Category Archives: energy

Reinert Interview: Energy Environmental Sacrifice Areas

Today is the third post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here.
–Kay M.



Alberta’s tar sands. Photo credit: NRDC.

K.M.: You’ve referred to the tar sands region of Alberta Canada as an environmental sacrifice area. There will be more environmental sacrifice areas as we continue to extract energy from this Earth. Paint a vision of the future for us. How ugly could it get, this thirst of ours for energy at any cost?

Reinert: Yes, I’ve flown over the tar sands area in a helicopter, and took photographs of it for Bloomberg news, and if you see the incredible destruction of the arboreal forest there you can’t imagine that it can ever be cleaned up.

There is destruction elsewhere. Parts of Africa have badly leaking and poorly maintained oil fields. You saw what happened in Ecuador with Chevron, and the destruction of indigenous species. You see ecological destruction in Brazil with the ever greater quest for ethanol because as sugarcane farmers push other farmers and cattle ranches further to the edge, the rainforest gets torn down. In Georgia, they’re clearcutting forest and exporting wood to the E.U. for the purpose of using renewables to replace coal with wood.

West Virginia comes as close as anywhere for being a sacrifice state. That’s where I grew up so I’ve seen how disgusting and ugly the mountain topping is for coal mining. I tubed on the Elk River when I was young, where the terrible chemical spill was earlier this year. There are some badly contaminated port areas. Then, there’s the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico related to our ethanol production. I could go on and on.

To their credit many of the Middle East producers have the least amount of pollution for the amount of oil they produce. Their systems are very modern and their production plans balance the amount of oil produced with the life of the oil field.

We’re balanced on a knife edge, and we’re balanced on a commodity trading system that could go wrong real fast. We import about 50 percent of our oil and we export a lot, too, partly because of the way our refineries are set up. We refine high sulfur fuel oil and the Europeans refine the light sweet crude. We produce an over abundance of diesel, they produce an over abundance of gasoline, so we trade.

Just think what would happen if all of a sudden that trade were shut down. Things would run OK for awhile, but they’d run down pretty rapidly and then you’d see real destruction to get to those last resources. It could happen as easily as a dirty bomb in the Port of Los Angeles. That could shut down the commerce of the whole United States if we’d overreact like we did for 9/11.
[END]


May not be reprinted without permission.

To see last week’s interview on ARTIFICIAL PHOTOSYNTHESIS click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s thoughts about the limits to growth.

How Much Energy is Required to Grow and Harvest Various Crops and How Much Does it Cost?

Some like to say that food equals fossil fuel energy, and while I disagree with that over-simplification, we cannot deny that modern day agricultural methods rely upon fossil fuels. Today’s post comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It breaks down some energy input numbers using data from the USDA as well as the EIA. Interestingly, it also compares energy inputs for growing crops to energy inputs for producing livestock. –Kay M.


Energy for growing and harvesting crops is a large component of farm operating costs

graph of operating expense for various crops, as explained in the article text


The U.S. agriculture industry used nearly 800 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy in 2012, or about as much primary energy as the entire state of Utah. Agricultural energy consumption includes energy needed to grow and harvest crops and energy needed to grow livestock. Crop operations consume much more energy than livestock operations, and energy expenditures for crops account for a higher percentage of farm operating costs.

Agricultural energy consumption includes both direct and indirect energy consumption. Direct energy consumption includes the use of diesel, electricity, propane, natural gas, and renewable fuels for activities on the farm. Indirect energy consumption includes the use of fuel and feedstock (especially natural gas) in the manufacturing of agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Energy makes up a significant part of operating expenditures for most crops, especially when considering indirect energy expenditures on fertilizer, because the production of fertilizer is extremely energy-intensive, requiring large amounts of natural gas. For some crops like oats, corn, wheat, and barley, energy and fertilizer expenditures combined make up more than half of total operating expenses. The proportion of direct to indirect energy use varies by crop. For example, corn, which is also used as an energy input for ethanol production, has relatively low direct fuel expenditures but has the highest percentage of fertilizer expenditures.

