Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Summer 2010: Clutching ill-fitting yellow hard hats, we followed a small clump of tourists through the hallways and offices of Usibelli Coal Mine, accumulating a pile of cheerily-worded pamphlets. In between pictures of giant earth movers and aerial shots of the mine, was a simple graph, sweeping downward from left to right. Our tour guide paused here, proudly pointing out the correlation that seemed obvious:
States that use more coal power have cheaper electricity.
Most of the tourists glanced at it briefly, then wandered on. We lingered. I noted a few obvious outliers – the hydropower-dependent states of the Pacific Northwest had cheaper power than pretty much anywhere else. Beyond that, there wasn’t much information. What year was this data from? What other factors might be involved?
At Ground Truth Trekking, we might be best known for our crazy expeditions to far-flung corners of Alaska. But all of us were trained as scientists. And we’ve been researching Alaska coal issues for a few years now.
So several months later, when we came across a study calculating the “externality” costs of coal power, Hig had what seemed like an obvious idea. Externalities are real economic costs that aren’t captured in the consumer price of a good – costs paid by taxpayers and the public in the form of health care costs, pollution cleanup, etc…
We could add those externalities (about 18 cents per kilowatt hour) to the consumer energy prices from the original graph we saw at Usibelli mine, and get better picture of the real costs of coal power.
It wasn’t that simple. First, we needed our resident computer geeks to create a fancy interactive graphic that let us look at energy sources, power prices, and externality costs for every state in every year. Next, since every power source has externality costs, we needed to dig into the literature to try and estimate those costs for everything from hydropower to nuclear. Finally, since existing power prices are often grandfathered in from old already-paid-off power plants, we needed to look at the data on how much power would cost from a newly-constructed plant.
We dug through obscure government reports, emailed back and forth with arguments, questions, and statistics, and finally created not just a graph, but an entire report.
Because what we found in poking around in the data was not what we expected to find. We expected that adding externality costs would show that coal power was not as cheap as it appeared. That’s true.
What we also found, was that even without externalities, coal power wasn’t really cheap at all. States that increased their use of coal over the past decade didn’t see their power costs drop. And if you were to build a new power plant today, a coal plant would not be the cheapest choice.
There is no electricity “free lunch”. Not in cost, and not in environmental impact. But the least we can do is make our power choices based on real information, rather than outdated perceptions.
We watched this bizarre vessel get towed by on its way to Homer. Eventually it will be moved to upper Cook Inlet to drill oil and gas exploration wells.
Over half of Alaska’s electricity comes from Cook Inlet natural gas. It’s powering the computer I’m typing this on. And it’s running out. By 2017, we’re supposed to have only half of what we need, an annual shortfall of 50 billion cubic feet.
People are less worried about this now than they were just a few months ago, as new discoveries come online. But the fact remains that the easy gas is gone – what is left will be more expensive to extract, and some may not prove economic to extract at all.
Read more about the history and future of Natural Gas in Cook Inlet.
50 billion cubic feet sounds like an enormous gap. But that shortfall is only around 2% of what we’ve exported in the past 40 years. If all the gas had been kept in state, we could have filled that “production gap” for decades beyond the projected shortfall.
Why have we spent the past several decades exporting trillions of tons of natural gas, only to find ourselves suddenly scrambling for enough of the stuff to keep the lights on?
For any natural resource extraction project, there’s usually a debate. And the two sides often line up along the lines of “Now” or “Never.” The “Now” camp touts jobs and tax revenue, and the benefits of economic development. The “Never” camp points out pollution, and the negative impacts to ecosystems, communities, and other industries.
Why not? I’m not an economist, but this is something I’ve wondered about for years. If the public owns the gas and oil and metals under the land, leaving them in the ground is a form of savings account – with interest in the form of increasing resource prices. Extraction, on the other hand, really is spending the wealth – removing that resource for good.
From the oil/gas company perspective, I can understand why they probably aren’t worried about saving resources for later. They’ll do whatever brings the most profit – likely extracting the resource as quickly as possible, selling it for the highest price possible, then picking up and moving to a new spot.
From the state perspective, it’s not so simple. The state owns all the gas in Cook Inlet. Actually the public does. And the state has a constitutional mandate to use all public resources in the best interest of all Alaskans:
“The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.”
So we exported gas as quickly as possible while failing to secure an alternative source of heat and power for state residents. If new gas plays don’t work out very soon, we’ll need to turn around and start importing LNG to the same facility that exported for 40 years. Was that really the best we could do?
Alaska is a resource extraction state. How does an economy dependent on natural resources avoid a seemingly-inevitable boom and bust?
Boom and bust is how it generally works, here and in the rest of the world. Resources are discovered and quickly depleted. Then it’s either on to the next jackpot, or on to an economic decline.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some gas, oil, and metals for our kids and for future generations of Alaskans to use? All these resources will only be more valuable the longer we wait to extract them. If you’re manufacturing a product, it makes sense to step up production as demand and prices rise. But if you’re selling a finite pool of a non-renewable resource, you might get more money for your product if you parcel it out – leaving some to sell when prices rise even further.
Chances are, the techniques used to extract all our resources will only become more efficient, effective, and environmentally friendly with time. Some of the painful tradeoffs between ecosystem damage and industrial development might simply disappear in the future.
It’s not just oil and gas. Say we don’t build a Pebble Mine now. In another 100 years, maybe we’ll have mining techniques that eliminate the (impossible) necessity to safely store toxic wastes forever. Metals may be even more valuable then. Maybe we’ll have a tax structure that gives the state more value for its minerals. Wouldn’t that be better for Alaskans?
