Tag Archives: Climate Change

The end of coal/oil/nuclear/(most) gas power generation?!


Okay not quite yet, but this kind of blue-sky thinking is the answer to ending our insane reliance on using fuel (usually through combustion) to heat water which in turn turns turbines to generate electricity. Now wind (and wave/tidal when they are more commercially viable), hydro and other forms of direct turbine generation (like natural gas) and solar voltaic are realistic options in generating power for our future needs.

Coal-fired plants currently operate at about 31% efficiency – as in less than a third of the stored energy in the coal is converted to electricity – and that figure doesn’t acount for transmission losses.  Euractiv.com
Even if experimental coal gasification plants were to come online, they would still only  operate at around 50% efficiency. DOE

Some modern fossil fuel plants could operate at up to 48% efficiency already, but this is the maximum owing to the laws of thermodynamics. Nuclear cannot operate at more than 30-32% efficiency at present, though designs currently at the experimental stage could get closer to that of fossil-fuel  turbines Wiki, but again no higher because in both cases the temperatures involved prevent greater efficiency.
Now wind (30 to 59%) and solar (up to circa 30% and even 50% in the future)[ Livestrong ] efficiencies using current technologies don’t seem to compete in terms of energy conversion, but there is the added bonus that once the generating capacity is installed, the energy source is free and does not require a transport or massively industrialised infrastructure to supply it. Wave and tidal power, which are currently still in development, have the potential to be up to 99% efficient USAF  and 80% NWE respectively.
Of course the decommisioning costs of renewable turbines and PV arrays are negligible when compared with the clean-up costs for fossil fuel and nuclear power stations – it seems to be quite difficult to find out what the estimated costs of decommissioning defunct power stations might be, which suggests that it will be high – especially with coal ( and all the toxic chemicals that don’t get burned like mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic and other heavy metals Wiki) poisoning the land and nuclear which produces 10000 metric tonnes of fuel waste per year worldwide, but also huge quantities of low-level radioactive waste (but still less than and less radioactive than coal fired power stations), for which there is still no reliable disposal method even after 60 odd years. Therefore, one can safely assume that the clean-up costs of decommissioning nuclear and fossil fuel plants woud run to (probably) hundreds of billions of dollars.
Step forward Donald Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT giving a short talk  at TED on the new liquid metal batteries that he has developed with his students (video below).

For the more scientifically minded amongst you, here is the PDF link for Sadoway et al  (published January 2012) in the Journal of the American Chemical Society

One Magnesium-antimony (Mg-Sb) battery about the size of a 40ft shipping container has a capacity of 2MWh – about enough for 200 homes. The technology is scalable (so smaller batteries could be used for individual houses, offices, workshops) and it is capable of dealing with the high temperatures that are associated with electrical surges (from rapid charging over a [relatively] short period of time). The metals, as the description “liquid metal”  suggests are kept in a fluid state in order that the Magnesium can migrate down through the electrolyte when discharging (forming a MgSb alloy) and back up when charging (returning to ions), thus the battery has an operating temperature of around 700°C and is therefore only really practical for stationary use.

This battery which of course has no moving parts to wear or break or that need replacing, could spell the end of antiquated power generation – steam turbines (which coal, gas (mostly), oil and nuclear power stations all use) could be a thing of the past, using [relatively] common materials that are inexpensive, ( Sadoway et al [2012] give Antimony (Sb) = $7/kg and Magnesium (Mg) = $5.15/kg ). It is worth noting that there are massive discrepancies in available data for price of the minerals used in these batteries, but nonetheless it is apparent that their cost and availability are not in question.  Indeed, they are very common and readily available.  Lawmakers ought to start to take the remediation and clean-up costs in mind when considering commissioning new power stations, because then they would be far more likely to opt for batteries such as this combined with a varied and multi faceted renewables portfolio.

Another great thing is that the batteries have low internal resistance,  so do not age nor do they decay through multiple cycles in the way that many modern batteries using rarer elements do, thus they have a good lifespan.

I really do see this as a fantastic breakthrough, this could be comparable to the invention of the internal combustion engine or the television for the massive way it could alter how we generate and use electricity. And it gives us the ability to store electrical potential for when it is needed, rather than ramping up the power at the ‘conventional’ power stations, as happens at the moment.

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In case you were wondering.

Skeptical Science is a blog I like to follow. It’s packed with excellent reviews and a broad overview of the established knowledge base and  developments in Environmental and Climate Change Science. They publish daily essays that are often a fantastically educational read and today’s contribution explains the science and current state of climate modelling. Useful when you need to explain the mechanics to a skeptic.


How do Climate Models Work?.

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Denial of climate change meets an obstacle

This is the way to convince the deniers of the truth of climate change – by impacting their pockets. How can they argue with increased insurance premiums due to extreme weather related insurance payouts? Obviously some will, but as is is apparent the insurance companies don’t care what the GOP think, they care about protecting themselves from risk, and they see the risk as increasingly coming from extreme weather events.
(Well done Peter, for finding another great angle on things!)

Climate Denial Crock of the Week


There is no doubt in the mind of major reinsurance company Munich Re that climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of extreme weather events and that this will have a major impact on the insurance industry.

And just maybe, where the science has not been able to make an impact on the world taking action on climate change, just maybe money and insurance premiums ( or lack thereof ) might get the point across.

One of my little life rules is to listen to people who are smarter than I am.
Insurers employ some of the world’s smartest people to figure out what bets to make on what’s going to happen, or not happen, in the future. They have to get it right, because, if they don’t, they make a lot of bad bets, and go out of business.
Early on, in the 1990s, larger insurance…

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