders of magnitude more energy at the outset to get 3 orders of magnitude more discharge cycles is it something worth doing?  This is essentially the same question we have for solar (PV) cells.  Physics, particularly those dealing with the second law, play a very important role.

More than 30 years ago, my chem E professors where conjecturing about slow differential heating for maximum energy efficiency (lower entropy) as opposed to blasting away with high (entropy) energy sources.  Their point was that it's "easy" to understand energy, less so to grasp entropy and the role in efficiency and reversibility.  

The TESLA, for example, has a relatively elaborate battery cooling system to keep the more than 6000 lithium ion batteries from going into meltdown/flameout.  That adds weight and decreases energy density.
That's because the Tesla is using old-tech cells with cobalt-oxide cathodes.  These have to be cooled aggressively because they are subject to thermal runaway.  Newer chemistries don't have this problem and will operate with simpler cooling systems.

FWIW, even some lead-acid and NiMH batteries are designed for active cooling.  It's a question of the power density.

And the problem is one where we need high entropic (high energy output) to do "work."  One manifestation of this entropy is the heat that the battery reactions produce (and that limit cell life).
Lithium-ion has better than 95% energy efficiency (linked here).
I think a better definition of "efficiency" is needed (over what time period and through what drain/recharge characteristics).  Is that the average over power out from power in/stored over the entire life of the battery cells?

In addition, this conflicts with my experience with Li-ion batteries in cell phones, PDAs, and my two laptop computers.  They gradually lose their capacity over a year or so.  I've gone through 6 batteries in 4 years with my Sony laptop.  Three hours of life in the beginning, drops to 2, then slowly to 1 to the point where (at 9 months to 1-year) the life is anywhere from 10-20 minutes.  Had one that went from 2.5 hours to dead overnight.  

In fact, I have a brand new HP and they recommend limiting temperature range and, in fact, removing the battery from the computer if it's going to be used through the small powerbrick.  It's an 8-cell pack.  Other HPs use 6-cell packs and on has the ability to use a 12-cell for extended life.  In one of the links they provided there was even a life/temperature chart to back this up.  

Excellent post.

Although in computer architectures, the GHZ wars are over.  The performance constraint is actually more in the I/O channel these days.

The breakthroughs are coming more in parallel architectures, and distributed ones, where you don't care about how far apart the transistors are, because you have millions of them working in parallel.

It's hard to get a feel of where Quantum Computing is, in terms of progress.  My own sense is nanotechnology (call QC part of nano?) is going to have really profound impacts on the world.

I agree pretty much with everything you say about energy, although I don't know a really big nuclear programme is feasible:

  • no one has really cracked the breeder reactor problem

  • thorium might be a better way out as a reactor fuel than plutonium

As long as we do not tax carbon emissions, or force carbon emitters to buy traded permits, then coal is a no-brainer from a cost point of view.

You can't even get most utilities interested in coal plus carbon sequestration (eg via IGCC) because they don't see the justification for the extra capital cost (and carbon sequestration will need its equivalent of the Price Anderson Act in the nuclear industry, ie a blanket exemption from future liability for CO2 leakage. versity.pdf

And in using coal, we will drown in our own CO2.

That´s what I don´t understand: Why is the US so fixed on ethanol (EROEI <1,4), while europe is all about bio diesel (EROEI maybe 2- 3)?
Europe has far more diesel engines, in passenger cars (half of all new cars sold).

In addition, Europe doesn't have much sweetcorn (as we call it).  It doesn't grow well here (it might in Ukraine, but corn doesn't like wet because it gets a fungal infection called rust, and Europe tends to have wet winters, not the dry ones of the Great Plains).  It's actually not all that common in European cuisine (unlike Chinese or American or ?Mexican).

The New World's great gifts to world history were botanical ones, and in Europe that means the potato and the tomato in particular.  Not corn particularly (corn actually means grain over here hence 'sweetcorn'.

Our agriculture just isn't geared to producing the same surpluses of wheat that yours does, either.  Small field size, more animal husbandry, wetter weather would, I guess, be the main factors.

We do have sugar beet production (for no good reason other than our completely insane system of agricultural protection, which costs the average European family something like 1500 euros pa each, and beggars Africa) but I don't think we have the same amount of feedstock for a major ethanol push (thank G-d).

Of course the Indonesians are happily ripping up the Borneo jungle to provide us with palm oil for biodiesel.  Clean politics, dirty energy?

I guess then you do live in Europe but over here..........

sweet corn is not the same as field corn. Different hybrids and genetics. We raise #2 yellow dent corn primarily. Some raise white and popcorn for various niche markets.

I thought europeans referred to corn as 'wheat'. Actually maize is the correct term IIRC.

We used to eat field corn when I was growing up. It was all 'open pollen' varieties then. I still grow some of it (open pollen old style) and tried to eat it like I would sweet corn. It was unpalatable and had a very very short window of usage and then it became quite tough.

