We're having regular business calls now for Third Mode Energy and one of the things that came up this week was California. I recently wrote about the need for regional hydroponic vegetable production and how renewable ammonia could help. Today I'm going to take a shot at demonstrating how ammonia production might help California directly, although I don't think what I'm proposing would directly benefit those caught up in the Central Valley drought.
Let's review a little for those just joining us. A year ago I started the Stranded Wind Initiative with an eye on figuring out what to do with all of the wind driven electricity in the grid poor plains states. One thing led to another and a small group of the volunteers behind SWI formed a commercial venture called Third Mode Energy. James Schlesinger famously said regarding energy: "we have only two modes — complacency and panic." We're going to add a third – a mindful awareness that our endowment of fossil sunshine will run out and that it'll probably happen at a highly inconvenient time.
California has already been visited by grid woes. The games of Enron a decade ago got the residents of that state used to working around rolling blackouts. The next time that starts it'll likely be due to natural gas depletion and there won't be any relief to be had.
Renewable ammonia production can help in four ways: electricity, fuel, water, and food.
Ammonia today is generally produced using fossil fuels, but there are a few places in the world where it's still made the old fashioned way. If they can keep a hydrolysis based ammonia plant running in Kwe Kwe, Zimbabwe I'm pretty sure we can keep one running here in the U.S. That one runs on the power generated by the Kariba dam, but in California offshore wind would be just the thing.
The benefits of building an offshore wind system are threefold. Ammonia production would be facilitated at all times and during the summer production could be slowed so that power could be diverted to the region's grid. The third benefit? Tax revenues – a five hundred megawatt wind plant would contain two hundred turbines. That is a billion dollar asset and twenty to thirty high paying turbine maintenance jobs for some lucky county.
Ammonia, chemical formula NH3, contains roughly 40% of the energy by volume that diesel fuel does. It will burn cleanly in compression engines, spark engines, and turbines. We've predicted that its first inroad in vehicles will be in the corn belt where farmers are trained to handle it and a distribution network with 3,100 miles of pipelines is already in place. California has no such infrastructure but that's fine, because there is one other use that is just perfect for the climate, population, and regulatory environment. Right now California's peaker electric generation is done with natural gas. Those types of turbines need minor modifications to burn ammonia instead. Ammonia production for fuel is a clever means of time shifting and transporting wind energy.
When you make ammonia you need hydrogen and when making it renewably today that means electrolysis, or the cracking of water to produce hydrogen and oxygen. Electrolyzers have improved greatly since the 60% efficient units in the plant in Zimbabwe were built but they still turn about 20% of the energy that goes into them into low quality waste heat. Wind turbines don't produce constantly but if you fed the average output of that five hundred megawatt plant, which would be about two hundred megawatts, into an ammonia plant you'd have a whole lot of waste heat.
How much waste heat? Right at a hundred million BTUs an hour. A BTU is the amount of energy required to raise one pound of water one degree. The heat is low quality – only about 160F. Low quality is an industrial term that means "not hot enough to spin a turbine and make electricity" but raising seawater from a 50F input temperature to 160F is a giant step towards flash distillation of fresh water. The 110F increase would mean nine million pounds of water or 109,000 gallons an hour would be brought to 160F. I've been hunting a bit for daily per capita water consumption in the area and I see that 150 gallons/house is considered a very tight operating number. If we assume 200 gallons/house is comfortable this plant would easily cover the needs of a city of 12,000.
We'd have to get that last fifty degrees of heat to make steam. Here a passive solar focusing system might do the trick but an ammonia plant of this size produces copious amounts of nearly pure oxygen. A oxygen enhanced municipal waste gasification system would generate electricity and produce the additional heat needed to drive the pre-heated seawater to steam. I know just a little about waste gasification from this article I wrote late last year for The Cutting Edge News but I get the feeling I'll be learning much, much more before we've got a finished design suitable for a seaside California municipality.
We've already finished our stage one design for the Buffalo, New York area. This is the first instance of a plant plan for the National Renewable Ammonia Architecture – a Christmas gift to the nation from the Stranded Wind Initiative. Our next steps will be a plan for Indiana, one for South Dakota, and after that ... well ... when potential investors are hunting me up and cold calling me about this stuff that seems like a Very Good Thing™ after the long hard months of getting this whole concept moving.