This is Part 10 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we offer several important Energy Policy recommendations. 

To realistically achieve the 2050 Energy Portfolio goals that we have set forth, the US will need to act quickly to implement a strategic plan of energy policy for its energy future. We recommend the following measures, which will put the US on the right path towards a secure, reliable, affordable, and environmentally sustainable future.

1. Institute a carbon tax or cap and trade system. A carbon tax or cap and trade system is necessary to prepare the US for a sustainable future. From an economic perspective, putting a cost on carbon would eliminate externalities in the market, internalizing the social cost of carbon. Such a measure would gradually reduce American dependence on oil and coal and increase investment in nuclear and renewable energy resources.

2. Promote energy efficiency above all energy sources. Promote energy efficiency above all energy sources. To ensure that we have energy resource for years to come, the US government needs to promote energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is often the most affordable means to reducing our carbon footprint and increasing consumption capabilities. We need to find common ground in efficiency with energy producing nations and developing countries, which often are the least efficient. We should continue to raise CAFE standards for transportation vehicles and mandate efficiency in home appliances, and (5) public/private partnerships.

3. Promote clean coal technologies. The government should pass legislation to slowlyphase out existing coal facilities, which cause significant damage to the environment. The federal government should play a vital role in funding the development of cleaner coal technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration, through significant subsidies, tax incentives, and research grants to any companies supporting clean coal technology. While many of these technologies are in their infant stages, further government support can play an extremely important role.

4. Responsibly manage the next price down-cycle. When oil prices drop, the US should lead the way in promoting sustainability and efficiency even when overconsumption is easy. The way that the US handles the next boom and bust will be indicative of its management of the energy crisis over the next century.

5. Pressure the international community to accurately report reserves. The federal government needs to convince oil-exporting nations such as Saudi Arabia that accurately reporting oil and gas reserves is in their best interest as well as the best interest of the world. An international uranium resource assessment should also be conducted to determine a more accurate uranium reserve count.

6. Secure liquefied natural gas trade agreements with natural gas rich countries.The federal government should incentivize the private sector to establish joint IOC/NOC ventures in countries like Qatar and Russia. It should also expedite the licensing process of LNG receiving terminals and eliminate the state governor’s veto power of off-shore terminals.

7. Include nuclear power in state and federal renewable portfolio standards.A lot of emphasis is currently put on renewable portfolio standards at the state and federal levels. Including nuclear power as a carbon-free energy would greatly incentive the public and private sectors to more aggressively pursue nuclear technologies.

8. Establish a strategic plan for nuclear waste management both domestically and abroad. The recent debate over using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository has revealed that the US has no strategic plan for waste disposal. The Department of Energy must broaden long-term R&D for nuclear waste management and encourage greater international standardization of regulations for transport, storage and disposal. A nuclear accident across the world will have ramifications on national public opinion. Also, the risk of nuclear proliferation heightens our interest in nuclear waste disposal abroad.

9. Properly incentivize solar and wind energy use.Federal subsidies and tax breaks should strive for three different goals. First of all, increased federal support should be given to supporting consumers who add solar panels to their houses or businesses. By offering a more effective utility buy-back system for generated solar energy, we can copy the European Union’s successful model to increase demand for solar energy. Secondly, we need to offer significant subsidies to any companies engaged in the solar industry. Without federal funding, it is simply economically impossible for solar power to competitively succeed as an energy source. Thirdly, the federal government should contribute considerable funding to research and development into solar technologies. A strong public-private research partnership can make significant progress in reducing the costs of solar power.

10.  Jump-start the electric vehicles industry.For electric vehicles to gain traction consumers will need incentives to buy them. Also, the federal government needs to start making sure that the electricity infrastructure will be in place when the demand for electric vehicles rises.

11.  Continue investing in second and third generation biofuels.The government must create tax incentives and subsidies that particularly focus on second and third generation technologies. With government taking an active role, biofuel technologies can be cheap, sustainable, and help to ease the transition towards more renewable sources of energy.

This is Part 9 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at the role of Energy Efficiency. 

The AEO2010 tracks energy intensity over the last couple decades. A high-energy intensity indicates less energy efficiency or a higher cost of converting energy into GDP. A low-energy intensity indicates more energy efficiency or lower cost of turning energy into GDP. Since 1992, our energy intensity has decreased by approximately 1.9 % per year, (EIA, AEO 2010). This change is attributed mostly to the nation’s shift from manufacturing to the service sector. Also, the AEO predicts that energy consumption per capita will decline 0.4 percent per year from 2008 to 2030. If the U.S. government implements proper regulations and incentives, our energy intensity per capita should decline at higher rates of 1 to 2% per year from 2030 to 2050.

By all estimates, adoption of more stringent energy efficiency measures is more cost effective than switching to alternative sources of producing electricity. The chart below shows the direct monetary cost and emissions costs of energy efficiency measures compared to renewables and clean technologies. After implementation of a cap and trade system, we can expect the direct cost to more accurately reflect the emissions cost.

Reduction in energy intensity over the last couple decades has saved the U.S. from large increases in energy consumption. Without previous reductions in energy intensity, we would be consuming much more today. We need a more strategic plan for being a more energy efficient nation, including retrofitting of existing buildings, higher energy efficiency standards for appliances, and comprehensive education for all citizens. Higher efficiency can also reduce overall consumption, thus reducing dependency on foreign resources.  

McKinsey & Company released a study showing the potentially negative cost of carbon dioxide reduction using energy efficiency. Most efficiency losses are in industry and the manufacturing sector. Advancements in technologies to take the efficiency of coal plants from 40% to 60%, for example, will be crucial in making huge energy efficiency leaps. Also, in the U.S. transmission and distribution of electricity see 7% energy losses. Advancements in nanotechnology could allow for fast and efficient transmission. The challenges in transmission are in finding a transmitter that is lighter and cheaper than copper. Nanotubes fit both criteria and have on average 5% energy losses in contrast to 7%. Reducing transmission losses across the nation to 6% would result in a national annual energy savings of 4 X 1010 kilowatt-hoursan annual energy savings roughly equivalent to 24 million barrels of oil (National Nanotechnology Institute).

The barriers to energy efficiency are real but surmountable. The first is inertia. People have a hard time changing their habits, and unless the average consumer gains a new sense of urgency regarding energy reduction, he or she may continue along the same path. Also, energy producers have a disincentive towards promoting more efficiency in the U.S. Another obstacle is that all of the costs are borne upfront and savings are achieved afterwards. Humans can be myopic and weigh short-term costs as more important that achieving long-term gains.

However, there is hope using the power of government policies. The five main tools that the government has to increase energy efficiency are: (1) dissemination of information, (2) restrictive regulations, (3) market incentives, (4) funding/grant programs, and (5) public/private partnerships, (Saidel & Alves, 2003).

This is Part 8 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at some less significant energy sources, including geothermal energy, hydropower, and tidal energy. 

Geothermal Energy

The greatest potential for geothermal energy is in the use of heat pumps in residences or commercial buildings. A geothermal heat pump works like an electric heat pump except the heat comes from the ground. In an open loop cycle, water from an underground well circulates through the pump and back into the well, into a separate well, or through surface discharge. A closed loop cycle circulates water into horizontal or vertical pipes, where the water exchanges heat with the ground. Once back to ground temperature (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit), the water is cycled back through.

Because of tax incentives in the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, consumption of geothermal energy is four times higher than it was five years ago.  Like all other renewable technologies, geothermal has high fixed costs and low maintenance costs. Geothermal power currently makes up 5% of our renewable energy profile, more than wind and solar combined. The EIA 2010 Energy Outlook predicts that 2.25 million residences will have geothermal heat pumps in 2030. However, this would still account for only 2.2% of residential heating. The U.S. consumes the most energy from geothermal sources of nations worldwide, although several countries in the Far East, such as the Philippines, consume a much larger percentage of geothermal energy out of their total energy consumption.

