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Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer. (Please note that I am not talking about solar hot water heaters. I am talking about intermittent renewables added to the electric grid.)
1. It is doubtful that intermittent renewables actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
It is devilishly difficult to figure out whether on not any particular energy source has a favorable impact on carbon dioxide emissions. The obvious first way of looking at emissions is to look at the fuel burned on a day-to-day basis. Intermittent renewables don’t seem to burn fossil fuel on day-to-day basis, while those using fossil fuels do, so wind and…
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Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And, there are many, many things that the public and policymakers know for sure about energy that just ain’t so.
That list is very long indeed and getting longer as the fossil fuel industry (which has little interest in intellectual honesty) continues its skillful manipulation of a gullible and sometimes careless media.
Below I’ve listed seven whoppers that it would be charitable to call misleading. Longtime readers will recognize that I’ve addressed them before in various pieces. But I thought that it would be useful to review the worst of the worst of 2013 as the year ends.
Here are seven things everyone knows about energy that just ain’t so:
1. Worldwide oil production has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last several years. Oil companies (with governments following suit) have cleverly redefined oil to include something called natural gas plant liquids (NGPLs) that you might surmise actually come from natural gas wells. These include propane, butane, ethane, and pentanes. The new definition also includes biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.
This mishmash is sometimes referred to as “total liquids,” but more often “total oil supply.” This redefinition, however, depends on something that just ain’t so, namely, that NGPLs and biofuels are 100 percent interchangeable with oil. There is some interchangeability, but the volume is relatively small. NGPLs make up just 10 percent of total liquids. I’ve seen investment research that asserts that probably less than one-fifth of that (equivalent to about 2 percent of total liquids) can be directly substituted for oil, primarily in petrochemical refineries. That portion could grow, but only with extensive and costly retooling of the refinery industry, a move that seems risky with U.S. natural gas production stalled (see below).
Now, the central problem with including NGPLs as part of the oil supply remains that they have only a very limited ability to be used as transportation fuel which is the main driver for oil consumption.
Moreover, the energy content of NGPLs is around 65 percent of oil per unit of volume. Ethanol has about 66 percent of oil’s energy, and biodiesel has slightly more than crude oil, but somewhat less than the diesel it is meant to replace. We must also consider all the energy including oil that goes into growing, harvesting, transporting and processing the crops that are feedstocks for biofuel refineries. Some studies show that more energy goes into making ethanol than ethanol produces when burned in an engine.
Despite these well-known facts, the industry and government continue to count NGPLs and biofuels in barrels right alongside oil as if they were all equivalent.
Ethanol and biodiesel do directly substitute for some motor fuels. But there are upper limits on what we can produce and use. We are near those limits with ethanol unless engines change to tolerate higher concentrations of ethanol. Moreover, neither ethanol nor biodiesel can be used for the wide variety of purposes that crude oil can.
It turns out that 2005 was an inflection point after which supply growth for both total liquids and oil proper slowed considerably. With all this in mind, let’s look at the actual numbers which come from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Growth from 1998 to 2005: 11.7 percent
Growth from 2005 to 2012: 5.7 percent
Oil Proper (Crude Oil Plus Lease Condensate):
Growth from 1998 to 2005: 9.9 percent
Growth from 2005 to 2012: 2.7 percent
You can see that the real oil supply (crude oil plus lease condensate) has been growing at just over one-quarter the pace it did in the previous seven years–even with record prices, record investment and the wide deployment of new extraction technologies. Slowing growth coupled with skyrocketing demand in places such as China and India has put a lot of upward pressure on oil prices. It’s one reason oil prices remain near record highs based on the average daily price of Brent Crude, the world benchmark.
In 2011 the average daily Brent Crude price was a record $111.26—which was followed by another record in 2012 of $111.63. The price in 2013 through December 26 has averaged $108.52.
2. U.S. natural gas production continues to grow by leaps and bounds.This claim is even more misleading than the first one. It’s true that natural gas production has grown in the United States in recent years due to the exploitation of gas trapped in deep shale deposits, deposits that new technology called hydraulic fracturing is now making accessible.
