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FOSSIL FUEL ELECTRICITY GENERATION

THE CHALLENGE OF COAL FIRED ELECTRICITY GENERATION:
In spite of public education about global warming, according to the UK Times, in the following countries the numbers of coal fired electricity generating plants operating or under construction in February 2017 were:
Europe: 468 operating plants, building 27 more, for a total of 495
Turkey: 56 operating plants, building 93 more, for a total of 149
South Africa: 79 operating plants, building 24 more, for a total of 103
India: 589 operating plants, building 446 more, for a total of 1036
Philippines: 19 operating plants, building 60 more, for a total of 79
South Korea: 58 operating plants, building 26 more, for a total 84
Japan: 90 operating plants, building 45 more, for a total of 135
China: 2363 operating plants,building 1171, for a total of 3534

Missing from this list are coal fired electricity generating plants in Canada, USA, Russia and numerous other countries.

World wide in 2018 an additional 1360 new coal fired electricity generating stations were under construction.

The increase in Earth's atmospheric CO2 concentration due to combustion of fossil fuels has led to Earth's thermal infrared emissivity falling below its long term steady state value.

The increase in Earth surface temperature due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration has caused snow and ice melting which has reduced Earth's average solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo).

Soot and dust depositing on polar ice sheets and trapped in clouds capture solar photons which cause ice melting which further reduces Earth's average solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo).

The decrease in thermal infrared emissivity and the decrease in planetary Bond albedo both cause net thermal energy absorption by the oceans. The absorbed heat circulates via ocean currents, melts near polar floating ice and liberates methane (CH4) and more CO2 which together cause yet more net thermal energy absorption.

These processes acting together form a positive feedback loop which accelerates net heat accumulation by planet Earth and accelerates thermal runaway.

If present trends continue thermal runaway will eventually melt all of Earth's surface ice. The resulting decrease in Earth's average solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo) from about 0.30 to about 0.10 will cause: an average planetary thermal emission temperature rise of about 17.5 degrees C, an average sea level rise of about 80 m and an extinction of all large land animal species including humans. The geophysical record shows that thermal runaway into the "hot" state has occurred in the past and that climatic recovery from the "hot" state via natural processes typically takes over 200 thousand years.
 

ATMOSPHERIC CO2 AND SOOT:
Prior to the industrial revolution Earth's atmospheric CO2 concentration was nearly steady at about 280 ppmv. Today in 2018 Earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is over 410 ppmv and the atmospheric CO2 concentration is rising at over 2.5 ppmv per year. Humans are injecting fossil CO2 into the atmosphere about twice as fast as CO2 is absorbed by the oceans and orders of magnitude faster than the rate at which CO2 is removed from the oceans and atmosphere by natural processes (formation of carbonate rock and natural sequestration of fossil hydrocarbons). A consequence of the increased atmospheric CO2 concentration is that Earth is absorbing more radiant solar energy from the sun than it is emitting via thermal infrared radiation. This net energy absorption is causing continuous heat accumulation by the oceans.

There is further solar energy absorption due to soot (incompletely burned hydro-carbon compounds) accumulating on and in otherwise highly reflective snow and ice.

The net heat accumulation is melting: ice that floats on the ocean surface, ice that occurs as land borne glaciers, ice that occurs as permafrost and ice that occurs as fine particles in clouds. This melting of ice is reducing Earth's solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo), which is further increasing the rate of net radiant energy absorption. This net radiant energy absorption is gradually warming the oceans. Photographs of Earth from outer space show that this warming process will continue until the average Earth solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo) drops from about 30% to about 10% with an accompanying planetary emission temperature rise of about 17.5 degrees C.

A foreseeable near term consequence of thermal runaway will be large scale human migration into Canada and Russia from lower latitude countries to such an extent that there will be insufficient food and serious social conflict.
 

GEOPHYSICAL RECORD:
Thermal runaway is not an unproven theory. The sedimentary isotope ratio and fossil record show that CO2 triggered atmospheric thermal runaway occurred about 56 million years ago, during a period known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During the PETM all exposed biocarbon burned, the polar ice caps completely melted and all land animals larger than a mole became extinct. Thermal runaway will not happen over night. It will take decades to fully develop. However, once thermal runaway is firmly established the accompanying sea level rise will be impossible to stop.

The geophysical record indicates that the emission temperature increase caused by thermal runaway will likely persist for about two hundred thousand years. This emission temperature increase is due to a decrease in Earth's average solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo) from about 0.30 to about 0.10 caused by the phase change of water from ice to liquid both in clouds and in the polar regions. There may also be a further emission temperature increase of as much as 4 degrees C due to the decrease in Earth infrared emissivity caused by increased CO2 and H2O vapor concentrations in the upper atmosphere.
 

