The Oiliness of Everything. Invisible Oil and Energy Payback Time

The Oiliness of Everything. Invisible Oil and Energy Payback Time

by Alice Friedemann, August 23, 2014.

You can’t understand the predicament we’re in until you can “see” the oil we’re swimming in.

What follows is a life cycle of a very simple object, the pencil. I’ve reworded, added to, and shortened Read’s I Pencil, My Family Tree below.  Fossil fuel energy input ACTIONS and OBJECTS are in BOLD CAPITALS:

“My family tree begins with … a cedar tree from Oregon. Now contemplate the antecedents — all the people, numberless skills, and fabrication:

All the SAWS and TRUCKS and ROPE and countless OTHER GEAR to HARVESTand CART cedar logs to the RAILROAD siding. The MINING of ore, MAKING of STEEL, and its REFINEMENT into SAWS, AXES, and MOTORS.


BUILD LOGGING CAMPS (BEDS, MESS HALLS). SHOP for, DELIVER, and COOK FOOD to feed the working men. Not to mention the untold thousands of persons who had a hand in every cup of COFFEE the loggers drank!

The LOGS are SHIPPED to a MILL in California. Can you imagine how many people were needed to MAKE FLAT CARS and RAILS and RAILROAD ENGINES, to CONSTRUCT and INSTALL the COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS required?

Consider the mill work. The cedar logs are CUT into small, pencil-length slats less than a quarter inch thick. These are KILN-DRIED and then TINTED.  The slats are WAXED and KILN-DRIED again. How many skills went into the making of the TINT and the KILNS, into SUPPLYING the HEAT, the LIGHT and POWER, the BELTS, MOTORS, and all the OTHER THINGS a MILL requires? Plus the SWEEPERS and the MEN who POURED the CONCRETE for the DAM of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company HYDRO-ELECTRIC PLANT which supplies the mill’s POWER!


Once in the PENCIL FACTORY—worth millions of dollars in MACHINERY and BUILDING—each slat has 8 GROOVES CUT into them by a GROOVE-CUTTING MACHINE, after which the LEAD-LAYING MACHINE PLACES a piece of LEAD in every other slat, APPLIES GLUE and PLACES another SLAT on top–—a lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved from this “wood-clinched” sandwich.

My “lead” itself—it contains no lead at all—is complex. The GRAPHITE is MINED in Sri Lanka. Consider these MINERS and those who MAKE their many TOOLS and the makers of the PAPER SACKS in which the graphite is SHIPPED and those who make the STRING that ties the sacks and the MEN who LIFT them aboard SHIPS and the MEN who MAKE the SHIPS. Even the LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS along the way assisted in my birth—and the HARBOR PILOTS.

The graphite is mixed with CLAY FROM Mississippi in which AMMONIUM HYDROXIDE is used in the REFINING process. Then WETTING AGENTS and animal fats are CHEMICALLY REACTED with sulfuric acid. After PASSING THROUGH NUMEROUS MACHINES, the mixture finally appears as endless extrusions—as from a sausage grinder-cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then TREATED with a hot mixture which includes CANDELILLA WAX from Mexico, PARAFFIN WAX, and HYDROGENATED NATURAL FATS.

My cedar RECEIVES 6 coats of LACQUER. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the GROWERS of CASTOR BEANS and the REFINERS of CASTOR OIL are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!

Observe the LABELING, a film FORMED by APPLYING HEAT to CARBON BLACK mixed with RESINS. How do you make resins and what is carbon black?

My bit of metal—the ferrule—is BRASS. Think of all the PERSONS who MINE ZINC and COPPER and those who have the skills to MAKE shiny SHEET BRASS from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black NICKEL. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story would take pages to explain.

Then there’s my crowning glory, the ERASER, inelegantly referred to in the trade as “the plug,” the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An ingredient called “factice” is what does the erasing. It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rape-seed oil from Indonesia with sulfur chloride. Then, too, there are numerous VULCANIZING and ACCELERATING AGENTS. The PUMICE comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives “the plug” its color is CADMIUM SULFIDE.

Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Sri Lanka and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on.”

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)

When it comes to replacing fossil fuels with another kind of energy, you want to be sure you aren’t merely building a fancy Rube Goldberg contraption that churns out less power over its lifetime than the energy contained within the fossil fuels you used to build it.

There are decades-old scientific methods to figure this out, such “Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), embodied energy, net energy, etc.

The problems with LCA and EROEI

This is insane! There are infinite regressions since every object has its own LCA and EROEI.

LCA & EROEI studies are bound to miss some steps. Reed’s pencil story left out the design, marketing, packaging, sales, distribution, supply chains between the United States and Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, and the final ride the pencil takes on a garbage.

Every step in a process subtracts from the ultimate energy output and lowers the EROEI. Oil is pure concentrated sunshine brewed for free. Just drill, refine, and cheaply pipeline the oil to customers. Building alternative energy resources takes dozens to hundreds of steps, hundreds to thousands of components, and vast amounts of energy burned by all the transportation required to procure minerals and components from all over the world.

A report that chased down the energy in the infinite regressions would take a lifetime and be over a hundred thousand pages long. So boundaries have to be set, which leads to never-ending fights between scientists. On average, industry-sponsored scientists tend to use very narrow boundaries to come up with positive results, and systems ecologists — the experts and inventors of EROEI methodology — use wider boundaries, energy rather than financial data whenever possible (since commodity prices rise and fall constantly), and come up with lower or negative results.

For example, the studies that showed corn ethanol had a very small positive EROEI of 1.2 managed to do so by just looking at just the energy used within the biorefinery. Other scientists said that’s rubbish, what about the energy to make the tractor that planted the corn, the energy to plant, harvest, and deliver the corn to the biorefinery, the energy used by trucks, trains, and barges to deliver the ethanol, and so on.

Worse yet, there are many different LCA tables to choose from, so scientists also accuse each other of cherry-picking data that supports the result they want to come up with, or argue the data is out-of-date.

Alternative energy resources must be sustainable and renewable

What’s the point of making biofuels if unsustainable amounts of fresh water, topsoil, and phosphorous are used, or windmills and solar PV if they depend on scarce, energy-intensive rare earth metals, with most reserves in other countries that we’d have to fight over like we do oil now?

Nor do most analyses consider the environmental harm done. Making pencils mowed down forests, contaminated the air, and polluted rivers.

Nevertheless, these studies are valuable no matter what the results, because you can see all the oiliness from start to end, and the more studies you read, the more you can see what boundaries were set, and decide for yourself which scientists wrote the most complete and fair study.

Civilization needs energy resources with an EROEI of at least 12

Charles A. S. Hall, who founded EROEI methodology, initially thought an EROEI of at least 3 was needed to keep civilization as we know it operating. After three decades of research, he recently co-authored a paper that makes the case an EROEI of at least 12-14 is needed (Lambert).


Lambert, Jessica G., Hall Charles A. S. et al. 2014. Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy 64:153–167

Lambert, J. Hall, Charles, et al. Nov 2012. . EROI of Global Energy Resources Preliminary Status and Trends.  State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry



Posted in Alternative Energy, An Overview, Antecedents, EROEI Energy Returned on Energy Invested | 2 Comments

Revolutionary understanding of phsics needed to improve batteris – don’t hold your breath

What this Department of Energy document shows is that we can’t make the necessary REVOLUTIONARY breakthroughs to electrify cars until we understand the physics of batteries, and points out that “battery technology has not changed substantially in nearly 200 years.” page 3.

