The Art of Energy

By Paul Sullivan,
Georgetown University

Attempting to figure out the best energy systems for a country is far from easy. There are many sources of energy to choose from. Most have chosen oil, natural gas and coal in the developed world. In the developing world, especially in Africa and much of India, there is not much choice for many. The poorer people burn twigs, sticks, animal dung or even garbage to cook, heat and so forth. For others the choice of fuel is determined by what they have in the ground, such as the massive coals reserves in India and China, or how easily and cheaply they can get natural gas and oil. Nuclear power has become an option for some previously much poorer countries for economic and other reasons. Think China on this one. Other countries see nuclear power as a source of pride, if not actually for energy security. Think Iran on this.
If one were to go through the energy choices across all of the countries in the world one would see that even neighbors chose very different ways. Electricity for Norway is almost all from hydropower. Nuclear power just is not in the mix. For its neighbors Finland and Sweden nuclear power is a big part of their electricity production. Finland uses a lot of peat for electricity. One of the main reasons for that is, like Ireland, Finland has a lot of peat.
France to the south of these Scandinavian countries has a huge majority of its electricity produced from nuclear power. This is not because France is a huge source of uranium. The French decided after the 1973 oil embargos against the west to never be beholden to oil on electricity production. The French are also very good at nuclear power engineering, which helps in making such a choice.
Switzerland, yes pristine Switzerland, gets a lot of its electricity from nuclear power. Much of it, which makes sense given the huge water resources of Switzerland, is also from hydropower. Italy, just beside France, closed down its nuclear plants in the 1980s as a political decision, with the political push coming mostly form the left and from the events in Chernobyl. It has moved from oil for electricity, as most OECD countries have, because of the uncertainty in the prices and availabilities of oil. Italy has moved mostly to natural gas. This became a problem, which the Italians swiftly and cleverly resolved, when the natural gas pipeline from Libya was shut off during the Libya Revolution in 2011. Italy switched to gas piped in from other places, especially from Russia across Eastern Europe. Greece, right beside Italy uses a much larger percentage of coal than its Italian neighbors. It never really switched its oil and coal electricity generation to natural gas as so many other Europeans did.
Turkey made a big push to develop natural gas as a source of electricity generation as it was making deal and completing natural gas pipeline projects with the Russians across the Black Sea and the Iranians overland. Hydropower increased in Turkey as the GAP project for hydroelectric power and irrigation has developed. Oil was never that important for electricity for Turkey. Its alternative even early has been coal mostly.
Turkmenistan, a place that has massive resources of natural gas, produces almost all of its electricity from natural gas. Kyrgyzstan is more like Norway because of its massive water resources. This country relies almost entirely on hydropower, with only a little for natural gas and a tiny and diminishing amount of coal. Kazakhstan relies mostly on coal for electricity with much smaller amounts going to oil and natural gas. Hydropower is a distant second as a source of electricity in Kazakhstan.
Russia is a land with many energy resources, but is the number one source of conventional natural gas reserves. The largest proportion of its electricity is produced with natural gas. Coal is second. Russia has massive amounts of coal. Nuclear and hydropower are pretty much tied for third. Oil is a very distant fourth.
China produces a vast majority of its electricity from coal. Hydropower is a very distant second. Oil, nuclear and natural gas are so far way down the list, but that seems to be changing. China, as Russia, has very large coal reserves. China sees the environmental effects of using so much coal. It also sees that its great progress in brining hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last few decades was driven by coal.
We could go through the sources of fuel for electricity production throughout the world. It would be a fascinating journey. It would also be a complex one based on resources that each country has in the ground, availability for resources to be imported from elsewhere, and history. Some countries have had governments that have been against nuclear power even though their countries have massive uranium reserves. Australia is a stark case in point. It is the largest single source of uranium in the world, yet has no commercial nuclear power generating stations. Other countries have reliable sources of the very sort of electricity production they could not really have in their own countries, such as Italy being the largest importer in the world of nuclear generated electricity from France and Switzerland, after it shut down its own nuclear plants.
Then there are countries like the US that have new-found access to oil and natural gas via shale gas, shale oil, tight gas and oil, and oil sands. The price of natural gas has plummeted in the U.S. Our environmental laws have also tightened up on coal plants. So many new plants are now going to be natural gas rather than coal. Our electricity generation moved from oil very quickly, via laws, regulations and political pressure, to more and more electricity production coming from natural gas and coal. We have plenty of both and may be the largest source of coal in the world once we get around to developing it – if we do. Federal, state and even local regulations for towns and countries can affect the choice of electricity generation methods.
Understanding the politics and regulations, laws and more of a country can go a long way to understanding its energy choices.
So we can see that relative prices of production, variability of prices of fuels and of access to fuels, natural resources within a country, the ability to import securely and affordably certain fuels, and even various levels and types of politics can affect the way electricity is produced in a country.
So far, we have mostly looked at oil, gas, coal, peat, hydropower and nuclear power. The sorts of technologies, relative prices, and politics that the future might bring could produce over time, and likely over a long time, switches in the ways many countries produce electricity.
