Super Rust Corrodes hundreds of ships and could sink the oil industry

Blame it on super-rust, a virulent form of corrosion that has destroyed hundreds of ships and could sink the oil industry.

By Richard Martin, June 2002. Wired Magazine.

Key points (see the full article at

Ships that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build are rusting and falling apart, spilling millions of gallons of oil every year, many of them oil tankers. From 1995 and 2001, 2856 oil tankers broke apart at sea or barely escaped that fate, according to the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners. The main cause was collision, but nearly as many suffered from excessive corrosion.

The latest generation of oil tankers are more vulnerable to rust due to the mandate that all tankers operating in the US have double hulls by 2015. This innovation has inadvertently propelled corrosion to unheard-of levels. A 2000 Intertanko report concluded that excessive rust is afflicting double hulls within two years of launch. In double hulls, accelerated corrosion is engineered right into the ships themselves. The extra layer of steel gives rust many more square feet of surface area to attack, much of it hidden in cramped, inaccessible crawl spaces. What’s more, these crawl spaces form an insulating layer that keeps the internal temperature much higher than it would be in a single-hull tanker. Corrosion rates tend to double with each 20-degree Fahrenheit increase.

Manufacturing efficiencies have reduced the thickness of hulls and decks so now many shipbuilders trade corrosion-resistance for lower cost. Every ounce of steel saved in the construction of a ship translates into greater profits for the builder and reduced fuel bills for the owner. Between 1970 and 1990, the amount of steel used to construct a tanker declined by almost one-fifth. Modern tanker walls are only 14 to 16 millimeters thick, compared with 25 millimeters a generation ago. Assuming a microbial corrosion rate of 1.5 millimeters a year, rusted-out pits would reach halfway through those hulls in five years.

Lack of Maintenance

Rust attacks steel from the moment the metal encounters moisture. To keep that from happening, shipowners paint steel surfaces with corrosion-resistant coatings and are supposed to reapply them, but first-class ship maintenance has become increasingly rare in recent decades, as ships trade hands several times and new owners care more about maximizing their investment than maintenance.  When a ship is cited for corrosion, maintenance can be avoided by shifting to another flag.

How Rusting Happens

Rust arises from an intricate subatomic dance in which water’s oxygen and hydrogen atoms snatch electrons from atoms of iron. Because saltwater conducts electricity better than freshwater, the iron in steel oxidizes more quickly in seawater – up to 0.10 millimeter per year.

The way corrosion attacks the interior of a tanker, however, is more insidious. It can be seen most vividly in the cargo tanks, which line up along the ship’s backbone beneath the deck, and in the ballast tanks that cushion the cargo tanks along their outer edges. In these areas, steel deteriorates at five, ten, even thirty times the nominal rate. In the ballast tanks, which are normally filled with seawater when the cargo tanks are empty, water conducts electrons between plates on either side, and between separate areas of a single plate – that is, the tanks become huge, if weak, batteries. The increased electrical activity hastens the metal’s degradation.

At the top of the cargo tanks, the vapor space between the oil’s surface and the underside of the deck traps highly acidic gases – products of the reaction between petroleum, oxygen, and water – that condense against the metal. The deck flexes at sea, causing degraded steel to flake off the ceilings of the tanks, exposing more bare steel for the acid to attack.

At the bottoms of the tanks, in the water that settles under the oil, corrosive bacteria thrive. Consuming hydrocarbons, microbes like Desulfovibrio desulferican produce acids that dissolve the tanks’ floors and lower sides at rates as high as 2 millimeters per year. Some microorganisms even feed on the coatings that protect the tanks from rust. Essentially, a tanker is a gigantic floating petri dish for a peculiarly vicious sort of steel-eating sludge – the ultimate metallivore.

Enforcement is hard

In addition to switching to another nation, the tanker industry is overrun with so many holding companies, limited-liability partnerships, and owners-of-record that even determining who bears ultimate responsibility for a ship can be difficult.

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Recycle Steel

This is a paper about recycling of ships, but it shows how much energy could be saved by recycling steel rather than making it from scratch with iron ore in blast furnaces (mainly powered by coal).

shipbreaking and recycling steel

Ship Recycling markets and the impact of. April 2013. International Conference on Ship Recycling.

Conclusion: The annual average of 3.6 million tonnes of melting steel scrap from the global ship recycling industry is about 1.5% of the needs of the global steel making industry for old steel scrap, so the impact of ship recycling to the steel making industry is low and therefore can’t dictate pricing.

There are two main processes in modern steel making:

  1. production from pig iron ore in a blast furnace, refined into steel in a Basic Oxygen Furnace (BOF). Some steel scrap is also added in the refining process. Around 70% of the world’s steel is produced this way
  2. production from steel scrap in an Electric Arc Furnace (EAF), around 30% of the world’s steel production. The usage of steel scrap in steel making makes absolute sense, both from the economic and the environmental points of view. The energy requirements for making 1 tonne of steel from iron ore is 23 GJ as opposed to 7 GJ when using steel scrap. Also, recycling of steel saves natural resources. Every tonne of recycled steel saves around 1.1 tonnes of iron ore, 0.6 tonnes of coal, and reduces pollution: 86% less air pollution, 76% less water pollution, a 40% reduction in water usage, and avoidance of generation of about 1.3 tonnes of solid waste. Nevertheless, reliance on iron ore is unavoidable as steel scrap is available in relatively limited quantities.


Usage of steel scrap in steel production. Contrasted to the world’s 70/30 mix (70% v 30%) of BOF and EAF in 2011, China’s mix was 90/10, India’s 40/60, and Turkey’s 25/75.

There are three sources of steel scrap for steel making :

  • 35% “own arisings” (a.k.a. “circulating scrap”, or “home scrap”) which arise internally in steel mills as rejects from melting, casting, rolling, etc;
  • (ii) 21% “new steel scrap” (or “process scrap”) which is generated when steel is fabricated into finished products; and
  • (iii) 44% “old steel scrap” (or “capital scarp”) which is steel scrap from obsolete products and which is collected, traded and sold to steel plants for remelting. Ship steel scrap obviously falls in the third category of sources of steel scrap. In recent times the market of old steel scrap is around 225 million tonnes annually

Ships are recycled primarily to recover their steel, which forms approximately 75% to 85% of a ship’s lightweight, or light ship weight (the mass of the ship’s structure, propulsion machinery, other machinery, outfit and constants).

In addition to steel, the recycling process recovers non-ferrous metals (i.e. copper), machinery, equipment, and fittings. Non-ferrous metals are particularly valuable and although just 1% of a ship’s LDT, they can recover for the recycler up to 10% to 15% of the price paid for the ship. Machinery from recycled ships is often reconditioned and sold for further use in maritime or land industries, or when it is beyond repair , it is cut and sold as steel scrap. Because the chemical composition of the steel used in shipbuilding is controlled by classification society rules and surveys, ship steel has good yield strength, ductility and impact strength. Ship steel scrap is therefore attractive for steel making.

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Moving oil by ship or barge to refineries

Frittelli, J., et al. May 5, 2014. U.S. Rail Transportation of Crude Oil: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.


