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Monday, April 11, 2022

The forest biorefinery: an update in an era of Net Zero

Recently the Finnish forest products giant UPM announced the building of a forest biorefinery at the chemical park in Leuna, near Leipzig in the former East Germany (1). The plant, with a capital cost of €550 million, will produce 220 kT per year of bioproducts from beechwood through an enzymatic hydrolysis process: mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) and mono-propylene glycol (MPG) will come from the cellulose component, and a carbon black substitute for use in rubber will be produced from the lignin. This follows on the development and commercialization of the BioVerno renewable diesel process at UPM's Kaukas mill in Lappeenranta, Finland (2). There are some lessons to be learned here.

Research is key. And expensive. And time-consuming.

Yes, research costs money. As a newly minted research manager back in 2001, I arranged a tour of research labs around the world to meet my new peers. This trip included the UPM-Kymmene labs at the Kaukas mill in Lappeenranta. These labs were very well staffed, with about 100 researchers.

Labs are expensive to operate. Wet labs are very expensive to operate. And pilot plants, with high headroom space you can back a truck into, cranes for moving heavy bits around, and high load-bearing floors, are extraordinarily expensive. Add on conventional overhead (IT, HR, payroll, etc.), $100k/y to support university work, travel to mills and conferences, and laptops and cell phones for everyone, and a typical research team, consisting of a senior scientist, a junior scientist and two or maybe three lab technicians or pilot plant operators, costs at least $1M/y before building anything in the pilot plant or paying for maintenance and operation of gas chromatographs or scanning electron microscopes. Capital equipment in the lab or pilot plant is additional.

And it's not enough to set it all up -- you have to persevere. In the mid-2000's, UPM got serious about the BioVerno renewable diesel process. They expanded the labs at Kaukas, hiring new staff and buying new equipment. (They also stopped letting Canadian research managers drop in for a chat and a look-see). The result, after about a decade of research investment at the $25M/y scale and some significant capital expenditures, was a commercial-scale biofuels plant. Call it a round billion dollars, more or less, over a decade, more or less, before the first commercial litre was pumped into a tanker. Another decade at the same investment level has led to the Leuna plant.

Location matters

Following the 2009 Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference in Helsinki, I visited Leuna (3). Liepzig is an hour from Frankfurt by air, with Leuna another 30 minutes by car, so I made a quick one-day detour on my way home. Commissioned in 1917, and located so as to be beyond the reach of French bombers (!), it was thoroughly rebuilt after German reunification, and is today one of the most modern chemical parks in the world. Infra-Leuna manages the site, and rents space along with access to pipe racks carrying water, steam, naphtha, ethylene and so on. At the time, attracted by the beechwood common in the area, Fraunhofer (Germany's equivalent to Canada's National Research Council) was preparing to build the Chemical and Biotechnology Research Centre onsite, with a focus on enzymatic hydrolysis of hardwoods and other processes.The initial investment was €25M in capital, with another €25M for the operating costs in the first few years. Now UPM is building a full-scale plant there. 

So why build a full-scale plant in Leuna, and not Lappeenranta? First is the availability of beechwood in reasonable quantities and within reasonable haul distances; second is the existence of a well-funded research laboratory onsite. But that is not the whole story, because Lappeenranta also features both hardwood supplies and R&D labs.

The key is that Leuna has a range of tenants. At the time I visited, this included Total (which operated a large refinery) as well as several major chemical companies attracted by easy access to the naphtha left over from Total's gasoline and diesel production. So it is likely that all the products proposed by UPM will find buyers onsite. But if any buyers are further afield, Leuna, located in the centre of Europe, is well served by rail if not canals. 

Implications for the Canadian forest sector

I don't want to minimise the success of Canadian efforts in lignin, in cellulose nano-crystals, in cellulose filaments and in other areas such as tall wood buildings. But the world is going to need large-scale pathways to non-fossil products in a big hurry, and existing successes are, arguably, in niche markets. Profitable niches, yes, but their impact on global challenges is small.

