The Runway to Hell

Even four years after the Paris climate agreement, politicians, businesses and consumers are still in denial what this means for our future and what we must do today. At best, we’re all paying lip service while trying to postpone making real changes.

Two examples: Narita airport is planning for a major expansion in flight capacity in the 2020s and Tepco and Chubu Electric Power are trying to open a new coal fired power station in 2023.

One of the greatest concerns behind climate change goals are climate feedback loops, where any amount of additional global warming triggers new causes of global warming. A few examples:

  • If arctic temperatures rise enough for the ground in permafrost regions to thaw in the summer this will lead to CO2 and methane releases from frozen ancient organic matter that starts to rot and decay.
  • Warming oceans may release methane trapped in icy slush as methane clathrate on the sea bed.
  • If summer air temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet rise enough to melt snow during daytime before freezing again, it changes the albedo of the frozen surface to absorb more sunlight and melt again more easily.

So if we want to avoid runaway global warming, we have a very tight CO2 budget that we can still release before the world has to run on 100% non-fossil energy sources.

What we would need is a moonshot-like project, with our brightest minds and financial resources focused on switching all power generation to non-fossil energy, expanding it to take over from other uses of oil and gas such as transport while minimizing release of CO2 outside of power generation. That means not just electric cars and trucks but also fewer cars, less air travel, no more deforestation, minimal consumption of cement and steel and more recycling.

While the Japanese government has formally committed itself to fighting climate change, the reality looks different. Last year the Narita International Airport Corp., government ministries and local government agreed to a plan to increase annual takeoff and landing slots from 300,000 to 500,000. To this purpose, a 2,500 m runway will be extended to 3,500 m to handle bigger planes and a third runway of 3,500 m will be built in the 2020s. Currently, there is no practical alternative to kerosene-based jet fuel. More flights and bigger aircraft mean more CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. Instead of making it possible for more people to fly more often, we should be looking for ways to discourage and avoid flying wherever possible.

JERA, a joint venture between Tepco and Chubu Electric Power is trying to build a coal-fired power station at Kurihama near Yokosuka, with plans to start operating in 2023. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels. One kWh generated by burning coal even in the most advanced coal-fired thermal power stations releases about twice as much CO2 as the same amount of electricity generated from a combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power station running on natural gas. With a limited carbon budget it makes no sense to burn any coal if we still have gas. If we really still must expand fossil fuel power generation (and we probably don’t in Japan), coal is by far the worst choice of all fossil fuels available!

Instead of expanding airports and building coal power stations, we should expand offshore wind power and geothermal energy while raising taxes on air travel, for example by taxes on jet fuel. A recent International Energy Agency report estimated the worldwide potential for wind energy production at 11 times the annual electricity consumption of the world. Japan has almost completely blocked offshore wind power. It has a huge Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), yet in 2018 Britain’s installed offshore wind power base was over 120 times that of Japan, Germany’s about 100 times and China 70 times. Even Belgium which controls only 0.5% of the North Sea had 20 times more installed offshore wind power capacity than Japan in 2018.

Some air travel can be shifted to trains or to less energy intensive ships. Eventually we will develop technology to fly airplanes with non-fossil fuel, such as methane produced from CO2 with renewable electricity in reverse fuel cells though that won’t be cheap or particularly energy-efficient. But until then we need to make hard choices that take us closer to our goals, not further away from them.

Future generations will struggle as coastal land where hundreds of millions of people worldwide currently live or where they grow food will disappear in the sea as warming oceans expand and glaciers melt. They will have to deal with it.

Whole countries will disappear in the next couple of centuries, including the Netherlands and Bangladesh. The same will happen to most of the ten largest cities in the world. The sea level rises projected until 2100 are by no means the end of the story: Sea level rises for several centuries to come are already locked in with the emissions of the last 200 years. The last time this planet had more than 400 ppm of CO2 in its atmosphere (as opposed to 280 ppm before the industrial revolution) was 3 million years ago, when sea levels where 20 m higher than today. So that’s going to happen again, even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today. But because we are still going to keep doing that for a number of years or decades, the ultimate sea levels will be even higher than they were then.

Maybe in some ways it’s easier to speak truth if you’re a 16 year old school kid, not a politician who wants to get campaign finance from friendly businesses or to get reelected by voters who still want to fly on vacation to Thailand, or a business leader trying to please shareholders instead of saving the planet. But reality is reality, even if we look away. We, or our children and their children, will have to face it eventually and it will be what we make it today.

It Takes a Child to Raise a Village

A few years ago I was visiting Venice. It was a fascinating experience to walk around this ancient city without cars, built on some islands in a lagoon that protected it from the chaos after the fall of the West Roman Empire. I was surprised how eastern some of the architecture looked, because I hadn’t known how tight the connections were between Venice and the Byzantine empire, the successor state to the East Roman Empire. More than a thousand years of history come alive when you walk those ancient cobble-stoned streets.