One river barge can hold 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil. Two to three river barges are typically tied together in a single tow that carries 20,000 to 90,000 barrels, about the same load as a unit train. Coastal tank barges designed for open seas, known as articulated tug-barges, or ATBs, 22 can hold 50,000 to 185,000 barrels, although newer ATBs can carry as much as 340,000 barrels, comparable to the capacity of coastal tankers. ATBs are slower, less fuel-efficient, and more restricted by sea conditions, but nevertheless may have an economic advantage over tankers because Coast Guard crewing regulations allow them to sail with one-third to half the crew required on a tanker. Crude oil tankers used to move Alaska oil to West Coast refineries have capacities of 800,000 to over 1 million barrels.

An advantage of tankers over railroads is the greater amount of oil they can carry in a single voyage, which better matches the daily consumption rate of refineries. With the median capacity for U.S. refineries at about 160,000 barrels per day, a coastal tanker can carry a two-day supply of oil. In addition, while railroads must build and maintain tracks and pay property taxes on their rights-of-way, the ocean is free, and harbor channels are largely provided by the federal government. For these reasons, tankers can be much cheaper than railroads in moving oil, even though the railroad route may be much more direct. For instance, the distance between the Bakken region in North Dakota and refineries in the Northeast is approximately 1,800 miles, and the cost of railroad transport is $14 per barrel. 23 The distance from Texas ports near the Eagle Ford region to the same refineries is about 2,100 miles, and tanker rates are $5 to $6 per barrel. 24 Similarly, the overland distance from the Eagle Ford region to Los Angeles-area refineries is about 1,400 miles, and the estimated cost of railroad transport is $15 per barrel, while the water route through the Panama Canal is 5,200 miles and is estimated to cost $10 per barrel. 25

Although seemingly a circuitous route compared to rail, it is not inconceivable that tankers could play a role in moving Bakken oil to East or West Coast refineries. Significant amounts of Bakken oil are moved to Gulf Coast terminals by pipeline, railroad, barge, or combinations of these modes for refining within that region. From a Gulf Coast port, tankers could transport the oil to either East or West Coast refineries. Via existing rail and pipeline connections to Great Lakes ports, tankers could also move Bakken oil from there to Northeast refineries.

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When trucks stop running, Civilization stops running.

If Trucks Stopped Running

by Alice Friedemann, October 1, 2014

In “Why You Should Love Trucks” I showed that essential supply chains depend on trucks partly or completely in the movement of goods (NAS).

Because of little inventory and dependence on just-in-time deliveries, our civilization would almost immediately feel the repercussions of trucks stopping.

I found three articles about what would happen. They all came to similar conclusions, which I’ve combined below (Holcomb, McKinnon, SARHC).

Day 1 without trucks

  • Manufacturers and assembly lines that use just-in-time delivery will shut down when parts run out or storage for finished products fills up.
  • Hospitals will run out of supplies like syringes and catheters within hours.
  • Milk and fresh bread will run out.

Day 2 without trucks

  • Food shortages will escalate, especially in the face of hoarding and consumer panic. Supplies of essentials and perishable foods will disappear
  • Restaurants and fast food outlets close
  • ATMs will run out of cash
  • Construction stops
  • Pharmacies close
  • Americans generate 685,000 tons of trash per day. Garbage will start piling up in urban and suburban areas creating a health hazard.

Day 3 without trucks

  • Most service stations will run out of fuel
  • Widespread lay-offs in the manufacturing sector
  • Waste water sludge becomes a problem as tanks at treatment plants are now full
  • Work on infrastructure stops as repairs can’t be undertaken
  • Public transport, fire, police, ambulances, telecommunications, utilities, mail, and other essential services stop

Day 4 without trucks

  • The repercussions start to reverberate globally, as 48,000 imported containers per day can’t be unloaded off of ships. Exports stop too.
  • All fuel supplies are depleted from service stations. Many people can’t get to work
  • With no fuel, airplanes and railroads shut down.
  • Garbage is piling up and has become a sanitary problem
  • Britain is out of beer

Day 5 without truck transport

  • Drinking water is depleted. The delay of weekly deliveries of chemicals has meant that water treatment plants can no longer guarantee that water is fit to drink.
  • Industrial production stops, a large proportion of the labor force is laid-off or unable to get to work, travel and recreation stop
  • Healthcare is confined to emergency services
  • Utilities have localized disruption of gas and electricity, and due to lack of fuel can’t pump water and gas, repair broken water and gas networks, etc
  • Livestock begin to suffer from lack of feed deliveries, wastes accumulate, ranchers can’t transport animals to slaughterhouses,  meat production stops
  • The Swedish Alcohol Retail Monopoly is out of alcohol

Within four weeks:

  • The nation will exhaust its clean water supply and water will be safe for drinking only after boiling.
  • If this happened at harvest time, many crops will rot in the fields
  • The Department of Defense supply chain will break down, crippling the military “in ways no adversary has been able to achieve”.
  • Global financial collapse (my addition).  A halt of international trade would bring the financial system down, probably sooner than this.

This is just a partial list of what would occur.

American Truckers react to “When Trucks Stopped” (CDLLife)

Many truck drivers thought they ought to stop driving to make people respect and care about them more:

  • The country would stop! At times I think that is what needs to happen! 32 years of being out here, looking out a windshield and watching life go by! Companies and the public not treating us, the back bone of this country, with any respect! Companies just think we are machines and we have no life outside this truck! The rules and regulations are getting stupid and taking money away from the driver and his or hers family! It also puts us in the truck longer! But, if the gas and diesel haulers just shut down for 72 hours, watch what happens!
  • We tried that for YEARS. The Big Companies won’t allow there drivers to shut down. They are to money hungry. The OWNER OPERATORS try but they can’t do it by themselves. So it doesn’t get done. Great idea but hasn’t worked in the past.
  • Like James Cameron said the owned ops would have to block fuel islands there are so many foreign fu@ks that will not stop nor care about are problems and these big company’s have so many of us by the balls
  • you know just as well as I do that wont happen unless every driver out there will participate. were just like the rest of the human race. only a hand full care to know the truth. the rest dont care. just like our presedent.
  • Let’s stop talking about it and just do it…. We run this country, not some bullshit government
  • Teach the government that trucks are needed for life on earth
  • Every other means of transportation is subsidized my the government except us!!!!! That tells me, that the government does not think of us very upstanding. It shows me that they don’t care for us. Trucking is the only industry that is governed on how many hours you can work, you are told when to sleep, when to get up, and basically told when you can see your family. We’re like Ronnie Milsaps’ song states, Prisoners of the Highway!!!!!

Truckers comment on what would happen:

  • Stores would be empty inside of a week for one. Rioting and lawlessness would set in soon after.
  • The life as we know it will end, there’s only one thing that’s not shipped by truck and that’s the air we breathe….
  • Everybody dies
  • World War 3
  • the world would probably end
  • America will fall apart!!!
  • There would be alot of cold hungry naked people out there
  • Everybody dies


There are many reasons trucks could stop running, but my concern is the inevitable time when oil production has fallen so low it impacts the ability of trucks to do the essential work of society.

