Not happy, Jan…….

8 04 2017

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know I’ve been saying for quite some time that out of the ludicrous Lithium battery rush happening right now as a ‘fix it’ for all and sundry energy problems, a lot of disappointed people will surface. Well, one just has, and he’s one of the most high profile person in the sustainability movement.

I met Michael Mobbs almost certainly before 2010, which is the year I went working for the solar industry. He gave a public lecture about sustainability in Pomona at the Rural Futures Network; I wonder how that’s going now..? Mobbs has undertaken converting an old terrace house in Sydney to ‘sustainability’ by disconnecting from the water grid and sewerage. He also went grid tied solar, the whole project is well documented on his website, and you have to give him credit for doing the almost impossible…. in Sydney no less. I for one would never undertake such a project, it’s so much easier to start from scratch in the country! And that’s hard enough, let me tell you….

It now appears, Mobbs decided to also cut himself off from the electricity grid…. and it seems that didn’t go so well….

mobbsbatteriesOn Mobbs’ website, there is an “invitation to install & supply an off-grid solar system” It seems he had one installed in March 2015, but it’s not working as it should, or at least as Mobbs thought it should…..

Firstly, let’s start with what he got……. It’s a bit hard to tell from the photo, apart from the fact it is an Alpha ‘box’. From the blog, I also established that this comes with a 3kW inverter, itself a problem, it appears to be too small. Going to Alpha’s website, I cannot find the system Mobbs appears so proud of in the above photo; and let’s face it, two years is a long time in the world of technology. All the products on display say that the output of these cabinets is 5kW, but nowhere does it say it even features an inverter.  Solarchoice’s website shows a 3kW Storion-S3 cabinet, but not even it looks like what Mobbs has in the photo – it only has one door, the ‘new ones’ have two….. The inverter is called an AEV-3048, and perhaps the A stands for Alpha, and 3048 means 3000W/48V, but it’s all guesswork because finding information is a problem.

So why is a 3kW inverter a problem in a house with a claimed baseload of 86W, very close to what we achieved in Cooran actually…..

Another huge flaw with the Alpha system that I’ve recently become aware of also stems from the fact that all the energy first goes through the batteries: the Alpha system’s output is always limited to 3,000W regardless of the solar size; it can’t deliver above this. This is an extremely important point to understand because it affects the way I live and how I’m able to use my appliances. I’ll break it down in a way that’s practical and simple; prepare yourself to be blown away by this outrageous system limitation.

We’ve already established that the base load of my house is 86W. Let’s say I wake up in the morning, turn on a couple of lights in the kitchen because it’s still dark (20W), turn on the toaster because I’m in the mood for toast with butter for breakfast (1,200W), and my daughter (who happens to be staying with me) turns on her hair dryer while getting ready (1,500W) and she decides she needs to put on a load of laundry before she leaves the house (500W). Doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary, right? Well, we would be in trouble: all of the power would cut off, and the Alpha system would shut down because we would have exceeded its 3,000W limit. Regardless of the size of my solar system, I can NEVER exceed 3,000W of power consumption in my house while using the Alpha system. This was very hard to swallow.

Oh Michael…….  welcome to living off the grid!

Mobbs gives a brief description of how he worked out this baseload….

Step one, determining my total base load, wasn’t as easy as I expected, especially given the fact that I have three different monitoring systems that could provide me with the information. The Efergy and Wattwatchers systems confirmed what I already knew: my house’s base load was about 86W (60W for the aerator and roughly 20W for the fridge occasionally turning on).However, where I ran into problems was with the Alpha ESS reporting system: it was saying my base load was 257W, which is three times larger than the base load reported for the house.At first I thought this difference of 171W was the base load of the Alpha system itself, but their numbers just didn’t add up.

I do have a theory here, he may have got the sums wrong because he used to be grid tied, and maybe, just maybe, his figures did not include what was exported. But I’m only guessing. My main reason for thinking this is that he is running a conventional fridge, while we achieved our low baseload using a freedge which consumes 20% of the energy a conventional fridge does…. make no mistake, a conventional fridge’s ‘baseload’ is half or more of his 86W. He’s claiming 20W for his fridge (480Wh/day, 20W x 24 hrs), but I have never seen any fridge perform that well…. Most fridges today still consume a whole kilowatthour a day. So there could be another error there.

But it gets worse……

Now you see why I said that I probably made a huge mistake by purchasing the Alpha system when going off-grid. The simple truth is that the Alpha system is not designed to be used in an off-grid setting, and they have not implemented the necessary retrofits to make it work in that environment. However, during my recent research, I came across a product that is designed specifically to be used off-grid and shows great promise for high efficiency and effective energy management: the SMA Sunny Island system.

Bad news Michael……  the SMA Sunny Island is not designed for off the grid either, it’s made to work with other SMA grid tied units in a hybrid grid/backup batteries system.

Worse still, he also seems to have storage issues….

For the last few weeks, in the particularly cloudy and rainy weather Sydney has had to endure, Mobbs had to turn off his fridge (bloody fridges, they are a curse…) during the day to ensure that the house, which he shares with two others, has enough power for a “civilised life” at night-time. Worse than that, the system has a bug in it that causes it to trip out every couple of days. It seems flashing digital lights have become part of his life….!

“I’m running short of power,” Mobbs said complaining that the system that he has in place is delivering 1kWh/day less than he expected. “I thought this would be a walk in the park, but I appear to have tripped over.”

I’m seriously starting to think a lot of installers have no idea what they are doing. I recently related the story of my friend Bruce whose inlaws replaced a perfectly good system (because of a fridge no less!), and they were sold a Sunny Island, with I was told over the phone just two days ago, gel cells for storage……… completely not what either Bruce or I would have bought. Solar companies (including this well known one who shall remain nameless) have simply turned into salespeople selling whatever it is they have in stock off catalogues…….

Mobbs then writes……

The main difference between the Alpha and Sunny Island system: Sunny Island can send solar energy directly to the house when it is needed and completely bypasses the system’s batteries. SMA’s Sunny Island system not only extends battery life by not cycling all loads through them, but using solar directly into loads means items can be set to run on timers during the day, (washing, dishwasher etc) to maximise the benefit of an abundant afternoon supply of solar. It also has a larger peak design capacity than Alpha. For example, if you have a 4kW solar system, with the SMA units that would allow a potential delivery of 4kW of solar (in optimum conditions) directly into the house’s load + the 4.6kW of power from the batteries delivered by the Sunny Island controller (they can run in parallel to each other).  That’s a big potential 8.6 kW of continuous capacity to loads.  As I’ve already pointed out, in contrast the Alpha output is always limited to the 3,000W delivery of the battery inverter regardless of the solar size.

More bad news Michael…… this only works that way if you are grid tied with a hybrid system!

Michael also doesn’t seem to understand how off the grid works…

Alpha has an inefficient way of managing my solar energy (by diverting all of it through my batteries first), which decreases my battery life by constantly charging and discharging them…

Errr…..  Michael, that’s how battery storage works! Which is of course exactly why Lithium batteries are not good at this. Mobbs also wrote…:

Like any system that transfers and converts energy from one form to another, there are going to be losses. No system is perfect. However, as I started doing more research, I became aware of a key element of the way the Alpha system operates that may mean my decision to purchase it was a huge mistake: the Alpha system transfers all its incoming solar energy through the batteries before it delivers it to the house. When I learned this, I was devastated. One of the most important figures of merit in a system such as mine are the battery losses. If you put 1kWh into a battery it doesn’t all come out! There are losses associated with both charging and discharging. The higher the charge/discharge rate, the greater proportion of energy is lost and the shorter my battery life becomes. So, I repeat, all my energy is getting charged and discharged through the batteries before I ever even see it in the house. For someone living off-grid, this level of energy loss and battery depreciation is unacceptable, and I was never made aware of it by the installer.

