Burning gas is not a clean energy solution

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Burning gas is still a dirty solution that puts the planet in jeopardy, argues prominent scientist, journalist, author and documentary maker John Davis, who maps a cleaner and cheaper path.

On the opinion page of the Sydney Morning Herald on the 1st of March, John Williams assures us of a rosy future burning fossil fuels. Gas, he claims, is safe if we treat it carefully with good engineering. He dismisses renewables and the Beyond Zero Emissions plan.

Despite best efforts in USA, the leakage rate for methane is 4 per cent. As methane is 50 times worse than CO2 over 50 years, it is as bad as coal — maybe worse.

If we burnt the world’s reserves of methane, it would add 50 ppm to the CO2 in the atmosphere. This would take it to 440 ppm — just below the 450 maximum. Add to this the leakage – and CO2 from coal, oil, and deforestation – and we are in disaster territory.

Many scientists are saying we should reduce the CO2 back to 350ppm. They claim 450 ppm poses too great a risk. Burning gas takes us in the wrong direction.

Beyond Zero Emissions is a volunteer organisation that has drawn up a plan to produce all Australia’s electricity from wind and solar thermal with heat storage. They have proposed using off-the-shelf technology, so there is no excuse to delay starting today. The only real criticism of the plan is whether it can be done in ten years. Well, show me a grand project that doesn’t go over time. People overestimate what they can do in one year, and under estimate what they can do in ten years.

Not only will this plan cut CO2 emissions, but over 30 years it will be cheaper than coal or gas and the costs are predictable. Economically, it is better than continuing with coal and gas.

The threat to the fossil fuel industry is worth billions. Most fossil fuel companies are valued by their deposits in the ground. But eventually, sanity will win and they will only be able to mine no more than 20 per cent of their deposits. So what does this do to their share price?

They have responded with tens of millions of dollars in denial campaigns. Originally developed for the tobacco industry, the standard denial script goes:

1. The science is not yet certain.

2. Scientists are not in agreement.

3. There are natural causes.

Then they set up astroturf organisations to spread lies and confusion. As well, they fund thinktanks to bring out white papers and lobby governments. Many of the government committees have fossil fuel representatives on them.

There are huge and varied opportunities to develop clean energy. Waves, tides, temperature difference between shallow and deep ocean, osmotic power where rivers join the sea. Solar thermal with water tubes, reflectors, updraft towers, or ponds. Many types of photovoltaics, wind — onshore, offshore, floating, or flying as a kite – as well as geothermal. They will all produce carbon dioxide free electricity.

Cement contributes 5 per cent of CO2 emissions and can be replaced by geopolymer made from fly ash or slag. Other green cements from magnesium absorb CO2 instead of releasing it.

Steel, another emitter can be made with biomass, or hydrogen. Methane can be used and if realistic, the CO2 can be buried.

Can clean energy be stored? Solar heat can be stored as hot molten salt, or as hot graphite. Businesses will set up to buy cheap electricity, store it, and sell again at the peak. 70 to 85 per cent of electricity used to pump water up to a hydro storage can be recovered. Recovery is much higher if water is pumped at high tide into a tidal reservoir. There are thousands of sites for pumped hydro in Australia. Seawater could be stored on coastal ranges. Air can be compressed in underground caverns or old mines, or in bags under water. Then there are large lithium-sulphur batteries, redox flow batteries, capacitors, flywheels, and the breaking apart of ammonia.

One of the most fascinating projects is the use of bugs to convert CO2 and electricity into butanol. Butanol will one day replace ethanol as it is more like petrol.

For mobile fuels, ethanol and butanol can be made from, sugar cane, sugar beet, sugar palm, agave, seaweed, and cellulose. The most economical transport will be electric vehicles charged with biomass fuelled generators. The second most economical method is to carry sugar from cellulose and convert it on board to hydrogen to feed a fuel cell.

Diesel and jet fuel can be produced from plants and algae. The airlines are trialling oil from Jatropha and Camelina. In future, oil is more likely to come from Pongamia/Millettia which produces 3-10 tonnes/Ha/Yr. Algae is attractive as produces it can produce 80 tonnes of oil per hectare per year. It can live in salt water in a desert. When the problems are resolved it should be possible for Australia to export algal oil to the rest of the world.

Oil can also be produced by pyrolysis (heating without air) of biomass. Depolymerisation imitates the production of oil deposits by holding any organic material in hot pressurised water. It will convert tyres, plastics, hospital waste, sewage sludge, animal processing waste, to oil.

Ships are a problem. They produce 5 per cent of the world’s CO2 and are not covered by the Kyoto protocol. The particles emitted by their diesel engines kill 60,000 people each year. The particles can be identified by their vanadium and nickel content that is only present in ships fuel. The acid rain caused by the 15 biggest ships, is more than all the world’s cars. Large kites helping to pull the ship along can reduce their fuel use, but they are going to need large quantities of clean cheap fuel.

At first all the new technologies will be more expensive than coal and gas. But then, coal and gas are costing us the Earth.

(References for this article and more information about carbon free energy can be found on John Davis’ informative website www.energy-without-carbon.org.)

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