Don Thurston Blog

If You Do Not Know Where You Are Going, It Does Not Matter How You Get There

A popular saying about a trip “getting there is half the fun” Will that apply to the energy journey?

Geopolitics and sciences are in direct conflict. The political Influences are short term and in step with governing regimes. Those in power want to stay in and legislate accordingly power. On the other hand sciences have no definitive time lines. Additions, deletions, alterations, improvements are part of the science process.

We know of many examples where the political and social circumstances generated powerful opposition.

The printing press was greeted with violent opposition by religious organizations of the day. The technology was an educational invention that increased awareness and literacy….not a priority for doctrinaire groups who had vested interests in sustaining ignorance.

The saga of Galileo is the poster story of supreme opposition to new science threatening the status quo.

Margarine originated from creativity when butter prices escalated. The result, dairy farmers united in opposition, using tactics that made grandmothers blush.

Lest we award science with a cart blanche it is very important to realize that the new technology outcomes are not always favorable and sometimes very dangerous. Examples include leaded gasoline, DDT and thalidomide. One outcome in common, they were in use for considerable periods of time before their negative consequences were realized. Ironically usage continued before outcomes and legislation ended their existence.

On the political front there are always responses to change. Sometimes the reactions are negative based on ideology.  Equally, political support waxes or wains depending on the social and economic flavors of the day. Given the circumstances alterations to the present energy system will happen. The speed, the stops, the starts, the route changes, the miss direction the scientific successes and failures all play rolls.

More often responses are negative from entrenched providers whose supply of goods and services are threatened.

In contrast when something new emerges that are revolutionary and not destructive to existing providers they will be embraced quickly. Examples include antibiotics and communication systems.

When benefits accrue to all parties, little resistance is encountered; barriers arise when changes will inflict harm to one or more of the associated parties. Transformation of energy systems have long been examples. Wood to coal, coal to oil natural gas and now natural gas to wind, to solar and to hydrogen have set the stage for disruptions that are not welcomed by some participants.

Globally there is a wide gap among consumers who are amply supplied with energy and those who have limited access. The origins of the disparity are the time periods when economies differ both as to size and growth rates.

The implementation time varies widely in lock step with the capacity, the maturity and the existing political systems of the day.

What are the conditions and challenges of sourcing, transmitting, refining, generating, delivering and consuming energy?  An overview will provide assistance in planning the journey

Sourcing energy from coal, crude oil and natural gas employs sophisticated, complex, elaborate and expensive methods that are clearly successful both as to supplies and inventories still in the ground.

Sourcing energy by capturing flowing water is no walk in the park. Capital costs, environmental intrusions, social and political impairments have influence over hydropower access. An extended life span is some consolation. Hydro damns are big, invasive and very visible to the point of being significant landmarks.

Sourcing energy from uranium requires complex mining and material processing. An extended life span is a motivator. Nuclear facilities generating electricity will never be awarded a prize for archecture. They say to us “stay away” this is a serious business

Solar energy sourcing is moving quickly into the mix. All that is needed are relatively innocuous panels, notable by the open spaces they occupy.

Electricity acquired from windmills is gaining a place in the tapestry of sources. Both on land and the oceans the consequences of gathering kilowatt hours are becoming more and more part of our surroundings, objectionable to some even though we admire them when spread around Holland.

Hydrogen is a source of energy. All that required is a suitable supply of water.

Sourcing energy by combining two elements is well established. The process is nuclear fusion

The next big undertakings are transporting the energy from source for further processing or direct to consumption.

Fossil fuels move on via pipelines, ships, rail, and trucks. Now these carbon based materials are subject to refinement into all manner of products for transportation, lubrication, heating, electrical generation and road construction. These activities are obvious at many road intersections across the world.

Hydropower moves in an electrical format most often to a centralized distribution system. Transmission lines are everywhere.

Uranium leaves the mining locations in elaborate containers for reasons of safety. Distances can be very long to nuclear power plants.

Solar and wind energy in the electrical format are transferred by transmission either directly to a grid or a consumer.

Eventually fusion sourced energy will end up as electricity destined to be added to a grid.

So we have energy sourced very differently and ready for further processing, shipping and consumption.

Fossil fuels dominate for good reasons. The system is ubiquitous to the point that it is taken for granted. Exploration, production, transmission, refining and consumption are in evidence everywhere.

Hydropower suffers from the very big facility syndrome, including the size of the installation, the environmental impact during construction and when operating.

Nuclear generation has many of the same characteristics as hydropower with two additional drawbacks of safety and disposal of spent fuels.

We can add small, modular reactors to the mix. Pilot facilities are under construction.

Enter hydrogen. The potential for decarburization is worthy of attention. This element is available across the world in the form of water and in natural gas. It is a good energy source. With natural gas as the feedstock the by product is carbon dioxide; with water as the feedstock, ironically, the by product is only water. So with no limit on supply and the only by product is water, we are now witnesses to a litany of energy generating devises. While the technology is legitimate significant contributions to alleviating the global energy crisis is some time away.

For now we have three entrenched systems for energy systems….fossil fuel, hydro power and nuclear.  They are all capable of generating a significant amount of energy. We have three blossoming systems by way of solar wind and biomass. They are contributing to the renewable energy supply.

In the bull pen we have hydrogen. This is a tempting source. There is an abundant supply all across the world and when associated with solar or wind hydrogen surfaces. This particular element poses handling difficulties which make it difficult to incorporate into the energy supply system.

Hydrogen is receiving a great deal of attention justice viably so. This gas has attributes that warrant all the ingredients for an excellent energy source. The global impact is worthy of a conversation because it is a very long way from the contribution needed to make a necessary contribution.

Energy from the fusion process is in the line of sight but a long distance from commercialization

One very important player in this spectrum is the ability to store energy between the time it is available and the time it is used. Progress is being made.

Lurking in the shadows of all of these stories are outcomes that have negative consequences. Greenhouse gases are the leading the pack as products of combustion and production in the forms of methane and carbon dioxide. Nuclear power has its own way with sustained emissions that defy easy disposal. Installations of nuclear and hydropower generating facilities are seldom in place for all sorts of reasons.

And so it goes with wind solar and biomass installations. One cannot imagine what a fusion generating station will look like.

On the flip side what are the financial, social and environmental consequences of building and mining more stuff  to provide generation, storage and transport of energy?  Critics from all walks of life provide models that prove that the negative results exceed any benefits.

This energy journey is not for the faint of heart. The creativity of today will be judged by the outcomes and by how quickly and how broadly they have an impact.

The technology is available now to accelerate this very treacherous journey. Scale is the immediate issue. How, in a world of growing energy demand, can we hasten the nascent energy systems to overtake the tried and true sources of long standing and in particular fossil fuels?

We can borrow from physics and in particular from Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion. The first law “A body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it”

The analogy is with respect to the long term growth of crude oil combined with natural gas and the long term decline of coal in the United States. In the case of coal the consumption curve continued upward for many years until the curve rolled over and now is on a long downward direction. Coal has lost, possibly permanently, a competitive position. Over the same period the combined growth of crude oil and natural gas continues on an upward direction. We can on Issac Newton’s Third Law “for every force there is an equal and opposite force.

So coal is in a long time decline because of the forces provided by natural gas.

Will oil and natural gas be subject to the similar forces from energy sources now in place and on the drawing boards?

Thanks for reading!

I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a line in LinkedIn or contact me directly.

While you are here why not try one of my other articles.

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