But, it turns out that the rate of production of these wells declines rapidly, and the numbers suggest that raising the overall U.S. rate of production is going to be very difficult and expensive. In fact, since January 2012, monthly U.S. marketed natural gas volumes have been nearly flat despite a more than doubling of natural gas prices from their April 2012 lows. The average monthly volume in 2012 was 2.11 trillion cubic feet (tcf). For 2013 the data are only available through September, but the average through that month was 2.12 tcf. It’s doubtful that the average will change that much when the final three months of the year are included.
The easy shale gas has been extracted. Now comes the hard stuff. We may already be on the shale gas treadmill.
3. There is enough natural gas under the United States to last the country for 100 years. This claim requires that you first do bad math on the numbers even the perpetrators of this falsehood provide. The number turns out to be 90 years using their figures and 2010 U.S. natural gas consumption (while assuming, improbably so, no growth in U.S. natural gas use for the next 90 years).
But even that number vastly overstates what we are likely to get out of the ground for it includes estimates of probable, possible and speculative technically recoverable resources. Now, just because something is judged to be technically recoverable does not mean it will be economically recoverable. And, if it is further labelled possible or speculative, it seems foolish to base our public policy on such resources as if they were proven to exist and were ready to extract.
Shale gas expert Art Berman suggests we focus on the probable resources category and assume generously that 50 percent of those resources will actually get turned into reserves. (Keep in mind that no resource is ever exploited to 100 percent and usually only to a fraction of that. Also, resources are what are thought to be in the ground based on sketchy evidence, while reserves are what the drill bit proves are actually there and, more importantly, amenable to extraction.) Based on these assumptions, the United States has about 550 tcf feet of probable and proven reserves which means that the country has a likely supply of about 23 years (again, assuming, improbably so, no increase in the rate of consumption during the entire period).
Since Berman made those calculations, some of the probable resources have moved into the reserves category. But, the outlook has not really changed because this was expected.
4. The United States is about to become the world’s largest oil producer. This claim depends on the same sleight-of-hand being used to inflate worldwide oil production numbers as noted above: the inclusion of NGPLs and biofuels in the production numbers. The United States has been furiously drilling natural gas wells in the last few years and has increased its supply of NGPLs greatly. The production of crude oil proper has also been growing for essentially the same reason natural gas production grew: the deployment of hydraulic fracturing techniques and horizontal drilling to extract previously inaccessible deposits of so-called tight oil.
The results have been impressive, lifting U.S. production of crude oil proper (crude oil plus lease condensate) from 5.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2005 to 6.5 mbpd in 2012. The latest available monthly production results are for September 2013 and put U.S. crude oil production at 7.8 mbpd.
But, it seems unlikely given the very steep production declines that existing tight oil wells experience–about 40 percent per year–that production will be able to scale that of the world’s number one and number two oil producers.
Russia currently produces 9.9 mbpd of crude oil proper. Saudi Arabia produces 9.8 mbpd. Both numbers come from the EIA.
Could the United States produce more crude oil proper than these countries in the near future? Since we cannot know the future, anything is possible. But, consider that the United States has gotten most of the easy tight oil. Now, it must begin to rely on extraction of the hard-to-get oil. That oil will come out at a slower rate.
Meanwhile, the tight oil wells already drilled will continue to decline at colossal rates and their output will have to be replaced before any increase in production is possible. Trying to increase oil production under these circumstances can be likened to running up a down escalator since the declining production of existing wells cancels out much of the production from newly drilled wells.
If the United States were to attain the number one spot some day, it would be hard to maintain given the high production decline rates cited above.
5. The United States is on the verge of energy independence. This canard takes advantage of the lack of public awareness about U.S. energy resources. The country has long been self-sufficient in coal. This has never been an issue. It has also been nearly self-sufficient in natural gas, importing a little over 15 percent of its needs (almost all of it from Canada) from 1991 through 2011 according to the EIA. That percentage has trended down recently as U.S. production has increased. But the U.S. supply of imported natural gas was never in danger due to political disruptions or wars in faraway unfriendly countries.
So, it turns out that energy independence really means oil independence. On this count the country is still very far away from independence despite recent gains in domestic oil production. For the most recent week ending December 20, the United States’ net crude oil imports were 7.5 mbpd. The country would have to nearly double its rate of domestic crude oil production to meet its current consumption needs. That seems very unlikely given the production dynamics discussed above for tight oil which is where nearly all the growth in production is currently taking place.