The United States government (DOE, EIA, EERE, National Laboratories, and state governments) and private businesses are well aware of this problem and have teamed up to try to make trucks that get better mileage on alternative fuels like biodiesel, batteries, compressed natural gas, other fuels, better tires, and so on.

The next few posts will focus on how we can keep trucks running, because without trucks, America stops.


ATA. American Trucking Association. About Trucks Bring It. November 30, 2013. If Trucks stopped…

Holcomb, Richard D. July 14, 2006. When Trucks Stop, America Stops. American Trucking Association.

McKinnon. November 2004. Life without Lorries: The impact of a temporary disruption of road freight transport in the UK. Commercial motor magazine.

NAS National Academy of Sciences. 2012. NCFRP Report 14: Guidebook for Understanding Urban Goods Movement.

SARHC. A Week without Truck Transport. Four Regions in Sweden 2009. Swedish Association of Road Haulage Companies.




Posted in Cascading Failure, Dependence on Oil, Infrastructure, Oil Shocks, Transportation, Transportation, Trucks | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Nitrogen Bomb – fossil-fueled fertilizers keep 5.5 billion people alive

Fisher, D. 4 April 2001. Discover magazine Vol. 22 No. 4 

The Nitrogen Bomb. By learning to draw fertilizer from a clear blue sky, chemists have fed the multitudes.

They’ve also unleashed a fury as threatening as atomic energy.

In 1898, Sir William Crookes called on science to save Europe from impending starvation. The world’s supply of wheat was produced mainly by the United States and Russia, Sir Crookes noted in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As those countries’ populations grew, their own demands would outpace any increase in production. What then would happen to Europe? “It is the chemist who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities,” Crookes cried. “It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.”

The crux of the matter was a lack of nitrogen. By the 1840s agricultural production had declined in England, and famine would have ensued if not for the discovery that the limiting factor in food production was the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Adding nitrogen in the form of nitrate fertilizer raised food production enough to ward off disaster. But now, at the end of the century, the multiplying population was putting a new strain on agriculture. The obvious solution was to use more fertilizers. But most of the world’s nitrate deposits were in Chile, and they were insufficient. Where would the additional nitrogen come from?

That question, and Crookes’s scientific call to arms, would trigger a chain reaction as far-reaching as the ones unleashed at Los Alamos four decades later. Historians often describe the discovery of nuclear power as a kind of threshold in human history— a fire wall through which our culture has passed and cannot return. But a crossing every bit as fateful occurred with research on nitrogen. Like the scientists of the Manhattan Project, those who took up Crookes’s challenge were tinkering with life’s basic elements for social rather than scientific reasons. And like the men who created the atomic bomb, they set in motion forces beyond their control, forces that have since shaped everything from politics to culture to the environment.

Today nitrogen-based fertilizers help feed billions of people, but they are also poisoning ecosystems, destroying fisheries, and sickening and killing children throughout the world. In ensuring our supply of food, they are wreaking havoc on our water and air.

Nitrogen is essential to the chemistry of life and, sometimes, its destruction. It winds its way through all living things in the form of amino acids— which are chains or rings of carbon atoms attached to clusters of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms— and it is the primary element of both nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene, or TNT.

Nitrogen-based fertilizer is now so common, and the chemistry of explosives so well known, that any serious fanatic can make a bomb. The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown up in 1995 with nitrate fertilizer sold in a feed store, combined with fuel oil and a blasting cap.

Nearly 80 percent of the world’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen— enough to feed human populations until the end of time. But atmospheric nitrogen is made up of extremely stable N2 molecules that are reluctant to react with other molecules. Bacteria convert some atmospheric nitrogen first into ammonia (NH3), then into nitrites (NO2- ) and nitrates (NO3- ), but not nearly enough for modern agriculture. What was needed by the end of the 19th century was a way of imitating these microbes— of “fixing” atmospheric nitrogen into a chemically active form.

A few years before William Crookes gave his speech, lime and coke were successfully heated in an electric furnace to produce calcium carbide, which then reacted with atmospheric nitrogen. Crookes himself had shown that an electric arc can “put the air on fire,” as he described it, oxidizing the nitrogen into nitrates. But the electricity needed for either process was prohibitively expensive. Crookes suggested the use of hydroelectric power, but only Norway had sufficient hydroelectric power, and although the Norwegians constructed a nitrogen-fixation plant, it furnished barely enough nitrogen for domestic use. The rest of Europe still faced the specter of hunger. Into this disquieting scene stepped Fritz Haber.

Haber was a young German physical chemist who renounced his Judaism to enhance his career: Academic opportunities in Germany, as in most other European countries, were limited for Jews at that time. Haber’s first academic appointment after receiving his Ph.D. was as a porter, or janitor, in the chemistry department at the University of Karlsruhe. But he soon talked his way into a lectureship, and in 1898 he was appointed professor extraordinarius and was ready to begin thinking about the problem of nitrogen.

Haber began by considering the possibility of converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia directly by reacting it with hydrogen. Previous experimenters had found that the reaction would take place only at high temperatures— roughly 1,000 degrees Celsius— at which ammonia was known to break down instantly. But Haber’s own experiments confirmed that he could transform only about 0.0048 percent of the nitrogen into ammonia in this way. Moreover, a comprehensive investigation of thermodynamic theory confirmed what he had long suspected: that ammonia could be produced in large quantities only under high pressure— higher than was then attainable, but not impossibly high. The problem now became one of finding the right balance between pressure and temperature to get the best results, and of finding a catalyst that might allow the pressures to be brought just slightly back down into the realm of commercial possibility.

After a long search Haber found the element uranium to be just such a catalyst, and with a few further technical refinements he was able to produce nearly half a liter of ammonia an hour. Best of all, the process required little energy, and this obscure metal, having no other commercial use, was cheap.

The company Badische Anilin-& Soda-Fabrik (BASF) sent the chemist Alwin Mittasch and the engineer Carl Bosch to Haber’s laboratory for a demonstration. And, of course, everything went wrong. Haber begged them to stay while he fiddled with the apparatus. Time went by, and Bosch left. Then, just as Mittasch was preparing to leave, the ammonia began to drip out of the tubing. Mittasch stood and stared, and then sat down again, deeply impressed. By the time he left, the ammonia was flowing freely.

It took another three years for the company’s engineers, led by Bosch, to scale up the experiment to commercial levels, but by 1912 the Haber-Bosch process was a viable means of producing fertilizer. Haber and Bosch would later receive Nobel prizes for their efforts, the threat of famine was averted, and the world lived happily ever after. Well, not quite.

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany in the early 1900s was the most powerful state in Europe, with the strongest army, the greatest industrial capacity, and a patriotic fervor to match. The Germans wanted their “rightful place” in the world order, yet their country could not grow except at the expense of someone else’s borders. Nor could Germany fulfill her ambitions through colonization— most of the undeveloped world had already been claimed.