Geothermal power plants use steam from several miles below the earth’s surface to generate electricity. Most power plants still use fossil fuels, which, though not as expensive, is worse for the environment and less efficient. The three types of geothermal plants are dry steam, flash steam, and binary cycle. Binary power plants are the most common because they only require low-temperature reservoirs.

Hydro Power

Hydroelectric dams supplied 2.4% of U.S. energy consumed in 2008, (EIA AEO 2010). The U.S. has fully harnessed its hydroelectric power, so the amount of energy supplied from dams is likely to remain constant over the next forty years.

Wave, Tidal and Ocean Energy

We do not foresee wave, tidal, and ocean current technologies playing a part in the near term future. In addition to lack of economically viable technologies, the potential environmental harm to already fragile marine eco-systems is too great. Perhaps ocean energy will be harnessed successfully in the far future. Wave energy has the most potential and the possibility of providing one-fourth of world energy consumption with advancements in technologies. 

This is Part 7 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at solar energy as an energy source.

History of Solar Energy

One of the most intriguing renewable technologies is solar energy. Throughout history, the power of the sun has long fascinated humans. Many ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians and Aztecs, worshipped the power of the sun. The Greeks, and later the Romans, harnessed passive solar energy in much of their architecture (Alternate). Through the use of passive solar buildings, ancient civilizations were able to create effective heating and air conditioning effects.

Solar energy has long fascinated humans; in fact, energy from the sun is directly responsible for the vast majority of all other energy resources. Through photosynthesis, energy from the sun is stored in plants and other biomass across the globe. The human body and all life on earth are also driven by solar energy, as we get our energy from biomass. Similarly, fossil fuel resources (coal, natural gas, and oil) all derive their energy through carbon burial of ancient solar energy.

The vast majority of the earth’s energy is derived directly from the sun’s power. The use of the term “solar energy” today typically refers to directly harnessing the energy of the sun’s radiation to produce electricity. While there is such limitless potential in solar energy, the great challenge is to harness this potential into an economically viable resource that is competitive in the energy marketplace. 

Current Use of Solar Energy

Currently, approximately 0.1% of the United States’ yearly electricity is supplied by solar energy. While there has been significant discussion about the potential and importance of solar resources, entrenched fossil fuels and the comparatively high prices of solar energy have restricted any significant progress.

Once of the main reasons solar energy is so fascinating is because of its tremendous potential. Each day, more solar energy is absorbed by the earth than the entire world uses in a whole year (Globe).

The United States has been slow to capitalize on its solar potential (Carlin). However, internationally, many nations have achieved much greater success with solar energy. In particular, the European Union has achieved tremendous success in increasing solar capacity.  In Germany, solar power meets approximately 1% of total electricity demand and this number is rapidly rising (US Lags). In Spain, this number is 2.8% (Sawin).  . In fact, for several days last year, over 50% of Spain’s electricity demand was powered by solar energy (Wind Energy consolidated).

Recently, China has also developed a significant solar presence, in both consumption and production of solar panels (Watts). As these countries invest greater resources and technology into the rapidly developing solar market, prices will decrease and, ultimately, allow for non-subsidized solar technologies to achieve success. The United States has much to learn from the example set by these countries. 

How Solar Energy works

There are two main methods for harnessing the energy of the sun for electricity production: solar thermal energy and photovoltaic cells.

Solar thermal energy is the most traditional form. Through a series of concentrated panels, the heat of the sun is concentrated on a very small area, creating a significant amount of heat. This heat is then transferred to water, creating steam and spinning a turbine, creating electricity the same way a combustion reaction does.

However, instead of burning fossil fuels to generate heat, thermal energy directly uses the sun’s heat energy. Ultimately, this also accounts for significantly greater efficiency. While fossil fuels receive heat energy from the sun that is stored and then combusted, with a poor rate of return, solar panels attempt to directly harness as much of the sun’s heat as possible.

Consequently, photovoltaic cells work very differently from most traditional forms of energy. Instead of spinning a turbine, PV cells directly convert the sun’s radiation into electricity. In doing so, they take advantage of the photoelectric and photovoltaic effect. The photoelectric effect suggests that when light is shined on to a metal surface, it will emit electrons and start a current. This theory takes advantage of the light’s particle nature.

The current generated through sunlight is then combined with an electric-field produced voltage that is built into a solar cell. Ultimately, through the combination of the electron-stream generated current and the panel-produced voltage, power can be produced. Impure silicon is typically the most effective material used to build solar panels, due to its crystalline structure that can easily generate an electric field. When sunlight is shined directly on a photovoltaic panel, the energy of the sun is converted directly to a current and electricity.

PV cells are extremely attractive, since they do not require any significant structures in the installation process (Toothman and Aldous). Nevertheless, due to the lack of sufficient research and development, most PV technology is still too expensive to be commercially viable.  

Solar Energy Technologies

There are several different technologies prevalent in the solar industry. Since much emphasis on solar has been developed in the past 30 years, many newer technologies are still in the infant stages. The most widespread method for solar thermal power generation is the creation of solar towers.  Instead of relying on just cell angles to attract light, solar towers utilize mirrors, lenses, and other optical equipment to focus as much light on the cells as possible. While the additional infrastructure may sometimes be expensive to build, it ultimately brings down the costs of solar power and allows for much greater generation of electricity ((Toothman and Aldous).

This technology typically requires significant space and sunshine, but has the potential to be competitive with traditional electricity generation; Spain has successfully harnessed solar tower technology in the Andalucían deserts (Jha).

A new form of photovoltaic technology is thin-film solar cells. These are simple, much cheaper solar cells that are not made out of the ideal silicon that is used in the vast majority of panels. While these capture less energy than thicker cells, they are significantly cheaper to create and can be produced in much greater quantities (Toothman and Aldous).

One of the most fascinating future technologies is solar photovoltaic cells in space. For years, astronauts have utilized space solar panels to power satellites and space missions with the greater light intensity found in space; however, the most significant challenge to this technology is transporting it back to Earth.  A recent Japanese project aims to collect much higher-efficiency electricity in space and use a laser to beam it to the Earth (Hornyak).  Pacific Gas and Electric, a California utility, similarly has proposed the conversion of energy to radio waves which are sent to earth and translated to electricity (LaMonica). While this space technology is widely perceived as prohibitively expensive, there has not been any significant research into its potential.

One of the most significant challenges confronting solar penetration of the electricity market is the intermittent supply of the resource. Just like wind, solar energy is very unpredictable and cannot very easily be used as the sole resource in an energy mix. During periods of high energy demand, often at night, solar energy cannot be provided, because the sun is no longer shining. Solar energy is also heavily dependent on weather fluctuations and cannot increase or decrease capacity to match demand, as is possible with most traditional power plants. While some energy can be stored through solar thermal heating in the form of boiling water, significant heat is lost over time.

PV cells often also store energy in the form of batteries, but batteries are extremely expensive (Toothman and Aldous). The most significant potential for solar energy in the near future is as a supplemental resource to other power plants in the electric grid. In January 2008, a combined power plant built in Germany successfully combined solar energy with wind, biogas, and hydropower together to account for any intermittency in energy supplies (Technical Summary). This type of power plant, where many different renewable resources are used together, represents the most realistic plan for the future. 

Solar Energy Environmental Concerns

While solar panels offer significant benefits for reducing dependence on fossil fuels, they also offer significant environmental benefits. First and foremost, solar energy does not produce any carbon emissions. It also does not produce any sort of toxic waste (like nuclear energy) and does not have the potential for any horrible safety accidents (such as the collapse of a coal mine or an oil spill). Providing that a system is properly installed, there are no real risks for safety.

Solar Energy Security

Another significant benefit for solar energy is its importance in energy security. The construction and use of solar panels can all be done using American resources. Instead of relying on Middle Eastern nations for fossil fuels and instead of being dependent on volatile foreign markets, domestically produced solar panels can be instrumental in achieving energy security.

