How Renewable Energy Models Can Produce Misleading Indications

The energy needs of the world’s economy seem to be easy to model. Energy consumption is measured in a variety of different ways including kilowatt hours, barrels of oil equivalent, British thermal units, kilocalories and joules. Two types of energy are equivalent if they produce the same number of units of energy, right?

For example, xkcd’s modeler Randall Munroe explains the benefit of renewable energy in the video below. He tells us that based on his model, solar, if scaled up to ridiculous levels, can provide enough renewable energy for ourselves and a half-dozen of our neighbors. Wind, if scaled up to absurd levels, can provide enough renewable energy for ourselves and a dozen of our neighbors.

There is a major catch to this analysis, however. The kinds of energy produced by wind and solar are not the kinds of energy that the economy needs. Wind and solar produce intermittent electricity available only at specific times and places. What the world economy needs is a variety of different energy types that match the energy requirements of the many devices in place in the world today. This energy needs to be transported to the right place and saved for the right time of day and the right time of year. There may even be a need to store this energy from year to year, because of possible droughts.

I think of the situation as being analogous to researchers deciding that it would be helpful or more efficient if humans could change their diets to 100% grass in the next 20 years. Grass is a form of energy product, but it is not the energy product that humans normally consume. It doesn’t seem to be toxic to humans in small quantities. It seems to grow quite well. Switching to the use of grass for food would seem to be beneficial from a CO2 perspective. The fact that humans have not evolved to eat grass is similar to the fact that the manufacturing and transport sectors of today’s economy have not developed around the use of intermittent electricity from wind and solar.

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Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work

The reasons why the Green New Deal won’t really work are fairly subtle. A person really has to look into the details to see what goes wrong. In this post, I try to explain at least a few of the issues involved.

[1] None of the new renewables can easily be relied upon to produce enough energy in winter. 

The world’s energy needs vary, depending on location. In locations near the poles, there will be a significant need for light and heat during the winter months. Energy needs will be relatively more equal throughout the year near the equator.

Solar energy is particularly a problem in winter. In northern latitudes, if utilities want to use solar energy to provide electricity in winter, they will likely need to build several times the amount of solar generation capacity required for summer to have enough electricity available for winter.

Figure 1. US daily average solar production, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

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Eight Pitfalls in Evaluating Green Energy Solutions

Does the recent climate accord between US and China mean that many countries will now forge ahead with renewables and other green solutions? I think that there are more pitfalls than many realize.

Pitfall 1. Green solutions tend to push us from one set of resources that are a problem today (fossil fuels) to other resources that are likely to be problems in the longer term.  

The name of the game is “kicking the can down the road a little.” In a finite world, we are reaching many limits besides fossil fuels:

  1. Soil quality–erosion of topsoil, depleted minerals, added salt
  2. Fresh water–depletion of aquifers that only replenish over thousands of years
  3. Deforestation–cutting down trees faster than they regrow
  4. Ore quality–depletion of high quality ores, leaving us with low quality ores
  5. Extinction of other species–as we build more structures and disturb more land, we remove habitat that other species use, or pollute it
  6. Pollution–many types: CO2, heavy metals, noise, smog, fine particles, radiation, etc.
  7. Arable land per person, as population continues to rise

The danger in almost every “solution” is that we simply transfer our problems from one area to another. Growing corn for ethanol can be a problem for soil quality (erosion of topsoil), fresh water (using water from aquifers in Nebraska, Colorado). If farmers switch to no-till farming to prevent the erosion issue, then great amounts of Round Up are often used, leading to loss of lives of other species.

Encouraging use of forest products because they are renewable can lead to loss of forest cover, as more trees are made into wood chips. There can even be a roundabout reason for loss of forest cover: if high-cost renewables indirectly make citizens poorer, citizens may save money on fuel by illegally cutting down trees.

High tech goods tend to use considerable quantities of rare minerals, many of which are quite polluting if they are released into the environment where we work or live. This is a problem both for extraction and for long-term disposal.

Pitfall 2. Green solutions that use rare minerals are likely not very scalable because of quantity limits and low recycling rates.  

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Update on US natural gas, coal, nuclear, and renewables

On August 6, I wrote a post called Making Sense of the US Oil Story, in which I looked at US oil. In this post, I would like to look at other sources of US energy. Of course, the energy source we hear most about is natural gas. We continue to be a net natural gas importer, even as our own production rises.

Figure 1. US natural gas production and consumption, based on EIA data.

Figure 1. US natural gas production and consumption, based on EIA data.

US natural gas production leveled off in 2013, because of the low level of US natural gas prices. In 2013, there was growth in gas production in Pennsylvania in the Marcellus, but many other states, including Texas, saw decreases in production. In early 2014, natural gas prices have been higher, so natural gas production is rising again, roughly at a 4% annual rate.

The US-Canada-Mexican natural gas system is more or less a closed system (at least until LNG exports come online in the next few years) so whatever natural gas is produced, is used. Because of this, natural gas prices rise or fall so that demand matches supply. Natural gas producers have found this pricing situation objectionable because natural gas prices tend to settle at a low level, relative to the cost of production. This is the reason for the big push for natural gas exports. The hope, from producers’ point of view, is that exports will push US natural gas prices higher, making more natural gas production economic.

