January 22, 2017
‘We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves’ – President Donald Trump
California, long the nation’s trendsetter, is a land of extremes. It has the highest summit (Mount Whitney) and the lowest natural depression (Death Valley) in the contiguous United States. It if were an independent country, by some measures it would be the world’s sixth largest economy. As it stands, it is at once America’s richest state –with more billionaires than any other country besides China and the United States itself- and the poorest: fully 20% of California’s residents live in poverty, and in 2015 it accounted for about 21% of all homeless people in the United States. The northwest is a spectacular temperate rain forest, with lakes, rivers and streams; the southeast a flaming desert, beautiful in its own way. There are vast, virtually empty rural areas –yet its megacities perennially suffer from an acute housing shortage that is causing prices and rents to rise faster than incomes of the working classes. It has reached the point that California is in fact rapidly becoming a state where the homeless and renters, not home buyers, are in the majority. Politically, it is one of 26 states –exactly half the union- that allows voters to bypass the state government and enact laws directly. This truly democratic mechanism has two important elements. Firstly it can be influenced -but not controlled- by big money; and secondly, it provides cover for politicians who are unwilling or unable, or both, to make decisions that might jeopardize their careers.
Chronically scarce water south of San Francisco and east of the Sierra Nevada has forced some cities to impose a building moratorium. Worse, California’s primitive public transportation system forces urban commuters to buy cars, gasoline and insurance in perpetuity so they can spend 4 or more hours a day on clogged freeways polluting the atmosphere. This saps everyone’s health and productivity, discourages much needed investment in green industries that support well paying jobs for the working classes, precludes large-scale construction of modest residential tracts specifically for them, and forces the state to rely on its small wealthy minority for most of its tax revenue: in 2014 the top 1% paid almost half of California’s income taxes.
The widening gap in the distribution of income and wealth severely depresses discretionary spending –the economy’s mainstay- and forces the state to provide services for the poor on an unsustainable scale. In desperation the state enacted a law raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2022 that is going to cost taxpayers –mostly the wealthy- $3.6 billion more a year in increased government work pay. It’s also going to drive up state welfare costs by wiping out many jobs, as many as 700,000 by some estimates. The good news of course is that it will be a problem for future administrations.
A Way Out
Evidently the state government needs to reverse –but not pay for– these unsustainable trends. Firstly, it must make the south self-sufficient in water. Specifically, Southern California must locally produce -not import or desalinize- all its water. Secondly, the high speed rail system should be postponed. Instead, the project should be broken down into stages. The first would consist of building state-of-the art commuter rail systems for the Bay Area and Los Angeles specifically to relieve the housing shortage in these areas. In Southern California at least two tunnels –one high-speed rail and the other an 8-lane freeway- should be dug through the mountains between Glendale/Pasadena and the high desert north of Los Angeles. The shortened commuting time would encourage mass construction of low-priced housing (the required water would have been addressed in step 1). Thirdly, the state must completely restructure its electric system to phase out fossil fuels. Fourthly, it must gradually and imperceptibly redress the widening gap in the distribution of future income and wealth. All this is physically, technically and financially feasible, and it can be organized into a cohesive, synchronized sequence of events. However it will require courageous and open minded leadership within California as well as coordination with and cooperation from the world’s largest consumers of coal, oil and gas, above all China and India, to establish a vibrant hydrogen market. After all, they too need clean air and water.
Water – Desalination vs. Electrolysis of Brine
Desalination filters salt and other impurities out of brine (seawater). It doesn’t generate electricity. It consumes it –about 15,000 kilowatt-hours of power for every million gallons (3.78 million liters) of fresh water. Furthermore, since most electricity in the world is generated by burning fossil fuels, the carbon footprint of desalination is immense. There are two main types of desalination technologies: membrane (reverse osmosis, RO) and thermal. RO uses the principle of osmosis to remove salt and other impurities by transferring water through a series of semi-permeable membranes. Thermal desalination often uses waste heat from power plants or refineries –heavy polluters- to evaporate and condense water. Both methods leave a residue that is normally discarded right back to the ocean. Typically the plants are near a shore and the fresh water produced is earmarked for local use.
The cost to pump water over vast distances is enormous. For example, California’s State Water Project relies on a series of pump stations to carry water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern part of the state. The most powerful, Edmonston Plant, requires 14 gigantic pumps with a combined draw of over 7,460 megawatts to lift the water 587 meters uphill to a series of tunnels over the Tehachapi Mountains. The state’s other major source of water, the 389.5-kilometer-long Colorado River Aqueduct, also draws an enormous amount of electricity. Imported river water requires approximately 14,000 kilowatt-hours per million gallons, 1,000 less than a comparable volume of desalinized water.
