Solving the wasted energy issue

Producing natural gas from solar

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl 

Rebuttals are commonly voiced regarding calls for a renewable energy future. They include comments regarding the relatively high cost of renewables, their low level of efficiency, their intermittency and their inability to provide the necessary amount of heat needed in colder climates. The rebuttals are usually followed by the general assessment that it will be a long time before they will be able to play an important role in our energy future.

With the arrival of the Trump Administration and its determined effort to increase reliance on fossil fuels while denying any need to address climate change, the push for clean energy will have to be carried on at state and local levels.

What is easy to lose sight of in the energy issue is the immense amount of energy wasted in our current energy system. Roughly two-thirds of the potential energy in our energy supplies were wasted in 2016 as compared to the 50 percent wasted in 1970. Each year the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the Department of Energy publishes an energy flow chart illustrating U.S. sources of energy, how it used and how much is wasted.

A 2014 Illinois chart shows a similar pattern of energy waste exceeding energy consumption. As pointed out by David Roberts, our economy is becoming less energy efficient since the 1970s primarily due to increases in electrical consumption and the use of private vehicles in transportation. Electrical production wastes two-thirds of its primary energy while transportation wastes roughly three fourths. The increased consumption of fossil fuels and their wasted energy is a major factor driving climate change.

Individual efforts to reduce our wasteful use of energy and fossil fuels are laudable, but the energy system itself needs to be changed. Some signs of change are represented in carbon reductions of roughly 5 percent from the electrical system as natural gas and renewable energy replaced coal. Roberts points out that in 2016 transportation emissions exceeded those from electrical production. To counter federal undermining of auto emission reductions, implementing policies to curb transportation emissions will have to occur at the local and state levels.

In The Switch, Chris Goodall makes the case that a transition to solar energy could occur far more rapidly than expected by critics and even many of the industries’ supporters. Solar electricity is already the cheapest source of energy in many tropical countries; within a decade he anticipates that solar power will be the most economical way of generating electricity almost anywhere in the world.

Solar panels continue to drop in price and gain in efficiency; existing global research points to ongoing improvements. Battery technology continues to improve and provides a short-term storage solution to overcome the intermittency problem associated with renewable energy.

Large scale renewable energy sources with zero operating costs are eroding the business model of the utility industry. Goodall is concerned that governments around the globe may end their support of renewable energy development in order to save the utility industry in the name of energy security.

He suggests that excessive electrical production from renewable energy sources should be used to produce natural gas. The electricity could be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can be combined with carbon dioxide to produce methane, the main component in natural gas. Methane can be stored in the natural gas network and used to power gas generators during times of low production from solar and wind sources.

As wind and solar installations continue to expand, electricity will be cheaper than natural gas. Rather than using natural gas from fossil fuel for electrical production and heat, it will be possible to use natural gas from renewable energy sources. Such an approach would reduce carbon emissions while providing a new role for utilities – operating the large scale electrolysis and methane production systems.

While technically possible, for now it remains a vision.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are the President and Vice President of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association.

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