This is why I know there will be a lot of disappointed grid disconnectors. They have swallowed the idea that living off grid is just like living on it hook line and sinker, when it cannot possibly be. How long have I been saying solar has shortcomings?

If you’re going to go off the grid, first, you need to know exactly how much energy you’re consuming. Then you need to know what your peak power demand will be so you can size your inverter. Then, you must size your battery bank so that you can go on living through a series of cloudy days without your batteries falling over. Accurate climate data is really important. And if you ask me, any off the grid system should be tailor made for the household, not all fitted in a box…..

The comments on Mobbs’ blog are interesting, including one from Alpha who obviously can do without the bad publicity and are suggesting entering into consultation….. well if you ask me, the time for consultation is before installation, not after it’s established the gear does not perform as needed….

Furthermore, and this is most important, get batteries that can be flattened and recharged for as many times as you like, almost forever if you go the way of Nickel Iron batteries……

At least Mobbs is aware of what his system is doing, but most consumers don’t. They will buy these cabinets, not understand what the monitors tell them, and the Lithium batteries will be cycled to death, failing early without a doubt, driving incompetent solar companies broke and giving solar power a really bad name. Plus, let’s face it, by the time all these systems die, you won’t be able to get replacement bits in a post collapse world….

There is one more issue…… on his blog Mobbs shows..:

In 1996, I installed 18 solar panels, each with 120-watt capacity. It reduced the amount the house took from the grid by more than 60%. Since then, I have installed 12 additional panels, bringing my home’s total system capacity to just over 3.5kW. mobbs panels

In addition to the roof solar cells, the house uses sunlight to heat water through a standard solar hot-water system. The environmental savings achievable by using solar hot-water heaters are summed up by Gavin Gilchrist in his book, The Big Switch:
“If all the electric water heaters in Australia were replaced with solar ones, greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s households would be cut by one-fifth.” One fifth is one mighty big saving!

The Bottom Line… I am saving hundreds of dollars every year not paying electricity bills by powering my household appliances using the Sun. 

I totally concur re the solar water heaters. Amazingly, I have friends in Geeveston who have one, and they hardly ever boost, which is astonishing considering how everyone was telling me how poorly solar would work in Tassie.

BUT…… all those original PVs were replaced when Mobbs cut the cord and increased his array size from 2kW to 5kW…… they were only ten years old, and as Prieto pointed out recently, the early retirement/replacement of PVs and balance of system can drive the ERoEI of solar to negative territory….. I can’t find mention of what happened to the obsolete 120W panels for which it might be hard to find compatible equipment.

One last thing……  his baseload of 86W is clearly wrong if a 3.5kW array can’t drive it. Our electricity habit was run for years on just 1.28kW, and I intend to now do it in Tassie with just 2kW. I rest my case.





It’s the nett energy George…..

7 02 2016

George-Monbiot-L

George Monbiot

George Monbiot has written another piece on the current oil situation, but whilst I agree mostly with what he says, he still doesn’t ‘get it’………

Oil, the industry that threatens us with destruction, is being bailed out with public money

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd February 2016

Those of us who predicted, during the first years of this century, an imminent peak in global oil supplies could not have been more wrong. People like the energy consultant Daniel Yergin, with whom I disputed the topic, appear to have been right: growth, he said, would continue for many years, unless governments intervened.

Oil appeared to peak in the United States in 1970, after which production fell for 40 years. That, we assumed, was the end of the story. But through fracking and horizontal drilling, production last year returned to the level it reached in 1969. Twelve years ago, the Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens announced that “never again will we pump more than 82 million barrels”. By the end of 2015, daily world production reached 97 million.

Following one of those links, I have to admit, surprised me…..  I had no idea the US’ oil production had almost reached its 1970 peak….. I may have confused how much they were extracting with what they were consuming. And, that chart is already out of date, the extraction rate is now in freefall…

usoilprod

What everyone who comments on this fails to say is that whilst the numbers of barrels tabled in their spreadsheets might well be there, and they may be following the money, absolutely nobody is following the nett number of Megajoules.  A barrel of oil from the last dot on the above chart may well contain less than a quarter of the nett energy content of one from a dot at the toe of the curve.

George then adds….:

Saudi Arabia has opened its taps, to try to destroy the competition and sustain its market share: a strategy that some peak oil advocates once argued was impossible.

Methinks he should visit Gail Tverberg’s site for proper analysis….

saudiexport

Saudi Arabia has been pumping flat out for years, with no discernible market flooding power.  It may in fact be trying very hard to meet its own fast growing domestic demand which is having an obvious impact on how much it is exporting, which is discernably less than it was way back in 1980……. so how can you blame them for flooding the market?

George continues with…..:

Instead of a collapse in the supply of oil, we confront the opposite crisis: we’re drowning in the stuff. The reasons for the price crash – an astonishing slide from $115 a barrel to $30 over the past 20 months – are complex: among them are weaker demand in China and a strong dollar. But an analysis by the World Bank finds that changes in supply have been a much greater factor than changes in demand.

Whilst Gail Tverberg says…..:

Some people talk about peak energy (or oil) supply. They expect high prices and more demand than supply. Other people talk about energy demand hitting a peak many years from now, perhaps when most of us have electric cars.

Neither of these views is correct. The real situation is that we right now seem to be reaching peak energy demand through low commodity prices. I see evidence of this in the historical energy data recently updated by BP (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015).

Growth in world energy consumption is clearly slowing. In fact, growth in energy consumption was only 0.9% in 2014. This is far below the 2.3% growth we would expect, based on recent past patterns. In fact, energy consumption in 2012 and 2013 also grew at lower than the expected 2.3% growth rate (2012 – 1.4%; 2013 – 1.8%).

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

Recently, I wrote that economic growth eventually runs into limits. The symptoms we should expect are similar to the patterns we have been seeing recently (Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)). It seems to me that the patterns in BP’s new data are also of the kind that we would expect to be seeing, if we are hitting limits that are causing low commodity prices.

Of course, people like George who want to keep growth going, only using wind and nuclear power, don’t understand we are hitting limits.

When oil hit $147 at the time of the GFC, it literally bankrupted the economy. Having hit peak conventional oil, trillions of dollars had to be invested (read, borrowed…) to capitalise on the much higher hanging and less energetic fruit. Which made us get less with more, when we should be doing the exact opposite, doing more with less…..

George then has a big whinge about fossil subsidies at the expense of renewables.  The way I see it however, is that as all renewables are manufactured with fossil fuels, as they get cheaper, the costs of making the renewables also goes down, so that to some extent, any fossil subsidy is a hidden renewables subsidy…..  Furthermore, without further subsidies, oil and coal companies will go bust to which George says….:

A falling oil price drags down the price of gas, exposing coal mining companies to the risk of bankruptcy: good riddance to them.