With no room to grow, or even stretch, the kaiser’s fancy turned to thoughts of war. Three inhibitions, however, held him back. The first was the problem of nitrogen for fertilizer, since in these first years of the century Haber had not yet begun his work. Germany was the world’s largest importer of Chilean nitrates, and without a constant infusion of fertilizer, its poor, sandy soils got worse every year. The second problem was again lack of nitrogen, this time for explosives. The third problem was Britain’s Royal Navy, which ruled the seas. If Germany were to start a war, the Royal Navy would cut off its supply of nitrates from Chile, and the population would slowly starve while the armed forces ran out of explosive shells and bombs.

How wonderful for the kaiser, then, was Fritz Haber’s invention of industrial nitrogen fixation. In one stroke Germany would be able to produce all the fertilizer and explosives it needed— provided the war didn’t last too long. In 1913 the first nitrogen-fixing plant began operations at Oppau. A year later, Austria’s heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Germany soon pushed Austria to declare war and loosed its own troops both east and west.

World War I ended four years later with the establishment of Soviet Russia and the collapse of Germany, leading directly to the rise of Nazism with all its horrors and to World War II. None of this could have come about without the discovery of commercial nitrogen fixation. In trying to save Europe, Fritz Haber came close to destroying it.

And in trying to feed humankind, we may yet starve it. Civilization’s bloodiest century, sent on a rampage by nitrogen’s emancipation, has passed into history. But the paradox of nitrogen remains. First it was all around us and we couldn’t use it. Now we know how to use it, and it’s suffocating us.

The planet’s 6 billion humans (and counting) rely more than ever on fertilizer to augment the natural nitrogen in soils. In fact, we now produce more fixed nitrogen, via a somewhat modified Haber-Bosch process, than the soil’s natural microbial processes do. Farmers tend to apply more fertilizer rather than take a chance on less, so more nitrogen accumulates than the soil can absorb or break down. Nitrates from automobile exhaust and other fossil-fuel combustion add appreciably to this overload. The excess either gets washed off by rainfall or irrigation or else leaches from the soil into groundwater. An estimated 20 percent of the nitrogen that humans contribute to watersheds eventually ends up in lakes, rivers, oceans, and public reservoirs, opening a virtual Pandora’s box of problems.

Algae, like all living organisms, are limited by their food supply, and nitrogen is their staff of life. So when excess nitrogen is washed off into warm, sunlit waters, an algal bacchanalia ensues. Some species form what is known as a “red tide” for its lurid color, producing chemical toxins that kill fish and devastate commercial fisheries. When people eat shellfish tainted by a red tide, they can suffer everything from skin irritation to liver damage, paralysis, and even death. As Yeats put it, “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.”

Algal blooms, even when nontoxic, block out sunlight and cut off photosynthesis for the plants living below. Then they die off and sink, depleting the water’s supply of oxygen through their decomposition and killing clams, crabs, and other bottom dwellers. In the Baltic Sea, nitrogen levels increased by a factor of four during the 20th century, causing massive increases in springtime algal blooms. Some ecologists believe this was the main cause of the collapse of the Baltic cod fishery in the early 1990s.

Every spring, the same process now creates a gigantic and growing “dead zone” one to 20 yards down in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, which drain 41 percent of the continental United States, wash excess nitrates and phosphates from the farmlands of 31 states, as well as from factories, into the Gulf. The runoff has created a hypoxic, or deoxygenated, area along the coast of Louisiana toward Texas that has in some years grown as large as New Jersey. This area supports a rich fishery, and dire consequences similar to those in the Baltic Sea can be expected if nothing is done. So Haber’s gift of nitrogen was not entirely a boon in the area of food: It increased food production on land, but now it threatens our supply of food from the sea.

Four years ago the Environmental Protection Agency formed a task force of experts to address the dead-zone problem. Their final plan of action, submitted in January, calls for increased research, monitoring, education, and more planning. Above all, the plan proposes incentives for farmers to use less fertilizer. But the addiction will be hard to break. Unlike nuclear energy, nitrogen fertilizer is absolutely necessary to the survival of modern civilization. “No Nitrates!” and “Fertilizer Freeze Forever!” are not viable slogans. At the end of the 19th century there were around 1.5 billion people in the world, and they were already beginning to exhaust the food supply. Today, as the population surges past 6 billion, there is no way humanity could feed itself without nitrogen fertilizers. As Stanford University ecologist Peter Vitousek told us recently, “We can’t make food without mobilizing a lot of nitrogen, and we can’t mobilize a lot of nitrogen without spreading some around.”

Algal blooms are just one of the many disastrous side effects of runaway nitrogen. In Florida, for example, nitrogen (and phosphorus) runoff from dairies and farms has sabotaged the native inhabitants of the Everglades, which evolved in a low-nutrient environment. The influx of nutrient-loving algae has largely replaced the gray-green periphytic algae that once floated over much of the Everglades. The new hordes of blue-green algae deplete the oxygen and are a less favorable food supply. So exotic plants such as cattails, melaleuca, and Australian pine have invaded the Everglades. Just as shopping-mall and subdivision developers have paved over most habitable land to the east and south, these opportunists have covered the native marshes and wet prairies where birds once fed. Beneath the surface, the faster-accumulating remains of the new algae have almost completely obliterated the dissolved oxygen in the water. Few fish can survive.

Nitrogen also contaminates drinking water, making it especially dangerous for infants. It interferes with the necessary transformation of methemoglobin into hemoglobin, thus decreasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and causing methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. The EPA has named nitrates, along with bacteria, as the only contaminants that pose an immediate threat to health whenever base levels are exceeded, and increasingly they are being exceeded. According to a 1995 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, 9 percent of tested wells have nitrate concentrations exceeding the EPA limit; previous studies showed that only 2.4 percent of the wells were dangerous.

Mass-produced Nitrogen made modern warfare possible. What other explosions lie ahead?

Beefing up agriculture not only contaminates our water, it corrupts the air. As fertilizers build up in the soil, bacteria convert more and more of it into nitrous oxide (N2O). Nitrous oxide is best known as “laughing gas,” a common dental anesthetic, but it is also a powerful greenhouse gas, hundreds of times more effective than carbon dioxide, and a threat to the ozone layer. Like a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to create and foster life on Earth, our ecosphere can apparently withstand little tinkering. Bend one little pole the wrong way, and the whole interlocking mechanism goes out of whack.

Scientists around the world are working to reverse the effects of eutrophication, as the introduction of excessive nutrients is called. But while fuel-cell car engines and other advances loom in the near future, and chlorofluorocarbons have largely been replaced with safer chemicals, there is no such substitute for nitrogen. “An enormous number of people in the underdeveloped world still need to be better fed,” says Duke University biogeochemist William Schlesinger, “particularly in India and Africa. When they come online agriculturally, sometime in the next 50 years, at least twice as much nitrogen will be deployed on land each year.”