The common theme here is the requirement for a world-scale, consistent, reliable, long-term commitment to innovation. Innovation, which starts with university research but which must progress through the pilot plant stage before commercialization, is time-consuming and expensive, and cannot be judged quarterly on benefits delivered. Canadian forests represent a world-class resource, in terms of both volumes and quality; furthermore our forests are largely harvested according to sustainability metrics set out by a range of arm's length organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council. 

At a very rough scale, UPM has been spending of the order of FPInnovations' entire annual budget, on bio-products alone, for close to two decades now. They have also invested in full-scale commercial plants once the research results have warranted it. This corporate investment is above and beyond publicly funded research at VTT or in various Finnish universities. Finally UPM is not alone in this; Stora Enso and Metsä have followed similar paths. 

The Canadian forest sector and governments at all levels (recalling that forestry is a provincial responsibility) can't rely on a few million dollars here and there, with budget cuts (and associated loss of highly qualified personnel) every few years when things are a bit lean, if there is any hope of taking advantage of our world-class, sustainably-harvested, non-food, forest-based biomass to compete in the coming world bio-economy. Arguably, we should have been investing at this level a decade or more ago, because, as the IPCC has stated recently, it's getting a bit late to start.






Sunday, April 10, 2022

Distributed power generation in urban areas

An interesting article in today's Washington Post newsletter talked about the issues around getting power from wind farms in rural areas to electric car charging stations in urban areas over existing grids. (Click here to see the article). The article mentions a study showing that the US will need to invest $125 billion into the grid by 2030 to meet the need for electric car recharging. 

This got me to thinking about distributed power generation in urban areas. After all, this is where the majority of cars are located today, and where the power will be needed tomorrow. I live in a dense urban neighbourhood characterised by 100-year old row houses with flat roofs, all fronting on narrow streets. The image shows the area as seen by Google Maps.

My house has a surface area of 1100 sq. ft, on a lot 25' by 100'. If I include the total distance from the middle of my street to the middle of the alley in back, I get a total depth of 125'. (Street centrelines are 250' apart.) So 1100 sq. ft., divided by the total urban area attributable to my property (25' x 125'), gives 35% of the urban area taken up by flat roofs when extrapolated to the larger neighbourhood. 

A quick check of the Interweb gives a year-round average solar power generation capacity of about 4 kWh per square metre, per day, for solar panels located along the border between New York state and Quebec. (Click here for the maps.) Assuming this is representative of Montreal, about 100 km north of the border, that works out to an average of 165 Watts per square metre, again on an annual basis -- it will be much lower in winter months, of course. Still, 1100 sq. ft. equals 100 square metres, so this is a year round potential average power generating capacity of 16.5 kW using solar panels with tracking systems to keep them aimed directly at the sun. Regular readers will know I've been tracking my own power use for Hydro Quebec over the last two winters, and I know that my peak power use in a cold snap on turning up the heat immediately after a Hydro-mandated pricing event was never more than 8 kW. Winter average power use this year was closer to 4 or 5 kW, even with a fairly cold January, helped by the fact that as the resident of a ground floor flat surrounded by other buildings, I have very few exposed outside walls. So in theory 100 square metres of solar panels on the roof would provide me with excess capacity, especially in those really cold but bright sunny winter days. 

I extended the analysis to the entire borough, which has a total area of 8.1 square kilometres. I suspect potential usable area of 35% of this is a large number; to start with, there are wider streets as well as parks and other areas where solar panels could not be mounted. But assuming 15% of the borough were covered with panels, the neighbourhood could make, on average, 200 MW. While this is only 0.5% of the 40 GW peaks Hydro hit last winter, it is still requires only 8 square kilometers of urban area, and no need for extended transmission lines. As well it would go a long way towards recharging a local electric vehicle fleet, especially if augmented by storage systems of some kind such as masses of parked electric car batteries all plugged into the grid. (Most cars sit 90% of the time).

I haven't taken the time to go through the economics, but one online source suggested costs of $3 per installed Watt in Ontario. Covering my roof would thus cost close to $50,000, which I wouldn't want to do on my own without serious subsidies; but the neighbourhood could make 200 MW for $600 million. And $3 per W is about 5 times cheaper than Site C in BC ($16B for 1.1 GW), without the need for long-distance transmission lines. 