However, in recent years, the vast majority of solar panel production has moved to China (Watts). Throughout the future, it is important for the US government to invest in building domestic production capacity in the solar industry. Unless this happens, we are simply trading dependence on Middle Eastern oil for a dependence on Chinese solar technologies. 

Solar Energy Economics

While solar energy has substantial benefits, the greatest challenge to its successful mass implementation is economics. Solar power is simply much more expensive relative to traditional fossil fuel technologies. In some ways, this is an unfair comparison.

Unlike solar energy, fossil fuel technologies have been around for hundreds of years and significant research and development has been focused on reducing costs. However, in the absence of subsidies or a carbon trading system, solar power must be economically viable enough to compete in the energy marketplace.

For example, while coal costs approximately 2.5-4.5 cents/kwh to produce, many solar technologies cost up to 20 cents/kwh (Understanding the cost of solar energy). In fact, most PV technologies are even more expensive, with costs reaching 40cents/kwh. In the highly competitive power market, these costs are unsustainable. In an effort to support the fledgling solar industry and promote greater research and development, the federal government and several states have initiated subsidy programs.

From an individual perspective, there are several incentive programs that can support homeowners to add solar panels to their houses. On the federal level, the residential federal tax credit gives a tax credit of 30% of the total cost of installation of any solar electric or solar hot water heaters (Solar Government Incentives). In the absence of any comprehensive federal plan on renewable energy, policies concerning solar energy differ greatly from state to state.

One of the most successful of these programs is California’s Million Solar Roofs initiative, which has helped propel California to be the national leader in solar energy. This program focuses on surplus net metering through which consumers can sell back to the utilities any additional electricity generated through their own solar panels (Million Solar Roofs). This same type of program has also achieved significant success across Europe. In fact, in Spain this program was ultimately “too” successful, and the Spanish government was ultimately forced to scale it back to prevent utilities from losing too much money (Gonzalez and Johnson).

While many statewide efforts have been successful in increasing demand for solar energy, much federal guidance is also needed to increase research and development into solar technology. While demand-focused subsidies may be effective in the short-term, a sustainable solar future will only be possible if solar technologies are significantly cheaper.

As recent research developments have demonstrated, increased funding and scale production of solar technology has the potential to dramatically decrease costs. On a federal level, the 2009 stimulus bill gave a significant amount of money to the solar industry (Galbraith). Similarly, the Department of Energy recently provided $168 billion in research funding for 13 industry-led solar development projects (DOE Selects).

While solar energy has significant potential, the technology and funding capacity is not at the same level as traditional fossil fuel resources. Without a more involved government role, along with additional subsidies and tax credits, solar technology will be unable to achieve success in an extremely competitive energy marketplace. 

Solar Political Viability

The most significant political opposition to solar energy has been its high cost. If the costs of solar power are sufficiently decreased, the benefits for environmental sustainability and energy security make solar energy a very politically significant resource.  

This is Part 6 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at wind energy as an energy source.

History of Wind Energy

Humans have long been fascinated by the power of the wind. One of the clearest examples of this is the sailboat; passive wind energy powered many ancient navies. Windmills also have been used historically to harness the wind’s energy for grinding or other purposes (How Wind Power Works). It is only relatively recently that wind has received renewed attention as a tool to generate electricity. 

Current Use of Wind Energy

In recent years, turbines have been constructed to directly generate electricity from the wind. Wind energy has the potential to power a significant portion of the nation’s energy needs; it is estimated that the US wind energy supply is approximately 10.8 trillion kW/year (Wind Web Tutorial). Currently, approximately 1% of United States electricity production comes from wind generation and this number is poised for growth in the coming years. In other nations, wind has had an even greater impact. Nations such as Denmark and Spain depend on wind for almost 20% of electricity production. During periods of high wind supply, these nations are able to sell their excess electricity to other nations on the European electricity grid.

How Wind Energy works

The basic technology of a wind turbine translates the wind’s energy into electric power. The kinetic energy of the wind spins turbines, which in turn spin a shaft. The rotational energy of the shaft is then converted to an electric current (How Wind Power Works). 

Wind Energy Technologies

In modern wind technology, the two most important designs are horizontal axis and vertical axis turbines. Horizontal axis designs are the most commonly seen technology, and typically are created with two or three blades. Vertical axis turbines are a relatively new technology that is more popular for small-scale wind production, such as that used by households. Unlike horizontal turbines, vertical turbines can be placed much closer to the ground and do not make as much noise (Wind Web Tutorial). 

Wind Energy Environmental Concerns

Wind energy is an extremely environmentally friendly resource. It produces no carbon emissions or harmful side products, and it is a renewable, sustainable source of energy. The most significant complaint from a safety and environmental perspective has been the effect of wind turbines on killing birds, bats, and other flying animals. However, bird-related deaths due to turbines are extremely minor when compared with other common killers of birds (Causes of Bird). In addition, it can definitely be argued that bird deaths from turbines are significantly lower than those caused by other energy sources, such as oil spills or nuclear fallout. 

Wind Energy Economics

Economically, wind energy is still simply more expensive than fossil fuel resources. While wind energy has negligible operating costs, the fixed costs of creating a new wind plant are higher than existing coal or natural gas plants. Although costs are slowly decreasing over time, additional government subsidies and many years of research are necessary before wind will be competitive in a fossil-fuel dominated market. However, recent advances in wind energy have brought wind prices extremely close to parity with fossil fuel electricity generators. Since the early 80s, costs have declined from 30cents/kwh to less than 5cents/kwh today, which, in bulk and with federal help, is competitive with fossil fuel power plants (Wind Web Tutorial). Further federal involvement can successfully drive greater innovation and price reductions in the wind industry.

Over the past few years, the federal government has instituted several successful subsidy and tax incentive programs to increase wind production nationwide. The Energy Policy act of 1992 created a production tax credit for wind energy, a 1.5 cent/kwh credit that has greatly encouraged wind production (Wind, Solar Credits Extended). This credit was renewed in 2008, as a part of the financial bailout bill. In addition to this federal initiative, several states have also created their own programs to support the wind industry as well. 

Wind Energy Security

Wind power is important in promoting energy security, as it is a domestic and sustainable resource. Through increased use of wind and other renewable resources, we have the potential to achieve energy independence. 

Biomass Political Viability

The most significant political opposition to wind energy has been its high cost. If the costs of wind power are sufficiently decreased, the benefits for environmental sustainability and energy security make solar energy a very politically significant resource.

This is Part 5 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at biomass as an energy source.

History of Biomass Energy

For thousands of years, humans have burned biomass to produce energy. As the Western world entered the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s, biomass was abandoned in favor of more energy-intensive fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of developing countries across the globe, the burning of basic biomass, such as wood and wheat, is still widespread (Biomass Basics). As the United States looks towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, a closer, more technologically advanced utilization of biomass could be an integral part of the solution. 

Current Use of Biomass Energy

Currently, the most widely-used form of biomass is as wood, which has been a source of energy production since ancient times (Biomass Basics). As the United States attempts to transition away from fossil fuels, the use of biofuel has been heralded as an opportunity to reduce reliance on gasoline for transportation. In 2004, the United States used almost 140 billion gallons of gasoline (Biofuels for transportation). The two major types of 1st generation biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel; ethanol is an alcohol developed primarily from sugar and starch crops, such as corn. Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils and animal fats. In theory, ethanol can be used as a direct substitute for gasoline in automobiles- this might be possible in the future. However, due to ethanol’s relatively high costs, as well as its low energy density, ethanol has been much more widely used as a supplement to traditional gasoline. The majority of US automobiles today are configured to run on around 15% ethanol. In 2005, total ethanol production made up approximately 2.9% of the total gasoline pool (Biofuels for Transportation). Together, these fuels have already begun to make a significant impact on reducing fossil fuel consumption in automobiles.

