A number of people have written to ask why I haven’t commented on the climate bill. There are two reasons. First, the House and Senate versions are very different, so the final form may not resemble the version the House just passed. Second, I haven’t had the time to read through much of it.
There was one issue that I considered quite important, but I didn’t know whether it was in the bill. Jim Mulva was recently quoted as saying that the climate bill would impose higher taxes on domestic fuel versus imports. While we can agree that Mulva’s comments are self-serving, I also believe that most people would oppose a bill that shifts more of our fuel supply to imports.
While I know the goal here is to favor renewable energy, what happens if it can’t fill a void left if the new bill discourages domestic production? The void will be filled by imports. Prices will also rise, so some of the void will be filled by conservation. But in order to keep the playing field level, I really liked the idea proposed by Jeff Rubin: If you place a carbon tax on domestic production, you can place a carbon tariff on imports. This idea was discussed in my review of his book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization.
I hadn’t heard any discussion of this until today. From Steven Mufson of the Washington Post:
President Obama yesterday said that the House took an “extraordinary first step” by passing a climate bill on Friday, adding that he hoped it will “prod” action by the Senate and predicting that the legislation could make renewable energy “a driver of economic growth.”
But he said he hopes that Congress will strip out a clause that would impose a tariff in 2020 on imports from countries without systems for pricing or limiting carbon dioxide emissions.
Obama went on to suggest that there were other protections built in that will keep the playing field level. I would like to know what those are. I can understand how tariffs would do it (although enforcement raises some sticky questions). But I have heard enough double-speak on energy policy that I want to see the fine details of how the playing field will be kept level.
Make no mistake: This bill is a tax increase. That’s the basis for the political opposition. But I have long advocated a tax increase on fossil fuels to slow the rate at which we are using them up (and to make renewables more competitive). So I don’t oppose the bill on the basis that it is a tax increase. On the other hand I can’t say that I endorse it, because I haven’t read it. I certainly believe there are more efficient ways of raising carbon taxes than this. I still think – perhaps naively – that my proposal to tilt the tax code toward higher fossil fuel taxes and lower income taxes would be more attractive than this.
In a recent post – It’s Always Something – I argued that for seemingly every renewable option, there is a trade-off. In that particular essay I was discussing a recent report that suggested that jatropha curcas – which I have written about as an intriguing option for renewable, liquid fuels – has very large water requirements. It is also poisonous, and was banned as an invasive species by the Western Australian State government. So as the title suggested, there always seems to be a catch with any of these options.
Geothermal energy is one of the most promising renewable energy technologies. There are a number of commercial geothermal plants already in operation (the U.S. is the world leader in geothermal energy), and the economics are much more favorable than some of the other choices. Geothermal electricity makes a much larger contribution to the electricity mix than does solar power, and does not suffer from the intermittency issue. A 2006 report from NREL (PDF warning) concluded that the potential for domestic geothermal energy at a depth of 2 miles (3 kilometers) is 30,000 times all current annual U.S. energy usage.
But while the current plants in operation utilize geothermal energy that is close to the surface, tapping deeper into the earth would hugely increase the geothermal potential. The only problem is that this sort of deep drilling can cause earthquakes. From the New York Times:
BASEL, Switzerland — Markus O. Häring, a former oilman, was a hero in this city of medieval cathedrals and intense environmental passion three years ago, all because he had drilled a hole three miles deep near the corner of Neuhaus Street and Shafer Lane. He was prospecting for a vast source of clean, renewable energy that seemed straight out of a Jules Verne novel: the heat simmering within the earth’s bedrock.
All seemed to be going well — until Dec. 8, 2006, when the project set off an earthquake, shaking and damaging buildings and terrifying many in a city that, as every schoolchild here learns, had been devastated exactly 650 years before by a quake that sent two steeples of the Münster Cathedral tumbling into the Rhine.
Hastily shut down, Mr. Häring’s project was soon forgotten by nearly everyone outside Switzerland. As early as this week, though, an American start-up company, AltaRock Energy*, will begin using nearly the same method to drill deep into ground laced with fault lines in an area two hours’ drive north of San Francisco.
The New York Times article goes into a lot of detail about why the deeper geothermal techniques cause earthquakes, but it also gives a good overview of the geothermal potential. I think the solution to this – if they can’t come up with techniques that don’t spawn earthquakes – is to only tap geothermal in relatively uninhabited locations. There are lots of places in the Western United States that have very low population densities, but very high geothermal potential.