It’s how scientists like to say “don’t hold your breath” in as understated a way as possible.  Laws of physics?  That should have exclamation points.  And it sounds very expensive…

These are just a few of the challenges batteries and other kinds of electrical energy storage (EES) face.  I ran out of steam extracting them by page 35.

“Basic Research Needs for Electrical Energy Storage”. Report of the Basic Energy Sciences Workshop on Electrical Energy Storage April 2-4, 2007. Office of Science, U.S. Department Of Energy.

What Is a Battery?

A battery contains one or more electrochemical cells; these may be connected in series or parallel to provide the desired voltage and power. The anode is the electropositive electrode from which electrons are generated to do external work. In a lithium cell, the anode contains lithium, commonly held within graphite in the well-known lithium-ion batteries. The cathode is the electronegative electrode to which positive ions migrate inside the cell and electrons migrate through the external electrical circuit. The electrolyte allows the flow of positive ions, for example lithium ions, from one electrode to another. It allows the flow only of ions and not of electrons. The electrolyte is commonly a liquid solution containing a salt dissolved in a solvent. The electrolyte must be stable in the presence of both electrodes. The current collectors allow the transport of electrons to and from the electrodes. They are typically metals and must not react with the electrode materials. Typically, copper is used for the anode and aluminum for the cathode (the lighterweight aluminum reacts with lithium and therefore cannot be used for lithium-based anodes). The cell voltage is determined by the energy of the chemical reaction occurring in the cell. The anode and cathode are, in practice, complex composites. They contain, besides the active material, polymeric binders to hold the powder structure together and conductive diluents such as carbon black to give the whole structure electronic conductivity so that electrons can be transported to the active material. In addition these components are combined so as to leave sufficient porosity to allow the liquid electrolyte to penetrate the powder structure and the ions to reach the reacting sites.

Fundamental Challenges

Batteries are inherently complex and virtually living systems—their electrochemistry, phase transformations, and transport processes vary not only during cycling but often also throughout their lifetime. Although they are often viewed as simple for consumers to use, their successful operation relies on a series of complex, interrelated mechanisms involving thermodynamic instability in many parts of the charge-discharge cycle and the formation of metastable phases. The requirements for long-term stability are extremely stringent and necessitate control of the chemical and physical processes over a wide variety of temporal and structural length scales.

A battery system involves interactions among various states of matter—crystalline and amorphous solids, polymers, and organic liquids, among others (see sidebar “What Is a Battery?”). Some components, such as the electrodes and electrolytes, are considered electrochemically active; others, such as the conductive additives, binders, current collectors and separators, are used mainly to maintain the electrode’s electronic and mechanical integrity. Yet all of these components contribute to battery function and interact with one another, contributing to a convoluted system of interrelated reactions and physico-chemical processes that can manifest themselves indirectly via a large variety of symptoms and phenomena.

To provide the major breakthroughs needed to address future technology requirements, a fundamental understanding of the chemical and physical processes that occur in these complex systems must be obtained. New analytical and computational methods and experimental strategies are required to study the properties of the individual components and their interfaces. An interdisciplinary effort is required that brings together chemists, materials scientists, and physicists. This is particularly important for a fundamental understanding of processes at the electrode-electrolyte interface.

The largest and most critical knowledge gaps exist in the basic understanding of the mechanisms and kinetics of the elementary steps that occur during battery operation. These processes—which include charge transfer phenomena, charge carrier and mass transport in the bulk of the materials and across interfaces, and structural changes and phase transitions— determine the main parameters of the entire EES system: energy density, charge-discharge rate, lifetime, and safety. For example, understanding structure and reactivity at hidden or buried interfaces is particularly important for understanding battery performance and failure modes. These interfaces may include a reaction front moving through a particle in a twophase reaction; an interface between the conducting matrix (e.g., carbon), the binder, or the solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) (see PRD “Rational Design of Interfaces and Interphases”) and the electrode material; or a dislocation originally present in the material or caused by electrochemical cycling (Figure 2). New analytical tools are needed to allow monitoring of a reaction front moving through a particle in a two-phase reaction (Figure 1, ii) in real time, and to image concentration gradients and heterogeneity in these complex systems. A detailed, molecular-level understanding is needed of the mechanism by which an ion intercalates or reacts at the liquid-solid interface or at the gas-solid interface, depending on the type of battery being studied.

Further, an understanding is needed of how these mechanisms vary with surface and bulk structure, particle morphology, and electronic properties of the solid for both intercalation and conversion reactions. Also important is the ability to correlate the structure of the interface with its reactivity, to bridge the gap between localized ultrafast phenomena that occur at the Å–micron length scale and the macroscopic long-term behavior of the battery system. Gaining insight into the nature of these processes is key to designing novel materials and chemistries for the next generation of chemical EES devices. Recent advances in nanoscience, analytical techniques, and computational modeling present unprecedented opportunities to solve technical bottlenecks. New synthetic approaches can allow the design of materials with exquisite control of chemical and physical processes at the atomic and molecular levels. Development of in situ methods and even multi-technique probes that push the limits of both spatial and temporal resolution can provide detailed insight into these processes and relate them to electrode structure. New computational tools, which can be employed to model complex battery systems and can couple with experimental techniques both to feed data into modeling and to use modeling/theory to help interpret experimental data, are critically important.

The Potential of nanoscience

The lack of a fundamental understanding of how thermodynamic properties, such as phase co-existence, change at the nanoscale is in stark contrast to the wealth of information available on the novel electronic, optical, and magnetic properties of nanomaterials. While the latter properties typically arise from the interaction of the electronic structure with the boundary conditions (e.g., electron confinement and/or localization), purely energetic properties and thermodynamic behavior change in a less transparent way at the nanoscale.

Many fundamental questions remain to be answered. For example, are the differences in the electrochemical properties of bulk and nanosize electrode materials simply due to the higher concentrations of different surfaces available for intercalation, or are the electronic properties of the nanomaterials significantly different? Are surface structures at the nanoscale significantly different from those in the bulk or are the improved properties simply a transport effect? At the nanoscale, can we conceptually separate pseudocapacitive from storage reactions? Can we develop general rules and, if so, how widely do we expect them to apply? How are ionic and electronic transport processes coupled in complex heterogeneous nanostructured materials? The ability to modify the properties of materials by treating size and shape as new variables presents great opportunities for designing new classes of materials for EES.

It is imperative to explore how the different properties of nanoparticles and their composites can be used to increase the power and energy efficiency of battery systems. A tremendous opportunity exists to exploit nanoscale phenomena to design new chemistries and even whole new electrode and electrolyte architectures—from nanoporous mesoscopic structures to three-dimensional electrodes with active and passive multifunctional components interconnected within architectures that offer superior energy storage capacity, fast kinetics and enhanced mass transport, and mechanical integrity. To do so, we need to be able to control chemistries and assembly processes. Furthermore, low-cost, high-volume synthesis and fabrication techniques and nanocomposites with improved safety characteristics must be designed, to satisfy requirements for large-scale manufacturing of nanostructure materials and for their use in practical battery systems.