"Corn doesn't like wet."???????????
I doubt that. It doesn't like dry and high heat. High heat kills the pollen. I suppose it would not like constant rain as that would loosen the root bundles and let it fall over. Such as when we got that last record setting rain here. I got 15" in 24 hrs.

On 'wet', I meant the conditions that lead to rust (fungal disease).  Which is the British climate ie long damp periods.

My understanding was the difference is the Great Plains have hot, dry summers whereas those parts of Europe that have that dense soil (German plain, Lowlands, England) tend to have shorter, wetter summers.  The frost doesn't matter so much (they grow corn in the Ottawa Valley) it just moves the harvest forward in time.

Thanks for the update on 'field corn' v. 'eating corn'.

Yes corn is 'maize'.  Wheat is 'corn'.  Simple, huh? ;-).

(And zuccini are courgettes, and eggplant is aubergine... you say tomahto, I say tom eh to.... ;-).

Arent you sick about writing about ethanol yet?

1)If Robert and other stop writing about ethanol, the mainstream will assume the pro-ethanol people were right all along. So as long as facts are against ethanol we must continue to debunk it. Why does it barely break even in the face of triple subsidies?

2)The really big picture is using the suns energy harnessed by biomass, corn and cellulose towards a better energy use than alcohol. Matt Savinar correctly put it above that the renewable energy crowd will pry our dead fingers from our automobiles.  By the sounds of HOs report, big business and government havent been phased by the near unity EROI of corn ethanol, nor the lack of scalability, nor the fact that cellulosic has been worked on for decades and is still 5 years away, nor the fact that grain yields have high standard deviations, nor the fact that you only get 70% the mileage meaning more trips to gas station, etc

Unfortunately, RR will have to continue writing....;)

Heck, even with intellegent counter arguements against ethanol, most folks are going to continue to assume that (1) we'll figure it out eventually or (2) replace it with something better.  No need to worry about prying steering wheels from anyone else's hands...

Unfortunately, until we run critically short on fuel and our "ethanol crop" lies rotting in the fields for a lack of fuel OR we rapidly evolve an EROEI comprehension gene we will be condemned to listen to biofuel blather while more suitable solutions go by the way side.

Big business and government are about making money in the short term, not EROEI. This may seem silly to you and me, but from their viewpoint it makes sense. It comes to down to short-term strategy. The negative effects of EROEI accounting are long term only. It's not about science, who understands science? Not voters and consumers.

For business, the positive outlook is mostly due to subsidies, without which the biofuel industry would look completely different, as in way smaller. For politicians, it's the votes in the next few elections. Nothing beyond a 5-year period has any substantial meaning.

If these are your timeframes, the sole conclusion is that you have to go that way. Politicians who don't support ethanol lose the farmers, plus Big Oil and Big Ag, and having no alternative to offer, also lose the voters who are irresistibly attracted to the color green (while doing zilch in their own lives).

Business can be confident to rake in the subsidies for the next 5 years, while painting themselves just as green. It's not doing something that counts, it's dangling the promise of doing it.

Polticians focus on so called alternatives because they require no perceived sacrifice. Conservation must be the cornerstone of any strategy that will potentially adress both constrained energy supplies and greenhouse gases.  Conservation does not get votes. Ask Jimmy Carter.  Efficiency sells somewhat in the sense of ranting against the auto companies for not giving us behomothic SUVs that get 40 mpgs.

As in the movie, Americans cannot handle the truth.  Even Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, has a rather short and painless list of what Americans need to do to fight global warming.  Change a fucking light bulb!   Yeh, that's the ticket.

Currently, there are no significant alternatives to oil to fuel our automobiles. That's the truth.  We don't need to even talk about EROEI to realize that our corn crop can only replace a miniscule portion of our fuel supply. But we are going to endanger our food supply before we finally wake up to this obvious fact. Biodiesel probably makes more sense than ethanol, but that is still a limited resource and is also related to our food supply.  Cellulosic ethanol may be able to make a contribution -- some day. But this isn't someday. It's today.  And today, we need to conserve. Tomorrow we need to find ways not to have to use our vehicles in the first place.

Yeh, we need politicians who will tell us the truth. But could we handle it?    

My take on ethanol is that it serves a political purpose:

- farmers.  Well all the farming states (except maybe Wisconsin?) are 'Red States' or even if they are blue states, the farming bits are red.  So the existing politicians have every incentive to support ethanol, and politicians like H. Clinton and B. Obama, trying to reach into that hinterland to build an electoral coalition, have every incentive to support ethanol.

And of course Iowa is the first presidential caucus, at least for the Democrats...

- Archer Daniel Midlands company.  One of the heaviest contributors to Congress (both sides)

(very out of date, but perhaps still relevant)

  • agribusiness generally.  Think Monsanto in seeds, plus fertilizer, herbicides etc.

