Energy Change for Climate Control
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  • Peak Oil Redux

    Posted on July 22nd, 2016 Jo No comments

    Peak conventional crude petroleum oil production is apparently here already – the only thing that’s been growing global total liquids is North American unconventional oils : tight oil – which includes shale oil in the United States of America – and tar sands oil from bitumen in Canada – either refined into synthetic crude, or blended with other oils – both heavy and light.

    But there’s a problem with unconventional oils – or rather several – but the key one is the commodity price of oil, which has been low for many months, and has caused unconventional oil producers to rein in their operations. It’s hitting conventional producers too. A quick check of Section 3 “Oil data : upstream” in OPEC’s 2016 Annual Statistical Bulletin shows a worrying number of negative 2014 to 2015 change values – for example “Active rigs by country”, “Wells completed in OPEC Members”, and “Producing wells in OPEC Members”.

    But in the short term, it’s the loss of uneconomic unconventional oil production that will hit hardest. Besides problems with operational margins for all forms of unconventionals, exceptional air temperatures (should we mention global warming yet ?) in the northern part of North America have contributed to a seizure in Canadian tar sands oil production – because of extensive wildfires.

    Here’s two charted summaries of the most recent data from the EIA on tight oil (which includes shale oil) and dry shale gas production in the United States – which is also suffering.

    Once the drop in North American unconventionals begins to register in statistics for global total liquids production, some concern will probably be expressed. Peak Oil just might be sharper and harder and sooner than some people think.

  • Energy Security, National Security #2

    Posted on November 24th, 2015 Jo No comments

    The UK Government’s Security Review (SDSR), published 23rd November 2015, regrettably shows traces of propaganda not supported by current data.

    For example, the report states in Section 3.40 that : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

    I have already addressed my recommendation that the writers of this report should be more careful to distinguish between Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) which is a methane-rich product that can substitute for Natural Gas; and Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) which is a methane-poor product that cannot substitute for Natural Gas.

    However, assuming that the writers of the report are talking about cryogenically stored and transported Natural Gas-sourced energy gases, there is a problem in assuming that the United States will be exporting any large amounts of LNG to Europe any time soon. In fact, there are several problems.

    Just because the business and political press have been touting the exciting prospect of US LNG exports, doesn’t mean that the data backs up this meme.

    First of all, although American Natural Gas production (gross withdrawals from oil and gas wells) continues to grow at a rate that appears unaffected by low Natural Gas prices, the production of shale gas appears to have plateau’d, which might well be related to Natural Gas prices.

    Secondly, although exports of Natural Gas as a whole and exports of Natural Gas by pipeline remain healthy, LNG exports have fallen since the heady days of 2010-2011.

    Next, although the oil and gas industry proposed lots of LNG export terminals, only a handful are being constructed, and there are already predictions that they will run under-capacity, or won’t get completed.

    And further, as regards potential future LNG customers, although China is rejecting LNG imports for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with falling economic growth rates, none of that LNG currently comes from the United States. And China is planning to develop its own onshore Natural Gas and will take LNG from the Australia/Indonesia region.

    The bulk of US LNG exports go to Taiwan and Japan, and Japan is unlikely to restart many nuclear power plants, so Japan will continue to need this gas.

    On top of all this, the United States is a very minor LNG exporter, so major change should be considered unlikely in the near term.

    And it any LNG is heading for Europe, it will probably end up in France, perhaps because they need a better backup plan for their turbulent nuclear power plants.

    All of which adds up to a puzzled look on my face. How can the British Government reasonably expect the commencement of significant quantities of American LNG exports to arrive in the UK ? The only reason they believe this is because there has been American propaganda, promulgated through media of all kinds, for the last five or so years, to convince the world that the USA can achieve greater energy independence through the “explosion” in shale gas production.

    It’s a story told by many successive US Governments – that the US can achieve greater energy independence, but the reality is very, very different.

    The UK Government should not believe any narrative of this nature, in my view, nor include it in national security analyses.

    …to be continued…

  • Energy Security, National Security #1

    Posted on November 24th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Our assiduous government in the United Kingdom has conducted a national security review, as they should, but it appears the collective intelligence on energy of the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Commonwealth Office is on a scale of poor to dangerously out of date.

    No, LNG doesn’t stand for “liquid natural gas”. LNG stands for Liquefied Natural Gas. I think this report has confused LNG with NGLs.

    Natural Gas Liquids, or NGLs, are condensable constituents of gas-prone hydrocarbon wells. In other words, the well in question produces a lot of gas, but at the temperatures and pressures in the well underground, hydrocarbons that would normally be liquid on the surface are in the gas phase, underground. But when they are pumped/drilled out, they are condensed to liquids. So, what are these chemicals ? Well, here are the approximate Boiling Points of various typical fossil hydrocarbons, approximate because some of these molecules have different shapes and arrangements which influences their physical properties :-

    Boiling Points of Short-Chain Hydrocarbons
    Methane : approximately -161.5 degrees Celsius
    Ethane : approximately -89.0 degrees Celsius
    Propane : approximattely -42.0 degrees Celsius
    Butane : approximately -1.0 degrees Celsius
    Pentane : approximately 36.1 degrees Celsius
    Heptane : approximately 98.42 degrees Celsius

    You would expect NGLs, liquids condensed out of Natural Gas, to be mostly butane and heavier molecules, but depending on the techniques used – which are often cryogenic – some propane and ethane can turn up in NGLs, especially if they are kept cold. The remaining methane together with small amounts of ethane and propane and a trace of higher hydrocarbons is considered “dry” Natural Gas.

    By contrast, LNG is produced by a process that chills Natural Gas without separating the methane, until it is liquid, and takes up a much smaller volume, making it practical for transportation. OK, you can see why mistakes are possible. Both processes operate at sub-zero temperatures and result in liquid hydrocarbons. But it is really important to keep these concepts separate – especially as methane-free liquid forms of short-chain hydrocarbons are often used for non-energy purposes.

    Amongst other criticisms I have of this report, it is important to note that the UK’s production of crude oil and Natural Gas is not “gradually” declining. It is declining at quite a pace, and so imports are “certain” to grow, not merely “likely”. I note that Natural Gas production decline is not mentioned, only oil.

    …to be continued…

  • Averil Macdonald : Shale Scold

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    “So, Professor Macdonald”, I hazarded, as the good woman, sporting an alarmingly bright red frock, was fiddling with her bags on her way out of the Energy Live 2015 conference event on 5th November 2015 in the arty Barbican, “I understand that some remarks that you made about women and shale gas have been misrepresented.”

    Averil Macdonald politely stopped what she was doing and engaged with me about this issue, which had thrust her abruptly into the limelight, accused of being sexist. She said that she had been misquoted, and her real meaning twisted by the absence of five words from what she’d actually said. I asked her where I could check what she had actually said, and she pointed me at a Guardian newspaper piece, which I think is this one.

    I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, as I had sat in her earlier stage presentation urging women and girls into STEM careers, amongst other things, and she’d been quite upbeat about energy transition. She said it was going to be a long road to an ultra-low carbon system, and require lots of investment. Although she spoiled this by adding that the investment would need to be in extraction – for fossil fuels, obviously – as well as infrastructure. Her assumption that continued fossil fuel mining is essential, particularly in light of the need to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions, was, I felt, quite alarming.

    Anyway, back to the evening one-to-one chat. I asked her a little more about how she viewed shale gas exploration, because I said I couldn’t see a good reason for it – especially as industrially manufactured low carbon gas held out more potential. Her argument was a little more detailed than she had made from the platform earlier. She said that “this country” can’t afford new energy investment. I didn’t stop her right there, but I should have. I should have countered with asking about the eye-watering sums of foreign sovereign wealth, taxpayers’ money, billpayers’ money and tax breaks being thrown at supporting new and existing fossil fuel production in the North Sea, and loan guarantees and other subsidies for new nuclear power, besides the huge public budgets for cleaning up decades of nuclear power plant waste and spent nuclear fuel. And then I should have challenged her about privatisation in the energy industry, which has led to companies being hamstrung by their need to provide higher returns to shareholders at the expense of capital investment, a situation that has only been turned around by government promises of public money and guaranteed high power prices to justify boardroom spending on new and renovated assets. The money to invest is there, I should have countered. It’s in the system. It’s just being frittered away on dividends, Contracts for Difference, capacity auctions, and insane projects like new nuclear power. And anyway, if banks are confident of technologies, they can always create debt to finance projects.

    Anyway, back to Averil’s take on things. She said that indigenous UK energy resources should be exploited in order to finance the low carbon transition. Again, I should have interjected and prevented her from continuing. When does Her Majesty’s Treasury actually hypothecate revenue, I should have asked her. How would tax take from shale gas production ever be converted into money for renewable energy or building insulation ? She should look at the example of fuel duty, or several other allegedly “green” taxes and see for herself where the pennies have accumulated into budgetary expenditure pounds. Not in Feed-in Tariffs, that’s for sure. I tried to question the potential volumes of shale gas production, and how it would only contribute small revenue streams for the Treasury. I tried to ask her about other indigenous British energy resources, such as the wind and sunshine, and how they are free, compared to the costs of digging up shale gas, but she breezed on.

    She said that there was a lot of capital being attracted to the exploitation of shale gas in the UK. She implied that private capital was heavily invested. I should have asked her in-depth questions about this. Intelligent oil and gas companies have steered well clear of the UK Shale Gas project. Large companies like Shell and Total are promising their shareholders that dividends will remain healthy, despite the downturn in the oil commodity price which impacts their profits. Shell won’t be involved in British shale gas, even though Total will, apparently, but evidence suggests that any failure in exploration will mean that Total pulls right out again. So far, UK shale gas experience has been empty holes, and companies withdrawing. What kind of companies apart from those in the existing energy sector would have enough confidence of their knowledge about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, sufficient to invest on the kind of scale required ? I said that the real investment money for energy in future wasn’t going to come from the government, or from speculators, but from large investment funds. She said that capital was already committed to shale gas. I should have asked more, because I can’t imagine that the very cautious major investors would risk their reputations and credit ratings on shale gas.

    I said that I doubted there would be much in terms of shale gas production for the first 20 years. I also said that there are some very good reasons to oppose the development of a shale gas industry in the UK. I said the only reason that the general voting democratic public permit the ongoing extraction of oil and gas in the North Sea is because the ocean disperses most spills. If this drilling were to come onshore, people would see the environmental pollution that fossil fuel production always entails. Averil Macdonald insisted that the UK has one of the best industrial regulatory regimes, and that shale gas production can be done safely and securely. I said that I had been looking at some of the research on gas and oil well integrity, and spills, and about long term monitoring. I should have challenged her by asking her whether she realised that without decades of close monitoring and potentially emergency intervention, shale gas wells could constitute a major environmental risk for a very long time to come.

    I should have reminded her of the basic problems with UK shale gas development proposals : that in comparison to the United States, where the federal government sold off massive blocks of open public land for shale development, the UK is densely populated, and that vital environmental resources are packed close together. I should have reminded her that the best estimates are that the potential shale gas resource in the whole of Europe is only ten times or less what it is in northern America. I should have said that the statistical rates of compromised oil and gas wells mean that surface pollution from shale production is inevitable. I should have reminded her that although what’s happening in Gasland USA could be considered “scare stories”, as she clearly thinks, these are real events, and real lives being affected. Whatever she might think about the poor standards in the oil and gas industry in the USA, they too have a regulatory regime for the energy sector, and yet environmental and social abuses are rife. Perhaps it is simply the nature of shale gas and shale oil development that causes problems, regardless of legislation and industry monitoring ? I should have reminded her that the geology of UK shale sediments are different to those in northern America; that it took well over 40 years to develop shale extraction there, and that there are real problems resulting from new underground extraction technologies, including seismic events, water, soil and air pollution and land collapse.