Regardless, geothermal is one of those options that I think is around for the long haul, and won’t require endless subsidies in order to be competitive.
* As a footnote, AltaRock Energy is a company that Vinod Khosla has invested in. AltaRock also has some information at their site about how geothermal works.
Been really tied up, but saw this story yesterday and wanted to bring attention to it. I think it is significant, and a sign of things to come. Not much time to comment, but some excerpts from the article:
GUESSING, Austria (AFP) – A new plant that produces gas from wood was opened in Austria on Wednesday, paving the way towards new possibilities in renewable energy.
According to its backers, the gas produced at the plant can be used in urban heating systems, for gas-powered cars or by power stations that work on gas.
“The gas produced has the same quality as natural gas,” said Richard Zweiler, from the European Centre for Renewable Energy (EEE), which is behind the project.
A plant able to produce between 20 and 25 megawatts of power — about 25 times bigger than the Guessing project — is already in the works in Goteborg, Sweden.
Readers may know that I am a big fan of gasification over the long haul. Whether the approach described here turns out to be the right one or not, I think gasification makes far more sense than some of the renewable paths we have headed down. I believe 20 years from now we will be doing commercial biomass gasification for heat and power. I don’t believe we will be making commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol or algal biofuels.
I recently published a review of Mark Edward’s book Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel. Following this review, I published a response from Mark Edwards. In that response, Professor Edwards mentioned Dr. John Benemann, who was Principal Investigator and main author of the U.S. DOE Aquatic Species Program (ASP) Close-Out Report:
Skeptics abound in the algae space and the leading skeptic, Dr. John Benemann, speaks at all the algae conferences and stands in stark contrast to many other equally experienced scientists who do not share his natural pessimism. John revels in his reputation for pessimism. Other scientists engaged in the Aquatic Species Report have a completely opposite view. Several are working for companies that are producing algae for fuel. Professor Milton Sommerfeld at ASU and a co-author on the Report, has been producing algal oil for jet fuel in the laboratory and a field setting for several years.
Dr. Benemann had been following the exchange, and has e-mailed me a response to Professor Edward’s response, which I post in full below.
I had only glanced at Prof. Edwards book last year, but not read it as it has little or no technical content, and thus not of great interest to me. From what I recall, what Robert Rapier wrote in his review, seems quite reasonable, actually rather mild.
In his response, Prof. Edward wastes no time to bring up my name, for which I am honored, calling me the “leading skeptic” who “speaks at all the algae conferences” and “revels in his reputation for pessimism”. Well, I admit that I talk at way too many conferences (“all algae conferences” would be impossible), which I should give up as it seems to do little or no good. But I must correct Prof. Edwards, I am neither a skeptic nor a pessimist. I am an incurable optimist and promoter of algae technology R&D, even for biofuels. I must be, to work in this difficult, if not dismal, field. I am, however, also a realist, about such little matters as, for two examples only, engineering head loss calculations and the limits of photosynthetic efficiencies, which are of no concern to Prof. Edwards, whose avocation is marketing. And, I am afraid, are of no concern either to many, even most, practitioners in this field, who should know better but blithely ignore such realities. It is easier to be an optimist if you only need to market the idea, or do research, but creating reality is somewhat more difficult. I work hard for my optimism, trying to find ways to overcome the technical roadblock and economic limitations.
Prof. Edwards, attempting to rebut my alleged ‘pessimism” points to scientists working for “companies that are producing algae for fuel” and that one professor has been “producing algal oil for jet fuel in the laboratory and a field setting for several years”. Sorry, there are no companies producing algae for fuel, just try to buy some, even at $100/gallon (at $1000/gallon you may be able to get a few). Some are claiming to be producing, but there is not a shred of evidence that they have succeeded in any meaningful way. (Solazyme may have, but the economics still are far from proven, and using corn starch or sugar is not a good idea, and using sugars from lignocellulosic biomass, well let us not go there either).
The only company I know that is producing algae oil is Martek Corp., and that is for human food and sells for a hundred-fold that of petrol. Neither are laboratory and academic “field” pursuits a guide to reality or technology.
Prof. Edwards claims that he has “seen” one or more order of magnitude “cost reductions” of algal oil production, extraction and mixing, in the last year or two. With all due respect to his discipline, seeing is not believing, data would be, but it must be based on actual measurements and methods that can be independently verified. Nothing of the sort can be pointed to.
