Headlong Into An Energy Nightmare.

Russell Walker, P.E.

For scientific reasons, none of the most recent energy developments regarding “free” or replacement energy are or can be economical, regardless of any governmental mandates to the contrary. Some display technical inconsistencies that seem to make their practical use border on insanity. The localities with the most “sustainable energy projects,” in most cases, have the most expensive energy costs. Maine is a good example where the average residential cost is about 19 c/kwh, about twice what I pay (11 c/kwh) in North Carolina, a state with no sustainable energy projects.

The inherently variable or unstable nature of these “clean” energy projects make system instability and failure probable. Electric power delivery requires constant voltage and frequency, day and night, wind or no wind. Anything else is failure unless we are willing to accept electricity for part of the day as in many undeveloped countries or low voltage that will burn out motors. Our electrical power system is not a Mr. Wizard experiment or an AC Gilbert erector set using simple DC (Direct Current) motors, but is a complex AC (Alternating Current) system that is also subject to capacitive and inductive effects. The more complex any system is the most subject it is to failure.

The US energy compass is turned around and is heading users into the abyss. If “free” or replacement energy becomes a significant energy resource, say 20% of delivered electrical power, then the electrical system will never work regardless of any governmental mandates to the contrary because the system will not be able to handle the instabilities or what electrical engineers call “transients”.

Transients mean voltage spikes, voltage drops or a phase change typically lower than 60 cycles per second.  Under voltage can cause squirrel cage induction motors to fail because they draw more amperes and consequently fail due to excessive heat generation.  Variable output, solar and windmill devices force the remainder of the system to balance the input and output. Power grid failures are inevitable due transient instability. Over voltage can cause lights, semi-conductors and other resistive devices to prematurely decompose.  Low power frequency is also destructive to transformers that are “tuned” to 60 hertz because they will heat up excessively and fail sooner.  Large transformers frequently are not stored by any utility, can take two or so years to manufacture. They are frequently manufactured overseas.

The most prominent “clean energy” examples are: Wind mills, solar panels, ethanol, bio fuel, geothermal and tidal turbines. They all have the same characteristics of governmental subsidies or mandates and an inability to stand alone, economically, if not technically. Typically, windmills and solar farms are included in a utility system. This way their exorbitant costs and variable behavior can be covered up in the overall operation of the greater utility electrical system. The government using taxpayer funds to support these experimental failures will only cause power generation to be more expensive harming the remainder of US manufacturing, deficit and balance of payments. Each requires enormous capital compared to conventional generation, dependent upon extremely low interest rates, which historically do not last. Let’s review the various modern systems for their characteristics. Ideally, any energy source or system has two basic characteristics, reliability including continuous supply and economic competitiveness. None of the alternative sources seems to qualify.

Windmills. Obviously they can only produce power when the wind is blowing. The wind may not be blowing when the greatest energy need is present. What happens then? The system needs to be able to be augmented by other conventional power sources due to the windmills variable output. Windmills can only start to produce power when the wind is blowing above a certain minimum. Too little wind and insufficient power is generated and too much wind can destroy the windmill, which has actually happened. Windmills have serious disadvantages, without citing any figures, they have high kw and kwh costs. They can kill of migratory birds and can throw ice in the winter time in northern climates, make noise by themselves or in tandem with other windmills creating (“beat” to user a technical term) a low frequency pulse sound. Compared to the flowing steam in turbines, atmospheric air has a low velocity and is much lower in density. Consequently In order to produce any substantial energy the windmills must be large so as to capture more low density air. The generator and gears of a wind turbine are placed high up in the air where mechanical noise can easily be transmitted to people on the ground. In comparison the noise from a steam turbine and generator is contained in a heavy casing at ground level typically inside a building. Typically wind turbines are placed on mountain tops or ridges and can be seen for long distances. Many windmills are over 200 feet in diameter and are esthetically unattractive. There is nothing “free” or clean about windmills.

Solar panels. Solar panels suffer from many of the same disadvantages as windmills, variable output in the day time and zero output at night. The daytime output is a function of the time of day, season of the year and number and kind of clouds, if any, in the sky. Due to low energy flux density of sunshine and the relatively low conversion of most panels, in the neighborhood of 20%, solar panels are located in “farms” because they frequently take up acres of space. Even if the conversion efficiency could be doubled, solar farms still represent a high kw and kwh cost, especially on an initial cost basis, as well as taking up a large amount of space.

