I’ve written this piece because I’m often asked about topics on energy and more. I will periodically update this post.
I do not believe that mankind should optimize for having the lowest CO2 emissions and am weary of renewables.
I think this is a false goal that ignores the true stochastic complexity of pollution in all of its forms. (soil, air, and water)
Mankind’s civilization grade chemical limits can be boiled down to something simple: Life and most industrial processes require salt-free water and removing salt from water requires 10 to 14 kwh/1000 gallons of water.
Water only becomes more polluted every day.
It is even more energy intensive to remove organics, conglomerated solids, and metals from water.
On a side note, I’m bullish on electrochemistry that involves non-metals based electrodes immersed in dirty industrial waters. I think it’s one of the lower cost / gallon solutions that doesn’t leave industrial settings damaged.
Will outline why the viewpoint I’ve developed over 25 years is exceedingly rare and somewhat peculiar at times.
I’m an industrial systems engineer with a focus on operations research and a keen interest in polymer, textile, fiber engineering.
I was trained at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, a state engineering school.
Less than 1% of engineers are materials engineers. (This is on par with polymer eng, chemical eng, etc…)
Less than 5% of engineers are industrial systems engineers.
For all practical purposes, these areas of study are quantitatively rare, I feel very alone in most discussions of energy.
MaterialsE/ChemE/PolymerE are versatile engineering disciplines in that they teach mankind how to interpret and frame problems in terms of material and energy balances. This video highlights the sort of magic I had the brief chance of learning before my school shut down its polymer-textile-fiber engineering program.
I’m of the mindset that you should be weary of and ignore the comments of software developers, physicists, and electrical engineers’ viewpoints on the hard sciences unless the prove otherwise as it relates to energy.
Far too often, they can get by without analyzing chemistry, geology, or biology. These groups of people are rarely faced with analog complexity and the discomforts of chemistry in lab settings.
A key note is that industrial system engineering is not design, think of it more as decision science.
Why I think About Energy a Lot
Air Pollution is linked to 1 out of every 6 human deaths on planet earth today and it is a driving force of civilization to consume our earth, air, and water to achieve energy parity.
The amount of energy someone has access to greatly influences the quality of their life:
- Number of Children they’ll have (Influences caloric extraction/hectare)
- Steel access (enables the building of farm tools, roads, and machines)
- Nitrogen access (necessary as an anabolic soil steroid to maximize caloric extraction/hectare)
I think a lot about how energy is produced as well.
My friend Cameron’s(a chemistry specialist) notes on Solar:
“We have at least 100+ year road to build the infrastructure to reduce fossil fuels down to ~30% of total energy generation.
Storage will help a little with peak shaving, but renewables are too unreliable for base-load…plus the amount of stuff needed to achieve the energy demand is massive.
We are talking about 100s of millions (if not billions) of solar panels being installed weekly to not have fossil fuels by 2050, and we are no where near that number.
Not saying we shouldn’t do it…we should…it is just going to take a long time and fossil fuels will still play a part.
Current solar and battery manufacturing is a disaster for the environment, like really, really bad.
Purifying silicon is bad stuff.
This will probably be fixed in a decade or so with organic solar cells.
Tesla Power walls are a piece of shit in terms of making a difference. Billions would be needed to make an impact on a nation-wide energy scale…and that would only be a small start.
They are on the order of 5-10 kWhr and the average person uses 1,000+/month. The simple fact is we need nuclear energy to make solar, wind, etc. feasible. PERIOD! or fossil fuels with carbon capture.
Again, this is only considering the next 50-100 yrs or so.
The simple fact is that it takes a long time to construct large scale power plants and we are not building enough, which is why it will take 100 yrs or so to transition.
Solar is much faster than coal or nuke by far, but until it is the lowest cost option, they can not legally build them.
The competitive power generation companies could and are, but only on a small scale for PR and piloting.
We would need about 1,000 to 1,000,000 increase in charge and power density in batteries plus have the charge and discharge rate of supercapacitors. I think solar is very important, but it will take time to build the infrastructure and we will still need baseload power generation.”
Major Points on Energy Transitions
- It takes 40-70 years for an energy transition for us to have a viable grid for all of this.
- Solar panel production is not a clean activity. We’d have to build millions or billions of solar panels on a weekly basis to offset natural gas, oil, and coal energy production.
- If you look at the system, yes the system at large, it doesn’t matter what happens in the USA, because it will mostly be offset by foreign polluted energy production.