Which, George, unfortunately also means good riddance to renewables….  He then ends with…….:

So they lock us into the 20th Century, into industrial decline and air pollution, stranded assets and – through climate change – systemic collapse. Governments of this country cannot resist the future forever. Eventually they will succumb to the inexorable logic, and recognise that most of the vast accretions of fossil plant life in the Earth’s crust must be left where they are. And those massive expenditures of public money will prove to be worthless.

Crises expose corruption: that is one of the basic lessons of politics. The oil price crisis finds politicians with their free-market trousers round their ankles. When your friends are in trouble, the rigours imposed religiously upon the poor and public services suddenly turn out to be negotiable. Throw money at them, trash their competitors, rig the outcome: those who deserve the least receive the most.

At last……  George recognises systemic collapse, for all the wrong reasons unfortunately. It may look like corruption to him, but it sure as hell looks like limits to growth to me.





BP Data Suggests We Are Reaching Peak Energy Demand

25 06 2015

Some people talk about peak energy (or oil) supply. They expect high prices and more demand than supply. Other people talk about energy demand hitting a peak many years from now, perhaps when most of us have electric cars.

Neither of these views is correct. The real situation is that we right now seem to be reaching peak energy demand through low commodity prices. I see evidence of this in the historical energy data recently updated by BP (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015).

Growth in world energy consumption is clearly slowing. In fact, growth in energy consumption was only 0.9% in 2014. This is far below the 2.3% growth we would expect, based on recent past patterns. In fact, energy consumption in 2012 and 2013 also grew at lower than the expected 2.3% growth rate (2012 – 1.4%; 2013 – 1.8%).

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

Recently, I wrote that economic growth eventually runs into limits. The symptoms we should expect are similar to the patterns we have been seeing recently (Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)). It seems to me that the patterns in BP’s new data are also of the kind that we would expect to be seeing, if we are hitting limits that are causing low commodity prices.

One of our underlying problems is that energy costs that have risen faster than most workers’ wages since 2000. Another underlying problem has to do with globalization. Globalization provides a temporary benefit. In the last 20 years, we greatly ramped up globalization, but we are now losing the temporary benefit globalization brings. We find we again need to deal with the limits of a finite world and the constraints such a world places on growth.

Energy Consumption is Slowing in Many Parts of the World 

Many parts of the world are seeing slowing growth in energy consumption. One major example is China.

Figure 2. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Based on recent patterns in China, we would expect fuel consumption to be increasing by about 7.5% per year. Instead, energy consumption has slowed, with growth amounting to 4.3% in 2012; 3.7% in 2013; and 2.6% in 2014. If China was recently the growth engine of the world, it is now sputtering.

Part of China’s problem is that some of the would-be buyers of its products are not growing. Europe is a well-known example of an area with economic problems. Its consumption of energy products has been slumping since 2006.

Figure 3. European Union Energy Consumption based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 Data.

I have used the same scale (maximum = 3.5 billion metric tons of oil equivalent) on Figure 3 as I used on Figure 2 so that readers can easily compare the European’s Union’s energy consumption to that of China. When China was added to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, it used only about 60% as much energy as the European Union. In 2014, it used close to twice as much energy (1.85 times as much) as the European Union.

Another area with slumping energy demand is Japan. It consumption has been slumping since 2005. It was already well into a slump before its nuclear problems added to its other problems.

Figure 4. Japan energy consumption by fuel, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

A third area with slumping demand is the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The two major countries within tithe FSU with slumping demand are Russia and Ukraine.

Figure 5. Former Soviet Union energy consumption by source, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy Data 2015.

Of course, some of the recent slumping demand of Ukraine and Russia are intended–this is what US sanctions are about. Also, low oil prices hurt the buying power of Russia. This also contributes to its declining demand, and thus its consumption.

The United States is often portrayed as the bright ray of sunshine in a world with problems. Its energy consumption is not growing very briskly either.

Figure 6. United States energy consumption by fuel, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.

To a significant extent, the US’s slowing energy consumption is intended–more fuel-efficient cars, more fuel efficient lighting, and better insulation. But part of this reduction in the growth in energy consumption comes from outsourcing a portion of manufacturing to countries around the world, including China. Regardless of cause, and whether the result was intentional or not, the United States’ consumption is not growing very briskly. Figure 6 shows a small uptick in the US’s energy consumption since 2012. This doesn’t do much to offset slowing growth or outright declines in many other countries around the world.

Slowing Growth in Demand for Almost All Fuels

We can also look at world energy consumption by type of energy product. Here we find that growth in consumption slowed in 2014 for nearly all types of energy.

Figure 7. World energy consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Looking at oil separately (Figure 8), the data indicates that for the world in total, oil consumption grew by 0.8% in 2014. This is lower than in the previous three years (1.1%, 1.2%, and 1.1% growth rates).

Figure 8. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

If oil producers had planned for 2014 oil consumption based on the recent past growth in oil consumption growth, they would have overshot by about 1,484 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE), or about 324,000 barrels per day. If this entire drop in oil consumption came in the second half of 2014, the overshoot would have been about 648,000 barrels per day during that period. Thus, the mismatch we are have recently been seeing between oil consumption and supply appears to be partly related to falling demand, based on BP’s data.

(Note: The “oil” being discussed is inclusive of biofuels and natural gas liquids. I am using MTOE because MTOE puts all fuels on an energy equivalent basis. A barrel is a volume measure. Growth in barrels will be slightly different from that in MTOE because of the changing mix of liquid fuels.)

We can also look at oil consumption for the US, EU, and Japan, compared to all of the rest of the world.

Figure 9. Oil consumption divided between the (a) US, EU, and Japan, and (b) Rest of the World.

While the rest of the world is still increasing its growth in oil consumption, its rate of increase is falling–from 2.3% in 2012, to 1.6% in 2013, to 1.3% in 2014.

Figure 10 showing world coal consumption is truly amazing. Huge growth in coal use took place as globalization spread. Carbon taxes in some countries (but not others) further tended to push manufacturing to coal-intensive manufacturing locations, such as China and India.

Figure 10. World coal consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Looking at the two parts of the world separately (Figure 11), we see that in the last three years, growth in coal consumption outside of US, EU, and Japan, has tapered down. This is similar to the result for world consumption of coal in total (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Coal consumption for the US, EU, and Japan separately from the Rest of the World, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Another way of looking at fuels is in a chart that compares consumption of the various fuels side by side (Figure 12).

Figure 8. World energy consumption by fuel, showing each fuel separately, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Consumption of oil, coal and natural gas are all moving on tracks that are in some sense parallel. In fact, coal and natural gas consumption have recently tapered more than oil consumption. World oil consumption grew by 0.8% in 2014; coal and natural gas consumption each grew by 0.4% in 2014.

The other three fuels are smaller. Hydroelectric had relatively slow growth in 2014. Its growth was only 2.0%, compared to a recent average of as much as 3.5%. Even with this slow growth, it raised hydroelectric energy consumption to 6.8% of world energy supply.

Nuclear electricity grew by 1.8%. This is actually a fairly large percentage gain compared to the recent shrinkage that has been taking place.

Other renewables continued to grow, but not as rapidly as in the past. The growth rate of this grouping was 12.0%, (compared to 22.4% in 2011, 18.1% in 2012, 16.5% in 2013). With the falling percentage growth rate, growth is more or less “linear”–similar amounts were added each year, rather than similar percentages. With recent growth, other renewables amounted to 2.5% of total world energy consumption in 2014.