Unfortunately, such projects are approved or denied based on a flurry of paperwork and regulatory check boxes, politics, and lawsuits. Such decisions are not based on whether they represent the best use of our land and resources in the long term.
In Cook Inlet, what would have happened if we had parceled out gas leases to spread out development for our own use rather than exporting? Maybe we’d have a lot more left now to burn in our power plants and homes. But maybe it wouldn’t have worked.
Slow and steady seems like an attractive idea. But it’s possible that without the LNG exports, the oil companies wouldn’t have found Cook Inlet gas profitable to develop at all – that the export potential is what led to development of gas for in-state use. I don’t know how likely that is. Either way, a slow and steady approach would have missed all the economic activity that came from the exports.
Still, if you’re going to depend on the extraction of a non-renewable resource, you ought to have a plan for what happens when that resource runs dry. 40 years ago, Alaska could have started investing the money from lease sales and taxes in renewable energy projects for the Railbelt, rendering the eventual depletion of gas a much smaller problem. But we didn’t. Now, funding for those projects will be much more of a struggle and time is also a problem as the gas runs out.
And the gas in Cook Inlet is dwarfed by a much bigger problem: Alaska’s entire economy and government is dependent on North Slope oil. We’ve done OK at saving some of the money in anticipation of that oil eventually being gone. But have we done enough to develop an economy beyond the raw extraction of resources?
From oil to metal to fish, Alaska has a lot of natural resources, including some in decline, and some yet untapped. Can we learn from our own (and the rest of the world’s) mistakes, and treat the rest of them like the irreplaceable savings account that they are?
Most people would answer “yes”. The coal industry definitely thinks so, and though many are concerned about the impacts of coal, decision makers largely assume this is the case as well. We’ve been digging into this question a bit deeper, and it turns out it’s not nearly that simple. This is the first of several posts exploring the topic, and we’ll start with hidden costs that aren’t reflected in the sticker-price of electricity.
For starters, what do we mean by cost? The most obvious answer is the retail price of electricity, as paid by the consumer. However, that’s usually from a mix of sources, and includes a variety of taxes, subsidies, and profit for the utility. Another way of looking at cost is to take a more abstract view and ask how much does a power plant cost to build, how much does it cost to run (including fuel), and how much electricity does it generate over its lifetime. This calculation is called “levelized cost”, and is performed annually by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), a branch of the federal government (see table).
|Advanced Coal w/CCS||13.6|
|Natural Gas CCC||6.6|
|Natural Gas ACC||6.3|
|Natural Gas ACC w/CCS||8.9|
|Natural Gas CCT||12.5|
|Natural Gas ACT||10.4|
|Wind – Offshore||24.3|
|Solar – PV||21.1|
|Solar – Thermal||31.2|
As you can see from the table, natural gas is the cheapest source of electricity, followed by hydro. Next in line are wind and coal which cost almost exactly the same in cents per kilowatt hour but for different reasons. Coal plants are cheaper to build, but you have to pay for coal and maintain a complex combustion facility. Wind farms are expensive, but the wind is then free and maintenance is relatively cheap. However, this simple comparison is missing a big piece of the puzzleâ€¦
Because of subsidies, taxes, and profit by electricity producers, levelized cost is a more accurate measure of true cost than the sticker price, but it still underestimates that price because it doesn’t include “externalities”. Externalities are costs or benefits to society that are not included in the market price of an item. Pollution is the most commonly cited negative externality because the buyer or the seller of a polluting consumable does not directly bear the cost of clean-up, health impacts, or environmental degradation.
For example, a company mines and burns coal at some cost, they then add in profits and taxes, and charge you, the consumer, a certain price. However, things such as the health impacts of soot, damage from acid rain, and cleanup costs of a coal combustion waste spill are not included in the sticker price. Those costs are paid for by affected individuals, organizations, and mostly by the government (with your tax dollars).
Externalities are therefore real and significant costs that impact society and the economy. Not considering them in the price of electricity (i.e. through regulation) can lead to choosing more expensive power-generating options simply because the visible price is deceptive.
Coal Externalities: Components of the True Cost of Coal
Getting back to the example above, coal has far more externalities than windâ€¦ mostly in the form of pollution (mercury, heavy metals, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, etc.). A recent and detailed calculation of the “true cost of coal” has suggested that around an additional 18 cents/kWh should be added to the retail price of coal in order to pay for these effects. For comparison, studies of wind externalities in Europe showed less than a half cent per kilowatt hour that wasn’t captured in the sticker price.
If externalities were priced into the retail cost of electricity, coal would actually be quite a bit more expensive than wind (and most other renewables).
As Ground Truth Trekking, we spend a lot of time thinking about issues much bigger than ourselves. Large proposals to extract metals or coal, the true costs of this resource extraction, problems with storing waste forever, the impacts of a changing climate… But as people, we use resources, we burn fuels, and we contribute to climate change. What about our own lives? Given that we’re about to give a presentation for an initiative that seeks to reduce household carbon footprints, it seemed like a good time to figure out our own.
Why look at carbon footprint? We have impacts in all sorts of ways, from our use of water to our consumption of metals. But climate change is a present, growing, and increasingly worrisome problem, fueled by our use of fossil fuels. Many people believe we need to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 levels at a point less than where they are now to head off potentially catastrophic consequences for people.
Once a glacier that stretched far down the fjord McCarty glacier has retreated many miles since it was first mapped.
Carbon footprint calculators are fashionable these days, and can be found nearly everywhere. And they all give different results. Some include food, some don’t. Some include stuff you buy, some don’t. They all ask their questions in a slightly different way – air miles or hours? monthly spending or specific stuff you own? And it’s not clear what to include. Do Hig’s fieldwork flights count, or should they be shunted over into “work” (which is generally not counted in any of the calculators)?
