Here’s something thought provoking for a Friday: The ultimate roller coaster ride: a brief history of fossil fuels, a five minute encapsulation of humanity’s flirtation with coal and rock oil. Narrated by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, animated by Monstro Design. Worth five minutes of your day.
I started researching my new book, From Smoke to Mirrors, back in 2007. I had been following alternative energy stories, and I was inundated with blogs and press releases from hucksters peddling silly ideas that would do nothing but separate investors from their savings.
So, in late 2007 I set out to document the strengths, weaknesses, and costs of all the options. I kept in mind that hydrocarbon liquid fuels (petrol, diesel, jet fuel, and fuel oil) underpin key elements of human civilisation, such as food production and distribution. Although the relative importance of cars, trucks, aircraft, and tractors might change over time, it will only be possible to eliminate liquid-fuel-related greenhouse emissions if we can find practical alternatives for every vehicle and machine. Forty percent of New Zealand’s liquid fuel is used on non-road applications, so it would be pointless to fix road transport and ignore agriculture, construction, aviation, and all the other non-road liquid fuel users.
My engineering background helped me sort the practical options from the vacuous nonsense. It had been a while since I’d worked with battery technology, and I enjoyed ferreting out detailed technical information about the latest rechargeable batteries, information their promoters would rather keep secret. I learned, for example, that battery-powered farm tractors would be about as practical as concrete helicopters. Then I moved on to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles—which, from the practical perspective, are looking pretty good. But hydrogen tractors are almost as impractical as battery-burners.
We know about practical processes for converting softwood chips into electricity, hydrogen, hydrocarbon fuels, and ethanol
It is clear that energy forestry is New Zealand’s most practical option for hydrogen, and for hydrocarbon fuels. New Zealand scientists knew about this possibility way back in the 1970s, though the technology for making trees into fuel was still being developed. Now, we know about practical processes for converting softwood chips into electricity, hydrogen, hydrocarbon fuels, and ethanol. No matter which technology New Zealand uses for road transport, our energy forests would occupy pretty-much the same amount of land. Researchers have calculated that the “energy profit” (or EROEI) of fuels made from wood chips will be better than that of our existing fossil fuels.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery, for me, was that radiata pine forests offer so many environmental side-benefits. I knew from personal observation that the native undergrowth in a 25-year-old radiata forest is far more luxuriant than the undergrowth in a 25-year-old stand of regenerating kanuka. But I am not a biologist, so I had to listen to the experts. I learned that converting steep low-quality grazing land into energy forests would improve biodiversity by creating habitat for a wide range of native species, from fungi to kiwis and falcons (the bird, that is). And I learned that foresters do not use fertiliser, and that third-generation radiata forests in the Central North Island are doing as well, or better, than the original plantings.
It seems New Zealand foresters have invented a biomass production process that can operate indefinitely. The technique has been thoroughly proven over many decades of real-world practice. We can share this expertise with other countries, which means Kiwi know-how can help knock a very large dent in anthropogenic greenhouse emissions.
There’s an excellent chance New Zealand will have the world’s cheapest renewable petrol and diesel
Even more exciting, there’s an excellent chance New Zealand will have the world’s cheapest renewable petrol and diesel. I’m guessing many New Zealanders will be very excited about that, especially considering what I learned about the future of conventional cars and trucks. Talking to overseas engineers, I learned about simple, practical engine and transmission systems capable of more than halving the fuel consumption of conventional road vehicles, without downsizing them, and without relying on battery hybrid systems.
So, although renewable petrol and diesel will be somewhat more expensive than today’s fuels, the improved efficiency of future vehicles will more than compensate.
We can be almost certain that sometime between now and 2030, the global economy will hit serious problems with the supply of liquid fuels. That is because fuel supplies will increasingly come from synthetic fuel factories. It can take up to six years to design, build, and fully commission a synthetic fuel factory, regardless of whether it makes climate-neutral fuel, or fossil fuel. Multi-national energy companies will be able to maximise their profits by delaying construction of synthetic fuel factories until prices begin to skyrocket. We know this will happen, but we cannot say exactly when it will start to affect global fuel prices. A growing number of analysts think it will happen before 2030, and the real pessimists think it will happen before 2020.
