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Monbiot: ‘This is embarrassing, but I’ve become a fossil fuel supporter’

George Monbiot, The Guardian
Cheap hydrogen, the most viable low-carbon heat source, depends neither on nuclear power nor renewables – but on gas
…the British government is even more likely to recommend a new generation of nuclear generators in its energy review in the summer. It can now summon some heavyweight support: on Friday, the Financial Times revealed that the International Energy Agency has converted to the nuclear cause. My fellow environmentalists argue that the money would be better spent on wind turbines. I find myself at odds with almost everyone, by deciding, at the worst possible moment, that in one respect at least our battle against climate change depends on neither nuclear power nor renewables, but on a fossil fuel.

The problem comes down to this: that our homes, whose consumption has grown by 19% since 1990, now account for almost one-third of the energy the UK uses. Of this, only 18% is used for lights and fridges and televisions and the other electronic gadgets with which we now fill our homes. All the rest is used for space and water heating. In the domestic sector, the big issue is not electricity but heat.

I’ve looked into every source of sustainable heat I can find, and while there are plenty that could supply some of our houses – wood and straw, solar hot-water panels, district heating systems and heat pumps for example – all of them are constrained by one factor or another, such as a shortage of agricultural land, our feeble sun and the disruption involved in fitting them to existing homes. It seems that there is only one low-carbon source of heat that could (with a massive investment in new infrastructure) be supplied to most of the homes in the UK between now and 2030. It is hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell, which is a kind of gas battery. If, as their promoters predict, fuel cells can very soon be made small enough, cheap enough and reliable enough to take the place of domestic boilers, they could provide the heat and electricity our homes require. The natural gas pipes to which most of our houses are attached would be replaced by hydrogen pipes. These are about 50% wider but otherwise the system is much the same.

…But a hydrogen network will be viable only if it is cheap. According to a report by the US National Academy of Engineering, the wholesale price of hydrogen made from natural gas with carbon capture will, in “the future”, be $1.72 (96p) per kilogramme; from coal, $1.45; and from electrolysis $3.93. In other words, if a hydrogen economy is to be taken seriously, the fuel has to be made from gas or coal, rather than by either wind turbines or nuclear generators.

Even in my confessional mood, I cannot bring myself to support coal. I defy anyone who knows what open-cast mining looks like to say the words “clean coal” without blushing. This leaves only gas. If my calculations are correct, the retail price of hydrogen made from natural gas will be about 50% greater than the retail price of gas itself. But because fuel cells supplying both heat and electricity are more efficient than gas boilers, the total cost would be roughly the same.

So it seems to me that a key environmental challenge, odd as this seems, is to ensure that gas has a future in the UK by making its supplies more secure.
(25 April 2006)

Call by Swiss minister to invest in renewable energy

Energy Minister Moritz Leuenberger has called for sustained efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions in a bid to combat global warming.

Speaking at an international meeting in the Gulf emirate of Qatar he pleaded for close cooperation in the search of new technologies and renewable energy sources.

“We are now at the dawn of a new energy era. As with any period of profound change it is fraught with uncertainty and risks, but it is also a source of opportunity,” he said during his opening speech of the International Energy Forum in Doha on Sunday.

The conference, which takes place every two years, brings together ministers from 65 countries, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) as well as senior executives from major oil companies.
(23 April 2006)

Your cars are an incredible luxury

Jerome a Paris, Daily Kos
…All rich countries outside of North America tax the stuff viciously, and do not seem to be doing so badly from it. So you’ll say that we have public transport, and we don’t live 25 miles from our work, and we can live with more expensive energy…

But don’t you see that the two are linked? Living in your own home, with a garden and plenty of space is a LUXURY, made possible by cheap oil. You pay for that luxury in other ways: the hundreds of billions of dollars going to the Pentagon, which, face it, is just one big escort service for oil tankers and their owners; the trillions of debt owned by foreigners, which you’ll have to eventually give real wealth in return for, or default on via inflation and devaluation.

