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June 24th 2011 print

Geoffrey Luck

How green is my energy?

Take a big deep breath, Bob Brown – savour the 78 parts of nitrogen, 21 of oxygen, and the smidgen of carbon dioxide – and contemplate the folly of your alternative energy ideas. Renewables are not green. That’s the view of one of the pioneers of climate science politics. Jesse Ausubel.

Take a big deep breath, Bob Brown – savour the 78 parts of nitrogen, 21 of oxygen, and the smidgen of carbon dioxide – and contemplate the folly of your alternative energy ideas. Renewables are not green. That’s the view of one of the pioneers of climate science politics. Jesse Ausubel, Senior Research Associate in The Rockefeller University’s Program for the Human Environment, helped organise the first UN World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979. He is an avowed ‘deep green’ scientist who believes the essence of being green, and therefore his mantra, is no-new-structures. For years he has been arguing heretical views on energy. In the wake of the Productivity Commission’s scathing comments on renewables, now is the time to listen to him.

Ausubel has a list of heresies that might horrify the true believers in wind and solar power, electric cars and distorting government subsidies:

  • Renewables are not green.
     
  • The idea of resource exhaustion is irrelevant.
     
  • Hydrocarbons are not the stored energy of the sun.
     
  • Little more than 50% of energy will ever be electrified.
     
  • Nuclear is green, but nuclear plants must make hydrogen as well as electricity.
     
  • Most surprising of all – decarbonisation has been going on for almost two centuries – without a policy for it.

Since 1800 when British colliers first mined thousands of tons of coal, the world has been steadily moving towards fuels which produce more hydrogen, less carbon, and therefore deliver more energy. Mankind’s original fuel, wood, has a carbon to hydrogen ratio of 10:1. With the move to fossil fuels, the proportions changed – first to coal at 2:1, then to petrol and jet fuel at 1:2 or ethanol at 1:3 and now increasingly to methane (CH4 and 75% of natural gas) is obviously at 1:4, forty times the energy output of wood. All this happened, he notes mischievously, without decrees by Queen Victoria or Abraham Lincoln, but because the energy system pursued it. By 2100 the world will feel the same nostalgia for carbon as some now do for steam locomotives.

Ausubel’s thesis is that the evolution of the energy system is driven by the increasing spatial density of energy consumption at the level of the end user. Simply put, that is the energy consumed per square metre. Rich, dense cities will happily accept only electricity and gas, which reach the home through efficient infrastructure, right up to the light switch and cooktop burner. Over time, the juggernaut of economies of scale will change the mix; just as people flock to Bunnings for hardware instead of the local ironmonger, they will demand hydrogen. The fundamental question people should be asking is where large quantities of cheap hydrogen will come from.

Meanwhile, the world is flirting with hydro, biomass, wind and solar as replacements for coal-fired energy production. Not only can none of these replace hydrocarbons as a prime energy source, they promise destruction of the environment, sometimes on a massive scale.

Renewables must be understood in terms of the watts of energy per square metre that each source can produce. Hydro? In a well-watered area like North Queensland a dammed lake of 1 km2 would produce enough hydro-electricity for a dozen homes, while severely damaging life in its rivers.

A biomass power plant requires about 2,500 km2 of prime farmland to equal the output of a single 1,000 mW nuclear power plant that would occupy a few hectares. To equal the same nuclear plant, windmills would need to cover 800 km2 in very favourable situations. Photovoltaic farms would need less space, but still carpet 150 km2 of countryside to equal the nuclear plant. This puts in some perspective the extraordinary inefficiency of rooftop PV systems and the waste of subsidies and high feed-in tariffs.

Not surprisingly, Ausubel sees methane (natural gas) as the obvious intermediate step towards a hydrogen future. Compared with wind, it’s a no-brainer. To build a natural gas combined cycle plant would need 3.3 tonnes of steel and 27 m3 of concrete; a typical wind energy system requires 130 times as much steel and 30 times the concrete. Natural gas already provides a quarter of U.S. electricity generation. From a peak of 56% in 1988, coal now accounts for less than 45%.

An abundance of methane would put the world over the crest of the hill on the road to decarbonisation. With billions already invested in coal seam methane projects, the eggs have been laid, but have the chickens been counted too early? BHP Billiton’s proposed shale gas project in the American state of Arkansas has been challenged in a class action. Protests are starting to arise about the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Surat and Bowen basins in Queensland which could delay the LNG projects planned for Gladstone’s Curtis Island. Concerns that the artesian basin could be contaminated might be assuaged by the British House of Commons committee which found that hydraulic fracturing did not pose a direct risk to aquifers. However strict monitoring of chemicals would be required and supervision of well integrity was essential. With tens of thousands of wells required for the Queensland projects, that would be a big job.

Ausubel believes the world should be fully converted to a hydrogen economy by 2100. The first interim measure – replacing coal with gas – will halve greenhouse gas emissions, making the capture and storage of the reduced amounts of carbon less daunting. The first U.S. zero-emission power plant (ZEPP) will begin generating electricity in California later this year. One million tons of CO2 produced over four years will be sequestered in geological formations in the Bakersfield area. For the remaining 16 years life of the plant, the CO2 will be injected into depleted oil reservoirs to enhance recovery.

The next step should be to produce hydrogen from the methane using nuclear-generated electricity in the established steam-reforming process. Ultimately, reactors will split water to produce hydrogen thermo-chemically on a commercial scale, eliminating carbon dioxide altogether. Decarbonisation will be complete.

Hydrogen already powers forklift trucks; hydrogen fuel cells provide instant stand-by power for telecommunications companies that require security for phones and computers. Cars will operate on fuel cells driving electric motors, with a battery for quick starting and recovering braking energy. The U.S. Electric Power Research Institute has already published a technical plan for a hydrogen-electric SuperGrid across America, delivering the two energy sources in a single cable.

Much of this still lies in the future. The technology is available today, only the economics of developing the infrastructure required for the evolution from today’s energy sources is holding it back. But the message for Australia from Ausubel’s forward-looking analysis is clear: stop wasting money on wind farms and PV systems – they can only be supernumeraries. “We live in an era of mass delusion about solar and other renewables,” he says, “which will become an embarrassing collection of stranded assets.” And adds, again mischievously: “A deluded crowd believes in wind, as earlier crowds believed in witches and sub-prime mortgages.”