French nuclear financial crisis deepens

9 12 2016

French taxpayers face huge nuclear bill as EDF financial crisis deepens

Originally published on the Ecologist’s website…..

I alluded to this in response to some of Eclipse’s comments on some of my earlier posts. I’m of the opinion the entire global nuclear energy sector is about to go tits up….

Paul Brown

8th December 2016

Nuclear giant EDF could be heading towards bankruptcy, writes Paul Brown, as it faces a perfect storm of under-estimated costs for decommissioning, waste disposal and Hinkley C. Meanwhile income from power sales is lagging behind costs, and 17 of its reactors are off-line for safety tests. Yet French and UK governments are turning a blind eye to the looming financial crisis.

EDF’s biggest problem is the cost of producing power from these ageing power stations is greater than the wholesale price, so everything they sell is at a loss. It is impossible to see how they can ever make a profit. Then they still have to decommission.

The liabilities of Électricité de France (EDF) – the biggest electricity supplier in Europe, with 39 million customers – are increasing so fast that they will soon exceed its assets, according a report by an independent equity research company,

nuclear_power_432Bankruptcy for EDF seems inevitable – and if such a vast empire in any other line of business seemed to be in such serious financial trouble, there would be near-panic in the workforce and in governments at the subsequent political fall-out.

But it seems that the nuclear-dominated EDF group is considered too big to be allowed to fail. So, to keep the lights on in western Europe, the company will have to be bailed out by the taxpayers of France and the UK.

The French government, facing elections next spring, and the British, struggling with the implications of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, are currently turning a blind eye to the report by AlphaValue that EDF has badly under-reported its potential liabilities.

Ageing nuclear reactors

While EDF is threatening to sue people who say it is technically bankrupt, the evidence is that the cost of producing electricity from its ageing nuclear reactors is greater than the market price.

Coupled with the impossibility of EDF paying the full decommissioning costs of its reactors, it is inevitable that it is the taxpayers in France and the UK who will eventually pick up the bill. However this will not be easy due to the EU’s ‘state aid’ rules, which limit governments’ ability to support ailing companies.

There is also the ongoing thorny problem of disposing of the nuclear waste and spent fuel rods, which are building up in cooling ponds and stores on both sides of the Channel, with no disposal route yet in sight.

A looming problem for EDF, which already admits is has €37 billion of debt, is that 17 of its ageing fleet of nuclear reactors, which provide 70% of France’s electricity, are being retired.

According to AlphaValue, EDF has underestimated the liabilities for decommissioning these reactors by €20 billion. Another €33.5 billion should be added to cost of handling nuclear waste, the report says. Juan Camilo Rodriguez, an equity analyst who is the author of the report, says that a correct adjustment of nuclear provisions would lead to the technical bankruptcy of the company.

In a statement, EDF said it “strongly contests the alleged accounting and financial analyses by the firm AlphaValue carried out at the request of Greenpeace and relating to the situation of EDF”.

It says that its accounts are audited and certified by its statutory auditors, and that the dismantling costs of EDF’s existing nuclear power fleet have also been subject to an audit mandated by the French Ministry of the Environment, Energy and the Sea.

Even with its huge debts, EDF’s problems could be surmounted if the company was making big profits on its electricity sales, but the cost of producing power from its nuclear fleet is frequently greater than the wholesale price.

That creates a second problem – that unless the wholesale price of electricity rises and stays high, the company will make a loss on every kilowatt of electricity it sells. The new rightwing French presidential candidate, François Fillon, promises not to retire French reactors and to keep them going for 60 years. But this cannot be done without more cost.

This is the third problem: vast sums of capital are needed to refurbish EDF’s old nuclear fleet for safety reasons following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

New nuclear stations

Even more money is required to finish new nuclear stations EDF is already committed to building. The first, Flamanville in northern France, is five years late and billions over budget. Questions over the quality of the steel in its reactor are still not resolved, and it may never be fully operational.

Add to that the need for €12 billion (or potentially considerably more) capital to complete the two nuclear stations EDF is committed to building at Hinkley Point in southwest England, and it is hard to see where all the money will come from.

To help the cash-strapped company, its ultimate owner, the French state, has already provided €3 billion in extra capital this year, and decided to forego its shareholder dividend. But that is a drop in the ocean.

Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy, says: “The French company overvalues its nuclear assets, and underestimates how much it will cost to decommission them.

“However, EDF’s biggest problem is the cost of producing power from these ageing power stations. The cost is greater than the wholesale price, so everything they sell is at a loss. It is impossible to see how they can ever make a profit.”

He says that is not the company’s only problem: France has not dealt with the problem of nuclear waste, and has badly underestimated the cost of doing so: “With German electricity prices going down and production increasing in order to export cheap electricity to France, it is impossible to see how EDF can ever compete. It is really staggering that no one is paying any attention to this.”

Even former EDF director Gérard Magnin agrees. He resigned from the board in July as he thought the Hinkley Point project too risky for the company because of its already stretched finances. Now he says that, with the reactors closed for safety checks, the French nuclear industry faces “its worst situation ever”.