New Capabilities in Computation and Analysis

Although clever engineering can address some inherent problems with a particular battery chemistry, dramatic improvements in performance will ultimately come from the development of different electrode and electrolyte materials. New computational and analysis tools are needed to realize significant breakthroughs in these areas. For example, new analytical tools will provide an understanding of how the phase behavior and electrochemical properties of materials are modified at the atomic level. With this information, computational tools will expedite the design of materials with structures and architectures tailored for specific performance characteristics. It is now possible to predict many properties of materials before attempting to synthesize and test them (see Appendix B, “Probing Electrical Energy Storage Chemistry And Physics Over Broad Time And Length Scales,” for further details), and expanded computational capabilities specific to chemical energy storage are a critical need. New capabilities in modeling and simulation could help unravel the complex processes involved in charge transport across the electrode-electrolyte interface and identify underlying reactions that cause capacity degradation.

Tremendous opportunities exist to develop and apply novel experimental methodologies with increased spatial, energy, and temporal resolution. These could answer a wide range of fundamental questions in chemical electrical storage, identifying and providing ways to overcome some of the barriers in this field. In particular, techniques that combine higher resolution imaging, fast spectroscopic tools, and improved electrochemical probes will enable researchers to unravel the complex processes that occur at electrodes, electrolytes, and interfaces.



To realize the full potential of electrochemical capacitors (ECs) as electrical energy storage (EES) devices, new materials and chemical processes are needed to improve their charge storage capabilities by increasing both their energy and their power densities. Incremental changes in existing technologies will not produce the breakthroughs needed to realize these improvements. Rather, a fundamental understanding of the physical and chemical processes that take place in the EC—including the electrodes, the electrolytes, and especially their interfaces—is needed to design revolutionary concepts. For example, new strategies in which EC materials simultaneously exploit multiple charge storage mechanisms need to be identified. Charge storage mechanisms need to be understood to enable the design of new materials for pseudocapacitors and hybrid devices. There is a need for new electrolytes that have high ionic conductivity in combination with wide electrochemical, chemical, and thermal stability; are non-toxic, biodegradable, and/or renewable; can be immobilized; and can be produced from sustainable sources. New continuum, atomistic, and quantum mechanical models are needed to understand solvents and ions in pores, predict new material chemistries and architectures, and discover new physical phenomena at the electrochemical interfaces. From fundamental science, novel energy storage mechanisms can be designed into new materials. With these breakthroughs, ECs have the potential to emerge as an important energy storage technology in the future.


Little is known about the physico-chemical consequences of nanoscale dimensions (see sidebar “Correlation Between Pore Size, Ion Size, and Specific Capacitance”). Further, it is necessary to understand how various factors—such as pore size, surface area, and surface chemistry— affect the performance of ECs. This knowledge can be used to design nanostructured materials with optimized architectures that could yield dramatic improvements in current capabilities in energy and power. Novel electrolyte systems that operate at higher voltages and have higher room-temperature conductivity are critically needed for the next generation of ECs. Fundamentals of solvation dynamics, molecular interactions at interfaces, and ion transport must be better understood to tailor electrolytes for optimal performance. Exciting opportunities exist for creating multifunctional electrolytes that scavenge impurities and exhibit self-healing. A potential bridge between ECs and batteries is combining a batterytype electrode with a capacitor-type electrode in so-called hybrid or asymmetric ECs.6 This approach needs to be better understood at the fundamental level so that it enables the tailoring of energy density without compromising power density. In situ characterization of the electrolyte/electrode interface during charging/discharging at molecular and atomic levels is critical to understanding the fundamental processes in capacitive energy storage. This will require the development of new experimental techniques that combine measurement and imaging, including so-called chemical imaging, where chemical information can be obtained at high spatial resolution. In addition, new computational capabilities can allow modeling of active materials, electrolytes, and electrochemical processes at the nanoscale and across broad length and time scales. These models will assist in the discovery of new materials and the performance evaluation of new system designs.

Background and Motivation
A chemical energy storage system (battery) is inherently complex, consisting of a cathode, an
electrolyte, and an anode (see sidebar “What is a Battery?” on page 11). Any future system
must be designed to include a number of essential characteristics, including
• high energy density;
• sufficient power achieved through holistic design of the storage materials, supporting
components, and device construction;
• electrochemical and materials stability to ensure long lifetimes;
• practical materials synthesis and device fabrication approaches;
• reasonable cost; and
• optimized safe operation and manageable toxicity and environmental effects.
Future chemical energy storage applications, ranging from portable consumer products to
hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles to electrical distribution load-leveling, require years to
decades of deep discharge with subsequent recharging (charge-discharge cycles). This level
of use must occur with minimal loss of performance so that the same capacity is available on
every discharge (i.e., with minimal capacity fade). The necessity of ensuring stable cycle-life
response has restricted the number of electrons that can be transferred in any given discharge
or charge reaction, thereby limiting the utilization of the electrodes and the amount of energy
that could be available from the batteries.
This restriction in battery operation is driven by the fact that deep, but thermodynamically
allowable, discharge reactions usually drive the electrodes toward physical and chemical
conditions that cannot be fully reversed upon charging. The extent to which the physical and
chemical properties of electrode materials change during electrochemical cycling is
dependent on the battery’s chemistry. For example, during charge-discharge, the electrode
materials can undergo damaging structural changes. They can fracture, resulting in the loss of
electronic contact, and they can dissolve in the electrolyte, thereby lowering the cycling
efficiency and delivered energy of the batteries.

I’m amazed you got this far.  This is just page 35 of 186 pages, go read the rest online if your eyes haven’t glazed over yet!

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United States Energy: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

United States Energy Information Administration FAQ


Conversion & Equivalents

Crude Oil





General Energy

Natural Gas




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Electricity Energy Information Administration (EIA) Frequently Asked Questions

Energy Information Administration (EIA) Frequently Asked Questions about Electricity

n 2013, the United States generated about 4,058 billion kilowatthours of electricity.  About 67% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), with 39% attributed from coal.

In 2013, energy sources and percent share of total electricity generation were

  • Coal 39%
  • Natural Gas 27%
  • Nuclear 19%
  • Hydropower 7%
  • Other Renewable 6%
    • Biomass 1.48%
    • Geothermal 0.41%
    • Solar 0.23%
    • Wind 4.13%
  • Petroleum 1%
  • Other Gases < 1%

Does EIA have data on each power plant in the United States?

Other FAQs about Electricity

Data on existing individual electric generators at U.S. power plants, including the operational status, generating capacity, primary fuel/energy sources used, type of prime mover, location, the month and year of initial operation, and other information are collected with the EIA-860 survey.   Summary data on all generators are available in worksheets by the primary fuel/energy source used by the generators. Monthly and total annual fuel consumption, power generation, and various environmental data for power plants are collected with the EIA-923 survey.



