Thursday, 18 February 2010

Bill Gates & Energy - Less than Half the Real Story

This should be a last wake up call to even those who don't get the fact that energy will be our multi-decade challenge - peak oil or no peak oil. We need energy miracles to combat the challenges of population growth, poverty reduction, CO2 emissions and dirty energy:

He also reminds us that the combined total battery capacity of the whole world (including your ipods and cell phones + those batteries inside all Priuses) would hold:

10 minutes. Even if we'd get an order of 10 times improvement in batteries (100 minutes) and replaced them all, it still isn't enough. We need an order of 100-200 preferably. That's a tall order, ask any battery researchers.

Then Mr Gates moves onto nuclear power - not the usual type reactors, but what he calls a travelling wave reactor.

Nothing too ground-breaking about it - it's a variation of the old breeder ideas: burn all the fuel, not just the first 1% of it. We should really have had these 60 years ago, but better late than never. It's mostly an engineering challenge to get it working, no fundamental physics issues involved.

He also breaks down the population growth, economic growth (service demand), energy efficiency (energy/service unit) and greenhouse gas emission reduction efficiency (emissions/energy unit) into a useful simple high level equation:

Watch the whole video to get a better idea.

What Gates did not mention, and I'm sure he gets, but is too tough cookie to throw at the over-optimistic TED crowd is this.

Electricity counts for c. 14% of total world energy demand. The rest is pretty much all fossil fuels and wood burning.

Of that 86% of rest, almost third is liquid fuels, which is what the world runs on. The world runs on trade. The trade runs on wheels, ships, trains and planes. And they almost exclusively run on oil.

Now, the real equation that Gates should be looking at is this:

Total Energy utility = EROEI  x  Scaling Factor  x  1/Price  x  1/Infra  x  Emissions/Joule  x  ROI/time  x availability/geography  x  Liquid Fuel Replace Factor x 1/Ecosystem depletion

Whatever energy systems we build, it needs to give out more energy than what it consumers - and do it rapidly. Unlike most nuclear plants that start returning net energy after 10+ years (starting from construction).

It also needs to be able to be scaled to a Exajoule scale. Biofuels, tar sands need not apply. It also cannot be a flux or a flow, because there just isn't enough storage capacity.

It needs to be relatively cheap to invest, require very little new infrastructure to build and emit very little emissions per joule generated over total lifecycle (including all the new infra, investments, etc).

Then it needs to generate economic payback rapidly, much more than new oil fields, or tar sands, or wind. It needs to beat all those, to take over the minds of energy investors. Remember, investors do not care if the investment destroys the environment or if it's an EROI loser - all they care is about Return On Investments. So any newcomer must beat oldtimers on that equation as well.

On top of this, it needs to be widely and generally available all over the world: in rich countries and in poor countries - south and north - east and west. Otherwise, esp. if it's fuel based - it'll just be the new spice to replace the old spice and wars will be fought over it. Wars are mostly net energy losers, huge greenhouse gas emitters and certainly do not reduce overall poverty.

Then last, but not least, it needs to be able to replace liquid fuels - without speeding up the ecosystem depletion and reducing the carrying capacity. Now, that is a really tough challenge. In this test, all current biofuels in production fail and so do unconventionals. Electricity is not liquid. The infrastructure change needs are huge.

Any way one looks at this equation, the challenge is not easy. And Bill's travelling reactors don't solve even 1/4th of the equation.

Yet, all engineering challenges are hard initially - and very systemic - sometimes wicked. Regardless of these, they do get solved, even if only in part.

Sometimes in part is better than nothing. The ideas presented in the video are certainly more worthwhile than building old dumb-style reactors.

Here's hoping the equation (or it's variation) gets solved and in time - as the challenge on the other side is reduction and potential powerdown. And that, would be a real challenge for poverty reduction and the current population levels.