I played around with them – adding some numbers from one calculator (one that allowed me to enter small airplane flights) to the answers from a more comprehensive one (that included food and goods). I did include Hig’s fieldwork, and anything else I could think of. Which turned out to give me 16.8 metric tons of CO2/year for our household of 4 people (counting from April 2010 to April 2011).
What does 16.8 tons mean? It’s equivalent to 1900 gallons of gasoline. It’s about 2/5 as much carbon dioxide as the average U.S. household emits (42 tons/yr) but over twice as much as the average world household (8 tons/yr).
Near the edge of Malaspina Glacier, erosion is so rapid that even the bear trails can’t keep up, and forests wash into the sea.
What should the number be? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The target, really, is a level of climate change we’re willing to accept – the limit at which we think things might not be too catastrophic. Any warming (even the warming we already have) will have negative impacts, so this is a value judgment. Many people think that level is a warming of about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Then you have to figure out what the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere needs to stay below to keep us in that “safe zone.” This is a scientific question, dependent on climate models. The current scientific thinking is that this is somewhere close to 350 ppm (we’re at 391 ppm now). So, how do we get there? If you want to get to a stable or equilibrium concentration, you can’t emit any more CO2 than the planet (forests, oceans, etc…) can absorb each year. And to get an actual reduction in concentration, you have to go further. The ultimate answer is that global emissions probably need to end up pretty close to zero eventually. Or faster than that. There is no “right number”, but as a world, the trend needs to be towards dramatic reduction.
To get that number anywhere near zero, we need technology, infrastructure, policy, and culture to come together to accomplish it. Lifestyle can’t do it alone (one study estimated the footprint of even a homeless American as 8.5 tons of CO2/yr). But the sum of all our individual lifestyles is still a big piece of that solution.
Eat differently. Food footprint is kind of a hard thing to calculate, since it depends so much on specifics. And I have only rough guesses how much we spend or eat per month of different types of food. But the calculator took a stab at it, and told me that our eating emitted 4.5 tons of CO2, or 27% of our total. The main thing we could do to improve this is to eat less dairy products. The methane produced by cows is a huge contributor to climate change, and animal foods are more energy intensive than plant foods, since it takes a lot of plants to feed an animal. Meat would be a big factor as well, but we never buy farmed meat, and usually only eat it when a hunting friend gives us some. Our fish is all wild salmon and halibut caught very close to home, so not a lot of fossil fuels go into that. But I do like my cheese and yogurt and butter…
Don’t leave town. Between Hig’s fieldwork, flights to Anchorage, Kotzebue, and Sitka, drives from Homer to Anchorage, and various other bits and pieces, leaving town makes up 42% of our emissions for the year. And since one of our kids now gets his own seat, and the other will follow in a couple years, emissions per trip will only get bigger.
In fact, leaving town dwarfs a lot of things I think of as more stereotypical footprint reducing habits. One person taking one roundtrip flight from Anchorage to Seattle (3000 air miles) is about 1.4 tons of CO2. My entire household electricity usage for our family of four for a year is about 1.5 tons of CO2. Which suggests to me, that despite everything I’ve heard about “electricity vampires”, whether or not I remember to unplug my laptop or turn off my porch light tonight is far smaller than travel choices.
Travel is by far the thorniest issue for us, as I suspect it is for many people. Expeditions are a huge part of our life and work. Hig’s aerial surveys were done to get important data relevant to earthquake risk at the Pebble Mine. One of the things we’re traveling for this month is to talk about climate change, and our next expedition is directed towards that issue as well. We live near some family, but also have family far away, and would like to see them too.
We already combine trips where we can. Fewer expeditions for longer chunks of time minimizes the flights required, and also the logistical chaos. But how to decide if a trip is worth it? If we visit family less, should we also discourage them from visiting us? Or should we encourage it, since it’s usually only one or two people flying, instead of 4?
In a land of melting glaciers, this lake, and the land around it, are too new to be marked on any maps.
Another person’s list of what they can do may well be very different than mine. A lot of the low-hanging fruits are things we’ve already done (which is the reason our footprint is smaller than average). We’ve replaced our lightbulbs with compact fluorescent ones, and since we live in a one-room 450 square foot yurt, we never need more than 3 lightbulbs on anyway. Living in a small space, we don’t use much electricity. We heat the yurt with wood (since it’s not a fossil fuel, sustainably harvested wood is carbon-neutral). We work at home, eliminating the commute problem, walk most of where we want to go, don’t own a car, live somewhere where there’s not really anywhere to drive, and carpool about 12 miles a week to get groceries and do errands.
Because climate change is going to be a big problem for a lot of humanity. Droughts, floods, extinctions, erosion, storms, etc… Our whole civilization, from where we place our cities to where we grow our crops, is adapted to the climate as it used to be. Rapid change and unpredictability is going to be much more negative than positive. Here in Alaska, and in polar regions around the globe, it’s warming faster. Impacts on arctic communities are already significant. Rather than just being poster children for the problem, Alaskans should be leaders in solving it.
P.S. Come to our slideshow talk Wednesday in Anchorage, and reduce your own carbon footprint.
While I’ve been practicing carrying two kids at once in anticipation of our own next big expedition, I’ve got another great adventure to share. This upcoming expedition is brought to us by a couple of Homer adventurers and Ground Truth Trekking volunteers, Bjorn Olson and Kim McNett:
On a tributary of the Kuskokwim River, as it turns out, 275 miles west of Anchorage. The Donlin Creek Mine prospect is a patch of obscure country near the village of Crooked Creek that could become a major gold mine. And Bjorn and Kim are planning to bike there.