The State is planning to build as many as 17 desalination plants. Claude Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant has been in operation in San Diego County since late 2015. It is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, producing 50 million gallons of water a day. Another in Huntington Beach of similar capacity is in late-stage development. Together these plants are going to draw an estimated 1,500,000 kilowatt-hours, or 1,500 megawatt-hours. Accordingly, if and when the State builds all the plants, their combined draw will be 12,750 megawatt-hours. Since the State’s current spare generating capacity is minimal, if any, the sheer magnitude of this new demand will force it to build new power plants, hopefully from renewable sources. If instead it chooses fossil fuels, the State’s carbon footprint will skyrocket precisely when it’s trying to reduce it.
Electrolysis is a process that uses electricity to literally disassemble water into its two elements –hydrogen and oxygen- at a cost of about 50kWh of electricity for every 1 Kg of hydrogen. Brine rather than fresh water is favored, for two important reasons. It covers three fourths of the surface of the planet and it is one million times more conductive of electricity. In addition, electrolysis simultaneously disassembles the salt (sodium chloride) in the brine to produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide, two valuable commodities. Historically the primary purpose of electrolysis has been to produce hydrogen, not fresh water. This article looks at the possibility of reversing those priorities and posits that electrolysis is in fact far more efficient and profitable than desalination.
One common objection of using solar powered electrolysis to produce fuel hydrogen is that there is an inherent loss of energy in the process. Better to distribute the electricity directly to end users and avoid the hydrogen altogether. The quick answer to that is that electricity by itself does not produce fresh water, chlorine and sodium hydroxide, three valuable byproducts of the recombination of hydrogen that make the process efficient and profitable, particularly water. Demand for it –already at crisis level in some areas of the world- is projected to grow exponentially over time due to climate change and population growth. And that doesn’t consider the pressing need for vast amounts of it where there isn’t any –in the great inland deserts of the world, where desalination is impractical or impossible. The world needs to plant trees and crops in the deserts to recycle the excess carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, feed the hungry, and prevent devastating wars. As of this writing there are no known practical and feasible alternatives of adequate scope and magnitude to mitigate, let alone defuse, this imminent and clear threat to the very survival of our species.
Circumventing the Obstacle
As mentioned, one drawback with all hydrogen production processes is that there is a net energy loss associated with hydrogen production, with the losses from electrolysis variants being among the largest. The laws of energy conservation dictate that the total amount of energy recovered from the recombination of hydrogen and oxygen must always be less than the amount of energy required to split the original water molecule. The calorific energy content of hydrogen is about 39 kWh/Kg, however taking into account the process inefficiencies it takes over 50 kWh of electricity to generate 1 Kg of hydrogen. All told, the system’s efficiency (electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity) is between 30% and 50%. Nevertheless, despite its cost, for decades the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has used the process in hydrogen fuel cells to produce both hydrogen and water for its astronauts in space.
Byproducts of Electrolysis
Chlorine, an element of the periodic table and a toxic gas, has a multitude of industrial uses. It is a disinfectant; it is used to treat drinking water and swimming pool water and to make hundreds of consumer products. These include paper, paints, textiles, insecticides, and PVC –a versatile plastic used in window frames, car interiors, electrical wiring insulation, water pipes, blood bags and vinyl flooring. Another major use is in organic chemistry as an oxidizing agent and in substitution reactions. In fact, 85% of pharmaceuticals use chlorine or its compounds at some stage in their manufacture.
Sodium hydroxide, a common base, is no less versatile and useful. It is used to unclog drains, to make lye soap –which can be used to wash practically anything; and in food processing –for peeling fruits and vegetables, processing cocoa and chocolate, thickening ice cream, poultry scalding, soda processing, to make olives black, and to give soft pretzels a chewy texture. Other uses include processes to make rayon and textiles, revitalizing acids in petroleum refining, paint removal, etching aluminum, and dehorning of cattle.
The value of the byproducts alone is reason enough to prefer it over desalination, and they’re just the entree. There’s portability; unlike desalination, which is limited to local markets, the recombination of hydrogen with oxygen –the reassembly of water- does not have to take place where it was originally disassembled. Since hydrogen gas is the lightest element in the periodic table, and despite its corrosive nature, it could be piped over vast distances or exported by ship at a fraction of what it costs to pipe water. For example, the electrolysis plants could be located in Los Angeles or Honolulu and the hydrogen they produce could be recombined in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Beijing.
Outline of the System
The following posits a two-step hydrogen system to circumvent the law –without fuel cells. Not only does it recover the inherent loss, it should actually generate a surplus of electricity by adding gravity to the recombination side of the equation. Better yet, fission or fossil fuels are not involved.