EIA has an interactive map that includes the location of power plants and major electric power transmission lines in the United States.  To learn more about this map, play a short instructional video on how to use the EIA State Energy Portal tool. EIA currently does not  publish any other information on the location of power lines. The address of power plants with 1 MW or greater in generation capacity are in the “PlantYyy” file of the EIA-860 database



EIA estimates that the U.S. residential sector consumed about 1,375 billion kilowatthours of electricity in 2012. Estimated U.S. Residential Electricity Consumption by End Use, 2012

End Use Quadrillion
Share of
Space cooling 0.85 250 18%
Lighting 0.64 186 14%
Water heating 0.45 130 9%
Refrigeration 0.38 111 8%
Televisions and related equipment 1 0.33 98 7%
Space heating 0.29 84 6%
Clothes dryers 0.20 59 4%
Computers and related equipment2 0.12 37 3%
Cooking 0.11 31 2%
Dishwashers3 0.10 29 2%
Furnace fans and boiler circulation pumps 0.09 28 2%
Freezers 0.08 24 2%
Clothes washers3 0.03 9 1%
Other uses4 1.02 299 22%
Total consumption 4.69 1,375  

1 Includes televisions, set-top boxes, home theater systems, DVD players, and video game consoles. 2 Includes desktop and laptop computers, monitors, and networking equipment. 3 Does not include water heating portion of load. 4 Includes small electric devices, heating elements, and motors not listed above. Electric vehicles are included in the transportation sector.

There are about 19,023 individual generators at about 6,997 operational power plants in the United States with a nameplate generation capacity of at least one megawatt. A power plant can have one or more generators, and some generators may use more than one type of fuel. Learn more: Electric Power Annual 2012, Table 4.1: Count of Electric Power Industry Power Plants, by Sector, by Predominant Energy Sources within Plant (some plants are double-counted by fuel type in Table 4.1), and Table 4.3: Existing Capacity by Energy Source. Downloadable databases with detailed data on individual generators and power plants.

The amount of fuel used to generate electricity depends on the efficiency or heat rate of the generator (or power plant) and the heat content of the fuel. Power plant efficiencies (heat rates) vary by types of generators, power plant emission controls, and other factors. Fuel heat contents also vary.

Two formulas for calculating the amount of fuel used to generate a kilowatthour (kWh) of electricity:

  • Amount of fuel used per kWh = Heat rate (in Btu per kWh) / Fuel heat content (in Btu per physical unit)
  • Kilowatthour generated per unit of fuel used = Fuel heat content (in Btu per physical unit) / Heat rate (in Btu per kWh)

Calculation examples using these two formulas and the assumptions below:

  • Amount of fuel used to generate one kilowatthour (kWh):
    • Coal = 0.00054 short tons or 1.09 pounds
    • Natural gas = 0.00786 Mcf (1,000 cubic feet)
    • Petroleum = 0.00188 barrels (or 0.08 gallons)
  • Kilowatthour generated per unit of fuel used:
    • 1,842 kWh per ton of Coal or 0.9 kWh per pound of Coal
    • 127 kWh per Mcf (1,000 cubic feet) of Natural gas
    • 533 kWh per barrel of Petroleum, or 12.7 kWh per gallon

Assumptions: Power plant heat rate

  • Coal = 10,498 Btu/kWh
  • Natural gas = 8,039 Btu/kWh
  • Petroleum = 10,991 Btu/kWh

Fuel heat contents

  • Coal = 19,336,000 Btu per short ton (2,000 lbs) Note: heat contents of coal vary widely by types of coal.
  • Natural gas  = 1,023,000 Btu per 1,000 Cubic Feet (Mcf)
  • Petroleum = 5,861,814 Btu per Barrel (42 gallons) Note: Heat contents vary by type of petroleum product.

EIA publishes estimates for the capital costs for different types of electricity generators in the Updated Capital Cost Estimates for Electricity Generation Plants report.

EIA estimates that national electricity transmission and distribution losses average about 6% of the electricity that is transmitted and distributed in the United States each year

Capacity factor is a measure of how often an electric generator runs for a specific period of time. It indicates how much electricity a generator actually produces relative to the maximum it could produce at continuous full power operation during the same period.

Over the past 6 years, the average capacity factors were: Coal 64%, Natural Gas combined cycle 44%, Nuclear 90%, Hydropower 40%, Wind 31%, Solar PV 20%, Solar Thermal 22%, Geothermal 71%

Capacity is the maximum electric output a generator can produce under specific conditions. Nameplate capacity is determined by the generator’s manufacturer and indicates the maximum output a generator can produce without exceeding design thermal limits.

Net summer capacity and net winter capacity are typically determined by a performance test and indicate the maximum load a generator can support at the point of interconnection during the respective season. The primary factors that affect or determine the difference in capacity between summer and winter months are:

  • the temperature of cooling water for thermal power plants or of the ambient air for combustion turbines
  • the water flow and reservoir storage characteristics for hydropower plants

Generation is the amount of electricity a generator produces over a specific period of time. For example, a generator with 1 megawatt (mW) capacity that operates at that capacity consistently for one hour will produce 1 megawatthour (mWh) of electricity. If it operates at only half that capacity for one hour, it will produce 0.5 mWh of electricity. Many generators do not operate at their full capacity all the time; they may vary their output according to conditions at the power plant, fuel costs, and/or as instructed from the electric power grid operator.

Net generation is the amount of gross generation a generator produces less the electricity used to operate the power plant.  These uses include fuel handling, feedwater pumps, combustion air fans, cooling water pumps, pollution control equipment, and other electricity needs.

One measure of the efficiency of a power plant that converts a fuel into heat and into electricity is the heat rate. The heat rate is the amount of energy used by an electrical generator or power plant to generate one kilowatthour (kWh) of electricity. EIA expresses heat rates in British thermal units (Btu) per net kWh generated. Net generation is the amount of electricity a power plant (or generator) supplies to the power transmission line connected to the power plant. It accounts for all the electricity that the plant itself consumes to operate the generator(s) and other equipment, such as fuel feeding systems, boiler water pumps, cooling equipment, and pollution control devices.

To express the efficiency of a generator or power plant as a percentage, divide the equivalent Btu content of a kWh of electricity (which is 3,412 Btu) by the heat rate. For example, if the heat rate is 10,140 Btu, the efficiency is 34%. If the heat rate is 7,500 Btu, the efficiency is 45%.

EIA only publishes heat rates for fossil fuel-fired generators and nuclear power plants. EIA does not publish estimates for the efficiency of generators using biomass, geothermal, hydro, solar, and wind energy.

Learn more:

Historical average annual heat rates for fossil fuel and nuclear power plants.

Average annual heat rates for specific types of fossil-fuel generators and nuclear power plants for most recent year available.

EIA has data on the types and amounts of energy produced in each state:

EIA also has  the location of coal mines, electric power plants, and oil and natural gas fields in our interactive map. A short instructional video is available to learn how to use this tool.

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Antibiotic Resistance

Jones, Tamera. 21 July 2014. Sewage treatment contributes to antibiotic resistance

G. C. A. Amos, P. M. Hawkey, W. H. Gaze and E. M. Wellington, Waste water effluent contributes to the dissemination of CTX-M-15 in the natural environment, Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy2014; 69: 1785 – 1791, published online 5th May 2014, doi:10.1093/jac/dku079

Wastewater treatment plants could be unwittingly helping to spread antibiotic resistance, say scientists.  Their research suggests that processing human, farm and industrial waste all together in one place might be making it easier for bacteria to become resistant to a wide range of even the most clinically-effective antibiotics. With so many different types of bacteria coming together in sewage plants we could be giving them a perfect opportunity to swap genes that confer resistance, helping them live. This means antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be evolving much faster than they would in isolation.

The research, published in Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, shows that there are now reservoirs of highly resistant gut bacteria in the environment, threatening human and animal health.

We urgently need to find new ways to process waste more effectively so we don’t inadvertently contribute to the problem of drug-resistant bacteria.