Prof. Edwards is, I am sure, a most qualified expert in business and marketing, but I see little here that is real business and even less than is marketing. Algae for feed and fuel still need a great deal of R&D, of uncertain outcome, like all R&D. I recommend to Prof. Edwards that he redirect his obvious talents to help the real algae industry, the nutritional supplements business. That would be most useful – it is hard to convince people that they should ingest algae (pond scum) on a daily basis. Some do, but not nearly enough. There is the real marketing challenge! And it would lead the way to increased production, to larger scales, lower costs, more R&D, and, who knows, maybe eventually get us to a price point where we can sell algae for food and feed competing with commodity crops. Maybe even fuels at that point, perhaps. I am just an incorrigible optimist.
U.S. Ramping Up Wind Power Programs Even As Concerns Surface About Possible Declines In U.S. Wind Strength
Once again at DFW Airport, about to make my way back to Europe. So I will be offline for just a bit, but wanted to post the latest from Money Morning, which as I recently explained will be featured here whenever they have topical material to offer. As always, normal caveats apply: I am not an investment advisor. I don’t endorse any specific stocks mentioned in the following story nor the ad at the end of the story.
U.S. Ramping Up Wind Power Programs Even As Concerns Surface About Possible Declines In U.S. Wind Strength
By William Patalon III – Executive Editor
Money Morning/The Money Map Report
Just as the United States is boosting its reliance on wind power, a new academic study set for release in August says that U.S. wind forces may be getting weaker.
Eugene S. Takle, a professor of atmospheric science at Iowa State University, and the director of the school’s “climate science initiative,” says the research study concluded that U.S. wind strength has potentially declined by 15% to 30% during the past 30 years – an average decline of as much as 1% a year.
While conducting the study – which will appear in the Journal of Geophysical Research – researchers reviewed wind data taken at airports around the United States, and then based their findings on two sets of figures: One set from 1973-2000, and the other from 1973-2005.
The study concluded that three factors could be contributing to the declines in U.S. wind strength: Land-use changes, a changing climate and changes in the kind of instruments used to measure the wind, Takle told MarketWatch.com.
“If there have been trees growing or new buildings constructed near airports, it could impact the speed of winds on airports,” Takle said. However, it is also “[basic] meteorology that the wind is driven by differences in temperature between the poles and the equator, and those differences have been narrowed by climate change.”
The findings come at time when the United States is making a serious push to increase the amount of electricity that’s generated by wind turbines grouped into so-called wind-power “farms.” Attempts to harness the wind are part of a broader national – or even global – commitment to “green” energy sources as a way of reducing dependence on oil and other fossil fuels for power generation.
Other power sources include solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and nuclear for commercial electricity production, while automakers are looking at new types of batteries and such innovations as power-storing “fuel cells” as alternatives to the conventional internal combustion engines that power most of the world’s cars and trucks.
The objectives are twofold. By decreasing the U.S. reliance on foreign oil, the country is hedging against the time when global supplies of the “black gold” begin to dry up, an eventuality that will propel the prices of crude and gasoline skyward. Diversifying away from oil and, perhaps, even coal is also a way of reversing – or at least slowing – environmentally ruinous (and politically controversial) global warming.
President Barack Obama is attempting to use the ongoing financial crisis to create a sense of urgency about America’s energy future, a challenge that no prior administration has yet been able to meet.
About one-third of President Obama’s $800 billion-plus stimulus package will go to infrastructure, with $30 billion allocated for U.S. roads and highways and another $10 billion earmarked for railways and mass-transit systems.
President Obama has also proposed spending $150 billion “over the next 10 years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.” The administration also proposes to increase the amount of electricity that comes from renewable resources from 10% in 2012 to 25% by 2025, Wall Street 24/7 reported in early January.
Creating the power is only part of the problem. Delivering it will be a challenge, too, especially given the country’s aging power grid. Upgrading that aging equipment is expected to cost more than $880 billion, according to a November 2008 report from the Brattle Group.
An Energy Boon For Entrepreneur T. Boone?
In many cases, those federal outlays will serve only as seed capital. It will likely fall to innovators in the U.S. private sector to really energize the alternative-power market.
One key player is legendary oilman and venture capitalist T. Boone Pickens, who has unveiled a plan to cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil through the power of alternatives such as wind and natural gas, Money Morning reported last July.
