Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere


An Energy Coup for Japan – ‘Flammable Ice’:

Japan said Tuesday that it had extracted gas from offshore deposits of methane hydrate — sometimes called “flammable ice” — a breakthrough that officials and experts said could be a step toward tapping a promising but still little-understood energy source.

The gas, whose extraction from the undersea hydrate reservoir was thought to be a world first, could provide an alternative source of energy to known oil and gas reserves. That could be crucial especially for Japan, which is the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas and is engaged in a public debate about whether to resume the country’s heavy reliance on nuclear power.

Experts estimate that the carbon found in gas hydrates worldwide totals at least twice the amount of carbon in all of the earth’s other fossil fuels, making it a potential game-changer for energy-poor countries like Japan. Researchers had already successfully extracted gas from onshore methane hydrate reservoirs, but not from beneath the seabed, where much of the world’s deposits are thought to lie.

Yay! More carbon for everyone!!! [/sarcasm]

Am I the only one who’s noticed that there’s precious little discussion of the leakage rates in these articles about methane hydrate extraction? Sure, most of the articles contain a throw-in line about the need to minimize leaks, but that’s it. Anyone here care to guess what the leakage rate will be like once we start drilling thousands of feet below the ocean surface and turning these icy deposits into gas and then trying to capture and transport them? To say that I’m not optimistic would be a grotesque understatement.

And, of course, none of this will dissuade us from exploiting these deposits and turning massive amounts of currently-sequestered carbon into atmospheric methane and CO2.

That’s not just pessimism talking, but simple economics. Ask yourself: What are the mining companies thinking about leaks? You can bet it’s purely in terms of the impact leaks have on yield: We spend $X to run an extraction site that liberates Y cubic meters/day of methane and loses Z cubic meters per day to leaks, so the potential revenue is (market price of natural gas) * (Y – Z). They have a financial incentive to reduce leaks, just as fossil fuel companies do today, which means they spend money on equipment, processes, and training to contain leaks right up to the point where the cost equals the value of the leaked gas. Their goal is to maximize profits, not minimize leaks. Remember that scene in Fight Club where the protagonist explains how car companies decide how much to spend on safety measures — just enough to offset an equal amount in lawsuits? Same logic. Hell, probably the same spreadsheet, with a few minor tweaks.

A similar calculation results in flaring natural gas at well sites all around the world. The fossil fuelers don’t want to flare off the gas, but it’s more economical to do that than it is to build a pipeline or shipping facility to transport the gas into the existing infrastructure so it can be used. The result is things like this image, showing Bakken gas flares in North Dakota from space:

(Source for this image: Gas flaring at Bakken and Eagle Ford)

Anyone who expects the “free market” to deliver anything else is wildly delusional.

Toyota to commercialize solid-state batteries by 2020 | Electric Vehicle News:

Toyota aims to commercialize solid-state batteries around 2020 and lithium air batteries several years later, as successors to today’s lithium ion batteries.

The solid-state batteries will be three or four times more powerful than lithium ion batteries, while lithium air will achieve a fivefold increase in output for the same weight.

The batteries, always the batteries.

As I’ve said many times already: If you could make one change to the economics of energy to trigger a massive, positive change, you’d be hard pressed to pick something better than making vehicle-compatible batteries much cheaper. Will these lithium, air and solid state batteries do the trick? I have no idea. In terms of product development and commercialization, 2020 is a very long way off. A lot can happen, both positive and negative, between today and 2020. And I note that the talk about Toyota’s effort are focused on the capabilities of these batteries, not their cost. If they provide four times the output (energy? power? presumably the former), but at three times the price, it’s not a big deal. If you get that performance gain for the same price or even a reduction, then we’ve really got something.

I came very close in recent months to buying or leasing a Leaf, and didn’t. While I think it would have met my transportation needs (just barely), I had read far too much about issues with battery degradation, range impacts of heating the car (a non-trivial issue in Rochester) to let me invest that much money in it. I was deeply disappointed and quite surprised by this outcome, as I would have loved flipping the bird at gas stations every time I drove by them, tooling along powered by 100% green electrons.

After giving this a lot of thought, I’m increasingly convinced that the major bridge from gasoline and diesel vehicles including “normal” hybrids to EVs will be plug-in hybrids, like the Volt and C-Max Energi. Even the C-Max’s 21 mile electron range would cover about 90% of my mileage, as a rough guess, which would put me squarely in the bird-flipping quadrant of the universe, making it eh leading contender to replace my beloved 2006 Scion xA, Space Wart. The simple fact is that batteries aren’t developed enough for broad mainstream adoption of pure EVs yet, as much as I wish they were, and we need an intermediate step to ease us into electrified personal transportation.

Oh, and lest anyone here think that plug-in hybrids are a new-fangled invention, check out this cover from the September 1975 issue of Popular Science:

Yes, that’s a series PHEV utilizing banks of lead-acid batteries, no doubt at a total weight approximately equal to that of a modern day ocean liner.