In Quebec the main issue will be Hydro Quebec's mandate, which does not encourage small-scale or distributed generation unless it is off-grid, but I assume that could be changed by an act of Parliament. But I've met people in Alberta who have put solar panels on the roof of the garage to charge the Tesla; the open-access grid there allows excess power (when the owner of the car is at work on a sunny day, for instance)  to be trickled back into the grid for a credit.

Food for thought.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Sensibo heat pump controller: Update

You may recall my dismay in my last post to discover that the Sensibo device does its thing via a cloud-based system. Turns out this was justified: the other morning, my modem decided to pack it in, and I no longer had control over the heat pump.

The pump remained at its previous setting, just as it would if the batteries in the remote control wore out; but I couldn't change the settings via the app. 

I assume that pre-programmed settings would also not work. However, I don't know whether programmed changes to settings would be reinstated once the modem was repaired, as I didn't have any programs set at the time the modem went offline. 

Of course the remote control still worked, as it is entirely local. 

So overall I remain convinced that something that works entirely locally, or that defaults to local when needed, would be preferable.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Peak power pricing: Sensibo heat pump controller

Last winter I was part of a pilot project with Hydro Quebec to manage my power consumption according to demand. (Details can be found by clicking here, and early results here.) Net result? About a $400 saving over the winter. 

So far so good. And last winter, much of it spent in some form of lockdown, meant I was always home at 05:55 to get up and pad around turning thermostats down. Next step is to automate the process so I can sleep in, or travel. Turns out Hydro is working on this, with their HiLo subsidiary offering smart thermostats for baseboard heaters. But there are a few problems with their approach so far. 

First, these are controlled through Hydro's servers talking to the thermostats via my router. Google Home will also do this; but I recall a server problem at Google a while back that left people unable to even turn on a light. So keeping local control is a better idea in my view.

Second, at this point their equipment will only control baseboards. I've got one baseboard that needs controlling; otherwise, I've got a heat pump, two heated floors and two convection units with built-in thermostats. So that doesn't do me much good even if I were willing to accept Hydro reaching into my home network and fiddling with stuff. 

Separately I discovered a type of gizmo for controlling any heat pump or air conditioner that has a remote control. This is a bit like the universal remote you used to be able to buy to replace the remotes for the TV, set-top box, PCR, VCR, tape deck and DVD player (ask your Dad). Two looked interesting: the Sensibo and the Cielo (for reviews, click here). On the face of it the Cielo has more features (including a display), but ultimately I ordered the Sensibo from Home Depot, on the basis that I can just take it back to the store if there is a problem. At $129.99 Canadian before sales tax, it was a bit more than the US price, which did not include shipping to Canada. (It is interesting to note that the black one was $179.99. Not sure what that is about.)


Photos show what is in the box: the device, a 110V adapter and a USB cable. There is a second proprietary port on the underside of the device, but with no indication of what this might be for. 

The instructions in the box are terse, verging on non-existent. The manual is not easily found on the Sensibo website, but I found it on Lowe's site (click here). The main installation step, which was minor, was installing the app (available for iOS and Android, but not PC) and connecting it to my WiFi system. Then you point your existing heat pump remote at it and press On a couple of times. After that it is entirely run from my phone. 

The scheduling function has a seven-day calendar that repeats. I discovered that if you try to schedule stuff with the heat pump off, all you can do is turn it on or off; the heat pump will start up with the last settings active. But if the heat pump is on, you can program all the functions: mode, temperature, fan speed and vane orientation, etc. So far all very neat.

A couple of downsides. Unlike the remote, which takes a couple of AA batteries, it needs the 110V connection. This sort of limits where you can put it, which is further limited by the fact that, like the remote, it needs line of sight to the heat pump to work. Photos show a jury-rigged set up, with the gizmo plugged into the 110 outlet on the stove; I have since plugged it into the outlet for the microwave, which involved drilling some holes in the cabinetry.

Powering it off and back on seems to bring it back to where you set it, so that is fine. 