graph of U.S. direct energy consumption for crops and livestock, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2014

The energy consumed in livestock operations is almost solely direct energy consumption and is relatively low compared with crop operations, both as a percentage of total operating expenditures and on a total energy basis. Livestock operations consume direct energy for ventilation systems, refrigeration, lighting, heating, watering, motors, and waste handling, whereas crop operations use energy to plant, harvest, irrigate, and dry crops. The energy consumed in the production of livestock feed is not included in this analysis of livestock energy consumption.

Distillate fuel is the dominant fuel for direct energy consumption for both livestock and crop operations. Distillate is used for crop tilling, harvesting, weed control, and other operations that require heavy machinery. Crop drying is another fuel-intensive farm activity, and the amount of fuel used varies by the type of crop and its moisture content. High-temperature dryers are powered by either electricity or propane.

Supplying water can also be an energy-intensive task. Although some farms have access to public water supplies, most farms pump water from wells and groundwater sources. Most pumping is done with electricity, but pumps in remote locations may use diesel or propane.

The chemicals used by the agricultural industry are a subset of the bulk chemical industry and include fertilizers and pesticides. Nitrogenous (ammonia-based) fertilizers require large amounts of natural gas as a feedstock and provide heat and power for processing. EIA’s 2010 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey estimates that the U.S. nitrogenous fertilizer industry consumed more than 200 trillion Btu of natural gas as feedstock in 2010 and another 152 trillion Btu for heat and power.

In addition to being major energy consumers, some farms are using renewable resources to produce energy. Wind turbines, methane digesters, and photovoltaics are the most common on-farm renewables. Renewable energy can help to offset the need for purchased energy. In some cases, the renewable energy produced on farms is sold to electric power suppliers, providing additional income for farmers.

Principal contributor: Susan Hicks

What IF We Have Fusion Ten Years From Now? Here are 12 Possibilities.

Nuclear fusion has always been the dream of scientists as an ideal energy source, but has so far been elusive after many decades of work. However, two days ago, Lockheed Martin reported that it would have successful nuclear fusion available in a small-sized unit platform about ten years from now.

See:

Skunk Works Compact Fusion Site at Lockheed Martin
Reuters Article on Scientific American: Lockheed Claims Breakthrough on Fusion Energy
Forbes: Lockheed Martin Claims Fusion Breakthrough That Could Change World Forever

If this is true it will change the world as we know it. On the other hand, claims of fusion have always existed somewhere off in the distant future. Is this time any different? We don’t know, but it’s worth considering how it could change the world if this announcement becomes the real deal.

Here are twelve likelihood’s.

1. Desalinated water would become cheap. The deserts of the world could become the farm regions for the world – if located near the sea. Warm regions could grow food year-round. Water woes would be mostly forgotten about and more people could locate in climates which are desirable but currently restricted by water supply. California’s water woes would be gone. So would the Middle East’s.

2. This would be a totally disruptive technology. We would no longer need the grid and would instead have distributed power. Transportation would go fuel cell, electric, and hybrid. We’d have much less need for today’s fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas and could greatly reduce human induced CO2 emissions. We wouldn’t need wind generators, either. Some solar photovoltaic might still be useful. Buildings which are heated with natural gas could be heated with electricity instead. Air conditioning and refrigeration would become cheap.

3. There would be no need for biofuels. Ships would be powered with fusion units. There is speculation that we could have unlimited flight time for airplanes, too.

4. Regions which are currently being farmed could be returned to the wild.

5. Urbanization could continue with much greater confidence. Today’s ideas of city greenhouses and hydroponic growing centers would be far more feasible with cheap available water and energy, especially along the coastlines.

6. Farms would continue to industrialize, but in modern technical ways, as opposed to today’s political-corporate ways. Tractors and combines would be powered by fuel cells. Fusion could be the energy source for producing nitrogen fertilizer.