    I should have stated the obvious about women in particular, who she accused of taking a position against shale gas without knowing the facts, without understanding the science. First of all, shale gas exploitation is not science : it’s an engineering technology, and technologies fail, and women know this. And secondly, oil and gas production is dirty, and women know this, too. Women get sick and tired of men treading all over the clean kitchen floor in their muddy boots, leaving toxic damp towels on the bed, and not wiping up spills. Women know that onshore oil and gas production will be another bunch of big, strong boys, muscling into your house, promising to do a good job and then behaving like dodgy builders, regardless of the regulations in the construction industry. We don’t want these profiteers tearing up our beautiful countryside to dig leaky, unhealthy holes, and bomb the underside of the Earth just to make a few homes warmer.

    Oh, Averil Macdonald knows how to peddle political tales – she posed the usual narrative that it’s fine buying Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar, but all the Qataris do with the money is buy Ferraris. I said I’d heard that story before, and I said I found it irrelevant. I should have challenged her about the serious prospects of LNG expansion in Australia and south east Asia. After the Middle East gas is finished, there are more places to get gas from, for at least another 30 years, without blowing up the subsoil for shale gas.

    Professor Macdonald, chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, tried to sell me the idea that communities who would be prepared to accept the wonderfully small profile shale gas wells would receive generous funds. I suppose she was suggesting that these bribes could then pay for solar and wind power development. But I didn’t get to ask this, as our conversation was terminated by our being shushed by an irritated young privileged white male who wanted to hear the Ed Davey Unplugged interview without interruption, who began impolitely with an angry “excuse me”. Being women, naturally, Professor Averil Macdonald and I both immediately apologised as our gender are culturally trained to do, and continued arguing for only a minute more sotto voce before giving up in the face of amplified male competition. Ed Davey was most entertaining, after all. It almost made up for being scolded about my resistance to and scorn for shale gas development.

  • Ed Davey : Lounge Lizard

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Nothing can really top an Energy Live News day of energy debates rounded off by a beer and the spectacle of a respectable ex-Energy Minister lounging in playboy fashion on a bar stool nursing a glass of red wine (or two) and being nigh on scathing about UK energy policy – or the total lack thereof.

    As I recall it, but I didn’t take notes or a voice recording, Ed Davey, now an energy consultant as “Energy Destinations”, had the temerity to call out the current UK Government as “liars” about the Levy Control Framework being overspent, and quoted others as saying that the current Tory energy strategy is “stupid” and “barmy”.

    He said, as I remember it, that the Tories have never offered viable alternatives to things that are failing, and that he personally wouldn’t bet his house on the claims of large volumes of shale gas production. I believe he said that the Tories pushing through shale gas development was bound to create strong resistance – although he didn’t stoop so low as to suggest that the main resistance to shale gas was coming from… Tory ruralshire voters.

    Conservative voters in every town and village seem to be the key deniers of climate change science, and appear to me to be generally against any form of energy investment – wind, solar and shale, and any new cables and pipes. Deranged or rabid that may seem, at first glance. And possibly the second glance, too. But there you are. A Party can’t choose the sanity of its voters. Although if I were in the Tory Government, I’d be highly embarrassed by some of these people. There are plenty of “ouch” moments to deal with – such as the entire cancellation of a perfectly viable wind power project offshore in southern England, just because of the contributors to the Letters Page in the Bournemouth Echo newspaper and the local yachtsmen. The whole fate of human civilisation could rest in the hands of uneducated yokels dismissing renewable energy because they listened to James Delingpole’s gut instinct about the reliability of global warming science. But I digress.

    It is the height of Conservative Government cowardice and illogic to permit local groups to fight political battles against new energy investment, instead of making the strategic case for new energy, particularly renewables. Also, it is ridiculous to use subsidy or “golden egg” community bribes to roll out infrastructure development. Sorry. They’re not “bribes”. Not even if money is being handed out by the shedload to communities volunteering to host industrially landscape-disfiguring and toxic shale gas developments or nuclear waste disposal facilities that need monitoring for decades or even centuries to guarantee their environmental security.

    Ed Davey wanted to remind his audience that he had been the longest serving Energy Minister since 1997 (did I get that right ?) – which is about right, as many others have been pushed out of office on one pretext or another – faux scandal after faux scandal. Nobody would want that job.

    Ed Davey said that trade with other countries was the way to build global security and address things such as human rights issues, so he has no problem in energy trade and investment with China – and that he has his own project there.

    After the “Ed Davey, Unplugged” interview with Energy Live News, I hung about earwigging to Ed talk to his encircling fandom. I think the first question he got was about thorium nuclear power, small modular reactors or nuclear fusion or something, because he was talking about how advanced designs could not be said to be feasible, even though people claim they are feasible.

    He made the very good point that a lot of things in energy are uncertain, and that in the energy sector, if anybody claims that something is absolutely certain, they’re lying. I tried to get across the general conclusion of my research into low carbon gas – that there are much better, and more certain, prospects of industrially manufactured low carbon gas than anything that shale gas could ever deliver. He admitted that the range of projections for shale gas production are very wide. I said that many players were working on green gas projects, including the National Grid. He said that National Grid had a vested interest. I agreed.

    Because everybody has a vested interest in their own pet favourite energy. There are a number of people in the Conservative Party, for example, who stand to gain significantly from investment in shale gas development. If confidence can be raised in the technology, then investment can be gathered, and distributed, even if there is no commodity of any size to draw on. Shale gas development sounds to me like the plot of The Producers – the aim is to raise a lot of investment capital for a flop, and scarper with the proceeds. A little like the loan guarantee offered for the Hinkley Point C financiers. Another fine British energy subsidy. But again, I digress.

    Ed Davey said that a leftwing Labour Party bothered him, and that they had been bandying about a wild high figure for green gas production potential. I said it all depends on energy efficiency measures, and also, that the original research had been done by National Grid and other researchers. Half of residential gas demand being supplied by green gas is not unimaginable or unfeasible if you consider this as an industrial proposition, and not just farm-based tank digestion for biogas and biomethane.

    Ed Davey said that he wanted to see shale gas developed, as he didn’t really trust Vladimir Putin. He was keen to point out that the UK Government should work with uncertainty, and build a framework for energy policy that can cope with uncertainty. I tried to make the point that it would take at least 20 years before shale gas production could produce significant volumes, if it could at all. We don’t have time for this highly uncertain strategy. I also tried to say that nobody knows if the EPR nuclear reactor design destined to be built at Hinkley Point C actually works. That’s quite an uncertainty to base core energy policy on, if you ask me.

    Since the potential resources of shale gas in the whole of Europe are ten times smaller, or less, than in North America, why would shale gas be expected to be productive in the UK ? The deal that BP has just done with China to develop shale gas in its desertified hinterland is probably a useful project compared to the idiocy of trying to develop shale gas in Britain. The BP-China deal, by the way, was signed in under cover of the news of the Chinese investment in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, but I think the BP-China-shale-gas story is far more important. I think Hinkley Point C is a project that stands a chance of falling flat on its face – either because the EPR doesn’t work – something the Chinese should soon be able to tell us because they’re building a pair in Taishan – or because it cannot get built in a useful timeframe.

    Ed Davey’s position, as a Liberal, of course, is that he wants to let all the possible energy technologies come on, and see which succeed. He gave no recognition of the support needed to bring on some new or currently niche technologies. Or the subsidies still being received by the fossil fuel and nuclear power industry.

    Ed’s view is that David Cameron will not want to break up or disband the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but that when George Osborne becomes Leader of the Conservative Party, and becomes Prime Minister in the next General Election, he will definitely want to get rid of DECC. Ed Davey didn’t mention that over half of DECC’s budget is committed to nuclear decommissioning, and that this will still need to get paid for, even if DECC dies a departmental death.

    Although Ed Davey admitted that the strike price for power arising from the Contract for Difference agreed for the Hinkley Point C was high, he said that this was to pay for the eventual decommissioning of the plant and the disposal of the fuel waste. However, he didn’t seem to realise that this is likely to be under-costed, as the final disposal of nuclear waste and nuclear fuel will still paid for by the British taxpayer, as it will be sold back from the private energy companies when the Geological Disposal Facility will be built. So, in addition to the 60 years or more of radioactive waste and radioactive spent nuclear fuel that the British people have yet to pay to dispose of, we will be lumped with paying the spiralling costs of disposing of all the waste from the new nuclear projects as well. No lessons learned there, then.

  • Clueless in Whitehall

    Posted on November 5th, 2015 Jo No comments

    On 3rd November 2015, I had the disconcerting experience of wandering up and down Whitehall in London looking vainly for a venue : the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) and Energy Networks Association (ENA) event entitled “Gas – Delivering for Customers and Supporting the Low Carbon Economy“.

    The central street of government officialdom has become almost unrecognisable in parts, owing to a fad for boarding up offices under renovation in boxed section – London’s joinery community must be waxing rich. I wondered inconclusively if this trend was spurred by attention to security questions ahead of the round-Cenotaph open-air wreath-laying coming up on 11th November.

    I very politely asked several security guards in high visibility jerkins and a policeman outside Downing Street with an outrageously full hipster beard where I could find Number 61, and nobody seemed to know where it was.

    I even went into the front door of Number 74 Parliament Street to check I wasn’t looking in the wrong place. The reception guard said that I wasn’t the first person who’d come asking.

    I dropped in at the Cabinet Office, and asked if perhaps the invitation meant Whitehall Place instead of Whitehall. I even phoned the mobile phone number and desk number of the event organiser – who didn’t pick up. Obviously. Because he was hard at work at the venue itself already.

    Eventually, I encountered a face I recognised striding along Whitehall, or at least I thought I recognised : Nick Molho, now working with the Aldersgate Group, and I asked him if he was also going to the PRASEG/ENA meeting. He was not.

    And then I found Dr Alan Whitehead MP also wandering down the street, similarly lost. He too had stopped Nick Molho to ask about Number 61. Clueless in Whitehall.

    Comrades in lostness, together we walked into the scaffolded, but not boxed-in, Banqueting House, and helpfully, a woman on the welcome team knew that Number 61 was next door. Of course, Number 61 is the home of RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute. And of course, we’d both been there before. Maybe I ought to carry around a proper smartphone for situations such as these.

    Once successfully in the round room with the tasteful purple velvet curtain backdrop, I found a contact from the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), who was also sporting very large amounts of sprouty chin hair. The beard’s coming on well, I commented. Yes, I grew it all myself, he answered proudly. So, I asked, could I ask you anything about the Spending Review ? Well, he said, you could ask me, but I can’t guarantee if I can answer you, and if I do answer you, I might not be able to give the full answer. OK then, I conceded, I won’t ask.

    The 25th November, he said, is when the announcements will be made.

    My view is though that this particular person will get to keep his job. If he were about to leave the government, he would have shaved his beard off by now. Presentableness for interviews, you see. A clean chin denotes a clean mind, or at least, a refreshed one, looking more youthful, and ready for something new. A kind of face “reset”.

    There were a number of very interesting presentations at the PRASEG/ENA do, but the ones that really stood out for me were a presentation on Renewable Gas from National Grid and the one from CNG Services about compressed Natural Gas being used to fuel Heavy Goods Vehicles.