The company’s troubles do not stop in France, as EDF also owns the UK nuclear industry. Ironically, it took over 15 reactors in the UK after British Energy went bankrupt in 2002 because the cost of producing the electricity was greater than the wholesale price – exactly the situation being repeated now in France.

Repeated life extensions

Since the sale of UK nuclear plants to EDF in 2008 at a cost £12.5 billion, the company has continued to operate them, and has repeatedly got life extensions to keep them running.

But this cannot go on forever, and they are expected to start closing in the next ten years. Once this happens, the asset value of each station would become a liability, and EDF’s mountain of debt would get bigger.

So far, the French and UK governments, and the company itself, seem to be in denial about this situation. Currently 17 French reactors are shut down for safety checks, following the discovery of faulty safety-critical compenents including large, difficult to replace steel forgings like steam generators.

The company has issued reassuring statements that they will be back to full power after Christmas, however in so doing EDF is assuming that the safety checks will give the reactors a clean bill of health. In fact, there are three other possible outcomes:

  • additional potentially time-consuming tests are needed that will create further months of downtime.
  • remedial engineering works are required to make the reactors safe. These would probably be costly and time-consuming.
  • key components at the heart of the reactors, for example steam generators, need to be replaced altogether. However this would be so costly that, for a nuclear plant already reaching the end of its lifetime, premature closure would be the only viable option.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that some of the 17 reactors will fall into each of these four categories, creating as yet unquantifiable unbudgeted costs for the company.

Meanwhile, to make up the shortfall from the closed reactors, electricity is being bought from neighbouring countries, including the UK, to keep the lights on in France. The power shortage is temporarily causing an increase in wholesale prices – but one that EDF is unable to fully exploit because so many of its reactors are not generating.

The future remains unpredictable – but as long as there are no actual power cuts, no action is expected from governments. Despite official denials, however, the calculations of many outside the industry suggest that it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes.

The cost of producing electricity from renewables is still falling, while nuclear gets ever more expensive, and massive liabilities loom. Ultimately, the bill will have to be passed on to the taxpayers.

 





Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age – part I

15 07 2016

Guest post by Louis Arnoux, republished from Ugo Bardi’s Cassandra’s Legacy blog…..

This three-part post was inspired by Ugo’s recent post concerning Will Renewables Ever ReplaceFossils? and recent discussions within Ugo’s discussion group on how is it that “Economists still don’t get it”?  It integrates also numerous discussion and exchanges I have had with colleagues and business partners over the last three years.

Introduction

Since at least the end of 2014 there has been increasing confusions about oil prices, whether so-called “Peak Oil” has already happened, or will happen in the future and when, matters of EROI (or EROEI) values for current energy sources and for alternatives, climate change and the phantasmatic 2oC warming limit, and concerning the feasibility of shifting rapidly to renewables or sustainable sources of energy supply.  Overall, it matters a great deal whether a reasonable time horizon to act is say 50 years, i.e. in the main the troubles that we are contemplating are taking place way past 2050, or if we are already in deep trouble and the timeframe to try and extricate ourselves is some 10 years. Answering this kind of question requires paying close attention to system boundary definitions and scrutinising all matters taken for granted.

It took over 50 years for climatologists to be heard and for politicians to reach the Paris Agreement re climate change (CC) at the close of the COP21, late last year.  As you no doubt can gather from the title, I am of the view that we do not have 50 years to agonise about oil.  In the three sections of this post I will first briefly take stock of where we are oil wise; I will then consider how this situation calls upon us to do our utter best to extricate ourselves from the current prevailing confusion and think straight about our predicament; and in the third part I will offer a few considerations concerning the near term, the next ten years – how to approach it, what cannot work and what may work, and the urgency to act, without delay.

Part 1 – Alice looking down the end of the barrel

In his recent post, Ugo contrasted the views of the Doomstead Diner‘s readers  with that of energy experts regarding the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels within a reasonable timeframe.  In my view, the Doomstead’s guests had a much better sense of the situation than the “experts” in Ugo’s survey.  To be blunt, along current prevailing lines we are not going to make it.  I am not just referring here to “business-as-usual” (BAU) parties holding for dear life onto fossil fuels and nukes.  I also include all current efforts at implementing alternatives and combating CC.  Here is why.

The energy cost of system replacement

What a great number of energy technology specialists miss are the challenges of whole system replacement – moving from fossil-based to 100% sustainable over a given period of time.  Of course, the prior question concerns the necessity or otherwise of whole system replacement.  For those of us who have already concluded that this is an urgent necessity, if only due to CC, no need to discuss this matter here.  For those who maybe are not yet clear on this point, hopefully, the matter will become a lot clearer a few paragraphs down.