For a long time Venice has been slowly sinking into the sea. In many buildings I saw, the ground floor was more or less uninhabitable and ruined due to water damage or the risk from regular flooding during storm surges. Sadly, despite all efforts to save it, Venice will disappear in the ocean, gradually swallowed up by rising seas.

The same will happen to Amsterdam, once the capital of a trading nation from where ships sailed to every continent. And not just this city will disappear, but almost the entire country of the Netherlands. It’s not a question of if but when.

Its inhabitants will gradually migrate to other countries in Europe, such as Germany, France or Spain that will be less affected by a 20 m rise of global sea levels. The Netherlands will be virtually wiped out when that happens. So will be Bangladesh and many island nations, as well as Miami, Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta, much of Tokyo, London, New York City and many other coastal megacities around the world.

When I was a schoolkid, I learnt from science books that 0.3% or 300 ppm of the earth’s atmosphere was carbon dioxide (CO2). I wasn’t told that only 200 years earlier, before the Industrial Revolution it had only been 280 ppm. Later I learnt that CO2 is a so called “greenhouse gas”, as it traps heat from the surface of the earth and prevents it from escaping into space, thus raising the surface temperature of the planet. As our civilization burns coal, oil and gas and clears forests the CO2 level increases and the greenhouse effect intensifies. In the last couple of decades this has been happening at an increasing rate.

Last year the world consumed about 100 million barrels of crude oil a day. 99.6% of passenger cars on the roads worldwide in 2018 run exclusively on fossil fuels. Worldwide power generation from coal is growing rapidly and is expected to double from 2011 to 2023. Of all the fossil fuels, coal releases the highest amount of CO2 per kWh produced, yet many countries are still building new coal-fired power plant capacity, including here in Japan, where a TEPCO – Chubu Electric Power joint venture still wants to open a new coal-fired power station in Kurihama near Tokyo in 2023/2024.

In 2013, the 400 ppm level was already breached and it is still rising at an increasing rate. How significant is that number? Since humans walked on this planet it had never been as high as this: You have to go back millions of years to find an era when there was as much CO2 in the atmosphere: The last time the CO2 level was above 400 ppm was in the Pliocene (about 3-5 million years ago).

At that time the average global temperature was some 2-3 C higher than today, but temperatures in the arctic and in Antarctica were significantly higher than that. Trees were growing in the southern part of Greenland, which was not covered in thick glaciers as it is today. Trees were also growing in parts of Antarctica. Without billions of tons of water locked up in glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, sea levels were 20-25 m higher than today. Also these oceans were warmer than today and water expands when it warms up. The rising CO2 levels will melt these glaciers again, until a new equilibrium is established several hundreds years or more in the future. The coast lines will move, gobbling up cities and farm land alike. Ultimately they may well look like those in the Pliocene again, but how much ice will melt and how rapidly it will melt still depends on what we do from now.

To give you an idea of the long term impact of this kind of sea level rise, the former Chinese capital of Nanjing, 200 km from the Yellow Sea, lies only 20 m above sea level. With 25 m of sea level rise the ocean would penetrate about 180 km inland southwest of Beijing. Some of the most densely populated areas of China (national population: 1.3 billion) would be swallowed by the sea.

In Vietnam the two biggest cities, Hanoi and the Red River plain around it, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and all of the land southwest of it will drown. Many of Asia’s river plains that are now its biggest rice baskets will turn into continental ocean shelf. The same will happen in the Nile valley or along the Euphrates and Tigris in the Middle East.

Note that these are changes that will happen over the next centuries or more regardless of what we do from now. They are the least bad outcome of what is possible. If we do nothing, it will get far worse.

There are feedback cycles that amplify the negative effects. For example, once it gets warm enough in summer in arctic permafrost regions that the ground will melt in summer, then peat and other frozen organic matter in the wet soil will start to decay, releasing huge amounts of methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. This in turn will raise temperatures even higher. Where white sea ice melts in the summer, darker ocean water is exposed below, leading to more sunlight being absorbed and higher air and ocean temperatures. This in turn leads to less sea ice coverage the next year. When snow on top of glaciers thaws and refreezes, it also changes its albedo. The ice absorbs more sunlight than the virgin snow. So every warm spell leads to more warming. Once the thick ice sheet in Greenland and East Antarctica starts melting, its elevation will drop. It’s colder at higher elevations. The reduction in thickness will speed up melting. We could end up with a run-away effect that is impossible to stop until there is no ice left (see this article in National Geographic for maps of what the world will look like then).

The young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who started campaigning against inaction against climate change as a 15-year old, used the image of a “house on fire”:

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. […] Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

The changes brought about by man-made climate change will be dramatic, but political action so far has been underwhelming. The steps taken so far or even the steps discussed in public fall far short of what is necessary to avoid even worse outcomes.