  • it sounds clean.  It makes it look like the political system is doing something about Global Warming, oil addiction etc.  The fact that it's not really is invisible.

So you have the nice political combination of politicians (seek votes), business (seek tax subsidies), farmers (seek money and diversification of income).  Unbeatable, really.

I remember when the Clean Air acts were first passed.  I think basically they mandated SO2 scrubbers (which meant high sulphur coal from the Appalachians) rather than allowing the utilities to source lower sulphur coal from Powder River Basin.  Someone memorably titled it 'Clean Politics.  Dirty Coal'.

It is impossible to have an intelligent debate about it because no one can predict innovation: we may leap the hurdles or not, no one knows.

Based on such logic, why do you bother posting?  

To even stand on firm ground and describe the hurdles is meaningless too because our current world oil infrastructure was just a laughable idea in the 1850's when the first wells were dug.


Do you have a point you are trying to make?

Robert Rapier

Keep up the skepticism about cellulosic ethanol.  It is justified.  There is no time to go into the many pages of writing necessary to detail arguments that cellulosic ethanol is not only not here, but not even near.  But we could talk if you wish or I will talk with anyone who wishes -- my phone number is 650-856-2850.  

Don Augenstein

On a net basis it is possible to be a bit more specific. If you use Shapouri's numbers which come from a 1995 study (link: The net enery efficiency was 1.24/1 for corn based ethanol. In 2001 Shapouri updated his study to get a ratio of 1.67/1 (link: . Since 2001 the production of corn has probably become more efficient on an energy basis. Increased corn yields have reduced chemical and farm energy per unit. Cogeneration of electricity to run the distillation process and provide process heat reduces fossil fuel inputs. Better siting of the ethanol plants (as demonstrated by the small size of the plants, 40 million gallons per year as opposed to older 100 million gallon per year) have reduced transport costs. The development of by-product markets have also helped the energy balance.  Some further incremental gains in yield and production have occurred since then. I would estimate the current balance at 1.75/1.

Last year (2005) corn produced 3.1% of the 140 billion gallons of oil used consuming 17% of the corn crop (thanks to dipchip). However, a gallon of ethanol has only 2/3 the energy value of a gallon of gasoline. So, on an energy equivalent basis, ethanol met about 2.1% of oil use. On a net basis (assuming the 1.75/1 efficiency ratio above) that works out to 1.56% of oil use from renewable sources.

If 50% of our corn crop was used then ethanol from corn would yield about 4.6% of oil use on a net basis.

The net enery efficiency was 1.24/1 for corn based ethanol. In 2001 Shapouri updated his study to get a ratio of 1.67/1

If you read that paper, you will see that he did a completely illigitimate accounting trick to come up with that 1.67. In fact, the energy in and out got worse in that report, but he figured out a little trick to make it better. I would point out, though, that neither he (nor co-author Wang) uses that 1.67 number when doing presentations.

The actual net, when including co-products, is about 1.3. If you are just looking at fuel in and fuel out, it is very close to 1.0.

"Not on a net basis, though. On a net energy basis, it is next to nothing."

What % of ethanol is produced from E3 plants?  Is that expected to grow faster than other ethanol plants?

What % of ethanol is produced from E3 plants?

None. E3 hasn't started up yet, and they are the first of their kind in the U.S. There are some other plants being built in the mold of E3, but it is still a tiny fraction.

To be charitable, he is probably talking about the increased demand for auto fuel, ignoring natural gas and coal.  But your point is still well taken, and when you consider the percentage of the corn crop required to just cut into increased demand, it doesn't take a lot of sophisticated math to conclude that politicians should get off the ethanol bandwagon as soon as possible.

On a related matter, it was just reported that the EPA has decided to relax the emissions requirements for ethanol plants. Yeh, corn ethanol, the "green" fuel.  Green fuel, my ass.

I understand the President Bush called nuclear a "renewable resource."  Even I wouldn't go that far but it shows how flexible the concept is.  He did walk into a "renewables" conference and flat out state "We must have more energy coming from nuclear power."  That takes guts.

Seems to me that only Mr. Collins of the USDA had a realistic view of ethanol.  Maybe he should be on the Fed since he seems to know how to "take away the punch bowl just when the party gets goin."

A better term is a 'low carbon resource'.

Nuclear power doesn't make any economic sense, nor from a national security & safety point of view except that it is low carbon (not zero: building the power plant, mining the uranium etc. are not zero carbon activities)*.

Seen on that basis, Nuclear Power may make more sense than biomass, because biomass dumps CO2 into an ecosystem that is already unable to deal with CO2 inputs.

I am not sure if 'guts' is the right word. As so often with the Administration, I sense they are living in a different world, with a different sense of reality.

