Too much carbon dioxide here, too little there

In a world awash in too much carbon dioxide, it’s remarkable that some places have too little of the stuff.

Britain recently warned food producers to prepare for a 400-per-cent rise in the price of carbon-dioxide because of a shortage.

image: The Guardian

Carbon dioxide is important to food producers because it’s used to put the fizz into beer and sodas and stun poultry and pigs before slaughter. Some producers warn that there could be a (gasp) shortage of Christmas turkeys.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson brushed aside worries over a lack of turkeys. His government has extending emergency support to subsidize the increased cost of CO2 and avert a shortage of poultry and meat.

The shortage of CO2 has been triggered by soaring costs of natural gas.

What has the shortage of natural gas got to do with the shortage of C02?

Well, it turns out that CO2 is a by-product of the European fertilizer industry which uses natural gas as an input. They make it by combining nitrogen in the air with hydrogen from the natural gas to produce ammonia. Ammonia is then used to create fertilizer, and CO2 is left over.

Why is the cost of natural gas soaring?

Natural gas prices have spiked this year as economies reopened from COVID-19 lockdowns. The high demand for liquefied natural gas in Asia pushed down supplies to Europe, sending shock waves through industries reliant on the energy source.

Inventories of natural gas are low because production hasn’t caught up with demand. Uncertainties that occurred during the global pandemic made producers reluctant to invest in new drilling for natural gas.

Canadian natural gas inventories are at five-year lows. Exports from North American LNG facilities are also running at peak volume to meet global demand, draining supplies.

This is bad news for B.C. users of natural gas as prices will increase an average of $8 per month in the Interior starting in October.

This is good news for investors in B.C.’s proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects for export to Asia as a cleaner alternative to coal.

But isn’t the use of natural gas to produce fertilizer a dumb idea when natural gas is a valuable source of heating for homes?

Yes, it is a dumb idea because fertilizer can also be made from potash. Potash is abundant in Saskatchewan, one of the largest sources in the world. Potash deposits are left over from a large inland sea that once filled North America. 

However if CO2 isn’t produced as a by-product of making fertilizer, where will  the food industry get CO2 from?

Good question. With all of that CO2 in the atmosphere and a shortage on the ground, there must be a way to take it from the atmosphere.

There is. It’s called carbon capture and it works by passing air laden with CO2 over chemicals. The problem in the past has been that the cost of production of CO2 exceeds the price it can be sold for. But with the price of CO2 soaring, carbon capture could be profitable.

And why should I care about the price of CO2?

Because I use it for making beer.  Good thing I topped up my tank before the price hikes.

Get the carbon out of natural gas

Turning natural gas into hydrogen might sound like the alchemists dream of turning lead into gold but the technology has been around for decades.

image: FuelCellsWorks

It’s long been the dream of our fossil-fuel hungry society that we can continue to burn fuel without the consequences of climate change. We’re totally hooked on fossil fuels and the future of reliance on renewable energy sources is decades away.

One proposed solution is to extract CO2 out of the air by sequestration: capture and store CO2. But that technology is unproven and even if it worked, would require billions of dollars to build. 

It would help a lot if we could, at least, remove the carbon from the natural gas used to heat our homes, cook our meals, and heat water. Fifty per cent of Canada’s household energy needs come from natural gas, with electricity at 45 per cent in second place, and heating oil at 4 per cent.

As far as gas goes, hydrogen is the fuel of the future. When burned, it produces nothing but water.

The feds are big on hydrogen. Last year, the federal government released its Hydrogen Strategy for Canada. It’s an ambitious plan to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and make Canada a global leader in hydrogen technologies.

There are a number of ways of producing hydrogen including the electrolysis of water using green sources of electricity. There are even pockets of hydrogen beneath the ground that could be mined.

And since a massive system of natural gas pipelines already exists, the hydrogen could be sent through those pipelines.

However, sending hydrogen through natural gas pipelines is a bad idea, says professor Michael E. Webber of the University of Texas at Austin:

“Moving and storing gaseous hydrogen is also a challenge. Because of hydrogen’s low density, it takes a lot of energy to move it through a pipe compared with denser gases such as methane or liquids such as petroleum. After several hundred kilometers the inefficiency makes moving hydrogen more expensive than the value of the energy it carries (Scientific American, April, 2021).”

