Energy Position Paper 2008

Energy Position Paper - 2008 and 3/4

By Alan C. Page, Ph. D. – Green Diamond Systems Belchertown, MA


The Past: Previous papers focused on the inefficiency of the ubiquitous power grid and the various kinds of generation, the need to move to local co-generation to capture the 70% of fuel energy lost at most large generating stations, and the dire condition using last year’s data that indicated that immediate action needed to be taken to avoid a cascade of tipping points being tripped. 

Where Are We Now?:

The latest snow and ice melt data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center show that the feared trend is in full swing.  The interpretation of Figures 1 and 2, below is that the total melt will exceed the amount of ice loss last year even Figure 1: Arctic Ice 2008 though this year started out from a colder winter than last.


Al Gore has identified that the current investment in infrastructure has immobilized government and industry willingness to acknowledge that change is necessary, and that the change needs to be thorough going and rapid.               Figure 2:  Arctic Sea Ice Extent 1979 – 2008.    

The current information about climatic tipping points and Figure 3, a graph of our energy use and waste in the USA should be enough to galvanize everyone to acknowledge that we need to welcome new approaches to solving our energy needs and reducing our affects on our global environment.


Figure 3, left,  a graph from the US DOE depicts a situation where energy delivery is getting worse rather than better.  Over the last year the  relationship  of total coal use to the total electric energy waste has gone from ~80% to 76%. 


New wind farms that are coming on line can Figure 3:  DOE 2006 Energy Sources, Uses and Losses             not run all the time when there is wind available because the power grid is not capable of accepting their output, NYTimes, August 27, 2008.


What Changes Need to be Considered and WHY?

1)      We need to accept that high energy users need to be close to a source of power that they can trust.  If they have to move to be there it needs to happen soon!

a.       The waste associated with the grid is too high and the materials required to upgrade it for more than back up capacity are too expensive and wasteful for full time use by widely separated high energy users.  This will be a cultural shift and it needs to begin now.

b.      The large scale implementations of the past need to be regrouped to minimize both transmission loss and the waste of the 70% of energy lost at the generation site.  So large users of energy need to also be generators to reconnect with efficient usage of all energy expended.


2)      We need to allow local co-generation to be developed with the capacity to be shut down when the local need for power decreases below an agreed upon amount.

a.       A large part of the waste associated with centralized generating facilities comes from the inability of these large systems to be shut down and their separation from waste heat users. 

b.      Local small combined heat and power offer both the ability to design the systems so it can be shut down and the possibility of locating it next to small heating and cooling loads.

Wherever possible these local power systems should be run on organic wastes and be configured to be able to be built to be or to become carbon-negative energy (CNE) sources.  CNE systems are different from common carbon collection and storage (CCS) systems because they involve not just removal of carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases released in the process of energy generation, but rather using raw fuel materials that were made from pre-existing atmospheric carbon dioxide and retains as much of the carbon so collected as possible in a stable (2000 years or longer) form that may act to enhance the further collection of more carbon dioxide.

3)      See the discussion of CNE below for more details.

a.       We need to recognize that cross discipline solutions are necessary to provide the range of solutions that must happen.  Immediate solutions need to be found for nutrient retention on farms, local energy production from farm wastes, heat recovery from all generation sources, linking energy conversion to maintaining or enhancing the production of all organic crops, improving the nutrient content of foods, immobilizing active hormones and antibiotics in waste waters, and removal of hazardous materials at the place of creation.  CNE provides such a cross discipline solution.  CNE needs to be implemented for the use of all organic wastes.

b.      We need to outlaw the use of agricultural systems to grow energy crops as the primary use of the farm land.  Energy production from organic materials needs to be limited to the use of wastes and should be confined to conversion sites as close to the source of the wastes as possible.  CNE systems should be as efficient as possible and their use should be promoted with all possible speed.



The urgent need for carbon-negative energy systems has been described by Dr. James Hansen’s very strong language, "…if we wish to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed."  In a recent paper in Science magazine, Hansen mentions a number of situations that he describes as climatic tipping points that result from human activity.  The recent loss of Arctic sea ice last summer is one of the most visible of this very troubling set of phenomena.  The problem with tipping points is that once one point is tripped there is no way to undue the situation created.   Hansen suggests that because there are a number of such tipping points, crossing one will make it much more likely that the next will be crossed more quickly than if the other had not tripped.   Thus, immediate action is needed – if nothing begins to happen before 2012 it will be too late to contain the onset of uncontrollable climate change.


CARBON-NEGATIVE ENERGY (CNE): A carbon-negative energy system involves producing clean energy (predominantly hydrogen and low carbon fuels like methane, CH4, and carbon monoxide) from a renewable carbon based energy source while also retaining most of the carbon in the fuel as a solid.  (The use of depletable / non-renewable energy for this purpose is not carbon-negative since the carbon is already permanently stored.)  A common form of this renewable stable retained carbon is bio-char.   If the fuel came from plant material, as charcoal does, then the portion of the plant that is reformed into charcoal – biochar, is made up of carbon that has been removed from the air. 

The only way to accomplish this feat in the short run is to harness the natural capacity of plants to use light, water, and the photosynthetic process to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into solid forms of organic material (wood, straw, sugar cane waste, undigested food, unrecyclable paper, to name a few), and then use some of the biomass for energy while reforming much of the carbon in the cells of the plant into bio-char.  There are several manufacturers of carbon-negative energy systems but few recognize the slender thread by which we now exist.  These systems can be modified to produce a variety of energy carrier compounds; producer gas, (H2, CH4, and CO), bio-oil, bio-diesel, bio-gasoline, etc.  It appears that the primary function of these bio-pyrolysis systems should be the production of the maximum amount of bio-char possible with the characteristics most favorable for microorganism colonization.  There are very raw material specific conditions that must be met for production of this active variety of bio-char.


