Our Energy Problem Is a Quantity Problem

(This post consists of a short overview article I recently wrote for Transform, a magazine for Environment and Sustainability Professionals, plus six related Questions and Answers.)

Reading many of today’s energy articles, it is easy to get the impression that our energy problem is a quality problem—some energy is polluting; other energy is hoped to be less polluting.

There is a different issue that we are not being told about. It is the fact that having enough energy is terribly important, as well. Total world energy consumption has risen quickly over time.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data for years 1965 and subsequent.

In fact, the amount of energy consumed, on average, by each person (also called “per capita”) has continued to rise, except for two flat periods.

Figure 2. World per Capita Energy Consumption with two circles relating to flat consumption. World Energy Consumption by Source, based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects (Appendix) together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent, divided by population estimates by Angus Maddison.

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Gail in China Report #3

Greetings Finite Worlders!  Gail is on her 1 month lecture tour of China. She’s unable to access WordPress from China, but does have access to email, so she’s sending me updates to publish here on OFW.  My Byline/About appears at the bottom here, but the China Travelogue articles are authored by her. -RE

From Gail below:

Greetings from China again!

As I mentioned previously, it was Prof. Feng at China University of Petroleum in Beijing who invited me to come to China for the first two weeks. In the second two weeks I would be doing a variety of other things. I am now in the “other things” part of the visit.
One thing we did during the first two weeks is make video recordings of the talks I gave during the first two weeks. I also I have the PDF slides. After I get back I will work on putting those things up on OurFiniteWorld.com.
One thing that Prof. Feng has talked to me about is that he would like to host a “Finite World” conference in Beijing in 2016, if he can get the details worked out (and if the financial system stays together well enough, and if I would help with the endeavor). Because of the cost of transport and other details involved, he expects that the vast majority of the attendees would be from China–perhaps 80 Chinese attendees and 20 attendees from elsewhere in the world. Given the way Prof. Feng does things, I expect the plan would be to make videos of those talks available on line, to the many people who would not be able to travel to China.
I have been working on a number of other things. Together with Prof. Feng and a graduate student, I wrote an article called, “The Myth of Everlasting Oil from Shale Formations,” which we are hoping will run in the “People’s Daily.” The graduate student translated it into Chinese.
One morning, I gave a talk to a group of about 20 people doing research related to energy and the economy at an institute in Beijing. This is a photo of Prof. Feng, the director of the research group (Prof. Fan), and myself, standing in front of their buildings. They seemed to be interested in what I had to say. This talk was videotaped as well.
One evening, I met with the vice president in charge of international operations for BGP, which is the subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) that does the initial geological assessment of proposed new locations. He told us that the work of his staff is down by 50%, but that the company has held off in laying off workers, because they are hopeful that prices will rise in the next few months. He is also hopeful that technological innovation will solve our other problems. He said that he is hesitant to lay off staff, because if he loses his staff, he loses the heart of his operations. It is very hard to build the expertise back up again.
I visited Ordos, Inner Mongolia for a short time. I received a very warm welcome there, from the extended family of the graduate student who invited me to visit the area. This is a photo of me shaking hands (in a symbolic handshake of friendship) with the graduate student’s father, while the graduate student looks on.
Ordos is the gateway to many of China’s coal operations. One of the things we noticed was how few cars were on the road. The road was a new four lane highway, but we drove for miles without seeing another car or other vehicle. The Ordos airport had few patrons, and many spaces available for stores were not rented. The airport had been built at the time the growth in coal operations was at its highest, but growth has not continued as hoped. Another thing we noticed is that while apartments seem still to be being built in Ordos, many of the apartments seem to be unoccupied.
I am now in Daqing (pronounced Daching), China, the home of China’s largest oil field, Daqing Oil Field. The city is a very modern city that grew up after Daqing oil field began production in 1960. It now has about 2.5 million inhabitants. The economy is very much tied to oil–I have been told that there are something like 300,000 CNPC employees living in Daqing, and many more indirectly tied to the oil field. The production of Daqing Oil Field is now in decline. We (I am here with others from Petroleum University of China, Beijing) visited some of the oil field operations today. The question a person might ask is whether low oil prices will adversely affect Daqing operations. When we attempted to ask CNPC employees questions along this line, we were told that the oil field is profitable at $40 barrel. We were also told that the company is testing the use of fracking and long horizontal wells, in the hope of increasing production (or slowing the decline).
When I asked how long oil prices would have to stay low before Daqing employment would be affected, the CNBC employee I asked (who may not be knowledgeable about this) said “one to two years.” When I talk to people at Petroleum University of China in Beijing, the point is made that the Chinese government realizes that there is a need for employment for a huge number of people–laying off a large number of employees would simply turn one problem into a different one. That is probably the reason why employment at CNPC is as high as it is–300,000 employees is a huge number for a field producing less than 1 million barrels a day. A large number of people are involved with monitoring well production. This part of the operation could probably be significantly mechanized, reducing the needed number of workers–but then what would all of the laid-off workers do? We will be meeting with some of the folks at the Daqing branch of Petroleum University of China tomorrow–perhaps they will have some additional insights. If the numbers I quoted above are right, the employees are not earning very much a piece–or the story about being profitable at $40 barrel is not true.