Regardless of their potential, first generation biofuels have also created a significant number of problems. Perhaps most significantly, the increased use of feed stock for fuel has dramatically increased food prices in the United States. The price of corn, the primary ingredient in ethanol, has increased dramatically in the past few years, as the graphic demonstrates (High as an elephant).  As ethanol producers attempt to increase energy independence, they are invariably devastating local food markets, especially the meat industry, which uses corn as a feed stock. In the United States, and across Europe, this has initiated calls for change.

Across the globe, biomass remains a widely used resource in many developing nations. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 80 percent of the population depends on traditional biomass for cooking, as do over half of the populations of India and China (Shah). Traditional biomass is primarily fuel wood, charcoal, and animal dung. Across Europe, many nations have taken steps to introduce increased biofuel resources to replace fossil fuels. The EU has developed an ambitious goal of increasing biofuel’s share in European diesel and gasoline consumption to 10% by 2020 (Cendrowicz).

How Biomass works

At the very basic level, the burning of biomass releases solar energy that has been stored in organic matter for millions of years. The burning of wood and charcoal is relatively straight forward in this regard; biofuels can be burned in a manner very similar to fossil fuels to generate electricity through the spinning of a turbine. Biofuels are created following the processing of biomass. One of the most popular examples of a biofuel is ethanol. Ethanol is produced following the fermentation of any high-sugar biomass, such as corn or sugarcane. Following fermentation, the substance is distilled and purified. Biodiesel is another popular form of biofuel; it is produced from vegetable oils through the chemical process of transesterification (Biomass Basics).

Biomass Technologies

As greater research and development is invested into biofuel technology, second generation biofuels, also known as cellulose biofuels, have been developed with the goal of using many more of the non-food components of the crop, including husks, leaves, and stems.  Some benefits of these technologies include a more favorable GHG balance (fewer carbon emissions), no competition with food production, less use of land, and potentially higher quality fuel (Biofuels: The Next Generation). While many second generation initiatives will solve previously experienced problems, most of these technologies are still in the infant stages and prohibitively expensive. Significant research funding will be necessary before these second generation technologies can become more economically and scientifically viable. 

Significant research has also recently become focused on algae fuel, the so called third generation biofuel. As organisms, algae are considered among the most efficient organisms and, through photosynthesis, can produce approximately 30 times more energy than second generation biofuel resources. Moreover, since algae do not need to be grown, there is no need for expensive investment in land resources. Another interesting factor is that CO2 can enhance algae growth. In a future world, CO2 from factories could be sequestered and then recycled through an algae plant(Algae: The ultimate biofuel? ). While algae are more expensive than many other resources, they also produce a much more significant amount of energy. Although energy production from algae has so far been only in the laboratory, many companies have recently invested a significant amount of funding. One example is Exxon Mobil’s recent $600 million project in algae research and development.

Biomass Environmental Concerns

From an environmental perspective, biofuels substantially reduce carbon emissions and are far less polluting than traditional gasoline used in transportation. A recent study demonstrated that biodiesel reduces emissions by 78% when compared with petroleum diesel (Biofuels in the U.S. Transportation Sector). There are no significant safety issues concerning biomass consumption.

Biomass Economics

In the past few years, a significant amount of research funding has significantly decreased the costs of biofuel resources. In its current form, gasoline with 15% ethanol content is approximately the same cost as traditional gasoline (How Much Does it Cost to Use Ethanol?). However, as the percentage of ethanol is increased, costs become prohibitively expensive. In addition, first generation biofuels have demonstrated that the real cost of biofuel resources can be found outside the fuel itself. As biofuels have gained increased popularity, food prices have also risen up, devastating several different industries. When analyzing the economics of biofuels, it is important to look at the industry’s externalities.

Biomass Energy Security

Biofuels are valuable in terms of energy security, as they are able to harness domestic energy resources and reduce overall reliance on foreign oil.

Biomass Political Viability

Over the past few years, biofuels have achieved significant market penetration and have received large government subsidies. As a resource that is both environmentally friendly and can be domestically produced, biofuels have received significant tax breaks and incentives from the federal government. Following more than 30 years of subsidization, the biofuel industry has developed a powerful lobby in the federal government to protect its interests (How Much Does it Cost to Use Ethanol?). 

This is Part 4 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at Nuclear fuel as an energy source. This was written in 2010, prior to some of the nuclear accidents that have taken place since. 

History of Nuclear Energy

Following the Second World War, the United States began to invest heavily in nuclear energy to prove that it could be used for commercial purposes. In 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created by Congress to develop civilian uses for nuclear energy. The first nuclear electricity reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor I, generated electric power on December 20, 1951. This success marked the beginning of nuclear as a commercially viable energy source.

Two years later, President Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations, which underscored his commitment to promoting civilian use of nuclear energy. He said, "It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace. The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here--now--today. Who can doubt, if the entire body of the world's scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage," (Eisenhower).

President Eisenhower highlighted areas in which nuclear energy could change lives. He said, “A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.” This commitment to use nuclear to build instead of destroy (as it was used during WWII), aimed at changing global mentalities and serving as an example for other nuclear states. The “Atoms for Peace” speech also touched on President Eisenhower’s vision for a nuclear regulatory agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was later established by the UN in 1957.

Domestically, Congress established the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. This bill gave the private sector more access to nuclear technologies for civilian purposes and led to the opening of the first large-scale commercial plant in December of 1957 in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. And in 1959, the Dresden-1, the first nuclear power plant funded entirely by the private sector, commenced operations. Nuclear plants continued to be built, with a surge of contracts in the 1970s surrounding the oil crisis. By the mid-80s more than 100 nuclear power plants were in operation.

In 1979, a large accident occurred at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. Although no one was directly hurt by the accident, the US became wary of relying too heavily on nuclear power. The United States has not started construction on a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s. However, recently interest in expanding nuclear power has resurged.

The need for decisive leadership in promoting the safe use of nuclear power is more urgent considering increase climate change concern and lack of energy legislation during the Bush administration. Also, the OECD has failed to establish agreements with emerging economies regarding nuclear proliferation concerns. If the US does not devise a comprehensive plan for increasing nuclear energy in its energy portfolio, it could soon be too late to make a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation. Though no new plants have broken ground, the Browns Ferry Unit One in Athens, Alabama was put back into operation in 2007 after having closed more than a decade before due to a fire. Another US reactor has recently been refurbished and another that was ordered the 70s, the Watts Bar-2, is being completed.

Current Role of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy accounts 19.4 percent of United States electricity production and 17 percent of electricity worldwide, (EIA AEO 2010). It has maintained a steady share of electricity generation over the last several decades. Though new plants have not been built for years, the United States has very successfully implemented plant life extension programs that have extended some plant lives up to twenty years longer than expected.

Today in the US, 104 nuclear reactors are in operation. Currently, 17 applications for 26 new reactors have been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). However funding and definite commitment from the companies is far from secure. President Obama’s administration has acted to provide incentives for first starters. On February 16, 2010, President Obama announced $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors at a plant in Burke, Georgia. Reaffirming his commitment to expanding our nuclear energy capacity, he said, "Enhancing America's nuclear capacity is a critical component of our strategy to develop alternative energies that create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil," (Obama).These plants could be the first to open ground in over three decades. However, loan guarantees may not alone overcome the high risk of opening a nuclear power plant and uncertainty of construction costs.

Internationally, nuclear energy is a strong force. It plays a variety of roles in the energy portfolios of different countries. Some nations rely very heavily on nuclear power. Currently nuclear provides 77 percent of France’s electricity production. Because it produces the cheapest nuclear energy, France is the largest global exporter of electricity, exporting around 18 percent of its produced electricity. Many developing countries are jumping on the nuclear bandwagon and have been constructing new plants. Globally, 57 plants are under construction, mostly in China, Korea, and Russia, with China accounting for 23 of the 57.