The first step is to use solar energy to produce hydrogen, chlorine and sodium hydroxide by electrolysis of brine. The hydrogen is then pumped to recombination plants atop suitable mountains, the higher the better. The plants would feature (already existing) specialized turbines that burn hydrogen directly and continuously without fuel cells. In addition to energy –in this case electricity and heat- the process yields one critical byproduct: steam. Instead of venting it into the atmosphere, it would be captured, condensed and stored in enclosed containers. Upon reaching a critical mass, the now liquid water would be optimally pressurized and piped by gravity to a series of cascading hydro turbines below the hydrogen plants. Thus, the same water would efficiently turn each and every turbine sequentially. At the bottom it would be piped by gravity to treatment plants, and eventually, to end users. Evaporation would be minimal and dams would be unnecessary. Crucially, the combined electric output from all the turbines should exceed the energy consumed by the electrolysis. In short, this solar-fueled system envisions the production hydrogen in an amount directly proportional to the solar energy committed to it and the unlimited, constant availability of seawater, both free. Two separate and distinct types of plants are required, one for the production of hydrogen and another for its recombination, including a series of gravity-powered auxiliary hydro turbines cascading down the mountain. Amortization and operating expenses would be paid from the sale of electricity, water, chlorine, and sodium hydroxide. In turn, they would create the foundation of a new economy and recycle the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.
Distribution of Future Income and Wealth
It makes no sense to reconfigure the $6 trillion global energy industry without considering enlisting it to provide meaningful relief for the poor and to reduce the abysmal (and growing) gap in the distribution of income and wealth. Though immense, this energy-related figure does not include water because many countries commonly consider the latter within the purview of local, not national governments. In reality water, energy and the economy are inextricably linked. Accordingly, this proposed water-energy nexus could be used to simultaneously spur economic growth and to reduce the gap over time without harming the environment. This is particularly germane to the United States because it has the widest inequality among its economic peers. To illustrate, according to OXFAM’s report released on January 15, 2017, just eight individuals now own the same wealth as 3.6 billion people –the bottom half of humanity. Aside from moral objections, there are practical reasons why this is counterproductive and dangerous. One is that the poor lack the buying power to spur demand for the goods and services that make roughly 70% of the economy. Another is that their virtual inability to make ends meet forces the rest of society, in one way or another, to compensate for their predicament.
To paraphrase President Kennedy, this dangerous aberration must be abolished peacefully, gradually and imperceptibly –before it abolishes us. One way to do so is to introduce permanent, tax-exempt basic income for homeowners financed by the hydrogen/electricity loop, not with taxpayer funds. In this scenario solar panels on residential roofs would generate the electricity for the electrolysis plants. Entire neighborhoods of homeowners could be organized into individual cooperatives that would supply and own the electricity as well as all the plants. Each cooperative would generate enough electricity to run an electrolysis plant (or plants) capable of producing enough hydrogen to keep the mountain recombination plants running continuously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As an alternative, cooperatives could choose to export the hydrogen to higher bidders such as other counties, states or countries. The cost of the equipment and structures of the cooperatives –solar panels and plants- would be financed by fully amortized and insured blanket loans from the capital markets, one for each unit. Proceeds from the sale of the hydrogen, water, chlorine and sodium hydroxide, not government obligations or income from individual homeowners, would be automatically used to amortize the loans. At maturity, the profits would be allocated to individual homeowners in proportion to the energy they contribute to the cooperative and applied automatically to any existing mortgages on the underlying real estate properties within each cooperative. Beyond that point the profits would be disbursed to individual homeowners or their heirs. Within two generations each home might become the equivalent of a perpetual annuity. Existing public utilities would be relieved of their responsibility to generate electricity. Instead, for a fee and for a specific period of time, they would become grandfathered monopolies and allowed to continue to monitor and maintain the grid. After that they would have to compete with other potential qualified vendors.
As may be readily apparent, this system could potentially end using fission and fossil fuels to generate electricity. It could also create a new, virtually unlimited source of unpolluted drought-proof water, anywhere and everywhere, and while at it, help redress the gap in future distribution of income and wealth. This would reduce the state’s dependence on rich people and the enormous need for welfare-related services.
To be sure this will require sweeping, seismic political changes. Fortunately in California the people have at their disposal a truly democratic mechanism to support their elected leaders in making the required tough decisions. This is crucial because climate change, relentless and global, demands solutions commensurate with its awesome breadth and scope. So far the half-hearted administrative and procedural changes that have been proposed by others to deal with it –ranging from doing nothing at all to a virtually suicidal proposal to increase the amount of carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere- simply will not save us from extinction.