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Question

Topic for discussion, please - FUTURE PROSPECTS FOR FOSSIL FUEL GENERATION -

A. K. Shyam, PhD's picture
Assessor Freelance Consultant

I am Dr. A. K. Shyam, intellectual acumen offering 44 years of established career in Environment, Health & Safety sector. I was associated with NABET, Quality Council of India as an Assessor...

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  • Jun 14, 2021
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Before taking you to the details on the topic, I thought of spending a couple of minutes on the historical background although some of you may be aware.   Fossil fuels are a result of remains of dead plants (plankton and plants) through exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth’s crust over millions of years.  Plankton decomposes into natural gas and oil while plants become coal. Petroleum, natural gas, orimulsion and coal are the four fossil fuel types.  Fossil fuels were introduced by Andreas Libavius in 1597 and later by Mikhail Lomonosov as early as 1757 and certainly by 1763.

Coal was first used to generate power for homes and factories in 1880s which became a major fuel to generate electricity in the United States.  China, India and United States are the other three principal countries who used fossil fuels more than the rest of the world combined, even in 2020.  Iceland and Tajikistan are least dependent on fossil fuels.  Hydrogen and carbon are the prime ingredients of all fossil fuels which supply energy. When we compare this with the renewable for the same period, China-895 GW; United States-292 GW; Brazil-150 GW and India at 134 GW are the leading countries worldwide in 2020.

The major reason why many countries globally are opting for renewable today is that they feel it to be a real alterative, clean, safe and inexhaustible apart from being available everywhere.  Apart from this, the transition to sustainable energy system is to improve energy efficiency from source to use and more importantly, minimize environmental impacts.

The switch from fossil fuels to renewable seem to have the following forces  – primarily to eliminate fossil fuels, step up energy efficiency, phase out coal and access to electricity and clean cooking.

Could fossil fuels be eliminated?

It is indeed a common sense that fossil fuels have damaged environment especially lasting harm to climate of the entire planet.  Whether one admits or not, the sudden pandemic seems to have induced serious thinking on our trade, travel and consumer spending to a great extent.  In fact, billions of people stay-at-home, the demand for oil and price seem to have suffered greatly and faster than before.  Oil markets are in turmoil and producers are suffering world over.

The pandemic seems to have forced an all-round radical change globally and at the same time precaution on rationing fossil fuels usage considering the damage it had inflicted on environment earlier.  This is further supported by a sudden demand for renewable which has turned economical and has improved technologically as well.

Under the above circumstances, do you think that the fossil fuels are likely to be eliminated?

Compelling reasons in support of fossil fuels:

Although pandemic hit on the oil sector pretty badly, no one would vouch for it at the cost of damaging global economy. Despite being finite, availability, fitness and technology improvement in extraction make it more economical not only for production but even use.  No one can deny ill effects of climate change due to fossil fuels usage.

The key issue that is driving countries on fossil fuel usage among the countries mentioned above seems to indicate politics.  At the same time, transition from fossil fuels to renewable is not an easy task.  This warrants not only a strong policy but technology as we move into a new direction. We not only need  to dig a little deep in understanding the standing of fossil fuel for so many decades but, understand the climate change better for a proper direction in this regard.

Firstly coal then, oil and natural gas brought about rapid industrial growth, agriculture and transportation which cannot go unacknowledged.  The world order changed from this initial stage to the present perhaps, due to unstopping population growth.  This understandably levied pressure on availability of energy for the sectors mentioned earlier.

Fuels carry different amount of energy per unit of weight – starting with wood (19.8); Coal (30.2); Charcoal (34.7); Gasoline/Diesel (45.8) and natural gas 53.1) all units in MJ/kg. 

As per Global Energy for 2019, fossil fuels account for almost 84.3%of global primary energy consumption by source - Coal (27%), gas (24.3%) and natural Oil (33.1%) against Hydropower (6.4%), Nuclear (4.3%), Renewables (11.4%) and others – biofuels (0.7%).  15.7% from low carbon sources.

How can we bring a turn around fossil fuels?

There has been a major flaw in our understanding on GHG emissions – one squarely points at the industries as they seem visible prominently neglecting the greater contribution of not only the transportation sector (who consume petrol and diesel), but also mining and even domestic.