Geothermal. Typically a hot water or steam source is used as the prime energy source. The energy source has to go through a heat exchanger so that a process fluid can be used to provide electricity using a steam or other volatile chemical fluid turbine. Commonly, the prime water energy source contains harsh salts and fine silica. These salts create can severe corrosion and the silica will cause erosion for any metal that comes into contact with the fluid. This means that hard expensive alloys are required. It also means, typically, that the used hot water needs to be re-injected back into the earth unless you want to have a large lake of chemical filled water on the surface. Frequently, freshwater needs to be pumped into the earth to absorb heat and create the hot water to come from the earth. Cooling the water with many chemicals creates possible precipitate problems with solid former soluble salts clogging the piping. Process wise, this situation is confused.

If relatively pure steam is available, then it is feasible to use this system. Iceland has many of these steam supplies. Potential geothermal facilities have limited areas and can only be located in an earthquake fault area such as Yellowstone National Park or the Salton Sea in California, because they are the only areas of the United States where high energy sources are located.

Tidal turbines. These turbines are powered by the tidal variation of the ocean. Areas having the highest tides are the best candidates. The Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy are areas for possible examination due to their tides in the range of 40-50 feet. Tidal turbines require a dam which can disrupt fishing and fish culture. In any event the one advantage is that sea water is about 64 pounds per cubic foot and much energy can be stored in water for this reason. Unfortunately sea water is corrosive and metallurgy is of prime consideration. While the power generation of sea tidal turbines is variable, at least it is predictable unlike solar and windmills. Tidal generation is a potentially microscopic generation of power. It will never be a major ingredient of power generation due to severe limits of potential locations.

Ethanol. Of all of the energy schemes, the ethanol industry has to foster the biggest misrepresentation. With 35% of its weight as incombustible oxygen, only 65% of its mass can possibly produce any energy. Therefore users must buy 1/3 more fuel to get the identical amount of useable energy. Ethanol is hydroscopic meaning it attracts water which helps corrode iron fittings and pipes. It is a polar molecule meaning that rubber and any latex compounds cannot be used as gaskets fittings etc. Special compounds such as Viton must be used in fuel delivery systems to be compatible with ethanol chemistry. Ethanol production via fermentation produces Carbon dioxide, the alleged devil of the chemical world.

The conversion of ethanol from corn syrup is exothermic, meaning that there is less energy in the ethanol then from its parent compounds. This is just another efficiency loss in the product. There are many arguments which I will not discuss stating that ethanol is energy negative, meaning that the energy needed to produce ethanol which goes into planting and harvesting the corn as well as processing the product exceeds the available energy from the product aside from water usage to grow the corn. It is interesting that no ethanol plant uses ethanol to power its reboilers in the distillation columns or to dry the ethanol from 95% azeotropic to 100% pure in absorber/dryers. That alone should tell us that those who make it know its limitations.

Every consumer of ethanol has good cause to complain because it use is not optional, but is mandated by Environmental Protection Agency with the approval of Congress. Ranking House Agriculture Committee member Collin Peterson, a former farmer from Western Minnesota farm country, has correctly stated that if the EPA studies the peripheral output of greenhouse gasses that result from ethanol production it will have no choice but to kill the ethanol industry. Peterson does not want this to happen, some of his constituents are corn farmers. One study that is shocking is The Fargione, Hill, Tilman, Polasky and Hawthorne study (“Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt”) which confirms what Peterson fears and this has been known since 2007, that biofuels production from cleared agricultural lands is creating a “carbon debt” by initially releasing 17 to 420 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that it will save on an annual basis, through land conversion activities.

This study makes even more sense recently because ethanol is currently being imported in substantial quantities from Brazil, due to high USA corn prices, caused by ethanol consumption of more than 35% of all US corn. Brazil’s farmers are clearing and burning virgin rainforest land to make way for ethanol production from sugar cane. Obviously, we all live on the same planet with rain forest farmers… their green house gasses are ours.

Biofuels. Biofuels try to use virgin soy bean oil or kitchen oil wastes and convert them to useable diesel oil. Biodiesel is typically made from a chemical reaction called trans-esterification. Trans-esterification generally is the joining of two dissimilar organic compounds as an ester. Typically, the reactants are soy bean oil and methanol in the presence of a catalyst. Animal fat may also be used as a reactant. The products are biodiesel, an ester, and glycerin, a waste product. All esters are “polar” molecules which have uneven electron charges. Polar molecules are good solvents. Consequently, biodiesel will remove varnish and sludge that may be in existing systems that previously used petrodiesel fuel. While on the surface this might be a good thing, the introduction of biodiesel may cause fuel filters etc. to become plugged. Because of its superior solvent characteristics, it will dissolve rubber piping, gaskets or latex materials. Existing gaskets and seals may need to be replaced with new materials such as Teflon, or EPDM etc. Gaskets of rubber, PVC, Cork, leather and plastic will also need to be replaced as they will destruct. The oxygen in esters attracts water which is similar with its own oxygen atom. Water may be found in biodiesel for other reasons. While every attempt is made to remove all water from the fuel, it still exists, albeit in small quantities. Nothing about water helps any fuel. The greatest problem is that the water has to be vaporized when the fuel is combusted. Water has one of the highest heats of vaporization known to man. The consequence is fewer miles per gallon. Water in the fuel attracts Oxygen from the air. This oxygen through catalytic action promotes rust on any iron or steel that may come into contact with the fuel.