Finally I didn't think I could control it from beyond the range of my WiFi system. But initial tests made by walking up the street until my phone was no longer connected to my WiFi imply that I can control it at a distance; this means that my phone talks to my router over cell networks. (I turned the phone off before coming back home, to be sure it really was talking over the cell network). It turns out that the app and the device talk to one another through a cloud-based server of some sort, and do not communicate directly. The Cielo system is apparently similar. Oh well. Hopefully this system will still be live in a year or a decade. I still have the remote and a stash of AA batteries, so there is a backup plan. But the lack of clarity around this in the Sensibo advertising material and installation manuals is disappointing.

So I am getting ready for next winter, hoping that I will be able to go away for a while and just leave a program running that will dial back twice a day, even if Hydro isn't asking for it. The only real issue is a I have a single convection heater with integrated thermostat and a second baseboard heater that really need to be adjusted manually, especially if the temperatures are low enough that the heat pump is no longer effective. (The coldest it got at the beginning of Hydro events last winter was -17C, which, as we all know, is relatively balmy for this part of the world.) I can set these to a low temperature before going away, but will still have to get up at the crack of dawn to adjust them if I am home. So while not a complete solution, progress is being made. Stay tuned for updates.

Friday, July 30, 2021

The era of the Internal Combustion Engine draws to a close

The internal combustion engine, in all its various incarnations, has enabled huge societal change. But its environmental footprint is leading to its demise. (It should be pointed out that the mode of transportation it replaced, namely the horse, also had a significant environmental impact, in the shape of huge amounts of farmland devoted to "biofuels" in the form of oats, which inevitably led to huge amounts of pollution in the form of manure that had to be cleared from city streets.)

Having spent my teenage years reading voraciously about cars, and my twenties employed in repairing them, I have watched this technology grow from a 1950's suburban utopia to today's choked, grid-locked and smog-filled cities.

The convenience of a liquid fuel should not to be underestimated: it takes 5 minutes to fill an onboard energy storage system with a volume of 50 litres and a weight, when full, of 50 kg, containing enough energy to cover 500 km. Electric batteries and other alternatives, such as LNG or hydrogen, have major challenges meeting this 5-50-50-500 benchmark.

From the first crude devices leaving the workshops of Henry Ford or Carl Benz, to today's computer-controlled, turbocharged corporate platforms, there has been a steady improvement in ICE efficiency. Overall more power from a smaller, more compact engine has led to reduced fuel consumption and more flexible performance.

This is still not enough, though, if we are to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently for a Net Zero by 2050 scenario. Better efficiency has always led to people driving more, rather than pocketing the reduced cost per mile, whether due to opportunity or urban sprawl. And even if it were, the electric car merely shifts the combustion elsewhere, unless the power source is non-carbon (hydro, wind, solar, nuclear). Plus the issues around congestion and livability of cities where we need to allocate huge amounts of space to driving and parking cars point to a need for massively reduced private car ownership and similarly increased public transit. But that is not a technology shift, but a societal one; it is a problem with which automotive engineers are not well equipped to deal. 

Fond as I am of the automobile era, its time has come. We may need lots of electric cars to fight climate change; but we will need a lot fewer cars, regardless of energy type, to make our cities livable. This is not yet obvious on the ground in Canada where I live, except maybe in the Greater Toronto Area; but the great cities of the world, those with populations over 10 million, are all dealing with this issue daily.

Following on the IEA report on Net Zero by 2050, The IEA has released a new report discusses making cities livable (click here) in a Net Zero context. I have mentioned before that the IEA, as a subsidiary of the OECD, is inevitably going to provide business-as-usual solutions to politicians that worry about getting re-elected; but as Mark Jaccard has pointed out, the best climate policy is the one that gets implemented, and providing politicians with pathways they can sell to voters is one way forward. Otherwise the small-government, tax-cutting, neo-liberal free-marketeers will get elected and no progress will be made on the existential threat that is climate change. And the IEA has the added strength of not leaning on radical new pie-in-the-sky technologies that may or may not work; the tools are all available, at a cost which, while high, must be compared to the cost of doing nothing.

