Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Why Gas Is Not Our Future

From Lovins' recent Newsweek piece:

Variable but forecastable renewables (wind and solar cells) are very reliable when integrated with each other, existing supplies and demand. For example, three German states were more than 30 percent wind-powered in 2007—and more than 100 percent in some months.

I'm not sure what parallel universe Lovins inhabits, but he can't seriously believe that because Schleswig-Holstein generates more electricity from wind than it uses in certain calendar months that it is "more than 100% wind-powered"... can he?

Micropower delivers a sixth of total global electricity, a third of all new electricity and from a sixth to more than half of all electricity in 12 industrial countries (in the United States it's only 6 percent). In 2006, the global net capacity added by nuclear power was only 83 percent of that added by solar cells, 10 percent that of wind power and 3 percent that of micropower. China's distributed renewables grew to seven times its nuclear capacity and grew seven times faster. In 2007, the United States, China and Spain each added more wind capacity than the world added nuclear capacity. Wind power added 30 percent of new U.S. and 40 percent of EU capacity, because it's two to three times cheaper than new nuclear power. Which part of this doesn't Moore understand?

This particular set of numbers is pretty illustrative of how mendacious Lovins' presentation is, and how in practice he's essentially shilling for the natural gas industry. Note that the very limited additions in nuclear capacity coming online in 2006 were 83% of new installed solar capacity and 10% of new wind power. At realistic capacity factors, the new nuclear capacity could be expected to generate about 3x the new solar capacity and about 1/3 that of the new wind capacity. However, "micropower" generally added more than 30x the capacity than nuclear in 2006. This reveals that "micropower" is really a code-word for fossil fuels, and in practice that means natural gas. Lovins' numbers reveal that the vast majority of "micropower" is really natural-gas fired cogeneration. However attractive this technology may appear at present, it is not viable as a long-term energy strategy. A brief review of Russian energy policies reveals why.

Although the Soviet Union's fleet of nuclear power plants is pretty notorious in the west, nuclear power provides a smaller fraction of Russia's electrical generation than it does in the United States. Instead, Russian cities are actually dependent upon natural gas for a very large proportion of their electrical generation and heating. There are a variety of reasons for this, the main ones being geographic. Russian coal reserves are mediocre, and they tend to be located far from urban centers. Because gas is easily transportable and the Soviet Union possessed it in abundance, this was a logical choice for domestic energy needs. Similar considerations, however, fed into the Soviets' enthusiasm for nuclear power. Nuclear plants could be sited in energy-poor regions of the European USSR, such as Ukraine. This freed up oil and gas for sale to western nations in exchange for desperately needed hard currency.

Today, Russia's gas reserves have become a source of wealth and power. This produces a significant incentive to restrain domestic consumption to maximize the profitability of state-owned Gazprom. I am convinced that this is one of the primary reasons that Russia is building new nuclear plants. There is another reason, however: the Russians understand that their days as a net gas exporter are numbered. This isn't likely within the immediate future, but sixty years from now Russian gas reserves will probably be largely depleted. It is clear that by this time the Russian government plans to create some kind of plutonium economy, and that they hope to dominate the fission-powered future as much as they do the fossil-fuel present.

This should give serious pause to anyone considering major increases on natural gas as an energy source. It is not likely that sustainable biofuels will be available in the quantities needed to supplant natural gas for the range of applications it is currently used. If we take the path that Lovins has prescribed for us, and make our economy and our way of live much more dependent on this resource than they currently are, what will happen when it runs out? Obviously, nothing good. Indeed, it would rapidly become untenable as gas becomes scarcer and more expensive. Even with aggressive efficiency measures, by the late 21st century this path would have played itself out. The fact that the nation with the world's largest natural gas reserves doesn't think that natural gas has a very bright future is a sign that we should be divesting from dependence on it.

Never mind as well that natural gas is a fossil fuel. If James Hansen is right and we need to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to 350ppm to avoid catastrophic climate change, burning fossil fuels is simply unacceptable as a climate strategy, no matter how efficiently they are used. This also puts the kibbosh on "negawatts" generally, because using coal-fired electrical generation just isn't going to cut it. Even if Jevons' Paradox doesn't eat all the gains (a likely scenario, given past experience), we really need to supplant all fossil-fuel fired generation as quickly as possible.

Lovins concludes that:

The punch line: nuclear expansion buys two to 10 times less climate protection per dollar, far slower than its winning competitors. Spending a dollar on new nuclear power rather than on negawatts thus has a worse climate effect than spending that dollar on new coal power. Attention, Dr. Moore: you're making climate change worse.

Lovins simply does not get it. In the long run, negawatts do not really offer credible climate protection, whereas a new nuclear plant does. Neither does "micropower," a mendacious concept that has only served to distort the energy debate. In the present circumstances, the only thing that matters is developing a non-carbon energy infrastructure. In the long run, any apologist for fossil fuel dependence--even magical, ultra-efficient fossil fuel dependence--is making climate change worse. And it would appear that Amory Lovins is such an apologist.