There is considerable resistance to taking action against Climate Change. We are not used to thinking much about events beyond our own life time. Politicians will worry about the next elections, business leaders about their next annual business results. Politicians tend to take drastic action only in wars and other major disasters, but Climate Change is going to be bigger than any (non-nuclear) war or hurricane.

If we were honest and ethical, we would not put the stock market value of our power companies or car or airplane manufacturers or our airlines or tourism industry above the future of the planet. The resistance to change from both industry and consumers will be huge, but we owe people the unvarnished truth: That we can’t continue with business as usual.

Even if we switch to electric cars, the steel, copper and glass for those cars for now will be made using fossil fuels. Even the wind turbines, solar panels and battery storage that we have to build at a massive scale to supply renewable energy for our future civilization will largely be manufactured using fossil fuels for years to come. We have to spend our dwindling carbon budget wisely, for example on rebuilding infrastructure instead of on holidays in Bali or a shiny new BMW SUV.

There is as yet no clear technical solution for air travel or for international cargo ships without fossil fuel. The same is true for making cement or for steel production from iron ore. In the short term we could replace kerosene or heavy fuel oil with LNG to reduce CO2 output in transport, but that is not enough and we will need to go much further than that. The next steps will be much harder. We don’t have the solutions yet. Therefore we need a modern moonshot program for a post-fossil future, an all-out effort — not to put more humans on the moon again — but to decarbonise our economies.

Over the last year Greta Thunberg has become a household name worldwide. She has drawn attention to the urgency of change and to the drastic nature of the changes needed. Her youth and thus her expected life span versus those of the politicians and business leaders of today, who mostly won’t be around after the year 2050, gives her a different perspective which the rest of us can then also relate to. It’s not all about us, but about our children and all of humanity after us. Sometimes it takes a child to educate the world.

Water Abundance XPRIZE – Do the Numbers Add Up?

On October 22, 2018 a US$1.75 million prize was awarded to two companies for a way of providing abundant water at a price of no more than $.02 per liter using renewable energy.

The technology developed by the Skysource / Skywater Alliance condenses humidity from the air using electrically powered compressors. It’s basically the same process as in a domestic air conditioner unit that has water dripping out of it, except that the Skywater units will filter and then sterilize the water using ozone. Condensation through a compressor is an energy intensive process.

There are other processes for generating fresh water from abundant sea water that also have a reputation for consuming a lot of energy. Desalination is used by many coastal cities and regions to top up insufficient ground water supplies. About of half of Israel’s water supply comes from Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants that desalinate sea water from the Mediterranean. Desalination plants also provide about 30% of Singapore’s water supply.

Reverse Osmosis consumes about 3 kWh of electrical energy per 1000 liter (1 m3) of fresh water extracted. If produced from fossil energy sources such as coal, oil or natural gas this energy demand will result in CO2 output, contributing to global warming. If produced from renewable energy, it requires considerable investments in generating capacity on top of the desalination plants themselves.

How does the Skywater process compare to RO with regards to energy consumption? The Skywater website is not exactly helpful, as it present gibberish instead of actual data:

What are the power requirements for the machine?
The Skywater® 300 runs on approximately 7 -10 kilowatts per hour. It operates on 50hz or 60hz and either 208-240V (single phase) or 380-440V (3-phase). This power can be supplied directly or from a generator for portability.

The Skywater 300 is a unit that can generate up to 1100 l of water per day. The above quote was neither written nor checked by an engineer. Note that energy is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh) while power is measured in kilowatts (kW). There is no such unit in physics as “kilowatts per hour”. Whoever uses this term basically doesn’t know what they are talking about! A device drawing one kilowatt of power will consume one kilowatt hour of energy for every hour of use.

Let’s assume they meant a power demand of 7-10 kW (which is the same as 7-10 kWh per hour). That means a daily consumption of 168-240 kWh of electricity. With an output of up to 1100 l, this amounts to at least 150-220 kWh per 1000 l (1 m3). This is roughly 50-70 times more than the specific energy consumption of a Reverse Osmosis plant. Other commercial units of water generators have similar specs. For example the units offered by Water-Gen in Israel are quoted as consuming 310 kWh per 1000 l, or roughly 100 times the power consumption of reverse osmosis units.

Today we’re still a long way from having access such an abundance of cheap electricity from renewable sources that we could afford to use 50-100 times more of it than another proven solution would use. Installing solar panels or wind turbines to power RO plants is expensive and consumes land. Building 50-100 times more solar farms or wind turbines to generate the same amount of water using water-from-air technology instead would make little sense, at least within a reasonable distance of the coast where you could still pipe desalinated water from coastal RO plants.

Water-from-air technology may make sense only in limited areas such as mobile military units in remote areas where cost is no object (but only if humidity is not too low and it’s neither too hot or too cold, i.e. if they’re not deployed in a desert anyway).