Historically diesel fuel has been about 30-40 cents per gallon cheaper than gasoline. Currently diesel fuel is about 50-60 cents per gallon more expensive. Why? EPA rules. After Dec 1, 2010 all diesel sold in the US is what is called Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD). Refiners had to install refineries that had high pressure facilities that caused hydrogen gas to react with and saturate available double bonds in the fuel and remove Sulfur as hydrogen sulfide. Three characteristics of this “parafinic” fuel were to (1) reduce the lubricity of the fuel oil; and (2) increase the pour point; and (3) be more expensive. These new refinery units had to use expensive stainless steels because the reactors, piping and some vessels had to operate at temperatures up to 1500 degrees F range and 2000 psi pressure. Raising the pour point meant that fuels that were liquid, at say -20 degrees F, would now gel, at say +10 degrees F. This could cause many problems in the winter time. The consequence was that we now had more expensive fuel that could more easily gel if you were not careful, such as buying fuel in Texas and shutting the truck down in a cold winter day in Northern Illinois. You might not be able to restart the engine. The pour point problem has been modified by adding expensive, toxic and exotic pour point depressants. Some of these anti-gelling pour point depressants may contain small amounts of toxic aromatic compounds, usually xylene or toluene, and must be handled with care.

Winners and losers. The winners are the chemical industry and the few people who receive jobs and profits from this activity. While promised as a tax generating activity, typically these institutions gain property tax amnesty for a number of years as well as other perks such as free land etc. The lawyer-lobbyists in Washington DC, who lobby congress against the best interests of the American people, also profit. The chemical industry gets to use unwanted methanol and make it into biodiesel at a greatly increased price. You did not think that these ventures were designed as an altruistic activity to help society. Crop farmers receive higher prices for their corn and soybeans. State and federal governments will receive increased motor fuel taxes because ethanol and biodiesel have less energy per gallon. Motorists and truckers will require more (gallons) of fuel for the same amount of mileage.

The losers are (1) the American taxpayer who has to pay subsidies to a small group of capitalists and pay higher prices for food; (2) the motoring public who is forced to use inferior chemicals for fuels and be subject to higher maintenance costs to operate a vehicle; (3) the beef, sheep, chicken and horse farmers who are forced to pay higher prices for grain; (4) the jobs destroyed due to government allocation of resources, some jobs became uneconomical due to the subsidies and were discontinued or never created. This is similar to the “stimulus” bill that only will serve to reduce the overall number of jobs; (5) the large amount of water taken from the aquifer to operate the plant and the waste generated from this activity not to mention insecticides and herbicides required to grow the plants. Shortage of food and a growing world population will eventually force the burning of food as fuel to come to an end, but in the meantime consumers are the losers. Congress could repeal laws that compel the use of crops and grains for biofuels and reduce or eliminate taxpayer subsidies for their use.

Conclusion

All of the so called alternative sources of electrical energy are incompatible with the traditional generation electricity, yet the latter are forced to accommodate the variability of the former. It is not physically possible to get unvarying power to the customer from a variable input because electric utilities cannot easily store unwanted power generated in off hours. They are compelled to buy it however by governmental mandate when the sun shines or the wind blows. This situation creates instabilities or transients that weaken and threaten to upset the stability of the entire electrical grid. Localized brown outs, regional power failures and a possible nationwide power failure are not impossible.
-Russell Walker, P.E. 13 January 2013

Russell Walker is a Chemical Engineer, specializing in Organic Chemistry, living in North Carolina. He has worked for most of his career in the petrochemical industry and refineries and has written critically about Ethanol-economics Industry based on his studies of a Corn-Ethanol plant in Hoke county in North Carolina. The plant was built with significant taxpayer financing but only operated a few months due to the rising price of corn. Walker clearly exposed the economic and technical deficiencies of this and other ethanol plants. We thank him for his contribution to the public understanding of what we have long called the Ethanol Scam. He can be reached at: littlefarm1@windstream.net

We also call your attention to To Corn-to-Ethanol: US Agribusiness Magic Path To A World Food Monopoly by-CEC, editor.