There are several new terms used above that need to be recognized for their special significance in this situation:

Bio-char: the charred organic material left after releasing as much of the energy in the raw material as possible while retaining around 50% of the total carbon in the feed stock as charcoal.  This bio-char may have properties that are specially designed for the uses that it can have as a soil amendment and permanent carbon storage medium.

Climatic tipping points: there are many different kinds of environmental, geologic, oceanic, or atmospheric situations that now limit the retention of solar energy as heat within the biosphere of the planet earth.  These situations result in one or more of the following  happening reliably; 1) light is reflected back into space, 2) carbon is held in semi-permanent storage, 3) light is not converted into sensible heat before being reradiated or reflected, 4) a particular condition is maintained because temperatures are appropriate for systems that currently function adequately [the North Atlantic deep water conveyor is an example of a set of actions that depend on very specific conditions existing in the area of the origin of the deep water connection].  The recent loss of Arctic sea ice is an example of a tipping point sitting right at the point of being tripped.  There the ice cover reflects 80% of the incoming light back into space, while open ocean waters (if uncovered) would reverse the reflection absorption ratio converting 80% of the same light into heat.  The permafrost that lies just to the south of the Arctic ice has retained much of the dead organic matter produced there over the past 10,000+ years as undecomposed frozen peat.  The melting of the ice that frames this organic material frees microbes to work to anaerobically convert this material to methane (methane has a green house gas effect that is 22 times stronger than carbon dioxide).  Clathrates are accumulations of methane ice that form along deep coastal shelves in the ocean.  This water – methane ice combination is maintained by both low temperatures and high pressure due to the depth at which they form.  Occasionally this balance is tripped and some of this slush floats to the surface of the sea where the methane bubbles free of its ice matrix.  The volume of this methane storage is enormous.  The release of any volume of this gas would be disastrous.  There are many more situations that could be classed as tipping points.

Natural solar collector array: today most people understand that forests are a part of the natural landscape that has been put at risk by human abuses.  It is essential that we work to foster a new understanding of this natural component.  There are certainly forests that are at risk and in these cases they should be set aside as preserves for the protection of the habitat that can only exist in that particular forest.  However, all life is at risk to the tipping points that Hansen has described, and there are significant areas of forest that are not set aside as preserves and that can be described as “working forests.”  However, it is very easy for the lay person to lump all forests together and reject any activity in forests as harmful.  This mind set can be found throughout the U.S.  It is necessary to describe these working forests in a new way that highlights what they actually are able to do and how they have to function in the near future if humanity is to reverse the current ruinous technological situation that now exists.  It is all too common that working forests are seen as little more than speculative reserves of land for future development.  This view must change rapidly and we must find ways of making it possible for future generations to justify holding land in this very necessary condition.


Retention of agricultural land for food production:

The rapid development of food shortages this year suggests that the human population may need to focus the use of all agricultural land for food production.  Therefore it appears that CNE from farms must only come from the use of plant wastes and manures for making biochar.  There are very beneficial aspects to making bio-char from these wastes because the carbon so collected will remain in the soil in a stable form for hundreds if not thousands of years. U.S.D.A. soil scientist’s figures show that soil health and the quality of food crops produced is based on the carbon content of any soil.  Non-stable carbon is easily respired and thus lost from the soil in decades or less.  Soil carbon acts as a strong adsorption substrate for holding soil nutrients.  The enormous bio-char surface area (from the cellular structure of the original plant) provides space for a variety of microorganisms to use in their life processes.   

 Forest wastes offer a significant untapped resource that can be used without limiting food production.  Fortunately biochar also can significantly enhance the capacity of a forest soil to produce biomass.  Thus a win-win-win situation exists for small local farm, forest, or neighborhood based energy systems. 

Food production is enhanced by the increase in soil water holding capacity and increased cation exchange capacity that comes from the stable surfaces of the bio-char.  Much of our agricultural, food, and paper wastes can be turned into clean energy sources and a carbon sequestration vehicle with very long storage life.  The large nutrient storage capacity of bio-char can be used to filter the effluents of farms, homes, and communities.  When this nutrient loaded bio-char is spread on farms and forests, future biomass production may be increased by 150-300% over untreated soils.  While any biologically active bio-char will store carbon, it is most appropriate to process the material very near the site where it came from and make sure that the bio-char is returned to the original site.

Forest application of bio-char will serve to limit the nutrient losses from these areas because the stable carbon in the bio-char holds the soil nutrients more permanently than the normal forest or farm organic matter.  The longevity of the storage sites and the strength of nutrient attraction and retention ensure that the local nutrients will be more likely to cycle close to the site of uptake by the plant rather than being lost as leaves and plant parts rot.  The use of the bio-char by microorganisms allows them to remove nutrients from the carbon storage sites as needed and the commensual nature of many of these soil organisms with above ground plants allows for the transfer of needed nutrients and water to the plants without the plants having to grow the entire root network that would be otherwise necessary.  This benign relationship between biochar and land productivity suggests that the best mode of implementation of CNE is going to involve globally distributed generation of energy by small farm based systems.  We need to approach this as a "GLOBAL Apollo Project" style sacred trust.