- What do you do with all that silicon tetrachloride?
The installation of solar power today means that when the sun goes down, we burn natural gas peaking or coal plants to make up for the loss of the sun at night or we import the “dirty” energy from neighboring countries.
In Germany, they have classified wood chips as biomass, despite the fact that burning woodchips is awful for the environment, as it is straight carbon pretty much. The germans burn woodchips and call them renewables or they import dirty energy from neighboring countries.
The soil beneath your feet is scarier than global warming.
It takes 300-500 years to make about 2-4 centimeters of topsoil.
You need a depth of at least 2.5cm to grow stuff..
Fertile soil is non-renewable at the rate we’re consuming it vs. generating it.
- Topsoil Generation: 0.005cm every year.
- Topsoil Consumption: .09cm every year.
Wind Turbines are Giant Chunks of Dirty Stuff
Wind turbines are complicated structures.
They mean absolutely nothing to me with regards to the advancement of humanity as they do not supply reliable non-intermittent baseload energy.
Turbines are just giant chunks of embodied oil and natural gas.
Humanity doesn’t make turbines with non-hydrocarbon photovoltaic and renewable energy sources.
Trucks move steel.
Large earth movers navigate.
Mega cranes push up structures.
All of this requires diesel fuel.
These figures aren’t accurate, but they are precise enough and off my memory from experience designing large scale engineering systems.
Diesel cargo ships transport the cement, steel, and plastics required.
- A 5 Megawatt turbine requires 900 metric tons of steel.
- 150 Tons – concrete foundations
- 250 Tons – rotor hubs and nacelles
- 500 Tons – towers
Let’s play with some scenarios w/ conservative back of the napkin calculations:
- If wind was 25% of global demand by 2030 *(w/ capacity factor of ~40%)
- 2.5 Terawatt hours of wind turbines require 500M tonnes of steel. (w/o towers, wires, transformers. etc…)
- 30-40 gigajoules/ton are required for Turbine steel.
- 500M tonnes of coal to make this much steel.
- 60 meter foils. (theat each weigh ~20 tons) make up the 4 MW turbines.
- Glass fiber reinforced resins are made of hydrocarbons.
- Glass is made with natural gas furances.
- The rotor’s mass of such a turbine is ~20 metric tonnes. (About 75 million metric tonnes of oil)
- Coal makes iron.
- Coal + petro makes kilns.
- Naphtha and Liquefied natural gas make synthetic plastics for fiberglass
- Diesel makes ship fuel.
- This game isn’t chess, it’s freaking go. There are more sub-optimal
PS: In 2016, the global volumetric production of steel was ~1500 Million tonnes. (+/- 10%)
Why Oil Can’t Be Disrupted:
It’s actually close to damn impossible to disrupt oil.
The sheer number of materials that rely on oil is absurd.
There’s a ton of reasons you can’t just disrupt the oil and gas industry. It’s freaking massive.
- It is built on on $200T worth of infrastructure over a century and the strata underneath the earths crust is even older.
- Oil and gas pipelines could go to the moon and back 5-8 times.
- 40% of all seaborn cargo is oil and seaborne cargo outweigh all fish in the ocean.
- There are no viable replacements for Oil & natural gas in our lifetime.
- People who think renewables can replace the oil and natural gas industry with <2 decades worth of heavy research are ignorant of just how extremely massive the oil industry actually is.
- The use of renewables as a percentage of total world energy consumption only increased by <0.10% from the 1970’s to 2010.
- If solar power generation doubled every decade for a century, it would stall lag extremely far behind oil.
- For solar to even consider dethroning oil, natural gas, or coal, it’ll need to outperform them on the characteristics of being cleaner, cheaper, and more concentrated for 50-100 years not to mention you’d need about 75-125 years to reconfigure all the tooling and infrastructure.
- Jevon’s paradox explains the difficulties of adopting new energy sources for developing countries vs. developed countries.
I don’t believe Fusion will change the world.
When I voice this view, it’s always met with a sea of opposition from web developers and coders.
Here’s why Fusion isn’t world changing:
It’s a marginal fission improvement.
Little to no impact on natural gas/oil consumption.
The $/MWh does not go down.
Literally, it’s first-world luxury and has little to do with any sort of viable impact on the rest of the globe.
Let’s look at the fuel source for running Fission and Fusion reactions.
Fission – $9/gram for low enriched uranium.
Fusion – $35,000/gram for tritium.