* on a rough basis, cents per kwhr of wholesale electricity, my estimates from reading:

gas CCGT : 3-6 cents (depending on gas price)
coal : 3.5-5 cents
coal with carbon sequestration: 6-8 cents
wind : c. 6 cents (offshore would be closer to 8 cents) plus a cost to upgrade the grid/provide backup stability (c 0.5 cents/ KWhr)
biomass: 5-6 cents assuming feedstock available and cheap
nuclear: 8 cents
solar photovoltaic: 15-20 cents

key sensitivities:

  • fuel prices (where relevant)
  • assumed interest rate (the lower the real rate of interest required, the better nuclear (and wind) look relative to the pack
  • the question of decontamination and waste disposal liabilities is 'assumed away'

The MIT nuclear study makes a (sensible) case why nuclear could fall 25% in cost, over time, assuming reasonable gains from learning, etc.  Wind and solar are undoubtedly on a downward track in cost as well.

I'm glad to see someone else bring up that energy is physics while computing is mathematics.  Silicon Valley's great achievement has been in removing as much energy from computing as possible, making it more like pure math.

As to your statement "Nuclear power doesn't make any economic sense" I have to disagree.  The MIT study was overly conservative and we in the business are using 5 cents a kw-hr as a benchmark.  The optimists are saying 3.5 cents but I can't see that.  You are right that nuclear's delivery cost is sensitive to the cost of capital during construction.

But ultimately, in our restructured electric markets the absolute COST of nuclear power doesn't matter at first.  What matters is the market PRICE of electricity.  If nuclear's costs are below market, a profit opportunity exists and plants will be built and will operate.  In the long run, nuclear will predominant as it is the lowest cost, most reliable and secure source of electricity.

That's why Texas, with high fuel costs (natural gas) and a relatively free and open electric market has announcements of interest in 12 new nuclear reactors.

As to photovoltaic, real world costs for a 1 MWe plant here in the Bay Area are over 50 cents/kw-hr (CSU-Hayward) excluding ground rents.

Here's a link to a cost analysis of nuclear vs. LNG-fueled base load:

the key line in what you wrote is 'we in the business'.

I was raised on CANDU reactors, you might say I glow radioactive from them.  They certainly paid for my education!

I'll say that as a preface that I am not predisposed against nuclear energy.

Nuclear power has never delivered the anticipated cost benefits.  It has always been expensive power.  Cost overruns of 300-400% were not atypical.  Obviously Ontario is a particularly horrible example, but not unique.

As the MIT study notes, there hasn't been detailed analysis of why that took place.  One major reason is construction delays: in the high interest rate environments of the 70s and 80s, a delay has a huge impact on capitalised interest and hence cost.  This was more or less what hit Darlington in Ontario so badly (roughly $10bn for 2 units).

Another factor, which Charles Komaneff pointed out, is that as the nuclear sector gets bigger, so too will the pressure on safety and hence cost.  That's one of those subtle Systems Dynamics impacts (the feedback loop) but it certainly played out over the 70s and 80s.

The Price Anderson Act provides the industry with insurance that it could not obtain in civilian markets.  It's an implicit subsidy, as was all the energy R&D since the war into nuclear power.

The other problem lurking out there is who pays for decommissioning and long term waste storage.  The liability in the UK case is £70bn in present value terms.  Amortise that over all the electricity generated by nuclear power in the UK, and you don't get such nice economics.

And of course the waste problem isn't solved yet (my suspicion is it will never be: the French have kind of admitted that, by making preparations to bring the waste back up).

There is a hope that many of these problems will be cracked in the 3rd generation reactors: up front licensing with the NRC, lower real interest rates, etc.  Again though, you'll note the industry isn't going to happen (in the UK and US) without explicit government subsidy-- the new units just won't get built.  The new US energy act specifically provided for those subsidies. Markets just will not take the financial risk without them.

But sheer prudence, and historical experience, would suggest that any calculation that uses less than 8 cents/kwhr as a starting point, is again engaging in the overoptimism which the industry has done since its foundation.  I might be too high, it might be 7 cents, but 5 cents is saying nuclear electricity will experience none of the sectoral problems it has in the past.

Now there is a case (that  MIT makes) for those costs to come down, over time (see above).  Maybe they will.  But another major safety failure could equally drive them up.

I would argue the case for nuclear is not based on its cheapness.  It is based on the fact that carbon-emitting power generation is not being properly priced.  CO2 is a pollutant which could make the planet, in the extremis, uninhabitable, or more likely it will make our current civilisation unworkable (5 years ago you could have said that was an extreme view, now amongst climate scientists, it is becoming conventional wisdom).  The particular issues being our convergence on the 450ppm CO2 'red line', and the 1000ppm 'Permian extinction' line.

Bang a $100/tonne carbon cost onto current power generation technologies ($27/tonne CO2) which is at the lower end of the kind of carbon charges (cost of traded carbon permits) we are talking about, and nuclear starts to fall into the realm of the very feasible.