    I spoke to the speaker from National Grid after their presentation. I told them I had called my book on low carbon gas system options “Renewable Gas”, as I had been impressed by the National Grid publication of the same name that I read back in 2009.

    I said it was a shame that the UK Capacity Mechanism had not worked as it should have done to support new investment in high performance combined cycle gas turbine power generation plant (CCGTs), which are an ideal way of increasing flexibility in balancing the UK power supply to demand, especially as more intermittent/variable renewable power becomes available.

    CCGTs have faced issues of economic viability because they are not always in use, and this would only be exacerbated by increasing levels of wind and solar power feeding the grid.

    I said it seemed obvious to me that it would be more economically efficient if CCGTs were extended to become fully integrated gas production and recycling systems. I said this meant capturing carbon dioxide and re-processing it into new methane-rich gas fuel, methanating with Renewable Hydrogen produced from biomass and steam, or renewable electricity when available, and storing the methane-rich fuel for use when renewable electricity was not available.

    I congratulated the speaker on having the word “Methanation” on one of their slides.

    They intimated that in a very short timeframe they expected their first BioSNG (biomass-derived substitute Natural Gas) project to be announced – gasifying black bag waste in Swindon, and making methane-rich gas for grid injection.

    I said I would be interested in visiting the site, and was invited to email in a request to be included on the notification list.

    The presentation from CNG Services showed us the new Scania gas truck – fuelled entirely by compressed natural gas – and the location of the filling station – on the high pressure gas transmission line. What will be happening is that John Lewis – will be anaerobically digesting all their food waste, and converting the biogas to biomethane, and injecting it into the gas grid, receiving Green Gas Certificates. They will then run a fleet of Scania gas trucks, and fill up at CNG Services, and will be able to claim that their entire transport fleet will be running on Renewable Gas.

    To me, it was notable that there was not much discussion of shale gas throughout much of the event, despite this being one of the key planks of the Conservative Government energy narrative of late, regardless of how vain and meaningless it is. The PRASEG/ENA event showed that they may be clueless in Whitehall, but there are some parliamentarians and their friends in the gas industry who recognise the huge opportunities for manufactured low carbon gas.

  • A Partial Meeting of Engineering Minds

    Posted on July 14th, 2015 Jo No comments

    So I met somebody last week, at their invitation, to talk a little bit about my research into Renewable Gas.

    I can’t say who it was, as I didn’t get their permission to do so. I can probably (caveat emptor) safely say that they are a fairly significant player in the energy engineering sector.

    I think they were trying to assess whether my work was a bankable asset yet, but I think they quickly realised that I am nowhere near a full proposal for a Renewable Gas system.

    Although there were some technologies and options over which we had a meeting of minds, I was quite disappointed by their opinions in connection with a number of energy projects in the United Kingdom.

    Click to Read More !

  • Amber Rudd : First Skirmish

    Posted on May 29th, 2015 Jo No comments

    As if to provide proof for the sneaking suspicion that Great Britain is run by the wealthy, rather than by the people, and that energy policy is decided by a close-knit circle of privileged dynasties, up bubbles Amber Rudd MP’s first whirl of skirmish as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change : her brother Roland is chairperson of a lobbying firm, Finsbury, which is seeking to get state approval for a controversial gas storage scheme at Preesall, near Fleetwood, on behalf of the developers, Halite Energy of Preston, Lancashire.

    Whilst some claim there is a starkly obvious conflict of interest for Rudd to take part in the decision-making process, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) could have denied it, but have instead confirmed that the potential reversal of a 2013 decision will be made, not by Rudd, but by Lord Bourne.

    New gas storage in the United Kingdom is a crucial piece of the energy infrastructure provision, as recognised by successive governments. Developments have been ongoing, such as the opening of the Holford facility at Byley in Cheshire. Besides new gas storage, there are anticipated improvements for interconnectors with mainland Europe. These are needed for raising the volume of Natural Gas available to the British market, and for optimising Natural Gas flows and sales in the European regional context – a part of the EC’s “Energy Union”.

    An underlying issue not much aired is that increased gas infrastructure is necessary not just to improve competition in the energy markets – it is also to compensate for Peak Natural Gas in the North Sea – something many commentators regularly strive to deny. The new Conservative Government policy on energy is not fit to meet this challenge. The new Secretary of State has gone public about the UK Government’s continued commitment to the exploitation of shale gas – a resource that even her own experts can tell her is unlikely to produce more than a footnote to annual gas supplies for several decades. In addition, should David Cameron be forced to usher in a Referendum on Europe, and the voters petulantly pull out of the Europe project, Britain’s control over Natural Gas imports is likely to suffer, either because of the failure of the “Energy Union” in markets and infrastructure, or because of cost perturbations.

    Amber Rudd MP is sitting on a mountain of trouble, undergirded by energy policy vapourware : the promotion of shale gas is not going to solve Britain’s gas import surge; the devotion to new nuclear power is not going to bring new atomic electrons to the grid for decades, and the UK Continental Shelf is going to be expensive for the Treasury to incentivise to mine. What Amber needs is a proper energy policy, based on focused support for low carbon technologies, such as wind power, solar power and Renewable Gas to back up renewable electricity when the sun is not shining and wind is not blowing.

  • Zero Careers In Plainspeaking

    Posted on March 5th, 2015 Jo 1 comment

    There are many ways to make a living, but there appear to be zero careers in plainspeaking.

    I mean, who could I justify working with, or for ? And would any of them be prepared to accept me speaking my mind ?

    Much of what I’ve been saying over the last ten years has been along the lines of “that will never work”, but people generally don’t get consulted or hired for picking holes in an organisation’s pet projects or business models.

    Could I imagine myself taking on a role in the British Government ? Short answer : no.

    The slightly longer answer : The British Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) ? No, they’re still hooked on the failed technology of nuclear power, the stupendously expensive and out-of-reach Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and the mythical beast of shale gas. OK, so they have a regular “coffee club” about Green Hydrogen (whatever that turns out to be according to their collective ruminations), and they’ve commissioned reports on synthetic methane, but I just couldn’t imagine they’re ever going to work up a serious plan on Renewable Gas. The British Government Department for Transport ? No, they still haven’t adopted a clear vision of the transition of the transport sector to low carbon energy. They’re still chipping away at things instead of coming up with a strategy.

    Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a British oil and gas multinational ? Short and very terse and emphatic answer : no.

    The extended answer : The oil and gas companies have had generous support and understanding from the world’s governments, and are respected and acclaimed. Yet they are in denial about “unburnable carbon” assets, and have dismissed the need for Energy Change that is the outcome of Peak Oil (whether on the supply or the demand side). Sneakily, they have also played both sides on Climate Change. Several major oil and gas companies have funded or in other ways supported Climate Change science denial. Additionally, the policy recommendations coming from the oil and gas companies are what I call a “delayer’s game”. For example, BP continues to recommend the adoption of a strong price on carbon, yet they know this would be politically unpalatable and take decades (if ever) to bring into effect. Shell continues to argue for extensive public subsidy support for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), knowing this would involve such huge sums of money, so it’s never going to happen, at least not for several decades. How on Earth could I work on any project with these corporations unless they adopt, from the centre, a genuine plan for transition out of fossil fuels ? I’m willing to accept that transition necessitates the continued use of Natural Gas and some petroleum for some decades, but BP and Royal Dutch Shell do need to have an actual plan for a transition to Renewable Gas and renewable power, otherwise I would be compromising everything I know by working with them.

    Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a large engineering firm, such as Siemens, GE, or Alstom, taking part in a project on manufactured low carbon gas ? I suppose so. I mean, I’ve done an IT project with Siemens before. However, they would need to demonstrate that they are driving for a Renewable Gas transition before I could join a gas project with them. They might not want to be so bold and up-front about it, because they could risk the wrath of the oil and gas companies, whose business model would be destroyed by engineered gas and fuel solutions.

    Could I imagine myself building fuel cells, or designing methanation catalysts, or improving hydrogen production, biocoke/biocoal manufacture or carbon dioxide capture from the oceans… with a university project ? Yes, but the research would need to be funded by companies (because all applied academic research is funded by companies) with a clear picture on Energy Change and their own published strategy on transition out of fossil fuels.

    Could I imagine myself working on rolling out gas cars, buses and trucks ? Yes. The transition of the transport sector is the most difficult problem in Energy Change. However, apart from projects that are jumping straight to new vehicles running entirely on Hydrogen or Natural Gas, the good options for transition involve converting existing diesel engine vehicles to running mostly on Natural Gas, such as “dual fuel”, still needing roughly 20% of liquid diesel fuel for ignition purposes. So I would need to be involved with a project that aims to supply biodiesel, and have a plan to transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas.

    Could I imagine myself working with a team that has extensive computing capabilities to model carbon dioxide recycling in power generation plant ? Yes.

    Could I imagine myself modelling the use of hydrogen in petroleum refinery, and making technological recommendations for the oil and gas industry to manufacture Renewable Hydrogen ? Possibly. But I would need to be clear that I’m doing it to enable Energy Change, and not to prop up the fossil fuel paradigm – a game that is actually already bust and needs helping towards transition.

    Could I imagine myself continuing to research the growth in Renewable Gas – both Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methane – in various countries and sectors ? Possibly. It’s my kind of fun, talking to engineers.

    But whatever future work I consider myself doing, repeatedly I come up against this problem – whoever asked me to work with them would need to be aware that I do not tolerate non-solutions. I will continue to say what doesn’t work, and what cannot work.

    If people want to pay me to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t working, and won’t work, then fine, I’ll take the role.

    I’d much rather stay positive, though, and forge a role where I can promote the things that do work, can work and will work.

    The project that I’m suitable for doesn’t exist yet, I feel. I’m probably going to continue in one way or another in research, and after that, since I cannot see a role that I could fit easily or ethically, I can see I’m going to have to write my own job description.

  • Only Just Getting Started

    Posted on February 8th, 2015 Jo No comments

    In the last couple of years I have researched and written a book about the technologies and systems of Renewable Gas – gas energy fuels that are low in net carbon dioxide emissions. From what I have learned so far, it seems that another energy world is possible, and that the transition is already happening. The forces that are shaping this change are not just climate or environmental policy, or concerns about energy security. Renewable Gas is inevitable because of a range of geological, economic and industrial reasons.

    I didn’t train as a chemist or chemical process engineer, and I haven’t had a background in the fossil fuel energy industry, so I’ve had to look at a number of very basic areas of engineering, for example, the distillation and fractionation of crude petroleum oil, petroleum refinery, gas processing, and the thermodynamics of gas chemistry in industrial-scale reactors. Why did I need to look at the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical industry when I was researching Renewable Gas ? Because that’s where a lot of the change can come from. Renewable Gas is partly about biogas, but it’s also about industrial gas processes, and a lot of them are used in the petrorefinery and chemicals sectors.

    In addition, I researched energy system technologies. Whilst assessing the potential for efficiency gains in energy systems through the use of Renewable Electricity and Renewable Gas, I rekindled an interest in fuel cells. For the first time in a long time, I began to want to build something – a solid oxide fuel cell which switches mode to an electrolysis unit that produces hydrogen from water. Whether I ever get to do that is still a question, but it shows how involved I’m feeling that I want to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.