DV8 2XL said...

I have been saying for years now that the bulk of the antinuclear activities were sponsored directly or indirectly by coal and gas interests. These are the only people that will get hurt by a move to nuclear power. It is only in those countries where they are a powerful force has nuclear not made gaines in the last thirty years.

Consider what de Gaul said when he was asked why France was pursuing nuclear power. He said, "No oil, no gas, no choice." He could very well have added,'no interference' to the list.

Charles Barton said...

Excellent post!

miggs said...

I must heartily disagree on cogeneration. Let's put aside, for a moment, whether nuclear is a good option. The fact is that fossil fuels are going to be used for quite some time. Obviously we should eventually be headed toward a zero-carbon future. But until then, fossil fuel use is a reality. The question is whether we continue to use it with vast inefficiencies -- wasting over two-thirds of the fuel before the power even leaves the plant -- or with great efficiency, recycling the waste heat that's normally just vented into the atmosphere. Cogeneration plants are just commonsense ways of using power more efficiently. Indeed, cogen is more or less agnostic as to the fuel source used; the point is to be efficient. I'm associated with Recycled Energy Development (, a company that does cogeneration and turns manufacturers' waste heat into power and steam. There are immense opportunities for carbon reduction here. Whether nuclear should be a bigger part of the mix is a fine question, but there should be no question about whether we should keep encouraging inefficient electric generation.

Sovietologist said...

Cogeneration is a good idea, and it is perfectly compatible with nuclear heat sources--in fact, nuclear cogeneration has been used successfully in Russia for decades. The problem is that natural gas is not a very attractive fuel to build a bridge to a post-carbon future. This is not because natural gas is unattractive as fossil fuels go (it has very good characteristics in terms of efficiency, transportability, and pollution), but for geopolitical reasons. Russia intends to "win the oil endgame," to borrow Lovins' phrase. It is in the interest of Russia and the other remaining gas exporting nations to insure that the value of this commodity continues to increase. More worryingly, natural-gas based infrastructure may not be adaptable to the post-carbon environment without biofuel feedstocks whose availability seems unlikely. One of the goals of pro-nuclear advocates is the creation of small nuclear generators that could be adapted to the same sorts of applications that natural gas is generally used for today. Rod Adams, for instance, proposes a small pebble-bed reactor that could be used to provide heat and power for a small area. I believe that the aggressive pursuit of this technology would be preferable to sending the Russians our money and depreciating our currency in the process.

Stewart Peterson said...

Of course gas is an unacceptable strategy. But if you ban or vigilante-lawsuit all other options into irrelevance, natural gas, while being a really bad option, is the one that will generate the least objections.

Face it, environmentalists hate nuclear and coal and will do whatever it takes to stop both; elaborate schemes to overhaul energy supply and use are generally dependent on "suicide businesses" that exist to build infrastructure that isn't profitable; renewables are unreliable; natural gas is...unremarkable. It's not toxic; it doesn't produce toxic byproducts; it has a high fuel cost (which can be passed on to customers in regulated markets and merely sets the price in deregulated markets) and a low capital cost (which is the main risk for a utility); it relies on a well-known process that doesn't need any significant R&D; it's not good enough for environmentalists to support but not bad enough for them to oppose; people know what it is and are generally comfortable with it; if people want to use it in small on-site generators at their houses and use the waste heat for hot water and space heating they can, etc. It's going to run out, but not in the lifetimes of the people who run the companies that depend on it.

Sure, it'll destabilize the world. Sure, it'll make global warming worse. Sure, it's unreliable in terms of security of supply. Sure, it's expensive--but not for the people who decide whether to build the plant or not.
None of that means that it won't succeed commercially.

DV8 2XL said...

While Stewart has a point, the big issue with natural gas is not just an environmental one, or as miggs says, that there are ample opportunities for co-gen, (which I am not convinced is as good a deal as it has been made out to be) and not even the size of the reserves, especially if tight-gas, coal-bed, and hydrates are taken into account. No the issue with natural gas is that even now we cannot punch production wells into the ground fast enough to keep up with demand and those wells aren't delivering like they once were. The shift to drilling unconventional natural gas resources (12 of the 15 beds to come on line in the next 10 years)-- coal bed methane, gas-bearing shale and tight sandstone – has buoyed gas production in North America, but has also raised unit costs since gas production per well has fallen.

The big problem is that the energy density of methane is relatively low, thus the volumes that are required proportionately higher than for other fuels. Consequently, looking at higher costs and slowing rise in produced volumes, I doubt that there will be the sort of unlimited growth in that sector that everyone seems to think is coming.