Earlier studies have suggested that farming and waste processing methods contribute to reservoirs of resistant bacteria in the environment. But, until now, very few studies had looked at whether or not wastewater effluent contributes to the problem.

We’re on the brink of Armageddon and this is just contributing to it. Antibiotics could just stop working and we could all be colonized by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.’ Professor Elizabeth Wellington of the University of Warwick.

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Global Nausea

Global Nausea by James Howard Kunstler

Any American influence left in Iraq should focus on rebuilding the credibility of national institutions.  – Editorial, The New York Times

Gosh, isn’t that what we spent eight years, 4,500 lives, and $1.7 trillion doing? And how did that work out? The Iraq war is just like the US financial system. The people in charge can’t imagine writing off their losses. Which, from the policy standpoint, leaves the USA pounding sand down so many rat holes that there may be no ground left to stand on anywhere. We’ll be lucky if our national life doesn’t soon resemble The Revenge of the Mole People.

The arc of this story points to at least one likely conclusion: the dreadful day that ISIS (shorthand for whatever they call themselves) overruns the US Green Zone in Baghdad. Won’t that be a nauseating spectacle? Perhaps just in time for the 2014 US elections. And what do you suppose the policy meeting will be like in the White House war room the day after?

Will anyone argue that the USA just take a break from further operations in the entire Middle East / North Africa region? My recommendation would be to stand back, do nothing, and see what happens — since everything we’ve done so far just leaves things and lives shattered. Let’s even say that ISIS ends up consolidating power in Iraq, Syria, and some other places. The whole region will get a very colorful demonstration of what it is like to live under an 11th century style psychopathic despotism, and then the people left after the orgy of beheading and crucifixion can decide if they like it. The experience might be clarifying.

In any case, what we’re witnessing in the Middle East — apparently unbeknownst to the newspapers and the cable news orgs — is what happens in extreme population overshoot: chaos, murder, economic collapse. The human population in this desolate corner of the world has expanded on the artificial nutriment of oil profits, which have allowed governments to keep feeding their people, and maintaining an artificial middle class to work in meaningless bureaucratic offices where, at best, they do nothing and, at worst, hassle their fellow citizens for bribes and payoffs.

There is not a nation on earth that is preparing intelligently for the end of oil — and by that I mean 1) the end of cheap, affordable oil, and 2) the permanent destabilization of existing oil supply lines. Both of these conditions should be visible now in the evolving geopolitical dynamic, but nobody is paying attention, for instance, in the hubbub over Ukraine. That feckless, unfortunate, and tragic would-be nation, prompted by EU and US puppeteers, just replied to the latest trade sanction salvo from Russia by declaring it would block the delivery of Russian gas to Europe through pipelines on its territory. I hope everybody west of Dnepropetrovsk is getting ready to burn the furniture come November. But that just shows how completely irrational the situation has become… and I stray from my point.

Which is that in the worst case that ISIS succeeds in establishing a sprawling caliphate, they will never be able to govern it successfully, only preside over an awesome episode of bloodletting and social collapse. This is especially true in what is now called Saudi Arabia, with its sclerotic ruling elite clinging to power. If and when the ISIS maniacs come rolling in on a cavalcade of You-Tube beheading videos, what are the chances that the technicians running the oil infrastructure there will stick around on the job? And could ISIS run all that machinery themselves? I wouldn’t count on it. And I wouldn’t count on global oil supply lines continuing to function in the way the world requires them to. If you’re looking for the near-future spark of World War Three, start there.

By the way, the US is no less idiotic than Ukraine. We’ve sold ourselves the story that shale oil will insulate us from all the woes and conflicts breaking out elsewhere in the world over the dissolving oil economy paradigm. The shale oil story is false. By my reckoning we have about a year left of the drive-to-Walmart-economy before the public broadly gets what trouble we’re in. The amazing thing is that the public might get to that realization even before its political leadership does. That dynamic leads straight to the previously unthinkable (not for 150 years, anyway) breakup of the United States.

Posted in James Howard Kunstler | Leave a comment

Patzek: CTL coal-to-liquids from FT Synthesis is NOT likely to happen

CTL Mordor

This is a liquid fuel crisis – diesel to be exact – to keep tractors, trucks, trains, and ships moving. There’s not enough coal or water to make even a small percent of the FT-CTL diesel fuel we need from coal in Montana or Wyoming, and would turn these beautiful states into Mordor (in Tolkien’s trilogy “Lord of the Rings”).   Alice Friedemann at

Patzek, T. W. et al. Sep 2009. Potential for Coal-to-Liquids Conversion in the United States—Fischer–Tropsch Synthesis. Natural Resources Research, Vol. 18, No. 3

America has the world’s largest coal reserves, and the best spot to locate a coal-to-liquids (CTL) plant would be in Montana near one of the largest coal deposits. CTL is seen as a way to replace depleting petroleum reserves, but there are several major drawbacks:

  1. The Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process is only half as efficient as refining crude oil
  2. The resulting CO2 emissions are 20 times (2000%) higher
  3. An enormous amount of water is needed: 1000 kg of coal needs 1000 kg of water
  4. You’d need to use over 40% of the FT fuel energy to sequester the CO2
  5. CTL is a poor use for coal as long as natural gas is cheaper for generating electricity
  6. FT plants and the surrounding mine are very expensive to build
  7. converting petroleum to diesel fuel is 88% energy-efficient, but less than 50% efficient in the FT process (which produces a high-wax crude oil, not diesel fuel)

Only South Africa uses the FT process to make diesel and gasoline from 45 million tons of coal every year. This led to serious environmental problems:

  1. Enormous amounts of land are strip mined and covered with up to 50 million tons of mining waste per year, waste that’s high in sulfur (1-7.8%) and ash (24-63%).
  2. When the waste is burned, the Eastern Transvaal Highveld is doused in acid rain
  3. These plants need 5 barrels of water per barrel of FT oil produced

A small plant making 22,000 BPD of FT fuel would use 20% of the current coal production in Montana. A 300,000 plant large enough to supply the military would need twice as much Montana coal as is being mined now, three times as much Montana water as mines are now using,

The three larger plant designs extend into the realm of surrealism. For example, the 300,000 BPD plant, sufficient to supply most of the U.S. military needs, would consume twice the current coal production in Montana, thrice the current water use by Montana mines, and each year would produce 11 million toxic tons of ash with arsenic, mercury, sulfur, uranium thorium, among other things. Or as Tad Patzek puts it “If Montanans wish to destroy their beautiful state, then large FT plants offer an almost certain fulfilment of this wish….Stored coal ash slurries eventually threaten water supplies, human health, and local ecosystems.”

Electric power generation is the dominant use of coal in the United States, accounting for 92.3% of U.S. coal usage in 2006. Other industrial use accounted for 5.3% and coke accounted for only 2.1% of U.S. coal consumption in 2006.

It’s not clear that we can find enough coal for both CTL and coal generated electricity. Although natural gas plants have been increasing in number because of the temporary fracking boom, and the need to balance the wind load of intermittent power to keep the grid stable, there’s not enough natural gas to replace all coal plants.  Other load-balancing energy resources can’t step in for coal electric generation to free it up for CTL either: most geothermal is in non-coal-burning states with a max of 9,000 MW from known resources and perhaps another 33,000 MW left to be founde.  Nuclear power isn’t going to ramp up quickly for many reasons.


1. The large volumes of coal required for CTL suggest that the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana is likely to be the coal source.

