Monthly Archives: February 2012

Fly ash, mercury and black lung in an era of 3,000 quads

Coal plants are cleaner than they used to be–up to 77% cleaner, depending on how it’s measured–and the EPA in the U.S. is fighting to get them to be even cleaner. Coal mining is safer than it used to be–and we’re fighting to make it even safer.

But coal mining still produces mercury, which is really a poison. It still produces fly ash, which is not only unhealthy in the air, but gets stacked up in dumps that are not stable–too many of them end up sliding into rivers and streams. It is still dangerous. Too many miners are killed or injured at work, and too many suffer the aftereffects long after they’ve left the mines.

We use a lot of coal in the United States. It is burnt as the fuel providing about 45% of our electricity. Our environmental standards, while not the best in the world, are good at trying to limit the damage caused by our need for coal. But these environmental standards carry their own cost, and that cost is borne by both government and industry.

In developing countries the need for fuel is growing so quickly that they haven’t had the time to develop standards to protect their citizenry from the effects of pollution and lax safety rules. Coal is a big part of their fuel mix and that’s only going to grow. China, which is looking everywhere for energy solutions, is serious about going green, building wind and solar and nuclear as quickly as it feasibly can. But their dependence on coal will be ongoing throughout the century.

Old King Coal supplies about 21% of America’s energy needs overall. It supplies about 69% of China’s. And whereas America’s future energy growth will be moderate, China’s will be explosive. I have calculated here that their energy consumption will grow from 100 quads to 247 quads by 2030. And their use of coal will grow from 69% to 70% over that time. The same is likely to hold true throughout Asia, as quickly developing countries latch on to the fuel that has the least expensive sticker price.

But even to the extent that they are aware of the hidden costs of coal, they are for the moment willing to bear the pain associated with mining deaths, mercury in the air and water, etc., etc., as life without adequate energy just isn’t worth living.

So as we move to a future (in 2075) where we are likely to consume six times as much energy as we do today, and most of it will be in developing countries reliant on coal and without the mechanisms to make coal as safe as it is here, I guess the only silver lining is that the U.S. is focusing on an industry sector that will be hugely relevant to the people undergoing this dramatic transformation:



More about the Philippines and Energy

It’s no accident that Charles Darwin found so much of interest in the Galapagos Islands. Islands are natural laboratories and experimentation is frequent and vivid in isolated environments.

It’s true for human energy consumption as well. Many islands have to import all their fuel, such as Hawaii. There are a lucky few like the Dutch Antilles, where per capita energy consumption is double that of America–731 mbtus per person per year, mostly because they were fortunate enough to find oil and build an oil refinery on Curacao. There are some, like New Zealand, with low populations on the Ring of Fire that might find a fortunate combination of environmentally friendly fuels to serve their needs. And some, like Madagascar, that will be so constrained by poverty as to leave one perplexed on how they will meet their current, let alone their future energy needs.

The Philippine Islands (there are 7,000 of them comprising a land area a bit larger than Arizona) are home to 101 million people.  It is considered close to a middle income country, with a GDP of $4,000 per person, but in fact many of the metrics found in the CIA’s World Factbook look more like those of a poor country–maternal mortality, infant mortality–all the aspects of poverty found worldwide in the absence of access to energy. (That’s a concept I’ll be turning to over time, not that it’s something I invented.)

One of their primary natural resources is timber. One of the threats to their environment is deforestation. The Philippines imports 310,000 barrels of oil every day. Oil is expensive, the Filipinos are not rich, the wood gets burned. But the Philippines are also lucky enough to have access to geo-thermal power resources, and 15% of their electricity comes from hydropower.

However, islands have it tough in modern times. Although the Philippines are expected to grow in population from 100 to 140 million by 2030, their GDP is not expected to take off like some of the other countries in Asia. Per capita growth is expected to only have a CAGR of 2.6%.

From the outside, it looks as though a major constraint to development in the Philippines is lack of access to energy. Too much of their money goes to oil imports, they are too poor to really build a renewable infrastructure, every penny they spend on energy is a penny not spent improving the health of their citizens. It’s a trap other islands and isolated communities face, and the partial solution that the Philippines is adopting–a diaspora of workers to countries who need the labor–is a stopgap measure at best.