My other reservation with nuclear is simply sector size. From memory, the US has 84 working reactors, providing about 20% of total terrawatts?  I can see another 84 reactors, providing about the same percentage (the reactors will be much bigger, but so will total power consumption).  That would take at least 20 years to build (more likely 30), so would really just offset the shutdowns of the existing units.

I feel with nuclear about what I do with wind.  I can see 20% of the power of a major industrial country, but its hard for me to see much more than that.  Although with wind there is actually no physical limit to installation (but significant grid stability and reliability issues).

Put it another way, I think the world has about 460 operating reactors.  I can see the Third Generation doing another 1000, so doubling the sector size (replacing the 460 as they shut down), but getting beyond that?

Realise I didn't address your point about profitability.

To be precise, there will be new entrants if expected profit (Net Present Value) is above the cost of capital.

So it's not just any profitable activity, it is the most profitable activities.

In practice, in a deregulated environment, where cost pass thru to the customer is not guaranteed, the financial markets won't take the risk on nuclear, given the uncertainties.

(British Energy went broke on just this problem-- the pool price plummeted, and the government had to step in and bail it out, 90% diluting the equity shareholders in the process).

The French make it work by running the electricity system as a subsidiary of the state (very French).  Ontario hides it in that $32bn accounting provision for writing off the nuclear investment.

New nuclear if it is built here (the UK) will be built with explicit government subsidy, on the basis that it is carbon free.

It's not my ideal solution, but we are fast running out of time and feasible alternatives.  My concern is so much political capital and effort will be diverted on both sides, that we will lose sight of the real goals: energy security and low carbon emissions.

Inevitably the power blocs are lining up environmentalists v. industrialists, with the typical left/right split, lobbying etc.  When in fact what is going on is the frame of reference is fundamentally changed-- it's not just, or only, nuclear power to save the planet, it's just one of a number of technologies we will need to deploy.

The only jurisdiction I have heard of that is seriously tackling this integrated problem (at least in power) is Ontario, which is aggressively mandating demand side management (eg 100% time of day metring for all households) as well as considering new nuclear capacity.

I have heard already that Finland has backed off its investment in renewables, because of the 2 reactors they are building.

What is not happening, worldwide, is people sitting down with a white sheet of paper, and saying 'how do we get to less than 10% of current carbon emissions, from the power sector, by 2050?'.  Iceland might be the only exception.

Because on current indications, that is what we are going to need.

I'm working on what will probably be the first new nuclear power plant to come on line.  We are scheduled to make first commercial juice first quarter 2015.  The Gen IV reactors will be about 5 years behind that.

You touched on what is the crux of the energy debates - energy has no "ideal solution."  We must deal with what nature has provided and what we know how to extract.

As to the cost escalation, your mention of the terrible interest rates of the late 70s and early 80s is spot-on.  Add the economic warfare by oil interests and the anti-nuclear crowd and you have a little money spent by a few costing all power consumers a lot.  Fear has a lot of leverage.

What I got from the Hirsch Report was that substitutes for oil E&P would be twice or thrice as capital intensive as pumped oil.  We can do it but at a major transfer of social capital budgets.  

Likewise for natural gas, the main future competitor to nuclear for electric generation, will see increased capital costs, especially for LNG importation cycles.

The biggest consequence to me for peak oil will be in our allocation of capital.  There will be less capital generation and more going into maintenance of energy supplies.

We are going to wish we had started our nuclear contruction programs a decade earlier.

I think the first 'Gen3' reactor operating will either be the Finnish one, or the French one (at Flameville? I think).

It's not clear that the sectoral pressures will be less, this cycle, than they were in the 70s and 80s.

Hopefully the macroeconomic environment will be more benign and the industry has learned something about managing construction projects.

The US's next construction boom is in coal: one of the big Texas utilities (TXU) has already applied for 10 new plants. (I agree that LNG is a pretty dubious technology given the institutional restraints-- also as Matt Simmons points out, how do we know the gas will be there?).

Coal is nonsense, and a nightmare without some form of sequestration.  AEP is arguing for IGCC, on the basis that some form of penalty on carbon is coming. TXU's reply is that IGCC is not proven, they can't take the risk.

There are still people out there who doubt the existence of man made global warming.  I don't know about Peak Oil, I think the jury is still very much out on that (Peak oil now, that is-- PO someday is inevitable).

But denying man made global warming is like denying Darwinian evolution.

We are going to need every low carbon technology there is out there, and sooner rather than later.

I haven't read anything about '4th Generation' nuclear units.  Any links?

I was involved in a competing bid on the Fin plant.  The French supposedly are designing and building an identical plant in France.

I do know that the Finnish plant (the EPR) is not really designed yet and is grossly mismanaged according to Finnish regulators.  At least they didn't buy Russian!

Our Texas project will probably beat the French products into commercial operation.