2. Although U.S. coal reserves are large, recent coal price increases suggest that there is no global coal surplus in the short term.

3. The Powder River coal, cheapest in the United States, would inevitably double or triple in price if there were a high-throughput railroad connection to the Pacific or Atlantic coast.

4. The energy efficiency of an optimal coal-based FT process that produces liquid fuels is 41%. This means that for every 1 unit of fuel energy out, one needs to put 2.4 units of coal energy in.

5. Because of the different energy contents of subbituminous coal and FT fuel, and a low energy efficiency of CTL conversion, roughly 800 kg of the average Powder River Basin coal will be needed to produce 1 barrel of the FT fuel.

6. Per unit energy in a liquid transportation fuel, carbon dioxide emissions from a CT plant are about 20 times higher than those from a petroleum refinery.

7. Subsurface disposal of carbon dioxide produced by the FT plants costs at least 40% of the thermal energy in FT fuel. If this disposal were deeper than assumed here, the current estimate might increase by a factor of up to 4.

8. Montana does not have the approximately 800 kg of clean water necessary to produce each barrel of FT fuel.

9. Natural gas can be compressed and used for transportation fuel with an efficiency of 98%. Therefore, the FT transportation fuel from coal is always uneconomic as long as natural gas competes with coal for power generation. This is true even if the gas-fired plants are more efficient combined cycle designs and the coal plants are conventional.

10. Judging by the recent financing of corn ethanol refineries, the astronomical construction costs of coal-based FT plants might be borne by the U. S. taxpayers through a new subsidy program.

11. The massive societal costs of the subsidies required to render CTL ‘‘economical,’’ and the environmental costs of fuel production would be borne by all Americans and the planet at large, but especially by the people of Montana and the surrounding states, including Canada


Posted in Coal, Tad Patzek | 2 Comments

What we knew about the energy crisis back in 1977

A friend of mine found this yesterday in one of her folders from college.  If seems like even more Americans are ignorant and blindly techno-optimist today than they were 40 years ago.  The last item of how we might proceed offers 4 suggestions, and we appear to have chosen the most repugnant: “Hang the environmentalists and plunder the environment”.  Lamar certainly was prescient…

The energy crisis: Some human considerations. Fall 1977.
From an outline prepared by William Fred Lamar, Jr., for a talk before a National Conference of Rural Electric Cooperative Directors

I. The Energy Crisis is Real

A. There are no easily available sources of fossil energy to supply our expanding needs.

  1. We are rapidly running out of oil and natural gas.
  2. While we have a 200 year supply of coal, there are pollution and other environmental (greenhouse) problems we have not solved.
  3. We have not come up with satisfactory and safe means for using nuclear reactors on a large scale.
  4. Our resources of geothermal, wind, and tidal energy either are limited or have limited applicability.
  5. Solar power is probably a generation away from application to our current needs.

B. According to a recent Gallup poll 50% of all Americans do not believe we have an energy problem, and/or believe that we have the technology available to meet our present and future energy needs.

II. A Description of the Problem

A. We are in danger of exhausting our economically recoverable oil resources

B. We are currently using non-renewable resources for the wrong ends.

  1. Most of our oil and natural gas is used for transportation and low temperature space heating, where other sources of energy would suffice
  2. At this time there is no substitute for the petrochemically related hydro-carbon molecule in: a. the production of agricultural fertilizers and chemicals, b. the production of drugs, c. the production of plastics, wash and wear fabrics, paint polymers,

III. Suffering caused by the Energy Crunch

A. On an international scale, the suffering will not be equitable

1. The major powers will probably be able to survive much as they are, but with some inconvenience

2. The economies of western Europe and Japan may be destroyed by the $30/bbl of oil predicted by the end of the 1980’s

3. Such an increase in oil price will mean total disaster for the developing nations who are:

a. dependent on petrochemically produced fertilizers to maintain the green revolution
b. petroleum products to begin the production of energy for industrial production and transportation

B. The suffering will not be equitably distributed within the United States

1. the rich will get by
2. The middle class will lose its long vacations, second cars, and possibly its free-standing homes
3. The poor and those on fixed incomes will face a bleak future as transportation and fuel costs increase fourfold, and as food costs double

IV. Some Issues that the American People will have to face in working through the Energy Crisis

A. Credibility

1. Currently 50% of the population and many of our leaders still believe that there is no crisis, or that the crisis is a manipulative activity of the energy producers

2. Some crazy things will happen to rate structures

a. artificially priced commodities (oil and natural gas) will either soar in price, be drastically rationed, or be rapidly depleted
b. A radical increase in price will suddenly make some petroleum reserves available (economically feasible to exploit), e.g. shale oil, tertiary pumping of abandoned wells, oil from coal, oil from “deep sea” wells
c. people may be asked to pay more if they conserve energy than if they waste it, e.g. experience of Union Electric Co of St. Louis in 1973
d. The use of solar assisted heating systems (installed at great expense of $6-10,000 may not result in a lowering of the consumer’s electric bill, e.g. University of North Dakota engineering survey of solar assisted electric heating costs

B. Equity

1. Energy allocation

a. in the event of energy rationing, how shall the rationing be accomplished?

1. Shall all be asked to take a uniform cut?
2. Shall certain groups be exempted from rationing?
3. Shall rationing be accomplished by an “economic model” (let people use what they can pay for)?

2. Expense of Energy

a. as energy costs rise, shall we
1. deny energy to the poor
2. guarantee lifeline rates
3. provide energy stamps backed by a regressive income tax
4. require all persons to live in apartments or condominiums which use 1/3 heat of freestanding home
5. place a severe tax on homes with unused space (rooms above the minimum of 2 per family member), and a prohibitory tax on second homes

b. Basic question—is a minimal entitlement to energy an “inalienable right”? What is minimal?

C. Social Dislocation in a time of crisis

1. Since the close of World War II the American people have created a world of unbelievable luxury and ease based upon the false belief in an unending supply of cheap petro-energy

2. How shall we face the possible dislocation caused by:
a. A move away from the automobile economy which employs 16% of all Americans
b. the inability of our economy to support the energy consumption (for space heating) of freestanding homes, and the energy consumption (for transportation) of the commuters who live in these homes
c. currently our entire economy is based upon an assumption of transience:
1. gasoline powered mobility for people
2. throw-away or convenience items for all
3. with planned obsolescence, rather than quality as the goal of production
d. A radical move toward stewardship of our resources, toward quality craftsmanship, and toward foot-powered mobility could make 1933 look like a very good year

D. Energy Production

1. As the gap between our energy needs (desires) and the available level of energy production that is not hazardous to the environment becomes more acute, shall we:

a. practice radical conservation—at the possible cost of a world depression
b. mount a research program equal to that of the Moon landing or the Manhattan project—at the cost of decreasing other governmental problems
c. follow Edward Teller’s recommendation and move instantly to the mass production of thorium fission reactors so that oil and natural gas may be saved to provide precious fertilizer for the third world
d. hang the environmentalists and plunder the environment


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American Physical Society: has the Battery Bubble Burst?

Aug/Sep 2012. Has the Battery Bubble Burst?

Fred Schlachter. American Physical Society. APS News Vol 21, number 8.

Three years ago at a symposium on lithium-air batteries at IBM Almaden there was great optimism. The symposium “Scalable Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium Ion” had as a working message: “There are no fundamental scientific obstacles to creating batteries with ten times the energy content–for a given weight–of the best current batteries.”