However, by 2040, if New Zealand gets stuck in and builds the necessary infrastructure, we can reasonably expect freight costs, and vehicle running costs, to consume a smaller fraction of the family budget than they do today.
There is no sign of any practical alternative for hydrocarbon liquid fuels for non-road applications. But these applications account for nearly half of New Zealand’s liquid fuel consumption.
So, while car and truck manufacturers are playing around with every technology that can turn a wheel, New Zealand should climate-neutralise its supply of essential, non-road fuels. This will keep us busy well into the 2020s. By then, thanks to advanced fuel injection and exhaust treatment systems, tailpipe emissions from conventional vehicles will be insignificant compared with pollution from tyre wear. All road vehicles have tyres, so environmental concerns will not influence our choice of cars and trucks. We’ll use whichever technology is the most practical.
From Smoke to Mirrors outlines a transition plan that takes account of these and other factors. I did not invent the transition plan. Associate Professor Susan Krumdieck did that, leaving it up to people like me to flesh it out and show why it is practical. Krumdieck proposed a direct attack on the problem’s fundamental origin. Fossil fuels cause greenhouse emissions, and greenhouse emissions cause climate change, so Krumdieck says we should simply ban fossil fuels. If you read From Smoke to Mirrors, you’ll see how simple and practical this would be.
New Zealand can do this. In fact, New Zealand should do this. We are a very small country, and if we cannot work together, how can we expect the rest of the world to do it?We need all our political parties to work out a multi-party agreement. This is about banning fossil fuels and developing the infrastructure to fully replace the billions of litres of fuel we’ll need by 2040. Left-right political questions, such as whether to build roads or railways, would be outside the scope of this agreement.
I’ve met young people who say: “We’re stuffed anyway, so I’m just gonna get as much as I can , while I can, and to hell with having kids.” That’s OK if there is no technical solution, or if the solution involves returning to medieval technology. But I’ve seen enough good technology to know the world will not go there. So, I hope my book will provide hope for those young people who have been led to believe there is no hope. My grandchildren’s generation will be the first to grow up knowing that we can solve this problem, because “From Smoke to Mirrors” makes the solutions readable and easily understood.
New Zealand can be self-sufficient for climate-neutral energy. Other countries can benefit from Kiwi expertise. This is a multi-decade project that could inspire every New Zealander. The question is whether our politicians are up to the challenge.
Kevin Cudby doesn’t rush to easy conclusions in his new book From Smoke to Mirrors: How New Zealand can replace fossil liquid fuels with locally-made renewable energy by 2040. He is clear that fossil fuels must be eliminated but seeks to be realistic about how that can be done. The focus on New Zealand is not exclusive; however, he considers that New Zealand can provide an example which many others will want to learn from and follow. There’s also an economic imperative that we be able to show those who holiday here or buy our products that they are not thereby exacerbating climate change. Cudby envisages a society continuing to have the transport opportunities we currently enjoy and depend on, but fuelled differently. He fully accepts the warnings of climate science, taking James Hansen as a guide in that respect.
The book painstakingly leads the reader through a wide variety of technologies relevant to its search. Battery vehicles receive close and sympathetic attention but are seen as unlikely to be sufficiently developed to be widely used in NZ road transport before 2040, though they may well make sense for some transport businesses. In discussing hydraulic hybrid (rare as yet) and plug-in battery hybrid vehicles he notes that their low fuel consumption will cancel out rising fuel prices. Hydraulic hybrids should have proved by 2020 whether they can deliver what the promoters promise; he certainly sees them becoming common on machines such a ditch diggers. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles show much promise, and he sees a future for them in New Zealand, though not in significant numbers before 2040. The discussion of these differently powered vehicles is illuminating in its detail, with very useful explanations of how they work and what problems have yet to be overcome in each case.