So coming back for now to whole system replacement, the first challenge most remain blind to is the huge energy cost of whole system replacement in terms of both the 1st principle of thermodynamics (i.e. how much net energy is required to develop and deploy a whole alternative system, while the old one has to be kept going and be progressively replaced) and also concerning the 2nd principle (i.e. the waste heat involved in the whole system substitution process).  The implied issues are to figure out first how much total fossil primary energy is required by such a shift, in addition to what is required for ongoing BAU business and until such a time when any sustainable alternative has managed to become self-sustaining, and second to ascertain where this additional fossil energy may come from.

The end of the Oil Age is now

If we had a whole century ahead of us to transition, it would be comparatively easy.  Unfortunately, we no longer have that leisure since the second key challenge is the remaining timeframe for whole system replacement.  What most people miss is that the rapid end of the Oil Age began in 2012 and will be over within some 10 years.  To the best of my knowledge, the most advanced material in this matter is the thermodynamic analysis of the oil industry taken as a whole system (OI) produced by The Hill’s Group (THG) over the last two years or so (http://www.thehillsgroup.org).

THG are seasoned US oil industry engineers led by B.W. Hill.  I find its analysis elegant and rock hard.  For example, one of its outputs concerns oil prices.  Over a 56 year time period, its correlation factor with historical data is 0.995.  In consequence, they began to warn in 2013 about the oil price crash that began late 2014 (see: http://www.thehillsgroup.org/depletion2_022.htm).  In what follows I rely on THG’s report and my own work.

Three figures summarise the situation we are in rather well, in my view.

Figure 1 – End Game

oilendgame

For purely thermodynamic reasons net energy delivered to the globalised industrial world (GIW) per barrel by the oil industry (OI) is rapidly trending to zero.  By net energy we mean here what the OI delivers to the GIW, essentially in the form of transport fuels, after the energy used by the OI for exploration, production, transport, refining and end products delivery have been deducted.

However, things break down well before reaching “ground zero”; i.e. within 10 years the OI as we know it will have disintegrated. Actually, a number of analysts from entities like Deloitte or Chatham House, reading financial tealeaves, are progressively reaching the same kind of conclusions.[1]

The Oil Age is finishing now, not in a slow, smooth, long slide down from “Peak Oil”, but in a rapid fizzling out of net energy.  This is now combining with things like climate change and the global debt issues to generate what I call a “Perfect Storm” big enough to bring the GIW to its knees.

In an Alice world

At present, under the prevailing paradigm, there is no known way to exit from the Perfect Storm within the emerging time constraint (available time has shrunk by one order of magnitude, from 100 to 10 years).  This is where I think that Doomstead Diner’s readers are guessing right.  Many readers are no doubt familiar with the so-called “Red Queen” effect illustrated in Figure 2 – to have to run fast to stay put, and even faster to be able to move forward.  The OI is fully caught in it.

Figure 2 – Stuck on a one track to nowhere

perfectstorm

The top part of Figure 2 highlights that, due to declining net energy per barrel, the OI has to keep running faster and faster (i.e. pumping oil) to keep supplying the GIW with the net energy it requires.  What most people miss is that due to that same rapid decline of net energy/barrel towards nil, the OI can’t keep “running” for much more than a few years – e.g. B.W. Hill considers that within 10 years the number of petrol stations in the US will have shrunk by 75%…

What people also neglect, depicted in the bottom part of Figure 2, is what I call the inverse Red Queen effect (1/RQ). Building an alternative whole system takes energy that to a large extent initially has to come from the present fossil-fuelled system.  If the shift takes place too rapidly, the net energy drain literally kills the existing BAU system.[2] The shorter the transition time the harder is the 1/RQ.

I estimate the limit growth rate for the alternative whole system at 7% growth per year.

In other words, current growth rates for solar and wind, well above 20% and in some cases over 60%, are not viable globally.  However, the kind of growth rates, in the order of 35%, that are required for a very short transition under thePerfect Storm time frame are even less viable – if “we” stick to the prevailing paradigm, that is.  As the last part of Figure2 suggests, there is a way out by focusing on current huge energy waste, but presently this is the road not taken.

On the way to Olduvai

In my view, given that nearly everything within the GIW requires transport and that said transport is still about 94% dependent on oil-derived fuels, the rapid fizzling out of net energy from oil must be considered as the defining event of the 21st century – it governs the operation of all other energy sources, as well as that of the entire GIW.  In this respect, the critical parameter to consider is not that absolute amount of oil mined (as even “peakoilers” do), such as Million barrels produced per year, but net energy from oil per head of global population, since when this gets too close to nil we must expect complete social breakdown, globally.

The overall picture, as depicted ion Figure 3, is that of the “Mother of all Senecas” (to use Ugo’s expression).   It presents net energy from oil per head of global population.[3]  The Olduvai Gorge as a backdrop is a wink to Dr. Richard Duncan’s scenario (he used barrels of oil equivalent which was a mistake) and to stress the dire consequences if we do reach the“bottom of the Gorge” – a kind of “postmodern hunter-gatherer” fate.