    Even though I have covered a lot of ground, I feel I’m only just getting started, as there is a lot more that I need to research and document. At the same time, I feel that I don’t have enough data, and that it will be hard to get the data I need, partly because of proprietary issues, where energy and engineering companies are protective of developments, particularly as regards actual numbers. Merely being a university researcher is probably not going to be sufficient. I would probably need to be an official within a government agency, or an industry institute, in order to be permitted to reach in to more detail about the potential for Renewable Gas. But there are problems with these possible avenues.

    You see, having done the research I have conducted so far, I am even more scornful of government energy policy than I was previously, especially because of industrial tampering. In addition, I am even more scathing about the energy industry “playing both sides” on climate change. Even though there are some smart and competent people in them, the governments do not appear to be intelligent enough to see through expensive diversions in technology or unworkable proposals for economic tweaking. These non-solutions are embraced and promoted by the energy industry, and make progress difficult. No, carbon dioxide emissions taxation or pricing, or a market in carbon, are not going to make the kind of changes we need on climate change; and in addition they are going to be extremely difficult and slow to implement. No, Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is never going to become relatively affordable in any economic scenario. No, nuclear power is too cumbersome, slow and dodgy – a technical term – to ever make a genuine impact on the total of carbon emissons. No, it’s not energy users who need to reduce their consumption of energy, it’s the energy companies who need to reduce the levels of fossil fuels they utilise in the energy they sell. No, unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas, are not the answer to high emissions from coal. No, biofuels added to petrofuels for vehicles won’t stem total vehicle emissions without reducing fuel consumption and limiting the number of vehicles in use.

    I think that the fossil fuel companies know these proposals cannot bring about significant change, which is precisely why they lobby for them. They used to deny climate change outright, because it spelled the end of their industry. Now they promote scepticism about the risks of climate change, whilst at the same time putting their name to things that can’t work to suppress major amounts of emissions. This is a delayer’s game.

    Because I find the UK Government energy and climate policy ridiculous on many counts, I doubt they will ever want me to lead with Renewable Gas on one of their projects. And because I think the energy industry needs to accept and admit that they need to undergo a major change, and yet they spend most of their public relations euros telling the world they don’t need to, and that other people need to make change instead, I doubt the energy industry will ever invite me to consult with them on how to make the Energy Transition.

    I suppose there is an outside chance that the major engineering firms might work with me, after all, I have been an engineer, and many of these companies are already working in the Renewable Gas field, although they’re normally “third party” players for the most part – providing engineering solutions to energy companies.

    Because I’ve had to drag myself through the equivalent of a “petro degree”, learning about the geology and chemistry of oil and gas, I can see more clearly than before that the fossil fuel industry contains within it the seeds of positive change, with its use of technologies appropriate for manufacturing low carbon “surface gas”. I have learned that Renewable Gas would be a logical progression for the oil and gas industry, and also essential to rein in their own carbon emissions from processing cheaper crude oils. If they weren’t so busy telling governments how to tamper with energy markets, pushing the blame for emissions on others, and begging for subsidies for CCS projects, they could instead be planning for a future where they get to stay in business.

    The oil and gas companies, especially the vertically integrated tranche, could become producers and retailers of low carbon gas, and take part in a programme for decentralised and efficient energy provision, and maintain their valued contribution to society. At the moment, however, they’re still stuck in the 20th Century.

    I’m a positive person, so I’m not going to dwell too much on how stuck-in-the-fossilised-mud the governments and petroindustry are. What I’m aiming to do is start the conversation on how the development of Renewable Gas could displace dirty fossil fuels, and eventually replace the cleaner-but-still-fossil Natural Gas as well.

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  • Shell Shirks Carbon Responsibility

    Posted on November 19th, 2014 Jo No comments

    I was in a meeting today held at the Centre for European Reform in which Shell’s Chief Financial Officer, Simon Henry, made two arguments to absolve the oil and gas industry of responsibility for climate change. He painted coal as the real enemy, and reiterated the longest hand-washing argument in politics – that Shell believes that a Cap and Trade system is the best way to suppress carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, it’s not up to Shell to do anything about carbon. He argued that for transportation and trade the world is going to continue to need highly energy-dense liquid fuels for some time, essentially arguing for the continuation of his company’s current product slate. He did mention proudly in comments after the meeting that Shell are the world’s largest bioethanol producers, in Brazil, but didn’t open up the book on the transition of his whole company to providing the world with low carbon fuels. He said that Shell wants to be a part of the global climate change treaty process, but he gave no indication of what Shell could bring to the table to the negotiations, apart from pushing for carbon trading. Mark Campanale of the Carbon Tracker Initiative was sufficiently convinced by the “we’re not coal” argument to attempt to seek common cause with Simon Henry after the main meeting. It would be useful to have allies in the oil and gas companies on climate change, but it always seems to be that the rest of the world has to adopt Shell’s and BP’s view on everything from policy to energy resources before they’ll play ball.

    During the meeting, Mark Campanale pointed out in questions that Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs are going to bring Indian coal to trade on the London Stock Exchange and that billions of dollars of coal stocks are to be traded in London, and that this undermines all climate change action. He said he wanted to understand Shell’s position, as the same shareholders that hold coal (shares), hold Shell. I think he was trying to get Simon Henry to call for a separation in investment focus – to show that investment in oil and gas is not the same as investing in Big Bad Coal. But Simon Henry did not bite. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s report of 2013, Unburnable Carbon, coal listed on the London Stock Exchange is equivalent to 49 gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (gtCO2), but oil and gas combined trade shares for stocks equivalent to 64 gtCO2, so there’s currently more emissions represented by oil and gas on the LSX than there is for coal. In the future, the emissions held in the coal traded in London have the potential to amount to 165 gtCO2, and oil and gas combined at 125 gtCO2. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is only responsible for about 1.6% of direct country carbon dioxide emissions (excluding emissions embedded in traded goods and services), the London Stock Exchange is set to be perhaps the world’s third largest exchange for emissions-causing fuels.

    Here’s a rough transcript of what Simon Henry said. There are no guarantees that this is verbatim, as my handwriting is worse than a GP’s.

    [Simon Henry] I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and use notes. Building a long-term sustainable energy system – certain forces shaping that. 7 billion people will become 9 billion people – [many] moving from off-grid to on-grid. That will be driven by economic growth. Urbanisation [could offer the possibility of] reducing demand for energy. Most economic growth will be in developing economies. New ways fo consuming energy. Our scenarios – in none do we see energy not growing materially – even with efficiencies. The current ~200 billion barrels of oil equivalent per day today of energy demand will rise to ~400 boe/d by 2050 – 50% higher than today. This will be demand-driven – nothing to do with supply…

    [At least one positive-sounding grunt from the meeting – so there are some Peak Oil deniers in the room, then.]

    [Simon Henry] …What is paramount for governments – if a threat, then it gets to the top of the agenda. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes climate change…

    [A few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks around the table, including mine]

    [Simon Henry] …in the absence of ways we change the use of energy […] Any approach to climate change has got to embrace science, policy and technology. All three levers must be pulled. Need a long-term stable policy that enables technology development. We think this is best in a market mechanism. […] Energy must be affordable at the point of use. What we call Triple A – available, acceptable and affordable. No silver bullet. Develop in a responsible way. Too much of it is soundbite – that simplifies what’s not a simple problem. It’s not gas versus coal. [Although, that appeared to be one of his chief arguments – that it is gas versus coal – and this is why we should play nice with Shell.]

    1. Economy : About $1.5 to $2 trillion of new money must be invested in the energy industry each year, and this must be sustained until 2035 and beyond. A [few percent] of the world economy. It’s going to take time to make [massive changes]. […] “Better Growth : Better Climate” a report on “The New Climate Economy” by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the Calderon Report. [The world invested] $700 billion last year on oil and gas [or rather, $1 trillion] and $220 – $230 billion on wind power and solar power. The Calderon Report showed that 70% of energy is urban. $6 trillion is being spent on urban infrastructure [each year]. $90 trillion is available. [Urban settings are] more compact, more connected, there’s public transport, [can build in efficiencies] as well as reducing final energy need. Land Use is the other important area – huge impact on carbon emissions. Urbanisation enables efficiency in distributed generation [Combined Heat and Power (CHP)], [local grids]. Eye-popping costs, but the money will be spent anyway. If it’s done right it will [significantly] reduce [carbon emissions and energy demand]…

    2. Technology Development : Governments are very bad at picking winners. Better to get the right incentives in and let the market players decide [optimisation]. They can intervene, for example by [supporting] Research and Development. But don’t specify the means to an end…The best solution is a strong predictable carbon price, at $40 a tonne or more or it won’t make any difference. We prefer Cap and Trade. Taxes don’t actually decrease carbon [emissions] but fundamentally add cost to the consumer. As oil prices rose [in 2008 – 2009] North Americans went to smaller cars…Drivers [set] their behaviour from [fuel] prices…

    [An important point to note here : one of the reasons why Americans used less motor oil during the “Derivatives Bubble” recession between 2006 and 2010 was because the economy was shot, so people lost their employment, and/or their homes and there was mass migration, so of course there was less commuter driving, less salesman driving, less business driving. This wasn’t just a response to higher oil prices, because the peak in driving miles happened before the main spike in oil prices. In addition, not much of the American fleet of cars overturned in this period, so Americans didn’t go to smaller cars as an adaptation response to high oil prices. They probably turned to smaller cars when buying new cars because they were cheaper. I think Simon Henry is rather mistaken on this. ]

    [Simon Henry] …As regards the Carbon Bubble : 65% of the Unburnable fossil fuels to meet the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is coal. People would stuggle to name the top five coal companies [although they find it easy to name the top five oil and gas companies]. Bearing in mind that you have to [continue to] transport stuff [you are going to need oil for some time to come.] Dealing with coal is the best way of moving forward. Coal is used for electricity – but there are better ways to make electricity – petcoke [petroleum coke – a residue from processing heavy and unconventional crude oil] for example…

    [The climate change impact of burning (or gasifying) petroleum coke for power generation is possibly worse than burning (or gasifying) hard coal (anthracite), especially if the pet coke is sourced from tar sands, as emissions are made in the production of the pet coke before it even gets combusted.]

    [Simon Henry] …It will take us 30 years to get away entirely from coal. Even if we used all the oil and gas, the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is still possible…

    3. Policy : We tested this with the Dutch Government recently – need to create an honest dialogue for a long-term perspective. Demand for energy needs to change. It’s not about supply…

    [Again, some “hear hears” from the room from the Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas deniers]

    [Simon Henry] …it’s about demand. Our personal wish for [private] transport. [Not good to be] pushing the cost onto the big bad energy companies and their shareholders. It’s taxes or prices. [Politicians] must start to think of their children and not the next election…

    …On targets and subsidies : India, Indonesia, Brazil […] to move on fossil fuel subsidies – can’t break the Laws of Economics forever. If our American friends drove the same cars we do, they’d reduce their oil consumption equivalent to all of the shale [Shale Gas ? Or Shale Oil ?]… Targets are an emotive issue when trying to get agreement from 190 countries. Only a few players that really matter : USA, China, EU, India – close to 70% of current emissions and maybe more in future. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency in the United States of America] [announcement] on power emissions. China responded in 24 hours. The EU target on 27% renewables is not [country-specific, uniform across-the-board]. Last week APEC US deal with China on emissions. They switched everything off [and banned traffic] and people saw blue sky. Coal with CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] we see as a good idea. We would hope for a multi-party commitment [from the United Nations climate talks], but [shows doubt]… To close : a couple of words on Shell – have to do that. We have only 2% [of the energy market], but we [hope we] can punch above our weight [in policy discussions]. We’re now beginning to establish gas as a transport fuel. Brazil – low carbon [bio]fuels. Three large CCS projects in Canada, EU… We need to look at our own energy use – pretty trivial, but [also] look at helping our customers look at theirs. Working with the DRC [China]. Only by including companies such as ourselves in [climate and energy policy] debate can we get the [global deal] we aspire to…


    [Question from the table, Ed Wells (?), HSBC] : Green Bonds : how can they provide some of the finance [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] ? The first Renminbi denominated Green Bond from [?]. China has committed to non-fossil fuels. The G20 has just agreed the structure on infrastructure – important – not just for jobs and growth – parallel needs on climate change. [Us at HSBC…] Are people as excited about Green Bonds as we are ?