Falling Consumption Is What We Would Expect with Lower Inflation-Adjusted Prices

People buy goods that they want or need, with one caveat: they don’t buy what they cannot afford. To a significant extent affordability is based on wages (or income levels for governments or businesses). It can also reflect the availability of credit.

We know that commodity prices of many kinds (energy, food, metals of many kinds) have been have generally been falling, on an inflation adjusted basis, for the past four years. Figure 13 shows a graph prepared by the International Monetary Fund of trends in commodity prices.

Figure 9. Charts prepared by the IMF showing trends in indices of primary commodity prices.

It stands to reason that if prices of commodities are low, while the general trend in the cost of producing these commodities is upward, there will be erosion in the amount of these products that can be purchased. (This occurs because prices are falling relative to the cost of producing the goods.) If, prior to the drop in prices, consumption of the commodity had been growing rapidly, lower prices are likely to lead to a slower rate of consumption growth. If prices drop further or stay depressed, an absolute drop in consumption may occur.

It seems to me that the lower commodity prices we have been seeing over the past four years (with a recent sharper drop for oil), likely reflect an affordability problem. This affordability problem arises because for most people, wages did not rise when energy prices rose, and the prices of commodities in general rose in the early 2000s.

For a while, the lack of affordability could be masked with a variety of programs: economic stimulus, increasing debt and Quantitative Easing. Eventually these programs reach their limits, and prices begin falling in inflation-adjusted terms. Now we are at a point where prices of oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium are all low in inflation-adjusted terms, discouraging further investment.

Commodity Exporters–Will They Be Next to Be Hit with Lower Consumption?

If the price of a commodity, say oil, is low, this is a problem for a country that exports the commodity. The big issue is likely to be tax revenue. Governments very often get a major share of their tax revenue from taxing the profits of the companies that sell the commodities, such as oil. If the price of oil, or other commodity that is exported drops, then it will be difficult for the government to collect enough tax revenue. There may be other effects as well. The company producing the commodity may cut back its production. If this happens, the exporting country is faced with another problem–laid-off workers without jobs. This adds a second need for revenue: to pay benefits to laid-off workers.

Many oil exporters currently subsidize energy and food products for their citizens. If tax revenue is low, the amount of these subsidies is likely to be reduced. With lower subsidies, citizens will buy less, reducing world demand. This reduction in demand will tend to reduce world oil (or other commodity) prices.

Even if subsidies are not involved, lower tax revenue will very often affect the projects an oil exporter can undertake. These projects might include building roads, schools, or hospitals. With fewer projects, world demand for oil and other commodities tends to drop.

The concern I have now is that with low oil prices, and low prices of other commodities, a number of countries will have to cut back their programs, in order to balance government budgets. If this happens, the effect on the world economy could be quite large. To get an idea how large it might be, let’s look again at Figure 1, recopied below.

Notice that the three “layers” in the middle are all countries whose economies are fairly closely tied to commodity exports. Arguably I could have included more countries in this category–for example, other OPEC countries could be included in this grouping. These countries are now in the “Rest of the World” category. Adding more countries to this category would make the portion of world consumption tied to countries depending on commodity exports even greater.

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

My concern is that low commodity prices will prove to be self-perpetuating, because low commodity prices will adversely affect commodity exporters. As these countries try to fix their own problems, their own demand for commodities will drop, and this will affect world commodity prices. The total amount of commodities used by exporters is quite large. It is even larger when oil is considered by itself (see Figure 8 above).

In my view, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 occurred indirectly as a result of low oil prices in the late 1980s. A person can see from Figure 1 how much the energy consumption of the Former Soviet Union fell after 1991. Of course, in such a situation exports may fall more than consumption, leading to a rise in oil prices. Ultimately, the issue becomes whether a world economy can adapt to falling oil supply, caused by the collapse of some oil exporters.

Our Economy Has No Reverse Gear

None of the issues I raise would be a problem, if our economy had a reverse gear–in other words, if it could shrink as well as grow. There are a number of things that go wrong if an economy tries to shrink:

  • Businesses find themselves with more factories than they need. They need to lay off workers and sell buildings. Profits are likely to fall. Loan covenants may be breached. There is little incentive to invest in new factories or stores.
  • There are fewer jobs available, in comparison to the number of available workers. Many drop out of the labor force or become unemployed. Wages of non-elite workers tend to stagnate, reflecting the oversupply situation.
  • The government finds it necessary to pay more benefits to the unemployed. At the same time, the government’s ability to collect taxes falls, because of the poor condition of businesses and workers.
  • Businesses in poor financial condition and workers who have been laid off tend to default on loans. This tends to put banks into poor financial condition.
  • The number of elderly and disabled tends to grow, even as the working population stagnates or falls, making the funding of pensions increasingly difficult.
  • Resale prices of homes tend to drop because there are not enough buyers.

Many have focused on a single problem area–for example, the requirement that interest be paid on debt–as being the problem preventing the economy from shrinking. It seems to me that this is not the only issue. The problem is much more fundamental. We live in a networked economy; a networked economy has only two directions available to it: (1) growth and (2) recession, which can lead to collapse.

Conclusion

What we seem to be seeing is an end to the boost that globalization gave to the world economy. Thus, world economic growth is slowing, and because of this slowed economic growth, demand for energy products is slowing. This globalization was encouraged by the Kyoto Protocol (1997). The protocol aimed to reduce carbon emissions, but because it inadvertently encouraged globalization, it tended to have the opposite effect. Adding China to the World Trade Organization in 2001 further encouraged globalization. CO2 emissions tended to grow more rapidly after those dates.

Figure 14. World CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, based on data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Now growth in fuel use is slowing around the world. Virtually all types of fuel are affected, as are many parts of the world. The slowing growth is associated with low fuel prices, and thus slowing demand for fuel. This is what we would expect, if the world is running into affordability problems, ultimately related to fuel prices rising faster than wages.

Globalization brings huge advantages, in the form of access to cheap energy products still in the ground. From the point of view of businesses, there is also the possibility of access to cheap labor and access to new markets for selling their goods. For long-industrialized countries, globalization also represents a workaround to inadequate local energy supplies.

The one problem with globalization is that it is not a permanent solution. This happens for several reasons:

  • A great deal of debt is needed for the new operations. At some point, this debt starts reaching limits.
  • Diminishing returns leads to higher cost of energy products. For example, later coal may need to come from more distant locations, adding to costs.
  • Wages in the newly globalized area tend to rise, negating some of the initial benefit of low wages.
  • Wages of workers in the area developed prior to globalization tend to fall because of competition with workers from parts of the world getting lower pay.
  • Pollution becomes an increasing problem in the newly globalized part of the world. China is especially concerned about this problem.
  • Eventually, more than enough factory space is built, and more than enough housing is built.
  • Demand for energy products (in terms of what workers around the world can afford) cannot keep up with production, in part because wages of many workers lag thanks to competition with low-paid workers in less-advanced countries.

It seems to me that we are reaching the limits of globalization now. This is why prices of commodities have fallen. With falling prices comes lower total consumption. Many economies are gradually moving into recession–this is what the low prices and falling rates of energy growth really mean.

It is quite possible that at some point in the not too distant future, demand (and prices) will fall further. We then will be dealing with severe worldwide recession.