6. The United States has 250 years of coal left. This claim keeps getting recycled even though a 2007 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that there was no basis for making such a claim. It suggested that the United States might have 100 years of coal left (assuming, improbably so, there would be absolutely no increase in the rate of consumption over that period). But, the report concluded that no comprehensive study of U.S. coal resources was currently available. The truth is nobody knows how much coal is left in the United States, nor how much of that might actually be accessible.
7. Peak oil is a myth. Peak oil is the idea that oil production inevitably reaches a maximum rate and thereafter begins an irreversible decline. It does NOT mean running out, but rather that production declines over time. It turns out that peak oil is actually an empirically demonstrated reality for every oil well, every mature oil field, and now for the majority of oil producing countries in the world. Those who tell us that peak oil is a myth can only be engaged in propaganda rather than a search for the truth. Ironically, many of them cite the upturn in U.S. production as “proof” that peak oil is a myth, forgetting that U.S. production peaked more than 40 years ago.
Oil is a finite resource and so, the real debate is over the timing of peak oil production for the world as a whole. Some say the peak is nearby. Others say it is two or three decades away. But no credible expert says that there will never be a peak.
The cases for and against a near-term peak would be difficult to relate in detail here. But, it’s worth noting that the optimists have been consistently wrong about prices and supplies in the last decade, and those predicting a near-term peak have been much closer to the mark.
That doesn’t mean that the peak must be nearby. But it suggests that the models and assumptions of the optimists are badly flawed.
There are so many other misconceptions about energy which remain that it would take a dozen seven-item lists just to begin to address them. But, I offer these seven as a starting point for a clearer and more honest discussion of our energy future in the coming year.
We’re caught in the squeeze right now.
Climate change is advancing at an incredible speed. We know we should do something, but we lack the political will to do what it takes to hold it to 2°C. UN committees are now being counseled to prepare for 4°C of warming. To keep it survivable, there’s got to be a powerdown — starting today.
Meanwhile green-tech enthusiasts cheer the rapid rate at which certain countries are installing renewable energy infrastructure. But reports are now surfacing of shortages in the rare earth ingredients needed to make that renewable infrastructure. We don’t have enough rare earth materials to replace the whole fossil infrastructure and continue on our current level of consumption. No one dares speak the little secret: Even with renewables, there’s got be a powerdown.
Shale oil is environmental desecration. But people are willing to consider it because there is potentially vast amounts of money in it because the easier-to-get-to oil is running out. Along with stopping fracking, there’s going to be a powerdown. But no one is talking about that part.
We should “keep the coal in the ground” scientists are telling us, and activists have (rightfully) picked up the cry. But no one never mentions the other side of the Stop Coal equation: the powerdown. We have to start talking about what we are willing to give up.
Industry charges forward: expand-expand-expand the airports, the freeways, heedless of the need for powerdown. New extractive drugs, new processed foods, new fashions and ways to consume, more-more-more energy consumption. And consumers and the market applaud it all. They’re inventing new biotech, new robotics, new high tech — all inextricably dependent on energy. Powerdown is such a big secret, that it can’t even be a talking point; it draws a blank stare.
But powerdown has got to happen. And really, really soon.
Powerdown means shifting to tools, techniques, lifestyle habits which use LESS power. It means reducing our energy consumption overall. Across the board. In totality.
Powerdown doesn’t mean convincing ourselves we’re going to convert our entire fleet of fossil automobiles over to an all-electric fleet, because about half of the fossil energy and greenhouse gasses embodied in each vehicle is spent in manufacturing it. Rather, powerdown means shifting to bicycles and human-powered transportation and reorienting our lives and our cities to need LESS transportation.
Powerdown doesn’t mean “more efficient” aircraft. Powerdown means no-fly pledges and stay-cations and moving closer to family. It means foregoing taking the kids abroad; and when your friends mention they’re thinking of doing so, it means responding in a way that makes it clear that it’s socially UNcool.
Powerdown doesn’t mean higher tech, because that requires vast high-powered labs and vast globalized supply chains and more-more-more rare earth materials behind the scenes to manufacture all that stuff. Stuff which will so quickly be outmoded.