PREVENTION OF THERMAL RUNAWAY:
The only means of preventing thermal runaway is:
to leave fossil carbon in the ground and to reduce the human population..

Leaving fossil carbon in the ground requires:
1. Ceasing investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure;
2. Provision of sufficient affordable non-fossil electricity and non-fossil heat when and where required to completely displace fossil fuels;
3. Electricity rates that reward efficient use of electricity transmission and non-fossil electricity generation;
4. A price on fossil CO2 emissions sufficient to keep fossil carbon in the ground.

Note that even when extraction of fossil carbon is halted
net planetary heat accumulation will continue for at least the atmospheric retention time of CO2 (3 X 16 years) and the ice retention time of fine soot (decades).
The retention time of soot on glacier surfaces depends in part on snowfall and on the exact soot composition and particle size, which are dependent on the combustion processes that produce the soot.
 

MISLEADING REPRESENTATIONS:
Natural gas is often claimed by its proponents to be "clean burning". However, natural gas fuelled combustion turbines produce very fine (2.5 um) soot particles which are invisible to the naked eye but which, when they deposit on snow or ice, strongly absorb solar radiation.

Some coal and oil combustion processes produce soot containing stable aromatic hydrocarbon rings that may persist in the environment for many years.

Reliance on the much heralded 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change will guarantee human extinction via thermal runaway because the fossil CO2 emission reductions contemplated in the Paris agreement are not sufficient to prevent thermal runaway. Due to a combination of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration and decreasing local Bond albedo in most of Canada the 1.5 degree C to 2.0 degree C average temperature rise contemplated in the Paris Agreement has already been exceeded.

On November 29, 2016 the Liberal government of Canada demonstrated its refusal to be guided by science by its approval of the Trans Mountain Pipe Line expansion from Edmonton, Alberta to Burnaby, British Columbia. The government further compounded its error by committing over $12 billion of federal taxpayer resources to purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in May 2018. The energy, jobs, investment and tax revenue from that new liquid fossil fuel infrastructure investment would be much better realized by using the same funds to lverage a major investment in nuclear power capacity.

The concept that Canada can economically gain via expansion of tar sands production is completely preposterous. The contemplated $12 billion liquid fossil fuel infrastructure will soon become a stranded asset that will threaten the solvency of Canadian banks and the future value of pension funds and life insurance policies.

The future consequences of thermal runaway are immense. The belief that mankind can continue extraction and combustion of fossil hydrocarbons without major climatic consequences is completely false. In a few decades mankind has released into the atmosphere fossil carbon that natural processes took millions of years to sequester. Already there are major storms, droughts, wild fires, insect infestations, land animal species extinctions and mass human migrations from tropical countries to more temperate countries.
 

DEFICIENT PUBLIC EDUCATION:
At the root of the thermal runaway problem is widespread lack of public understanding regarding the effects of changes in planetary solar reflectivity and planetary infrared emissivity on cumulative net heat absorption. As long as there is an above equilibrium atmospheric CO2 concentration or there is fine soot mixed with snow and ice
the thermal runaway process will run spontaneously until there is no more ice left to melt.
The result will be a decrease in planetary solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo) that will increase solar power absorption by the oceans and will over time substantially increase both average ocean surface and ambient air temperatures.

The rising ocean surface temperature is fuelling hurricanes that are making tropical islands increasingly more uninhabitable.

In Canada during the last three decades almost every year has been significantly warmer than the year before. The cumulative warming effects on glaciers, ocean ice, ice roads, permafrost, average air temperature, insect infestations, forest fires and flash floods have been obvious. In the USA in recent years the direct insured costs of sea level rise, floods, storms, wild fires and droughts have risen by almost $300 billion per year. In the US south-west major aquifers critical for intense agriculture are near depletion.
 

ENERGY POLICY:
Fossil fuel producers and consumers must face the reality that they are directly responsible for the consequences of fossil carbon triggered climate change. Continued extraction of fossil hydrocarbons is simply not a sustainable option. Citizens must do all necessary to make investments in fossil hydrocarbon extraction, refining, transportation and combustion financially unrewarding.

Governments must face the politically difficult decision to impose a price on fossil CO2 emissions sufficient to ensure that fossil hydrocarbons are left in the ground and to adopt an appropriate mix of renewable and nuclear power. The minimum fossil carbon emissions tax required to keep fossil carbon in the ground is reasonably estimated to be about $200 per emitted CO2 tonne. The optimum energy supply mix depends on the availability and reliability of local sources of renewable energy, the availability and sufficiency of geography permitting economic local seasonal energy storage and on the political stability, public education and work force training required to support nuclear power.

This web page last updated April 2, 2019.

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