Oil has been in use for thousands of year, in limited fashion at locations where it seeped naturally or where small well could be dug out by hand.  Oil sands began to be mined industrially in 1745 at Merkwiller-Pechelbronn in north east France (the birthplace of Schlumberger).  From such very modest beginnings to a peak in the early 1970s, the climb took over 220 years.  The fall back to nil will have taken about 50 years.

The amazing economic growth in the three post WWII decades was actually fuelled by a 321% growth in net energy/head.  The peak of 18GJ/head in around 1973, was actually in the order of some 40GJ/head for those who actually has access to oil at the time, i.e. the industrialised fraction of the global population.

Figure 3 – The “Mother of all Senecas”

seneca
In 2012 the OI began to use more energy per barrel in its own processes (from oil exploration to transport fuel deliveries at the petrol stations) than what it delivers net to the GIW.  We are now down below 4GJ/head and dropping fast.

This is what is now actually driving the oil prices: since 2014, through millions of trade transactions (functioning as the“invisible hand” of the markets), the reality is progressively filtering that the GIW can only afford oil prices in proportion to the amount of GDP growth that can be generated by a rapidly shrinking net energy delivered per barrel, which is no longer much.  Soon it will be nil. So oil prices are actually on a downtrend towards nil.

To cope, the OI has been cannibalising itself since 2012.  This trend is accelerating but cannot continue for very long. Even mainstream analysts have begun to recognise that the OI is no longer replenishing its reserves.  We have entered fire-sale times (as shown by the recent announcements by Saudi Arabia (whose main field, Ghawar, is probably over 90% depleted) to sell part of Aramco and make a rapid shift out of a near 100% dependence on oil and towards “solar”.

Given what Figure 1 to 3 depict, it should be obvious that resuming growth along BAU lines is no longer doable, that addressing CC as envisaged at the COP21 in Paris last year is not doable either, and that incurring ever more debt that can never be reimbursed is no longer a solution, not even short-term.

Time to “pull up” and this requires a paradigm change capable of avoiding both the RQ and 1/RQ constraints.  After some 45 years of research, my colleagues and I think this is still doable.  Short of this, no, we are not going to make it, in terms of replacing fossil resources with renewable ones within the remaining timeframe, or in terms of the GIW’s survival.

Next: 

Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question

Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff

 

[1] See for example, Stevens, Paul, 2016, International Oil Companies: The Death of the Old Business Model, Energy, Research Paper, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House; England, John W., 2016, Short of capital? Risk of underinvestment in oil and gas is amplified by competing cash priorities, Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions, Deloitte LLP.  The Bank of England recently commented: “The embattled crude oil and natural gas industry worldwide has slashed capital spending to a point below the minimum required levels to replace reserves — replacement of proved reserves in the past constituted about 80 percent of the industry’s spending; however, the industry has slashed its capital spending by a total of about 50 percent in 2015 and 2016. According to Deloitte’s new study {referred to above], this underinvestment will quickly deplete the future availability of reserves and production.”

[2] This effect is also referred to as “cannibalising”.  See for example, J. M. Pearce, 2009, Optimising Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies to Suppress Energy Cannibalism, 2nd Climate Change Technology Conference, May 12-15, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  However, in the oil industry and more generally the mining industry, cannibalism usually refers to what companies do when there are reaching the end of exploitable reserves and cut down on maintenance, sell assets at a discount or acquires some from companies gone bankrupt, in order to try and survive a bit longer.  Presently there is much asset disposal going on in the Shale Oil and Gas patches, ditto among majors, Lukoil, BP, Shell, Chevron, etc….  Between spending cuts and assets disposal amounts involved are in the $1 to $2 trillions.

[3] This graph is based on THG’s net energy data, BP oil production data and UN demographic data.





Energy storage for the Tasmanian Project

3 02 2016

I’ve done it.  I’ve ordered my Nickel Iron batteries and Victron charger/inverter. Once I’ve ironcoreascertained whether or not I can afford it, I will purchase a second Victron for future backup, fingers crossed the economy (and our funds!) hold out long enough.  The batteries, a 48V 200Ah bank, won’t get here from Russia for another six or so weeks, and when they do, I’ll post more about the installation.

victron

Victron inverter/charger

What really got me started re posting this was the extraordinary episode of Catalyst aired on ABC TV last night….

Anyone watching this will have been totally taken over by techno utopianism of the highest quality.  Dr Jonica Newby is a veterinarian, and unfortunately doesn’t seem to know the difference between power and energy, but maybe I’m just splitting hairs….. it was nonetheless frustrating to constantly hear battery banks rated in kW rather than kWh, big difference….

The “we’ll be saved by these batteries” gushing coming from everyone’s mouths in this show was only interrupted for a few seconds when one commentator expressed his doubt over the financial viability of the very first Tesla power wall installed in Australia.  He asked how this was remotely viable when the payback was 23 years, and the equipment was only warranted for 10? Which was swiftly glossed over for the remaining 25 minutes and never mentioned again…..

Worse, the evangelical fervour used to extol the virtues of Lithium Ion batteries, a technology that I am certain will disappoint a lot of owners in the future, bordered on religion……  think back to how long batteries in your laptops and cell phones last, and wonder how long before all that stuff ends up on landfill.