 I will leave you with a paragraph from the IEA report on cities:

"Cities account for more than 50% of the global population, 80% of global GDP, two-thirds of global energy consumption and more than 70% of annual global carbon emissions. These factors are expected to grow significantly in the coming decades: it is anticipated that by 2050 more than 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, resulting in massive growth in demand for urban energy infrastructure."

Big Oil pushback on climate change

Not unexpectedly, the Big Oil propagandists are out in force. Money is being spent defending the indefensible, instead of fixing things. 

A friend forwarded a short video from an outfit called Prager U (see here). I haven't bothered to dig through the website for the video, but the title was "Unobtainium", and a quick Google search brings up a range of web pages discussing it. From the website: “Prager University is the world's leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media.” Their Annual Report is a thinly disguised advertising brochure but falls well short of SEC standards when it comes to itemising where their $28M in revenue came from in 2020; but given the content of the video, I can guess.

Specifically I had the following issues with this:

The speaker mentions the fact that batteries are nowhere as energy-dense as oil, which is, additionally, much cheaper and available in larger volumes. This is true but ignores the fact we've had 100+ years of research and investment into making oil more accessible and easier to use, and less than 20 years into vehicle batteries. 

Furthermore, while solar and wind may indeed be getting close to maximum theoretical efficiencies as the technologies mature, I believe better and cheaper batteries are on the way – the learning curve is still steep. In only a few years we have gone from 150 km range to 500+ without increasing battery size or weight; and recharging times are dropping fast. When the rate of improvement in battery performance starts to slow, we’ll know we are hitting some limits.

And he’s right about mining and waste as problems if we need to source lots of materials like lithium. 

But he ignores the cost of burning those fossil fuels, in terms of heat, dried up reservoirs that stop producing hydro-electricity, whole towns incinerated, molluscs literally cooking in their shells on the seabed, etc. Then there were the mind-boggling floods in Germany and China.

Either way we have to accept that we are going to have to pay a lot: we can keep burning fossil, which is cheap to produce, refine and distribute, but which generates huge global heating costs that aren’t factored into the price at the pumps; or we can pay up front to develop and roll out the necessary technologies to stop CO2 emissions, using a circular economy approach where product end-of-life is dealt with at the design stage. Neither approach is going to be "cheap". Governments (i.e. taxpayers) will need to get out their chequebooks, to clean up the mess, or to prevent the mess as best we can at this late stage.

And he doesn’t offer any alternative solutions to continued use of oil. Nuclear is one, as is using less energy in the first place. The best selling personal vehicle in the US is the Ford F150, followed in the #2 and #3 spots by the equally large Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500. The first car on the list, the Toyota Camry, clocks in at #6. No hybrids or electrics make the top 20. There is no way these folks with full-sized pickup trucks are all hauling trailers full of hay bales or manure with them. No, they are hauling groceries from Costco back to their McMansions, which are characterised by staggering square footage per person, and which cost a pile to heat or cool. I’m not saying everyone should be happy with 1000 square feet, as I am; but my floor space, small as it is, is still four times the world average floor space per capita. Energy efficiency has a long way to go. 

Basically our toolbox of reasonably well-developed technologies has a range of tools in it, and we need to use all of them. If we say no to nuclear, then we need more wind, solar and efficiency (as well as bio-energy, which arguably is on somewhat shaky ground as far as carbon neutrality is concerned); more nuclear means less need for other approaches. It’s a zero-sum game. But it must be clear that we can only emit at most an additional 500 gigatonnes of CO2. That’s it. No more after that, ever.

And as for his concern for the poor child workers that would be exploited in Third World lithium mines: Big Oil’s record in the Third World in this context is far from stellar. Witness the mess in Nigeria, just to start with. Oil sands tailing ponds are another. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!  

We can’t afford to let oil and gas propagandists and apologists drive the agenda anymore. We have been very lucky in Eastern Canada so far this summer, but we too are at risk of either extended, extreme heat leading to catastrophic drying up of Hydro-Québec reservoirs, or massive floods that wash away topsoil leaving farming and our food supply at risk. There is a very real probability that our grandchildren will be shivering (or baking) and starving in the dark. This is an existential crisis and we need to respond with a complete ban on CO2 emissions. End of story.