Biking 750 miles from Knik to Bethel, they’ll spend around a month traveling across a frozen landscape. Their expedition will begin on the historic start of the Iditarod trail at Knik, following on the heels of the racers as far as McGrath. From there, they will head west to join the frozen Kuskokwim River, visiting villages along the way to their end point in Bethel.
As Kim pointed out to me – bikes are the most efficient form of transportation in the world, including humans and animals, and both motorized and non-motorized transportation. Of course, this only applies when you can ride them. For most of the journey, super fat tires will carry their bikes over packed snowmachine trails. But when Bjorn and Kim hit deep snow, their bikes will be flopped on top of Alpacka Rafts, pulled behind snowshoes. Their bikes for this expedition are specialized for off road winter travel, and have tires and wheels sponsored by Surly Bikes.
Bjorn and Kim are no strangers to wilderness expeditions. Last summer, they spent a month kayaking in Prince William sound, and have done a number of wilderness fat bike trips on the Kenai Peninsula and across the state.
A glimpse, a mine, and an inspiring snowmachiner… In the winter of 2007, Bjorn bicycled down the upper Kuskokwim river, and immediately wanted to come back for more.
“I learned about the proposed Donlin Creek gold mine and realized that no one outside of the region really knows much about it’s existence. The other inspiration was a chance meeting with a community elder from one of the villages on the Kuskokwim who had ridden his Snow Machine from Knik to Bethel and the idea of this route has not left me since.”
Like any adventurers, they’re inspired to push a little past their comfort limits, into situations that most might find a bit crazy. Where some might shiver at the potential of subzero weather and blizzards, Kim is inspired by venturing into the new territory of a long wilderness ride in the winter, imagining the howling of wolves, the curtains of northern lights, and the patterns of crystallized water…
And like all of us at Ground Truth Trekking, Kim and Bjorn are excited to use their adventure to learn about something bigger than themselves.
Bjorn and Kim’s route neatly parallels all the major issues brought by this little-known proposal. Energy is a huge issue for any mine, and a natural gas pipeline along the Iditarod trail may supply the power for Donlin – transforming the face and flavor of the trail. Bjorn and Kim’s route along the Kuskokwim will visit the areas directly downstream of the proposed Donlin Mine, and the people and landscapes that have the most at stake in the proposal. A large mine on the Kuskokwim drainage could bring both economic opportunities and environmental consequences to this remote region. There is potential for jobs, for cheaper energy, and for impacts from mercury and acid-generating tailings, and perpetual waste storage.
Donlin Creek exploration roads – Northern Alaska Environmental Center (2003)
Bjorn: “A lot of attention has been given to the Pebble prospect lately and most Alaskans are aware of it on some level and understand some of the implications associated with an open pit mine being built upstream of salmon spawning grounds. The proposed Donlin Creek mine has all of the same environmental concerns as Pebble plus there is more mercury in the soil which will require a lot of attention by the mine engineers if this mine is permitted.”
With a video camera, a voice recorder, and a lot of enthusiasm, they plan to film their journey, interviewing people along the way. From the Iditarod to the Kuskokwim villages, they hope to capture the worries and hopes of people facing Donlin’s proposed transformation.
Bjorn and Kim plan to set out on March 8, and are working hard to construct and perfect their gear, trying to plan for all the potential hazards of the trail. One of their biggest concerns in the lead up to this trip has been choosing the timing. Weather is unpredictable, and trail conditions could make or break the trip.
Bjorn: “It was difficult to set our start date. We decided to leave after the Iditarod race for a couple of reasons; opportunity to interview racers, the promise of a better trail, more daylight and maybe not quite as cold as February. That said we are risking warming conditions.”
Kim: “I am unfamiliar with the way that our mechanical gear and my body will react in deep cold. On the other hand, if we experience even a short warm spell, the going will be very tough, with standing water, slushy trails, and ice. Our progress will be mostly dependent on the trail conditions.”
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This expedition promises to be an unprecedented adventure. And it will hopefully enlighten us all a little bit, as we watch from the sidelines – either happy we aren’t out biking in the cold, or jealous that we’re not (depending on your individual insanity). Ground Truth Trekking is happy to be supporting this expedition, but this sort of thing is hard to get grants for. So, please step in and donate to support the trip and what comes out of it! Even a few bucks will go a long way.
And stay tuned for updates!
We’ve made a few oblique references to it in the past… some mysterious new website we’ve been working on that includes information about coal in Alaska. Well, you can check it out now. It’s not done by any means, but there’s enough there that it’s worth checking out.
All this started with a love of wandering around the Alaska wilderness, and with a drive to understand the hard decisions that Alaska and America need to make about that wilderness. Is it possible to capture nuanced trade-offs between different options in a web site that is still interesting and understandable? Can that web site tie together the gritty on-the-ground experiences that form the foundation of our interest with the detailed research that broadens and deepens our understanding? Is it possible for our tiny organization to do the research needed to do justice to these complex issues?
We decided to give it a shot. But we had to start somewhere. We decided to first look at coal. Alaska has a good portion of the world’s remaining coal, but only a little bit of it is currently being mined. Coal is a major source of CO2, the most important human-generated greenhouse gas… and Alaska is experiencing dramatic changes from global warming. Coal also stores vast amounts of energyâ€”energy that we can use to run industry. And many are still unaware of the huge decisions we have before us in Alaska about coal. Depending on whether, where, and how we mine coal in Alaska, we move toward dramatically different futures. Which of those futures is best, and how do we get there?