Improving the management of fertilizer is one good way to decrease runoff. If we can better understand exactly when crops need to absorb nitrogen, farmers can learn to apply fertilizer sparingly, at just the right time. “When application and uptake are coupled,” says Schlesinger, “it minimizes the amount of runoff.” In some watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay, farmers have reduced their nutrient runoff voluntarily. In other areas, farmers haven’t had a choice: When the Soviet Union and its economy collapsed, fertilizer was suddenly hard to come by near the Black Sea. As a result, the hypoxic zone in the Black Sea shrank appreciably.

Another, less drastic strategy for reducing the use of nitrogen is called “intercropping” and goes back to Roman times. By alternating rows of standard crops with rows of nitrogen-fixing crops, such as soybeans or alfalfa, farmers can let nature do their fertilizing for them. Intercropping could be a godsend to the developing world, where fertilizer is hard to come by. The difficulty is devising new plowing schemes, and farmers, like everyone else, are reluctant to abandon tried-and-true methods. But even successful farmers in the United States might be convinced. Aside from protecting the global environment— a somewhat intangible goal— intercropping could save them money on fertilizer. And farming areas are often most affected by groundwater contaminated by nitrates.

Other researchers are developing natural processes to clean up our mess. Just as some bacteria can draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and expel it as nitrates, others can consume nitrates and expel nitrogen molecules back into the air. Denitrifying bacteria are too scarce to clean up all nitrogen pollution, but they could be used much more extensively. For example, some farmers in Iowa and near the Chesapeake Bay drain their fields through adjacent wetlands, where denitrifying bacteria are common, so that excess nitrogen is consumed before it reaches streams, rivers, and bays.

Biologists willing to brave a slippery slope might want to go further, adding denitrifying bacteria to soil or water contaminated with nitrates. In the last few years several bacterial strains that might be useful have been identified. Why not genetically modify them to do exactly what we want? To anyone familiar with the ravages of invasive species worldwide, the danger is obvious.

Genetically modified microbes would have to be spread over large areas, making them hard to monitor. And in developing countries, where the need is greatest, there are few experts to do the monitoring.

The specter of genetically engineered bacteria spreading beyond the targeted regions, and mutating into new strains, brings to mind a picture of biogeochemists in the 22nd century looking back on the halcyon days when people still had the luxury of worrying about nitrogen. Fritz Haber couldn’t have imagined that he was altering Earth’s environmental balance when he thought to heat up uranium, hydrogen, and air at high pressure. If we’re not careful, our attempts to rectify that balance will only trigger another, even more destructive chain reaction.

Haber’s uranium was Oppenheimer’s uranium in more ways than one.

Another great article about this is Vaclav Smil’s 1997 Global Population and the Nitrogen Cycle Feeding humankind now demands so much nitrogen-based fertilizer that the distribution of nitrogen on the earth has been changed in dramatic, and sometimes dangerous, ways (Scientific American)..

Posted in Fertilizer, Food, Natural Gas | Leave a comment

Out of time: 50 years to make a transition, 210 years at the current rate

If transportation is to be electrified, then electric generation and the electric grid must be doubled, or even tripled. So by Cobb’s calculation, that would push back the transition time to renewables 420 to 630 years.  Alice Friedemann.

By Kurt Cobb, October 1, 2012. Christian Science Monitor.

The clunky, lagging transition to renewable energy

History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don’t have that long.

No doubt you’ve heard people speak of an energy transition from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on renewable energy–energy which by its very nature cannot run out. Here’s the short answer to why we need do it fast: climate change and fossil fuel depletion. And, here’s the short answer to why we’re way behind: History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don’t have that long.

Perhaps the most important thing that people don’t realize about building a renewable energy infrastructure is that most of the energy for building it will have to come from fossil fuels.

Currently, 84 percent of all the energy consumed worldwide is produced using fossil fuels–oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are therefore providing the lion’s share of power to the factories that make solar cells, wind turbines, geothermal equipment, hydroelectric generators, wave energy converters, and underwater tidal energy turbines.

Right now we are producing at or close to the maximum amount of energy we’ve ever produced from fossil fuels. But the emerging plateau in world oil production, concerns about the sustainability of coal production, and questionable claims about natural gas supplies are warnings that fossil fuels may not remain plentiful long enough to underwrite an uneven and loitering transition to a renewable energy society.

This is what’s been dubbed the rate-of-conversion problem. In a nutshell, is our rate of conversion away from fossil fuels fast enough so as to avoid an unexpected drop in total energy available to society? Will we be far enough along in that conversion when fossil fuel supplies begin to decline so that we won’t be forced into an energy austerity that could undermine the stability of our society?

The answer can’t be known. But the numbers are not reassuring. Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it would take more than 70 years to replace the world’s current electrical generating capacity with renewables including hydroelectric, wind, solar, tidal, wave, geothermal, biomass and waste at the rate of installation seen from 2005 through 2009, the last years for which such data is available. And, that’s if worldwide generating capacity–which has been expanding at a 4 percent clip per year–is instead held steady.

This also doesn’t take into account the amount of energy actually produced versus what is called nameplate capacity. Nameplate capacity is what a wind generator could generate if it operated at maximum capacity 100 percent of the time. But in practice, the turbines are only spinning when the wind blows and then not always at the maximum speed. This so-called capacity factor was just 27 percent for wind farms in the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2011. For solar photovoltaic the number was 8.3 percent. Even hydroelectric stations ran at only about 35 percent of capacity. This compares to about 42 percent for conventional coal, 61 percent for natural gas, and 60 percent for nuclear power stations (PDF). The contrast is starker using U.S. numbers: 72 percent for coal and 91 percent for nuclear using 2008 figures, though natural gas was only 11 percent, probably because these were primarily plants that only come on to meet peak demand and so don’t run very often.

What this means is that installing two to three times our current nameplate capacity in the form of renewables may be required to replace existing fossil-fueled plants. So, the transition period would actually turn out to be longer than what I’ve calculated, perhaps 140 to 210 years using 2005 to 2009 installation figures.

Of course, installations of such renewables as wind and solar are accelerating. So, that would tend to shorten this longer transition period–as would leaving existing nuclear power capacity intact. But would we be able to shorten the transition period enough to head off declines in total energy production and prevent additional serious damage to the climate?

Of course, some would say that we need to expand nuclear power generation rapidly to meet these challenges. Whether you support such an expansion or not, there are three key problems. First, building enough nuclear power stations to replace fossil fuel-fired plants would be the largest construction project ever undertaken and require the use of enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Making the necessary concrete alone would be a large new contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. That means that the initial phase of a nuclear transition would actually increase the rate of fossil fuel emissions. The savings on fuel and emissions wouldn’t come until much later.

Second, after the Fukushima disaster, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for such a buildout. I’ll be very surprised if nuclear power generation even maintains its current level in the next 20 years as Japan and Germany abandon nuclear power. Third, the timeline for such a buildout would be measured in decades, partly because of the sheer logistics involved and partly because of the brake that regulatory approvals put on such projects. Even new, cheaper and easier-to-build designs may not help if they cannot achieve the necessary regulatory approvals promptly. The history of such approvals is not encouraging. The safest thing a nuclear regulatory agency can do is say no.