“We’re paying $700 billion a year for foreign oil. It’s breaking us as a nation,” Pickens said at the time. Former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon “said in 1970 that we were importing 20% of our oil and that by 1980 it would be 0%. That didn’t happen. It went to 42% in 1991 with the Gulf War. It’s just under 70% now. Where do you think we’re going to be in 10 years when our economy is busted and we’re importing 80% of our oil?”
Pickens wants to create what he calls a “bridge to the future” that will help cut slash the U.S. reliance on imported foreign oil by focusing on two specific alternatives:
- Cars that burn natural gas instead of gasoline.
- And electricity generated by wind power.
There’s a smooth and elegant logic to his strategy: By constructing electric-generating wind-power farms, the United States can free up natural gas supplies that currently generate 22% of the nation’s electricity. That natural gas can then be used to power cleaner-burning cars and trucks, thereby reducing our dependence on imported oil while also reducing the damage to the environment. This will also buy time for the development of other, even-greener, alternative sources of energy.
Pickens’ Wind Power Project
According to Pickens, wind power could eventually fulfill as much as 20% of the United States’ energy needs. Calling the Great Plains region of the United States the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” Pickens last summer launched plans for a $10 billion alternative energy project in the Texas panhandle that has the potential to one day become the world’s largest wind-power farm.
Picken’s Mesa Power LLP plans to purchase 667 wind turbines from U.S. industrial giant General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE). Each turbine can produce 1.5 megawatts of electricity – enough to provide the ongoing power needs of 360 to 600 U.S. homes, according to Money Morning calculations based on statistics provided by Oregon Power Solutions Inc., a Baker City, OR consulting firm.
The first phase of the Pickens project, already under construction, will produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power 300,000 homes. GE will begin delivering the turbines in 2010, and current plans call for the project to start producing power in 2011.
Ultimately, Mesa Power plans to have enough turbines to produce 4,000 megawatts of energy. Overall, the “Pampa Wind Mill” project is expected to cost $10 billion and be completed in 2014.
Pickens has launched a “Pickens Plan” Web site, which is urges the country’s “energy army” to lobby Congress for funding and a commitment to green-energy projects.
Other Players Showing Interest
An Irish company – its interest in the U.S. alternative energy market piqued by the green-technology money included in the Obama administration’s stimulus package – on Monday acquired three Illinois wind farms located within 100 miles of Chicago, The Chicago Tribune reported.
Plans call for the Dublin-based Mainstream Renewable Power to invest $1.69 billion over four years to develop the wind farms. The purchase price was not disclosed.
“The U.S. market is of strategic importance to Mainstream, and the scale of the opportunity is strongly reflected in President Obama’s economic stimulus package, which includes $56 billion in grants and tax breaks for U.S. clean energy projects over the next 10 years and a budget of $15 billion a year to fund renewable energy programs,” Mainstream co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Eddie O’Connor said in a statement. “The administration’s goal of generating 25% of the nation’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025 will help revitalize the U.S. economy and protect consumers.”
The farms have the potential to generate 787 megawatts of electricity by 2013, The Tribune said. The most advanced is the 120-megawatt Shady Oaks project in Lee County. When finished next year, it should be able to generate enough electricity to power about 30,000 homes, Mainstream said.
The other two wind-power farms are the 467-megawatt Green River project, also in Lee County, and a 200-megawatt project set for Boone County. Construction on the Green River project will begin next year, while the Boone County project is still in is development stages.
This is Mainstream’s second North American deal in three months; it earlier announced a Canadian wind farm project. It has also announced plans to build a wind farm in Chile.
Founded a year ago, Mainstream was created to build and operate wind-energy, solar-thermal and ocean-current power plants in partnerships with government agencies, electric utilities, developers and investors in North and South America, Europe, and South Africa. Barclays Capital (NYSE ADR: BCS) has a 14.6% stake in Mainstream.
As Mainstream’s proposed forays into South America, Europe and Africa demonstrate, the push to harness the wind isn’t limited to the United States.
As of the end of last year, worldwide wind-powered generators were capable of generating 121.2 gigawatts (GW) of electricity. Wind power produces about 1.5% of the world’s electricity and its use is surging: The amount of electricity generated by wind power doubled between 2005 and 2008 alone.
Several countries have already embraced wind power in a major way: As of last year, it accounted for 19% of electricity production in Denmark, 11% in both Spain and Portugal and an estimated 7% in both Germany and Ireland. As of this May, 80 nations around the world were using wind power on a commercial basis.