So we turned our attention away from other urgent issues surrounding metals mining, fisheries, forests, renewable energy, and climate change to focus on coal. We broke down the issue into manageable pieces. There were background issues, like carbon capture and sequestration, coal to liquids, and mercury pollution. There was the existing coal infrastructure, like Usibelli coal mine, the Seward coal dock, and coal fired power plants in Alaska’s interior. And there were possible future developments, like the Chuitna coal mine, western arctic coal mining, and Beluga coal-to-liquids.
In this age of activist-journalism like that emblemized by Fox News, bias is certainly a touchy issue. We certainly have our own perspective on these issues. We love the wilderness, and see many of the excesses of our consumerist society as unnecessary and unsustainable, which leads to a skepticism of unbridled industrial development. And of course you should follow the money. We do have a small grant from the Alaska Conservation Foundation. It payed for less than half of what we’ve done so farâ€¦ the rest is volunteer effort.
That said, we try very hard to give a true, broad treatment of the issues. Erin, David, and I are all scientists, and in developing the content we present here we turn the critical philosophy that gives science its power on each of these issues. Because we’re striving to approach completeness in our coverage, we can’t repeat the research that we reference here, but we do question each piece of information we incorporate.
And we welcome critique and criticism. Our “help out” page provides basic instructions for providing feedback. We listen to everyone who contacts us (I’ve already made changes in this blog based on a 7 am call from a Chevron spokesperson.)
So what will this site be when it’s “done?” We see it as a marriage between four aspects.
The first is content presenting basic information about issues. This includes articles, graphics, and links to outside sources, much in the style of Wikipedia. For example, if you go to our article on mercury from coal, you’ll find a detailed article, a figure summarizing some key points, and links to further reading and references. If you click on the figure, you can see details of where the data came from, and also download other versions of the graphic if you want to edit it and use it yourself.
The second is photographs illustrating the issues and the places they affect. For example, in our article on the Seward coal loading facility, you’ll find several photos. If you click on one, you see a larger version of the photo, along with a map of where it was taken and a way to download the photo at different resolutions. We’ve put some photos into slideshowsâ€¦ so far one on Seward coal, a more general one showing pictures of Alaska coal country, one of “Ground Truth Trekking at work,” and one just for fun of Shipwrecks. What’s missing at the time of this blog posting are more flexible ways of browsing images and searching through themâ€¦ coming soon!
The third is information about ground truth expeditions. The people and places behind what we discuss on this site are very real, and there are some things that can only be learned by actually being there. We like to do this by walking across the land and by staying with people who know and care about the issues. We’ve done this on our existing pages about the Pebble prospect and about our Long Trek in ’07-’08, but we haven’t yet integrated this sort of content into Alaska’s Wild Resource Web.
A thread winding through all these aspects are maps. It’s possible to overlay data on interactive maps that allow scrolling and zooming, and to have the map provide links to other information. For example our article on Chuitna Coal prospect includes a map of salmon streams near the proposed mine. Click on the “ENLARGE” link in the caption to see a large version of this map. We see the potential of interactive maps as huge, and hope to greatly expand our use of them over the next year.
So take a look, and let us know what you think. Are we headed in the right direction? What other features do you want to see in Alaska’s Wild Resource Web? Do you have photos or other content that would help flesh out the site? We’re excited to hear what you think!
Last week I discussed some of the advantages and (primarily) disadvantages of coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology. As I stated before, the primary concerns with this idea are high levels of CO2 emissions, massive amounts of water consumption, the soaring capital costs required to build a CTL plant, and of course a large increase in coal mining with all the associated badness therein.
However, since Alaska sits on vast reserves of coal and has some of the highest fuel prices in the nation, there has been a lot of interest in CTL projects in the state. This has been further propelled by the presence of several military bases throughout Alaska which consume large amounts of fuel, in particular expensive jet fuel.
In recent years there have been three major proposals, all in various stages of planning and/or feasibility studies.
Probably the most well-known CTL project in Alaska is in Fairbanks. This CTL project was proposed by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation (FEDC) as a 20,000-40,000 barrels per day combined biomass-and-coal-to-liquids plant to provide jet fuel to nearby military bases (primarily Eielson Air Force Base). The FEDC has commissioned a $550,000 study to examine the feasibility of the project. Additionally, in 2008 the US Senate Appropriations Committee approved $10 million towards this project. The plant itself is expected to cost several billion dollars, which doesnâ€™t cover carbon capture technology (CCS), transportation costs of coal or fuel (including the creation of a new railroad line from Healy), or the creation of new hookups to the electrical grid.
This facility would require a 500-600 megawatt traditional coal-fired plant to power the operation, with some of this power expected to be sold back to the grid. For comparison, all six of the coal-fired power plants currently operating in Alaska produce less than 200 megawatts, combined. This facility would require 6-11 million tons of coal per year, which is four to eight times what Alaska’s only coal mine, Usibelli Coal Mine Inc., currently produces. The proposed Chuitna Coal strip mine could supply 12 million tons of coal per year, however much of this capacity might be used for the proposed Beluga CTL plant (see below) instead.
Pacific Rim Mining Corporation is pursuing a possible coal mine in large deposits on the Chuitna River near Cook Inlet and this could supply coal to a CTL facility in nearby Beluga. This facility has been proposed as an 80,000 barrels per day coal-based plant, at an estimated cost at $5 billion in 2006.
This project is misleadingly called â€œAlaska Natural Resources to Liquidsâ€ which for some reason makes me imagine a giant crusher/blender that turns trees, salmon, and oil into baby food.