Here's the latest Texas nuclear announcements:

South Texas 3 and 4
Amarillo Power 1 and 2
TXU "up to 6 reactors"
Exelon - 2 to be sited

For an overview of the current reactor offerings and the next generation of designs look at and

TXU has announced a fleet of coal plants in Texas.  Think they will burn lignite?

As I've pointed out previously, Texas is #1 in the nation in 6 out of 8 categories of air pollution, due in part to the state's fondness for coal-fired electrical power plants.
The local air quality regulators near STP do seem to be serious about cleanup.  Houston's air quality is worst than Los Angeles' - talk about Texan bruised egos!

We're seeing pressure to reduce air pollution emissions from our standby emergency generators, warmup boiler, etc. They burn high grade distillate.

If they allow coal plants, I'd call that penny-wise and pound foolish.

Focus on what really counts: CO2.

You can't in a conventional coal arrangement, do much about CO2 (ish, there are some technical possibilities, but fundamentally there are cleaner ways of burning coal).

SO2 scrubbers etc. don't 'clean' coal fire plants, if the global warming problem is not addressed.

I assume they will burn Powder River Basin coal like everyone else.  Or import from Columbia or South Africa or Bangladesh or Australia.
Ontario, which is aggressively mandating demand side management (eg 100% time of day metring for all households) as well as considering new nuclear capacity

They are also offering 10 cents/kWh for new merchant hydro (quote from memory) in Ontario.  And some good prices for wind as well.


45 c/ kwhr for solar.  It's a political gimmick that they cannot sustain.

Wind is stymied by local planning, a lot of the projects have been abandoned. Same old story as everywhere else.

Hydro is good, but there have been problems getting the flow, particularly at the summer peak-- dryer summers and winters (with more flash storms).  A general problem with Hydro in a lot of the developed world is there seems to be less rain and snow around (and it comes in shorter bursts).

What Ontario should do is do deals with Manitoba and Quebec to develop their vast hydro resources.  Manitoba it would take an expensive interconnector.  Quebec wants market price when the capacity is built-- no long term discount.

The smart governor of New York, New England, or Ontario will be the one who sows up the next phase of Quebec Hydro Power if the native land claims can be settled.

Corn prices rise dramatically.

Yesterday I was told in passing that spot corn had hit $3/bushel(I hadn't checked the signs lately). That is an awful big runup when just a few days ago it appeared to be around the same $2.5x as before.

So today I checked the signs at the grain elevators and it was at $3.13. Even up more than the previous day. This is still SPOT price. Spot is what you get if you do not contract or do just storage(sale at the current price is called spot).

Note that I am no trader. The operators do that, I just listen as they make contracts and discuss the basis.

Spot I think means pretty much the same across all commodities. This is BTW #2 Yellow Dent Corn.

The answer I was given (in ruralspeak) was that our reserves were looking to be less(carryover) and that the supposed 'good' report for yield was not being met(something many of us already suspected).

The record setting rain in my region with almost tornado winds ruined a lot of grain and made the rest very difficult to harvest. Some of the corn is just being driven over as a result because only certain corn headers, made of the task of down corn, can pull it off the ground. Soybeans in the mud? A big problem as well.

Also milo(a form of sorghum) is on the increase in prices as well as wheat so right now lots of wheat is being sowed.

Perhaps the future is already arriving due to contracts for corn ethanol with the future cloudy on yeilds and causing a lot of buying.

Farmers I speak with are pleasantly suprised at the runup. Most I think could care less that the 3rd world countries find our supplies on grain tight and must bid it up.

I also think most farmer would prefer a shorter haul to an ethanol collecting point if the equipment for unloading was newer. Right now long lines and old equipment at the graineries cause lots of discomfort and loss of time.

Could be that the ethanol issue is starting to heat up.

HO, great post.  I feel almost as if I attended the conference myself.
That's cuz you did. Maybe if you'd stop taking ectasy right before the major speeches you'd remember. You still owe me $100 bucks for the cab ride home. Oh ... and Paris says she kinda likes you.
HO, nice reporting from my home town.  I find it strange that not much mention was made of the alternatives for diesel and jet fuel, meaning rapeseed, canola or even jatropha tree seeds.  Diesel fuel provides 98% to 99% of all the energy for freight moved in this country, exclusive of pipelines.  Where is the fuel solution for the rail, truck and water (barge/ship) modes?
Could the "powers to be" in industry and government think that if enough gasoline usage was displaced, the industrial users of diesel will have all they want?  
We are in much deeper trouble than I thought after hearing your report.  If industry collapses due to high fuel costs - i.e companies cannot operate at a loss for very long before bancruptcy causes closure - then the economy is sunk.  
This conference makes me think most people, even those from industries that will be affected, still have no idea what catastrophy could lie ahead.  
Before going to the conference I was hoping that there would be more on biodiesel.  However, while it was addressed in a number of booths in the Exhibition space, it got very little mention during the talks.  In fact I noted that in one lengthy introduction to a panel the Chair deveoted exactly 2 sentences to it, while singing the glories of the Ethanol revolution.  