For the purposes of this blog, the important thing is to note what looks very much like a latent demand for energy–cheap energy–that, if available would trigger a massive spike in energy usage as it powered the Philippines to a rapid development that would catch them up to world standards in a hot heartbeat. I wrote yesterday that the Philippines had a per capita energy consumption of 14 mbtus annually, a scandalously low figure. But the people are too intelligent, literate, active and ambitious to be satisfied with that.

Whether that energy is provided by hydro, solar, geothermal, ocean thermal, wind or fossil fuels, they will get the energy they need.

When the numbers get real

I don’t know why this happened. I was planning on doing a post on the Philippines–I had included their statistics in the report published on the side of this weblog, and read the numbers I am about to present, and nothing happened to me then. I had read about renewable energy in the Philippines, especially their progress with geothermal energy, and nothing happened to me.

So today I was thinking I would check and see if there are new statistics about energy consumption there that would back up my thesis, that energy growth is happening faster than anyone predicted.

And now I’m just sitting here staring at the screen. Because the Philippine Islands, home to 94 million people, uses 1.3 quads per year. That works out to 14 mbtus per person per year. This vibrant country full of bright and energetic people are energy starved and after looking at stats for richer countries (we in the U.S. use about 340 mbtus per person per year, about 100 quads in total) it just gives me a new perspective on what poverty really is. The energy I use in two weeks has to last a Filipino all year long.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been there and know a lot of Filipinos here in the States.

And I do know there are countries that make the Philippines look rich in energy (Mali averages 1 mbtu per person per year). And the fact that the Philippines doubled their energy use between 1980 and 2000 somehow makes it seem worse.

But this got real in a hurry. For me at least.

Mountain high

Although we all should cheer the fact that energy derived from solar power increased dramatically in 2011, champions of alternative energy aren’t quick to boast about the total power it supplied. That’s because it didn’t supply very much.

Solar power capacity (not delivery) increased from 18 gigawatts to 24 gigawatts between 2010 and 2011. The world’s energy consumption was 15 terawatts.

So one burning question about solar is will growth be arithmetic or logarythmic. If the pace is 1, 2, 3, 4, we’ll need to get our coal-digging shovels out. If on the other hand it’s 1, 2, 4, 8 then the magic of compound growth will have solar providing significant energy.

Since all the figures for solar are always given in watts capacity, let’s stay with that measurement instead of my preferred quad.

If energy consumption does double by 2075, we’ll need about 30 terawatts. A bit more than 1,000 times growth. (Oh, don’t gulp yet…  it’s undignified. Whimper, moan and beg for mercy…)

If the past–since 1978–is any indication, we’ll actually get there. Solar has increased in capacity by an average of 36% annually–and we only need an increase of 11.6% every year to get there.

Here’s historical performance, courtesy of Professor Emanuel Sachs at MIT:

Now, nobody should think that innovation and penetration can improve at an incredibly high rate forever. Moore’s Law doesn’t cover every industry, and the logistical chain for microprocessors is infinitely more complex (and therefore amenable to continuous improvement) than the chain for solar power.

But it doesn’t have to improve forever–if it improves for four more years it’ll be cheaper than electricity provided by coal in most places and it’ll be off to the races. Increased installations of solar will cease to be driven by improvements and begin to be driven by comparative advantage.

We won’t mind.

The Great Migration and Its Energy Burden

There is no wall big enough to contain the great migration that is now in the process of changing the world.

This migration isn’t from Mexico to the U.S., or from Pakistan to the UK, or North Africa to Greece and Italy. It is happening within the borders of the countries of the developing world and consists of people leaving the farm for the city lights.

According to the FAO, in 1960 about 400 million people lived in cities. That number grew to 2.9 billion in 2008 and is expected to reach 4.9 billion in 2030.

That has an impact on energy consumption. Many in the developing world will be abandoning the burning of dung and firewood for the greater fuel density found in coal.  They will be turning on a light switch for the first time, and the consumption of electricity will extend to televisions, washing machines, computers and refrigerators. A study in Bhutan found that only 40% of rural households had electricity. 91% of their energy needs were met by firewood. Their biggest single need for fuel was for cooking. The biggest energy use in cities is for personal transportation, followed by washing machines.

Funnily enough, the overall trend is true even in the U.S.,  where rural households consume about 10% less energy than  do urban ones.  Update: Don’t want to start any urban legends here–I was looking at aggregate consumption, not per household or per capita. Big Whoops. Thanks BillC for calling it to my attention.

