“How Green Is My Energy?” Big Factor In Fuel Choice

September 2013, Vol. 240 No. 9

Carol Freedenthal, Contributing Editor

“Green energy sources” are becoming more popular but still make only a small dent in the country’s or even the global energy supply. Green energy today includes conventional hydropower, wind, solar, wood and waste biomass, and geothermal. Some observers include nuclear because the waste products are easily collected and handled. Almost any source of energy that is free of fossil fuels is considered green energy. Many times the green fuels are a renewable source of energy.

Green energy products’ major markets are electric generation and power heating, gasoline additives, and diesel fuel. Electric generation and power heating are by far the biggest markets with hydropower, nuclear, wind, solar geothermal, and biomass trying to replace fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and the small amount of oil still used in these markets. Ethanol is produced from various agricultural products including some waste materials for use as an additive to gasoline for automotive fuels. Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils and waste animal fats.

Looking at the market penetration for green fuels shows that for all the desire and hoopla to stop using fossil fuels and the incentives given to promote green energy use, their penetration into fuel markets is still relatively low as a percentage. There are technical and economic reasons for the slow growth. Looking at three major market sectors – electric generation, gasoline additives, and biodiesel – provide a good picture of the “green fuels” market demand.

In electric generation for 2013, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates the following mix of fuels (and percentages of total) to be used:

coal —————-40%
natural gas —– 28%
petroleum ——- 0.6%
other gases —- 0.3%
nuclear ———- 19%
renewable —– 13%

Within the renewable group are the following (and percentages):

conventional hydropower —– 6.5%
wind —————————— 4.1%
wood biomass ——————- 0.9%
waste biomass ———— —– 0.5%
geothermal ———————- 0.4 %
solar —————————— 0.2%

If hydropower and geothermal are taken out since they have been around prior to the move to green energy, the “green energy” is less than 6% of the total fuel mix used for U.S. electric generation for 2013. This is a relatively weak showing for all the effort and incentives to make these a larger replacement for fossil fuels in electric generation.

Use of ethanol as a gasoline additive for better combustion and to replace some of the fossil fuel has grown considerably, mainly due to government edict. With government-enforced changes, ethanol use has risen from 1% of gasoline volume in 2000 to 10% in 2011 and will continue to grow as higher concentrations of ethanol are used in the blends.

Biodiesel has grown to more than a billion gallons in 2011 and is expected to be just below 2% of distillate fuel oil consumption in 2013.

The big push for renewables and green energy began at the start of the decade. Much of the initial concern and desire for renewables was the fear of running out of oil and natural gas. Much has been written about passing the peak production in liquid hydrocarbons and at that time, even natural gas was considered a scarce commodity.

The other major push for green fuels was the environmental movement’s concern of climate change and the theory that the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned was a major contributor to a supposed warming trend for the earth. Though many of the green fuels also release carbon dioxide, the environmentalists feel this is different.

Most of the green fuels are renewable as they come from agricultural crops. While growing the crops carbon dioxide was taken from the atmosphere. Burning these fuels and releasing carbon dioxide is, according to the environmentalists, just returning the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere where it can be taken up again by new crops.

Fossil fuels are different since the carbon dioxide produced when burning them is like additional carbon dioxide to the system since the carbon in the burning is coming from deep within the ground where it was taken out of the earth’s atmosphere millions of years ago. Burning fossil fuels is releasing old carbon dioxide to add to the earth’s carbon dioxide balance. This is a major concern of the environmentalists about burning fossil fuels.

The other worry of environmentalists with using fossil fuels is the concern over pollutants such as mercury and others that are released when a fuel like coal is burned. Coal is not a pure substance and carries many contaminants. Although great strides have been made to make burning coal cleaner, it still presents some hazards that green fuels do not have.

In 2013, the first reason given earlier for green fuels – the fear of running out of natural gas and crude oil – can be forgotten. Huge strides in drilling and producing hydrocarbons from shale reservoirs has reversed the supply side of the business. Shortages are no longer a concern and only the push of the environmentalists is after deleting fossil fuels from the fuel supply chain.

Now – with all the good things supposedly coming from green fuels and all the bad things with fossil fuels, why after a dozen or so years of government incentives, popular desire for better fuels, etc. are green fuels only about 6% of the fuel mix for electric generation? And only by government fiat are they around 10-15% of gasoline replacement? Simply put, technically and economically you cannot beat fossil fuels.

For electric generation, wind and solar look like excellent replacements for natural gas and coal. But, technically, they lack one major characteristics – you cannot store the basic fuel – sun or wind – nor can you store efficiently electricity. If the sun does not shine, solar generation is dead. This lack of power at needed times – 24/7 at any time – will keep these two fuels as secondary fuels forever or until new technology is developed making it possible to store electricity.

For more discussion and information on this, an excellent source is the book, Power Hungary, by noted energy writer Robert Bryce. He covers fully the power shortfall of theses green energies.

But it goes deeper. Not only can you not beat fossil fuels technically – green fuels carry their own baggage. When you get down to it – between the deficiencies and the bad traits of the major replacement green fuels for electric generation, fossil fuels will be around for a good time to come.

What are some of the traits that make green fuels just as unacceptable as fossil fuels to much of the public? For space limitations, let’s keep it only to the electric-generating market.

Wind in particular gets a lot of criticism for two key reasons: the supposed danger to birds and the unsightliness of a group of windmills along pristine coastlines. These two factors along with the economics of building generating facilities and infrastructure for handling the generated electricity have played a major role in slowing wind development.

The other incentive mentioned earlier for green energy was the desire to replace carbon dioxide produced when fossil fuels are burned and the believed effect on climate change. In the past decade, the politically correct calls for reducing the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration as it is alleged that the higher levels are causing climate change with the earth getting hotter.

Those pushing the dangers of fossil fuels claim a hotter earth will have all kinds of calamities from dying species of animals to higher ocean levels to even the complete destruction of the planet. In their zeal to promote new, carbon-free fuels, all kinds of claims are being made. The facts are that some of these dire forecasts are not coming true. Many of the models used by hot climate theorists just do not work or provide artificial results to match their predictions.

Two aspects remain questionable – in recent years is the earth going through a heating or cooling phase and can you blame it all on society and the burning of fossil fuels? Remember, this “third rock” from the sun has gone through all kinds of temperature changes in its 4-8 billion year-plus history. Current information show some of the models projecting the worst case are wrong and other factors such as the sun’s heating and cooling cycles may play a bigger role in the earth’s climate than earlier thought.

How green energy develops and is used is open to several big factors – efficiency in its use and economics. Fossil fuels will have a place in the energy arsenal for many years because of their availability, efficiency and economics. And, they can be made better by such techniques as “clean coal” and other methods to improve their performance.

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