Not surprisingly, China is making a big push to commercialize wind power and by last year was already the world’s sixth-largest user of wind-generated electricity. The country’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines – Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. Ltd. – went public last year, raising nearly $250 million. It has about 33% of China’s wind-power-equipment market, according to KGI Securities Co. Ltd., a Taiwan investment-banking and brokerage firm.
“As China’s wind power sector takes off, we think Goldwind is well positioned to become a major beneficiary, thanks to its strong brand and first mover advantage,” KGI wrote in a research report.
Not a Complete Answer
Although wind power has substantial promise, it’s not an infallible energy solution, and has some serious limitations – as the U.S. wind-power study shows. For one thing, although an estimated 72 terawatts of wind power on Earth can be potentially commercially viable – an amount that’s six times the estimated 15 terawatts of total power usage on earth – not all the wind energy flowing past any given point can be recovered.
Accoridng to a science axiom known as Betz’s Law – named for the German physicist, Albert Betz, who discovered the rule in 1919 – no turbine can capture more than 59.3% of the potential energy in wind.
And there are other challenges, some of which are caused by the natural lay of the land in a given location. In the United States, for instance, where there are now concerns about diminishing wind strength, some coastal areas may retain wind strength because of the greater temperature differences between the land and the ocean.
Given the growing importance of wind power, more study will be required.
Concludes the study: “Given the importance of the wind-energy industry to meeting federal and state mandates for increased use of renewable energy supplies and the impact of changing wind regimes on a variety of other industries and physical processes, further research on wind climate variability and evolution is required.”
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An interesting link from a reader this morning:
The Maya 300: An Exxon-Assisted Electric Car
If you’ve picked up a magazine in the last year, you’ve likely seen ads touting ExxonMobil’s (XOM) research into lithium-ion batteries.
This week, you will get a further look into how that technology will come to the marketplace.
Electrovaya on Wednesday will discuss its plans for the Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming in 2011. The car will run on lithium-ion batteries, charge in about eight to 10 hours, run for 60 miles and plug into regular 110-volt outlets. It will cost around $20,000 to $25,000. An extended-range battery option will run for 120 miles on a charge and cost $30,000 to $35,000.
Turns out that ExxonMobil makes one of the components of the battery:
Electric vehicles have definitely hit the big time now that gasoline-slinging companies are getting involved. The Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming out in 2011, will feature a lithium ion battery separator film dubbed “the SuperPolymer” from Exxon-Mobil. The separator–a critical part of li-ion batteries–can withstand temperatures up to 374 degrees. That’s 85 degrees more than competing separator films can take.
Interesting development. If you asked me which oil company would be involved in battery technologies for electric cars, I wouldn’t have guessed Exxon.
You may have seen the news this week that a report by the Potential Gas Committee says natural gas reserves in 2008 rose to 2,074 trillion cubic feet. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (via Rigzone) both had stories on it, and T. Boone Pickens issued a press release. First, from the New York Times (and this is a really good article):
Thanks to new drilling technologies that are unlocking substantial amounts of natural gas from shale rocks, the nation’s estimated gas reserves have surged by 35 percent, according to a study due for release on Thursday.
Estimated natural gas reserves rose to 2,074 trillion cubic feet in 2008, from 1,532 trillion cubic feet in 2006, when the last report was issued. This includes the proven reserves compiled by the Energy Department of 237 trillion cubic feet, as well as the sum of the nation’s probable, possible and speculative reserves.
The new estimates show “an exceptionally strong and optimistic gas supply picture for the nation,” according to a summary of the report, which is issued every two years by a group of academics and industry experts that is supported by the Colorado School of Mines.
The Wall Street Journal wrote:
The amount of natural gas available for production in the United States has soared 58% in the past four years, driven by a drilling boom and the discovery of huge new gas fields in Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, a new study says.
…the Potential Gas Committee’s study was prepared by industry geologists who analyzed individual gas fields using seismic imagery and production data provided by gas producers. The surge in gas resources is the result of a five-year-long drilling boom spurred by high natural-gas prices, easy credit and new technologies that allowed companies to produce gas from a dense kind of rock known as shale. The first big shale formation to be discovered, the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, Texas, is now the country’s top-producing gas field, and companies have made other huge discoveries in Arkansas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Together, the shale fields account for roughly a third of U.S. gas resources, according to the Potential Gas Committee.
