Energy – May 10

May 10, 2012

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.

Exploring the climate “mindscape” (oil supplies and energy junk)

Thomas Homer-Dixon, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon explains why human civilization must make a transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources—not just because of climate concerns but also because conventional oil is declining in production and becoming increasingly difficult to extract. He describes the political climate in Canada, where conversation about global warming—and especially about the oil sands in Alberta—is now widely viewed as unpatriotic and pointless. Homer-Dixon envisions a potential wake-up call to humanity in the form of a climate shock to global food-production systems, triggered by extreme weather events, and he sees increasing evidence for a connection between environmental stresses and civil conflicts. He calls for accelerated research on energy technologies, such as ultra-deep geothermal power, and for new research on how to restructure economies and social institutions. According to Homer-Dixon, the climate change problem might ultimately reside as much in our heads as in the external world. His latest work focuses on mapping the “mindscape,” a virtual space within which most of the world’s people are clustered in a few ideologically polarized groups. Vast, unexplored regions of the mindscape, he says, may offer new ways of thinking about problems such as climate change and new ways of living together successfully in the future.

… BAS: Your books have sounded a warning that human civilization is about to go through a major energy transition from an age of cheap, abundant energy to an age of energy scarcity. But at the moment, we seem to be entering an age of plenty in North America—with shale gas, new offshore drilling, and oil sands expansion. Has the age of scarcity been postponed?

Homer-Dixon: I think the folks who are saying that suddenly we don’t have an oil-supply problem and that North America will become energy independent are pretty dramatically overstating the case. There are two major facts that tend to get neglected. One is that there is a steady decline in global conventional oil production of just over four million barrels a day, every year. That adds up really fast. In five years, you’ve got a decrement of 20 million barrels a day; that’s roughly equivalent to two Saudi Arabias. You have to fill the decrement before you can even think about meeting increased demand. The second point that tends to get neglected is that the amount of energy we get back for every unit of energy we invest in oil exploration and production, is much lower than it used to be. You have to go farther, into more hostile natural environments, for smaller pools of often lower-quality oil, or you have to use much more complex and energy-intensive technology to extract energy from a source. Bitumen in Canada’s oil sands is, frankly, energy junk. The energy return-on-investment is about 4:1. Compare that with Texas in the 1930s, where the energy return on investment was around 100:1. Looking at shale gas, most people have focused on the possible contamination of groundwater supplies and on the enormous amount of waste produced. What gets the least attention is that these wells decline at about twice the rate of a standard natural gas well: somewhere in the neighborhood of an 80 to 90 percent decline rate in the first two years of production. The decline rate is so fast and so substantial that you have to keep poking holes in the ground. And that’s again an energy return-on-investment problem. I think that exactly the same is going to be true in the shale oil formations that are now being tapped.

BAS: What effect do you think the shift toward unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas, will have on global climate?

Homer-Dixon: It appears to have given a new lease on life to the conventional energy industries. There was excessive pessimism about natural gas in the middle of the last decade, and now there’s excessive optimism. When it comes to oil, the zeitgeist is that all these problems are behind us, but I think we’ll see that attitude changing.

(May/June 2012 issue)
Suggested by Janice Sinclair , who writes: “Thomas Homer-Dixon punctures holes in several fallacies regarding the economics of tar sands, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. For example: ‘Bitumen in Canada’s oil sands is, frankly, energy junk. The energy return-on-investment is about 4:1. Compare that with Texas in the 1930s, where the energy return on investment was around 100:1.’ ”

Government influence is negative for energy fuel policy

Rolf E. Westgard, Brainerd Daily Dispatch (op ed)
There is perhaps no area of human endeavor more influenced by government policy than the production and use of energy fuel. And the verdict on that influence is negative. Beginning with President Nixon in 1974 who said, “At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need,” seven succeeding U.S. presidents have made similar policy pronouncements. All have failed.