Perhaps more to the point, in China an urban household consumes 60% more than a rural one.

And the numbers get tougher. Currently, half of China’s population lives in cities. That is projected to grow to 75% by 2030–and that’s 75% of  a much larger population than they have today. And it’s just as true throughout the developing world:

Economist 2011

A larger number of people. A larger percentage of whom are moving to an urban environment where energy is more easily available–and less expensive. A larger number of people moving into the stage of the economic cycle where they can acquire the amenities that make life worth living–all of which consume energy.

I sometimes wonder if 3,000 quads is in fact an underestimate.

U.S. Energy History and Numbers

The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration has a graph showing U.S. energy consumption since 1775:

In 1880, the U.S. used about 5 quads in total. In 2010, the DOE’s revised (downward) estimate was 98 quads. The compound annual growth for those 130 years was 2.32%, which is almost exactly what the DOE EIA projects for the developing world between now and 2035. But growth was not evenly spaced throughout this period.

The great energy development phase for the United States occurred between 1900 and 1975, when energy consumption grew from 9.5 quads to 72 quads, a CAGR percentage of 3.71. However, this growth started after the U.S. was halfway finished with the grand demographic transition, the move away from agriculture as the primary means of existence for most of the population. By 1900, the percentage of Americans farming for a living had already fallen from 90% to 40%.

That transition has yet to take place in most of the developing world. Because it is their stated intention to telescope this process into a shorter timeframe than that used by the U.S. (and the rest of the developed world), their consumption of energy will increase at a faster percentage. But that’s another story.

A Return to Serfdom

Jean-François Mouhot, writing in the UK’s Guardian (a former employer of mine) has written an essay entitled “Once, Men Abused Slaves. Now We Abuse Fossil Fuels.” (h/t to Collide-a-Scape)

In it he writes that his students were frankly incredulous that humanity could tolerate a practice as barbaric as slavery. He then connected the use of fossil fuels to slavery, writing , “Intriguing similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines struck me: both perform roughly the same functions in society (doing the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do), both were considered for a long time to be acceptable by the majority and both came to be increasingly challenged as the harm they caused became more visible.”

He goes on to elaborate on the analogy, making a rather tortured case that fossil fuels is a crime in the same way that slavery was a crime. He hopes that society awakens a moral collective conscience to fight fossil fuel use in the same way that abolitionists created a consensus against slavery.

It is amazing that a professor of history could so clearly miss one of the glories of human history. (To be fair, he is aware of what fossil fuels contributed to the reduction of slavery, but he clearly equates the two as moral crime.) Slavery, a fixture of human existence for millenia, left the stage at the same time that we learned how to use fossil fuels. That’s not a coincidence. Slavery  became less economically competitive with free labor as labor saving devices made it feasible for fewer people to do so much more work that it was possible to pay them, thereby removing much of the moral stigma and high costs attached to large-scale endeavors previously only made practical by forced labor. It became cheaper to pay 10 workers than house, feed and guard 100.

We see this perhaps most clearly by removing the political flash point of slavery and looking at paid domestic service. During the period after the abolition of slavery, the number of families wealthy enough to afford domestic servants grew dramatically. And the number of domestic servants grew as well.

In the decades between 1900 and 1940, the number of domestic servants in the United States grew from 1.5 million to 2 million. However, the ratio of servants to 1,000 families dropped from 94 per 1,000 families to 60. Similar drops occurred in both Germany and Great Britain.

(There’s a bit of chicken and egg circularity here. As industrialization replaced agriculture as the main engine of employment, factory jobs which paid more than domestic service were more easily available. But those factories ran on fossil fuels as well.)

What Professor Mouhot is doing is worse than chicken-and-egging. He is ignoring the role that fossil fuels played in liberating populations from the drudgery of domestic service. (It is now instrumental in liberating the grandchildren of servants from the drudgery of manufacturing.)

I don’t know why Professor Mouhot is separating fossil fuel usage from the rest of the technology innovations that spurred human development. Perhaps the current enthusiasm to reduce their usage (which I share wholeheartedly) has colored his thinking. But the use of fossil fuels freed us. Professor Mouthot seems to think we should abandon fossil fuels on moral grounds whether or not we can replace them.

And that’s just crazy. Develop alternatives? Yes. Reduce waste? Yes. Improve efficiencies? Yes. But throw away the engines that freed all men and women (not just slaves) from a lifetime of servitude and drudgery?