On the present evidence, water-from-air technology is far from ecologically benign or economically viable, compared to more efficient technologies available. The first step would always have to be reduced use of conventional water supplies (e.g. better irrigation systems, growing less water intensive crops) encouraged by appropriate pricing and reuse of waste water for other purposes.

Carbon Sink Concrete Snake Oil

When I was a kid, I learnt that carbon dioxide (CO₂) makes up around 0.3 % (300 ppm) of the atmosphere. Man-made CO₂ output, from burning of fossil fuels to deforestation, has increased this number year after year. In 2013 it first exceeded 400 ppm. Even back in the 1950s, after over century or coal and oil burning, the number was already the highest in 650,000 years. We are still adding CO₂ to the atmosphere every year and the amount being added per year is still increasing. As CO₂ is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, this has far-reaching consequences. There are dangerous feedback loops that will amplify the consequences, from increased arctic warming from absorbed sunlight due to melted sea ice to increased methane output from melted permafrost regions. Disappearing mountain glaciers will have effects on rivers downstream.

As humanity realizes the dangers from changing climate, from rising sea levels to extreme weather patterns, devastating droughts and wildfires, desertification and failing harvests we need to take action. We will need to cut CO₂ emissions as much as possible as soon as possible, but we also need to look at ways of binding CO₂ that has already been released.

Some people are trying to make a quick buck on this or to deflect consequences from industries that harm the environment. Because of this, be very skeptical of any claims made for carbon sink technologies that aim to delay the phasing out of fossil energy sources (including but not limited to “clean coal”).

A couple of years ago a US company called Calera made headlines with bold claims of a process that could act as a carbon sink for CO₂ from fossil fueled power stations while producing a product that could be used in place of cement. About 5 % of global CO₂ output is from cement production while power stations account for about 1/3 of CO₂ output in the US, therefore this would sound like a win/win situation. The process would extract calcium from sea water, combine it with CO₂ from the smoke stack of a power station and output calcium carbonate (lime stone) as a building material. Calera received funding from ventures capital fund Khosla Ventures and built a prototype plant adjacent to the Moss Landing power station at Monterey bay, California.

The company has always remained fairly tight lipped about how its process would actually work and what its inputs and outputs would be. However, despite the numerous articles that repeated its ambitious claims, nothing much seems to have come off it since.

The fact is, their claims were debunked by two critics, Jerry D. Unruh and Ken Caldeira, but relatively little attention was paid by the media to the inconvenient facts they had pointed out.

Most of the calcium and magnesium dissolved in sea water is either in the form of calcium bicarbonate or magnesium bicarbonate. To precipitate dissolved (Ca,Mg) bicarbonate as solid (Ca,Mg) carbonate, one has to remove CO₂, not add it. Calcium and Magnesium dissolved in the ocean is there because rain water absorbs CO₂ from the atmosphere and then dissolves lime stone and dolomite rock as it seeps down into the ground before re-emerging in springs and rivers:

H₂O + CO₂ + CaCO₃ => Ca(HCO₃)₂
H₂O + CO2 + MgCO₃ => Mg(HCO₃)₂

Precipitating solid carbonate from dissolved bicarbonate reverses the process and thus releases CO₂:

Ca(HCO₃)₂ => CaCO₃ + H₂O + CO₂
Mg(HCO₃)₂ => MgCO₃ + H₂O + CO₂

Fundamentally, calcium and magnesium ions (Ca++, Mg++) in sea water are not a viable option for binding millions of tons of CO₂ as they are already the end result of a carbon-binding process. Turning bicarbonates into carbonates either releases CO₂ or it requires huge amounts of alkaline materials to bind that CO₂.

The truth is, besides CO₂ and seawater, Calera’s prototype plant consumes existing stocks of alkaline magnesium oxide left over from previous industrial uses at the site, but those stocks won’t last forever. If one had to replenish these stocks from scratch year after year, this typically would involve the high temperature calcination of magnesium carbonate, which consumes roughly as much energy and produces as much CO₂ as making cement does.

Calera has suggested a few alternatives in place of magnesium oxide as alkaline process inputs for a full scale production system, but these don’t make much more sense either:

  • Making sodium hydroxide from brine via electrolysis consumes more electricity than can be produced from any power station whose CO₂ this process could clean up.
  • Fly ash from power stations can be a low cost source of alkalinity, but only in the case of relatively carbon-heavy coal and not natural gas. Even there the amounts of ash are far too small relative to the amount of CO₂ to be absorbed from burning the coal. Cleaning up CO₂ from coal using fly ash still leaves you with more CO₂ than burning natural gas without cleanup.

Long term, the cheapest way of dealing with rising CO₂ levels are not carbon sinks, but not producing the CO₂ in the first place. This means reducing energy consumption, a halt to deforestation, switching transport to electricity and producing power from wind, solar, geothermal and other non-fossil energy sources. The sooner we do this, the more livable this planet will remain for its 7 to 12 billion inhabitants this century.