In my view, low prices and low demand for commodities are what we should expect, as we reach limits of a finite world. There is widespread belief that as we reach limits, prices will rise, and energy products will become scarce. I don’t think that this combination can happen for very long in a networked economy. High energy prices tend to lead to recession, bringing down prices. Low wages and slow growth in debt also tend to bring down prices. A networked economy can work in ways that does not match our intuition; this is why many researchers fail to see understand the nature of the problem we are facing.





A Degrowth Response to an Ecomodernist Manifesto

29 05 2015

Originally published on the Resillience website, I thought my followers would find this interesting….  having said that, the more work like this I read the more pessimistic I feel anything will be done!  Such is the momentum of the ‘Ecomodernists’

Critique Summary

Authors and Endorsers: Jeremy Caradonna, Iris Borowy, Tom Green, Peter A. Victor, Maurie Cohen, Andrew Gow, Anna Ignatyeva, Matthias Schmelzer, Philip Vergragt, Josefin Wangel, Jessica Dempsey, Robert Orzanna, Sylvia Lorek, Julian Axmann, Rob Duncan, Richard B. Norgaard, Halina S. Brown, Richard Heinberg


A group known as the “ecomodernists,” which includes prominent environmental thinkers and development specialists such as Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Stewart Brand, David Keith, and Joyashree Roy has recently published a statement of principles called An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015). Many of the authors of the Manifesto are connected to an influential think tank called The Breakthrough Institute.
ecoutopia
The Manifesto is an attempt to lay out the basic message of ecomodernism, which is an approach to development that emphasizes the roles of technology and economic growth in meeting the world’s social, economic, and ecological challenges. The ecomodernists “reject” the idea “that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse,” and instead argue that what is needed is a reliance on technologies, from nuclear power to carbon capture and storage, that allow for a “decoupling [of] human development from environmental impacts.”
The Manifesto has already received strong criticism from an array of commentators, but none of these assessments has yet critiqued it from the perspective of “degrowth,” which is an approach that sees the transition to sustainability occurring through less environmentally impactful economic activities and a voluntary contraction of material throughput of the economy, to reduce humanity’s aggregate resource demands on the biosphere. From a degrowth perspective, technology is not viewed as a magical saviour since many technologies actually accelerate environmental decline.
With these disagreements in mind, a group of over fifteen researchers from the degrowth scholarship community has written a detailed refutation of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which can be read here. The following is a summary of the seven main points made by the authors of this critique:
1. The Manifesto assumes that growth is a given. The ecological economists associated with degrowth assume that growth is not a given, and that population growth, inequalities, and the decline of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, which spurred the unprecedented growth of the global economy over the past century, means that the limits to growth are either being reached or will be reached in the very near future. The ecomodernists, by contrast, scoff at the idea of limits to growth, arguing that technology will always find a way to overcome those limits. Graham Turner, Ugo Bardi, and numerous others have shown through empirical research that many of the modelled scenarios, and the fundamental thesis, of the Club of Rome remain as relevant as ever—that is, that the human endeavour is bumping up against natural limits. Richard Heinberg has shown that the production of conventional oil, natural gas, and heavy oil all peaked around 2010, despite, but also due to, continued global reliance on fossil fuels, which still make up over 80% of the world’s primary source of energy. The history of industrialism to date suggests that more growth will be coupled with increasing environmental costs. Thus the Manifesto does nothing to question and rethink the growth fetish that has preoccupied (and negatively impacted) the world since at least the 1940s.
 
2. Ecomodernists believe in the myth of decoupling growth from impacts. Long the fantasy of neoclassical economists, industrialists, and many futurists decoupling is the idea that one can have more of the “good stuff” (economic growth, increased population, more consumption) without any of the “bad stuff” (declines in energy stocks, environmental degradation, pollution, and so forth). Yet to date, there has been no known society that has simultaneously expanded economic activity while reducing absolute energy consumption and environmental impacts. In terms of carbon-dioxide emissions, the only periods over the past century in which global or regional emissions have actually declined absolutely have occurred during periods of decreased economic activity (usually a political crisis, war, or a recession). While it is true that many countries have reduced their carbon intensity in recent decades, meaning that they get more bang for their energy buck, efforts to decouple GDP-growth from environmental degradation through technological innovations and renewable energies have failed to achieve the absolute emissions reductions and reductions in aggregate environmental impacts necessary for a livable planet. In short, absolute decoupling has not occurred and has not solved our problems.
3.  Is technology the problem or the solution? The ecomodernists cannot decide. The Manifesto is open and honest about the impact that modern technologies have had on the natural world, and especially emissions from fossil-fueled machines. However, as an act of desperation, the ecomodernists retreat to the belief that risky, costly, and underachieving technologies, such as nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, will solve the climate crisis and energize the sustainable society of the future. The reality, however, is that nuclear power provides less than 6 percent of the world’s energy needs while creating long-term storage nightmares and present-day environmental hazards. We cite Chernobyl and Fukushima as obvious examples. From the point of view of degrowth, more technology is not (necessarily) the solution. The energy crisis can be addressed only by reductions in throughput, economic activity, and consumption, which could then (and only then) create the possibility of powering global society via renewables.
4. Ecomodernism is not very “eco.” Ecomodernism violates everything we know about ecosystems, energy, population, and natural resources. Fatally, it ignores the lessons of ecology and thermodynamics, which teach us that species (and societies) have natural limits to growth. The ecomodernists, by contrast, brazenly claim that the limits to growth is a myth, and that human population and the economy could continue to grow almost indefinitely. Moreover, the ecomodernists ignore or downplay many of the ecological ramifications of growth. The Manifesto has nothing to say about the impacts of conventional farming, monoculture, pesticide-resistant insects, GMOs, and the increasing privatization of seeds and genetic material. It is silent on the decline of global fisheries or the accumulation of microplastic pollution in the oceans, reductions in biodiversity, threats to ecosystem services, and the extinction of species. Nor does it really question our reliance on fossil fuels. It does argue that societies need to “decarbonize,” but the Manifesto also tacitly supports coal, oil and natural gas by advocating for carbon capture and storage. Far from being an ecological statement of principles, the Manifesto merely rehashes the naïve belief that technology will save us and that human ingenuity can never fail. One fears, too, that the ecomodernists support geoengineering.
 
5. The Manifesto has a narrow, inaccurate, and whitewashed view of both “modernity” and “development.” The Manifesto’s assertions rest on the belief that industrialized modernity has been an undivided blessing. Those who support degrowth have a more complex view of history since the 18th century. The “progress” of modernity has come at a heavy cost, and is more of a mixed blessing. The ecomodernists do not acknowledge that growth in greenhouse gas emissions parallels the development of industry. The core assumption is that “development” has only one true definition, and that is to “modernize” along the lines of the already industrialized countries. The hugely destructive development path of European and Neo-European societies is the measuring stick of Progress.
 
6. Ecomodernism is condescending toward pre-industrial, agrarian, non-industrialized societies, and the Global South. The issue of condescension is particularly stark in the Manifesto. There is not a word about religion, spirituality, or indigenous ecological practices, even though the authors throw a bone to the “cultural preferences” for development. Pre-industrial and indigenous peoples are seen as backwards and undeveloped. The authors go so far as to say that humans need to be “liberated” from agricultural labour, as though the production of food, and small-scale farming, were not inherent goods. There is no adoration for simple living, the small scale, or bottom up approaches to development.
 