There are thousands of new energy technologies that can be applied now and even more might be developed and applied in the future. The way this all works out depends on thousands of variable. The most important just might be our imaginations and our abilities and willingness to move to different energy futures when and where the facts on the ground warrant such changes.
One of my favorite potential electricity sources is very different from what many are likely used to. It is a tower made of concrete about 2 kilometers high. At the base of the tower is a round series of solar collectors with a diameter about six times the size of Central Park in New York City. That is big. The solar collectors can produce some of the electricity. The big producer in this device is wind. The wind is not being made on the earth. It does not roam the grounds nearby. It is produced by the difference between the temperature at the top of the tower and the temperature at the bottom of the tower. The tower is effectively a chimney. The air flows under the massive solar circle around the tower. It whooshes through 50 to 60 huge wind vanes at the bottom of the tower. It then flows out the top of the tower. This continues as long as there is a difference between the temperature at the bottom of the tower and the top, which is always. Voila! Electricity is produced by simply using the wind created by the temperature differences between elevations. Any hiker and climber knows about these.
Such a power tower could provide enough electricity to heat, light, cool and more about…300,000 people in a rich, developed country. Given that electricity use is much less per household in developing countries having one of these tower-panel combinations produce enough electricity for 1,000,000 people would not be a stretch. Think of a few of these towers placed at intervals around major cities or across territories with small to medium-sized towns and you can see some of the opportunities that might be out there.
Such towers would not produce pollutants such as CO2, nitrous oxide, acid rain, etc. The pollution from burning coal in the air could be entirely replaced in some places in the world with this cleaner way of doing things. Children would be safer and healthier. No oil, gas, uranium or coal would be used or would need to be imported. Maintenance would not be as complicated or as costly as even coals plants, never mind nuclear plants. Concrete gets stronger over time. The solar collectors at the bottom are an added bonus.
For those countries that have very deep lakes or are near steep drop offs in the oceans electricity can be produced, and this is amazing, from the difference in the temperature of the water down deep and the water at the surface. Just add in a chemical that evaporates at low temperatures, such as ammonia, and once again, cleverness and ingenuity leads to producing electricity from what may seem like the strangest sources. The evaporated ammonia turns the turbine the produces electricity. The cool water coming up from the depths solidifies the ammonia again in a cycle of energy production from physical differences.
Most electricity production in the past has been burn the fuel, turn the water to steam, turn the turbine with the steam and send the electricity out. The energy world is changing.
Electricity can be produced in so many different ways it boggles the mind. My daughter, 10, and I made electricity from apples and lemons and a few wires and metal poles a few weeks ago. I knew a fellow in a laboratory a worked in many decades ago who made electricity from tomatoes. Electricity can be made from burning garbage. Not only do you create energy from the garbage, you also clean up the city.
Another way to use garbage for energy is to capture the methane produced from rotting garbage. The methane is natural gas. This gas can be burned to produce electricity. Methane can also be captured from agricultural waste and animal waste. It can be captured from coal mines when water is taken out of them. This and other sources of methane would simply go into the atmosphere eventually as a greenhouse gas. We might was well use it. Methane is also produced in the stomachs of cattle, oxen and more. Interestingly, methane is produced in the guts of termites. There are ongoing projects to try to produce methane from the very chemical in the guts of termites that breaks down wood and other material into methane. Who would have thought the lowly termite would be a source of energy. That resource from termite digestion can be fired up to turn a turbine or it could be used to cook.
The heat from burning methane could also be used to evaporate some liquids in certain machines to produce cooling. The CO2 from burning the methane could be used to “feed” plants in greenhouses and heat the greenhouses even in the dark of winter. Trigeneration, producing electricity, heating and cooling at the same time is already happening in many places. Adding more uses to the burning of fuels can make the use of those fuels far more efficient and less wasteful.
There are literally millions of possible ways of producing electricity, saving electricity, and using the heat and other results of electricity for productive uses, if we put our minds to it.
When we look at prices, imports, politics, technologies, and more we can see that even though there is a lot of engineering, science and mathematics involved in energy, the choices of energy production can be more of an art than a science.
The future is coming fast. Many more of us will need to think about the art of energy.
The next Bill Gates, the next world shakers and changers could be the great artists of energy.
The art of energy could be changing in some very big ways and a lot faster than many people might expect.

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Posted by on Oct 29 2012. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “The Art of Energy”

  1. Nice article. China has an all of the above strategy that is very cost oriented, but give precedence to price over environmental factors. Most nations do that, but they have great planning involved. They will move toward shale gas as fast as they can, but lack the expertise. They have leased out their shale resources to those who can though. They will not pay high prices for LNG as Japan will. They have many options.

    Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty, dangerous, expensive coal and nuclear plants. It is producing the electricity for electric cars. It will directly fuel cars,pickup trucks, vans, buses, long haul trucks, dump trucks, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. It lowers CO2 emissions. Over 2,300 natural gas story links on my blog. An annotated bibliography. The big picture of natural gas. Ron Wagner

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