Optimism had all but vanished this year at the fifth conference in the scalable-energy-storage series in Berkeley, California.

“Although new electric vehicles with advanced lithium ion batteries are being introduced, further breakthroughs in scalable energy storage, beyond current state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries, are necessary before the full benefits of vehicle electrification can be realized.”

The mood was cautious, as it is clear that lithium-ion batteries are maturing slowly, and that their limited energy density and high cost will preclude producing all-electric cars to replace the primary American family car in the foreseeable future.

“The future is cloudy” is how Venkat Srinivasan, who heads the battery research program at Berkeley Lab, summarized the conference.

Electric cars have a long history. They were popular at the dawn of the automobile age, with 28% of the automobiles produced in the United States in 1900 powered by electricity. The early popularity of electric cars faded, however, as Henry Ford introduced mass-produced cars powered with internal-combustion engines in 1908.

Gasoline was quickly recognized as nature’s ideal fuel for cars: it has a very high energy density by both weight and volume–around 500 times that of a lead-acid battery–and it was plentiful, inexpensive, and seemingly unlimited in supply. By the 1920s electric cars were no longer commercially viable and disappeared from the scene. They did not reappear until late in the 20th century as gasoline became expensive, supplies no longer seemed unlimited, and concerns over the possible effect of combustion of fossil fuels on global climate reached public awareness.

Electric cars are returning with the advent of battery chemistries that are more efficient than the lead-acid batteries of old. A new generation of electric cars has come in the form of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs), and fully electric or battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Most of the latest generation of electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries, using technology pioneered for laptop computers and mobile phones.

Powering cars with electricity rather than with gasoline offers the dual advantages of eventually eliminating our dependence on imported fossil fuels and operating cars with renewable energy resources. Eliminating dependence on petroleum imported from often-unfriendly countries will greatly improve our energy security, while powering cars from a green grid with solar and wind resources will significantly reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

The major barrier to replacing the primary American family car with electric vehicles is battery performance. The most significant issue is energy storage density by both weight and volume. Present technology requires an electric car to have a large and heavy battery, while providing less range than a car powered by gasoline.

Batteries are expensive, resulting in electric cars typically being much more expensive than similar-sized cars powered by gasoline. There is a sensible cost limit when the cost of an electric car and electricity consumed over the life of the car considerably exceeds the cost of a car with an internal combustion engine including gasoline over the life of the car.

Safety is an issue much discussed in the press. Although there are more than 200,000 fires per year in gasoline-fueled cars in America, there is widespread fear of electricity. Batteries in cars powered by electricity will surely burn in some accident scenarios; the fire risk will probably be similar to gasoline-powered cars.

Stored energy in fuel is considerable: gasoline is the champion at 47.5 MJ/kg and 34.6 MJ/liter; the gasoline in a fully fueled car has the same energy content as a thousand sticks of dynamite. A lithium-ion battery pack has about 0.3 MJ/kg and about 0.4 MJ/liter (Chevy VOLT).

Gasoline thus has about 100 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery.

This difference in energy density is partially mitigated by the very high efficiency of an electric motor in converting energy stored in the battery to making the car move: it is typically 60-80% efficient. The efficiency of an internal combustion engine in converting the energy stored in gasoline to making the car move is typically 15% (EPA 2012). With the ratio about 5, a battery with an energy storage density 1/5 of that of gasoline would have the same range as a gasoline-powered car. We are not even close to this at present.

Powering a car with electricity is considerably more efficient than powering a car with gasoline in terms of primary-energy consumption. While the efficiency of energy use of an electric car is very high, most power plants producing electricity are only about 30% efficient in converting primary energy to electricity delivered to the user. Conversion of petroleum to gasoline is highly efficient. This results in electricity having a factor of 1.6 improvement in use of primary energy relative to gasoline, and is an important point in its favor.

A 2008 APS report on energy efficiency examined statistics on how many miles Americans drive per day. The conclusion of that study was that a full fleet of PHEVs with a 40-mile electric range could reduce gasoline consumption by more than 60%. Thus America may not need a full fleet of BEVs to achieve a very considerable reduction in gasoline use.

The compelling question is whether electric cars can provide the convenience, cost, and range necessary to replace their gasoline-powered counterparts as the primary standard American family car. And this hinges almost entirely on the state of battery development, coupled with issues of making the grid green and providing widespread infrastructure for recharging electric vehicles.

The answer today is mixed:

  • HEVs are already popular, even though they represent only a small fraction of cars on the road today. The present generation of batteries is adequate for HEVs, and range is not an issue, as 100 percent of the energy to power the car comes from gasoline. Purchase cost is higher than for a conventional car; the advantage is a 40 percent or more improvement in fuel economy (EPA 2012).
  • PHEVs are now coming onto the market (Fig. 1). Electric range is limited, and batteries presently available are only marginally adequate. Total range is not an issue as gasoline is stored onboard as a “range extender.”
  • BEVs coming onto the market are expensive and the range is too small for many American drivers, at least as the primary family vehicle. Batteries with a much higher energy storage density and a lower cost are needed for BEVs to become popular outside a limited market of upscale urban dwellers as a second car to be used for local transportation, where home recharging is feasible, and where charging time is not an issue.

Battery requirements are different for HEVs, PHEVs, and BEVs. A battery for an HEV does not need to store much energy, but needs to be able to store energy quickly from regenerative braking. Because it operates over a limited charge/discharge range, its lifetime can be very long. A PHEV battery must have much greater energy-storage capacity to achieve a reasonable electric range and will operate with a considerably greater charge/discharge range, which limits the cycle life of the battery. The battery for a BEV must supply all the energy to power the car over its full range–say 150-300 km–and must use most of its charge/discharge range. These requirements mean the battery for a BEV will be large, heavy, expensive, and have a limited cycle life. Replacing a battery for a BEV could entail a cost exceeding ten thousand dollars, which, divided by miles driven, will likely exceed by a large amount the cost of electricity to power the car.

The Berkeley 2012 symposium focused on 2 alternative chemistries:  lithium/oxygen (lithium/air) and lithium/sulfur. Both theoretically offer much higher energy density than is possible even at the theoretical limit of lithium-ion-battery development. However, the technical difficulties in making a practical battery with good recharging capability using either of these chemistries are considerable.

There are major research issues concerning all aspects of a battery: the cathode, the anode, and the electrolyte, as well as materials interfaces and potential manufacturing issues. A Li/air (Li/O2) battery requires cooled compressed air without water vapor or CO2, which would greatly complicate a Li/air battery system. A Li/air battery would be both larger and heavier than a Li-ion battery, making prospects for automobile use unlikely in the near term. However, a leading battery-development group at IBM wrote in a 2010 article on lithium-air batteries; “Automotive propulsion batteries are just beginning the transition from nickel metal hydride to Li-ion batteries, after nearly 35 years of research and development on the latter. The transition to Li-air batteries (if successful) should be viewed in terms of a similar development cycle.” Perhaps we need to be patient.

Many approaches are being followed to develop and improve battery performance, including studies using nanotubes, nanowires, nanospheres, and other nanomaterials. However, none of the researchers reported progress to the point where a practical battery using Li/air or Li/S could be envisioned.