The primary reason of considering Coal power generation as the major culprit is because it demands large acreage of land for just the ash disposal and gaseous emissions.  Similar to the gradual transformation in improved application of coal for power generation over the decades since 1880s to the present, one would clearly understand the minimization of their impact on environment.  There have been improved technologies for coal power generation such as, ultra supercritical combustion; Circulating fluidized bed (CFB) and coal gasification.

Alterante 1: 

Apart from these, one can supplement coal power generation with solar under the hybrid option.  Countries that are blessed with good sunlight could opt for this especially India.

It is not true that coal fired power operators do not look at options to increase efficiency and extend life of plants through operational flexibility and reducing environmental impact.  Combining solar with coal fired and co-firing natural gas in coal fired plants are good examples in this regard.  Both can increase flexibility while reducing the emissions at the same time. Both seem potential depending upon the region and other infra facilities.  Not only do both reduce emissions but is found economical as well.   Although they have great potential, they need niche and mainstream locations.

The advantage of coal-solar is that the two sources are harnessed to create separate but, parallel steam paths and converge to feed shared steam-driven turbine to generate electricity.  The primary goal of this is reduction of coal consumption.  There are many options here – one, water heated to a certain temperature that could be diverted to coal stream or independent stream generation is from both to run the turbine. By virtue of this, not only does the coal consumption is reduced but, consequently, gaseous emissions as well.  More importantly, ash generation gets reduced and the land requirement for disposal considerably gets lower.  With advancement in solar technology, one can opt for a better one to gain greater advantage.

Similarly, coal-gas co-firing can be instrumental in improving operational flexibility and emission reduction.  Just imagine the larger benefit when we consider the entire country (China/India and US account for 1600 coal based power plants accordingly to latest statistics) adopting these technologies and the overall benefit in terms of even GHG as well.

Alternate 2:

Bio-fuel deserves serious consideration at this juncture as potential source of energy in the future.  Although there is enough information available in India on a number of non-edible oil species, Jatropha curcas and Pongamia glabra seem to have outscored the attention of scientists and consequently, details of greater relevance are available on these species.

Bio-fuels are a better option in view of the depleting fossil fuel resources, environmental advantage, energy security and optimal for predominantly rural India. Regular bio-fuel production from edible and non-edible oils is in progress in many countries like United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, Malaysia and others.  Saffola, Sunflower, Soya bean etc are examples of edible oil used in United States, Australia, Germany, and France. But, non-edible oils available in plenty in India hold a great diversity across the country.

The bio-diesel has a number of advantages:

  1. Blends of 20% bio-diesel with 80% petroleum/diesel can be used in unmodified diesel engines. Bio-diesel can be used in its pure form but many require certain engine modifications to avoid maintenance and performance problems.

 

  1. Bio-diesel is nontoxic, biodegradable. It reduces the emission of harmful pollutants (mainly particulates) from diesel engines (80% less CO2 emissions, 100% less sulfur dioxide) but emissions of nitrogen oxides (precursor of ozone) are increased.

 

  1. Bio-diesel has a high cetane number (above 100, compared to only 40 for diesel fuel). Cetane number is a measure of a fuel's ignition quality. The high cetane numbers of bio-diesel contribute to easy cold starting and low idle noise.

 

  1. The use of bio-diesel can extend the life of diesel engines because it is more lubricating and, furthermore, power output are relatively unaffected by bio-diesel.

 

Looking at the characteristics of bio-diesel and a calorific value of around 9500 kCal, it is believed that the bio-diesel spray on coal would enhance the calorific value from the existing 3000-4000 k/Cal.. The enhanced calorific value of coal will have a significant influence on not only the quantum of coal burnt but also on the emissions as well, consequently.

Assuming a coal consumption of 6.0 Million tons for a 1000 MW coal based power plant in India, the total cost towards coal would work out to Rs. 42,48 million, Bio diesel spray of 30% by weight as brought out below would enhance the calorific value from 2850 to 5044 kcal. The enhanced calorific value of coal (after biodiesel spray) would result in a reduction of 2.62 million tons of coal - coal saving is indeed very attractive.

This reduction in coal will eventually result in reduced particulate / gaseous emissions.

With further technological advancement, there could be many other possibilities to retain fossil fuels (particularly coal) for a longer period of time than is foreseen at this juncture.

 

The alternates that I have mentioned above are indeed worth considering for application. Once they are adopted uniformly all over the globe, fossil fuels would gain greater importance than before.

 

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