… The development of large new natural gas reserves through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing can be regulated through uniform national standards. Tens of thousands of those fracking wells operate safely; but the danger to fresh water supplies exists if the wells are not properly cased and managed.

EIA forecasts to 2035 tell us that fossil fuels will dominate energy supplies during that entire period. Much of our need for oil imports can be safely met by the vast oil sands in Alberta, assuming properly constructed pipelines like Keystone XL are approved. The environmental issues in Alberta are best left to the governments of Alberta and Canada whose people love their lands and waters.

Finally, subsidies for renewables like wind, solar, and range limited electric vehicles should be gradually reduced, and their fate left to the market place. Taxing the public to give money to the wealthy who can afford the purchase of an expensive electric vehicle, or decorate a roof with solar panels, is poor policy.

Public policy shines best in support of new technology and basic energy research, but its glow dims when it tries to force large scale implementation of unproven processes.

ROLF WESTGARD of Deerwood is a professional member, Geological Society of America. He recently taught the class “Peak Oil and Peak Water” for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.
(9 May 2012)

The German Switch from Nuclear to Renewables

Craig Morris, Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany)
As a reaction to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, starting on March 11, 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition shut down roughly 40 percent of the country’s nuclear generating capacity in mid-March 2011 and roughly re-implemented the original nuclear phase-out set forth under Chancellor Schroeder’s Social-Democrat/Green government. A year later, however, we can see what the temporary effects have been and what the long-term effects are likely to be.

But first, we need to understand the context. Germany has one of the largest shares of renewable power on its grid of any industrialized country. In the first half of 2011, Germany crossed the 20 percent threshold for renewable electricity in its power supply (the figure for the US is less than five percent excluding hydropower).

By 2011, 25 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaics had been installed. Solar power can already peak at an astonishing 40 per cent of power demand on sunny summer days (see chart below).

Compare that to the United States (PDF), which had a mere 0.5 percent of peak summer demand at the end of 2011. For Americans to be at the level of German PV in terms of peak summer demand, roughly 80 times the current level would need to be installed already. …

Will Germany not have to simply import nuclear power from other countries?

Germany has been a net exporter of power for years and remained so in 2011. And keep in mind that nuclear plants generally run at full capacity – meaning that they usually cannot be ramped up any further. In all likelihood, German power imports, which have increased slightly over the past twelve months, will be based more on conventional generation than on nuclear. …

Aren’t renewables raising the cost of power in Germany, and isn’t nuclear cheap?

A qualified yes to the first part, a qualified no to the second. Decades-old nuclear plants (built with heavy subsidies and governmental support) do indeed produce quite inexpensive power, but all estimates are that the cost of building a nuclear
plant today without heavy subsidies would be prohibitive. The only plants currently under construction in the EU (in France and Finland) are both behind schedule and far over budget.

In the US, Wall Street has turned its back on financing risky nuclear power. Only the massive subsidy of $8.33 billion in conditional federal loan guarantees keeps Southern Company’s dream alive to build two additional reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. Vogtle, however, has a history that should trouble taxpayers. The original two reactors at the Georgia site took almost 15 years to build, came in 1,200 percent over budget and resulted in the largest rate hike at the time in Georgia.

But yes, green power has raised the retail rate in Germany. For the past two years, the surcharge has been roughly 0.035 euros per kilowatt-hour – around 12 percent of the retail rate. An overwhelming majority of the German public are perfectly happy with that price according to recent surveys. (Germans also pay 25 dollars for dinner in a nice restaurant when they could have had supper for six bucks at a fast food joint; they have no problem paying for quality.) …

Craig Morris is an American writer and translator in the energy sector who has been based in Germany since 1992. He directs Petite Planète and writes regularly for Renewables International.
(May 2012)
Suggested by long-time contributor Jim Barton who explains, “The Böll Foundation is the German Green Party foundation. Every party in Germany, after a threshold, gets their own foundation.