7. Most of the developing world could advance far more rapidly if fusion becomes available. Computers, robots and technology would continue to advance at an unprecedented pace. Medical advances and longevity advances would be included.

8. Leisure time for humans would become a greater reality. Some economists already believe that it will become necessary to pay people to “exist” because jobs are not available as we become more efficient, as we use more and more robots, and as computers and communications continue to eliminate jobs. We’d need even fewer people to produce food and basic goods. New models would be needed which would pay people to be artists and service workers and other types of meaningful contributors to society. Economies should do well if cheap energy is available reliably since expensive energy is akin to a tax on industrialized nations, though they’d need to adjust to this disruption.

9. Population would continue to grow and grow with fewer limits to growth. Would we finally have the political will to place a value on the natural world and on biodiversity? Would pollution become our greatest problem, then, or could fusion help us to get rid of pollution? Perhaps it could.

10. We wouldn’t need hydropower anymore, so rivers could be undammed.

11. Perhaps every region or nation could become food secure.

12. Increased globalization: The world would become even smaller. So might the Universe. There would be a greater chance for peace. So be it.

What DO YOU think would happen?

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin.

Reinert Interview: Artificial Photosynthesis

Today is the second post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here.

In my opinion, today’s portion of the interview was one of the most interesting of all, because I learned about a subject that is not at the forefront of today’s news – news which is so burdened all of the time with hyped stories about some latest promising new technology with government or other funding behind it. The possibility of producing hydrogen fuel through photosynthesis is certainly exciting. It is most helpful to have an expert energy engineer and technology futurist point us towards this subject which he views as significant in the research arena. Reinert’s description of the application for using the hydrogen which might be created through artificial photosynthesis is unique.

But, before reading today’s interview segment, we need to look at the description by Nate Lewis of “artificial photosynthesis”: …a research frontier involved with the development of an integrated system based on semiconductor nanowires that act as artificial photosynthetic pigments, which bridge a membrane and are coupled to catalysts that both reduce water to hydrogen and oxidize water to oxygen. As you can tell, this is no second grade science experiment and it relies upon the recent advances in nanotechnology.
—Kay M.


K.M.: What can you tell us about artificial photosynthesis?

Reinert: There’s a big consortium centered at CalTech under the principle investigator, Nate Lewis, to do artificial photosynthesis. This is one of the few alternative fuel areas that’s not getting a lot of federal money, but it’s getting a lot of private money, and this private money is (largely) coming from the oil companies. There’s a ton of money being thrown at it, and it looks like they’re making some progress.

It has nothing to do with producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars. It has everything to do with producing low carbon hydrogen to be used at the refinery level to reduce the carbon emissions of gasoline or diesel during the production process. Because when the hydrocrackers start up, they use tons of hydrogen. The hydrogen right now is produced by the steam methane reformation reaction which is pretty effective, but still releases a lot of carbon.

If they can actually start producing hydrogen from photosynthesis, then, they can start getting low carbon gasoline, and that’s what the whole play is all about.

So, of all the things, it seems the furthest away. Make machines act like plants, really? The fuel companies aren’t saying anything about it. Neither are they trying to be green. They’re just trying to comply with regulations and they think that this just might work.
[END]


May not be reprinted without permission.

To see last week’s interview subject of PEAK OIL click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s thoughts about “energy environmental sacrifice areas.”

For further information about artificial photosynthesis, I recommend:

1. http://www.osa-opn.org/home/articles/volume_24/february_2013/features/artificial_photosynthesis_saving_solar_energy_for/#.VDvtKFboY_U

2. http://spie.org/x106752.xml

3. This video:

4. http://www.timesofisrael.com/2-scientists-get-1m-worlds-biggest-alternate-fuel-prize/

Energy Expert Interview Series: Peak Oil

This posting is the first in what will be a series of Monday posts which are portions of an interview that I was privileged to do with Bill Reinert this past summer. Reinert has about the most wide-ranging knowledge and understanding of energy issues of anyone that I’ve ever come across. I also happen to think that he’s one of the most logical voices you’ll ever see on energy, transportation, fuels, and other important environmental issues. His views are firmly grounded in reality since his life’s work was spent trying to solve energy problems in the industrial world. Because of this, they can be rather unpopular with wishful-thinkers or Elon Musk worshiper-types.