Why World Coal Consumption Keeps Rising; What Economists Missed

A primary reason why coal consumption is rising is because of increased international trade, starting when the World Trade Organization was formed in 1995, and greatly ramping up when China was added in December 2001. Figure 1 shows world fossil fuel extraction for the three fossil fuels. A person can see a sharp “bend” in the coal line, immediately after China was added to the World Trade Organization. China’s data also shows a sharp increase in coal use at that time.

Figure 1. World fossil fuel supply based on world production data from BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. World fossil fuel supply based on world production data from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

China and many other Asian countries had not previously industrialized. The advent of international trade gave them opportunities to make and sell goods below the cost of other countries. In order to do this, they needed fuel, however. The fuel the West had used when it industrialized was coal. Coal had many advantages for a newly industrialized countries: it often can be extracted without advanced technology; it is relatively cheap to extract; and it is often available locally. It can be used to make many of the basic items used by industrialized countries, including steel, concrete, and electricity.

The industrialization of Asian countries was pushed along by many forces. Companies in the West were eager to have a way to make goods cheaper. Buyers were happy with lower prices. Even the Kyoto Protocol tended to push international trade along. This document made it clear that countries signing the document wouldn’t be in the market for coal. From the point of the developing countries, this would help hold coal prices down (at least in the export market). It also likely meant a better long-term supply of coal for developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol offered no penalties for exporting products made with coal, so it put countries that used coal to make products for export in a better competitive position. This was especially the case if Kyoto Protocol countries used carbon taxes to make their own products higher priced.

Apart from the international trade /industrialization issue, there is another issue that is helping to keep coal consumption rising. It is the fact that oil supply is in short supply and high priced, and this means that economies of countries that disproportionately use a lot of oil in their economies are at a competitive disadvantage. Countries coming “late to the party” are in a good position to develop their economies using little oil and much coal, and thus keep overall energy costs down. This approach gives the developing countries a competitive advantage over the developed countries.

Let’s look at a few graphs. In terms of  oil leverage (total energy consumed /oil energy consumed), China and India come out way ahead of several other selected country groups.  They do this with their heavy use of coal.

Figure 2. Ratio of total energy consumed to oil (including biofuels) consumed, based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 2. Ratio of total energy consumed to oil (including biofuels) consumed, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

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Energy Leveraging: An Explanation for China’s Success and the World’s Unemployment

If an employer wants to maximize profits, it will want to leverage its use of high-priced energy sources.  From an employer’s point of view, there are basically three kinds of energy, from most to least expensive:

  1. Human energy
  2. Petroleum energy
  3. Everything else

If an employer wants to keep its costs low, it needs to minimize its use of expensive energy sources. The primary way it does this is by leveraging expensive energy sources with cheaper energy sources that help keep overall energy costs in line with what competitors (including overseas competitors) are paying. Thus, employers will want to use as little human and petroleum energy as possible, instead using cheap energy to substitute.