Pickens had this to say:
Today’s report substantiates what I’ve been saying for years: there’s plenty of natural gas in the U.S. I launched the Pickens Plan a year ago to help reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, and using our abundant supply of natural gas as a transition fuel for fleet vehicles and heavy-duty trucks is a key element of that plan. On the same day this report is going out, diesel prices are again on the rise, squeezing the trucking industry. Now more than ever we need to take action to enact energy reform that will immediately reduce oil imports.
The 2,074 trillion cubic feet of domestic natural gas reserves cited in the study is the equivalent of nearly 350 billion barrels of oil, about the same as Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.
A number of people have rightly pointed out that a 100-year supply implies usage at current rates. But it got me to thinking about how much natural gas it would take to displace all U.S. gasoline consumption. So in the spirit of my previous essay Replacing Gasoline with Solar Power, I will do the same calculation for replacing gasoline with natural gas. The big difference between this calculation and the earlier one is that solar power still has some technical issues to resolve (e.g., storage) and electric vehicles are not yet ready for prime time. On the other hand we are perfectly capable, today, of displacing large numbers of gasoline-fueled vehicles with natural gas.
How Much Do We Need?
The U.S. currently consumes 390 million gallons of gasoline per day. (Source: EIA). A gallon of gasoline contains about 115,000 BTUs. (Source: EPA). The energy content of this much gasoline is equivalent to 45 trillion BTUs per day. The energy content of natural gas is about 1,000 BTUs per standard cubic foot (scf). Therefore, to replace all gasoline consumption would require 45 billion scf per day, or 16.4 trillion scf per year. Current U.S. natural gas consumption is 23 trillion scf per year (Source: EIA). Therefore, replacing all gasoline consumption with natural gas would require a total usage of 39.4 trillion scf per year, an increase in natural gas consumption of 71% over present usage.
Assuming for the sake of argument that the 2,074 trillion standard cubic feet cited in the study is accurate, that the “probable, possible and speculative reserves” eventually equate to actual reserves, and that the gas is economically recoverable, that is enough gas for 53 years of combined current natural gas consumption and gasoline consumption. If you assume that only the proven plus probable reserves are eventually recovered, the amount drops to about 1/3rd of the 2,074 trillion scf estimate, still enough to satisfy current natural gas consumption and replace all gasoline consumption for almost 20 years.
We can also calculate in terms of oil imports. Right now the U.S. imports about 13 million barrels per day of all petroleum products. A barrel of oil contains around 5.8 million BTUs, but oil only makes up 10 million of the 13 million barrel per day figure. Other imports include things like gasoline (4.8 million BTUs/bbl) and ethanol (3.2 million BTUs/bbl). Scanning the list of imports, I probably won’t be too far off the mark to presume that the average BTU value of those 13 million bpd of imports is about 5.4 million BTUs/bbl. On an annual basis, this equates to 25.6 trillion scf of natural gas, which would be an increase over current natural gas usage of 111%. Going back to the 2,074 trillion scf from the study, this would be enough to displace imports of all petroleum products (again, at current usage rates and not factoring in declining U.S. oil production) for 43 years.
What’s the Cost?
Natural gas is presently trading at about $4 per million (MM) BTU (although December 2009 is trading at almost $6). Oil is presently trading at $71/bbl, which equates to $12.24/MMBTU. Gasoline is presently trading at over $17/MMBTU. Thus, natural gas is a bargain relative to oil or gasoline. Incidentally, I just checked on seasoned wood and wood pellets, and they range from $8-$12/MMBTUs. So it is cheaper to heat your house with gas than with wood. I am not sure I would have guessed that.
While natural gas is a bargain relative to gasoline, converting a gasoline-powered vehicle to natural gas isn’t cheap. According to this source, it can cost $12,500 to $22,500 to convert a gasoline-powered car to natural gas. Honda makes a compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle, but according to this review in Car and Driver the premium over the gasoline version is $8780. A person would need to drive an awful lot to justify that premium. However, that’s what fleets do. They drive a lot. The large price differential explains why fleets would be interested in running their vehicles on natural gas.
So, the good news is that the United States could be energy independent if the newly released natural gas reserve numbers are remotely accurate. It also appears that we have enough natural gas available that civilization isn’t going to end any time soon due to lack of energy supplies. There are three caveats. First, energy independence via natural gas could require us to spend significantly more for personal automotive transportation. Second, “possible” reserves may never materialize. Finally, a large chunk of the calculated reserves are based on shale gas, and that requires gas to be in the $6-$8/million BTU range to be economical. Still, it is a bargain compared to gasoline, and it explains why fleets are more receptive to conversion to natural gas than the general public is likely to be for their personal vehicles.
