27 July 2005

Oil to Electricity

It used to be that we had a coal economy. Industry ran on it, trains and ships burnt it to supply transportation.

With the introduction of the automobile, we saw a demand for a portable liquid energy source. That led in turn to a shift in the energy industry away from coal to oil.

Currently we appear to be in the transition from an oil to a natural gas economy. It represents a fairly small economic potential gap to jump. There is a fairly large amount of natural gas available for consumption, especially if you consider gasified coal. Natural gas can be liquefied at about 100 K, which is cryogenic but fairly easily reachable with conventional and established refrigeration technology. Natural gas is already routinely liquefied for transport in ships.

Because I foresee this upcoming shift to natural gas, I would regard myself as a peak oil optimist. The peak in oil production may be here already, but I don't think our economy is about to collapse on itself.

Of course, switching from oil to natural gas does almost nothing for the global warming problem. As a Canadian, global warming is not a major negative for my own self-interest. Countries with vast artic territories like Russia and Canada will both benefit and suffer from global warming. However, the world as a whole will need to try and at least collar this problem.

The only real solution that I can foresee is switching from carbon-based energy to some other means of energy storage. Hydrogen is a straw-man, but I can see electricity becoming our new means of energy trading. Electricity infrastructure, obviously, is already very strongly established. What is patently missing is a means of electricity storage. This is especially necessary to make intermittent renewable sources more economical. To this, I look to the proliferation of (non-hydrogen) electricity storage methods: pump hydro, compressed air/natural gas, flywheels, solid oxide batteries, flow batteries, and our standard electrolytic cells. Plug-in hybrids will allow us to shift much of our transport energy consumption from oil/gas to electricity as well.

For this reason, I think the best step any government could take today to move towards carbon independence is the construction of a large DC transmission grid. In order to operate an electricity economy, we will need to be able to transmit electricity from one side of the country to the other. DC transmission losses are usually on the order of 0.6 % per 100 km. Currently, our grids are not well connected. Some grids, like Texas for example, are practically independent of the rest of the continent.

This is a step that we can take now, without relying on vapourware. We know it will save money. It may end up not being the most efficient investment, but we can be confident it will have a higher rate of return than PV or biofuel subsidies.


Anonymous said...

Welcome to the discussion! I've bookmarked your blog.

Have you looked at solar pv solutions that combine concentration like this one and this one?

The desert regions of the North American continent have very good potential to be a "Saudi Arabia" of solar. That is of course if mind-boggling investments in transmission and storage are made.

I'm for it. Let's beat a drum. Again, welcome..

Robert McLeod said...

I welcome the comments.

I certainly support solar thermal plants. Systems like heliostats and parabolic trough solar collectors have a good potential to provide peaking power. They're not vapourware, there are exiting operating solar thermal plants. Check out California's Luz plant.

It's important to remember that the demand for electricity varies by about a factor of 3 from day to night. Some sources, like nuclear, are good for base load. Solar is well suited to meeting peak demand, even without storage.

Transmission is the major drawback of solar (and wind). The power source and the demand sink are not geographically collocated. Like I said, we need DC grids to make renewables work. That and higher carbon fuel prices.