Energy independence: a role for local authorities?

In between the “awareness” activities on energy security and development sustainability, there are also real research and development activities going on, ranging from new products/services, to the redesign of supply chains, production processes, and, of course, products.

Everybody read about biofuels in the US and their effect on the agricultural business- but few instead consider the example of Brazil, aiming to achieve complete energy independence with a blend of technologies.

And recently there has been a gradual resurgence of commitments to nuclear energy production, while most discussions focus on technology or the direct costs to produce energy with each alternative to fossil fuels.

As for the way to deliver- few go beyond the immediate present (utilities) and the distant (pocket generators).

When I was living in Italy, every year (preferably during the in July or August) I could read articles giving figures about the quantity of energy or water lost due to the bad state of repair of pipelines or electroducts.

But also in the best cases, transmission (or the “logistics”) has a significant effect on any transmission of energy.

In some locations, such as my birth town, Turin, the attempt to increase the overall efficiency of energy production resulted in using the heat derived from power stations to heat private homes and businesses.

I call that “residual” energy production- but, as discussed later, the matter is to localize primary energy production.

Smartsizing biofuels refineries

On Wednesday I attended a conference on “Concepts for Future Biofuels Refineries” by Prof. Franck Dumeignil of the Université de Lille 1, organized by the Royal Society of Chemistry – Belgium Section, and hosted by the British School in Brussels.

I will not summarize the conference- I will just focus on some information: key figures, if you want.

Why my interest in biofuels refineries? Because our fossil fuels started as biomass- and, if you look around you, it is the most abundant potential energy source.

Just some information from the conference:
– the Earth receives 3850 times 10^21 Joules/year
– photosynthesis absorbs just 3.1 times 10^21 Joules/year
– human activities use just 0.5 time 10^21 Joules/year
– the biomass generated in 1 year is equivalent to 70 years of consumption
– the conventional nuclear fuel available would cover 68 years (see more about this in the article)

The programme presented by Prof. Franck Dumeignil is only six months into its activity, and he confirmed that logistics represents the largest cost in processing biomass, and therefore two initial targets have been identified, aiming to have sustainable refineries with 50k or 500k tons/year- to bring the refineries as close as possible to the source.

The first target would allow also smaller, local plants.

But the issue is still the complexity of the processes involved, coupled with the need to develop new catalysts and rethink processes.

As an example, the programme presented has 7 multipartner domain clusters, i.e. areas of activity (4 industrial, and 3 for coordination, dissemination, sustainability).

Just imagine the complexity of the corresponding stakeholder management activities, coupled with the technological innovations and integration with the product development processes across the supply chain, up to the final users (e.g. of aviation fuel and related products).

A similar trend toward “downsizing” energy production is part of the new crop of nuclear-reactor technologies.

Smartsizing nuclear energy

Beside the conventional approaches (e.g. using solid fuel), there are other approaches (just go on spectrum.ieee.org and search; all the MIT quotes in this article come through articles published by Spectrum), ranging from pellets to liquid fuel, aiming to improve the efficiency of new reactors.

And technology evolved since the Manhattan project and the dawn of the nuclear era.

Technologies such as Toshiba’s 4S (35 years between refuelling) or TerraPower TP-1 (40 to 50 years) allow to move to the point where a community in Alaska with less than 500 inhabitants is considering to build its own “nuclear battery” (see the article Nuclear Reactor Renaissance.

Coming to the nuclear fuel availability- some technologies promise to allow improving what is called the “burn-up rate”, i.e. the percentage of the nuclear fuel that is really consumed by the reactor, while also reducing the level of enrichment of the fuel used (to reduce the risk of proliferation).

And a recent report from the MIT (September 2010, full report to be available by the end of the year) reassesses the effective availability of nuclear fuel,e.g.

“The cost of uranium today is 2 to 4% of the cost of electricity. Our analysis of uranium mining
costs versus cumulative production in a world with ten times as many LWRs and each LWR operating for 60 years indicates a probable 50% increase in uranium costs. Such a modest increase in uranium costs would not significantly impact nuclear power economics. (page 20)

In the end- the issue is still the same: how to manage the spent nuclear fuel:

“when the generation of electricity from commercial nuclear power plants
started: new plants in the US raised the spent fuel discharge rate from 0.6 MTHM in 1968
to 1,082 in 1978 and 2,407 in 2002.2” (in Guillaume De Roo “Risk and Responsibility Sharing in Nuclear Spent Fuel Management”, MIT, June 2010, pag 4).

Decentralize production and use

It will take time before “nuclear batteries” become, once approved, common place- notably to ensure that, as a battery, they are really self-contained, zero maintenance facilities, that could be supported such as, say, a service company, without the need of the usual supply chain of experts.

Meanwhile, if the 50k tons biofuel refineries go ahead (which means: are produced as serviceable, self-contained units), it could become possible to extend the concept of local authorities, and introduce producting sustainability and energy efficiency as part of their role.

Just to give an example: years ago, to allow achieving economies of scale, local authorities in Italy were authorized to set up consortia, to share services between few towns or villages, ranging from a technical expert, to the garbage collection services.

The same principle could be applied to energy production and distribution, but on a smaller scale and with less overheads, reducing the incidence of logistics, and potentially also improving the recycling of organic material.

As an added bonus, this could generate a new revenue stream for cash-strapped local authorities.

When years ago in Italy companies with in-plant energy production facilities were allowed to sell back to the grid their surplus electricity… the price that they received was reportedly higher than the one that they paid (an incentive to the creation of independent production facilities).

There is an increasing orientation toward seeing local authorities not only as a political or administrative entity, but as a community-based service-oriented organization, able to identify and manage the specific needs of their own community, and potentially also co-operate with other communities with the same “service needs” across the EU.

A further benefit derives from the regulatory harmonization across the EU and e-purchasing initiatives to remove the XIX-ish physical distance barrier, and enables to benefit from increased negotiating power toward suppliers, influencing perhaps also the development of new products and services from the suppliers.

In the end, it is a matter of efficiency.

If access to technologies that allow a better use of existing resources (e.g. biomass as a byproduct of agricultural activities) is widened, it becomes easier to focus sustainability as a balance and trade-off within each community.

A trade-off between costs (including social ones) and benefits, with a greater democratic control and, thank to the decentralization within a shared regulatory framework, a faster and nimbler evolution if and where needed.

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