Further reading:

Olympic Hydrogen Hype

Today’s Japan Times reports that the Organizing Committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is considering the use of hydrogen torches to light the Olympic flame (“Olympic panel mulls high-tech hydrogen torch, pares soccer venues” — JT, 2017-02-27):

“An important theme of the Olympics is how to promote environmental sustainability. We will talk to experts and see how realistic it is in terms of technological development,” a committee member said.

One official said there are still safety and cost concerns, and asserted that there also was a need for a lightweight torch that can be easily carried.

In March 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced a project to have the 6,000-unit athletes’ village for the games run entirely on hydrogen power.

The Japanese government is one of the most active promoters worldwide of a so called “hydrogen economy”. It sees the 2020 Olympics as an opportunity to showcase Japan’s lead on hydrogen. Other projects are the construction of a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) such as the Toyota Mirai, research into shipping liquefied hydrogen from overseas using special tankers and production of hydrogen from lignite (brown coal) in Australia for export to Japan.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem in the article, the hydrogen fueled torch: The usual Olympic torches use LPG (propane/butane) as a fuel, a gas mixture that can be stored as a liquid under moderate pressure at normal outdoor temperatures. This makes it easy to carry a significant amount of fuel in a light weight container. Hydrogen by contrast does not liquefy unless chilled to about -252 C. Hydrogen powered vehicles run on compressed hydrogen instead, at pressures of up to 700 bar, equivalent to half the weight of a car on each cm2 of tank surface. As you can imagine that kind of pressure calls for some fairly sturdy containers. An even bigger problem is that pure hydrogen flames are invisible because they radiate energy not as light but as UV. You could feel the heat, but you couldn’t directly see if the flame is burning or not, which makes it quite hazardous. Talk about playing with fire…

The comment about running the Olympic village on “hydrogen power” is quite misleading. It’s like saying they would run the Olympic village on battery power, without explaining where the energy to charge those batteries came from. Like batteries, hydrogen is not a primary energy source, it’s an energy carrier. Since elementary hydrogen does not exist in significant quantities on earth, it has to be produced using another energy source such as natural gas or electricity generated using coal, nuclear, wind or solar.

Though it’s possible to produce hydrogen from carbon-free energy sources such as solar electricity (splitting water through electrolysis) and then produce electricity from hydrogen again, this process is far less efficient than either consuming renewable electricity directly or via batteries. When you convert electric energy to chemical energy in hydrogen and back to electricity, about 3/4 of the energy is lost in the process. This is incredibly wasteful and far from green.

With its sponsorship of hydrogen, the Japanese government is trying to create business opportunities for industrial companies such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a Japanese shipbuilder (see “Kawasaki Heavy fighting for place in ‘hydrogen economy'” — Nikkei Asian Review, 2015-09-03) and for its oil and gas importers, as almost all hydrogen is currently made from imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the longer term, the government still has a vision of nuclear power (fission or fusion) producing the electricity needed to make hydrogen without carbon emissions. Thus the ‘hydrogen economy’ is meant to keep oil companies and electricity monopolies like TEPCO in business. The “hydrogen economy” is coal, oil and nuclear hidden under a coat of green paint.

These plans completely disregard the rapid progress being made in battery technologies which have already enabled electric cars with ranges of hundreds of km at lower costs than HFCVs and without the need for expensive new infrastructure.

Hydrogen, especially when it’s produced with carbon-intensive coal or dangerous nuclear, is not the future. Japan would be much better served by investing into a mix of wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, combined with battery storage and other technologies for matching up variable supply and demand.

See also:
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future (2016-12-05)

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future

On my bicycle ride last Saturday I passed a service station near Hachioji in western Tokyo that is being set up as a hydrogen station for fuel cell cars. Japan is in the process of setting up such infrastructure to support a small fleet fuel cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai (its name means “future” in Japanese).

For decades, hydrogen has been touted as an alternative fuel for transport once we move beyond fossil fuels. The idea was that it can be made in essentially unlimited amounts from water using electricity from solar, wind or nuclear power (from either fission or fusion reactors). The only tailpipe emission would be water, which goes back into nature.

Unlike electric cars, which have limited range compared to fossil fuel cars, hydrogen cars can be refilled fairly quickly, like conventional cars, giving them a longer operating range. Car manufacturers have experimented with both internal combustion engines (ICE) running on hydrogen and fuel cell stacks that produce electricity to drive a traction motor. Both liquefied and compressed hydrogen has been tested for storage.

Here is a Honda fuel cell car I photographed on Yakushima in 2009:

It’s been a long road for hydrogen cars so far. Hydrogen fuel cells were already providing electricity for spacecrafts in the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s. With the launch of production cars and hydrogen fuel stations opening now in Japan, the US and Europe it seems the technology is finally getting ready for prime time. However, the reality is quite different.