    [Stephen Tindale] Yes.

    [Question from the table, Anthony Cary, Commonwealth Scholarship Commission] …The key seems to be pricing carbon into the economy. You said you preferred Cap and Trade. I used to but despite reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) – [failures and] gaming the system. Tax seems to be a much more solid basis.

    [Simon Henry] [The problem with the ETS] too many credits and too many exemptions. Get rid of the exemptions. Bank reserve of credits to push the price up. Degress the number of credits [traded]. Tax : if people can afford it, they pay the tax, doesn’t stop emissions. In the US, no consumption tax, they are very sensitive to the oil price going up and down – 2 to 3 million barrels a day [swing] on 16 million barrels a day. All the political impact on the US from shale could be done in the same way on efficiency [fuel standards and smaller cars]. Green Bonds are not something on top of – investment should be financed by Green Bonds, but investment is already being done today – better to get policy right and then all investment directed.


    [Question from the table, Kirsten Gogan, Energy for Humanity] The role of nuclear power. By 2050, China will have 500 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power. Electricity is key. Particularly coal. Germany is building new coal as removing nuclear…

    [My internal response] It’s at this point that my ability to swallow myths was lost. I felt like shouting, politely, across the table : ACTUALLY KIRSTEN, YOU, AND A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM ARE JUST PLAIN WRONG ON GERMANY AND COAL.

    “Germany coal power generation at 10-year low in August”, 9th September 2014

    And the only new coal-fired plants being built are those that were planned up to five years ago. No new coal-fired capacity is now being agreed.

    [Kirsten Gogan]…German minister saying in public that you can’t phase out nuclear and coal at the same time. Nuclear is not included in that conversation. Need to work on policy to scale up nuclear to replace coal. Would it be useful to have a clear sectoral target on decarbonising – 100% on electricity ?

    [Stephen Tindale] Electricity is the least difficult of the energy sectors to decarbonise. Therefore the focus should be on electricity. If a target would help (I’m not a fan) nuclear certainly needs to be a part of the discussions. Angela Merkel post-Fukushima has been crazy, in my opinion. If want to boost renewable energy, nuclear power will take subsidies away from that. But targets for renewable energy is the wrong objective.. If the target is keeping the climate stable then it’s worth subsidising nuclear. Subsidising is the wrong word – “risk reduction”.

    [Simon Henry] If carbon was properly priced, nuclear would become economic by definition…


    [Simon Henry] …Basically, all German coal is exempted (from the EU ETS). If you have a proper market-based system then the right things will happen. The EU – hypocrisy at country level. Only [a couple of percent] of global emissions. The EU would matter if it was less hypocritical. China are more rational – long-term thinking. We worked with the DRC. Six differing carbon Cap and Trade schemes in operation to find the one that works best. They are effectively supporting renewable energy – add 15 GW each of wind and solar last year. They don’t listen to NIMBYs [they also build in the desert]. NIMBYism [reserved for] coal – because coal was built close to cities. [Relationship to Russia] – gas replacing coal. Not an accident. Five year plan. They believe in all solutions. Preferably Made in China so we can export to the rest of the world. [Their plans are for a range of aims] not just climate.


    [Simon Henry] [in answer to a question about the City of London] We don’t rely on them to support our activities [my job security depends on a good relationship with them]]. We have to be successful first and develop [technological opportunities] [versus being weakened by taxes]. They can support change in technology. Financing coal may well be new money. Why should the City fund new coal investments ?

    [Question from the table, asking about the “coal is 70% of the problem” message from Simon Henry] When you talk to the City investors, do you take the same message to the City ?

    [Simon Henry] How much of 2.7 trillion tonnes of “Unburnable Carbon” is coal, oil and gas ? Two thirds of carbon reserves is coal. [For economic growth and] transport you need high density liquid fuels. Could make from coal [but the emissions impact would be high]. We need civil society to have a more serious [understanding] of the challenges.

    After the discussion, I asked Simon Henry to clarify his words about the City of London.

    [Simon Henry] We don’t use the City as a source of capital. 90% is equity finance. We don’t go to the market to raise equity. For every dollar of profit, we invest 75 cents, and pay out 25 cents as dividend to our shareholders. Reduces [problems] if we can show we can reinvest. [ $12 billion a year is dividend. ]

    I asked if E&P [Exploration and Production] is working – if there are good returns on investment securing new reserves of fossil fuels – I know that the company aims for a 10 or 11 year Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) to ensure shareholder confidence.

    Simon Henry mentioned the price of oil. I asked if the oil price was the only determinant on the return on investment in new E&P ?

    [Simon Henry] If the oil price is $90 a barrel, that’s good. At $100 a barrel or $120 a barrel [there’s a much larger profit]. Our aim is to ensure we can survive at $70 a barrel. [On exploration] we still have a lot of things in play – not known if they are working yet… Going into the Arctic [At which point I said I hope we are not going into the Arctic]… [We are getting returns] Upstream is fine [supply of gas and oil]. Deepwater is fine. Big LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] is fine. Shale is a challenge. Heavy Oil returns could be better – profitable, but… [On new E&P] Iraq, X-stan, [work in progress]. Downstream [refinery] has challenges on return. Future focus – gas and deepwater. [On profitability of investment – ] “Gas is fine. Deepwater is fine.”

    [My summary] So, in summary, I think all of this means that Shell believes that Cap and Trade is the way to control carbon, and that the Cap and Trade cost would be borne by their customers (in the form of higher bills for energy because of the costs of buying carbon credits), so their business will not be affected. Although a Cap and Trade market could possibly cap their own market and growth as the sales envelope for carbon would be fixed, since Shell are moving into lower carbon fuels – principally Natural Gas, their own business still has room for growth. They therefore support Cap and Trade because they believe it will not affect them. WHAT THEY DON’T APPEAR TO WANT PEOPLE TO ASK IS IF A CAP AND TRADE SYSTEM WILL ACTUALLY BE EFFECTIVE IN CURBING CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS. They want to be at the negotiating table. They believe that they’re not the problem – coal is. They believe that the world will continue to need high energy-dense oil for transport for some time to come. It doesn’t matter if the oil market gets constrained by natural limits to expansion because they have gas to expand with. They don’t see a problem with E&P so they believe they can keep up their R/P and stay profitable and share prices can continue to rise. As long as the oil price stays above $70 a barrel, they’re OK.

    However, there was a hint in what Simon Henry talked about that all is not completely well in Petro-land.

    a. Downstream profit warning

    Almost in passing, Simon Henry admitted that downstream is potentially a challenge for maintaining returns on investment and profits. Downstream is petrorefinery and sales of the products. He didn’t say which end of the downstream was the issue, but oil consumption has recovered from the recent Big Dip recession, so that can’t be his problem – it must be in petrorefinery. There are a number of new regulations about fuel standards that are going to be more expensive to meet in terms of petroleum refinery – and the chemistry profiles of crude oils are changing over time – so that could also impact refinery costs.

    b. Carbon disposal problem

    The changing profile of crude oils being used for petrorefinery is bound to cause an excess of carbon to appear in material flows – and Simon Henry’s brief mention of petcoke is more significant than it may first appear. In future there may be way too much carbon to dispose of (petcoke is mostly carbon rejected by thermal processes to make fuels), and if Shell’s plan is to burn petcoke to make power as a solution to dispose of this carbon, then the carbon dioxide emissions profile of refineries is going to rise significantly… where’s the carbon responsiblity in that ?

  • UKERC : Gas by Design (2)

    Posted on November 14th, 2014 Jo No comments

    This week, I had the opportunity to join the launch of the UKERC’s latest research into the future of gas. The esteemed delegates included members of a Russian Trade Delegation and several people from the US Embassy. Clearly, the future of gas is an international thing.

    [continued from Gas by Design ]

    Mike Bradshaw, Warwick Business School = [MB]

    [MB] I’m somewhat daunted by this audience – the report is aimed perhaps for informed public audience. The media [ambushed us on the question of shale gas, shale gas attracted more attention] but things we didn’t cover much about there we can cover here. It’s been a real rollercoaster ride in the gas industry. Any flights of fancy (in the report) are our faults and not theirs [reference to work of colleagues, such as Jonathan Stern at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies]. A set of shortcomings dealing with the issue of Energy Security. There is a tendency to think that oil and gas are the same. They’re not. The framework, the actors and the networks, trade statistics, policies [much different for gas than for oil]. [In the UK for example we are seeing] a rapid increase in import dependence [and in other countries]. Need to [pay] particular understanding on what will happen in far-flung places. Today, the US-China agreement could influence gas demand. [In the literature on gas, some anomalies, perhaps]. Academics may not understand markets. [What we are seeing here is] the globalisation of UK gas security – primarily Europeanisation. There is growing uncertainty [about] the material flow of gas. [Threshold] balance in three sectors – strong seasonality, impact of climate and temperature [on gas demand]. The Russian agreement with Ukraine [and Europe] – the one thing everybody was hoping for was a warm winter. While the gas market is important [industrial use and energy use], domestic/residential demand is still very significant [proportion of total demand], so we need to look at energy efficiency [building insulation rates] and ask will people rip out their gas boilers ? For the UK, we are some way across the gas bridge – gas has enabled us to meet [most of] our Kyoto Protocol commitments. Not long until we’ve crossed it. Our coal – gone. With coal gone, what fills the gaps ? Renewable electricity – but there is much intermittency already. We’re not saying that import dependency is necessarily a problem. Physical security is not really the problem – but the [dependence on] the interconnectors, the LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) imports – these create uncertainties. The UK also plays a role as a gas exporter – and in landing Norwegian gas [bringing it into the European market]. I’m a geographer – have to have at least one map – of gas flows [in and out of the country]. The NTS (National Transmission System – the high pressure Natural Gas-carrying pipeline network – the “backbone” of the gas transmission and distribution system of National Grid] has responded to change – for example in the increasing sources of LNG [and “backflow” and “crossflow” requirements]. There are 9 points of entry for gas into the UK at the moment. If the Bowland Shale is exploited, there could be 100s of new points of entry [the injection of biogas as biomethane into the gas grid would also create new entry points]. A new challenge to the system. [The gas network has had some time to react in the past, for example] LNG imports – the decision to ramp up the capacity was taken a long time ago. [Evolution of] prices in Asia have tracked the gas away [from the European markets] after the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. And recently, we have decided to “fill up the tanks” again [LNG imports have risen in the last 24 or so months]. Very little LNG is “firm” – it needs to follow the market. It’s not good to simply say that “the LNG will come” [without modelling this market]. The literature over-emphasises the physical security of the upstream supplies of gas. [The projections have] unconventional gas growing [and growing amounts of biogas]. But it’s far too early to know about shale gas – far too early to make promises about money when we don’t even have a market [yet]. Policy cannot influence the upstream especially in a privatised market. The interconnectors into the European Union means we have to pay much more attention to the Third EU Energy Package. Colleagues in Oxford are tracking that. The thorny question of storage. We have less than 5 bcm (billion cubic metres). We’d like 10% perhaps [of the winter period demand ?] Who should pay for it ? [A very large proportion of our storage is in one place] the Rough. We know what happens – we had a fire at the Rough in 2006… Everyone worries about geopolitics, but there are other potential sources of problems – our ageing infrastructure […] if there is a technical problem and high demand [at the same time]. Resilience [of our gas system is demonstrated by the fact that we have] gas-on-gas competition [in the markets] – “liquid” gas hub trading – setting the NBP (National Balancing Point). [There are actually 3 kinds of gas security to consider] (a) Security of Supply – not really a problem; (b) Security of Transport (Transit) – this depends on markets and (c) Security of Demand – [which strongly depends on whether there is a] different role for gas in the future. But we need to design enough capacity even though we may not use all of it [or not all of the time]. We have mothballed gas-fired power plants already, for reasons you all know about. We already see the failure of the ETS (European Union Emissions Trading Scheme) [but if this can be reformed, as as the Industrial Emissions Directive bites] there will be a return to gas as coal closes. The role of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) becomes critical in retaining gas. CCS however doesn’t answer issues of [physical energy security, since CCS requires higher levels of fuel use].