Others, such as Germany and Sweden, have been phasing out their nuclear operations. Germany enacted the Nuclear Exit Law in 2000 to carry through with this phase out. In conjunction with the phase out, the government of Germany has heavily invested in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. However, recent price volatility of oil and natural gas has lead many German leaders to rethink their strategy, and there is speculation the new administration will delay the phase out.

Resources for Nuclear Energy

The 2003 MIT report commissioned by President Bush recommended a comprehensive local uranium resource evaluation program with the goal of bolstering confidence in public reserves. Although no such program has been conducted, every several years the IAEA and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) have teamed up to produce the Uranium Resources, Production and Demand, commonly referred to as the Red Book. The 2007 “Red Book” update confirmed that known uranium resources are growing faster than demand for resources and that we have at least eighty years of reserves, (MIT 2009, 12)

Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan combined have more than half of the world reserves of Uranium-235, (Lake, Bennet, and Kotek).The US also has abundant resources with 7 percent of world reserves.

How Nuclear Energy works

A process called nuclear fission powers nuclear energy. Uranium is the most often used substance for inducing nuclear fission. Uranium-238 is the most common isotope of uranium, accounting for nearly 99 percent of naturally found uranium. However, Uranium-235 is one of the few materials that can undergo induced fission, (Brain and Lamb, 2). During nuclear fission, a Uranium-235 atom absorbs a low energy neutron. This new Uranium-236 atom then breaks up into fragments, which releases energy in the form of heat. “The decay of a single Uranium-235 atom releases approximately 200 MeV (million electron volts).” Because there are millions of uranium atoms in an atom of uranium, “a pound of highly enriched uranium as us­ed to power a nuclear submarine is equal to about a million gallons of gasoline. The heat energy comes from the fact that the sum of the weights of the fragments weigh less than the original atoms. This difference in masses is converted to energy.  Two or three of these fragments are neutrons, which trigger fission of other Uranium-235 isotopes.

However for nuclear fission to work, uranium must be enhanced to have 2 to 3 percent Uranium-135 atoms.

A nuclear reactor is constructed to maintain a constant rate of fission. Generally enriched uranium is formed into inch-long pellets about the diameter of a finger-tip. The pellets are organized into long rods, which are grouped together into bundles. These bundles are surrounded by water, which acts as a coolant. Control rods help technicians prevent the reactor from overheating by absorbing neutrons. When the control rod is raised out of the uranium bundle, the bundle produces more heat. When the rod is lowered into the uranium bundle, it produces less heat. If the rods are completely lowered into the bundle, the reactor shuts-down.

Other than getting its heat energy from nuclear fission, a nuclear power plant operates the same as a traditional coal-burning power plant. It uses the heat from nuclear fission to heat water into pressurized steam, which in turn drives a turbine generator. Some turbines have a heat exchanger, which is a second loop to convert water to steam. This way, the radioactive stem never contacts the turbine. Sometimes the coolant fluid is carbon dioxide or liquid metals.

The reactor’s pressure vessel is usually housed in a concrete containment vessel, which is housed in a larger steel containment vessel. These precautions are taken to ensure that harmful radiation does not escape from the plant. The steel vessel is then housed within a larger concrete building, which is able to survive an earthquake or a plane crash. The absence of this final container caused the damage at Chernobyl to be so great.

High-level radioactive waste is temporarily stored onsite in steel-lined concrete pools filled with water or in airtight steel or concrete and steel containers. These onsite containers are not meant to be permanent. From here the government has plans to transfer the waste to permanent storage in a deep geological repository. Transporting the radioactive waste to the repository in trains and trucks could be very dangerous to accidents and terrorist attacks.

Low-level radioactive waste is classified as A, B, or C level waste and consists of water purification filters, resins, tools, protective clothing and plant hardware. The NRC regulates all low-level waste and the four domestic facilities licensed to dispose of such waste. Some low-level-waste has beneficial uses such as “electricity and medical treatment and diagnosis, biomedical and pharmaceutical research, and manufacturing,” (NEI, Low-Level Radioactive Waste).

Nuclear Energy Technologies

So far there are four generations of reactors. Early prototype reactors built from the 1950s to the early 1960s were Generation I reactors. Generation II reactors were commercial designs in large-scale production constructed in the late 1960s through the early 1990s. Generation III and Generation IV reactors are only in the R&D stages in the US. Generation III began in 1996 and consists of advanced light water reactors and other systems with inherent safety features. The Generation IV program was launched by the federal government in 1999. These reactors are only in their planning stages. They are smaller scale and are expected to be built commercially in two decades from now. In 2000, the US joined a nine country coalition- Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, U.K., and U.S.- to develop peaceful Generation IV reactors.

The new prototypes are based on three types of reactors. The first of which is a gas-cooled reactor. Only a few have been built. These reactors use gas as a core-coolant. One of these reactors being developed is the pebble-bed modular reactor. One is in construction in China. However, plans for a pebble-bed reactor in South Africa just halted due to financial and technical difficulties.

Inside a pebble-bed reactor are billiard-ball sized “pebbles,” each containing 15,000 uranium oxide particles with the diameter of poppy seeds. Each particle has several high-density coatings, including porous carbon buffer, inner pyrolytic carbon layer, silicon carbide barrier coating), and outer pyrolytic carbon layer. 330,000 of these pebbles plus 100,000 unfueled graphite pebbles are put into a metal vessel surrounded by graphite blocks. The unfueled pebbles are shaped out to control temperature distribution.

These gas-cooled pebble-bed reactors are able to operate much hotter than water-cooled designs of the past (900 degrees Celsius compared to 300 degrees Celsius) and at 40 percent efficiency levels (1/4 better than current light-water reactors). The plants are also about ten times smaller than Generation II plants. In part this is because of a simpler design with fewer subsystems than today’s reactors.

These Helium-cooled pebble-bed plants are touted for having new safety features. As a noble gas, Helium does not react with other materials even when hot. Its fuel elements and reactor core are made of refractory material, which retain their strength at high temperatures, and only degrade above 1600 deg. C. Every minute one pebble removed from the bottom of the reactor core as one is added to the top. It takes six months for a pebble to travel through. Because the system has exactly the right amount of fuel to run, it eliminates excess-reactivity accidents. Afterwards the pebbles are easily put into long-term storage.

The second type of reactor being developed is a form of water-coolant reactor. The Generation IV model is a simplified version of past plants. One American design of this type is the Westington Electric International Reactor Innovative and Secure (IRIS) Concept. The Three Mile Island Accident occurred because of loss of coolant. These Generation IV models make sure that that isn’t possible by putting the entire cooling system within a pressurized vessel. Even if a pipe breaks, there is no loss of coolant, and pressure is better maintained.

Finally, the fast-spectrum (or high-energy neutron) reactor is a design for the far future. Fast-spectrum reactors must be supported by metal coolants, such as liquid sodium or lead. The advantages to using liquid metal coolants are that they have exceptional heat-transfer properties which enhance safety in case of an accident and are less corrosive than water. However, the system can be prone to accidents if the sodium mixes with the water, creating a lot of heat. Lasoo, they cost more than traditional water cooling systems.

The other large technological dilemma going forward is whether the US should invest and incentivize open or closed fuel cycle plants. Open fuel cycle plants are conventional nuclear power plants. They avoid dangerous reprocessing and plutonium production. Open fuel cycle plants are also cheaper and more predictable because they have been built in the US before. Their disadvantage is that the process does not fully utilize the energy potential of uranium. Closed fuel cycle plants, like those being built today in France, can produce 30 percent more energy per uranium input, (Lake, Bennet, and Kotek). They also have the advantage of producing less radioactive waste to store. However, recycling fuel is more dangerous than using raw uranium. And reprocessing produces uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.