“225 kg (496 lb) of tritium has been produced in the United States since 1955. Since it continually decays into helium-3, the total amount remaining was about 75 kg (165 lb) at the time of the report.”
PS: Tritium is a byproduct of fission.
Clean coal isn’t necessarily something we can do at scale that will solve problems on any reasonable time-scale.
Humanity can’t grow a several trillion dollar carbon sequestration industry over night, a few years, or even a single decade.
Clean coal is unreasonable on any relevant time scale with current technologies.
Here’s some back of the napkin calculations
- 5 Billion Cubic Meters of Oil produced Annually by humanity.
- 30Bn Tons of CO2 generated.
- 60% is un-sequesterable because it is small and/or mobile.
- 40% is sequestrable and large scale/stationary.
- 12 Billion Cubic Meters of CO2 are thus sequestrable.
You must liquefy CO2 before putting it into the ground.
- 50% -70% efficiency in converting it to a liquid that we can shove into the ground.
- 6 to 8.4 Billion Cubic Meters of Liquefied CO2 are thus Sequestrable.
Shoving 6 to 8.4 billion cubic meters of liquefied CO2 into ground is no small matter.
Think about it this way, humanity built an entire industry focused on an annual extraction of 5Bn Cubic Meters of Oil over a time span of 100+ years with refineries and complex processes spanning multiple countries, geographies, and regulations.
Also, who’s going to buy sequestered carbon? (that requires spinning up an entire market….)
Air Pollution Disasters Weekly
Air pollution creates chemical disaster as big as largest-ever oil spill every single week
Less than half of the 5,000 new chemicals widely dispersed throughout the environment since 1950 having been tested for safety or toxicity.
Over 150K+ chemicals have been released into the environment by industrial processes.
Solar Panel Manufacturing
Here, I describe the solar panel manufacturing process from rough memory so you have some context on why we shouldn’t be amped about solar power.
- Solar panels are made in China, Malaysia, the Phllippines, and Taiwan. (I think around 40% comes from China)
- Solar panels are made from Quartz.
- Quartz comes from mines, is abundant, can be found everywhere, and causes silicosis for miners.
- Quartz is turned into silicon. —metallic grade silicon. We use this to harden steel. (requires a lot of heat) output = CO2 and Sulfur Dioxide. — not too bad. 😉
- To purify the silicon into polysilicon you end up mixing hydrochloric acid with metalic-grade silicon = trichlorosilanes.
- The trichlorosilanes mix with hydrogen that you add to the process.
- Then bam, you get your polysilicon, and as well some nasty shit called silicon tetrachloride.
- For every 1 pound of polysilicon you make, you make 4 pounds of the nasty stuff-silicon tetrachloride.
- Okay, so some green hippie nutbags will tell you that you can just recycle this silicon tetrachloride stuff into new polysilicon because it requires less energy, but that’s bullshit because it costs a lot to do so.
- If you’re a prudent manufacturer, you dump the silicon tetrachloride in an oil well.
- It acidifies the soil and demolishes any water nearby.
- Maybe one day we’ll manufacture the solar panels with ethanol instead of chlorine-compounds. — this would forego the nasty stuff — silicon tetrachloride.
- That’s just the process to get polysilicon, there’s still a ton more to do and a ton of risks afterwards. But anyhow, let’s progress.
- There’s got to be a better way, right?
- Well there is, or so the hippies will proclaim.
- There’s thin-film solar cells.
- Most thin film cells are made from cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide — often called CIGS
- Usually you’ll layer these and splice in some cadmium sulfide.
- Cadmium is carcinogenic.
- You don’t want to be dumping cadmium all over junk yards, but that’s what happens to post-consumer waste.
I often get into conversations who want to talk me into the notion that minimizing CO2 emissions is the right objective function.
I’ll explain why this doesn’t make sense in a sort of micro-examples of 2 chemicals.
- Sulfur Hexafluoride is used in high voltage transmission lines and has 15k-25k times the global warrming potential of CO2. It has a 6%+ compounded annual growth rate.(CAGR)
- Nitrogen Trifluoride is used in solar panels and electronics and has 15k-25k times the global warming potential of CO2. It has a 10%+ compounded annual growth rate. (CAGR)
The proliferation of renewables to combat CO2 emissions actually increases global warming emissions becaues they require more high voltage transmission lines and solar panels.
Feel free to follow me on twitter for more insights or to ask questions.