Yes, this touched a sore spot. End of rant.

I will remind my Faithful Readers that the IEA report (224 pages) is available by clicking here, and while it is a green approach, it is still a business as usual approach where efficiency doesn’t play a big role. My 18-page review of the IEA report can be found by clicking here. And my quick summary of my 18-page review can be found by scrolling back to my previous post on this blog.


Saturday, June 5, 2021

The IEA Roadmap to Net Zero: A critical review

As promised I read the IEA report carefully and listed some comments, questions and suggestions. The objective was to condense the 224-page document for a broader public and flag some concerns. A worthy objective... but the result, at this stage, is still 13 pages (excluding an Appendix for the layperson outlining energy units and some basic combustion chemistry). And while I am sure my readers are always fascinated by what I write, 13 pages is still a long read. So I have attempted to summarise my summary in a one-page Executive Summary. This is posted below; and the full document is available in PDF format by clicking here

The Executive Summary follows; I hope you enjoy reading, whichever version you choose, and I look forward to your comments and discussion. 

The IEA report “Net Zero by 2050, A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector” made headlines for stating that no new oil or gas exploration is needed if we hope to keep to +1.5°C by 2050. Essentially this saw the OECD agree with environmentalist’s calls to “leave it in the ground”. Other policies will upset environmentalists as much this has upset Big Oil. The world economy is assumed 40% larger in 2050 while using 7% less energy; the question is whether energy savings could be 10% or more?

Energy production and use emitted 33.9 Gt CO2 in 2020, about 75% of the total. The IEA predicts cumulative savings to 2050 of 460 Gt CO2, consistent with IPCC guidelines that we emit no more than another 500 Gt CO2.

Solar PV and wind power are commercial today and provide close to half these savings. But challenges remain with several other technologies needed. 

Biomass power allows stranded coal assets to continue running; it also displaces liquid transportation fuels and natural gas in pipelines. But carbon neutrality of biomass is under threat from unknown levels of new climate-driven emissions from forest fires, insect infestations, floods and desertification. Biomass for power generation contributes to grid stability, but other options could be reviewed. 

Carbon capture (CCUS) is essential for cement kilns, where emissions are not fuel-related, and for thermally-generated power; when the fuel is carbon-neutral biomass, CCUS generates a double-counting benefit. But CCUS requires pipelines to store CO2. Reduced hydrogen from natural gas and more rapid decommissioning of coal-fired plants would reduce the need for CCUS. (Direct air capture located next to CO2 storage would not need pipelines.) 

Nuclear power, which is expected to double, is needed to offload other technologies and to stabilise the grid. But stranded coal assets along with smarter grids and more interconnections will also contribute to grid stability

Energy efficiency increases as world energy use per capita declines from 80 GJ to 56 GJ. The IEA posits a rapid improvement to 2030, with smaller gains to 2050. Increasing efficiencies will be challenging, but small changes early in the process will have a large compounded impact later on.

Hydrogen is needed for industrial combustion, but distribution networks for road transport will be fraught with safety problems. Ideally hydrogen should only be used where it produced, not distributed.

Electric vehicles are more efficient than internal combustion by a factor of about 3, and contribute to transportation use dropping 22% to 80 EJ. A more aggressive approach to urban transportation solutions, driven by gridlock and not climate change, could reduce this through fewer private vehicles. Furthermore, the need for lithium and battery recycling technologies are huge challenges.

Housing space per capita needs to grow, especially in poor countries. But new floor space in urban settings may increase sprawl. Societal changes to reduce sprawl could reduce the average space per capita and the need for cars in suburbs in a synergistic fashion, especially in the developed world.

Overall, it is not surprising that the IEA, as an arm of the OECD, has not put a lot of stock in societal changes that might prove a difficult political sell. This is critical: as the best vaccine is the one in your arm, the best climate change policy is the one that gets implemented, even if it is not technically the best or fastest one, because it is better than no policy. A new publication (Mark Jaccard, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming myths that hinder progress. Cambridge University press, 2020) describes this well, and is very highly recommended, whether the reader tackles the Roadmap or not.