Plutonium-239 can also be used in nuclear fission. If used in the future it could increase energy per kilogram by 150 times conventional uranium power plants, (Lake, Bennet, and Kotek).  However, safety and weapons proliferation concerns are greater with plutonium.

Nuclear Environmental and Safety Considerations    

Nuclear energy releases no greenhouse gases or criteria pollutants. From this perspective, nuclear could be a crucial alternative to fossil fuel powered electricity generation. Perhaps, more than domestically, nuclear could be developing countries’ solution to producing low cost energy without extreme environmental costs. A 2003 MIT report commissioned by President Bush studied what steps would need to be taken to expand US nuclear generating capacity three times, to 1000 billion watts by 2050. If the US followed the report’s suggestions, it would avoid 1.8 billion tons of carbon emissions from coal,(Lake, Bennet, and Kotek).

Uranium mining has the same concerns that other mining has, such as land disturbance and acid rain drainage. Also, radioactive minerals can get in contact with air and water during mining. Often miners use acidic and toxic chemicals. Also, uranium mining produces enormous quantities of waste because many mines have ore grades of less than 1 percent, and low grade ore is energy intensive to mine.

However, developing a solution for storing nuclear waste is the pressing environmental concern of nuclear energy. In the United States all of our nuclear waste is being stored in temporary, on-site concrete or steel containers. In 1987 the Nuclear Waste Policy Act designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as long-term nuclear waste repository. In 2002, Congress approved the use of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, and the Department of Energy submitted a license application for the site in 2008. However, in 2009 the Obama administration blocked the use of Yucca Mountain, declaring that it would not approve the use of Yucca Mountain to for waste storage.

This decision has provoked anger from the states of Washington and South Carolina, who are caught storing most of the nation’s nuclear waste in short-term, aging containers. On April 13, 2010, Washington State filed a ruling against the federal government, citingdepartment’s violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the Natural Environmental Policy Act by its decision to withdraw the license application. The next day, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced the department’s decision to delay closing the Yucca Mountain repository for three weeks while the department and court had a chance to prepare, (Greene).

There are many pros and cons towards using Yucca Mountain as a storage location. Transporting waste to Yucca Mountain is not straight-forward, cheap or entirely safe. Politically, the people of Nevada are against its use. Also, the Basin and Range Province of Nevada is prone to earthquakes. Experts do not fear full-scale quakes at the Yucca Mountain location, but there is a possibility of fractures which could cause water leaking into the storage facilities. Lastly, in the far future, tens of thousands of years down the line, risk models cannot accurately predict of what will happen.

The advantages to using the Yucca Mountain storage facility follow. On-site interim storage can only last so long. The US must find a long-term storage location, and the government has already spent $10.4 billion in researching and preparing Yucca Mountain, (Ward). The area is sparsely populated. The government already owns the land. And risk assessments have concluded that the site with be safe for at least the next 10,000 years, (Wheelwright).

Of course, the use of closed cycle plants could significantly reduce the amount of long-term nuclear waste. However, the benefits of closed-cycle plants do not necessarily outweigh the costs. In addition to financial costs, there are numerous safety risks associated with reprocessing nuclear waste in closed-cycle plants.

Nuclear power has had a great safety track record over the last three decades. However, the United States should lead the way in establishing international safety standards because an accident in one country will affect public attitudes everywhere. The 2003 MIT study also suggested using a probabilistic risk assessment method to analyze the relative risk of nuclear plants. Also, in an age of increased threat of terrorist attacks, nuclear plants are vulnerable targets. The September 11, 2001 attacks heightened concern about nuclear security. In 2002, Congress established the Office of Nuclear Security and Incidence Response under the Department of Homeland Security to prepare for any such attack.

Nuclear Economics

Like wind and solar, nuclear power has high fixed costs but little maintenance costs. Because a new plant has not been built since the 70s, construction costs are uncertain. Also, construction costs have gone up around 15 percent per year over the last decade, (MIT 2009, 6). In addition to rising construction costs, the track record for construction of nuclear plants in the 1980s and 1990s not good. Actual costs ended up far exceeding estimated costs due to delays in construction, high interest rates, and high financing costs. This chart below shows the estimated price of nuclear power compared to traditional fossil fuels.

Though it lags far behind the fossil fuels in terms of affordability, nuclear could become more competitive if a carbon tax or a cap and trade system was imposed, (MIT 2003, 7).

The 2009 Update to the MIT study said “The challenge facing the U.S. nuclear industry lies in turning plausible reductions in capital costs and construction schedules into reality…The risk premium will only be eliminated only by demonstrated performance,” (MIT 2009,8). To account for these risks, the study used a 10% weighted cost of capital versus 7.8% for coal or natural gas.

To reduce the risk, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 actually put incentive in for first-movers (first 6 GWe capacity of new plants). However, this incentive has been unsuccessful in its attempt to spur energy companies to action for several reasons. First of all, the Department of Energy was slow in putting such incentives in place. Secondly, an improper emphasis was placed on renewable portfolio standards (RPS) at federal and state level which don’t include nuclear or coal with carbon sequestration. Finally, increased construction costs have increased the risk of building a new plant. Reducing the risk premium could also make nuclear competitive, potential reducing prices by almost 2 cents/K We-h even without a carbon emissions tax.

Nuclear Energy Security

The nuclear energy security concern with is nuclear proliferation. The 2003 MIT report concluded that the “current international safe-guards regime is inadequate to meet the security challenges of the expanded nuclear deployment contemplated in the global growth scenario,” (MIT 2003, ix). The reprocessing system and transportation to long-term storage repositories present proliferation risks.

At the 2005 G8 Summit, President Bush took a lead role in advancing nuclear security solutions, such as having supplier states offer fuel cycle services to new user states, like Russia to Iran. The US should also take the lead on strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency and establishing an international nuclear fuel bank. The Obama administration’s commitment to reduce the US nuclear arsenal is another step towards promoting peaceful not violent use of nuclear power.

Nuclear Political Viability

Public acceptance of nuclear power is low but growing. Negative associations with nuclear weapons detract from public acceptance. Also, the accidents in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island went a long way towards making the public wary of nuclear power. However, there seems to be little public awareness of the benefits of nuclear power, such as being carbon free or abundance of reserves. And national politicians have recently come out in favor of major expansions to nuclear power. Reduction in cost could be the necessary trigger for increasing public acceptance. Also, state and federal portfolio standards do not currently include nuclear as a carbon free energy source. If nuclear were included in the renewable portfolio standards state and federal government would have more incentives to direct subsidies and R&D towards nuclear. 

This is Part 3 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at Natural Gas as an energy source. 

History of Natural Gas for Energy

The use of natural gas as an energy source is fairly new. In the 1800s, natural gas was used as a fuel for lamps. However, alternative uses were discovered in 1885 by Robert Bunsen upon his invention of the “Bunsen burner”. The Bunsen burner harnessed the power of natural gas for cooking and heating purposes. Though a very helpful fuel, its consumption did not become widespread until the construction of large-scale pipelines after World War II, enabling private residences and businesses alike to use natural gas as a source of heating and cooking power. 

Current role of Natural Gas

Natural gas is seen by many as the ideal transition fuel between traditional fossil fuels, coal and oil, and renewables of the future. With increasing concerns about the environmental and climate change consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas is heralded as a less harmful energy source.

Natural gas makes up about 22 percent of U.S. energy consumption (EIA AEO 2010). While annual fluctuations in natural gas have ranged from increases to decreases of 6.5 percent, total annual consumption has stayed steady for the past five years, (EIA AEO 2010). However, a rising demand for natural gas is expected in the future.  The largest challenge will be ensuring that supply rises to meet demand.