7. The Manifesto suffers from factual errors and misleading statements. The Manifesto is particularly greenwashed when it comes to global deforestation rates. It suggests that there is currently a “net reforestation” occurring at the international scale, which contradicts the 2014 Millennium Development Report that shows that afforestation and reforestation have, in fact, slowed deforestation rates, but that the world still suffered a net loss of forested land between 2000 and 2010 by many millions of hectares. Research by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Wide Fund for Nature confirms the reality of net forest losses. Further, the Manifesto makes dubious claims about net reductions in “servitude” over the past few centuries, and the role played by pre-historical native peoples in driving the megafauna to extinction.
In sum, the ecomodernists provide neither a very inspiring blueprint for future development strategies nor much in the way of solutions to our environmental and energy woes.




The Real Reason behind the Oil Price Collapse

14 03 2015

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

Michael T. Klare on Energy Policy and Sustainability

Michael T Klare

By Michael T Klare

Many reasons have been provided for the dramatic plunge in the price of oil to about $60 per barrel (nearly half of what it was a year ago): slowing demand due to global economic stagnation; overproduction at shale fields in the United States; the decision of the Saudis and other Middle Eastern OPEC producers to maintain output at current levels (presumably to punish higher-cost producers in the US and elsewhere); and the increased value of the dollar relative to other currencies. There is, however, one reason that’s not being discussed, and yet it could be the most important of all: the complete collapse of Big Oil’s production-maximizing business model.

Until last fall, when the price decline gathered momentum, the oil giants were operating at full throttle, pumping out more petroleum every day. They did so, of course, in part to profit from the high prices. For most of the previous six years, Brent crude, the international benchmark for crude oil, had been selling at $100 or higher. But Big Oil was also operating according to a business model that assumed an ever-increasing demand for its products, however costly they might be to produce and refine. This meant that no fossil fuel reserves, no potential source of supply—no matter how remote or hard to reach, how far offshore or deeply buried, how encased in rock—was deemed untouchable in the mad scramble to increase output and profits.

In recent years, this output-maximizing strategy had, in turn, generated historic wealth for the giant oil companies. Exxon, the largest US-based oil firm, earned an eye-popping $32.6 billion in 2013 alone, more than any other American company except for Apple. Chevron, the second biggest oil firm, posted earnings of $21.4 billion that same year. State-owned companies like Saudi Aramco and Russia’s Rosneft also reaped mammoth profits.

How things have changed in a matter of mere months. With demand stagnant and excess production the story of the moment, the very strategy that had generated record-breaking profits has suddenly become hopelessly dysfunctional.

To fully appreciate the nature of the energy industry’s predicament, it’s necessary to go back a decade to 2005, when the production-maximizing strategy was first adopted. At that time, Big Oil faced a critical juncture. On the one hand, many existing oil fields were being depleted at a torrid pace, leading experts to predict an imminent “peak” in global oil production, followed by an irreversible decline; on the other, rapid economic growth in China, India and other developing nations was pushing demand for fossil fuels into the stratosphere. In those same years, concern over climate change was also beginning to gather momentum, threatening the future of Big Oil and generating pressures to invest in alternative forms of energy.

A “Brave New World” of Tough Oil

No one better captured that moment than David O’Reilly, the chairman and CEO of Chevron. “Our industry is at a strategic inflection point, a unique place in our history,” he told a gathering of oil executives that February. “The most visible element of this new equation,” he explained in what some observers dubbed his “Brave New World” address, “is that relative to demand, oil is no longer in plentiful supply.” Even though China was sucking up oil, coal and natural gas supplies at a staggering rate, he had a message for that country and the world: “The era of easy access to energy is over.”

To prosper in such an environment, O’Reilly explained, the oil industry would have to adopt a new strategy. It would have to look beyond the easy-to-reach sources that had powered it in the past and make massive investments in the extraction of what the industry calls “unconventional oil” and what I labeled at the time “tough oil“: resources located far offshore, in the threatening environments of the far north, in politically dangerous places like Iraq, or in unyielding rock formations like shale. “Increasingly,” O’Reilly insisted, “future supplies will have to be found in ultradeep water and other remote areas, development projects that will ultimately require new technology and trillions of dollars of investment in new infrastructure.”

For top industry officials like O’Reilly, it seemed evident that Big Oil had no choice in the matter. It would have to invest those needed trillions in tough-oil projects or lose ground to other sources of energy, drying up its stream of profits. True, the cost of extracting unconventional oil would be much greater than from easier-to-reach conventional reserves (not to mention more environmentally hazardous), but that would be the world’s problem, not theirs. “Collectively, we are stepping up to this challenge,” O’Reilly declared. “The industry is making significant investments to build additional capacity for future production.”

On this basis, Chevron, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and other major firms indeed invested enormous amounts of money and resources in a growing unconventional oil and gas race, an extraordinary saga I described in my book The Race for What’s Left. Some, including Chevron and Shell, started drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico; others, including Exxon, commenced operations in the Arctic and eastern Siberia. Virtually every one of them began exploiting US shale reserves via hydro-fracking.

Only one top executive questioned this drill-baby-drill approach: John Browne, then the chief executive of BP. Claiming that the science of climate change had become too convincing to deny, Browne argued that Big Energy would have to look “beyond petroleum” and put major resources into alternative sources of supply. “Climate change is an issue which raises fundamental questions about the relationship between companies and society as a whole, and between one generation and the next,” he had declared as early as 2002. For BP, he indicated, that meant developing wind power, solar power and biofuels.

Browne, however, was eased out of BP in 2007 just as Big Oil’s output-maximizing business model was taking off, and his successor, Tony Hayward, quickly abandoned the “beyond petroleum” approach. “Some may question whether so much of the [world’s energy] growth needs to come from fossil fuels,” he said in 2009. “But here it is vital that we face up to the harsh reality [of energy availability].” Despite the growing emphasis on renewables, “we still foresee 80% of energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030.”

Under Hayward’s leadership, BP largely discontinued its research into alternative forms of energy and reaffirmed its commitment to the production of oil and gas, the tougher the better. Following in the footsteps of other giant firms, BP hustled into the Arctic, the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, and Canadian tar sands, a particularly carbon-dirty and messy-to-produce form of energy. In its drive to become the leading producer in the Gulf, BP rushed the exploration of a deep offshore field it called Macondo, triggeringthe Deepwater Horizon blow-out of April 2010 and the devastating oil spill of monumental proportions that followed.

Over the Cliff

By the end of the first decade of this century, Big Oil was united in its embrace of its new production-maximizing, drill-baby-drill approach. It made the necessary investments, perfected new technology for extracting tough oil, and did indeed triumph over the decline of existing, “easy oil” deposits. In those years, it managed to ramp up production in remarkable ways, bringing ever more hard-to-reach oil reservoirs online.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy, world oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, despite the continuing decline of many legacy fields in North America and the Middle East. Claiming that industry investments in new drilling technologies had vanquished the specter of oil scarcity, BP’s latest CEO, Bob Dudley, assured the world only a year ago that Big Oil was going places and the only thing that had “peaked” was “the theory of peak oil.”

That, of course, was just before oil prices took their leap off the cliff, bringing instantly into question the wisdom of continuing to pump out record levels of petroleum. The production-maximizing strategy crafted by O’Reilly and his fellow CEOs rested on three fundamental assumptions: that, year after year, demand would keep climbing; that such rising demand would ensure prices high enough to justify costly investments in unconventional oil; and that concern over climate change would in no significant way alter the equation. Today, none of these assumptions holds true.