Arguably the biggest challenge for hydrogen cars now is not the difficulty of bringing down the cost of fuel cells or improving their longevity or getting refueling infrastructure set up, but the spread of hybrid and electric cars. Thanks to laptops and mobile devices there has been a huge market for new battery technology, which attracted investment into research and development and scaled up manufacturing. Eventually reduced costs allowed this technology to cross over into the automotive industry. The battery packs of the Tesla Roadster were assembled from the same industry standard “18650” Li-ion cells that are the building blocks of laptop batteries.

Li-ion batteries have been rapidly falling in price year after year, allowing bigger battery packs to be built that improved range. A car like the Nissan Leaf that is rated for a range of 135 to 172 km (depending on the model) would cover the daily distances of most people on most days without recharging during daytime. Not only are prices falling and range is increasing, the cars can also harness the existing electricity grid for infrastructure. A charging station is a fraction of the price of a hydrogen filling station.

Here in Japan I find many charging stations in convenience store parking lots, at restaurants, in malls and at car dealerships – just about anywhere but at gasoline stations, which is where the few hydrogen stations are being installed.

After the tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit Japan in March 2011, some people here viewed electric cars and their claimed ecological benefits with suspicion: The Nissan Leaf may not have a tail pipe, but didn’t its electricity come from nuclear power stations? This criticism is not entirely justified, because electricity can be produced in many different ways, including wind, sun and geothermal. Car batteries of parked cars are actually quite a good match for the somewhat intermittent output of wind and solar, because they could act as a buffer to absorb excess generating capacity while feeding power back into the grid when demand peaks. If cars were charged mostly when load is low (for example, at night) then no new power stations or transmission lines would have to be built to accommodate them within the existing distribution network.

The dark secret of hydrogen is that, if produced from water and electricity through electrolysis, it is actually a very inefficient energy carrier. To produce the hydrogen needed to power a fuel cell car for 100 km consumes about three times as much electricity as it takes to charge the batteries of an electric car to cover the same distance. That’s mostly because there are far greater energy losses in both electrolysis and in fuel cells than there are in charging and discharging a battery. A fuel cell car actually has all of the above losses, because even fuel cells still costing about $100,000 are not powerful enough to handle peak loads, therefore a battery is still required. Think of a hydrogen fuel cell car as a regular electric car with an added fuel cell stack to recharge the battery while the car is running. This means a fuel cell car suffers the relative small charge/discharge losses of a battery-electric car on top of the much bigger losses in electrolysis and fuel cells that only a hydrogen car has.

What this 3x difference in energy efficiency means is that if we were to replace fossil-fueled cars with hydrogen-fueled cars running on renewable energy, we would have to install three times more solar panels and build three times as many wind turbines as it would take to charge the same number of electric cars. Who would pay for that and why?

Even if the power source was nuclear, we would be producing three times as much nuclear waste to refill hydrogen cars than to recharge battery-electric cars — waste that will be around for thousands of years. That makes no sense at all.

So why are hydrogen fuel cell car still being promoted then? Maybe 20-30 years ago research into hydrogen cars made sense, as insurance in case other alternatives to petroleum didn’t work out, but today the facts are clear: The hydrogen economy is nothing but a boondoggle. It is being pursued for political reasons.

Electrolysis of water is not how industrial hydrogen is being produced. The number one source for it is a process called steam reformation of natural gas (which in Japan is mostly imported as LNG). Steam reformation releases carbon dioxide and contributes to man-made global warming. By opting for hydrogen fuel cell cars over electric cars, we’re helping to keep the oil industry in business. That you find hydrogen on the forecourt of gas stations that are mostly selling gasoline and diesel now is not a coincidence. Hydrogen is not the “fuel of the future”, it’s a fossil fuel in new clothes.

Due to the inefficiency of the hydrogen production it would actually make more sense from both a cost and environmental point of view to burn the natural gas in highly efficient combined cycle power stations (gas turbines coupled with a steam turbine) feeding electricity into the grid to charge electric cars instead of producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars from natural gas.

Even if electrolysis is terribly inefficient, by maximizing demand for electricity it can provide a political fig leaf for restarting and expanding nuclear power in Japan. Both the “nuclear fuel cycle” involving Fast Breeder Reactors and the promise of nuclear fusion that is always another 30-50 years away were sold partly as a power source for a future “hydrogen economy”.

While I’m sorry that my tax money is being used to subsidize hydrogen cars, I don’t think hydrogen as a transport fuel will ever take off in the market. Electric cars came up from behind and overtook fuel cell cars. The price of batteries keeps falling rapidly year after year, driven by massive investment in research and development by three independent powerful industries: IT/mobile, automotive and the power companies.

The hydrogen dream won’t die overnight. I expect the fuel cell car project will drag on through inertia, perhaps until battery electric cars will outnumber fossil fueled cars in Japan and only then will finally be cancelled.

