A Match made in Heaven: Solar power and Water desalination

by John Brian Shannon

The nations of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Gulf are blessed to have access to unfathomable amounts of sunlight and salt water. With growing populations and scarce water reserves, governments, public or privately-held power companies and water utilities can capitalize on these national assets — when the economics work.

Even when the economics don’t work, human beings still need water! Growing cities need water for domestic use and industry needs water to produce the goods that we buy, or that they export.

The question for Oman is; How much of Oman’s oil and gas is burning up at desal plants — instead of being exported to add to Oman’s GDP?

In previous decades, the power-hungry desalination plants widely-used throughout the Middle East were powered by electricity created from burning vast amounts of fossil fuel. The economics barely worked when the oil prices were low – but now, with oil once more approaching $100. per barrel, they are costing a king’s ransom to operate. Even oil-rich kingdoms are feeling the pinch nowadays.

A cogent case can be made for adopting alternative energy to power existing and future desalination plants – thereby allowing that oil and gas to be sold at export instead of being burned up. Why burn your money?

At $96.80/barrel for oil (April 2/13) and the natural gas price passing $4.08/MMBtu (April 2/13) the annual fuel cost to produce electricity with fossil fuel is unimaginably high. Really, you don’t want to know.

Fossil fuel exports power the economies of rapidly growing Middle East and North Africa (MENA) nations. Each barrel of oil burned for local desal operations, is one less barrel contributing to the national GDP. A similar situation is at play with regards to natural gas in Oman and the other GCC nations.

Modern solar power plants, such as Masdar’s Shams 1 solar power plant can produce 100 megawatts of clean power for 30-years or more, powered only by sunshine. These modern electrical energy power plants are powerful enough to run; (1) a desalination plant, with enough energy surplus to run (2) a nearby town, or (3) a rural areaor, perhaps all three!

There are two basic types of solar power;

  • Photovoltaic solar, properly called ‘PV-solar’ or ‘PV-solar modules’. The solar panels only produce power when the Sun is shining. Which is fine, because the highest electrical demand occurs during daylight hours.
  • Thermal solar, known as ‘Concentrated Solar Power’ or ‘CSP’ produce power 24 hours a day, by storing excess daytime heat in liquids such as molten salt or oil, to run a steam turbine/electricity generator.

PV-solar (panels) have increased efficiency from their 1980’s-era, 11% efficiency rating — to today’s +33% efficiency rating units. Panels with much higher efficiency ratings (perhaps as high as 100%) will hit the market within 20-years. And through all this, PV-solar panel prices have been falling dramatically, to the point that PV-solar utility-scale power plants are now price-competitive with other kinds of power – assuming similar subsidy levels are in place.

Solar Bonus

As PV-efficiency continues to increase through the next few years, just as it has been doing thus far, PV-solar ‘scaling up’ will be very easy. For example, solar panels are size-standardized, so simply unbolting the ‘old’ 11% efficiency panels and replacing them with the ‘new’ 22% efficiency panels, effectively doubles the power output of the solar power plant — practically overnight! (e.g.; 100 MW to 200 MW)

A few years later, when PV-efficiency increases, those (by then) ‘old’ 22% panels can be replaced with ‘new’ 45% efficiency panels – thereby doubling (again!) the total output of the solar power plant. The ‘old’ solar panels will still work fine, and they can be sold to developing nations, or traded-in against the cost of the new panels, just the same way you would trade your old car for a new one.

In fact, PV-solar power now costs less than comparable coal-fired power — and that’s not factoring in the costly ‘externalities’ of coal-fired electrical power generation, which range from huge water usage by coal-fired power plants, to toxic airborne emissions, to adverse health effects on citizens – which prematurely killed 1.2 million people in 2007-2010, in China alone!

solar-coal-power_thumb3.png
PV-solar power now costs less than comparable coal-fired power

CSP solar technology has advanced remarkably and several different designs have proven themselves viable in Spain, the United States and the UAE, although CSP costs are still high when compared to PV-solar and conventional power. This is changing as CSP production ramps up around the world. The one great advantage of CSP solar, is that these power plants produce power 24-hours per day, 365-days per year – and, no harmful emissions.

“Holding nearly half of the world’s renewable energy potential, the Middle East and North Africa are poised for unprecedented growth in renewable energy.” — Masdar

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Masdar’s Shams 1 Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) 100 megawatt power plant near Abu Dhabi. image courtesy: Masdar

“The inauguration of Shams 1 is a breakthrough for renewable energy development in the Middle East. With the demand for energy rising exponentially, the region is undergoing a major transformation in how it generates electricity. In fact, the Middle East is poised for major investments in renewables, and Shams 1 proves the economic and environmental advantage of deploying large-scale solar projects.” — His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar. (Read Masdar Shams 1 Press Release here)

It’s safe to say that MENA nations should be planning a long-term switch to solar energy, starting with PV-solar now, and CSP solar starting within the next ten years.

Financing these new, pollution-free power plants could be assisted by GCC government investment (sovereign wealth funds) financed through increased oil and gas exports – as oil and gas will be ‘freed-up’ for sale to international buyers.

It must be said that in areas of the country that make the switch from fossil fuel to solar, the cost of externalities will fall and residents will notice better health and enhanced ‘quality of life’ due to lower airborne emission levels and governments will notice lower health care costs. Not to mention plenty of clean, low-cost water for citizens and industry.

JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

To follow John Brian Shannon on social media – place a check-mark beside your choice of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn: FullyFollowMe/johnbrianshannon

Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom?

Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom? | 18/03/13
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which is the cleanest fossil fuel of all?

You guessed it! Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel – and by significant margins as data from the Environmental Protection Agency illustrates in the chart below.

Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998
Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998

Natural gas, as the cleanest of the fossil fuels, can be used in many ways to help reduce the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Burning natural gas in the place of other fossil fuels emits fewer harmful pollutants, and an increased reliance on natural gas can potentially reduce the emissions of many of the most harmful pollutants. — naturalgas.org

After investigating the externalities associated with conventional sources of energy and cognizant of their commitments towards clean air, many nations have begun to embrace natural gas as a stepping stone towards a cleaner energy future.

In the U.S.A., as far back as 2003 when coal supplied more than 50% of America’s electrical power, coal-fired plants have been retired more quickly than new ones have come online. By 2012, coal supplied only 38% of U.S. electricity.

Nine gigawatts of U.S. coal-fired power generation was shut-down in 2012 alone, and replaced by an almost equal amount of natural gas power generation. Emission levels from those comparably-sized replacement natural gas power plants are less than half of those retired coal-fired plants!

Many more U.S. coal-fired power plants are scheduled for complete shutdown, or conversion to natural gas over the next few years totalling 35 GigaWatts (GW) according to the experts.

Chart courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration — shows carbon emissions dropping as a result of switching from coal to natural gas,  2005-2012.

U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Carbon emissions of all end-use Sectors have decreased since 2005 in the United States.

The largest reductions appear to be due to the Electric Power and Transportation sector’s emissions, followed by the Industrial, Residential and Commercial sectors.

[Of all sectors] “the largest reduction to carbon emissions is due to coal-to-natural gas ‘fuels switching’ and construction of higher efficiency power plants. 

Expansion of renewable power, overwhelmingly due to expanded wind power, has been the second largest factor to reduced Power Sector carbon emissions.” – theenergycollective.com

Many expert studies show CO2 emissions dropping as a result of the combined effects of many countries switching from coal to natural gas and/or renewables, 1990-2100.

Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell 'New Lens Scenarios'
Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the energy choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell ‘New Lens Scenarios’

The change-up to renewable energy will vary by country as OECD nations continue to take the lead in renewable energy between now and 2100. Even so, total worldwide emissions will drop dramatically and the switch from coal to natural gas is one big step towards a cleaner environment.

Related Articles:

U.S. Fuel Subsidies Chart

Image courtesy of Cleantechnica.com
Image courtesy of Cleantechnica.com
JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

To follow John Brian Shannon on social media – place a check-mark beside your choice of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn:FullyFollowMe/johnbrianshannon

Oil and Gas; Over 13 Times More in Historical Subsidies than Clean Energy

by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

You know the line — “Renewable energy shouldn’t receive government support. If it can’t stand on its own in the free market, it doesn’t deserve to grow.”


First of all, as you might have gathered from the title, fossil fuel’s historical subsidies are like skyscrapers next to single-family-renewable-energy-subsidy homes.

This is without including the massive indirect subsidies the oil and gas industry receive in unchecked externalities that wreak havoc on our health, our quality of life, and the potential viability of the human species after climate change is done with us.

You can see in this chart below that historical oil and gas subsidies are over 13 times larger than renewable energy (not including biofuels) subsidies:

Over the first 15 years of these energy sources’ subsidies, oil and gas got 5 times what renewables got (in 2010 dollars) and nuclear energy got 10 times as much.

“Nuclear spent an average of about $3.3 billion a year, oil and gas about $1.8 billion, and renewable energy just under half a billion,” DBL Investors Managing Partner Nancy Pfund and Ben Healey recently wrote in “What would Jefferson do?”

You can also look at subsidies as a percentage of the federal budget in this chart:

And oil and gas support hasn’t gone away. In fact, in some ways, it still trumps support for renewables.

From Greentech Media:

“The oil and gas industries have Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), Pfund said, two low-capital-cost ways of financing infrastructure now rapidly expanding in the financial services world. Neither is available to renewables investors, Pfund said, and both cost less than the tax equity funds derived from solar’s Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and wind’s Production Tax Credit (PTC).”

The U.S. government has also played a huge role in subsidizing natural gas infrastructure and technology,” Pfund added. “The combustion turbine was developed for aircraft and heavily subsidized. It was later reapplied to the gas sector.”

Now, furthermore, there are several reasons renewable energy should be subsidized today. Here are 3 big ones:

Clean energy subsidies actually benefit the economy!

“A new study,” Pfund noted, “shows the ITC, when you look at it over the life of the credit, by creating these solar leases, provides a 10-percent return to the federal government. They are actually making money through this incentive through the revenues from all the companies in the solar supply chain.”

Cutting the wind energy PTC means cutting 37,000 jobs out of the US economy, jobs that create good tax revenue.

We need clean energy subsidies (stronger than the ones we have today) or an adequate price on pollution to address the fact that pollution from fossil fuels is killing us.

Historical subsidies for fossil fuels, as noted above, dwarf historical subsidies for clean energy. It’s only fair that clean energy get to play on a level playing field, with the same level of support that fossil fuels and nuclear have gotten.

It’s pretty simple, actually. Once you look at the facts.

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