The initial $1.5 million feasibility study has been completed with the financial assistance of the Chinese Petroleum Corp. (CPC) of Taiwan but the project is basically contingent on the development of the proposed Chuitna Coal strip mine. The fuel produced at this facility is expected to be exported to the West Coast of the US, but would run into the tricky snag of the Jones Act. This law (properly titled The Merchant Marine Act of 1920) limits shipping between US ports to ships that are built in the US, and crewed by at least 75% US citizens. In effect, this law means that shipping fuel (or coal) from Alaska to a port in the lower 48 would cost at least twice as much as shipping an equivalent distance outside the US, assuming an appropriate ship could even be found.
This facility would theoretically offset some of the cost of its proposed carbon capture and storage (CCS)) by pumping the excess CO2 into existing nearby oil and gas fields to enhance yields of these fossil fuels. However, a feasibility analysis undertaken for the failed Kenai Blue Sky Project examined the CO2 storage and/or recovery options for Cook Inlet and determined that under most projections this wouldnâ€™t be economically viable. This either means that the plant would have to spend a bunch of their own money to save the environment, or more likely forgo the CCS) which means that the CTL plant would emit twice the CO2 as obtaining an equivalent amount of liquid fuel from oil. And probably at a higher cost unless subsidized by the government.
In 2007 a feasibility study was completed regarding a proposed 14,600 barrel per day CTL plant in Healy, near the Usibelli coal mine to supply liquid fuels to refineries within Alaska. Possible customers include the Flint Hills and PetroStar refineries in North Pole, the PetroStar refinery in Valdez, and the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski. This proposal grew directly out of the planned Beluga CTL project when it was found that the subbituminous coal found at Usibelli coal mine shared almost identical properties with the coal found at the proposed Chuitna strip mine near Beluga. This proposal investigated the possibility of carbon capture and storage (CCS) using nearby unmineable coal beds for CO2 storage, but concluded that unless mandated by law, CCS) would not be at all economically feasible at this the site.
Depending on your perspective, CTL is the next great thing or a toxic wolf in sheepâ€™s clothing. It uses a secure, domestic, and abundant natural resource to make something we all need. On the other hand it is both very expensive and extremely damaging to the environment at every step, from coal extraction, to refining, to end-user combustion. Whether you love it or hate it… expect to hear more about CTL in the coming years as Alaska decides how to manage its vast energy resources.
What do you get when you combine volatile fuel prices with vast natural reserves of coal in the US? You get a lot of interest in the possibility of generating liquid fuels (such as gasoline and diesel) from coal instead of oil in a process referred to as “coal-to-liquids” (CTL). Coal is heavily used for electricity generation, but transportation currently relies almost entirely on oil-based fuels. CTL proponents claim that developing this technology will reduce our dependence on oil, thereby increasing energy security and staving off fuel supply problems since weâ€™re likely to run out of oil before we run out of coal.
Because Alaska in particular sits on vast reserves of coal, there has been a lot of interest from certain quarters in developing CTL in the state. Next week Iâ€™ll focus on specific CTL proposals but here Iâ€™m just going to talk about CTL itself and some of the economic and environmental issues associated with this technology. Also, interested folks might want to look back at Higâ€™s general post on alternatives to oil based fuels.
Coal can either be directly liquefied through processes called hydrogenation or carbonization, or it can first be first turned into â€œsyngasâ€ and then re-liquified into appropriate fuels. The only commercial-scale CTL project in the world (by Sasol in South Africa), uses the syngas method.
While CTL technology is not new, it faces some significant technical and environmental difficulties to be applied on a large scale. The primary concerns with this technology are CO2 emissions, water consumption, and the high capital costs required to build a CTL plant.
In addition to these direct concerns, an increase in the use of CTL fuels would fuel a vast increase in coal mining. One ton of coal makes only two barrels of fuel. In order to reduce US oil consumption by 10%, coal mining would need to increase by 42%, an increase of 475 million tons per year! For reference, the proposed Chuitna Coal strip mine near Beluga, AK would destroy tens of square miles of pristine wilderness, obliterate several miles of salmon spawning streams, release tons of toxic coal dust per year, and dump 7.4 million gallons of mine runoff into the Chuitna river per day. All this to produce only a maximum of 12 million tons of coal per year. A dramatic boost in coal mining to feed CTL would bring with it widespread fish and wildlife habitat destruction, increased emissions of methane, and a variety of other environmental and health problems.
Any use of coal, whether burning it for electricity, or creating liquid fuel, releases CO2 into the atmosphere. These CO2 emissions are the major force driving global climate change, which is anticipated to cause myriad social and economic impacts, including droughts, increased storms, and disturbances to fisheries and wildlife resources. However, the exact amount of CO2 emitted by the CTL process is a highly debated topic.
Most of the push for CTL in the US is by the military which has seen fuel costs triple in recent years, even as consumption has declined through application of various efficiency measures. However, the 2007 US Energy Bill contains a provision stating that the military may not use any source of fuel that emits more greenhouse gases than the traditional refining process. No one disagrees that in fact the CO2 emissions from a normal CTL plant would far exceed the emissions generated by creating the same amount of fuel from oil through the traditional refining process (Figure 1). This is because CO2 is: 1) produced during the coal refining process directly, 2) emitted by whatever powers the CTL plant (usually more coal), and 3) released during the combustion of the liquid fuels themselves.
However the big question marks appear when we consider equipping the plants with some sort of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. According to a 2007 study by the EPA (see Figure 1), even with CCS technology a CTL plant would emit more CO2 than producing liquid fuels from oil, thereby triggering the Energy Bill clause and making CTL a non-starter. Without government help (guaranteed contracts, subsidies, etc.), CTL is unlikely to ever get off the ground because of the prohibitively high startup costs.
Enter the surely unbiased US Department of Energy (DOE) with a report issued in January 2009 concluding that CTL with CCS would in fact have lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels. Just barely.