Tepco drowning in radioactive water

A recent leak of 300 tons of highly radioactive water at Fukushima No. 1 has highlighted the long term problems that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) is facing in its struggle to manage the crisis at the wrecked nuclear power station (see Japan Times, 2013-08-21). One massive steel tank had been leaking as much as 10 tons of water a day for a month before the leak was noticed. The water level in the tank dropped by 3 m before anyone noticed. It is not clear yet how the water is escaping.

The water in the tank has been used for cooling the melted reactor cores. Consequently it is highly radioactive from strontium, cesium and tritium. At a distance of 50 cm, as much as 100 millisieverts per hour (mSv/h) were measured. That means a nuclear worker there would absorb as much radiation in one hour as is legally permitted over a total of 5 years.

You might think that with a witches’ brew like that on its hands, Tepco would take every possible precaution to prevent leaks and to monitor fluid levels. Tepco uses both welded steel tanks and temporary tanks for storing contaminated water at Fukushima No. 1. Welded tanks are supposed to be stronger and more leak proof, whereas temporary tanks can be bolted together quickly from sheet metal and plastic. About one third of the over 1000 tanks at Fukushima No. 1 are temporary tanks, including the one that recently leaked. Tanks of this type have been used at the site since December 2011 and they are supposed to last five years before needing repair or replacement. So far 4 of these tanks have leaked, yet Tepco is planning to install even more temporary tanks for storing water. I guess they must be cheaper.

I am curious why the leaks were not detected sooner. Are there no monitoring devices installed that can automatically report water levels?

Tepco is planning to treat the water in the tanks with its ALPS filtering system, which can remove radioactive cesium and strontium from the water, but not tritium. It was meant to start operating this month, but after problems it is now expected to not resume operation until December.

Even after treatment, Tepco will have a water problem. Any water pumped from the turbine halls that has been in contact with the reactor basements has elevated levels of radioactive tritium. No chemical removal system exists for tritium, as it’s an isotope of hydrogen, one of the two elements that make up water. Tepco can not simply evaporate water from those tanks to reduce volume and concentrate contaminants into a smaller volume, as the tritium would be released with water vapour and come down as rain again elsewhere. So what is it going to do? Release it into the atmosphere slowly? Dilute it with sea water? Or store hundreds of thousands of tons of water for hundreds of years? Neither alternative seems very appealing.

The earth4energy scam

In recent months I have come across many ads for a website called earth4energy.com. If you haven’t seen the ads, it makes implausible claims of anyone being able to become energy independent for a only small investment. Make no mistake, it’s a scam, designed to sell worthless “e-books”. See this site for a thorough debunking of their claims.

The fact is, the electricity usage of average households can not be met easily or on the cheap from renewable sources using some DIY design. Any photovoltaic panels or wind turbines that are powerful enough to make a significant contribution will cost you a lot of money, typically at least several years worth of your normal electricity bill. These people would have you believe that for a few hundred dollars you could become independent of the utility companies. They do so because their business is selling e-books and videos to people. The exaggerated claims are how they get people to send them money. They are using an elaborate affiliate scheme and paid online ads to fish wide and far for people who might fall for their promises.

What I find particularly interesting about earth4energy.com is how similar it looks to the earlier “Run your car on water” scam I reported about a little over 4 years ago that made similarly outrageous claims. Then they promised cutting your fuel bill by wiring a “hydrogen generator” to your car alternator. Of course it didn’t work.

Both scams made money by selling worthless e-books. Both used affiliate schemes. On either set of sites when you try to navigate away from it, a dialog box will pop up to ask you if you really want to leave, trying to keep you there. If both schemes were not run by the same person, I’d guess they either used the same web designer or one guy closely copied the other. Typical for the hype used to sell on both sites is a “limited time offer” on earth4energy.com. When I checked it, it said the special offer expired on November 22 at midnight, which is today:

To secure your purchase and get the bonus products for free please order now. (This offer expires Thursday November 22 at midnight)

When I checked the source code of the earth4energy.com website, I found this piece of Javascript code that always outputs the current date:

To secure your purchase and get the bonus products for free please <a href=”ordercd.php”>order now</a>. (This offer expires
<script type=”text/javascript”>
var d=new Date()
var weekday=new Array(“Sunday”,”Monday”,”Tuesday”,”Wednesday”,
“Thursday”,”Friday”,”Saturday”)
var monthname=new Array(“January”,”February”,”March”,”April”,”May”,
“June”,”July”,”August”,”September”,”October”,”November”,”December”)
document.write(weekday[d.getDay()] + ” “)
document.write(monthname[d.getMonth()] + ” “)
document.write(d.getDate() + ” “)
</script>
at midnight)</p>

It will tell you the offer expires on today’s weekday and today’s exact date at midnight. It will do so today, tomorrow or a year from now. The offer is not meant to ever expire, the fake deadline is only claimed to rush you into buying. That is just one example of deception on their site.