The first part of the interview which covered car technology and fuels (including corn ethanol and more ideal octane boosters) was published over at Yale Environment 360 last week. I encourage you to read it.

Today’s question (below) is about the subject of “peak oil”, a critical issue for an energy engineer who was responsible for future car technology at Toyota.

But first, his bio…

Bill Reinert was national manager of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.’s advanced-technology group for the past 15 years prior to his retirement in 2013. In his 23 years with Toyota, he also traveled millions of miles for the company as a spokesperson. He was responsible for long-range product planning of all alternative-fueled Toyota vehicles. He co-led the U.S. product-planning team for the second-generation Prius, and, also worked on several advanced hybrid electric products, direct hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, and plug-in hybrid concepts. As an energy engineer, his career-long work in the area of renewable energies always centered around life-cycle analysis studies. A staunch environmentalist, he helped establish a global model for cleaner energy use in the Galapagos Islands in conjunction with the WWF. He has aerial-viewed the tar sands project in Canada and is concerned about water use in energy, believing that the clamor for energy security could eventually trump all environmental concerns worldwide. As a futurist, and a leading global expert on energy and transportation trends, he helped to found the annual “Meeting of the Minds” events which focus on future smart urban planning, transportation, and energy use, and at which he was an annual speaker from 2007 through 2012. He was in the Principal Voices Program with CNN, Fortune and Time, has testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, the National Academy of Science, and he has chaired sub-groups of the National Petroleum Council’s Future Transportation Fuels and Vehicle Systems studies for the Department of Energy.


K.M.: Over the years, you have been a trusted expert on the subject of “peak oil”. But, then, two years ago you said, “Conceptually, peak oil is not an accurate description.” Could you expound on why the term “peak oil” doesn’t describe the current and future energy situation very well?

Reinert: The idea with peak oil is that there’s a finite amount of oil that’s extractable from the earth, and if you look strictly with blinders, that’s more or less true. Peak oil theorists tend to look at oil only from the supply side and consider demand will continue unabated. Therefore they always see a gap in the demand for oil and the amount of oil that can be extracted in the future. Other oil analysts only look at the demand side and assume that somehow supply will always increase to meet demand.

The truth is different. The price of oil is generally judged by the spare capacity. Any amount under two or three percent spare capacity results in big price rises.

We watched the price mechanism work in 2008, and the peak oil theorists really ought to take a look at that. They are going on the notion that oil is inelastic, that you have to use it, and if it’s not there then the price is going to shoot right up and you’ll have angry villagers in the street with pitchforks. This is not going to happen.

What happens is exactly what happened. The price went up, we had a recession, and we quit using oil as much. It was painful, but today we’re still using less oil and we’ve become more fuel efficient. So it’s a stair step ratcheting process and each time the prices get too high for the economy, then the demand for oil goes down.

I don’t really ever think you’re going to see a peak oil. I think that what happens is after time the cars become more efficient, society changes, and you move on.


May not be reprinted without permission.

Coming next Monday: Reinert will give us an overview of artificial photosynthesis.

UPDATE: Note to readers over at peakoil.com. Whoever runs peak oil.com took this post from my site without permission though it is clearly stated here that is not allowed. I emailed peakoil.com’s contact address immediately and asked them to remove it – which they did not. I also left the 1st comment at peakoil.com under the reposting asking them to remove it. Their moderator has posted other comments there since, while ignoring mine. Peakoil.com is an unethical site. They have done this a number of times to me in the past, as well. Sites like peakoil.com help give the internet a bad name, and help discourage those like myself who work very hard to get a post such as this accomplished.