Prescription for The Planet – Tom Blees

My friend Bill Kerr gave me a copy of this book to read, which provides several ideas for solving energy and climate problems.

The book has some interesting ideas, for example using boron as a fuel. Apparently any solid metal will burn under the right conditions, so you can use iron or boron as a fuel, in the same sense as hydrogen is a “fuel”. Hydrogen is a way to store energy, like a battery. You can’t dig it up naturally in a form and volume sufficient to drive a car on. So it’s generated using fossil fuels or electricity.

Metals can be used in the same way, you burn the boron, capture the oxide, then recycle it back to boron using an external energy source. The fascinating thing about the proposed Boron engines are the exhaust products are liquid at combustion temperatures. A nice twist on traditional engines which have liquid fuels and gaseous exhausts.

One problem is that Boron engines, let alone cars, don’t exist yet. In contrast I drive a practical, low cost, Electric Car that is solar powered. I am doing this today, no R&D required.

The book recommends breeder reactors as our energy future, nuclear reactors that can generate their own fuel. I don’t understand the nuclear technology, however a system that makes it’s own fuel is pretty cool. The social problems in selling such technology to the general public are daunting. Although given the risks of dam failure I would rather live 1km away from a reactor than 1km down stream from a hydro dam. Unfortunately emotion around nuclear technology has clouded the issues. I do think nuclear deserves more of a “fair go” in public debate.

Using some numerical models the book makes the point that large scale renewable anything (wind, solar, hydro) is a big problem right now. I tend to agree. I figure coal fired electricity will be the base for a long time to come.

However I’m more bullish about Solar PV than Mr. Blees, at least for home use. His models assume the US average of 10c/kWh but thats low by world standards (we pay around 20c/kWh). Solar is about AUD$5/Watt retail here at the moment. Payback period of < 10 years and falling. There are other benefits over central generation - no transmission lines, peaks during summer, lower gird loading, and insulation from rising energy costs. It's possible to halve most peoples electricity use (I did it) – his figure of 888kWh/month average US usage is 30 kW/hr day. Easy to get this down to sub 10-15kWhr/day for most people, at least in Australia.

One key message is that there are plenty of options for a energy rich, non fossil fuel future. It’s not the science or technology that is the barrier – it’s political will and public education.

The core issue for me is that any big changes in our energy systems will take 20 years. The central argument of Peak Oil is that we have much less time than that. Governments are blissfully charging ahead with growth oriented economies aimed at consuming more and more scarce resources. They are planning exponential growth against a finite resource base. So we will be entering an “energy decent” over the next decade, very little can now be done to stop that and the economic problems it implies.

9 thoughts on “Prescription for The Planet – Tom Blees”

  1. If you want to introduce a new fuel for cars then you need an infrastructure for refuelling. Electricity works well because electrical power is everywhere. Getting supplies of hydrogen, boron, or whatever is going to require new infrastructure. Not to mention the issue of actually inventing the engine.

    Breeder reactors don’t actually make fuel, they convert isotopes such as U-238 to isotopes that can be used as fuel (EG U238->Pu239). You still have to deal with nuclear waste etc, but not having to stockpile heaps of U238 is a benefit.

    Is there anywhere in Australia that has a significant number of people living downstream from a dam or a site where a dam could be built?

    Most numerical models to support coal power are based around continued government subsidies of the coal industry and indirect subsidies such as subsidising the aluminium industry. If the government was to instead subsidise renewable energy then things would look very different.

    Finally regarding changing energy systems, it can be done a lot faster if there is the will. If you read the history of wartime rationing it becomes obvious how fast and how much things can change if the government wants it to.

  2. Hi Russell,

    You know I really agree with many of your thoughts – I often think of the war time analogy myself.

    I also agree that the price of fossil fuel energy is artificial. What price do we put on a resource that takes 80 million years to form? Does the price of electricity include overhead for maintenance or expansion of the grid?



  3. I think that the price of electricity includes the price of maintaining the grid (in Australia at least), but it doesn’t necessarily include all the coal costs and it certainly doesn’t include the externalities of the coal industries (which include things like increased cancer rates near coal power plants as well as global warming).

    As for oil prices, putting a price on it based on the fact that it is running out is something that our economic system is not suited to do. One thing to note is that while we can easily produce biological alternatives to petrol and Diesel fuel (ethanol, bio-Diesel for high-pressure common-rail injection engines and vegetable oil mixed with ethanol for lower pressure Diesel engines) we don’t yet have any renewable alternatives for lubrication oils and the development of renewable alternatives for jet fuel is a work in progress (I think that they are still working on less than 50% renewable fuel for jets).

    When we have renewable sources for all oils (which will be achieved eventually – algae seems promising) then we can assign a cost. It will be greater than current oil prices but probably not as great as a price based on 80 million years of potential demand for a limited resource.