From Computer World:

Dell plans to recycle however many of the 4.1 million recalled batteries that customers turn in (see Dell battery recall not likely to have big environmental impact), but what happens to the other 2 billion lithium ion batteries which will be sold this year? Most will last for 300 to 500 full recharges (one to three years of use) before failing and ending up in your local municipal landfill or incinerator.

Europeans have a dimmer view of landfilling lithium ion batteries. “There is always potential contamination to water because they contain metals,” says Daniel Cheret, general manager at Belgium-based Umicore Recycling Solutions. The bigger issue is a moral one: the products have a recycling value, so throwing away 2 billion batteries a year is just plain wasteful – especially when so many American landfills are running out of space. “It’s a pity to landfill this material that you could recover,” Charet says. He estimates that between 8,000 and 9,000 tons of cobalt is used in the manufacture of lithium ion batteries each year. Each battery contains 10 to 13% cobalt by weight. Umicore recyles all four metals used in lithium ion batteries.

The reason why more lithium ion batteries aren’t recycled boils down to simple economics: the scrap value of batteries doesn’t amount to much – perhaps $100 per ton, Cheret says. In contrast, the cost of collecting, sorting and shipping used batteries to a recycler exceeds the scrap value, so batteries tend to be thrown away. Unfortunately, the market does not factor in the social cost of disposal, nor does it factor in the fact that recycling metals such as cobalt has a much lower economic and environmental cost than mining raw materials. So we throw them away by the millions.

To be fair, Professor Thomas Maschmeyer also introduced zinc bromide battery technology to the show, and it sounds impressive, with very fast charging times, which by the way is irrelevant to home battery charging. Amusingly, our veterinarian presenter had never heard of gel cells and looked mightily impressed with that too.  It’s easy to be impressed with technology you’re not familiar with, or don’t understand I guess….. and a timeline of 10 or 20 years was mentioned, as if we actually have 10 or 20 years to solve our climate and energy predicaments.

As was to be expected, the main theme of the show was all about how much money could be made from this, not how it was going to save us from climate change or anything else important.  I could not stop laughing when, poised over a computer monitor, Josh Byrne of Gardening Australia fame makes five cents from exporting battery power to his electricity supplier…… what a waste of batteries. How anyone can think that shortening the life of one’s battery bank for five cents is worthwhile truly staggers me. Especially when the service provider then sells it to his neighbours for four times that much!

To his credit, I hasten to add, Josh Byrne has built a 10 star energy efficient house which, powered by just 3kW (when just about everyone these days installs five…) appears to be managing almost as well as we used to in Queensland. I think a program devoted to this aspect of his energy management would be far more useful than the one being discussed at the moment…

Josh House 3D render

Josh’s house project

There was, as usual, much talk about how we could go fossil fuel free, without any acknowledgement whatsoever that all the stuff that goes into these magic boxes of tricks have to be mined, refined, shipped, manufactured, and installed, using….. fossil fuels of course!!  Nor was there any mention of where the money to make all this stuff would come from.

Fascinatingly, the ‘big three’ electricity suppliers in Australia are getting in on the act. Why they would do this when they are constantly expressing their anti renewables positions is puzzling.  Could it be more ‘we’re greener than thou’?

I remain totally baffled by this race to the bottom.

UPDATE:

I have just been pointed to this paper written by Peter J. DeMar, Battery Research and Testing, Inc. Oswego, NY, USA

pjd@batteryresearch.com

They actually managed to revive 85+ year old NiFe batteries to close to their original capacity, even though most of them had been abused beyond belief….. they’re going to keep them going for another fifteen years, just to show if Edison’s original claim that they would last 100 years isn’t mere marketing…..

They concluded…….:

This find of these old Thomas Edison Nickel-Iron cells has been quite an education for us at Battery Research and Testing, as our work for the past 29 years has been primarily with lead acid and some Nickel-Cadmium, but with nothing of the age of these cells. In fact the oldest lead acid cells that we have load tested and that were still functional were old Exide Manchex strings that were 42 years old, and it appears that the only existing lead acid cells that might be able to be functional at 40 years of age are the Bell developed round cells for Telecom applications.

What we have learned has opened up our minds to explore possibilities for this design long life design cell. It would sure seem that any site that has a requirement for a long life battery that will tolerate abusive conditions would consider the total life costs of these type cells and see which works out to be the most cost effective.

http://www.nickel-iron-battery.com/Edison%20Cell%20Rejuvenation%2085%20yr-old%2013.%20DeMar.pdf

 





The Curious Case of Lake Mead

25 06 2015

Another post from Mark Cochrane…..

For the drought in the western US, Lake Mead is a bellwether of the situation since it is a major water source for several states and it shows such a convenient bathtub ring around its edge as the water level drops. The lake is currently more than 140 feet lower than it would be at full capacity, holding 37.1% of what it would at ‘Full Pool’.