I haven’t even touched on replacing the fuels which power our transportation system and provide heat for our buildings and industrial processes. Transportation offers an extraordinary challenge since 80 percent of all transportation fuel worldwide is still derived from petroleum. In the United States the number is 93 percent. Despite billions of dollars spent and decades of research, we still have no good substitutes that scale to the size necessary to replace petroleum for transportation fuel.

Biofuels offer little hope. Already the ethanol bubble has burst. Biofuels–today mainly ethanol and biodiesel–compete with food. There is simply not a limitless supply of suitable farmland, and so there will be competition with the demand for food until we find substitutes for the industry’s main feedstocks, namely corn, sugar and soybeans.

Beyond this the problem of scale is simply unsolvable. To supply the entire U.S. car fleet–assuming it could run on ethanol–we’d have to plant 1.8 billion acres in corn for ethanol continuously. There are only about 440 million acres in the United States in cultivation now. And, it’s worth noting that current methods of corn cultivation require the copious use of herbicides and pesticides made from oil; tractors and other vehicles that run on oil to plow, harvest and spray the fields as well as transport the crop; and natural gas-derived nitrogen fertilizers to boost growth and replenish depleted soil. Fossil fuels are currently integral to growing corn, and I cannot see the wisdom of growing organic corn for anything but food.

As for heat for buildings, certainly we could insulate and seal our existing buildings better. And, this points the way to achieving an energy transition within the time we need to achieve it. Since it will probably be impossible to scale renewable energy fast enough to a level sufficient to produce the amount of energy we use today, the one absolute necessity to a successful energy transition is reducing consumption drastically. No politician dares to say anything remotely approaching this. And yet, it would be the cheapest, fastest way to address the twin crises of fossil fuel depletion and climate change.

Now, when I say reduce, I mean on the order of 80 percent over the next 20 to 30 years. For Americans this may seem impossible until they contemplate that the average European lives on half the energy of the average American. So often we hope for technological breakthroughs that will give us all the clean energy we desire. But we ought to focus equally, if not more, on using our prowess to find ways to reduce our energy consumption drastically. This is actually the much easier road. When we are made conscious of our energy use, we can change our behavior quickly to modify it without compromising the quality of our lives. As more homes and businesses are given the means to monitor their energy use, the people in them will change to lower their consumption and costs.

Already we know how to build so-called passive design structures which can lower energy use by 80%. And, we desperately need to figure out how to apply these techniques cheaply and economically to existing homes and businesses. In transportation we need to stop thinking that cars equal transportation and instead realize that cars provide the service of transportation which can be obtained in a number of ways, many of which use much less energy.
We may also need to speed the energy transition in electric power generation using so-called feed-in tariffs. These tariffs–which harness the ingenuity of countless small producers–have enabled Germany to expand solar, wind and other alternatives so that they generate 25 percent of its electricity today. Germany, not a particularly sunny place, is currently the world’s top generator of solar electricity.

Of course, per person energy consumption in poor countries is only a small fraction of that in rich countries. We cannot expect the world’s poor to reduce their energy use by 80 percent. Instead, we must help them to move quickly beyond fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By simultaneously reducing consumption and encouraging a rapid buildout of renewable energy, it is possible that we could mitigate the problem of declining fossil fuel supplies before it becomes so acute that it would cripple that very build out. And, we could address climate change at the same time. Certainly, there are difficult problems to be solved with renewable energy, storage being the key one. Most renewable energy comes in the form of electricity, and since there is often a mismatch between the time we produce that electricity and the time we need it, we will have to master storage.

But we will need a lot less storage if we focus on reducing consumption. This is the one strategy which will allow us to overcome the rate-of-conversion problem and achieve an energy transition in far less time than we have in the past.

Posted in Alternative Energy, Electric Grid, Peak Oil | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Why You Should Love Trucks

Why You Should Love Trucks

by Alice Friedemann, September 27, 2014


Before the age of fossil fuels, getting food, water, and shelter was simple. Nine out of ten people were self-sufficient farmers.

But now there are long, 24/7 just-in-time supply chains that depend on trucks and other modes of transportation between us and what we need to survive.

Trucks carry 70% of all freight (by weight) an average of 206 miles.  Five million medium and heavy-duty trucks travel 329 billion miles to deliver all these goods (ORNL).

Over 80% of communities in the United States depend completely on trucks for all their goods (ATA).

This is a shame!  Trucks ruin roads, cause the most air pollution (75% of ghg), and waste the most energy by far. Trains and ships are 4 to 6 times as energy efficient as trucks (USDOE 2008, USDOT 2009, Notteboom, Tolliver).

Trucks can substitute for most other kinds of transportation, but the reverse isn’t true:

  • Few factories, warehouses, and businesses have direct rail, barge, or ship connections.
  • There are only 140,000 miles of freight rail tracks and 25,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways, but over 4 million miles of roads.
  • Even if cargo could go by rail or ship, the cost to transfer it on and off again, or the risk of delay to just-in-time delivery, often make energy-inefficient trucks the preferred mode
  • This means that even if some goods travel mainly by rail, ship, or barge, a truck is usually still needed to take the goods to and from the train yard and to the final destination.

Even a container arriving by ship and then rail will get on a truck three or more times:

  1. Sea port. Container is grabbed by a reach-stacker truck and loaded on a train
  2. Destination Train yard. Unloaded by a reach-stacker
  3. Loaded onto a truck for delivery to a regional distribution center or final store delivery
  4. Regional Distribution Center. Cargo consolidated for final delivery to local stores, and often transloaded to two smaller trucks if delivery in in a dense urban area.
truck-reachstacker-ctr-xferReach-stacker truck getting a container to load onto a truck or train

Most businesses are very dependent on trucks:

  • Trucks are a key part of the 24/7 just-in-time delivery system. Large grocery stores receive 10-15 truck shipments a day, assembly lines depend on regular deliveries of a wide range of parts from many suppliers within narrow time slots.  Manufacturers have little packaging material on hand because it’s bulky and low value.
  • Tax incentives and efficiency have driven businesses to keep as little inventory as possible and instead rely on frequent deliveries by trucks

Trucks fulfill our basic needs

Food.  Trucks carry 83% of all food.

Never in human history have so many people lived so far from where their food is grown. In the past this would have caused famine, but gasoline and diesel trains, ships, and trucks solved this unprecedented problem.

  • Two-thirds of food (by value) is grown in the inland states, but two-thirds of people live in coastal states (Atlantic, pacific, or gulf).
  • By food calories, 92% of corn, 90% of soybeans, 80% of wheat, and 71% of cattle are produced in inland states.

Of all the various kinds of supply chains, from farm to table, food is the most truck-dependent.

Water. Trucks deliver water purification chemicals to water treatment plants every week or two.

Energy.  Trucks deliver fuel to service stations every 2.4 days on average. Trucks also deliver fuel for trains, ships, and airplanes.

Health: Trucks keep pharmacies and hospitals stocked

Shelter: Trucks haul 92% of wood products and deliver materials to construction sites.  Cement must arrive within 1-2 hours.

Electricity. 39% of electricity is generated by coal, which is delivered by train (71%) and truck (14%).