But, as I said above, and earlier, this was a Conference to celebrate the success of Ethanol, and to the extent that it is clearly a rapidly growing industry (corn ethanol that is) I would not argue that.

Source for rail transportation in the future ?


My plan to reduce US oil use by 10% in 10 to 12 years.


I shouldn't be butting in on this debate.  Obviously, your are far more qualified in the field of science then I am.  I grow apples for a living so I know something about agriculture.  I know it takes a lot of water to grow a ton of apples.  I also know it takes a lot of water to produce a ton of corn.  Unless you are able to manufacture water out of dry air, I reckon you will run out of corn for your ethonal not too long after you run out oil.  I'm a believer in "climate change" as you all must be.  I've seen the changes in my area of the world over the last 30 years, from a reduced snow pack, to a longer growing season, even to a slight change in local wildlife, and particularly in a reduced water supply.  Lester Brown's book, "Plan B 2.0" is a "must read" for all of you.  He has said it so much better then I ever could.  We must all become believers.
Frank M.
Okanagan orchardist says,
"I'm a believer in "climate change" as you all must be."

I think most folks here are indeed believers in climate change, or at least accept the real danger to the stability of climate if we do not at least hold down our CO 2 emissions.

However, we have to be careful not to get "climate change" arguments and Peak Oil arguments very badly tangled up in such a way as to have trouble dealing with planning the alternatives.

Example:  Coal.  Absolutely great to stave off "peak oil" (PO), but a complete catastrophe for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (global warming OR GW.

Extreme deep sea drilling may be the same way.  If you find huge fields to drill in the deep sea, that helps on pushing back PO, but makes the GW problem only worse.  

Natural gas.  While clean by comparison to oil or coal, still a CO2 issue.

Tar Sands.  If it would work, great for the PO problem, but the GW problems are so bad that even T. Boone Pickens admits it's a mess.

On and on.  The fact is, that if we accept the need to both (a) replace and reduce fossil fuel consumption AND work on reducing Global Warming issues, the number of alternatives narrow up very, very fast.

This is why renewables (real ones!) such as wind/solar have to be seen as the best of all possible solutions IF they are scalable in time (it would not be easy, even if the effort were being made and it is not), followed by conversion to the grid (electric/electric hybrid) to use the renewable options.  (Nuclear I would have to handle in a seperate post, I know many here are true fans of it, but frankly, I don't even see the bankers getting behind, which tells you a lot...I really think it's time is fading fast, with the possible exception of fusion, IF it will ever work, debatable at best).

But we are still in need of a liquid or portable fuel.  It would have to be something that could be produced by the renewables, is very clean, and does not rely (as does ethanol and tar sand oil) on the supply and price of natural gas.  Anybody care to guess what it could be?

I have noticed that more and more technical people (as opposed to contractors and those fishing for endless government grants) are starting to see that the middle men, (actually, layers and layers of middle men and women, contractors, lawyers, government regulators and on and on) and the mulititude of middle conversion steps have to the end of the day, it comes back around to the straightest line between two points.

It will be renewable hydrogen.  Like it or not.  What that can't do will be done by the remainder of the world's fossil fuel (GW be dammed), and a possible hard azz bustin' powerdown, unplanned but forced upon us if we don't get it right. Pay me now, or pay me later.

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

It will be renewable hydrogen.  Like it or not.  

Batteries make more sense, unless you invision enough power to cover the looses of Hydrogen.

Or this:
Here is the transcript of the recent podcast conversation that I had with Dr. Ulf Bossel, organizer of the Lucerne Fuel Cell Forum, about his announcement that hydrogen will no longer be a topic of conversation at the conference, and also his vision for a sustainable energy future.

Please note: theWatt article linked above is a must read for anyone interested in why the hydrogen economy will not work. In particular, the article highlights viable options for transportation fuels in vehicles and aircraft.

Again, a must read for all TODers.

The ONLY possible way is if thee is SO much electrical energy you can afford to 'waste' it.

I've not seen alot of pitching of such a reality.

Iceland.  In an average summer they "spill" water past hydroelectric dams that could have generated 150 MW for several months.  1 in 10 years they do not spill any water.  hence the reserve capacity.
In general, a well-written post distinguishing the issues of peak oil from GW...right up to the end where we got a sales pitch for hydrogen.  

Hydrogen may indeed play a role BUT the limiting issue will be an energy issue AND an entropy issue.  Let's say we can snap our fingers and say that the onboard issues of hydrogen are cured and that through a simple conversion we can switch our gasoline powered ICEs to hydrogen.  