A better solution would be to convert natural gas to hydrogen at the end of the pipeline -at home. The process is called pyrolysis. It breaks down in natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon. The method is efficient and eliminates CO2 emissions. It’s been known for decades. Pyrolysis takes conventional natural gas and converts is to nearly zero carbon.

However, pyrolysis is not magic. It requires heat which would have to come from renewable electricity sources. On the plus side, the solid carbon produced is a valuable industrial product; more valuable than any other product we place at our curbsides. It could be collected with other recyclables. Also, the gas jets in our appliances would have to be replaced to burn hydrogen.

The installation of home pyrolysis generators would be expensive but compared to the billions of dollars being put into carbon sequestration, not prohibitive. The sale of the valuable solid carbon collected would partially offset costs.

Home-based natural gas converters would allow us to have our fossil fuels and burn them too. And feel good about doing so.

Green is my favourite colour of hydrogen

When I first made hydrogen as a kid, I wasn’t aware that hydrogen came in different colours.

Back then, I simply attached two copper wires to my model train transformer, immersed the wires in water, turned voltage up and waited for bubbles to form. I held a glass over the negative terminal to catch the hydrogen. A lit match held under the inverted glass gave a satisfying “pop” as the hydrogen ignited.

image OpenEI

The effect was less than satisfying in 1937 for the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. As the dirigible touched its mooring mast in New Jersey, it burst into a fireball that killed 36 passengers and crew-members.

The second way I made hydrogen as a kid was to immerse pieces of aluminum in a pop bottle filled with lye (sodium hydroxide). I then placed a deflated balloon over the neck of the bottle and watched it fill with hydrogen. I then tied off the neck of the balloon and watched it drift through the house, following the air currents.

I now know that the first method produces “green” hydrogen when made from renewable sources of electricity.

The second method I used is dangerous according to a Wikipedia article. “Don’t try this at home, kids,” –a message I guess I never received, or chose to ignore.

Hydrogen now comes in colours that distinguish the source of production. Grey is the colour of hydrogen produced from dirty fossil fuel sources. Blue is for hydrogen produced from natural gas. Natural gas, so the argument goes, may be a fossil fuel but when burned it’s not as bad as coal.

Hydrogen is a perfect fuel because it produces no carbon greenhouse gases. Making it without fossil fuels is the challenge.

Green might be beautiful, but right now only a fraction of global hydrogen is produced by non-renewable sources. Only one-fifth of one per cent of total hydrogen comes from renewable sources, such as hydroelectric, wind and solar power.

Most of the rest is grey hydrogen. The International Energy Agency says hydrogen production spews out 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to the combined emissions of Britain and Indonesia.

However, the colour designations for hydrogen may be a bit of a distraction. What matters is “carbon intensity.” In other words, how much carbon is produced in the production of hydrogen regardless of the source?

Dan Woynillowicz, a Victoria-based climate and energy policy consultant says:

“Blue is better than grey. But we can’t ignore the fact that green is cleaner than blue. All that said, the colour labels are poorly defined. Ultimately, it’s not the colour that matters, it’s the carbon intensity.”

Carbon intensity is a measure of how much carbon is produced in the total manufacture of hydrogen. If carbon can be captured and stored underground, then its carbon intensity is reduced.

After losing $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money in the Keystone XL gamble, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is looking to hydrogen to lift his sagging polls.

With much fanfare, he, along with the mayor of Edmonton and two federal cabinet ministers, announced the building of a low-carbon hydrogen plant. Carbon dioxide would be injected underground using existing infrastructure.

Maybe there is a way of green-washing hydrogen.

Sand mining and fracking

Standing on a beach, the sand seems infinite but it’s being mined at an alarming rate to make concrete. Standing on the edge of an open pit sand mine used for fracking is hazardous and the pit is an ugly scar on the earth.

sand

Sand is necessary for fracking. Once the shale deposits are fractured under high pressure, sand holds the pores open to allow oil or natural gas to flow.

Fracking operations have been suspended as cheap oil floods the market. But fracking will be back and so will the need for frac sand. When that happens, the B.C. Liberals will once again be flogging international markets with our natural gas under the pretence that it’s a clean fuel.

As it is, B.C.’s frac sand must be brought in from other provinces at a cost of $250 to $300 a tonne. Since single fracked well can use 10,000 tonnes, it’s obvious that oil and gas companies would like to have frac sand closer to home.