For this post Iâ€™m going to mostly ignore the fact that CCS is an expensive, unproven technology that is premised on some really shaky assumptions. Such as: â€œsure, we can cheaply and safely transport millions of tons of CO2 from where itâ€™s produced to possible storage sitesâ€. Followed by: â€œand then weâ€™ll dump the CO2 in the ground where it will stay put for more than 1000 years with no risk of catastrophic release or other environmental damageâ€. And my favorite: â€œand of course company X plans to monitor the stored CO2 forever, and deal with any problem that might arise.â€
The DOE is also a big fan of a neat carbon accounting trick called â€œcoal and biomass to liquidsâ€ where the coal is mixed with waste biomass before processing. The higher the ratio of biomass to coal, the greater the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (but the higher the cost)*. This is then used as an example of how â€œcleanâ€ burning coal can be. While I think that waste biomass is an excellent resource to take advantage of, using this as a justification for CTL is like saying â€œLook, coal doesnâ€™t produce CO2 if you just donâ€™t use coal!â€
*Burning waste biomass still produces CO2, but this doesnâ€™t â€œcountâ€ in climate change calculations because it would have been released anyway when the biomass decomposed.
The CTL refinery process consumes vast quantities of water to keep plants from overheating , 5 to 7 gallons of water for every gallon of fuel produced. For example, the recently canceled 22,000 barrel per day CTL plant at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, would have consumed an estimated 1.7 billion gallons of water per year, enough to provide for 26,000 people. This scale of water use has potentially large impacts on a watershed, both through the depletion of existing rivers and through the outflow of large volumes of heated water.
A large (50,000 barrels per day) CTL plant is estimated to cost from $3.6-6.0 billion. This level of capital costs means that companies are hesitant to invest in this technology unless guaranteed contracts for the fuel can be made. In addition, because no CTL plant has ever used CCS, there is no precedent for estimating true costs. It can take 8-9 years to build a large-scale CTL facility, during which time price changes in raw materials and pending carbon tax legislation may significantly increase costs. With the high costs of a CCS-equipped CTL facility (not even accounting for a likely carbon tax), these fuels would only be economically feasible if the price of crude oil rises to more than $86 a barrel. And even then, only if coal prices do not rise along with oil prices.
The sun is out, so itâ€™s tough to be inside working on the computer. Poor Erin is stuck inside working on her book, but I can still find excuses to go outside. A couple days ago I decided to break out the lens.
Timelapse fog and sunset from Bretwood Higman on Vimeo. We’ve had incredible fog rolling out Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet for the last several days, and it made for quite a sunset this evening. In the distance you can see Iliamna Volcano, the least active of the four volcanoes you can see from our yurt.
In this case I’m not talking about a camera lens (plenty of that too though.) When I was 13 years old or so, I came across an advertisement in Edmund Scientific magazine for a giant plastic Fresnel lens. The ad said that it could focus sunlight to produce temperatures of 3000 F. I had just watched a documentary on the eruptions in Hawaii, and remembered the narrator talking about how hot the lava wasâ€¦ 2000 F. So could the sun melt rock?
I bought one. $150 was quite a bit, but I found a key ring that had a $100 reward on itâ€¦ my mom thought I was going to get ripped off. My dad built a frame and stand for the lens when I got it, and I set it up on Schooner Beach where I lived then. And would you believe it, it really did melt rock! The gray gravel of the beach fused into a line of shiny black glass as the sun moved through the day. Clearly it was time for some experimenting. ! Into the focus went all manner of interesting things. I burned wood and plastic, a Bic lighter, melted wire and coins, finding that modern zinc pennies catch fire. I melted shale, olivine, and schist, stood back as carbonate cemented sandstone popped apart in a machine-gun of superheated rock flakes. And I melted bits of beach glass.
Melting gravel using the sun from Bretwood Higman on Vimeo. This video is a time-lapse showing the sun melt a stripe of gravel so that it fuses into glass. When the focus moves (most dramatically in the second clip) that’s when I adjust the focus.
Glass is particularly interesting to melt using the sun. The 31 x 41 inch lens is large enough that it provides heat about equivalent to a table-top torch that one might use to do lampwork sculpting of glass. But the way it delivers that heat is very different.
In the case of a torch flame, the heat comes from a chemical reaction (combustion) resulting in a hot gas. The temperature is dependent almost entirely on the reactants, so for example an acetylene flame in pure oxygen, the hottest flame known, is about 5700 F. When this gas hits the surface of glass, the heat of the flame is conducted into the glass from the surface. So the first things to melt are sharp corners and protrusions that have a lot of surface area relative to their volume.
In contrast, light itself does not have a temperature. Heating only happens when the light is absorbed. If I focus my lens into empty air, the air at the focus is not appreciably hotter than any other air, since it is nearly perfectly transparent and absorbs almost no light. If instead I put a lump of black iron oxide in the focus, it absorbs almost all the light, and rapidly heats up. We know that with a black target like this we can get temperatures of over 3000 F since a steel bebe or a small piece of quartz will melt easily. Both of these have a melting temperature of about 3000 F.
When you put glass into the focus, the way it melts is very dependent on its color. Pure crystal doesnâ€™t really heat up at all, window glass or clear bottle glass gets too hot to touch but doesnâ€™t melt, colored bottle glass melts quickly, and dark opaque art glasses will â€œboil,â€ or overheat so they exolve gasses, within seconds.
So transparent colored glasses, both from bottles and art glass, are quite easy to melt using the lens.