Thomas Greszler, manager of the cell design group at General Motors Electrochemical Energy Research Lab, was pessimistic about the prospects for new battery chemistries: “We are not investing in lithium-air and lithium-sulfur battery technology because we do not think from an automotive standpoint that it provides a substantial benefit for the foreseeable future.”

A significant infrastructure challenge is the network that will need to be constructed for recharging the battery of a BEV. There are more than 120,000 gasoline filling stations in the United States. With the range of a present-day BEV being less than a third of that of a gasoline-powered car, a very large number of recharging stations will be required, in addition to home charging, which may be feasible only for those who live in private homes or apartment buildings with dedicated parking.

Charging an electric car takes hours, and even a fast charge will take longer than most people will be willing to wait. And charging should be done at night, when electricity generation and grid capacity are most available.

Battery research is being funded at a modest level, as there is a false perception among the public and policymakers that present battery performance is adequate for widespread acceptance of battery-electric vehicles. The national focus has been on renewable sources of energy. The United States will not become independent of foreign oil and combustion of fossil fuels until new battery technologies are developed. This will require a concerted national effort in science and technology at a considerable cost.

Fred Schlachter recently retired as a physicist at the Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is co-author of the 2008 APS report Energy Future: Think Efficiency, for which he wrote the chapter on transportation.

“Moore’s Law” for Batteries?

Isn’t there some kind of “Moore’s Law” for batteries? Why is progress on improving battery capacity so slow compared to increases in computer-processing capacity? The essential answer is that electrons do not take up space in a processor, so their size does not limit processing capacity; limits are given by lithographic constraints. Ions in a battery, however, do take up space, and potentials are dictated by the thermodynamics of the relevant chemical reactions, so there only can be significant improvements in battery capacity by changing to a different chemistry.

Posted in Batteries, Transportation | Comments Off

Charles Hugh Smith: How To Find Shelter From The Coming Storms?

How To Find Shelter From The Coming Storms?

by Charles Hugh Smith

Some basic suggestions for those who are seeking shelter from the coming storms of global financial crisis and recession.

Reader Andy recently wrote: “I look forward to your blog each day but am still waiting for your ideas for surviving the coming crisis.” Andy reports that he and his wife have small government and private pensions, are debt-free and have simplified their lifestyle to survive the eventual depreciation of their pensions. They currently split their time between a low-cost site in North America and Mexico. They are considering moving with the goal of establishing roots in a small community of life-minded people.

Though I have covered my own ideas in detail in my various books (Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation, An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times, Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It and Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy, I am happy to toss a few basic strategies into the ring for your consideration.

Let’s start by applauding Andy for getting so much right.

1. Don’t count on pensions maintaining their current purchasing power as the promises issued in previous eras are not sustainable going forward. I’ve addressed the reasons for this ad nauseam, but we can summarize the whole mess in four basic points:

A. Demographics. Two workers cannot support one retiree’s pensions and healthcare costs (skyrocketing everywhere as costly treatments expand along with the cohort of Baby Boomer retirees). The U.S. is already at a ratio of two full-time workers to one retiree, and this is during a “recovery.” the ratio in some European nations is heading toward 1.5-to-1 and the next global financial meltdown hasn’t even begun.

B. The exhaustion of the debt-based consumption model. The only way you can sustain a debt-based model of ever-expanding consumption is to drop interest rates to zero. But alas, lenders go broke at 0%, so either the system implodes as debtors default or lenders go bankrupt. Take your pick, the end-game of financial crisis and collapse is the same in either case.

C. Printing money out of thin air does not increase wealth, it only increases claims on existing wealth. An honest government will eventually default on its unsustainable promises; a dishonest government (the default setting everywhere) will print money to fund the promises until its currency loses purchasing power as a result of either inflation or some other flavor of currency crisis.

In other words, the dishonest government will still issue pension checks for $2,000 a month but a cup of coffee will cost $500–if anyone will take the currency at all.

D. Pensions funds are assuming absurdly unrealistic returns on their investments. Many large public pension plans are assuming long-term yields of 7.5% even as the yield on “safe” government bonds has declined to 3% or 4%. As a result, the pension fund managers have taken on staggering amounts of systemic risk as they reach for higher yields.

When the whole rotten house of cards (shadow banking, subprime everything, etc.) collapses in a stinking heap, the yields will be negative. As John Hussman has noted, asset bubbles simply bring forward all the returns from future years. Once the bubble pops, yields are substandard/negative for years or even decades.

Pension funds that earn negative yields for a few years will soon burn through their remaining capital paying out unrealistic pensions.

2. Lowering the cost of one’s lifestyle. It’s much easier to cut expenses than it is to earn more money or squeeze more yield out of capital.

3. Establishing roots in a community of like-minded people. Though it’s rarely mentioned in a culture obsessed with financial security, day-to-day security is based more on community than on central-state-issued cash–though this is often lost on those who have surrendered all sense of community in their dependency on the state.

The core of community is reciprocity: before you take, you first have to give or share. Free-riders are soon identified and shunned.

My suggestions are derived from this week’s entries on the inevitable popping of credit bubbles, the unenviable role of tax donkeys in funding corrupt state Castes and the Great Game of Elites acquiring essential resources with unlimited credit issued by central banks, leaving the 99% debt-serfs and/or tax donkeys with neither the income nor the credit to compete with Elites for real resources.

4. Lessen your dependence on anything that requires debt and assets bubbles for its survival. Whatever depends on expanding debt and asset bubbles for its survival will go away when credit/asset bubbles pop, which they always do, despite adamant claims that “this time it’s different.” It never is.

5. Control as many real resources as you can. These include water rights, energy-producing or conserving assets (solar arrays, geothermal heating/cooling systems, etc.), farmland, orchards and gardens, rental housing, and tools that you know how to use to make/repair essential assets such as transport, housing, equipment, etc.

6. It’s easier to conserve/not use something than it is to acquire it or pay for it. As resources rise in price, those who consume little will be far less impacted than those whose lifestyles requires massive consumption of gasoline, heating oil, electricity, water, etc. It’s as simple as this: don’t waste food, or anything else.

7. The easiest way to conserve energy and time is to live close to your work and to essential services/transport hubs. Those who reside in liveable city neighborhoods and towns with public transport and multiple modes of transport who can walk/bike to work, farmers markets, cafes, etc. will need far less fossil fuel than those commuting to everything via vehicle.

8. If you can’t find work/establish a livelihood, move to a locale with a better infrastructure of opportunity. I explain this in Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy, but John Kenneth Galbraith made much the same point in his 1979 book The Nature of Mass Poverty.

9. If you buy property, do so in a state with Prop 13-type limits on property tax increases. We have no choice about being tax donkeys, but choose a state where income and consumption (i.e. sales tax) are taxed rather than property tax. You can choose to earn less and buy less, but you can’t choose not to pay rising property taxes.

10. Be useful to others. That way, they’ll want you around and will welcome your presence. There are unlimited ways to be helpful/useful.

11. Trust the network, not the state or corporation. Centralized systems such as the government and global corporations are either bankrupt and don’t yet know it or are bankrupt and are well aware of it but loathe to let the rest of the world catch on.

12. Be trustworthy. Don’t be morally corrupt or work for corrupt/self-serving institutions. Many initially idealistic people think they can retain their integrity while working for morally bankrupt, self-serving bureaucracies, agencies and corporations; they are all eventually brought down to the level of the institution.

Lagniappe suggestion: lead by example. “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” Albert Einstein

Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

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