Demand will continue to rise—that’s undeniable, given expected growth in world income and population—but not at the pace to which Big Oil has become accustomed. Consider this: in 2005, when many of the major investments in unconventional oil were getting under way, the EIA projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it’s lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million “lost” barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil’s multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.

Current indications suggest that consumption will continue to fall short of expectations in the years to come. In an assessment of future trends released last month, the EIA reported that, thanks to deteriorating global economic conditions, many countries will experience either a slower rate of growth or an actual reduction in consumption. While still inching up, Chinese consumption, for instance, is expected to grow by only 0.3 million barrels per day this year and next—a far cry from the 0.5 million barrel increase it posted in 2011 and 2012 and its one million barrel increase in 2010. In Europe and Japan, meanwhile, consumption is actually expected to fall over the next two years.

And this slowdown in demand is likely to persist well beyond 2016, suggests the International Energy Agency (IEA), an arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the club of rich industrialized nations). While lower gasoline prices may spur increased consumption in the United States and a few other nations, it predicted, most countries will experience no such lift and so “the recent price decline is expected to have only a marginal impact on global demand growth for the remainder of the decade.”

This being the case, the IEA believes that oil prices will only average about $55 per barrel in 2015 and not reach $73 again until 2020. Such figures fall far below what would be needed to justify continued investment in and exploitation of tough-oil options like Canadian tar sands, Arctic oil and many shale projects. Indeed, the financial press is now full of reports on stalled or cancelled mega-energy projects. Shell, for example, announced in January that it had abandoned plans for a $6.5 billion petrochemical plant in Qatar, citing “the current economic climate prevailing in the energy industry.” At the same time, Chevron shelved its plan to drill in the Arctic waters of the Beaufort Sea, while Norway’s Statoil turned its back on drilling in Greenland.

There is, as well, another factor that threatens the wellbeing of Big Oil: climate change can no longer be discounted in any future energy business model. The pressures to deal with a phenomenon that could quite literally destroy human civilization are growing. Although Big Oil has spent massive amounts of money over the years in a campaign to raise doubts about the science of climate change, more and more people globally are starting toworry about its effects—extreme weather patterns, extreme storms, extreme drought, rising sea levels and the like—and demanding that governments take action to reduce the magnitude of the threat.

Europe has already adopted plans to lower carbon emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020 and to achieve even greater reductions in the following decades. China, while still increasing its reliance on fossil fuels, has at least finally pledged to cap the growth of its carbon emissions by 2030 and to increase renewable energy sources to 20% of total energy use by then. In the United States, increasingly stringent automobile fuel-efficiency standards will require that cars sold in 2025 achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon, reducing US oil demand by 2.2 million barrels per day. (Of course, the Republican-controlled Congress—heavily subsidized by Big Oil—will do everything it can to eradicate curbs on fossil fuel consumption.)

Still, however inadequate the response to the dangers of climate change thus far, the issue is on the energy map and its influence on policy globally can only increase. Whether Big Oil is ready to admit it or not, alternative energy is now on the planetary agenda and there’s no turning back from that. “It is a different world than it was the last time we saw an oil-price plunge,” said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven in February, referring to the 2008 economic meltdown. “Emerging economies, notably China, have entered less oil-intensive stages of development.… On top of this, concerns about climate change are influencing energy policies [and so] renewables are increasingly pervasive.”

The oil industry is, of course, hoping that the current price plunge will soon reverse itself and that its now-crumbling maximizing-output model will make a comeback along with $100-per-barrel price levels. But these hopes for the return of “normality” are likely energy pipe dreams. As van der Hoeven suggests, the world has changed in significant ways, in the process obliterating the very foundations on which Big Oil’s production-maximizing strategy rested. The oil giants will either have to adapt to new circumstances, while scaling back their operations, or face takeover challenges from more nimble and aggressive firms.





Peak fossil fuel won’t stop climate change – but it could help

26 02 2015

The Conversation

Peak fossil fuel means it’s unlikely the worst climate scenario will come to pass. Gary Ellem explains.

What happens to coal in China will play a big role in deciding which climate road we’re all on. Han Jun Zeng/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Fossil fuels are ultimately a finite resource – the definition of non-renewable energy. Burning of these fuels – coal, oil and gas – is the main driver of climate change. So could the peak of fossil fuels help mitigate warming?

The short answer is maybe … but perhaps not how you might think.

In a paper published this month in the journal Fuel, my colleagues and I suggest that limits to fossil fuel availability might take climate Armageddon off the table, although we will still need to keep some fossil fuels in the ground for the best chance of keeping warming below 2C.

But more importantly, the peak of Chinese coal use is changing the face of global alternative energy industry development, and is soon likely to impact on international positioning for a low-emissions future.

Now for the long answer.

Predicting climate change

Predicting future climate change is dogged by two fundamental uncertainties: the dosage of greenhouse gas that human civilisation will add to the atmosphere, and how Earth’s climate and feedback systems will respond to it.

In the absence of a crystal ball for the future of emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has adopted a scenario-based approach which highlights four representative concentration pathways (or RCPs). These are named after how much extra heating they add to the earth (in watts per square metre).

The relationship between emissions, and temperature projections. IPCC
Click to enlarge

From these scenarios the IPCC has developed temperature scenarios. So the RCP2.6 scenario is expected to restrict climate change to below 2C, whereas RCP8.5 represents catastrophic climate change of around 4C by the end of this century, rising to perhaps 8C in the ensuing centuries.

Fossil fuels forecast

The key thing to note here is that the emissions scenarios are demand-focused scenarios that have been developed to reflect possibilities for potential fossil fuel consumption. They explore a range of scenarios that include increasing global population and living standards, as well as the possible impact of new alternative energy technologies and global emissions-reduction agreements.

Instead of examining demand scenarios for fossil fuels, our work has focused on supply constraints to future fossil fuel production. Our work is not a forecast of future fossil fuel production and consumption, but rather seeks to determine the upper bounds of the geological resource and how it might be brought to market using normal supply and demand interactions.

We developed three projections based on different estimates of these Ultimately Recoverable Resources (URR). URR is the proportion of total fossil fuel resources that can be viably extracted now, and in the future (this accounts for some resources that are technologically inaccessible now becoming extractable in the future). The low case used the most pessimistic literature resource availability estimates, whereas the high case used the most optimistic estimates.

We also included a “best guess” estimate by choosing country-level resource values that we considered most likely. We then compared the resulting emissions profiles for the three upper bounds to the published IPCC emissions scenarios, as shown in the figure below.

Our projections for fossil fuel supply (black) matched with emissions scenarios (colours). RCP8.5 is the worst, RCP2.6 the best. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

In comparison to the published emissions scenarios, we found that it was very unlikely that enough fossil fuels could be brought to market to deliver the RCP8.5 scenario and we would recommend that this be removed from the IPCC scenarios in future assessment reports.

Mining out the optimistic fossil fuel supply base could perhaps deliver the RCP6 scenario, however, our best guess limit to fossil fuel availability caps the upper limit of emissions exposure to the RCP4.5 scenario (roughly equivalent to a median estimate of 2C warming).