According to the Oil & Gas Journal’s estimates of world proven reserves on Jan 1, 2009 from PennWell Corporation, there is 6,254.364 Tcf left, more than 56 percent of it is in Qatar, Iran, and Russia. However, the United Sates also has a significant amount of natural gas, about 3.8 percent of the world’s proven reserves, (Oil & Gas Journal, 2008). As advances in unconventional shale gas technologies develop, the importance of US reserves will increase tremendously. The timing of the construction of the Alaskan natural gas pipeline is key to projecting U.S. production through 2050. The EIA predicts that the pipeline will be built in 2023, which is a reasonable assumption weighing the risks amid increased demand for natural gas.

New Natural Gas Drilling Technologies

The four main types of unconventional natural gas production are coal bed mining, shale gas, tight sands, and gas hydrates. Coal bed natural gas (CBNG), also known as coal bed methane, has grown rapidly over the past fifteen years and now accounts for 12 percent of natural gas production. Coal beds are very rich in methane, and “a cubic foot of coal can contain six or seven times the volume of natural gas that exists in a conventional sandstone reservoir,” (NETL). The DOE has invested in R&D to integrate enhanced gas recovery and carbon sequestration. Carbon dioxide would be pumped into unminable coalmines, storing the CO2, while displacing the methane from the coal.  The DOE recognizes the potential of CBNG and has invested in developing this and other technologies further.

Gas hydrates are methane molecules trapped inside deep-water continental shelves found 300 to 500 meters below the seabed. Gas, or methane, hydrates are the most common type of clathrate, a chemical substance which molecules of one material enclose another without chemical bonding. The DOE is working with BP Exploration and Anadarko to produce the first commercially viable gas hydrates by 2015 starting in the Alaskan North Slope. Along with doubts about its economic feasibility, there are huge environmental concerns about the amount of carbon it could contain.

Because of advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling as well as the discovery of many more reserves, shale gas has become an increasingly viable source of natural gas production. In addition, the United States has an abundance of shale reservoirs. The Barnett Shale reserve in Texas alone accounts for 6 percent of natural gas production. By 2011, it is expected that most new reserve growth (50 to 60 percent) will come from shale gas. AEO 2010 estimates the recoverable domestic shale gas resources at 347 trillion cubic feet, given the rapid development in recent plays, including Marcellus and Haynesville. The fractures in the shale are vertical, so most engage in horizontal drilling to intersect maximum number of fractures. Some experts are worried about the long-term production rates of horizontal wells. Recent discoveries of recoverable gas in the Marcellus shale in the Appalachian Basin bode well for natural gas production because its location close to the major urban centers of the East will ensure low transportation costs.

Tight gas is similar to shale gas in that it is trapped in unusually impermeable formations, such as impermeable sandstone or limestone.

While the prospect of natural gas vehicles is very attractive, this is not really a feasible solution, due to many economic factors. In particular, natural gas vehicles would involve very expensive and complicated infrastructure to achieve market success. Hybrids and electric vehicles offer the most environmentally friendly future for transportation. The United States should be putting resources into developing the technologies to produce domestic gas and stabilize the natural gas price instead of investing in developing natural gas vehicles.

The availability of adequate storage capacity is also crucial. Estimates of underground working gas storage capacity were 3,889 Bcf in Aug 2009 (EIA AEO 2009). Stored natural gas maintains the reliability of gas supplies during periods of high demand and can help to stabilize prices during periods of low demand, by removing natural gas from the marketplace. 

This is Part 2 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at Oil as an energy source. 

History of Oil for Energy

At the beginning of the 20th century, oil emerged as a dominant force in the energy market when the US and Russia both struck what seemed like endless amounts of oil. In the US, the discoveries at Spindletop in Texas, which dwarfed oil production by Standard Oil in Pennsylvania, marked the beginning of an era of cheap and abundant energy. The United States continued to lead the oil production market through World War II. The second largest producer of oil, Russia, held less than half of the US share.

In the 1930s and 1940s, US and European oil companies struck deals with the reigning powers in the Middle East to explore for natural resources. Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were found to have plentiful reserves. In the 1970s, Saudi replaced the US as the world’s excess energy producer contributing to the growing world addiction to oil by maintaining artificially low and stable prices.

The 1980s and 1990s were marked by economic prosperity and an energy system that benefited both American consumers and their producing allies. This system that reigned until 2003 was one of cheap energy consumption by the few—the developed countries. Producers had excess capability with the ability to shape market prices and mitigate the effects of supply crises. During this time, there was little awareness about or concern for fossil fuel emissions problems, and, therefore, a lack of interest or investment in alternative fuels and efficiency. In the mind of the US consumer, oil was cheap, abundant, and secure. 

Current role of Oil

Today, the significance of global energy trade cannot be overstated. Crude oil currently accounts for 17 percent of trade between countries, (Wenger, Orttung and Perovic, 20). In 2006, oil made up 34.4 percent of the world energy supply mix, (EIA AEO 2010).

In many cases, fossil fuel trade is the sole most important interaction between two countries. And, whereas, the majority of oil production used to be in the hands of international oil companies (IOCs), such as British Petroleum and Exxon Mobile, today state-run, national oil companies (NOCs) operate 77 percent of remaining reserves. Russian private oil companies control 6 percent of oil known reserves. Joint NOC and IOC ventures account for 7% of energy reserves And independent IOCs control just 7 percent share of total oil reserves.

Production costs of Persian Gulf oil average about $5 a barrel, making it the cheapest petroleum in the world. Though the United States accounts for only 4.6% of the world’s population, it makes up 22.5% of total energy consumption. Oil currently accounts for more than one-third of U.S. energy consumption and 94% of our transportation fuel. The US, formerly the largest oil-producing nation, now has net imports of about 57 percent of total oil consumption. Canada accounts for almost 20 percent of imports, and Saudi Arabia follows with a significant 11 percent.

The exponential growth of developing countries through the next twenty years and into the future is a game changer for the energy equation. OPEC nations have become accustomed to significant oil resources. However, with China and India’s increased demand, world oil is being depleted at higher and higher rates.

The last few decades have seen many predictions as to when the production capacity of oil peaked or will peak. Most experts think that oil peaked around the turn of the century, and that, if we continue to consume at our current rates, we should be out of recoverable oil by 2050. However, every year the number of known reserves increases due to new enhanced recovery technology.

How does oil generate energy?

Like all fossil fuels, oil and petroleum products are formed by the compacting of hydrocarbons from organic material that has been dead for millions of years. As this material decays, pressure and heat generate oil and gas, which gathers in porous “reservoir” rock. Then an impermeable cap rock or a salt dome blocks upward movement of this oil and gas.

The production of oil takes place in three phases: primary, secondary, and tertiary (or enhanced) recovery. During primary recovery, the natural pressure of the well drives oil into the wellbore where pressure and pumps bring the oil to the surface. Only about 10 percent of the well’s capacity is recovered during this first phase. Secondary recovery involves injecting water or gas to create enough pressure to drive oil into the wellbore and allows for the recovery of 20 to 40 percent of oil. Most of today’s R&D is focused on tertiary or enhanced oil recovery, which can produce up to 60 percent of the total oil. The three most commercially viable EOR techniques currently in use are thermal recovery, gas injection, and chemical injection. However, each phase faces obstacles because of relatively high upfront costs and the risk involved in potentially not producing. Each well can require very different techniques.

Thermal recovery and gas injection account for approximately 99 percent of U.S. EOR. Thermal recovery uses heat, such as injected steam, to lower the viscosity of the oil and thin it out, increasing its flow rate. Gas injection involves injecting gas, such as natural gas, nitrogen, or carbon dioxide to lower the viscosity of the oil, achieving the same affects as thermal. The U.S. has focused substantial R&D on carbon dioxide injection because of its potential huge environmental benefits.