Scientists’ Arctic drilling plan aims to demystify undersea greenhouse gases

Margaret Munro, Postmedia News via Nunatsiaq News
The oil and gas industry may be eyeing the energy riches under the Arctic Ocean, but scientists are even keener to start drilling in Canada’s polar waters.

They say the Beaufort Sea, in the western Canadian Arctic, holds clues to several environmental mysteries of global significance — chief among them why so much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is now seeping out of the sea floor.

An international team is proposing an ambitious drilling program to extract some answers. Researchers from Canada, the United States, Europe and Korea want to drill a series of wells from the Mackenzie Delta across the Beaufort Sea.

If approved, drilling could begin as early as 2015, the first holes bored into the Canadian Arctic in years.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international outfit that dispatches research ships around the world, has reviewed the preliminary plan and recently asked the scientists to submit a full proposal, says Anne de Vernal, at the Université du Quebec à Montréal, chair of the committee overseeing Canada’s involvement with IODP.

She and her colleagues say the Beaufort is the best place in the Arctic to assess the stability of undersea permafrost and gas deposits and to fill in big gaps in climate science.

They want to drill down through sediments that have rained onto the sea floor over eons, revealing how the Arctic ice has waxed and waned, and into the thick slabs of permafrost and frozen gas beneath the sea floor that have the potential to accelerate global warming.

… More worrisome to many observers is the massive store of methane sitting beneath the permafrost in the form of gas hydrates.

The gas has been trapped under the sea for thousands of years, but there is mounting concern — and evidence — that it is leaking out as the climate warms.

In the last few years, dramatic plumes of the methane have been spotted by teams surveying waters off Siberia. A Canada-U.S. team has also found “extensive free gas release” on the Beaufort Shelf, which is pockmarked with holes the escaping gas leaves behind.

At one spot about 50 metres below the surface, the team’s remotely operated vehicle found gas “vigorously and continuously” bubbling out of a sea mound, kicking up clouds of sediments.

The chemical signature of the gas seeping out from the Beaufort sea floor indicates much of it is bubbling up through cracks and gaps in the permafrost, liberating methane that has been locked under the sea for at least 50,000 years, Dallimore and his colleagues report.

How much methane is entering the atmosphere, and whether the rate is increasing as Arctic ice retreats and the climate warms, is not known. But scientists say it is important to find out because methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is..
(28 April 2012)
Suggested by EB contributor Bill Henderson, who writes: “Article is long and sciency. It goes into the issue of methane, a potent green house gas, seeping from the sea floor.”

Nouvelles découvertes et gaz de schiste retarderont à peine le pic pétrolier

Pierre-René Bauqui, Le Monde
Depuis plusieurs dizaines d’années, nous assistons à des batailles d’experts pour savoir si les productions mondiales de pétrole vont atteindre un niveau maximum, à quel moment et à quel niveau. C’est la querelle dite du “peak oil ” (pic de production).

Essayons d’y voir clair dans ce débat, clé pour notre avenir. Pour cela il faut tout d’abord rappeler quelques points fondamentaux. De 2000 à 2011, la part du pétrole au sein des énergies primaires est passée de près de 40 % à 34 %, celle du gaz de 22 % à 24 %, et celle du charbon de 23 % à 26 %. Le total des énergies fossiles carbonées est donc resté presque constant, passant de 85 % à 84 % du total.

L’incapacité du secteur pétrolier à faire croître ses productions au rythme de la demande potentielle s’est confirmée en 2011. Cette tendance lourde, apparue en 2003, a eu pour conséquence un rééquilibrage de l’offre et de la demande de pétrole par les prix, celui-ci ayant été multiplié par quatre ou cinq sur la période (en gros de 25 à 125 dollars le baril).

Pierre-René Bauqui est le ancien directeur stratégie et planification de Total.
(9 May 2012)

Tags: Arctic oil, Deepwater Oil, Electricity, Energy Policy, Fossil Fuels, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Oil, Photovoltaic, Renewable Energy, Shale Oil, Solar Energy, Tar Sands