Powerdown means inventing tools that run on zero energy, tools made from repurposed materials that humans already have extracted, tools that are durable and repairable because this isn’t a short-term fix. Rather, humanity is in this powerdown game for the long haul.
On a more intangible level, powerdown brings with it inevitable shifts in our economy. We can no longer have economic structures be dependent on more-more-more volume and more-more-more profits. Powerdown means a re-evaluation of what is important: Sufficiency. Basic needs met. Peace and harmony. (The biggest challenge is that last one.)
Powerdown means shifts in other systems too. It means parents and school officials becoming far less enchanted with the glossy hollow call of more-more-more high tech, and much more realistic about teaching the skills of powerdown. Right now we call it “green” to teach tiny kids to plant seeds in recycled plastic bottles, lessons that are completely disconnected from the reality of ecosystems, because it’s so cute. That’s much easier than making part of the high school curriculum the deep skills necessary to pump organic yield, like soil building, crop rotation, intensive urban ag spacing, season stretching, and food preservation. But we’ve got to do it.
Powerdown means our schools Just Saying No to corporate “donations” which strong-arm administrators and parents, and influence students, to place false hopes in the Big Corporate Way. It means teaching Local Foods and Buy Local, not as a “pretty-and-greener it-would-be-nice” feature, but as the core reality of our children’s future. Powerdown means shifting direction today.
Powerdown means political officials finding the backbone to turn away from big corporate dollars, to turn instead toward serious preparation for the realities of our future. Rather than trying to help disadvantaged communities climb on board old-fashioned energy-intense ways, powerdown means publicly and openly declaring that was a false mirage. Powerdown means acknowledging the folly and backing away from the cliff. It means helping all citizens make a direct shift into a more appropriate future.
Powerdown means faith communities embracing their role of cultivating peace and healing the world. It means preaching that large SUVs and use-it-once consumerism and large families are unholy, socially unjust, and sacrilegious. Faith communities can help us acknowledge that the false mirage wasn’t satisfying; that pursuit of it has made us less than who we are meant to be. Powerdown means Practice — as a community — of the lifestyle habits which lead to a peaceful shift: reusable dishes, onsite composting, food not lawns, bike/walk to gatherings, local food potlucks, simple living, connection.
It’s much easier to talk about shiny new stuff like the latest electric car model, or whether bullet trains are a good idea. It’s much easier to chat up the fantasy of high-rise hydroponic food towers, oblivious to their energy demands. But powerdown is here. Powerdown is now. We need to use the term widely.
It’s time to have the tough conversations. Time to get the wider public familiar with the concept. The writing is on the wall: Powerdown is inevitable. If we want any hope of achieving it peacefully, we’ve got to start shifting — minds and physical infrastructure — today. Powerdown: Say it. Begin it.
- Energy bills could soar by ANOTHER 10% before the winter, families warned (mirror.co.uk)
- Energy company profits rise 74 per cent in 48 months (metro.co.uk)
- News story: Report into energy prices, profits and fuel poverty (gov.uk)
- Collision Between Water and Energy Is Underway, and Worsening (spectrum.ieee.org)
- Water Stress Threatens Future Energy Production (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
- Future Power Generation Could Further Endanger Western Water Supplies (yubanet.com)
- Why 100% renewables? Because it is inevitable (reneweconomy.com.au)
- Two More Finance Institutions Divest From Fossil Fuels (theenergycollective.com)
- Obama administration boosts oil industry with $8B in loan guarantees (fuelfix.com)
- Guest Post: Fossil Fuels – A New Normal (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- James Hansen: Fossil fuel addiction could trigger runaway global warming (guardian.co.uk)
- Sign of the Times Peak Oil Website Shuts Down (thedailybell.com)
- Developed nations squandered earth’s resources: Samaram (thehindu.com)
- Statistics – national statistics: Sustainable development indicators (SDIs) (gov.uk)
- The United Nations Praises Results of Cuba’s Environmental Actions (youthandeldersja.wordpress.com)
- We are way off target if we hope to feed everyone by 2050 (io9.com)
- Algae Biofuels Unsuitable For Developing Nations, Study (asianscientist.com)
- EU and China together explore the benefits of green growth (ec.europa.eu)
- Tax cut for shale gas firms planned (bbc.co.uk)