It turns out that there are advantages to heating glass with light over using a flame. First of all, it doesnâ€™t require fossil fuels with their associated climate impact and cost. But there are technical advantages as well. Because the light is absorbed not just on the surface, but through the whole volume of the glass, it can heat the glass faster. There are two reasons for this. First, heat is delivered to more of the glass at one time. In a flame, the heat only hits the outside, and that heat must conduct inward to heat the rest of the glass. Second, glass is sensitive to uneven heating. If the surface is heated too quickly, it expands and shatters the glass. So when you heat with a flame you have to heat slowly at first to let the inside of the glass heat up, and then you can apply full heat. But with the lens the heating is much more uniform, so you can more quickly heat the glass to melting.
Also, because the air around the glass is cool instead of hot, sharp corners and other surface features are the last to melt under the lens. This, along with odd possibilities like differential heating of glass by color opens up some intriguing potential to working glass with focused sunlight. I certainly canâ€™t claim to have explored all the possibilities.
That said, I did build a business using sunlight focused through the lens to make glass jewelry called Sundrops. Now along with Erin and our friends Shaun and Tawny in Minnesota (where they get much more sun!) we make jewelry that is sold at retail shops throughout the US and on a couple online sites (The Hunger Site and our own Sundrops store). Tawny has been the power-house behind this business for the last couple years, and brought some actual sense of order to our business.
For more on Sundrop Jewelry, visit our blog.
If you had asked me last December to write down all of the things I knew or thought about coal it would have probably been a short list; hard black rock, pollution, guys with hard hats, and what Santa Claus brings to naughty kids. Then I started helping Ground Truth Trekking on research and writing for our upcoming â€œWild Resource Webâ€.
Hig and Erin are old friends of mine from college and from when we all lived in Seattle, where we often went out on various â€œgear-testingâ€ adventures and other fun crazy activities. Weâ€™ve been in good contact since leaving Seattle and since they knew I was a scientist and writer willing to put in a few hours for a good cause, they recruited me to become a part of their scheme. Even though I’m currently living in Belgium, my job has been to become well-informed on coal and coal issues in Alaska. I expect in the future Iâ€™ll be writing a post or two on particular coal issues in Alaska (of which there are many). And in the meantime if you wanted to know why the subbituminous coal mined in Alaska is low quality but contains an attractively low amount of sulfur, then Iâ€™m the guy. It turns out its because the coal is youngâ€¦ laid down in the Eocene and Oligocene when there was relatively little volcanic sulphur in the atmosphere, but that means it hasn’t had much time, less than 55 million years, to mature. You can bring that up at your next cocktail party.
As a way of introducing myself I thought Iâ€™d write a short post about a few of the many things that have really surprised me, as a total outsider, in the course of this work.
For example, I had no idea that 50% of electricity generation in the US still comes from coal. Which it turns out that we have huge reserves of (America has Â¼ of the world’s coal, about half of which is in Alaska). And I was amazed to discover that even though we export large amounts of coal, we also import tens of millions of tons of coal per year. This is fascinating to me because I often read arguments that we need to develop our coal resources for reasons of â€œenergy securityâ€ and â€œenergy independenceâ€. Presumably meaning a reduction of our dependence of foreign oil. But since coal is an internationally traded commodity, we will still buy and sell on world markets regardless of how much we mine ourselves.
Another thing that has really surprised me is the lack of regulation of combustion waste in the coal industry. There are some restrictions on the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides (which produce acid rain), and mercury (which causes brain damage) that can be released into the air. I believe carbon dioxide is likely to soon follow in the form of a carbon cap-and-trade scheme which would hopefully begin to restrict emissions of this important greenhouse gas.
However, in addition to these airborne pollutants, coal-fired power plants in the US produce 120 millions tons of solid combustion waste (e.g. boiler slag, fly ash, and sludge) each year. The majority of this they dump into giant unregulated pools or back into mine sites. If I want to throw away a mercury-containing compact-fluorescent light bulb I have to treat it as hazardous waste, but the unregulated combustion waste from a coal plant contains arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, uranium and thorium amongst others. The recent fly-ash spill in Tennessee, has raised awareness of this problem in Congress and there are bills in the works that might force the EPA to actually deal with this fairly obvious issue.
One thing that has particularly bothered me has been the hyperbole on both sides of the fence. There are reasonable arguments both for and against the use of coal as an energy source. I personally believe that coal isnâ€™t an energy resource that we should develop any further. But that just makes me even more annoyed at illogical or sensationalist arguments against coal.
â€œCoal ash is 100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste.â€ Iâ€™ve seen this in numerous places. This was in reference to (and a misquote of) a Scientific American article which compared untreated coal fly ash waste to shielded and stored nuclear waste. Despite the fact that this statement is obviously false itâ€™s been making the rounds of the anti-coal groups and makes easy fodder for those who claim that that anti-coal arguments are spurious.
The marketing term â€œclean coalâ€ once upon a time referred to coal-fired power plants which emitted fewer of the acid rain-producing sulfur dioxides. Some people still use it this way. But more and more commonly “clean coal” is used to refer to a theory of coal combustion where most of the carbon dioxide emissions would be captured and stored in some yet-to-be-determined manner and place. This version of “clean coal” does not exist in any current power plants. Neither use of the term addresses the many other things that make coal dirty, including the destruction of landscapes and rivers by coal mining, the remaining toxic emissions (including mercury and nitrous oxides) and the toxicity of coal combustion waste.
On a more local note, this 2003 quote from an Alaskan politician discussing the lack of viable export markets for Alaskan coal particularly amused me.
“Perhaps we can export some of our coal to North Korea–as a way of helping their people with energy. Of course the international community would have to pay for it,” [AK state senator John] Cowdery added. “Who knows, perhaps Alaska resources can help bring peace to a troubled land.”
Ahhh, bountiful coal. It could bring humanity together on this fragile earth.