    [Question from the floor] Gas has a role to play in transition. But how do we need to manage that role ? Too much focus on building Renewable Energy system. What is the impact on the current infrastructure ? For managing that decline in the incumbent system – gas is there to help – gas by design rather than gas by default.

    [Question from the floor, Jonathan Stern] [In your graphs/diagrams] the Middle East is a major contributor to gas trade. We see it differently. The Qataris [could/may/will] hold back [with expanding production] until 2030. Iran – our study [sees it as] a substitute contributor. Oil-indexed gas under threat and under challenge. If you could focus more on the global gas price… [New resources of gas could be very dispersed.]Very difficult to get UK people to understand [these] impacts on the gas prices [will] come from different places than they can think of.

    [Question from the floor] Availability of CCS capacity ? When ? How much ? Assumptions of cost ?

    [Question from the floor : Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth] Gas as a bridge – how much gas do we need for [this process] ? What about unburnable carbon ? Do we need more gas to meet demands ?

    [Answer – to Jonathan Stern – from Christophe McGlade ?] The model doesn’t represent particularly well political probabilities. Iran has a lot of gas – some can come online. It will bring it online if it wants to export it. Some simplifications… might be over optimistic. Your work is helpful to clarify.

    On gas prices – indexation versus global gas price – all the later scenarios assumed a globalised gas price. More reasonable assumptions.

    On CCS : first [coming onstream] 2025 – initially quite a low level, then increasing by 10% a year. The capital costs are approximately 60% greater than other options and causes a drop in around 10% on efficiency [because making CCS work costs you in extra fuel consumed]. If the prices of energy [including gas] increase, then CCS will have a lesser relative value [?].

    On availability of gas : under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario, we could consume 5 tcm (trillion cubic metres) of gas – and this can come from reserves and resources. There are a lot of resources of Natural Gas, but some of it will be at a higher price. In the model we assume development of some new resources, with a growth in shale gas, and other unconventional gas. Because of the climate deal, we need to leave some gas underground.

    [Answer from the panel] Indexation of gas prices to oil… Further gas demand is in Asia – it’s a question of whose gas gets burnt. [Something like] 70% of all Natural Gas gets burned indigenously [within the country in which it is produced]. When we talk about “unburnable gas”, we get the response “you’re dreaming” from some oil companies, “it won’t be our fossil fuels that get stranded”. LNG models envisage a different demand profile [in the future, compared to now]. When China [really gets] concerned about air quality [for example]. Different implications.

    [Question from the floor, from Centrica ?] What’s in the model for the globalised gas price – Henry Hub plus a bit ? There is not a standard one price.

    [Question from the floor] On the question of bridging – the long-term bridge. What issues do you see when you get to 2030 for investment ? [We can see] only for the next few years. What will investors think about that ?

    [Question from the floor] [With reference to the Sankey diagram of gas use in the UK] How would that change in a scenario of [electrification – heat and transport being converted to run on electrical power] ?

    [Question from the floor] Stranded assets. How the markets might react ? Can you put any numbers on it – especially in the non-CCS scenario ? When do we need to decide [major strategy] for example, [whether we could or should be] shutting off the gas grid ? How would we fund that ? Where are the pinch points ?

    [Answer from the panel] On the global gas price – the model does not assume a single price – [it will differ over each] region. [The price is allowed to change regionally [but is assumed to arise from global gas trading without reference to oil prices.] Asian basin will always be more expensive. There will be a temperature differential between different hubs [since consumption is strongly correlated with seasonal change]. On stranded assets – I think you mean gas power plants ? The model is socially-optimal – all regions working towards the 2 degrees Celsius global warming target. The model doesn’t limit stranded assets – and do get in the non-CCS scenario. Build gas plants to 2025 – then used at very low load factors. Coal plants need to reduce [to zero] given that the 2 degrees Celsius targets are demanding. Will need gas for grid balancing – [new gas-fired power generation assets will be] built and not used at high load factors.

    [Answer from the panel] Our report – we have assume a whole system question for transition. How successful will the Capacity Mechanism be ? UKERC looking at electrification of heating – but they have not considered the impact on gas (gas-to-power). Will the incentives in place be effective ? The Carbon Budget – what are the implications ? Need to use whole system analysis to understand the impact on gas. Issue of stranded assets : increasingly important now [not at some point in the future]. On pinch point : do we need to wait another three years [for more research] ? Researchers have looked more at what to spend – what to build – and less on how to manage the transition. UKERC have started to explore heat options. It’s a live issue. Referenced in the report.

    [Question from the floor, from Richard Sverrisson, News Editor of Montel] Will reform to the EU ETS – the Market Stability Reserve (MSR) – will that be enough to bring gas plant into service ?

    [Question from the floor] On oil indexation and the recent crash in the crude price – what if it keeps continuing [downwards] ? It takes gas prices down to be competitive with hub prices. [What about the impact on the economic profitability of] shale oil – where gas driving related prices ? Are there some pricing [functions/variables] in the modelling – or is it merely a physical construct ?

    [Question from the floor, from Rob Gross of UCL] On intermittency and the flexibility of low carbon capacity. The geographical units in the modelling are large – the role of gas depends on how the model is constrained vis-a-vis intermittency.

    [Answer from the panel, from Christophe McGlade] On carbon dioxide pricing : in the 2 degrees Celsius scenario, the price is assumed to be $200 per tonne. In the non-CCS scenario, the price is in the region of $400 – $500 per tonne [?] From 2020 : carbon price rises steeply – higher than the Carbon Floor Price. How is the the 2 degrees Celsius target introduced ? If you place a temperature constraint on the energy system, the model converts that into carbon emissions. The latest IPCC report shows that there remains an almost linear trend between carbon budget and temperature rise – or should I say a greenhouse gas budget instead : carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The emissions pledges of the [European Union ?] have been adopted by this model – also the development of renewable energy and fuel standards. No exogenous assumptions on carbon pricing. On intermittency – the seasonality is represented by summer, winter and intermediate; and time day generalised as morning, night, evening and peak (morning peak). [Tighter modelling would provide more] certainty which would remove ~40% of effective demand [?] Each technology has a contribution to make to peak load. Although, we assume nothing from wind power – cannot capture hour to hour market. The model does build capacity that then it doesn’t use.

    [Answer from the panel] On carbon pricing and the EU ETS reform : I wouldn’t hold my breath [that this will happen, or that it will have a major impact]. We have a new commission and their priority is Poland – nothing serious will happen on carbon pricing until 2020. Their emphasis is much more on Central European issues. I don’t expect [us] to have a strong carbon price since policy [will probably be] more focussed on social democracy issues. Moving to a relatively lower price on oil : Asia will hedge. Other explorters currently sticking to indexation with oil. The low price of wet gas (condensate) in the USA is a result of the over-supply, which followed an over-supply in NGLs (Natural Gas Liquids) – a bumpy road. Implications from USA experience ? Again, comes back to watching what is happening in Asia.

    [to be continued…]

  • UKERC : Gas by Design

    Posted on November 12th, 2014 Jo No comments

    Today I attended a meeting of minds.

    It’s clear to me that the near-term and mid-term future for energy in the United Kingdom and the European Union will best be centred on Natural Gas and Renewable Electricity, and now the UK Energy Research Centre has modelled essentially the same scenario. This can become a common narrative amongst all parties – the policy people, the economists, the technologists, the non-governmental groups, as long as some key long-term de-carbonisation and energy security objectives are built into the plan.

    The researchers wanted to emphasise from their report that the use of Natural Gas should not be a default option in the case that other strategies fail – they want to see a planned transition to a de-carbonised energy system using Natural Gas by design, as a bridge in that transition. Most of the people in the room found they could largely agree with this. Me, too. My only caveat was that when the researchers spoke about Gas-CCS – Natural Gas-fired power generation with Carbon Capture and Storage attached, my choice would be Gas-CCU – Natural Gas-fired power generation with Carbon Capture and Re-utilisation – carbon recycling – which will eventually lead to much lower emissions gas supply at source.

    What follows is a transcription of my poorly-written notes at the meeting, so you cannot accept them as verbatim.

    Jim Watson, UKERC = [JW]
    Christophe McGlade, University College London (UCL) = [CM]
    Mike Bradshaw, Warwick Business School = [MB]

    [JW] Thanks to Matt Aylott. Live Tweeting #FutureOfGas. Clearly gas is very very important. It’s never out of the news. The media all want to talk about fracking… If we want to meet the 2 degrees Celsius target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, how much can gas be a part of this ? Is Natural Gas a bridge – how long a ride will that gas bridge be ?

    [CM] Gas as a bridge ? There is healthy debate about the Natural Gas contribution to climate change [via the carbon dioxide emissions from burning Natural Gas, and also about how much less in emissions there is from burning Natural Gas compared to burning coal]. The IPCC said that “fuel switching” from coal to gas would offer emissions benefits, but some research, notably McJeon et al. (2014) made statements that switching to Natural Gas cannot confer emissions benefits. Until recently, there have not been many disaggregated assessments on gas as a bridge. We have used TIAM-UCL. The world is divided into 16 regions. The “climate module” seeks to constrain the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. One of the outcomes from our model was that export volumes [from all countries] would be severaly impacted by maintaining the price indexation between oil and gas. [Reading from chart on the screen : exports would peak in 2040s]. Another outcome was that gas consumption is not radically affected by different gas market structures. However, the over indexation to the oil price may destroy gas export markets. Total exports of natural gas are higher under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario compared to the 4 degrees Celsius scenario – particularly LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas]. A global climate deal will support gas exports. There will be a higher gas consumption under a 2 degrees Celsius deal compared to unconstrained scenario [leading to a 4 degrees Celsius global temperature rise]. The results of our modelling indicate that gas acts as a bridge fuel out to 2035 [?] in both absolute and relative terms. There is 15% greater gas consumption in the 2 degrees Celsius global warming scenario than in the 4 degrees Celsius global warming scenario. Part of the reason is that under the 4 degrees Celsius scenario, Compressed Natural Gas vehicles are popular, but a lot less useful under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario [where hydrogen and other fuels are brought into play].

