Navigant Research Blog

Old Technology Fuels New Energy Boom

— May 12, 2013

With U.S. oil imports hitting a 17-year low, the mainstream media has awoken to the fact that, as I pointed out in a Fortune.com article 3 years ago, peak oil is not happening anytime soon.  Charles Mann’s excellent cover story in this month’s Atlantic, “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?” focuses on an obscure though potentially vast source of energy: methane hydrates, or crystalline natural gas trapped below the seabed.  If early exploration ventures by Japan and other countries succeed, this gas “could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day.”

An Associated Press story last week reached a similar conclusion about “unconventionals” in general: companies are opening huge deposits of shale gas, “tight oil,” and other hard to reach petroleum sources that will essentially flip the energy world upside down, as the United States regains its status among the world’s largest exporters of petroleum.

Both of these stories, though, share a common misconception, captured in the AP article’s headline: “New Technology Propels Old Energy Boom.”

In fact, the technologies underlying today’s petro-boom are not new at all; they are innovative applications and refinements of technology that has existed for decades.  The boom’s core technology is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  And drillers have been fracking wells for nearly 60 years.  More than 1 million wells have been developed using fracking since the 1940s, according to EnergyFromShale.org, an industry-supported website.

The early use of fracking to get at reserves previously thought of as unrecoverable, emerged in the early 2000s after exploration companies began examining geologic formations using x-ray computed tomography, or CT scanners.  The CT scanner was invented in 1967.

Tinker Imaginatively

What’s happening today is not a new-technology revolution; it’s an evolution of new applications for existing technology.  We are doing things that we’ve been doing for decades more efficiently, more effectively, and in much wider applications.

That may sound like a fine distinction, but it’s an important one: Silicon Valley has for years invested in sexy new technologies, from smartphones to social media to exotic solar power materials.  The cleantech industry itself has not benefited from a fascination with the new, the exotic, and the high-tech.  The technology for embedding sensors in a drill head so that technicians on the surface can map a formation as they drill is not all that sexy, and it didn’t come from a VC-funded startup in a Mountain View garage.  It came from drilling engineers in the field figuring out, incrementally, how to do things better, cheaper, and smarter.  Often, as in the case of the 21st century oil and gas boom, imaginative tinkering can be more fruitful than reinvention or laboratory R&D.

Leaving aside, for the purposes of this blog, the question of how we can move toward a carbon-free energy system in a world suddenly awash in hydrocarbons, the next phase of technology will almost certainly focus on how to better store, transport, and distribute the seemingly limitless supplies of natural gas now becoming available.  The difficulty and expense of liquefying and transporting natural gas have been a drag on the wider use of the relatively clean fuel for many years, particularly in the transportation sector.  In 2012, GE Oil and Gas introduced its Micro LNG plant to power remote industrial locations and fuel long haul trucks and locomotives, and last month the company debuted its LNG In A Box system for small-scale retail fueling stations.  The Norwegian gas producer and distributor Gasnor in 2009 launched the world’s first specialized, small-scale LNG carrier, the Coral Methane, designed to deliver fuel to remote ports along Norway’s coastline.

These are not “new technologies,” and they’re not being developed and funded as such.  But they’re exciting innovations.  And they are helping to power an energy transformation that will shape the world’s economy and its geopolitics through the rest of this century.

 

Thinking Small, Nuclear Power Enters Distributed Era

— April 26, 2013

The nuclear power industry’s drive to deploy small, modular reactors (SMRs) took a significant step forward this month.  Nuclear technology vendor Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) formalized its funding agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the mPower reactor project.  With $79 million of federal funds for this year (and a total of $150 million over the 5-year program), B&W plans to build a prototype SMR at the Clinch River site in Tennessee, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

SMRs have gleamed in the eyes of nuclear power providers for a decade now, as the industry seeks a new model for economical, carbon-free power generation for the 21st century.  The Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 seemed to squelch the so-called “nuclear renaissance,” but many countries – including the United States, South Korea, Russia, China, and even Japan – are moving ahead with plans for small reactors that can be factory-crafted (thus “modular”) and assembled onsite.  Economies of scale have dominated the nuclear power industry for most of its life, with reactors expanding to 1,000 MW or even 1,500 MW.

Now, many believe that the future of nuclear lies in SMRs of under 300 MW that can be arrayed in multiple configurations, giving power generators more flexibility and, in theory, lower capital costs.

There are more than a dozen designs currently under development for SMRs.  Most of them are simply miniaturized versions of existing, light-water reactors; the mPower is a 180 MW “advanced integral pressurized water reactor” that could be deployed not only for supplying power to the grid but in more specialized applications, such as powering remote oilfield operations or desalinating water.

Arctic Nukes

“SMRs offer TVA an important new option for achieving clean, base-load electricity generation and we are ready to begin the work to understand the value of that option,” said TVA senior vice president of policy and oversight, Joe Hoagland, in a statement.

Increased safety is also a feature of SMRs, at least potentially.  NuScale Power, a startup principally backed by Fluor Corporation, said at an SMR conference earlier this month that it has developed an inherently safe system that, in case of a full power shutdown such as happened after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, will self-cool the reactor without the need for external power or water.  Essentially, the NuScale design uses a simplified set of water valves that flip open automatically in case of a power disruption.

“Because of the simplicity of the NuScale design, only a handful of safety valves need to be opened in the event of an accident to ensure actuation of the [emergency cooling system],” said Jose Reyes, the co-founder and CTO of NuScale, speaking at the Nuclear Energy Insider SMR Conference in Columbia, South Carolina.  “These safety valves have been mechanically pre-set to align to their safe condition without the use of batteries following a loss of all station power.”