  4. The price of nuclear energy is also often mistakenly quoted. Granted the cost per kW/h may seem lower than more conventional fuels however the huge cost of decommissioning a station or storing the waste for the next X years is ignored.

  5. When the UK privatized its power industry, the Thatcher government believed the bogus low costs for nuclear power, and thought the nuclear stations would be the crown jewels of the deal. As reality set in, the true costs prospective buyers would be expect to bear in the long term were so bad the nuclear stations not sold. Some of that was due to magnox stations, whose original purpose had more to do with supplying plutonium to the military than providing power. They were never built with decommissioning in mind, and when the time came it turned out to be a nightmare. However, they couldn’t even shift the far more modern AGR stations.

    People claim great things for the cost and safety of pebble bed reactors now in development, but people always claim great things for stuff before it has proven itself. In the nuclear industry the reality tends to disappoint.

  6. What India is trying to do with thorium reactors I pay some attention to, but not a lot. Somewhat related to that is that nuclear designs that produced weapons grade material are what most countries focused on back during the first surge of development, and these were not the best choices for power generation.

    Boron? Um, er, no. Boron fuels and fumes are highly toxic. A lot of chemists have had a short and fatal love affair with the stuff.

    Moving on to the solar issue, I am working towards going solar myself.

    Where I live there are several “bands” of electricity usage – the bottomost band (the first 25kwh) is 1.6 cordoba per kwh. The highest band is 6.9/kwh, which equates to around 33c (US cents).

    I hit that band as soon as I leave one laptop on for a month to the tune of $65 dollars for electric (no joke). I have been moving what that laptop did to a power mising sheeva-plug, and figure the ROI on that will be about 3 months!

    At that price, the ROI on going solar (I would actually like to run several more computers more often) is pretty rapid. However, there are problems:

    Did that book writer publish his spreadsheet?

    1) Most people rent and have a hard time making any investment with a long term payback of more than a year. There is little incentive for landlords to add solar to their buildings, because they are not responsible for the energy costs. Capital is short for both kinds of people. Government incentives are great, if you have a government that provides them.

    2) Similarly, designers of buildings don’t “build-in” solar compatability. retrofitting power distribution is hard. It’s also somewhat hard to do piecemeal –

    In my case, what I plan to do is establish a second circuit entirely, dedicated to computers and wireless internet, for a total of about 120 watts max, and 50 watts minimum, to start with.

    I can run all this stuff DC assuming that’s a good idea (need 5v, 12v, 18v – all the computers are DC) or get an inverter or some combination of the above.

    I’d like to find an inverter/solar monitoring system with some smarts that I could tie into…

    3) There’s this thing called solar irradiance, which apparently is used to calculate what your actual output will typically be from a given panel.

    This isn’t published for my country (Nicaragua) but perhaps it can be calculated…

    I have high hopes, given my normal, year round, 12 hour day, that “solar irradiance” will be high.

    4) Storage – since there is no way to re-feed the grid here, is a bigger problem for me than you. I figure one of several things:

    A) Use excess power to run the pool pump. On sunnier days it would run more, which is a nice feedbacky thing, I think.

    I have no idea how much energy the pool pump consumes, what it will take to hook it into the circuit, how to flick it on and off when the batteries are sufficiently charged up, etc.

    B) WAY more batteries that you would want

    C) Heat exchanger – I don’t know where to go with this idea, my pool is my personal heat exchanger I don’t feel much need to cool the house…

    An idea that I toy with while contemplating that far off day when I could build a house of my own, is to build one with a REALLY BIG POOL – two pools, actually – one lower, one higher – and pump water up during the day and turn it into power via turbine during the night (also using the pool to cool the house). I like the idea of a non-toxic battery a lot… but I figure that the power effeciency is unrealistic…

    Is anyone doing that? How big a pool/height between the pools per kwh?

  7. @Steve:

    Various boron based compounds were experimented on in the late 50s as rocket fuel (zip fuel). Very toxic (and very combustible) compounds, with even more toxic (kill on contact) byproducts, and a sticky residue that tore up turbine blades (and killed on contact). Research was abandoned. I had a lovely rant around here somewhere from the arocket mailing list that talked about the experiments then…

    Now, it appears that there are other compounds of boron that aren’t as nasty (silly putty!!) so I somewhat withdraw my comment and await more data. When I read stuff like “Burning boron in 100% pure oxygen is safe” I get somewhat interested, but worry about what happens if you burn it in “99.99% pure oxygen”.

  8. Most things you can use conveniently for rocket fuel are kind of dangerous. I don’t think any of the boron oxides, or boron nitride, are noticeably toxic, but you still don’t want to inhale their dusts.

    But if you’re picking a material to output from an electrolysis unit, what about lithium?

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