Tag Archives: energy infrastructure

The Right to Know from Space

Rebuilding an entire planet’s energy system is a big job…The most basic problem is knowing what, exactly, you are trying to rebuild. Academic-research groups, think-tanks, charities and other concerned organizations try to keep track of the world’s wind turbines, solar-power plants, fossil-fueled power stations, cement factories and so on. To this end, they rely heavily on data from national governments and big companies, but these are often incomplete. The most comprehensive database covering American solar-power installations, for instance, is thought to miss around a fifth of the photovoltaic panels actually installed on the ground.

In a paper published in Nature, a team of researchers demonstrate another way to keep tabs on the green-energy revolution. Dr Kruitwagen and his colleagues have put together an inventory of almost 69,000 big solar-power stations (defined as those with a rated capacity of 10kw of electricity or more) all over the world—more than four times as many as were previously listed in public databases. This new inventory includes their locations, the date they entered service and a rough estimate of their generating capacity…

Pictures came from two sets of satellites, Sentinel-2 and SPOT, run by the European Space Agency and Airbus respectively. These peer down on the world, recording visible light and also the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. The images amounted to around 550 terabytes of data, spanning the period between 2016 and 2018. That is enough to fill more than a hundred desktop hard drives. Sifting through this many pictures by eye would have been impractical. That is where the second technological trend comes in. Dr Kruitwagen and his colleagues trained a machine-learning system to spot the solar panels for them.

More generally, Dr Kruitwagen hopes that his eye-in-the-sky approach—which, despite the planetary scale of the project, cost only around $15,000 in cloud-computing time—could presage more accurate estimates of other bits of climate-related infrastructure, such as fossil-fuel power stations, cement plants and terminals for ships carrying liquefied natural gas. The eventual result could be the assembly of a publicly available, computer-generated inventory of every significant bit of energy infrastructure on Earth. Quite apart from such a model’s commercial and academic value, he says, an informed public would be one better able to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. 

Excerpt from Solar-cell census: An accurate tally of the world’s solar-power stations, Economist, Oct. 30, 2021

A New Page in History of Nuclear Energy?

A new page in the history of nuclear energy could be written this September 2021, in the middle of the Gobi Desert, in the north of China. At the end of August 2021, Beijing announced that it had completed the construction of its first thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, with plans to begin the first tests of this alternative technology to current nuclear reactors within the next two weeks…

The Chinese reactor could be the first molten-salt reactor operating in the world since 1969, when the US abandoned its Oak Ridge National Laboratory facility in Tennessee. “Almost all current reactors use uranium as fuel and water, instead of molten salt and thorium,” which will be used in China’s new plant. These two “new” ingredients were not chosen by accident by Beijing: molten-salt reactors are among the most promising technologies for power plants

With molten-salt technology, “it is the salt itself that becomes the fuel”….The crystals are mixed with nuclear material – either uranium or thorium – heated to over 500°C to become liquid, and are then be able to transport the heat and energy produced. Theoretically, this process would make the installations safer. “Some accident risks are supposedly eliminated because liquid burning avoids situations where the nuclear reaction can get out of control and damage the reactor structures.”

There’s another advantage for China: this type of reactor does not need to be built near watercourses, since the molten salts themselves “serve as a coolant, unlike conventional uranium power plants that need huge amounts of water to cool their reactors”.  As a result, the reactors can be installed in isolated and arid regions… like the Gobi Desert.

Thorium belongs to a famous family of rare-earth metals that are much more abundant in China than elsewhere; this is the icing on the cake for Chinese authorities, who could increase its energy independence from major uranium exporting countries, such as Canada and Australia, two countries whose diplomatic relations with China have collapsed in recent years.

According to supporters of thorium, it would also a “greener” solution. Unlike the uranium currently used in nuclear power plants, burning thorium does not create plutonium, a highly toxic chemical element…

Among the three main candidates for nuclear reaction – uranium 235, uranium 238 and thorium – the first is “the only isotope naturally fissile”, Sylvain David explained. The other two must be bombarded with neutrons for the material to become fissile (able to undergo nuclear fission) and be used by a reactor: a possible but more complex process. Once that is done on thorium, it produces uranium 233, the fissile material needed for nuclear power generation….”This is an isotope that does not exist in nature and that can be used to build an atomic bomb,” pointed out Francesco D’Auria.

Excerpts from Why China is developing a game-changing thorium-fueled nuclear reactor, France24, Sept. 12, 2021

The Toxic Shadow of Abandoned Oil Infrastructure

Wearing blue hard hats, white hazmat suits and respirator masks, workers carted away bags of debris on a recent morning from a sprawling and now-defunct oil refinery once operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES). Other laborers ripped asbestos from the guts of an old boiler house, part of a massive demolition and redevelopment of the plant, which closed in 2019 after a series of explosions at the facility.

Plans call for the nearly 1,400-acre site to be transformed into a new commercial hub with warehousing and offices. All it will take is a decade, hundreds of millions of dollars, and confronting 150 years’ worth of industrial pollution, including buried rail cars and a poisonous stew of waste fuels poured onto the ground. A U.S. refinery cleanup of this size and scope has no known precedent, remediation experts said. It’s a glimpse of what lies ahead if the United States hopes to wean itself off fossil fuels and clean up the toxic legacy of oil, gas and coal.

President Joe Biden wants to bring the United States to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to fight climate change through a shift to clean-energy technologies, while reducing pollution in low-income and minority neighborhoods near industrial facilities. It’s a transition fraught with challenges. Among the biggest is what to do with the detritus left behind. The old PES plant is just one of approximately 135 oil refineries nationwide, to say nothing of the country’s countless gas stations, pipelines, storage hubs, drill pads and other graying energy infrastructure.

In Philadelphia, a private-sector company is taking the lead. Hilco Redevelopment Partners, a real estate firm that specializes in renovating old industrial properties, bought the PES refinery out of bankruptcy for $225.5 million in June…The full extent of the pollution won’t be understood for years. Also uncertain is the ability of the refinery’s previous owners to pay their share of the cleanup. The facility has had multiple owners over its lifetime and responsibility has been divided between them through business agreements and legal settlements.
Oil refining at the Philadelphia site began in 1870, 100 years before the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Gasoline, once a worthless byproduct of heating oil, was routinely dumped by the refinery into the soil, according to historians and researchers. Leaks and accidents spewed more toxins. The June 2019 blasts alone released 676,000 pounds of hydrocarbons, PES said at the time. The Philadelphia site is not unique. About half of America’s 450,000 polluted former industrial and commercial sites are contaminated with petroleum, according to the EPA.

Cleanup in Philadelphia will be painstaking. After asbestos abatement comes the demolition and removal of 3,000 tanks and vessels, along with more than 100 buildings and other infrastructure, the company said. Then comes the ground itself. Hilco’s Perez said dirt quality varies widely on the site and will have to be handled differently depending on contamination levels. Clearing toxins like lead must be done with chemical rinses or other technologies…The site also has polluted groundwater and giant benzene pools lurking underneath, according to environmental reports Sunoco filed over the years with the federal and state governments.

Excerpts from Laila Kearney, 150 years of spills: Philadelphia refinery cleanup highlights toxic legacy of fossil fuels, Reuters, Feb. 16, 2021