The identity of the registrant of domain “earth4energy.com” is hidden behind a WHOIS proxy, so we don’t know who it is. What’s interesting though is that the site was registered in June of 2008, around when I wrote about the earlier scam. Back then there was a site called water4gas.com (notice the similar naming scheme!) run by a guy calling himself “Ozzie Freedom”, whose original name was Eyal Siman-Tov. He is from Israel and appeared to be a member of the Scientology cult. In 2008 he got sued by the state of Texas for deceptive business practises. You can read about the court case here.

I find it interesting how many web pages out there promote both water4gas by Ozzie Freedom and earth4energy.com. Here are a few of them. Is that by coincidence or are they connected?

Romney’s energy self-sufficiency fallacy

Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US president, recently made headlines by proposing that under his policies the US could become independent of energy imports by 2020. To make this claim slightly less incredible (the US uses 20% of the world’s petroleum while holding only 3% of its proven reserves), he included Canada and Mexico in his plan, effectively widening the scope to all of North America. The essence of his plan, which was received favourably by conservative media, are policies to boost hydrocarbon output (oil and gas production). The aim of the policy is to create jobs in exploration while keeping energy costs low for consumers, boosting the economy.

Let us assume that government policy could actually significantly boost oil and gas production. What effect would that have on the US and world economy in the next decades?

There was a time when the US was largely self sufficient on petroleum. Output was growing rapidly until the 1940s. However, new discoveries could not keep up with the rate of depletion of old wells. Production in the contiguous 48 states peaked in the early 1970s. The US became increasingly dependent on imports for oil supplies.

Worldwide hydrocarbon reserves are limited. There will come a point when worldwide production will peak (some believe it has already been reached) and from then on, rising oil prices will ensure that consumers reduce their demand to match available declining production.

Let us assume that, thanks to Mr Romney’s policies, oil and gas production in North America will magically rise enough to cover the entire amount currently being imported from the Middle East, South America and elsewhere (an assumption that is extremely optimistic according to experts). The amount currently imported will then become available as extra supplies to China, India, Brazil, Europe, Japan and other countries, keeping energy costs low for them and allowing them to compete more effectively with US manufacturers over the next decade.

At some point those new oil wells, shale gas wells and tar sand pits will run dry too. What then? By then oil will be a far more scarce resource, with more cars, motorcycles and power stations in China, India, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. burning it than today, as those economies will have been rapidly growing. At that point the US will have to revert to buying oil from Saudi Arabia again, whose reserves are estimated to be more long-lasting than North America’s. It will have no reserves left to replace those premium price imports then. Every dollar saved on import substitution in the next couple of years could cost US consumers 10 dollars then.

Imagine a world in which the price of oil were to double every decade. The oil in the ground in North America won’t go away unless it is pumped up and used. Why would you want to consume it while it’s worth only $70 a barrel instead of when it’s $140 or $280 a barrel? In a world of rising prices it pays to be a buyer early and a seller later.

Perversely, one of the beneficiaries of US policies on oil could be Iran. Economic sanctions linked to the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program have depressed Iranian oil sales. The more slowly Iranian oil reserves are depleted, the more Iran will benefit economically from these reserves when they are eventually used after oil prices have gone up.

Japan without nuclear power

Since last weekend, Japan is without a single nuclear power station feeding power into the grid, the first time in 42 years. All 50 nuclear power stations are currently off-line (this count does not include the 4 wrecked reactors in Fukushima I, which are no longer officially counted — it used to be 54 nuclear power stations).

Some of these power stations were shut down because of problems after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Others were taken offline one by one for routine inspections and maintenance but have not been started up again, which would only happen with the consent of nearby local governments. That consent has not been forthcoming.

Electrical utilities and the government are raising concerns about a power shortage when the summer heat sets in, which usually results in peak usage for air conditioners. Critics of nuclear power see an opportunity for a quick exit from nuclear power. Others are concerned that if the government rushes to bring power stations back online before the summer without safety upgrades and a change in the regulatory regime, a unique chance to prevent the next nuclear disaster will be squandered. If upgrades and reforms don’t happen when the memory of Fukushima is still relatively fresh, what’s the chance of it happening a few years down the road?

The utility companies are facing high costs from buying more fossil fuels for gas and oil fired thermal power stations to cover the demand; restarting the nuclear power stations would keep those costs in check. But that is only part of the reason they are keen on a restart. The sooner they can return to the pre-Fukushima state of power generation, the less leverage governments and the public have for making them accept new rules, such as retrofitting filters for emergency venting systems or a permanent shutdown of the oldest and seismically most vulnerable stations. Because of this it’s in the interest of the utilities to paint as bleak a picture of the situation as possible. Japan would be smart to proceed cautiously and not miss a unique chance to fix the problems that are the root cause of the Fukushima disaster and of disasters still waiting to happen.