The shape of things to come – Methanopolis
Robert Kennedy said in a 1966 Cape town speech “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”
Kennedy may not have known that the so-called curse was neither Chinese nor was it a curse at all. It rather was a 1936 invention by a British diplomat who wanted to make it look Confucian.
But rather that having a class in semantics, let’s take a look at Kennedy’s words. Because now, in 2013, we are indeed living in interesting times. The world is in its hardest economic crisis for more than half a century, old certainties are falling apart with incredible speed (just look at the Arab world or indeed at what shale gas has done to North America and the world) and new media blows the old pathways of how information zip zaps around the planet apart quicker than you can cook a microwave meal.
We are all afraid, when in fact, we should brace ourselves for the biggest and most important reversal of global structures since WW2 or even longer. And methane is going to ride the crest of the wave – at least energy-wise. We are ready to go farther and deeper than ever before on the way to becoming a really green and sustainable world economy. And diesel is going to be one of the victims.
Mark my words – burning diesel in a thermal reaction will become all but impossible within the next 15 years as the cost of doing so will be crippling.
I have said it in numerous posts. Diesel (and any heavier fuel including coal) is a remnant from an ancient energy past that in the information age should have been left behind. Burning dirty, non-renewable stuff in order to derive movement and heat is primitive. We are sporting our latest mobile phone gizmos, we are talking to our computers and we can show the innards of our bodies with incredible precision through non-invasive scanning technologies but we still rely on a chemical reaction by burning liquids and solids in order to get our most fundamental energy needs covered.
The energy industry was safe from the technological onslaught for a while because of doozy consumers. Energy is not sexy business like the mobile gadgetry is and we also don’t have the urgent feeling that our life depends on it like when our body’s cells start to multiply uncontrollably. Energy is always there in the background, it’s so ubiquitous and ever present that we don’t have the feeling that something needs to be done about it.
And because of this unsexiness of energy, it’s not at the whims of fashions and trends – not really except maybe with some green fundamentalists and some energy nerds like me. The only real pressure point energy causes in our lives is when it gets expensive to consume it and that’s when the MS EXCEL and MS PROJECT wielders come in.
It maybe comes as a shock to you when I say that the current energy stalemate is the best thing that could have happened to energy ever. You will ask, what’s good on high energy prices? They create pressure. When energy is cheap and plentiful, no one cares about it. It’s a line item on anyone’s spreadsheet.
Because it’s not sexy, we can not rely on drowsy consumers to force change or on nutty designers to blitz us with their latest maniac garb. So energy just reacts to price as high prices get scores of consumers running for alternatives. They conserve, reduce consumption, switch fuels and go for other, less healthy practices just in order to knock some digits off their utility bills. And utilities start working whatever spread springs up to make some windfall profit or saving.
If the price is the only real pressure point big energy reacts to – a high price environment is the only thing to crack the stalwart hull open and get the innovation cauldron bubbling. By now, the cauldron fizzes and spits hot droplets because of all the stimulation it gets which is what makes those times so interesting. Or do you think that shale would have happened in a low price energy world? Or do you think that Saudi princes would be wetting their undies from North American energy independence by now?
All this innovation and bubbling developments bring out the one compound that although its known and used for centuries, never really had its moment of fame.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present the energy rock star of the next 50 years – the methane molecule or CH4.
In my past posts I have thrown lavish praise on methane for this one single reason – because it is going to change the way we produce, condition, transport, store and consume energy for the next half a century or so. We are at the end of the oil age and we are putting a stake in the heart of the aging but still kicking coal age.
However, at this point, we also must eat some humble pie. Methane is still a chemical compound and it is primarily being burned in a thermodynamic reaction in order to produce movement and heat. So this is certainly not the end of where we will have to go in a faraway future when we maybe are able to produce all energy we need from exploiting bends and folds of the sun’s gravitational field. But it still is a huge step in the right direction and it’s one that can be taken right now instead of some point in remote times.
Our whole world could be running on methane and we would not even have to sacrifice anything for it. We will still be able to pull up at the filling station to get our cars refueled in less than 5 minutes, we would still be able to comfortably regulate heat at a cold winter day without having to haul in the wood and it will be cheaper than anything we have ever known. It will be as reliable as nuclear power and it could be completely renewable – if we just wanted it to. Done the right way it could even be emissions free. It combines all the advantages of all other forms of energy we use today without most of their nasty sides.
Let’s take them one by one. Coal and Heavy oils (diesel is heavy oil for me) are heavy polluters that beyond CO2 spew unimaginable amounts of toxins and cancer-causing substances into our air. If oils spill – they spoil soil and water and store them long enough and they spoil themselves so they are fickle. Nuclear power needs copious protection from their radioactive fallout and their total cost for humankind just becomes clear with long-term use.
Hydro Power floods whole valleys and alters the landscape. Whole river systems have been rectified in the urge to provide cheap electricity – monumental damage has been done to ecosystems and even the map has been changed. And renewables littler our lands with dangerous, expensive and ugly windmills which kill our birds and solar panels made from expensive and toxic materials. All of them need thousands of kilometers of new power transmission lines. Not really eye candy.
The energy industry is in a bind and methane is not only the short way out. It’s the solution as it’s very much cleaner than any other fossil fuel, it’s easy and safe to store and transport, it does not spoil our rivers or alter whole landscapes and it lends itself beautifully to decentralized power production doing away with many transmission lines in the process.
Oh, I almost forgot. I can be manufactured. That in itself is the single biggest booster methane has. The earth crust derived version of any other hydrocarbon is superior in quality from the biologically manufactured cousin. Easy to see when you compare the liquids yourself and you don’t need a degree in chemical engineering for it. Methane is the only exception – bioMethane is of the same or even superior quality to Natural Gas and the methods of manufacturing it become better by the month. Expect huge advances in bioMethane research and expect a golden age of biologically manufactured, CO2 neutral methane to power earth in the future.
But in the meantime there is Natural Gas, there is Shale (which is Natural Gas), there are Methane Hydrates and all other forms methane that is being found in nature. They will be the bridge.
Already, the bridge is better than what we have now – the glitzy bioMethane world with Liquefied BioMethane as a liquid fuel is coming up just on the other side. A world worth fighting for.
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