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) looked at 12  urban supply chains. I’ve broken out a few of them by each leg of the journey goods move to show  how important trucks are.

  • T This leg depends completely on trucks
  • t Trucks and other transport modes used
  • - Trucks played no role

Urban Wholesale Food Supply Chain Exhibit A-3

T         Multiple Warehouse Market. 18 Wheeler TRUCKS deliver food from airports, seaports, and regional vendors.

t           Multiple Warehouse Market. 18 Wheeler TRUCKS  and rail deliver food from extra regional vendors

T         Retail outlets & Institutions, Purveyors & Jobbers, Grocers & Restaurants. All of these businesses receive food from the Multiple Warehouse Market by 18 Wheeler TRUCKS and smaller TRUCKS & VANS

Supermarket Grocery Supply Chain Exhibit A-4

T          Regional Distribution Center. TRUCKS deliver food from External Suppliers

T          Local Distribution Center. TRUCKS deliver food from External Suppliers and Regional Distribution Center.

         Local Retail Stores. TRUCKS deliver food from External Suppliers and Local Distribution Center.

Farm to Table: The Dairy Supply Chain (USDA)

T          Farm. TRUCKS deliver 65% of feed for cows  

T          Milk Processing Plant. Milk is transported in insulated tanker TRUCKS (avg of 5,800 gallons traveling 500 miles round-trip).

T          Retail stores, schools. Packaged milk is distributed by refrigerated TRUCKS.

Gasoline and petroleum Supply Chain Exhibit 3-1

t           Refinery: Crude petroleum from overseas arrives by ship or barge, Domestic crude by pipeline, and increasingly by train or TRUCK (i.e. North Dakota fracked oil).

t           Tank Farm: Refined oil (i.e. diesel or gasoline) arrive by ship, barge, or pipeline, ethanol by train, and additives by TRUCK

T         Gas Station: Diesel and gasoline arrive by TRUCK

Construction Materials (Cement) Supply Chain Exhibit 3-4

-           Regional Cement Consolidation Terminal. Raw materials (limestone, clay, aluminum & iron ore, gypsum powder, silica sand) arrive by train or barge from the Consolidated Cement plant.

t           Intermediate River Terminal. Raw materials (crushed stone, gravel, sand) arrive from a gravel pit by TRUCK or barge.

T         Many Metro Region Ready Mix Plants. TRUCKS deliver raw materials from the Terminals above to many ready mix plants.

T         Construction Sites (road, commercial, residential). Cement TRUCKS must reach these sites from local ready mix plants within one to two hours.


Next: When Trucks Stop Running, Civilization Stops Running.  


NAS National Academy of Sciences. 2012. NCFRP Report 14: Guidebook for Understanding Urban Goods Movement.

Notteboom, T. et al. 2009. Fuel surcharge practices of container shipping lines: Is it about cost recovery or revenue making?. Proceedings of the 2009 International Association of Maritime Economists (IAME) Conference, June, Copenhagen, Denmark

ORNL transportation energy data book Edition 31. July 2012. Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Tolliver, D, et al. October 2013. Comparing rail fuel efficiency with truck and waterway. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and environment. volume 24:69-75.

USDA. 2010. National Agricultural statistics service, agricultural statistics board.

USDOE. U.S. Department of Energy. 2008. Transportation Energy Data Book. 2008.

USDOT. U.S. Department of Transportation. 2009. National Transportation Statistics.



Posted in Agriculture, Supply Chains, Transportation, Trucks | 4 Comments

Gas to Liquids (GTL)

Not going to happen anytime soon:

February 19, 2014. United States Energy Information Administration

Gas-to-liquids plants face challenges in the U.S. market

Gas-to-liquids (GTL) is a process that converts natural gas to liquid fuels such as gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel. GTL can also make waxes.

The most common technique used at GTL facilities is Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) synthesis. Although F-T synthesis has been around for nearly a century, it has gained recent interest because of the growing spread between the value of petroleum products and the cost of natural gas.

The first step in the F-T GTL process is converting the natural gas, which is mostly methane, to a mixture of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. This mixture is called syngas. The syngas is cleaned to remove sulfur, water, and carbon dioxide, in order to prevent catalyst contamination. The F-T reaction combines hydrogen with carbon monoxide to form different liquid hydrocarbons. These liquid products are then further processed using different refining technologies into liquid fuels.

Diagram of GTL process, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

The F-T reaction typically happens at high pressure (40 atmospheres) and temperature (500o-840oF) in the presence of an iron catalyst. The cost of building a reaction vessel to produce the required volume of fuel or products and to withstand these temperatures and pressures can be considerable. Several companies are pursuing an alternative method that uses a different reactor design (called a micro-channel reactor) and proprietary catalysts that allow GTL production at much smaller scales.

There are currently five GTL plants operating globally, with capacities ranging from 2,700 barrels per day (bbl/d) to 140,000 bbl/d. Shell operates two in Malaysia and one in Qatar, Sasol operates one in South Africa, and the fifth is a joint venture between Sasol and Chevron in Qatar. One plant in Nigeria is currently under construction.

Three plants in the United States—in Lake Charles, Louisiana; Karns City, Pennsylvania; and Ashtabula, Ohio—are proposed. Of these, only the Lake Charles facility is a large-scale GTL plant.

In December 2013, Shell cancelled plans to build a large-scale GTL facility in Louisiana because of high estimated capital costs and market uncertainty regarding natural gas and petroleum product prices.

The Annual Energy Outlook 2014 (AEO2014) does not include any large-scale GTL facilities in the United States through 2040.

Other uses for available natural gas in industry, electric power generation, and exports of pipeline and liquefied natural gas are more economically attractive than GTL.

To improve the long-term profitability of GTL plants, developers have reconfigured their designs to include the production of waxes and lubricating products, which are another primary product of the F-T process. Because of the smaller size of the chemical market, smaller-scale GTL plants similar to those proposed in the Midwest are economically viable. U.S. imports of waxes similar to those produced out of the F-T process have experienced steady growth over the past decade because of increased demand in the chemicals market. F-T waxes are used in industries producing candles, paints and coatings, resins, plastic, synthetic rubber, tires, and other products.

Using projected natural gas and product prices in the AEO2014 Reference case and assuming a GTL plant can produce 2,800 barrels per day of products, a GTL plant is projected to be profitable only when it is configured to maximize wax production. As such, most GTL developers are looking to configure their plants to maximize wax production for the chemicals market instead of production of liquid fuels with minimum or no wax.

Graph of GTL profits, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2014

Posted in GTL Gas-To-Liquids | Leave a comment

Can Railroad locomotives run on LNG (Liquified Natural Gas)

Building new LNG locomotives would be really stupid given that fracked natural gas production in America will peak roughly 2015-2018 and decline at an alarming rate, given the 60% per year decline rate of fracked natural gas wells.  There have been many articles written about why shale oil gas is a flash in the pan. See my post Shale Oil and Gas Will Not Save Us for details.  And we don’t have the infrastructure to import LNG if we did make the mistake of making railroads dependent on natural gas.