Human Energy

Human energy is the most expensive form of energy. It is very expensive because an employer needs to pay the employee enough to live on. This amount includes the cost of energy to fulfill the human’s needs, plus enough extra to cover taxes to cover the cost of energy for those who for some reason cannot work, plus taxes for maintenance of public infrastructure. An employer can keep his cost of human energy low by

  1. Substituting mechanical or electrical energy, which is usually cheaper.
  2. Hiring humans whose wage costs are low. Usually this means is humans who use little energy in their personal lives, and what energy is used, is cheap energy.
  3. Hiring in areas where taxes are low, usually reflecting a lack of benefits to employees. Continue reading

Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work

World leaders seem to have their minds made up regarding what will fix world CO2 emissions problems. Their list includes taxes on gasoline consumption, more general carbon taxes, cap and trade programs, increased efficiency in automobiles, greater focus on renewables, and more natural gas usage.

Unfortunately, we live in a world economy with constrained oil supply. Because of this, the chosen approaches have a tendency to backfire if some countries adopt them, and others do not. But even if everyone adopts them, it is not at all clear that they will provide the promised benefits.

Figure 1. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. If emissions had risen at the average rate that they did during the 1987 to 1997 period (about 1% per year), emissions in 2011 would be 18% lower than they actually were. While there were many other things going on at the same time, the much higher rise in emissions in recent years is not an encouraging sign.

The standard fixes don’t work for several reasons:

1. In an oil-supply constrained world, if a few countries reduce their oil consumption, the big impact is to leave more oil for the countries that don’t. Oil price may drop a tiny amount, but on a world-wide basis, pretty much the same amount of oil will be extracted, and nearly all of it will be consumed.

2. Unless there is a high tax on imported products made with fossil fuels, the big impact of a carbon tax is to send manufacturing to countries without a carbon tax, such as China and India. These countries are likely to use a far higher proportion of coal in their manufacturing than OECD countries would, and this change will tend to increase world CO2 emissions. Such a change will also tend to raise the standard of living of citizens in the countries adding manufacturing, further raising emissions. This change will also tend to reduce the number of jobs available in OECD countries.

3. The only time when increasing natural gas usage will actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions is if it replaces coal consumption. Otherwise it adds to carbon emissions, but at a lower rate than other fossil fuels, relative to the energy provided.

4. Substitutes for oil, including renewable fuels, are ways of increasing consumption of coal and natural gas over what they would be in the absence of renewable fuels, because they act as  add-ons to world oil supply, rather than as true substitutes for oil. Even in cases where they are theoretically more efficient, they still tend to raise carbon emissions in absolute terms, by raising the production of coal and natural gas needed to produce them.

5. Even using more biomass as fuel does not appear to be a solution. Recent work by noted scientists suggests that ramping up the use of biomass runs the risk of pushing the world past a climate change tipping point.

It is really unfortunate that the standard fixes work the way they do, because many of the proposed fixes do have good points. For example, if oil supply is limited, available oil can be shared far more equitably if people drive small fuel-efficient vehicles. The balance sheet of an oil importing nation looks better if citizens of that nation conserve oil. But we are kidding ourselves if we think these fixes will actually do much to solve the world’s CO2 emissions problem.

If we really want to reduce world CO2 emissions, we need to look at reducing world population, reducing world trade, and making more “essential” goods and services locally.  It is doubtful that many countries will volunteer to use these approaches, however.  It seems likely that Nature will ultimately provide its own solution, perhaps working through high oil prices and weaknesses in the world financial system.

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