FULTON, N.Y. — When Sunoco closed this week on the acquisition of a bankrupt ethanol plant for pennies on the dollar, it became just the latest oil refiner to step into the alternative fuels market.
Traditional refiners under pressure to reduce emissions are finding new avenues to meet evolving environmental standards, and finding big bargains along the way.
However, I think the article largely misses the point of why these transactions are taking place:
The plant is close to Sunoco’s main operations in the Northeast where many of its 4,700 gas stations are concentrated, but the shift in U.S. energy policy was a big motivator.
The entry of traditional oil companies is part of a natural industry evolution, [Matt] Hartwig [of the Renewable Fuels Association] said.
I don’t think these transactions are taking place because oil companies want to go green, or because they see this as a fantastic growth opportunity. They are doing this merely because they have been required to put ethanol in their gasoline. To meet their commitments, they can either purchase ethanol from the ethanol producers, or they can buy their own ethanol plants. If you can acquire ethanol plants for pennies on the dollar, it is cheaper for them to go that route. If, on the other hand they thought the mandates were going away, I don’t think they would be jumping in.
But don’t be surprised if the top U.S. oil companies — Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips — don’t make the leap, Kment said.
“For them, a 50 million gallon, or even a 100-million gallon plant would only produce a drop in the bucket of their total needs,” Kment said.
But again, it isn’t about their total needs. It is about meeting the ethanol mandate, which they can do by producing “a drop in the bucket of their total needs.” This isn’t about oil companies trying to become ethanol companies. The scale of ethanol is far too small for that. Even if the oil companies bought up all of the ethanol capacity in the country, it would still be only a drop in the bucket. But it would enable to them to fulfill the government mandate.
In a recent post (but certainly not the first time I mentioned this), I wrote:
Corn ethanol producers have to move away from fossil fuel inputs – or they need to otherwise find inputs that don’t normally track gasoline prices. This is why the sugarcane ethanol producer can compete on a level playing field with gasoline. The fertilizer inputs for sugarcane are much lower than for corn, and the distillation energy is provided by biomass. The only way the ethanol industry in the U.S. will be able to break free from the subsidies is to adopt similar practices.
The ethanol company POET, which I recently described as setting the standard for ethanol production in the U.S., has just taken a big step in that direction. This press release was just e-mailed to me:
Waste material to power cellulosic/grain ethanol plant
POET installs anaerobic digester at pilot cellulosic ethanol facility
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (June 17, 2009) – A self-sustaining energy cycle for producing cellulosic ethanol is close to reality with the recent startup of an anaerobic digester at POET’s pilot plant in Scotland, S.D.
Corn cobs at Project LIBERTY will not only be used to produce ethanol; the liquid waste will go to an anaerobic digester to power the cellulosic plant and offset natural gas usage at the attached grain ethanol plant as well. That’s renewable energy created at the plant, powering the plant and powering the adjacent facility.
POET installed and fired up its anaerobic digester, which was designed and built by Biothane, on May 20. The digester uses liquid waste created in the process of converting corn cobs to ethanol. That waste is used to produce methane gas, which acts as roughly the equivalent of natural gas.
“This technology will cut fossil fuels out of our cellulosic ethanol production process and further improve the benefits of grain-based ethanol,” POET CEO Jeff Broin said. “Over the long term, POET would like to eliminate the use of fossil fuels at all of our plants through a variety of alternative energy sources.” The alternative energy technologies employed at other POET facilities include a solid waste fuel boiler, landfill gas and cogeneration.
The digester is in the research phase – corn cobs have never been used in this way before. The methane is currently being flared, but once the process is refined, it will be installed as part of Project LIBERTY.
Project LIBERTY is a 25 million gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant, which will be built in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Research and development work is on schedule for the plant to begin production in 2011.
A photo of the anaerobic digester is available at http://www.poet.com/news/showRelease.asp?id=169.
To see a documentary about POET’s pilot cellulosic ethanol plant visit http://www.poet.com/cellulosedocumentary.htm. Media outlets are welcome to link to the documentary in online coverage. Photos are also available for publication at http://www.poet.com/news/releases.asp.