Knock on effects include coal power plants unable to generate electricity, since trains deliver 67% of coal, and refineries impacted by trains unable to deliver 759,000 barrels per day (2014), 8% of USA oil production.

Challenges for liquefied natural gas as a freight rail fuel (Chase)

While simple economic calculations involving the comparison of fuel cost savings to additional upfront cost are relatively straightforward, other factors, including operational, financial, regulatory, and mechanical challenges, also affect fuel choices by railroads. One of the most challenging factors raised by the switch to LNG locomotives by Class 1 railroads is the effect on operations. Switching from diesel fuel to LNG would require a new delivery infrastructure for locomotive fuel. Natural gas would need to be delivered to fuel depots, either by truck in smaller quantities, as LNG [4],or perhaps by pipeline. Larger quantities of natural gas would require liquefaction before delivery to tender cars for use in locomotives. Building the new infrastructure would require a large financial investment in addition to the large investments made in locomotives and tender cars.

The building of LNG refueling infrastructure could also complicate the inter-operability of the rail network, depending on how quickly modifications could be made to accommodate refueling at multiple points around the nation. Impeding the ability of the rail network system to move goods because of a lack of fuel availability could drive up costs and lead to reductions in network flexibility and operational efficiency [5]. In addition, operations could be further affected by fuel switching because of the cost of training staff at refueling depots and in maintenance shops, updating maintenance facilities to handle LNG locomotives and tenders, and managing more extensive logistics [6]. Further, LNG locomotives and tender cars could require more maintenance than their diesel counterparts. All of these operational changes would create a duplicative infrastructure [7], because many diesel-fueled locomotives still would be in service at least for some significant period, and compression-ignited LNG locomotives still require at least some diesel fuel for combustion ignition.

Replacing the current stock of diesel locomotives with LNG locomotives and tender cars would represent a significant financial investment by Class 1 railroads. In 2012, there were 25,174 locomotives in the service of Class 1 railroads, the vast majority of which were line-haul locomotives [8]. A new diesel line-haul locomotive costs about $2 million [9], and rebuilt locomotives cost about half that amount. With a new LNG locomotive and tender costing about $1 million more than a diesel counterpart, the cost to replace the entire diesel locomotive stock with LNG locomotives and tenders would be tens of billions of dollars, not including additional infrastructure, training, logistics, and a potential increase in maintenance costs. Moreover, much of the cost of the transition, such as purchases of locomotives and tender cars, potentially would occur over a much shorter time period than a fuel payback period.

The financing requirement of large capital expenditures complicates the rather straightforward calculation of locomotive fuel economics. The amount of capital available to Class 1 railroads, either on hand or raised in capital markets, is an important factor in determining whether, or to what extent, railroads can take advantage of fuel cost savings over time. The decision to switch from diesel fuel to LNG is also influenced by the facts that railroads are a highly capital-intensive industry [10] with complete responsibility for maintaining the physical rail network, that they face many competing needs for financial investment, and that they must ensure adequate return on investment for their shareholders.

On the regulatory side, LNG rail cargos currently are not permitted without a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules. The development of standard LNG tenders and regulations is underway, with issues related to safety, crashworthiness, and environmental impact, including methane leakage, under consideration [11].

Finally, LNG locomotives currently are undergoing extensive testing and demonstration to determine their fuel consumption, emissions, operational performance, and range under real-world conditions. Locomotives and tenders will be evaluated to ensure mechanical performance of such components as connections between tender and locomotive. Several Class 1 railroads are planning to start LNG locomotive demonstration projects to provide better understanding of the obstacles to an LNG fuel switch.

Chase, N. April 14, 2014. Potential of liquefied natural gas use as a railroad fuel. United States Energy Information Administration.

Posted in LNG Liquified Natural Gas, Railroads | Leave a comment

Irrigation uses a lot of electricity, requires expensive grid in remote areas

“Irrigation load from farm irrigation systems can be costly to serve, because of the high cost of connecting these dispersed systems to the electric grid and the high cost of having enough capacity available to meet seasonal irrigation load.”

Alice Friedemann comment: After natural gas production peaks sometime between 2015-2018, the electric grid may not be up 24 x 7. On top of that, there will be longer and more frequent droughts and heat waves, leading to less hydro-power and a greater need for electrically-pumped irrigation water, and this is likely result in very high food prices and less irrigated food production.

United States Department of Agriculture irrigation statistics:

  • Irrigated agriculture accounts for the largest share of the Nation’s consumptive water use.
  • Roughly 57 million acres–or 7.5 percent of all U.S. cropland and pastureland–were irrigated in 2007
  • In 2007, irrigated farms accounted for 55 percent of the total value of crop sales while also supporting the livestock and poultry sectors through irrigated production of animal forage and feed crops.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors water use by economic sector, estimates that irrigated agriculture accounted for 37% of the Nation’s freshwater withdrawals in 2005.
  • Population and economic growth, Native American water-right claims, and water quality/environmental priorities are increasing the demand for water resources. Expansion of the U.S. energy sector is also expected to increase regional demands for water. In much of the West where irrigation is concentrated, climate change could shrink water supplies as a result of warming temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, and reduced snowpack, while also increasing water demand.

May 12, 2014

Many industrial electricity customers are farmers

graph of number of industrial electric customers, top-10 states, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Annual

Republished May 12, 4:00 p.m. to clarify maps and content.

Farmers make up a significant share of industrial electricity customers in certain states. This is because of demand from farm irrigation systems, which are categorized by electric utilities as industrial load. For example, Nebraska is largely rural and agricultural, but it has the third-highest count of industrial electricity customers in the United States. The same factor drives up the number of industrial electricity customers in Idaho and Kansas, which are also among the top 10 states in number of industrial electricity customers. States with a large agriculture industry also tend to have among the lowest industrial sales of electricity per industrial customer.

Irrigation load from farm irrigation systems can be costly to serve, because of the high cost of connecting these dispersed systems to the electric grid and the high cost of having enough capacity available to meet seasonal irrigation load. Dawson Public Power District, a rural electric cooperative in an agriculture-heavy region of Nebraska, accounted for less than 3% of statewide industrial electricity sales in 2012 but had one of the highest average prices for industrial power. In general, the highest industrial electricity prices in Nebraska tend to be located in the rural southern and western portions of the state.

The two largest utilities (Omaha Public Power District and Nebraska Public Power District) that distribute electricity for about 40% of all the megawatthours sold to industrial customers in the state in 2012.

map of U.S. industrial electric customer counts, as described in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Annual

A number of industrial electricity customers are concentrated in the Great Plains states and other agricultural-heavy states like Idaho and California.

Many agricultural-heavy electric utilities use demand-response programs to manage the costs of connecting a large number of small users to the grid. Nebraska’s Dawson Public Power offers lower rates for agricultural customers who allow the utility to control the electric usage of these systems when demand for electricity is high, a form of demand response. This allows the grid operator to adjust the load shape in a given day and reduce the need to bring on more expensive sources of electricity generation.

Posted in Electric Grid, Food | 1 Comment