Sunday, January 9, 2011

Top Ten Problems with the Energy Research Community

Here's a list I've composed of the top ten things that annoy me about the energy research community from a scientific point of view:  (and by energy research community I mean industry, gov't and academic research related to transportation fuels and electricity generation)

1. Calculating a powerplant's system efficiencies with respect to the enthalpy (sometimes called the heating value of the fuel) instead of the exergy of the input fuel.

2. Optimizing a system for high values of system efficiency instead of a large rate of return on investment.

3.  Lumping together energy flow from different types of energy. For example, the US Energy Information Administration lumps together chemical energy in fuels (like coal, biomass, and oil) along with electricity from nuclear power plants. In one case, they are using the enthalpy (heating value) and in one case they are using the exergy value (because electricity can be directly converted into work.) The EIA should start using the word exergy. It'll save themselves a lot of time. What's important is the flow of exergy and places of exergy destruction, not the flow of energy.

4. Using the term "energy consumption" because energy is neither created or destroyed. (I can consume coal...just like I can consume a hamburger, but I can't consume energy. I can convert potential energy into thermal energy, but I can't make it disappear.) (Note: I'm probably guilty of using the term "energy consumption" because it's such a misused buzz word.)

5. Forgetting to account for the fact that plant capital cost increases if the price of oil increases. For example, cellulosic ethanol or coal-to-liquid companies often make statements like:  "Our product will be commercially viable when oil prices hit $X per barrel."  The problem is that these companies did their capital costs estimates when oil was $Y per barrel (let's say $70/barrel), and then forget that these capital cost estimates are no longer valid when oil prices are $X per barrel (let's say $120/barrel.) They may think to themselves, "Oh, well, there's no oil used in our process."  But the problem is that our economy is dependent on oil, and if the price of oil increases by 50%, then the cost of everything will increase between roughly 10% and 50%. (This problem can be resolved by comparing the average rate of return on investment for cellulosic ethanol or coal-to-liquids with the rate of return of drilling for transportation liquids. What you'll find is that, if the rate of return for drilling decreases, then this will cause the rate of return of the biomass/coal-to-liquids plant to decrease. This means that start-up companies often underestimate the price of oil at which their process is economically viable.)

6. Co-generation efficiencies are lumped together. (This really annoys me because it really shows that the researcher does not understand  the term 'exergy.') First, they are dividing by the enthalpy of the fuel instead of the exergy, which is related to my #1 issue. Second, they are lumping together electricity along with thermal energy, which is related to my #3 issue. (Instead they should convert the heat used in co-generation into an equivalent amount of electricity that would be required to operate a heat pump to provide the same heating. This amount of electricity should be added to the electricity generated at the power plant, and then divided by the total exergy of the input fuel. Then, you would have an accurate system efficiency. But then, who cares about system efficiency? What's important is the average rate of return on work invested.) So, when somebody quotes a co-generation "system efficiency" of 80%, my blood starts to boil for multiple reasons!

7. Calculating the dollars per kW-hr of a power plant in order to determine the economic viability of the plant. My problem with this that the units are problematic. First, if you are giving results in $'s, then there should always be a year next to the dollar. But even worse is the fact that by quoting in $'s/kW-hr, you don't have feel for whether that value is too large. For example, if I say that the price of electricity is increasing from $0.2/kW-hr to $0.4/kW-hr, you may not freak out. But if I say that the total return on investment decreases from 4 to 2, and that if the price were $0.4/kW-hr, then one in every two people in the US needs to be building the new type of power plant, then you may start freaking out. (which you should...though, don't quote me on the exact conversion between $/kW-hr and ROI because it obviously changes with time, which is my whole problem with $/kW-hr.) So, "we in the energy research community" need to start using dimensionless variables (such as total return on work invested) or rate variables (such as rate of return on work invested, ARROWI). Another advantage here is that we can compare our work easily with people in different countries. It's a lot easier to compare results if you remove the units of $'s. (Also, when we say that our liquid fuel will cost  $X/barrel, how do we now that there's actually any return on work invested? At what value of $'s/barrel is there no actual return on investment?)

8.Getting excited about ways to convert CO2 into chemicals that consume more electricity than were generated by the power plant that created the CO2 in the first place. I see this all of the time, and I'm getting really fed up with people who've designed some process for turning CO2 into chemicals using plasmas or electrolysis. These schemes end up consuming more electricity than were generated by the power plant. While most of these schemes don't violate of the Laws of Thermodynamics, they end up having negative returns on work invested, so they violate the goal of life: to maximize the rate of return on work invested. Even worse, I saw one scheme in which the person designed a process for turning coal into CO2 and generating electricity, then capturing the CO2 and converting it into graphite. This is silly because there are ways to convert coal directly into graphite. Stuff like this drives me crazy.

9. Using the terms "Primary energy" and "secondary energy." The US EIA uses these terms to differentiate between natural gas, biomass, coal and oil (primary) from electricity and hydrogen (secondary), which is fine, but it's also arbitrary. As in #3, what's important is the exergy value of the material. The US EIA needs to start calculating the total work (force times distance) accomplished within the US each year rather than all the lumping together of "energy" sources. It would also be meaningful for them to calculate the exergy destruction across the US. (For example, check out the following post where I calculate the amount of work generated [in kW-hrs] each year by the major economies. Wealth of Nations)

10. Excessive freaking out about "Peak Oil" or "Global Warming".  Yes, it's true that the rate of return of drilling for petroleum is decreasing, but civilization-as-we-know-it is not going to end. We are getting smarter every day, and there's no stopping the ship. The goal of life is to seek greater return on work invested, and in the process increase the entropy of the universe. We're not going to stop growing just because oil supplies are diminishing. We're going to keep finding more ways of generating electricity from potential energy sources. And yes, it's been proven using satellites in the IR that CO2 is causing the temperature of the Earth to increase, but there is no reason to freak out. The metaphor Al Gore used of a "Frog in a Pot of Boiling Water" is just a metaphor. It's just words. What we need right now is research, debate and discussion. Not threats of end-of-the-world scenarios. We need to do some research into both the benefits and the damage of climate change. We need continuous and lively discussion without fear mongering on one side or the other.

So, in summary, I'm tired of the hype from start-up companies. I'm tired of the silly designs from academic professors. I'm tired of the fear mongering from lobbyists. And I'm tired of people (myself included sometimes) using the word energy instead of exergy.

I wish that we all were really intelligent and had all the right answers, but then I remember that it'd take a lot of work (i.e. electricity)for us to become intelligent. So, all I can do is to figure out how to increase the rate of return on work invested with the work (i.e. money) that I have so that the planet can eventually become smart enough to figure this all out, and then eventually become smart enough to start populating other planets.

"I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keep perpetuatin' it-self, down through the generations, westward wagons, across the sands a time until-- aw, look at me, I'm ramblin' again. Wal, uh hope you folks enjoyed yourselves."

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