    There are multiple caveats on these outcomes. The bridging period is strictly time-limited. Some sectors need to sharply reduce consumption [such as building heating by Natural Gas boilers, which can be achieved by mass insulation projects]. Coal must be curtailed, but coal-for-gas substitution alone is not sufficient. Need a convincing narrative about how coal can be curtailed. In an absence of a global binding climate deal we will get consumption increases in both coal and gas. In the model, gas is offsetting 15% of coal by 2020, and 85% by 2030. With Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), gas’s role is drastically reduced – after 2025 dropping by 2% a year [of permitted gas use]. Not all regions of the world can use gas as a bridge. [Reading from the chart : with CCS, gas is a strong bridging fuel in the China, EU, India, Japan and South Korea regions, but without CCS, gas is only strong in China. With CCS, gas’s bridging role is good in Australasia, ODA presumably “Offical Development Assistance” countries and USA. Without CCS, gas is good for Africa, Australasia, EU, India, Japan, South Korea, ODA and USA.]

    In the UK, despite the current reliance on coal, there is little scope to use it as a transition fuel. Gas is unlikely to be removed from UK energy system by 2050.

    [Question from the floor] The logic of gas price indexation with the oil price ?

    [CM] If maintain oil indexation, exports will reduce as countries turn more towards indigenous at-home production of gas for their domestic demand. This would not be completely counter-balanced by higher oil and therefore gas prices, which should stimulate more exports.

    [Point from the floor] This assumes logical behaviour…

    [Question from the floor] [Question about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)]

    [CM] The model does anticipate more CCS – which permits some extra coal consumption [at the end of the modelling period]. Gas-CCS [gas-fired power generation with CCS attached] is always going to generate less emissions than coal-CCS [coal-fired power generation with CCS attached] – so the model prefers gas-CCS.

    [to be continued…]

  • All Kinds of Gas

    Posted on May 2nd, 2014 Jo No comments

    Amongst the chink-clink of wine glasses at yesterday evening’s Open Cities Green Sky Thinking Max Fordham event, I find myself supping a high ball orange juice with an engineer who does energy retrofits – more precisely – heat retrofits. “Yeah. Drilling holes in Grade I Listed walls for the District Heating pipework is quite nervewracking, as you can imagine. When they said they wanted to put an energy centre deep underneath the building, I asked them, “Where are you going to put the flue ?””

    Our attention turns to heat metering. We discuss cases we know of where people have installed metering underground on new developments and fitted them with Internet gateways and then found that as the rest of the buildings get completed, the meter can no longer speak to the world. The problems of radio-meets-thick-concrete and radio-in-a-steel-cage. We agree that anybody installing a remote wifi type communications system on metering should be obliged in the contract to re-commission it every year.

    And then we move on to shale gas. “The United States of America could become fuel-independent within ten years”, says my correspondent. I fake yawn. It really is tragic how some people believe lies that big. “There’s no way that’s going to happen !”, I assert.

    “Look,” I say, (jumping over the thorny question of Albertan syncrude, which is technically Canadian, not American), “The only reason there’s been strong growth in shale gas production is because there was a huge burst in shale gas drilling, and now it’s been shown to be uneconomic, the boom has busted. Even the Energy Information Administration is not predicting strong growth in shale gas. They’re looking at growth in coalbed methane, after some years. And the Arctic.” “The Arctic ?”, chimes in Party Number 3. “Yes,” I clarify, “Brought to you in association with Canada. Shale gas is a non-starter in Europe. I always think back to the USGS. They estimate that the total resource in the whole of Europe is a whole order of magnitude, that is, ten times smaller than it is in Northern America.” “And I should have thought you couldn’t have the same kind of drilling in Europe because of the population density ?”, chips in Party Number 3. “They’re going to be drilling a lot of empty holes,” I add, “the “sweet spot” problem means they’re only likely to have good production in a few areas. And I’m not a geologist, but there’s the stratigraphy and the kind of shale we have here – it’s just not the same as in the USA.” Parties Number 2 and 3 look vaguely amenable to this line of argument. “And the problems that we think we know about are not the real problems,” I out-on-a-limbed. “The shale gas drillers will probably give up on hydraulic fracturing of low density shale formations, which will appease the environmentalists, but then they will go for drilling coal lenses and seams inside and alongside the shales, where there’s potential for high volumes of free gas just waiting to pop out. And that could cause serious problems if the pressures are high – subsidence, and so on. Even then, I cannot see how production could be very high, and it’s going to take some time for it to come on-stream…” “…about 10 years,” says Party Number 2.

    “Just think about who is going for shale gas in the UK,” I ventured, “Not the big boys. They’ve stood back and let the little guys come in to drill for shale gas. I mean, BP did a bunch of onshore seismic surveys in the 1950s, after which they went drilling offshore in the North Sea, so I think that says it all, really. They know there’s not much gas on land.” There were some raised eyebrows, as if to say, well, perhaps seismic surveys are better these days, but there was agreement that shale gas will come on slowly.

    “I don’t think shale gas can contribute to energy security for at least a decade,” I claimed, “even if there’s anything really there. Shale gas is not going to answer the problems of the loss of nuclear generation, or the problems of gas-fired generation becoming uneconomic because of the strong growth in renewables.” There was a nodding of heads.

    “I think,” I said, “We should forget subsidies. UK plc ought to purchase a couple of CCGTS [Combined Cycle Gas Turbine electricity generation units]. That will guarantee they stay running to load balance the power grid when we need them to. Although the UK’s Capacity Mechanism plan is in line with the European Union’s plans for supporting gas-fired generation, it’s not achieving anything yet.” I added that we needed to continue building as much wind power as possible, as it’s quick to put in place. I quite liked my radical little proposal for energy security, and the people I was talking with did not object.

    There was some discussion about Green Party policy on the ownership of energy utilities, and how energy and transport networks are basically in the hands of the State, but then Party Number 2 said, “What we really need is consistency of policy. We need an Energy Bill that doesn’t get gutted by a change of administration. I might need to vote Conservative, because Labour would mess around with policy.” “I don’t know,” I said, “it’s going to get messed with whoever is in power. All those people at DECC working on the Electricity Market Reform – they all disappeared. Says something, doesn’t it ?”

    I spoke to Parties Number 2 and 3 about my research into the potential for low carbon gas. “Basically, making gas as a kind of energy storage ?”, queried Party Number 2. I agreed, but omitted to tell him about Germany’s Power-to-Gas Strategy. We agreed that it would be at least a decade before much could come of these technologies, so it wouldn’t contribute immediately to energy security. “But then,” I said, “We have to look at the other end of this transition, and how the big gas producers are going to move towards Renewable Gas. They could be making decisions now that make more of the gas they get out of the ground. They have all the know-how to build kit to make use of the carbon dioxide that is often present in sour conventional reserves, and turn it into fuel, by reacting it with Renewable Hydrogen. If they did that, they could be building sustainability into their business models, as they could transition to making Renewable Gas as the Natural Gas runs down.”

    I asked Parties Number 2 and 3 who they thought would be the first movers on Renewable Gas. We agreed that companies such as GE, Siemens, Alstom, the big engineering groups, who are building gas turbines that are tolerant to a mix of gases, are in prime position to develop closed-loop Renewable Gas systems for power generation – recycling the carbon dioxide. But it will probably take the influence of the shareholders of companies like BP, who will be arguing for evidence that BP are not going to go out of business owing to fossil fuel depletion, to roll out Renewable Gas widely. “We’ve all got our pensions invested in them”, admitted Party Number 2, arguing for BP to gain the ability to sustain itself as well as the planet.

  • Fiefdom of Information

    Posted on April 27th, 2014 Jo 1 comment

    Sigh. I think I’m going to need to start sending out Freedom of Information requests… Several cups of tea later…

    To: Information Rights Unit, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 5th Floor, Victoria 3, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H OET

    28th April 2014

    Request to the Department of Energy and Climate Change

    Re: Policy and Strategy for North Sea Natural Gas Fields Depletion

    Dear Madam / Sir,

    I researching the history of the development of the gas industry in the United Kingdom, and some of the parallel evolution of the industry in the United States of America and mainland Europe.

    In looking at the period of the mid- to late- 1960s, and the British decision to transition from manufactured gas to Natural Gas supplies, I have been able to answer some of my questions, but not all of them, so far.

    From a variety of sources, I have been able to determine that there were contingency plans to provide substitutes for Natural Gas, either to solve technical problems in the grid conversion away from town gas, or to compensate should North Sea Natural Gas production growth be sluggish, or demand growth higher than anticipated.

    Technologies included the enriching of “lean” hydrogen-rich synthesis gas (reformed from a range of light hydrocarbons, by-products of the petroleum refining industry); Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) and methane-“rich” gas making processes; and simple mixtures of light hydrocarbons with air.

    In the National Archives Cmd/Cmnd/Command document 3438 “Fuel Policy. Presented to Parliament by the Minister of Power Nov 1967”, I found discussion on how North Sea gas fields could best be exploited, and about expected depletion rates, and that this could promote further exploration and discovery.

    In a range of books and papers of the time, I have found some discussion about options to increase imports of Natural Gas, either by the shipping of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) or by pipeline from The Netherlands.

    Current British policy in respect of Natural Gas supplies appears to rest on “pipeline diplomacy”, ensuring imports through continued co-operation with partner supplier countries and international organisations.

    I remain unclear about what official technological or structural strategy may exist to bridge the gap between depleting North Sea Natural Gas supplies and continued strong demand, in the event of failure of this policy.

    It is clear from my research into early gas field development that depletion is inevitable, and that although some production can be restored with various techniques, that eventually wells become uneconomic, no matter what the size of the original gas field.

    To my mind, it seems unthinkable that the depletion of the North Sea gas fields was unanticipated, and yet I have yet to find comprehensive policy statements that cover this eventuality and answer its needs.

    Under the Freedom of Information Act (2000), I am requesting information to answer the following questions :-

    1.   At the time of European exploration for Natural Gas in the period 1948 to 1965, and the British conversion from manufactured gas to Natural Gas, in the period 1966 to 1977, what was HM Government’s policy to compensate for the eventual depletion of the North Sea gas fields ?

    2.   What negotiations and agreements were made between HM Government and the nationalised gas industry between 1948 and 1986; and between HM Government and the privatised gas industry between 1986 and today regarding the projections of decline in gas production from the UK Continental Shelf, and any compensating strategy, such as the development of unconventional gas resources, such as shale gas ?

    3.   Is there any policy or strategy to restore the SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas) production capacity of the UK in the event of a longstanding crisis emerging, for example from a sharp rise in imported Natural Gas costs or geopolitical upheaval ?

    4.   Has HM Government any plan to acquire the Intellectual Property rights to SNG production technology, whether from British Gas/Centrica or any other private enterprise, especially for the slagging version of the Lurgi gasifier technology ?

    5.   Has HM Government any stated policy intention to launch new research and development into, or pilot demonstrations of, SNG ?

    6.   Does HM Government have any clearly-defined policy on the production and use of manufactured gas of any type ? If so, please can I know references for the documents ?

    7.   Does HM Government anticipate that manufactured gas production could need to increase in order to support the production of synthetic liquid vehicle fuels; and if so, which technologies are to be considered ?

    Thank you for your attention to my request for information.



  • Shell Pulls From Shale

    Posted on March 18th, 2014 Jo No comments

    Shell cuts and runs from shale, but there are still believers.