In recent weeks the lake level has been dropping by an average of 0.08 ft/day (e.g. 1 inch/day) but for the last week it treated the lake level of 1075 (elevation) like a resistance level on a stock chart by suddenly slowing to an average drop rate of 0.01 ft/day (1/8 inch). Last night it reverted to the mean though and dropped an inch to land its level at 1074.99. It also broke through the bottom of this dynamically updated chart of the last three years of lake levels, forcing it to add a new low of 1070 (yesterday the chart ended at 1075). Who imagined it would get this bad…

The 1075 level is more than just a psychological barrier, it is one where rationing kicks in. It doesn’t start today but in a somewhat arcane manner, if the projections for the lake’s January 1st levels are below 1075 as of mid August.

What happens? Arizona takes the main hit, losing 320,000 acre-feet (AF) of water for its agricultural lands and Nevada is ‘curtailed’ by another 13,000 AF. California has senior water rights and doesn’t face ‘curtailment’ of water for its agricultural lands but the rationing will hit metropolitan areas. Since 2007, there has been a program whereby these areas could sock away water in Lake Mead using Intentionally Created Surplus (ICS) accounts. Basically by conserving water and drawing less than their maximum allowed water rights they got a credit that they could draw on at a later date. However, once the 1075 level is breached those accounts are frozen. A water-bank holiday. Not being completely clueless, metropolitan areas that saw the 1075 level looming have been making a run on their ICS accounts in the last year or more. Ultimately though, the end of ICS availability will mean that the cities will have to use less water, which likely means higher prices, quotas or similar tools to ratchet down water use further. It is possible that the lake will drop below 1060 ft this year, and highly likely this will occur next year. When this happens the last access points on Lake Mead will become inoperable – translation, no boating/tourism. In addition, power costs for energy created at the Hoover Dam will go up substantially. At 1075 feet hydropower costs will roughly double, they triple at 1050 ft, quadruple at 1025 ft, and keep rising right up until power generation ceases at around 1015 feet. Note, Hoover customers are bound by contract to have to purchase Hoover power until 2067 (link). The price of air conditioning is going up.

Just over a month ago it looked like 2016 was going to definitely be a year of reckoning for all states in the US and Mexico that rely on the Colorado River for water but ‘miracle May’ could potentially forestall things by another year. The massive flooding from unprecedented soaking rains that occurred along the upper river basin are now partially replenishing Lake Powell which sits up river of Lake Mead. Lake Powell has filled by over 20 ft in the last 6 weeks and is now filling by over half a foot a day. This has only raised it to 52.5% of capacity but it could be enough to ensure that Lake Mead can be managed to be above 1075 ft come Jan 1, 2016. Extend and pretend of the water supply can probably be finagled for another year but barring a new ‘miracle’ the pain of less water and higher energy costs for the region are likely coming in the next few years. The one hope for a temporary stay of execution in the region is if the current El Nino conditions get very strong, since those conditions are often associated with wet conditions in the drought affected areas. Of course, if that happens, there will be a lot of other problems around the world where El Nino isn’t as kind. Even if this drought abates for a while, chances are that we will witness growing tensions over water use and access in the coming decades as this is the reality of the new climates that we are forcing on the planet.

Mark





Water in the world we want

26 05 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post by Mark Cochrane……

As everyone who watches the news about California, Lakes Mead and Powell in the American Southwest or the situation in Sao Paulo, Brazil can see, water availability is a big deal for both agriculture and human populations. However, much more of the world faces chronic water stress but those areas simply don’t get the press that the aforementioned areas do. We fool ourselves by thinking that ideology drives conflicts and wars when resource scarcity is generally at the root of matters. Water scarcity fueled the Syrian conflict long before the bullets started flying and it is making the Middle East a powder keg.

The UN defines a region as water stressed if the amount of renewable fresh water available per person per year is below 1,700 cubic metres. Below 1,000, the region is defined as experiencing water scarcity, and below 500 amounts to “absolute water scarcity”.

According to the AWWA study, countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States.

Many, though not all, of these countries are experiencing protracted conflicts or civil unrest. (source)

Unrest doesn’t have to be directly related to an apparent lack of water. Egypt’s 2011 uprisings were largely a function of spiking grain prices caused by droughts in grain-exporting countries like Australia. Importing grain is a cheaper and lighter way of effectively importing water to places that don’t have enough water to grow their own crops. Egypt has another tension brewing over water with Ethiopia which is currently working to dam the Nile above where Egypt has already dammed the river.

As Egypt’s population is forecast to double to 150 million by 2050, this could lead to “tremendous tension”

River Nile Dam Site

River Nile Dam Site

between Ethiopia and Egypt over access to the Nile, especially since Ethiopia’s dam would reduce the capacity of Egypt’s hydroelectric plant at Aswan by 40%.

And the problems are not only in Egypt.

Syria, Iraq and Yemen are currently subjected to ongoing US military operations under the rubric of fighting Islamist terrorists, yet the new AWWA study suggests that the rise of Muslim extremist movements has been indirectly fuelled by regional water crises.