Not any sand will do; not what you’d find on a beach says Sean Cockerham of McClatchy News:

“Rounded quartz sand is needed because it’s strong enough to handle the pressure and depths involved in fracking. Beach sand is too angular and full of impurities.”

Descriptions for frac sand take on the connoisseurs’ appreciation of the soil for fine wine: the terroir of a particular region’s climate and soils that affect the taste of wine. The “Northern White” sand of Wisconsin is excellent for fracking. The hickory, or brown, sand of Central Texas is less desirable but has the benefit of being close to the home of the best oil and gas fields in the U.S.

Unlike the making of fine wine, the landscape is destroyed in the extraction of fine frac sand. Not only have that, but the piles of sand present a health hazard that’s worsened as a result of the slowdown in fracking says Ryan Schuessler for Aljazeera. Victoria Trinko lives one-half kilometer away from one of these drifting piles of sand.

“’That particular mine started in July 2011,’ Trinko, 69, said. ‘By April of the next year, I had developed a raspy voice. I was wheezing. Sore throat.’ She said her doctor later diagnosed her with asthma resulting from her environment. Her cows have started coughing, too, she said.”

What’s blowing in the wind is c, released into the air during frac sand mining. The mining company is supposed to keep the sand piles damp to keep it from blowing away but with the slowdown, maintenance is not profitable. Silica is a carcinogen and can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to death.

Stikine Energy Corp. of Vancouver thinks it’s found a solution to B.C.’s frac sand problem. Stikine president Scott Broughton says his company has discovered very promising deposits, large enough to support open pit mining. Despite the slowdown, the deposits 90 kilometres north of Prince George are still listed in B.C.’s major project website, waiting to be mined.

The dangers of frac sand should be another nail in the coffin of fracking but once the price of oil soars, watch for a resurrection.

Renewable energy welcomes the Alberta NDP

Big Oil might be quivering in their boots at the prospect of having to pay fair royalty rates to the province but the renewable energy sector is looking forward to the NDP in Alberta.

oraange

Fossil fuels have had a grip on the province that stifles energy innovation. Renewal energy companies are feeling more optimistic with the NDP. Despite much talk by the previous government, not much happened.

“For six or seven years, the previous government had white papers and round tables,” said Kent Brown, president of Calgary-based BluEarth Renewables Inc. “We were caught in the uncertainty and lack of decision making. The new government has a great opportunity to make some decisions now.”

One of the things holding back the development of renewable energy has been slavish devotion to the marketplace. Yes, free markets are great at determining the price of shoes but energy is a different matter.

Under Alberta’s deregulated electricity market, utilities have no incentive to develop renewable energy says Jared Donald, president of Conergy in Calgary. In Alberta’s energy market, customers get to choose which electricity utilities they want to buy from. With twice as many marketers as there are utilities, there’s no lack of choice. Albertan’s generally select the cheapest utility.

That’s fine for buying shoes as long as the shoes are not choking the atmosphere and threatening the planet. Fossil fuels are not like other consumer items. Alberta currently uses coal for 43 per cent of its electricity and natural gas for 40 per cent.

Jared Donald told the business section of the Globe and Mail that one crucial change the new government could make would be a shift away from the fully deregulated electricity market. Power producers charge fluctuating prices depending on supply and demand at any particular moment. This leaves utilities stuck on fossil fuels.

Deregulated fossil fuel energy means there is little incentive to build anything but the cheapest source, usually new natural gas-fired power plants. Solar, wind and hydro plants have greater up-front costs, and are thus harder to finance under the current regime, even though they require no fuel once they are complete.

“If you are uncertain about what the energy market is going to be, you don’t spend the big capital dollars up front,” Jared Donald. That provides an “incentive to make short-sighted decisions.” It will take government intervention to change the pricing and financing of electricity generation to encourage renewables, he added.

The wind energy industry, too, is keen on expanding in Alberta, but it also has issues with the market pricing of electricity said Tim Weis from the Edmonton-based Canadian Wind Energy Association.

One solution would be for the province to set a “clean electricity standard,” that would force power retailers to sign contracts with some renewable suppliers.

As the province with the youngest population in Canada, Albertans are ready for innovation. Cogeneration plants now produce 31% of needs. While they still use fossil fuels they also use biomass, such as livestock manure, to simultaneously generate both electricity and steam for industrial process. Cogeneration substantially reduces net greenhouse gas emissions.