Without any changes in lifestyle, usage, etc., that automatically sets one constraint for the amount of energy required.  Since hydrogen is not "free" and is chemically bound (a lower energy state) it requires at least an equivalent amount of energy to run a reduction reaction to separate hydrogen from hydrocarbons and/or water to be used as a portable fuel.  This comes out to be the equivalent of  18 x 10^15 BTU/year at current gasoline usage rates (9.5 MMBPD).  Assuming "perfect" adiabatic conditions, this is the equivalent of 605 GW being generated every hour of the 8760 hours in each year.  No one assumes this and at best the energy based conversion efficiency is about 50% whether thermal or electrolytic methods are used.  There's that pesky second law of thermo butting in.

Total generating capacity in the US is just about 1000 GW.  If we were going to use electrolytic methods (and assuming 50% conversion efficiency) that would require more than 1.2 terawatts of generating capacity to be added to the existing system or more than the current existing capacity.  For those touting electric cars and/or hydrogen this energy consumption and the effects of thermodynamics means that the lifestyle that we've built is not sustainable.  Major changes in fuels use rates, efficiency and even patterns of living will be required.  

Nor have we even scratched the surface on the energy requirements for THIS infrastructure.  Solar cells, wind turbines, or even nuclear plants have not spontaneously appeared from raw materials.  The second law of thermodynamics does not rule out this probability.  It predicts, however, that the probability of even one occurrence far exceeds (by many orders of magnitude) the probable age of our universe.  

To get them assembled requires more energy from someplace.  As I demonstrate in a little talk I give on solar power, you can put all the mineral components for a 1-square meter solar cell out in the sunshine and have sunlight shine on it for between 1500 and 2500 days.  However, after that much energy is shone upon these materials, they do not spontaeously create a one-square meter solar cell.  You need the energy concentrated (high entropic process) in a usable form to create a solar cell.  Same is true of any other energy harnessing technology.  

Therein lies the problem.  When we run out of the energy subsidy accumulated over millions of years we have to confront what's next OR go back to life as we knew it before the energy subsidy.  The question is will we be able to use the remaining subsidy to make some reasonable transition?  So far the answer seems to be no.

I just want to point out that EV are vastly more efficient then an ICE, which come sin a a paltry 18% utilization of the energy content of gasoline.  We already had a post that showed that converting every car in the US to the electric variety and have them all plugged in at the same time at night wouldnt exceed the 1000 GW of electricty we produce.
I probably missed that post.

As I said, it defines one of the energy constraints.  There are a number of other EV inefficiencies to overcome even thought they are small compared to the Brayton cycle.  This includeds the motor inefficiency, the battery inefficiency, the loss in transmission, and the loss in full-wave rectification for recharging.  All of these add up.  

Besides much of the efficiency comes from the fact that "efficient" EVs are not rolling McMansions of 4000-8000 pounds.  

But, if we are going to end up with 2000 pound vehicles that are capable of gas mileage in 60-80 mpg range, that may not really trump EVs because the oil eventually becomes scarce (including the oil for the lightwight composites that help give the efficiency).

> For my errors and omissions please forgive me

No, thanks a lot for your good work - and the smile you gave me when you made Mr Bush your "Pesident" :-)

So its business as usual and no need to worry about peak oil! I see the conference will be a big hit with Joe sixpack as he can rest now and not worry about the future. Seem the conference was a great big feel good session with the exception going to Matt Simmons.. Perhaps Heinburg should have been there too!!  

So don't worry be happy!!

Thanks for the updates: Ethanol seems to be on the exact path I had expected. Here is a quickie website for all commodities.
As you can see Dec corn is up to $3.145 and higher for later months.  No doubt due to the USDA crop report of 10.8 billion bushels for 2006. As ethanol production continues to rise so will corn prices, and at some point either gas will have to increase, and NG will have to decrease, or the subsidy will have to increase, or there will be some sorry ethanol investors. It may get up to 5% of gasoline fuel. As gas prices increase so does diesel, and all farm expenses, so in order to maintain corn production, corn prices will continue to rise. If PO is on a plateau and gas prices remain flat, ethanol goes in the dump. Compared to last year corn prices have caused a 40-cent drop in ethanol margin and the lower gas prices will increase the lower margin. What happens next year if the crop is further reduced and corn is $4, and gasoline spot is still under $2? I don't see ethanol production increasing more than another 50% before it becomes a net loser for the producers, and investors.
Unless there is a breakthrough in cellulosic ethanol there will be some idle new ethanol plants. I don't see gas prices rising fast enough to keep up with rising corn prices, unless there is a catastrophic political upheaval some where in the oil field.
These price conerns mirror those of the bankers that fund the ethanol plants, and that I quoted in the earlier post.  They also relate to those of the Chevron VP, who noted that if you want to play with the Big Dogs, you have to play by their rules.  In other words if you want a 20 million gallon order from a refiner, you will have to provide that volume at the contract price on a date certain.  Fluctuations in profitability might be weathered by the historic owners of the ethanol plants, the farmers who understand the price fluctuations of the market, but are less likely to be so understood or accepted by the financial investors who are coming to invest in the ethanol plants now being ordered and built.