————

As US meteorologist Eric Holthaus points out, the rapid rise of the “Islamic State” (IS) last year coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq, recognised as being the warmest on record to date, from March to May 2014.

In addition to the Middle East, hotspots for water-scarcity-fuelled regional conflicts include the Sahel, Central Asia, and the coastal zones of East, South and Southeast Asia. Within as little as five years, 30 million people could be displaced inside China due to water stress. The American west and Mexico could also get ugly as things get drier.

Map_of_Water_Stress_Regions_by_WatershedThe UN defines a region as water stressed if the amount of renewable fresh water available per person per year is below 1,700 cubic metres. Below 1,000, the region is defined as experiencing water scarcity, and below 500 amounts to “absolute water scarcity”.

According to the AWWA study, countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States.

Many, though not all, of these countries are experiencing protracted conflicts or civil unrest.

– See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/new-age-water-wars-portends-bleak-f…

The UN recently released a new study “Water in the world we want” that looks at the stark situation we are facing in the near future if we do not get our global act together to invest in decent water supplies and sanitation. While trying to be generally upbeat about the possibilities we have for improving global water infrastructure they don’t say that it will be cheap. It doesn’t help that corruption currently eats up 30% of expenditures in this area.

The estimated global cost to achieve post-2015 sustainable development goals in water and sanitation development, maintenance and replacement is US $1.25 trillion to $2.25 trillion per year for 20 years, a doubling or tripling of current spending translating into 1.8 to 2.5 percent of global GDP.

The resulting benefits would be commensurately large, however – a minimum of $3.11 trillion per year, not counting health care savings and valuable ecosystem service enhancements.

In this age of revolving the world on quarterly profit reports, who can be bothered to invest in the future of clean water? The report states that the current ‘deficit’ in the world’s maintenance and replacement of water and wastewater infrastructure is growing by $200 million a year. In the ‘richest’ country in the world (guess who) we are disgracefully $1 trillion behind on where we should be to have first world water systems! Do you think that might become an issue at some point?

Given accelerating Earth system changes and the growing threat of hydro-climatic disruption, corruption undermining water-related improvements threatens the stability and very existence of some nation states, which in turn affects all other countries, the report says.

Is that a clear enough statement to spur some sort of action or is it still too vague? How about this..

Within 10 years, researchers predict 48 countries – 25% of all nations on Earth with an expected combined population of 2.9 billion – will be classified “water-scarce” (1,000 to 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year) or “water-stressed” (1,000 cubic meters or less).

And by 2030, expect overall global demand for freshwater to exceed supply by 40%, with the most acute problems in warmer, low-resource nations with young, fast-growing populations, according to the report.

What is that about the next 20 years being totally unlike the last 20 years? Oil is going to continue to be a major issue in the global economy but water scarcity is what can really move the masses to riot or simply relocate. This is not a surprise to those in the halls of power. They’ve been preparing for years.

In May 2010, the U.S. National Security Strategy included global climate change as a security issue: “The danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources, new suffering from drought and famine, catastrophic natural disasters, and the degradation of land across the globe.”

In case you think that this is a ‘future’ problem just look at what the humanitarians in the EU are getting ready to do to stem their human tide of migrants (source).

The European Union has drawn up plans for military attacks in Libya to try to curb the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean by targeting the trafficking networks. It is to launch a bid on Monday to secure a UN mandate for armed action in Libya’s territorial waters.

Britain is drafting the UN security council resolution that would authorise the mission, said senior officials in Brussels. It would come under Italian command, have the participation of around 10 EU countries, including Britain, France, Spain, and Italy, and could also drag in Nato although there are no plans for initial alliance involvement.

And get this:

Following a visit to Beijing last week, Mogherini believes the Chinese will not block the mission at the security council. Her staff are also confident that Russia can be persuaded against wielding its security council veto despite the intense animosity between Moscow and the west over the Ukraine conflict.

What could possibly put the EU, NATO, China and Russia all on the same side other than a problem that they all expect to face? I wonder what chips were traded to get those assurances? The borders are closing fast and it doesn’t sounds like anyone is planning on increasing aid for water infrastructure outside their borders quite yet.

Drink up! It’s only water after all.





A Roadmap For The Land Access

22 04 2015

Another gem….  this one’s from William Horvath’s blog, and really resonates with me because I am constantly asked how our younger generations can ever duplicate our efforts on their own piece of heaven.  We baby boomers have really cleaned up, and it’s entirely at the expense of our kids….. so what are they to do?  I have reached the conclusion that only we with the wealth (such as it might be…) will have to assist in ensuring our kids do have a future, natural catastrophes aside of course, some things are out of our control, maybe even out of control altogether….  Anyhow, read on and see what William thinks.