Liquid fuels will continue to play a major part in NZ transport by 2040, in the author’s view. They will also remain essential in non-road equipment and vehicles, which Cudby frequently reminds the reader are substantial users of fuel. It will not be enough to eliminate fossil fuels from road transport. Air and sea travel must also be fuelled from non-fossil sources. At this point in his book the Biomass Gasification and Fischer-Tropsch (BGFT) process enters the scene. It yields synthetic crude oil that can be converted into diesel, kerosene, fuel oil, and petrol. BGFT fuels directly replace conventional liquid fuels. They work best with dry biomass. They are expected to be commercialised by 2015, and although they will be more expensive than conventional fossil fuels their use should not affect transport costs because improved vehicle efficiency will offset the higher cost. Cudby estimates that to provide sufficient biomass to satisfy its entire liquid fuel requirements with BGFT synthetic fuels New Zealand would need purpose-grown energy forests covering between nine percent (low scenario) and thirteen percent (high scenario) of its total land area. Excluding from consideration native forests and conservation areas, as well as arable or high quality pastoral land, he finds that between 29 percent (low scenario) and 40 percent (high scenario) of steep low quality land would suffice for the energy forests. I was reminded of the report in 2006 of the Energy Panel of the Royal Society of New Zealand 2020: Energy Opportunities which envisaged a rapid transition to carbon-neutral transport fuel and produced an analysis which demonstrated that New Zealand can easily grow the required biomass without impinging on productive soils.
The book also considers the Hydrothermal Liquefaction (HTL) process, a likely useful complement to BGFT because it copes well with wet biomass and is a promising candidate for converting microalgae into liquid fuels as he notes NZ company Solray Energy is demonstrating. Algae biofuel receives attention but Cudby sees it as not yet ready for commercial-scale stand-alone fuel production. Biodiesel, which he differentiates from synthetic diesel such as BGFT or HTL, is not an option for running the NZ transport system but could fulfil a very useful niche role as a lubricity additive to synthetic diesel. Ethanol will have a role, but for the present its high cost and inferior environmental performance compared with synthetic hydrocarbons tells against it.
This general outline does little justice to the detailed coverage Cudby gives to all these and many related topics as he outlines the options for transport and non-road liquid fuel use. The technically inclined reader will be well engaged. As the author proceeds to his assessment of the options he acknowledges that the world’s transport systems will eventually depend on solar fuels, hydrogen, batteries, or perhaps algal biofuels. However for now none of them are competitive with conventional vehicles fuelled by synthetic biofuels. While we wait to see which technologies will ultimately succeed we should get on with the decarbonising of our supply of liquid fuels. He proposes opening renewable energy facilities at 18-month intervals beginning in 2018. The first six factories would make hydrocarbon liquid fuels. Thereafter it would depend on how world technologies are developing. The products of the first factories would certainly be needed during a 20-year investment life of the factories. Energy forests have a twenty-five year rotation and he looks to an acceleration of the process in the first stages by using some existing forests for energy, by planting trees close together and harvesting them sooner, and by using unwanted pine trees, gorse and other scrubby weeds.
There are two distinct stages to the transition. The first is replacing the essential hydrocarbon fuels, that is, non-road petrol and diesel, aviation kerosene, and fuel oil. The second is carbon-neutralising road transport, which may involve the vehicles as well as the fuels and perhaps include a mix of different technologies.
It can be done by 2040 but in Cudby’s view it won’t happen as a result of carbon pricing schemes, whether by emissions trading or a direct tax. Energy companies will continue to pursue the enormous potential for liquid fuels made from natural gas, tar sands, heavy oil, oil shale, coal, and methane clathrates. We must therefore progressively ban imported fossil fuel as we develop our biomass synthetic fuel, and while we are about it ban indigenous fossil fuels as well.
“…the only foolproof way to eliminate fossil fuels is to outlaw them”. This is an eminently sensible thing to say, especially when the writer has set out in considerable and thoughtful detail how they can be replaced. But as I read this section of the book I tried to imagine our Minister of Energy engaging with it and failed. In fact he is doing precisely what Cudby says the energy companies will continue to do, pursuing fossil oil to its last drop, holding out a promising future for coal and expressing hope that methane clathrates can be tapped.
Full marks to Cudby and others like him for a thorough and patient exploration of the means by which we can end our reliance on fossil fuels. His vision of New Zealand showing the way, able to demonstrate renewable fuel in almost every type of vehicle even invented, is not bombast but technically grounded. “What are we waiting for?” are his final words. To which I fear the answer is political leadership intelligent enough to understand the danger of climate change and resolute enough to take a lead in tackling it. And voters ready for such leadership. Technologically, if Cudby is right, we are ready, but politically is another matter.
Slightly off topic, but who can resist two of NZ’s sexiest women having a bit of fun with energy minister Gerry Brownlee, and his plans to mine national parks for more coal? Not me.