The earliest applications for SMRs are likely to be distributed generation in remote places, including military forward operating bases.  A Russian consortium is constructing a barge-mounted SMR, based on the nuclear engines that power icebreaker ships, that can be deployed in some of the least hospitable places on Earth.  The idea of nuclear reactors powering oil and gas production in the Arctic is hardly a reassuring thought for environmentalists and diplomats, but it’s likely to become a reality in less than a decade.

The mPower prototype is scheduled to be up and running by 2022.

 

Coal’s Long Goodbye

— April 13, 2013

Electricity generation from coal has plummeted from favor in the last few years.  A majority of Americans now favor stricter regulations on coal plants, even if it means higher energy prices.  In Europe public opinion has tilted away from coal even more sharply: a recent survey showed that 80% of Germans want to end coal-fired generation altogether.  The anti-coal movement has also gained steam, so to speak, in some unlikely places.

That doesn’t mean King Coal will be dethroned any time soon.  In confirmation hearings before the Senate, Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s nomination for the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, struck a conciliatory tone when asked about the future of the U.S. coal industry.

“Coal has been and will continue to be a significant source of energy in the United States, and I take my job seriously when developing those standards to provide flexibility in the rules,” McCarthy told lawmakers.  “Flexibility,” in this context, means “exceptions to the forthcoming rules on carbon emissions from power plants.”

German environmental minister Peter Altmaier was more blunt last year, speaking of the black fuel’s future on the continent: Coal-fired plants will be needed “for decades to come” to ensure reliable supplies of power.

In fact, coal consumption is rising, both in the United States and in Europe, to say nothing of China.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects power generation from coal to increase by nearly 8% in 2013, bringing coal’s portion of total U.S. generation back to 40%, from 37.4% in 2012.  The cause, according to the EIA: “the increasing cost of natural gas relative to coal.”

(Source: Energy Information Administration)

High prices for natural gas are also driving a coal resurgence in Europe; carbon emissions in Germany, for example, increased by 2% in 2012, according to a feature in Nature, largely as a result of increased power generation from cheap coal.

Developments in Germany reflect the larger paradox facing nations attempting to move toward clean energy production: under the Energiewende, Germany’s national program to shift 35% of its power generation to clean sources by 2020, the country is investing €1.5 billion in renewable energy per year.  However, economic forces continue to push power production to fossil fuels.  Generation from solar photovoltaic installations actually decreased by 500 GWh in 2012, and Germany is currently building some 11 GW of coal-fired capacity (though a substantial portion of that will be so-called “clean coal,” replacing older plants with more efficient, lower-emissions technology).  Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear accident is driving the country to coal for baseload power.

“One of Europe’s biggest energy providers, E.ON based in Düsseldorf, announced in January that it plans to close several gas-fired power stations across Europe that were operating at a loss,” Nature reported, “even though they are far less polluting than coal-fired plants.”

Eventually, coal will be phased out.  However, everyone anticipating a rapid changeover from the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution has a long wait ahead.

 

Why We Don’t Need a Fusion-Powered Rocket

— April 7, 2013

A team of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) has won a second round of funding from NASA for their concept for a nuclear fusion-powered rocket to take men to Mars.  Given the very grave problems we face as a nation and as a species, not to mention the long and dismal history of fusion reactor design, the folly of this is astounding.

“We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space,” John Slough, the UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics who heads the project, said in a UW website feature, “that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”

I call this kind of thing “future porn”: the starry-eyed reporting of R&D that aims to accomplish outlandish goals that, even if attainable, will almost certainly prove too expensive, complicated, or non-lucrative to ever become reality.  Future porn stories always contain lots of conditionals and very long timeframes.  The terms “could,” “would,” and “eventually” tend to appear frequently.  “Now, astronauts could be a step closer to our nearest planetary neighbor through a unique manipulation of nuclear fusion,” the UW site reports.

Slough’s team “was one of a handful of projects awarded a second round of funding last fall after already receiving phase-one money in a field of 15 projects chosen from more than 700 proposals.”

I can think of a half-dozen things that NASA should be working on that would be more applicable to our current predicament and beneficial to humanity than harebrained schemes for Mars exploration; warding off annihilating asteroids and dealing with climate change would be top of the list.

Fusion Fail

The fusion-rocket news out of Seattle coincides with a discouraging report in Science News on the National Ignition Facility’s long, quixotic, and so-far failed attempts to produce controlled fusion by compressing a sphere of cryogenic hydrogen using 384 beams from the world’s most powerful laser, thereby releasing tremendous amounts of energy.  NIF scientists 4 years ago confidently predicted “that by September 30, 2012, they would demonstrate a fusion reaction producing net energy, a milestone known as ignition.”  Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.

The NIF account makes for a fascinating case study in the peril of relying on computer simulations.  Essentially, the researchers were convinced by their computer models that the hydrogen would compress symmetrically, i.e., into a near-perfect sphere.  Instead, the material deformed and warped, defying the attempts to unleash more energy than the powerful lasers put in.  “Nature just wants to break you,” said John Edwards, NIF’s associate director of fusion – a remark that echoes the head-shaking sighs of just about everyone who’s ever tried to achieve a sustainable, controlled fusion reaction.

Instead of lasers, the fusion rocket out of UW would use large metal rings, made of lithium, caused by a powerful magnetic field to implode and compress a type of plasma, leading to continuous bursts of fusion that would power the rocket.  To master the intricacies of this ingenious scheme, the scientists have relied upon, you guessed it, “detailed computer modeling.”

 

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