POET, the largest ethanol producer in the world, is a leader in biorefining through its efficient, vertically integrated approach to production. The 20-year-old company produces more than 1.54 billion gallons of ethanol annually from 26 production facilities nationwide. POET recently started up a pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, which uses corn cobs as feedstock, and will commercialize the process in 2011. For more information, visit http://www.poet.com.
What POET is doing is similar in spirit to what E3 Biofuels attempted. E3 had some startup problems that ultimately put them out of business, but as I described it at the time, this is I believe a necessary step for the ethanol industry. While I don’t expect this approach to be as cheap as using natural gas or coal for power, in the long run using biomass to power their plant will dampen some of the oscillations caused by volatile fossil fuel prices.
One other key issue – and I have seen conflicting information on this – is how much biomass can be removed in a sustainable manner. Since POET is just using cobs, they are probably OK. Start taking out large amounts of stover, and you may run into trouble. But using cobs solves many of the logistical challenges that cellulosic ethanol in general will face. The cob is already being collected with the corn (analogous to bagasse) so a portion of that logistics battle is already included in the deal. This is also why I think lignocellulose to fuel schemes need to focus on biomass already coming into central locations, such as landfills.
The one other obvious question is just how much natural gas can be displaced by digesting the liquid waste. Since they are still in a research phase, they probably don’t even have a good answer to this yet.
My former CEO Jim Mulva spoke today at the National Summit in Detroit, and had some newsworthy comments. Bloomberg reported on his talk:
June 16 (Bloomberg) — ConocoPhillips, the third-largest U.S. oil company, said it may take a century for the nation to replace fossil fuels with alternative energy sources.
I don’t know of too many people who think we have a century’s worth of oil left. Natural gas and coal? I also seriously doubt we have that much of either of those, especially allowing for economic growth. What I think this means – in any case – is that we have some potentially difficult times in front of us. However, Mulva went on to give his prescription for preempting some of those difficulties:
The country will need to develop its own oil and natural- gas deposits and continue importing petroleum while developing alternative supplies in the decades ahead, ConocoPhillips Chief Executive Officer Jim Mulva said today at the National Summit economic conference in Detroit. At the same time, he said, the nation will need to address climate change.
On the issue of climate change, Mulva thinks legislation is likely, but doesn’t want to see U.S. producers punished while foreign producers are left unscathed:
The U.S. needs policy that encourages investments in all types of energy and avoids hurting the economy by making the nation less competitive than countries with cheaper energy, Mulva said. Proposed climate legislation in Congress threatens to drive U.S. refiners out of business by imposing higher carbon costs on domestic fuel than on imports, he said.
That last bit is very important. If we do get climate legislation, we need to make sure that we aren’t providing a competitive advantage to countries who don’t care about emissions – while putting our domestic producers out of business. This was a major theme in Jeff Rubin’s book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. Rubin argued that if we put a price on carbon emissions in the U.S. we can apply a carbon tariff on imports to level the playing field. Rubin argues that this will encourage efficiency from foreign producers of all things that are energy intensive, and it will ensure that the legislation doesn’t put U.S. firms out of business. (I reviewed Rubin’s book here).
Mulva went on to suggest that oil prices had gotten ahead of themselves. That story from Reuters:
“We have felt that an oil price between $70 and $80 (a barrel) is a good balance to promote investment, continue to replace reserves and keep production up, as well as a balance with respect to the cost to the consumer,” he told Reuters.
But Mulva also acknowledged the price run-up — expectations of a recovery drove crude prices to $73 a barrel last week, more than double their winter lows — was “stronger than we would have expected” and was “a little bit ahead of the actual supply and demand situation and inventory levels.”
I think “expectations” is the key word here. We do seem to have a little bit of a glut of oil (and natural gas) right now. In that respect, prices seem to be too high. But take this story from Fortune, where a majority of analysts believe that prices long-term are headed much higher:
NEW YORK (Fortune) — Ask a group of oil analysts about the recent surge in crude costs and here’s the consensus answer you’ll get: Prices have run up too far, too fast and they aren’t supported by the fundamentals.
Ask them about where prices will be two years from now, however, and the majority will offer this prediction: A lot higher.
So if I am an investor – and I think oil prices will be “a lot higher” in two years – I am going to invest in oil and/or oil company stocks regardless of what the supply/demand situation looks like today. And when enough people do that, you have pressure on oil prices today, which is why I think we are back to $70 oil.
Full Disclosure: I own shares of ConocoPhillips and Petrobras.
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