Once the oil is extracted, it must be refined and then transported. The refining process takes crude oil and transforms it into gasoline, plastics, kerosene, or other petroleum products by separating different hydrocarbons. The different hydrocarbons in crude oil, such as paraffins, aromatics, and napthenes, have different boiling points. Refinery operators change the temperatures of the crude oil and separate the various hydrocarbons by their vaporization temperatures. The products of this distillation then must be treated to get rid of impurities.

From the refinery, petroleum products can be transported around the world through pipelines and in ocean oil tankards. 

New Oil Technologies

Recent technological developments have made the production and refining of once prohibitively expensive resources more commercially viable, such as oil sands. Oil sands are composed of bitumen, a form of extra heavy oil, mixed with sand or clay and water. However, because the refining of oil sands is extremely energy intensive, the well-to-wheels analysis of oil sands yields 10% to 45% the carbon emissions of traditional oil. Throughout the future, increased use of unconventional resources, such as oil sands and shale, will be important towards building energy security and maintaining a steady supply of oil. 

Oil Environmental and Safety Issues

Negative environmental effects take place during exploration, drilling, extraction, and transportation of oil. Land cleared for drilling and extraction causes erosion, soil degradation, and deforestation. Water used in drilling becomes contaminated by petroleum, and as reserves become harder to reach, more and more water is used in EOR. Also, the 15 billion barrels per year of water that is extracted with the oil, produced water, contains high levels of salt, toxins, metals and radioactive material. Though most is reused to extract more oil in EOR, some is injected into surface waters, polluting and contaminating ecosystems.

The petroleum infrastructure in the US is huge and somewhat vulnerable. The US has over 200,000 miles of oil pipelines. Though these pipelines sometimes leak, the most catastrophic accidents usually occur in offshore drilling and ocean transportation. Globally on average there are one to three oil spills per year averaging 10 million gallons of oil. Until 2010, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest in the US, totaling 12 million gallons of oil.   

Economics of Oil

The AEO2010 predicts that motor gasoline prices will hit $4.11 per gallon in 2035, but this estimate is very conservative.  Policy, supply, and improved transportation infrastructure could drive these prices as high as $8.00 a gallon in 2008 dollars. In compliance with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the amount of E85 (a blend of gasoline and ethanol) used in transportation fuels will increase. This new fuel will be cheaper per gallon but about equal to gasoline in energy content.

Energy Security

The United States government current views energy policy and foreign relations with two separate lenses. However, in this new global energy order, they must be seen as completely intertwined.

In addition to fears of oil shortages and prohibitively high prices, it is in U.S. national security interests to decrease our dependence on oil. The countries with the most oil reserves are Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. OPEC countries have increased leverage over the U.S. because of the American need for their oil. Many of these countries, such as Iraq and Iran are unstable. In addition, our oil dependence on Saudi Arabia forces us to ignore significant human rights violations.

The AEO2010 assumes that nearing 2035, OPEC maintains a steady market share of about 41%. However, it remains uncertain how much access the U.S. will have to production in non-OPEC and non-OECD countries. As prices rise steadily with increasing demand and tight supply, the infrastructure will be put in place so that Brazil, Russia, and Central Asian countries can be larger players in the global petroleum market.

Political Viability of Oil

As a transportation fuel, oil is the standard accepted by the public as long as it is cheap and plentiful. Without any financial incentives to find a substitute, oil will continue to be the favored choice for consumers. However, environmental crises, such as the BP oil spill, do have an effect on public opinion, and environmental lobbies tend to be some of the loudest and most well organized special interest groups.

In addition to environmental effects, the people of the Gulf coast will face job and investment loss. This could make offshore drilling less attractive. The public also is in favor of decreasing our dependence on foreign oil. Though convenience is a huge driver for continued oil dependence, an increase in the price of oil could send consumers over the edge and looking for alternative fuels. 

This is Part 2 of a paper written about the projected US Energy profile in the year 2050. In this chapter, we take a look at Coal as an energy source and fuel for the future. 

History of Coal Energy

Coal mining in the United States began in the 1700s and triggered the beginning of a new era. As the Western world was confronted with unprecedented energy demands throughout the Industrial revolution, coal emerged as a cheap, effective resource that burned hotter than traditionally used biomass.

While coal had limited use beforehand, the invention of the steam engine revolutionized resource demand. For the first time, the burning of coal could power machines. Coal was responsible for completely revolutionizing industry worldwide, powering transportation and factories. Beginning in 1880, and continuing to the present, the most significant role of coal power has been in the generation of electricity.

Current role of Coal 

Today, approximately 56% of yearly energy generation is from coal, making it the nation’s most significant source of electricity.  In the United States, politicians are attracted to coal as an energy resource, because of the nation’s seemingly limitless supply of coal resources. Assuming the United States continues its current consumption of coal, the nation has a 300-year supply. In fact, while resources such as oil and natural gas must be imported from other nations, every year the United States actually exports substantial coal resources to other nations. In 2008, the United States exported almost 74 million tons of coal. Across the globe, many nations use an even greater amount of coal than the United States. Particularly, in recent years, the rapid growth of India and China’s energy consumption has been fueled by significant coal combustion, along with significant pollution.

How does coal generate energy?

Coal was formed millions of years ago, at the time of the earth’s formation, and is essentially biomass that has been enriched underground. When coal is burned, it generates a significant amount of heat at very high temperatures. This heat is generated in a pressurized container and applied to water which spins a turbine to generate an electric current. Through this process, the Rankine Cycle, the combustion of coal is able to generate a significant amount of electricity.

Clean Coal Technologies

The future of coal can be found in new technologies that can successfully capture carbon emissions.  Only through these so called “clean coal” technologies can coal remain an environmentally viable resource. Applied to a modern, conventional power plant, some studies show that carbon capture technology can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80-90%.Carbon capture technology is still in the infant stages, and the energy costs of capturing and storing carbon are often 30-40% higher than a conventional plant. In addition, there has been little to no testing of this technology; only time will tell if this is truly a feasible option.

Coal Environmental Issues

While the United States has strong domestic coal reserves that can help achieve energy security, there are still many environmental obstacles to the success of increased coal production.

First and foremost, the combustion of coal carries devastating environmental implications. The burning of coal causes smog, soot, and acid rain. During the Industrial Revolution, the abundance of industrial combustion created permanent smog in many different American cities. This smog only began to disappear with increased environmental standards and the movement to natural gas and oil. However, in many developing countries across the globe, cities such as Beijing and Mumbai are devastated by coal pollution.

In recent years, much public attention has been brought to the impact of carbon emissions. Coal has a much higher carbon ratio than other fossil fuels and emits much greater carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur into the atmosphere. While this causes environmental disasters such as acid rain and water pollution, it is even more significant in its effect on the ozone layer and global warming. When looking towards the future of coal, it is impossible to overlook its detrimental impact on the environment.

Alongside environmental issues, safety has historically been a significant issue confronting coal power, particularly with regard to coal mining. In developing countries, such as China, accidents are still very widespread. However, in the United States, modern technology has significantly reduced the rate of accidents and, on average, only 30 mining death occur per year, versus 8000 in China. While there are clearly some exceptions, such as the recent mining tragedy in West Virginia, coal mining in the United States does not have any significant safety issues. 

Economics of Coal

In addition to its relative abundance, coal an extremely cheap resource. Although the creation of a coal plant requires significant upfront costs, the total cost of coal is among the cheapest of all energy sources (Morgan). From the perspective of energy independence, coal is a cheap, domestic, resource that can replace dependence on foreign markets.

Energy Security

The most significant benefit of using coal is with regard to energy security. A greater emphasis on domestic coal production and consumption would decrease dependency on foreign resources, reduce market volatility, and boost the American economy. Coal is an important, indigenous resource that invariably must be an important part of any energy mix in the near future.

Political Viability

The political debate over coal power centers on the conflict between environmental issues and the importance of energy security. Although coal has detrimental effects on the environment, it is a domestic resource that the US has in large supply. Ultimately, any successful policy regarding coal must balance between these two competing ideals.

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