Perhaps we need another oil embargo to scare the hell out of us and spur us to take energy and climate issues seriously. Oh, wait — we’ve already had those, climate-wise, in the last decade.

Finally, for those wondering what happened to my fuzzy talk about a mysterious New Project That Will Save The World, as soon as I can get a FAQ and some other material finished, I’ll be making the announcement here.

For those who want a tease (and who doesn’t?), think: Wikipedia + open source software model + traditional publishing + educator and activator boot camp.

5 comments to Checkpoint

  • Sasparilla

    Absolutely great post Lou. I noticed in the NYTimes version of the article on the Clathrate mining, the Japanese finally gaining access to a “local” fossil fuel resource (not sure anything would hold them back from having that energy security either) – they estimated 5 years to having a commercially viable process. I was thinking much the same when I saw that (besides the knee jerk, we’re so stuffed thought), then I thought why wasn’t I expecting this?

    Great picture of the Bakken – that amount of flaring is just incredible, brighter than Minneapolis at night (obviously part of that massive CO2 ppm increase we’ll see this year) and the flaring should increase as the drilling of shale oil continues to increase (supposedly significantly throughout this decade). If those drillers could sell their methane for world market prices for natural gas (~$12/MMBtu) – there’d probably be a lot less flared off, but at the U.S. price of $3.50/MMBtu it just isn’t worth it as you stated (at some point we’ll get to exporting natural gas so we can raise domestic prices to world levels, but that seems like a long ways off, 2nd half of the decade just to start).

  • Dan

    I like the way ‘alternative’ gets inserted into the article about methane hydrates; if it’s alternative (and a bit like ice), it must be good, surely.

  • Lou

    Dan: Wow, I completely missed that.

  • Sasparilla

    Good catch Dan, very sly of those guys.

    Great Popula Science cover, I love plug in cars (so I apologize for the length of the post here). That was an interesting and odd statement for Toyota to put out (who wants to go say we’ve got the magic solution 7 years in advance so everyone has you in their target & corporate espionage sights). My thoughts turn to the fact that they have not done much of anything in the plug-in field (compared to if they had wanted to, they could have owned it – since Plug-in Prius mods have been driving around for nearly a decade now & their production Plug-in-Prius has less range than most of those mods from years ago) – seems like a “stick with our very profitable hybrids for now, cause we’ve got the magic solution coming” message “even though we don’t have a plugin car you want” (the 10 mile range & overpriced Plugin Prius).

    There’s lots of money in battery development now (a huge change from 5-6 years ago), and the tech Toyota’s talking about sounds great (most folks think its a solid Li battery – no liquid components, not a solid state ultra capacitor), but there’s lots of stuff bubbling away in the kettles here and there. Even without a big breakthrough, cost decreases are averaging ~4% a year (and expected through this decade and beyond along with capacity increases), by 2020 plugins will be no brainers on costs alone for most vehicles – that’s without a breakthrough. Here’s another promising battery technology I saw the other day (includes significantly lower price, increased capacity and cycle capacity durability) just one of many:

    I’ve been seriously disappointed (horrified really) with the Leaf as people have driven them and we can see its not insignificant design flaws (lack of a thermal management system for the battery and a Li chemistry that looses capacity rather quickly). Here in Chicago the cold weather angle would be a big drawback with the Leaf’s drastic range drops in cold temps. On the other side of the flaw coin here’s this great blog by a guy happily owning a Leaf in CA, he’s had it 2 years with 20,000 miles on it and has lost ~17% of its range (down from 85 – 70 miles at 100% charge). Lease only for most of these things.

    One thing to keep in mind with the C-Max Energi is Ford uses nearly all the battery capacity so there could be a danger of significant capacity loss as time goes on (unless they have a really good Li chemistry, there’s all different kinds, obviously the Leaf has a very bad Li chemistry with respect to cycle capacity life) – GM only uses ~60% of the capacity of the battery on the Volt to reduce capacity loss over the life of the vehicle). Here’s the Leaf blog of the guy who’s had it 2 years:

    Here’s a post from a guy who owns both a Leaf and a Ford Focus Electric (whose lease’s are down in the Leaf range these days, so very cheap) the Thermal Management System on the Focus Electric makes a world of difference in Winter driving (although you don’t have much of a trunk and I’m sure the heater will drain range in the Focus just like the Leaf):

  • Greg

    Not quite as old as 1975, but I guess it is still old at this point:

    While I think there will be a place for small plug-in electric cars in the *green future*, I really think the most technically feasible change we could put forth at this point would be the restoration of our rail system, along with the introduction of high speed rail between cities, and light rail in cities. Electric cars are still an individualized solution that doesn’t change the way electricity is generated. EV cars powered by coal and gas (or nuclear!) may make people feel better, but won’t do much in the long run.

    This brushes upon the fundamental contradiction of why (I think) capitalism will be unable to solve the catastrophe it is and has been creating. There is little profit in renewable energy, especially while it is easier to take money in hand over fist with fossil fuels. There won’t be an incentive until it is too late.