It is not suburbs that require cheap oil. It is artificially cheap oil that has made you structure your country around the economically absurd idea of building housing flying distances from work places. Making oil steadily more expensive to change that peacefully is the only solution, otherwise the change will simply be brutish, nasty and short.

And if you think that gas taxes are a bad thing because they add to already high pain, it’s because you do not really believe that prices will increase a lot more, and thus that a gas tax will come in addition, and not instead of oil price increases.
(23 April 2006)
Also new from Jerome: The politics of Energize America.

Bush seeks to curb oil tax breaks

Chris Isidore,
President Bush announced moves Tuesday that he said will address rising gas prices, including a curb of tax breaks for oil companies, and an extension of some tax breaks that could help buyers of some fuel efficient cars made by overseas automakers.

Bush also called for a halt of deposits to the nation’s emergency stockpile of oil and a probe of potential price gouging.

He made the announcements amid predictions that gasoline will be a record levels throughout the summer driving season, and with rising voter anger heading into this fall’s midterm Congressional elections.

Some Democrats have called for a so-called “windfall profit tax” on large oil company profits in the face of higher oil prices. Without mentioning that proposal directly, the President criticized Democratic calls for higher taxes in response to higher energy prices.

But he did call on Congress to rollback $2 billion in tax breaks for oil companies over the next 10 years for items such as write-offs of certain geological and geophysical expenditures or for research and development for deep water drilling.
(25 April 2006)
Many related stories.

The truth about sugar

Alexandra A. Seno, Newsweek
The buzz says a dizzying price spike is all about sugar for biofuels. But the reality is more complicated.
The surprising thing about the price of oil, which hit a new record of $75 a barrel last week, is how little visible impact it has had on a booming global economy. But that hasn’t stopped market watchers from looking for and finding peripheral shocks, even where they don’t really exist. Consider the recent rush to sugar, which spiked to a 25-year high of 20 cents a pound, driven largely by buzz about an old phenomenon: the largest producer, Brazil, devotes half its crop to the production of ethanol, which is an increasingly competitive source of energy for cars as gas prices spike.

Sugar for fuel is an interesting story, but it’s a relatively small one that at the moment is still largely confined to Brazil. The share of global sugar production that goes to biofuels is roughly 15 percent, or about what it was 20 years ago, and the vast majority of that production is now in Brazil. In fact, Brazil used to devote a lot more of its (then much smaller) crop to biofuels, and most of its booming sugar production now fuels a much bigger story: sugar for food. Demand is rising relentlessly, at a pace of about 2 percent a year, driven by increasingly sweet tastes in developing nations, even as sugar consumption slows in the West. Meanwhile, a combination of underinvestment and bad weather in producing regions (from Gulf Coast hurricanes to drought in Thailand and a March cyclone in Australia) has disrupted supply.
(1 May 2006 issue)

API’s John Felmy discusses reasons for record crude prices
(video and transcript)
With crude oil prices nearing $75 per barrel last week on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and energy analysts predicting a costly summer for motorists, is there any relief in sight on fuel costs? During today’s OnPoint, John Felmy, chief economist with the American Petroleum Institute, discusses some of the factors roiling world oil markets, including nuclear negotiations with Iran and supply disruptions in Nigeria. Plus, Felmy discusses the domestic outlook for gasoline prices and ethanol use, and what the oil industry is doing to increase supplies and boost refining capacity.
(24 April 2006)

Bold idea for energy woes: global cooperation

Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor
Some analysts envision an alliance of consumer countries to boost energy security and stabilize supplies.
Whether it’s the proposed US nuclear agreement with India, tension over a natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, or talks between President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao about China’s growing ties to oil-rich Iran, world leaders are factoring crucial energy needs into their strategic calculations.

Global energy strains have been particularly evident over oil, which topped a record $75 a barrel last Friday.

So is it time for an OPIC – an organization of petroleum-importing countries – as a way to build up cooperation among the world’s booming and increasingly competitive energy consumers?
(24 April 2006)