But even under the low resource availability scenario, it will be necessary to leave some fossil fuels untapped if we are to meet the conditions for the RCP2.6 scenario or lower (to have more than a 90% chance of avoiding 2C temperature rise).

To sum up, our supply side assessment suggests that even if the climate Armageddon of the RPC8.5 scenario were desirable, it is unlikely that enough new fossil fuel resources could be discovered in time and brought to market to deliver it. To be clear, there is still much to worry about with the RPC4.5 and RPC6 scenarios which are still possible at the limits of likely fossil fuel resources.

So a simple reflection on global fossil fuel limitation won’t save us … but nations don’t face peak fuels at the same time. A country-level analysis of peak fuels suggests the possibility of a very different future.

How China could shake the world

As part of our assessment we looked closely at the fossil fuel production projections for four countries including China, Canada, the United States and Australia. Of these, China is by far the most intriguing.

China has little in the way of oil and gas resources and so has established its remarkable industrial growth on exploiting its substantial coal resources. Our projections indicate that the rapid expansion in Chinese coal mining is rapidly depleting this resource, with Chinese peak coal imminent in the mid-2020s under even the high fossil fuel scenario, as seen in the projections below.

Various scenarios for China’s fossil fuel supply. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

China is well aware of this and is currently scrambling to cap coal consumption and develop alternative energy projects and industries. Its leaders understand that the alternative energy sector is really an advanced manufacturing sector, and have moved to position themselves strategically as the world leader in solar, wind, hydro, battery and nuclear technology construction and manufacturing.

As fossil fuels start to fail China as a path to economic and energy security, China will join other regions in a similar position, such as the European Union nations, which have largely depleted their fossil fuel reserves.

For these nations focused on alternative energy investment for energy and economic security, global action on climate change is strategically aligned with their industrial strength. We can therefore expect them to pressure for increasing global action as a method of improving their strategic global trading position. We may see the beginnings of this transition at this year’s international climate talks in Paris this year, but it will take a few more years for the Chinese shift to play out as they exploit the remainder of their coal resource and gain confidence in the ability of their alternative energy sector to scale.

The question then becomes “can the USA manufacturing sector afford to be out of these global alternative energy markets?”. Our guess is “no” and a global tipping point will have been reached in the alternative energy switch.

This is perhaps the most profound way that peak fuels may contribute to a low-emissions future.





Wind Blowing Nowhere

24 01 2015

I’ve just found this amazing post on Euan Mears’ excellent Energy Matters blog that clearly demonstrates, with real data, that anyone who believes renewables can run Business as Usual are just plain dreaming.

In much of Europe energy policy is being formulated by policymakers who assume that combining wind generation over large areas will flatten out the spikes and fill in the troughs and thereby allow wind to be “harnessed to provide reliable electricity” as the European Wind Energy Association tells them it will:

The wind does not blow continuously, yet there is little overall impact if the wind stops blowing somewhere – it is always blowing somewhere else. Thus, wind can be harnessed to provide reliable electricity even though the wind is not available 100% of the time at one particular site.

Here we will review whether this assumption is valid. We will do so by progressively combining hourly wind generation data for 2013 for nine countries in Western Europe downloaded from the excellent data base compiled by Paul-Frederik Bach, paying special attention to periods when “the wind stops blowing somewhere”. The nine countries are Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Germany, Spain and the UK, which together cover a land area of 2.3 million square kilometers and extend over distances of 2,000 kilometers east-west and 4,000 kilometers north-south:

Figure 1:  The nine countries

We begin with Spain, Europe’s largest producer of wind power in 2013. Here is Spain’s hourly wind generation for the year. Four periods of low wind output are numbered for reference:

Figure 2:  Hourly wind generation, Spain, 2013

Now we will add Germany, Europe’s second-largest wind power producer in 2013. We find that Spanish low wind output period 4 was more than offset by a coincident German wind spike. Spanish low wind periods 1, 2 and 3, however, were not.

Figure 3:  Hourly wind generation, Spain + Germany, 2013

Now we add UK, the third largest producer in 2013. Wind generation in UK during periods 1, 2 and 3 was also minimal:

Figure 4:  Hourly wind generation, Spain + Germany + UK, 2013

As it was in France, the fourth largest producer:

Figure 5:  Hourly wind generation, Spain + Germany + UK + France, 2013

And also in the other five countries, which I’ve combined for convenience:

Figure 6:  Hourly wind generation, nine countries combined, 2013

Figure 7 is a blowup of the period between February 2 and 15, which covers low wind period 2. According to these results the wind died to a whisper all over Western Europe in the early hours of February 8th:

Figure 7: Wind generation, nine countries combined, February 2013

These results are, however, potentially misleading because of the large differences in output between the different countries. The wind could have been blowing in Finland and the Czech Republic but we wouldn’t see it in Figure 7 because the output from these countries is still swamped by the larger producers. To level the playing field I normalized the data by setting maximum 2013 wind generation to 100% and the minimum to 0% in each country, so that Germany, for example, scores 100% with 26,000MW output and 50% with 13,000MW while Finland scores 100% with only 222MW and 50% with only 111MW. Expressing generation as a percentage of maximum output gives us a reasonably good proxy for wind speed.

Replotting Figure 7 using these percentages yields the results shown in Figure 8 (the maximum theoretical output for the nine countries combined is 900%, incidentally). We find that the wind was in fact still blowing in Ireland during the low-wind period on February 8th, but usually at less than 50% of maximum.

Figure 8:  Percent of maximum wind generation, February 2013

But even Ireland was not blessed with much in the way of wind at the time of minimum output, which occurred at 5 am. Figure 10 plots the percentage-of-maximum values for the individual countries at 5 am on the map of Europe. If we assume that less than 5% signifies “no wind” there was at this time no wind over an area up to 1,000 km wide extending from Gibraltar at least to the northern tip of Denmark and probably as far north as the White Sea:

Figure 9:  Map of percent of maximum wind generation, February 2013

During this period the wind was clearly not blowing “somewhere else”, and there are other periods like it.

Combining wind generation from the nine countries has also not smoothed out the spikes. The final product looks just as spiky as the data from Spain we began with; the spikes have just shifted position:

Figure 10: Spain wind generation vs. combined generation in all nine countries, 2013 (scales adjusted for visual similarity)

Obviously combining wind generation in Western Europe is not going to provide the “reliable electricity” its backers claim it will. Integrating European wind into a European grid will in fact pose just as many problems as integrating UK wind into the UK grid or Scottish wind into the Scottish grid, but on a larger scale. We will take a brief look at this issue before concluding.

Integrating the combined wind output from the nine countries into a European grid  would not have posed any insurmountable difficulties in 2013 because wind was still a minor player, supplying only 8.8% of demand:

Figure 11: Wind generation vs. demand, nine countries combined

But integration becomes progressively more problematic at higher levels of wind penetration. I simulated higher levels by factoring up 2013 wind generation with the results shown on Figure 12, which plots the percentage of demand supplied by wind in the nine countries in each hourly period. Twenty percent wind penetration looks as if it might be achievable; forty percent doesn’t.

Figure 12:  Percent of hourly demand supplied by wind at different levels of wind penetration using 2013 data

Finally, many thanks to Hubert Flocard, who recently performed a parallel study and graciously gave Energy Matters permission to re-invent the wheel, plus a hat tip to Hugh Sharman for bringing Hubert’s work to our attention.