A bright spot in the energy dilemma?
(No. 9) Sometimes the news is potentially very good. Plus Pipelines 101. By Ty Montague and Stephen P. Williams
There are times when you don’t need to drill. Photo by Tanya Grypachevskaya on Unsplash
Climate change is one of the biggest symptoms of the overall problem of environmental overshoot. A big part of solving that challenge is making the transition to clean, carbon free energy. I recently learned of a new technology that seems worth discussing: supercritical geothermal. If you want to nerd out on the science, read this, and if you’re more visual I found this video helpful. I’ll try to describe it here in simpler terms.
There are two key ideas: first, the earth itself is mostly molten rock. We live on a thin, congealed crust that “floats” on an ocean of superheated magma (the earth itself is a giant battery storing this heat, essentially). If we could use that interior heat as a power source, it could provide millennia of carbon-free power. This is not science fiction. Iceland is energy independent largely due to geothermal power today. But Iceland is a place where the heat is very close to the surface and easy to access. In most places on the planet you have to drill down through 10 or 12 kilometers of rock to get to an environment that is hot enough to be useful. That is hard to do. But some new drilling technologies are beginning to show that the problem is solvable. One technique still being tested is called “millimeter wave.” Surprisingly, it doesn’t rely on the direct contact of a drill bit with rock at all. It literally vaporizes the rock in front of the “drill head” without ever touching it. And there are others.
Which brings us to the second idea: if you can drill down to an environment that is hot enough, a concept called supercriticality becomes possible. Let’s use water as an example to explain supercriticality: water normally exists in liquid form up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it becomes a gas: steam. But add lots of pressure, and water can remain in a liquid state at temps of 350 degrees or higher. At that point it is carrying up to 10 times as much heat as normal hot water. In other words water in a supercritical state becomes an extremely powerful transmission medium for moving a lot of earth’s interior heat up to the surface to be put to use powering our infrastructure.
As energy venture capitalist Sebastian Heitman puts it in this excellent podcast, supercritical geothermal has a few important advantages: if the new drilling technologies like millimeter wave work (and that’s a large and key if), drilling becomes very cost efficient. The holes needed could be drilled in 10 days at a cost not exceeding “two digit millions of dollars.” Geothermal also has other important advantages – it can use existing infrastructure that has been lightly retrofitted. For example it is fairly simple to convert an existing coal burning power plant into a zero carbon geothermal power plant by drilling down right on site and using the heat from beneath the earth to heat the water that drives the turbines rather than burning coal to heat that water. There are no spent fuel rods that a nuclear plant produces to deal with. There are none of the issues with the intermittent availability of wind and solar.
Heitman says that scientists estimate that we could run human civilization for 2 million years on 1/10th of a percent of the heat trapped inside the planet. Sooo… maybe? There are many important questions yet to be answered here, and this doesn’t do anything to solve the larger problem of overshoot and impending ecosystem collapse, but it is the first technology I have read about in the last decade (other than wind and solar which I believe are part of the answer as well) that gave me a moment of real hope for our energy future. I’m going to do a second post soon to unpack the dimensions of that problem a little bit more.
by Ty Montague
Here’s a long, hopeful story about how Uruguay might just be the model for a future of living well with less.
Before today I didn’t know squat about pipelines. Did you? If not, join me in learning.
A pipeline in Ukraine Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash
Pundits and politicians are saying that Europe is in an energy war with Russia (and now Saudi Arabia and OPEC). Just as gas prices seem to rise during every American road tripping summer, Europe has an energy crisis at the start of every winter. This winter it’s because they depend on pipelines from Russia and elsewhere for much of their heating fuel. I haven’t heard anyone say this is a sustainable system. Rather, I’ve heard a lot of panic. Since pipelines are so much in the news this week, I thought I’d share a few facts about them. It’s been a good exercise for me, cause I’ve seen lots of ‘em, and have even walked on top of a few, but I haven’t really had an idea of how they work.
Click on the video, below, for a wildly surprising look at how some pipeline trenches are “dug.”
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Here’s some quick info about pipelines:
Pipelines carry gas and oil and biofuels and more. There’s even a Belgian brewer that sends it’s beer to the bottler via underground pipes.
Pipelines can used for three main purposes. Gathering pipelines are short pipes connecting wells to refineries or other plants. Transportation pipelines carry substances long distances, in bulk. Smaller distribution pipelines deliver the stuff to homes and businesses.
Three thousand companies maintain (or not) 2.6 million km of pipelines in the US, making up the most pipelines of any country in the world. Russia is ranked second, with 259,913 km of pipes. That’s a startling difference.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization, among US fossil fuel pipelines there’s a fire every 4 days, an explosion every 11 days, a person injured every five days, and someone killed every 26 days.
The US government says American pipelines transport trillions of cubic feet of natural gas each year, and hundreds of billions of ton/miles of liquid petroleum products each year.
Before today I had never heard of a ton/mile. Turns out it is equal to shipping one ton of product, such as oil, one mile. You calculate it by dividing the weight in tons of each shipment by the distance hauled.
That’s Pipeline 101 for today, folks.
by Stephen P. Williams
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