The Coal / Natural Gas Switch

If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, it tends to switch with coal for electricity production. We can see this in electricity consumption–natural gas was particularly cheap in 2012:

Figure 2. Selected Fuels Share of US Electricity - Coal, Natural Gas, and the sum of Coal plus Natural Gas

Figure 2. Selected Fuels Share of US Electricity Production – Coal, Natural Gas, and the sum of Coal plus Natural Gas, based on EIA data.

Coal use increased further in early 2014, because of the cold winter and higher natural gas prices. In Figure 2, there is a slight downward trend in the sum of coal and natural gas’s share of electricity, as renewables add their (rather small) effect. Continue reading

Russia and the Ukraine – The Worrisome Connection to World Oil and Gas Problems

What is behind the Russia/Ukraine problem? It seems to me that what we are seeing is Russia’s attempt to fix a two-part problem:

  1. Some oil and gas exporters, including Russia, are not receiving enough oil and gas revenue to meet their needs. They are not able to collect enough taxes to provide the services they have promised to their citizens, plus allow the amount of reinvestment that is needed to maintain production. Russia is starting to experience economic contraction because of the low revenue situation. This situation very closely related similar problems I have written about  previously. In one post I talked about major independent oil companies not producing enough profit to provide the revenue needed for reinvestment, and because of this, cutting back on new investment. In another, I talked about the problem of too low US natural gas sales prices, relative to the cost of extraction.
  2. Some oil and gas importers, including Ukraine, are not using their imported oil and gas in productive enough ways that they are able to afford to pay the market price for oil and gas. Russia gave Ukraine a lower natural gas price because some of Russia’s pipelines cross Ukraine, and Ukraine must maintain the pipeline. But even with this lower natural gas price, Ukraine is behind on its payments to Russia.

If a person thinks about the situation, it looks a lot like a situation where the world is reaching limits on oil and gas production. The marginal producers (including Russia) are being pushed out, at the same time that the marginal consumers (including Ukraine) are being pushed out.

Russia is trying to fix this situation, as best it can. One part of its approach is to make certain that Ukraine will in fact pay at least the European market price for natural gas. To do this, Russia will make Ukraine prepay for its natural gas; otherwise it will cut off its gas supply. Russia is also looking for new customers who can afford to pay higher prices  for natural gas. In particular, Russia is working on a contract to sell LNG to China, quite possibly reducing the amount of natural gas it has available to sell to Europe. Russia is also signing a $10 billion contract with Iran in which it promises to construct new hydroelectric and thermal energy plants in Iran, in return for oil exports from Iran. This contract will increase the amount of oil Russia has to sell, and will increase the oil available on the world market. Russia’s plan will do an end run around US and European sanctions.

Gradually, or perhaps not so gradually, Russia’s exports are being redirected to those who can afford to pay higher prices. European Union purchases of natural gas imports have declined since 2008, presumably because they are having difficulty affording the current price of gas, so they are being relied on less for future sales.

The Russian approach seems to include building a new axis of power, including Russia, China, Iran and perhaps other countries. This new axis of power may threaten the US dollar’s reserve currency status. With the dollar as reserve currency, the US has been able to buy far more goods from other countries than it sells to others. Putting an end to the US dollar as reserve currency would leave more and oil and gas for other countries. If purchases by the US are cut back, it will leave more oil and gas for other countries. The danger is that prices will drop too low because of the drop in US demand, leading to lower production. It this should happen, everyone might lose out.

I am doubtful that Russia’s approach to fixing its problems will work. But if Russia is “between a rock and a hard place,” I can understand its willingness to try something very different. It now has more power than it has had in the past because of its oil and gas exports, and is willing to use that power.

The US/European approach to this problem is to loan Ukraine $17 billion to pay for past natural gas bills. The hope is that with this loan, Ukraine will be able to make changes that will allow it to afford future natural gas bills. There is also the hope that the United States can step in with large natural gas exports to Europe and Ukraine. In addition, the US and Europe are trying to impose sanctions on Russia.

I find it very difficult to believe that the US/European approach will work. The idea that the United States can start exporting huge amounts of natural gas to Europe in the near future borders on the bizarre. There are many hurdles that would need to be overcome for this to happen. Installing LNG export facilities is among the least of these hurdles.

In fact, the West badly needs both the oil and gas that Russia is producing, so it really is in a very precarious position. If Russia cuts off exports, or if Russia is forced to cut off exports because of financial difficulties, both the US and Europe will suffer. It is clear that Europe will suffer because of its dependence on pipeline exports of oil and gas from Russia. But the US will suffer as well, because the US is tied closely to Europe by financial ties, and by import and export arrangements with Europe.

Furthermore, the US/European approach involves a great deal of new debt, in an attempt to fix an inherent inability of the Ukrainian economy to afford high energy prices. Without a huge transformation, Ukraine will be in even more financial difficulty when it comes time to pay back the new debt–it will need make debt payments at the same time that it needs to pay for more expensive future natural gas. More debt doesn’t necessarily fix the situation; it may make it worse.

The US powers that be do not understand what Russia (and the world) is up against, so the policies they propose are likely to make the situation worse, rather than better.

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