Electric vehicle batteries ‘already cheaper than 2020 projections’

25 03 2015

As the cost of everything seems to be plummeting right now, I, who always plays the devil’s advocate and sceptic of the first order, find it hard to not wonder if Nicole Foss’ much vaunted deflationary spiral is not already underway.  Just this morning I found out that the US coal industry is in trouble.  Then, reports of worsening problems are finally surfacing about the oil industry.  As we all know here at DTM, without a profitable fossil fuel industry, absolutely nothing else will eventuate when it comes to the alternatives……..  so what to make of this?  All I can say is, hang onto your hat, because the ride will be interesting.

The US coal market is crashing in what analysts warn is a sign of things to come for other fossil fuel markets.

At least 26 coal producers have gone bankrupt in the last three years, the Carbon Tracker Initiative think-tank found.

Others including Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, have lost 80% of their share value.

“Cheap gas has knocked coal off its feet, and the need to improve air quality and ever-lower renewables costs has kept coal down for the count,” said report co-author Luke Sussams.

Meanwhile, demand growth from Asia has been slower than expected. China’s coal consumption fell 3% in 2014 as the country sought to tackle increasingly severe air pollution in its cities.

AND….

In the latest week, drillers idled another 41 oil rigs, according to Baker Hughes. Only 825 rigs were still active, down 48.7% from October. In the 23 weeks since, drillers have idled 784 oil rigs, the steepest, deepest cliff-dive in the history of the data:

US-rig-count_1988_2015-03-20=oil

The number of rigs drilling for natural gas dropped by 15 to 242, the lowest rig count since March 1992 and down 85% from its peak in 2008.

By Simon Evans

The cost of electric vehicle battery packs is falling so rapidly they are probably already cheaper than expected for 2020, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change.

Electric vehicles remain more expensive than combustion-engine equivalents, largely because of battery costs. In 2013 the International Energy Agency estimated cost-parity could be reached in 2020, with battery costs reaching $300* per kilowatt-hour of capacity.

But market-leading firms were probably already producing cheaper batteries last year, says today’s new research. It says its figures are “two to four times lower than many recent peer-reviewed papers have suggested”.

High costs, falling

Even though the  EU electric vehicle market grew by 37% year on year in 2014, it still made up less than 1% of total sales. High cost is a major reason why electric vehicles have failed to break through, alongside range and a lack of recharging infrastructure.

The new research is based on a review of 85 cost estimates in peer-reviewed research, agency estimates, consultancy and industry reports, news reports covering the views of industry representatives and experts and finally estimates from leading manufacturers.

It says industry-wide costs have fallen from above $1000 per kilowatt-hour in 2007 down to around $410 in 2014, a 14% annual reduction (blue marks, below). Costs for market-leading firms have fallen by 8% per year, reaching $300 per kilowatt hour in 2014 (green marks).

Figure 1: Cost estimates and future projections for EV battery packs, measured in $US per kilowatt hour of capacity. Each mark on the chart represents a documented estimate reviewed by the study. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 At 14.22.10

Source: Nykvist et al. (2015).

For the market-leading firms, shown in green on the chart above, costs last year were already at the bottom end of projections for 2020 (yellow triangles).

The paper estimates prices will fall further to around $230 per kilowatt-hour in 2017-18, “on a par with the most optimistic future estimate among analysts”. The crossover point where electric cars become cheapest depends on electricity costs, vehicle taxes and prices at the pump.

In the US, with current low oil prices, battery packs would need to fall below $250 per kilowatt-hour for electric cars to become competitive, the study says. Behavioural barriers to electric vehicle uptake present additional hurdles to widespread adoption.

The paper says:

“If costs reach as low as $150 per kilowatt-hour this means that electric vehicles will probably move beyond niche applications and begin to penetrate the market more widely, leading to a potential paradigm shift in vehicle technology.”

Learning rate

To reach that level, costs will have to fall further. But a commercial breakthrough for the next generation of lithium batteries “is still distant”, the paper says, and many improvements in cell chemistry have already been realised. This seems to pour cold water on frequent claims of new battery types “transforming” the electric vehicle market.

However, there are still savings to be made in manufacturing improvements, industry learning and economies of scale, which have already brought down costs in recent years. Cumulative global production and sales of electric vehicles are roughly doubling annually, the paper says.

That means the 30% cost reduction expected at Tesla Motors’ planned “Gigafactory” battery plant by 2017 represents a “trajectory close to the trends projected in this paper”. On the other hand Renault-Nissan’s plans to build battery manufacturing capacity for 1.5 million cars by 2016 have hit the buffers as electric car sales have trailed expectations.

There are large uncertainties in the paper’s findings. Despite being the most comprehensive review to date, it relies on “sparse data” and acknowledges that a secretive industry might avoid revealing high costs, or conversely might subsidise battery packs to gain market share.

Overall it is “possible” that economies of scale will push costs down towards $200 kilowatt-hour “in the near future even without further cell chemistry improvements”, the paper concludes. If the paper is right then electric vehicle uptake could exceed expectations. That will be a good thing for the climate – just as long as the electricity that fuels them is not from coal.

*All dollar figures are in USD

Originally published by Carbon Brief.