Electricity runs pretty much everything in modern society. Our phones, our lights, our computers, our refrigerators… It is the cornerstone of modern society and will continue to play a very large role in how civilization continues to prosper throughout the foreseeable future.
But it’s not alone in providing us with the foundations of how we run our society. In fact, it isn’t even the most important kind of energy we use to maintain our quality of life in my opinion. That title goes to Heat. We use it in everything industrial like making steel, making cement, making fuels, even in making chemicals or drugs like ibuprofen. Chemistry of all forms requires heat to work. Sometimes you can get away with using electricity as the primary driving force for a reaction (looking at you electroplating, you finicky bitch) but even then there is generally a preferred temperature range that the reaction works best at.
Here’s the problem with heat though… You can’t really transport it like you can with electricity. Thanks to those pesky Laws of Thermodynamics, if you try to say, pipe heat long distances, you’ll lose most of your heat to the atmosphere long before it gets anywhere near your consumer. This means that you basically have to make your heat on site where it is needed. That stands true for everything whether it’s a chemical production facility, a cement plant, or your home in winter when you feel a slight chill in your pinky toe.
There are two or three cement plants in my hometown of Edmonton Alberta. One has a 20 t/h coal burner to produce the heat needed to make cement from the raw materials, not sure about the other ones. 20 t/h of fairly crap coal (20 GJ/t) is about 111 MW of energy, which is enough to power about 100,000 homes. That is about 30% of Edmonton’s total population. It is a huge amount of energy and it is All heat. Not a drop of it is turned into electricity because it’s all needed to make cement. So why is it a coal burner (technically a dual fuel burner which uses natural gas to kickstart the coal burning) and not some kind of electric heater? There’s resistive heating, induction heating, or even electric arcs that could be used to heat the raw materials isn’t there? Technically yes all of those are options, but even if you could get it up to the range of 1400 Celsius required for making cement, there is another problem.. cost.
Okay, I know some of you will hate this but it’s time for some math. I’m just going to use the number for residential electricity and heating rather than try and find the industrial rates that might have been agreed upon a decade ago. So right now Enmax, one of the energy providers here in Edmonton sells a 3-year contract for electricity at 5.99 cents per kWh and $3.79 per GJ of natural gas. Why they use different units I don’t really know but it’s probably because people use Way more natural gas than electricity cause as some of you might know, it can get pretty fucking cold here in Edmonton. But ignoring that, 1 GJ is approximately 277.8 kWh so if you wanted to replace all your gas with electricity assuming that you got the same efficiency heating your house and hot water with electricity you would spend $16.64 per GJ. Does anyone in Edmonton want to spend 4 times more heating their house this winter? And coal is even cheaper than natural gas…
So think back to that coal burner at the cement plant. It shuts down for about 6 weeks out of the year for maintenance and refurbishment. so that means that it runs for 46 weeks a year 24/7. That puts it at 7728 hours of operation per year which is 154,560 tonnes of coal a year. Assuming that it’s sub-bituminous coal and costs around $22 CAD/tonne (~$16 USD) that’s around $3.5 million per year just to fuel That burner. If it was natural gas at the EnMax price instead, it would be about $11.7 Million. To run it electrically would another $30-36 Million dollars per year on top of the natural gas price just for that burner. That doesn’t even cover the pre-heat burner or the regular energy costs of the site. Suffice to say, cement isn’t that profitable.
Now, of course, this is obvious to anyone who realizes that you cannot generate heat from electricity from burning fossil fuels cheaper than you can just get heat from burning fossil fuels. But what about non-fossil fuel methods? Well, you wouldn’t be able to do it with renewables like solar or wind, and we don’t have any handy gorges to dam for hydro near Edmonton. Full stop. Running an always-on system with intermittent power does not work, end even with the new generation of large scale grid batteries it wouldn’t work. For example, that big new battery that Elon Musk built in South Australia is rated to store 129 MWh of energy… That means that if one of those batteries was installed at this perfectly standard cement plant, it would have enough juice to power this one burner for all of 70 minutes. And that’s assuming 100% efficient transfer of energy. So what you need for almost any industry is an energy source that is cheaper than fossil fuels, capable of running for long periods of time uninterrupted and capable of producing over 100 MW of power. Hmmm, I wonder what could possibly meet those criteria…
Compared to our current electricity costs if we want to be able to replace fossil fuels as a source of heat, we need to get electricity prices down to, if we follow our math from up above, to $0.004/kWh or $40/MWh. And it just so happens that there is a company looking to build small, high temperature, nuclear reactors designed for industrial heating processes that are expected to provide energy at about $40/MWh. The fact that it is a Canadian company is just icing on the cake for this blog.
So while we might not have the answer currently for what can replace fossil fuels not just for electricity, but also for All of our energy requirements, We are in a position to see that answer cresting the horizon and hopefully coming quickly. Because oh boy are we going to need it sooner rather than later.