    Friday 14 March 2014

    From: Dave
    Subject: Shell cuts investment in US shale as “fracking takes its toll”



    From: Hugh

    re story at

    I agree. It seems that only Wall Street, realtors and other fairly useless middlemen are really making serious money at dry shale gas production. The little guys at the serious end all appear to be spending more than they are earning (like Shell). Wait for the bust because I cannot see Henry Hub reaching the $6 – 8/mmBtu (more?) needed for the drillers to make a profit. It is not yet even totally clear that shale oil is a clear winner; many of those drillers’s outlays are greater than income!

    Very confusing!


    From: Dave

    One conspiracy theory going around is that the shale thing has been funded by the US govt money printing to banks, and as soon as they start tapering the whole thing will collapse.


    From: Chris

    Money printing provides liquidity – not capital.


    From: Dave

    Yes but the banks can invest that liquidity by lending to fracking shysters????


    From: Dave

    Chris, the penny has just dropped. Never really understood what “liquidity” was, but clearly I see it is non-money that has been conjured out of the air by some sort of dodgy promise to pay in future based on a gamble / speculation, most of which at some point will collapse into nothingness or am I being too too cynical?


    From: Jo

    Hi Hugh,

    For me there are two key points :-

    1. The exploitation of shale resources in Northern America are part of the US trying to build a narrative of energy independence. The notion that the US could ever be free from OPEC is laughable.

    2. However, the official agencies, such as the EIA, do not project strong growth in shale gas, and anticipate a break point in shale oil growth.

    It is a pure propaganda exercise, this “Saudi America” narrative. It too will soon burst. Without sales of hydraulic fracturing to China etc.


    From: John


    Whatever you do, do not look at the graphs on page 12 from the EUIA!!

    It will break your heart, it’s a shale gas denier’s worst nightmare.

    15 March 2014

    From: Nick Grealy,

    John thanks for reminding me why I don’t bother with this group anymore.

    I thought they were scientists, not conspiracy theorists. David Icke seems same next to some of this.

    Heres more science to reject

    John Gummer ( I don’t go in for that Lord cr@p), recently said that if environmentalists deny the science behind shale, they can’t expect the public to accept the science on climate either.


    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    The projections in Figure 11 of that chart, showing numbers for growth in Natural Gas out to 2040 are based on very conservative growth figures in shale gas, and the large upwards growth is based mostly on a spurt in coalbed methane production sometime in the 2030s, and a spurt in Arctic production in the 2020s.

    The shale gas and tight gas growth could in reality be even less underwhelming, if you consider economic recovery issues.

    You need to get the underlying dataset and check, or look at other peoples’ attempts to chart it, such as mine :-

    Don’t believe the growth hype !


    From: John


    Take Nick’s advice and drop the David Icke nonsense.

    All the data is on the EIA website up to Feb 2014

    You write this on your blog, you’re not really trying are you!

    I was trying to ascertain current American shale gas production data, and I kept finding myself at this webpage on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) website, and this one, too, which only have shale gas production data up until 2011 (just checked it again – still true).

    Chill out about it, embrace gas and renewables like Texas is doing.

    Golden age of gas can fund and back up golden age of renewables, there is no other alternative, UK incredibly lucky country.


    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    I embrace gas – in fact, I’m in bed with gas. I just think that we should not be doing unconventional gas.

    First, because geology offers strong possibilities of early exhaustion and patchy production. And second of all, because this delays proper solutions in the field of manufactured Renewable Gas.

    Gas and power are perfectly complementary, and I think we should have growth in Renewable Gas to complement the growth in Renewable Electricity.



    From: John

    Gas demand is 730 TWh

    Max possible renewable gas is around 20 TWh

    So, the 710 TWh?

    By 2030, Qatar or Russia or Lancashire?

    We cannot afford to import it, we have to produce our own, there is no alternative


    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    On what do you base your figures ? I would dare to suggest your green gas figure is not optimistic enough.

    I think everything depends on what you think Renewable Gas is. It’s certainly not limited to biogas, or even hydrotreated biogas (to make biomethane through the addition of hydrogen in some way to biogas). Besides all the biological routes to gas, there are a range of other ways of putting Renewable Hydrogen in the company of Renewable Carbon and coming up with much bigger Renewable Gas production figures. Several important ones are being researched and developed. There are also a number of ways of producing Renewable Hydrogen – all in research and development.

    This country used to manufacture a large quantity of gas, and I am quite sure it will do so again in the not too distant future. This time round, however, it will be Renewable Gas, and not just made from gasified coal with all those net carbon dioxide emissions to air. Yes, there will be some EfW – gas Energy from Waste, but that will not be the endpoint. Yes, there will be advanced biological treatments of biological feedstocks, but even that won’t be the end of it. Yes, it will include some high temperature gasification (such as plasma gasification) of carbonaecous material, but even that will not be the end of the story. It will even include some coal and some Carbon Capture and Storage, although I prefer Carbon Recycling to reduce the initial fuel input.

    I think it is important to think in terms of a transition. For now we take the Natural Gas from the -stans, the Russian Federation, the South Stream, North Stream, east-west pipelines, the LNG tankers. But we plan to start Renewable Gas production to ramp up so that in 15 to 20 years time it can be a major substitution option. Swapping coal burning for gas burning will give us some space and time in our Carbon Budgets to develop the Renewable Gas to eventually displace Natural Gas (from all sources).

    The thing that needs to happen is that the major oil and gas companies need to show their hand on their plans for developing Renewable Gas. I’m pretty sure they have them, or if not, they need to start writing them now, because industrial scale start-ups in Renewable Gas are going to pump them out of business otherwise – shale or no shale.


    From: John

    My figs based on an EU project Green Gas Grids.

    Power to Gas is just gas industry green PR, it’s not credible.

    Reason is first one of efficiency or lack of it.

    Next is a killer – no reliable CO2 source…..P2G works to make H2 when it’s windy, but when windy no ccgt so no CO2.

    Costs are horrendous to match co2 with H2 from wind, complete non starter for the next 100 years!

    Shale gas is long term low carbon option.


    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    Other people have other figures. I would suggest it’s probably best not to accept just one report.

    It’s interesting that you claim that “Power to Gas” is gas industry public relations greenwash. From my viewpoint the agenda is being driven by organisations like the German Government, and non-majors such as ITM Power. As for the technology research and development, that is mostly academia, with or without energy sector investment.

    It may not be credible to you, but a lot of people are doing R&D into it. Unless you want to claim that they are just intelligent people being kept busy so they don’t get Bolshy, why would they be spending time on Renewable Gas if they didn’t think there was progress to be made in it ?

    Yes, it’s true that efficiency questions are important and limiting, but increasing the efficiency of various processing steps is exactly what most of the research is about. This is what will bring the costs down. Remember when people claimed that solar photovoltaics and wind power could never be cheap enough to be widely deployed ?

    There are many ways to source carbon dioxide reliably, such as through Carbon Recycling, which would lower original feedstock input requirements.

    If you just look at energy, then shale gas might make some sense, but it’s not just about energy. Shale gas development has implications on geological stability, geographical development, local risks of emissions to air, water and soil, and continued infrastructure maintenance costs dragging on for decades.

    Shale gas growth might well be short-term, with field depletion offsetting new drilling in a short timeframe. Who can guarantee more than a few sweet spots in any one field ?

    Why does National Grid only model around 10% of future production from shale gas, and no more ? Why does it model biogas on a par with shale gas ? They’re not particularly confident in either, it would seem.

    To my mind, shale gas is a theatrical diversion from the real business of substituting fossil gas with Renewable Gas and energy-use efficiency. There are more unfounded claims about shale gas than there were about nuclear power, sadly.


    From: John

    We all follow the subsidies.

    Offshore wind, solar, ITM h2 projects, biomethane, all receive huge subsidies….none are remotely economic….

    One partial well apart we have had no drilling and fracking in UK shale and so we don’t know how much shale gas we don’t know how much gas we will have.

    If it’s like Marcellus then by 2025 all the LNG importation terminals in UK will be mothballed and CO2 will be down 20% for gas, how fantastic!

    Instead if paying £50 billion a year for all and gas with zero tax, we may have £30 billion tax! Can fund more biomethane etc.

    Shale gas is our only hope.

    Germany withdrawing renewable subsidies now because costs too high….this already happening in UK with Ed Milliband opposition to higher energy bills.

    Shale gas and shale gas tax is out only hope.


    From: Jo

    Hi John,

    “If it’s like Marcellus”. That’s a very big if. Drilling for shale gas in the UK cannot be like the Marcellus, for several reasons – for example :-

    a. Population density – political tendency

    There are large numbers of people who don’t want to see fracking in their heavily populated areas in the UK. A significant proportion of these I would class as having reactionary tendencies :-

    b. Geology – this is an apples and oranges situation, surely ?

    No two shale layers are the same – the stuff in the UK is just not the same kind of stuff as in the USA – for example, complare Bowland Shale to Marcellus Shale :-

    “One partial well apart we have had no drilling and fracking in UK shale and so we don’t know how much shale gas we don’t know how much gas we will have” : there are doubts climbing all over your uncertainty mountains, and yet you still say “shale gas is our only hope”. How can you justify saying this ?

    What kind of impossible economics do you believe in that could convince you that the growth in shale gas production would compensate for the depletion in North Sea production ?

    All new deployments of new (and old) technology require support. Then after a while, the support can “degress”, as it is doing in Germany and the UK as the renewables begin to be able to stand alone. It would be a pretty poor business model to totally depend on subsidies for continued operation. Imagine if the tax and financial breaks for the oil and gas industry were removed…

    On the subject of a shale gas tax – do you seriously believe that any kind of revenue generated on the back of a subsidised energy industry would be hypothecated to the green energy sector ? There’s all that military budget to support, still. Can anybody tell me if any of the “green levy” money is ever put into renewables or energy efficiency ?

    The LNG terminals may well close – due to the beefed up gas pipeline network across Europe and the “harmonised” gas market.


    From: John

    Let’s pick up this conversation in 2020!

  • Gas Policy : Conceptual Piracy ?

    Posted on March 17th, 2014 Jo No comments

    So, I’m talking with an oil and gas man. I can’t quite say who, or when or where, or indeed, which company he is working for. But he’s definitely a man, and working in the fossil fuel industry. So, I say, I suspect that within the major oil and gas companies there must be a plan about what to do after the shale gas and shale oil public relations bubble has run its course. When it becomes clear that they can never add much to global production, the decision will be about whether to run with sour conventional fossil fuel resources in provinces already well-explored, or go for sweet unconventionals in inaccessible, and formerly neglected, places. Iran could suddenly become our very best of friends, for example, or we could scramble for Africa. The option for sour conventional fossil fuels, he says, it depends on where it is. I assent.

    There’s always mining for methane hydrates, he volunteers. In the Arctic. They’re already doing it in Japan, I agree, but it would be complicated, I counter, to go for deep drilling in areas with significant pack ice for many months of the year. Plus, global warming is strong in the Arctic, and conditions could change rapidly in ten years, and risk the infrastructure. It’s not a very good place to want to be drilling – the challenges of cold and ice, or meltwaters from ice in summer, and climate-changed shorelines. But there’s the permafrost, he said, implying that all the plant they will build will be stable. In my mind I’m asking myself – does he know the permafrost is melting ? There is a shallow ocean, I admit, with a lot of continental shelf at the right depth for stable clathrate formation. One could even pump carbon dioxide into the methane hydrates to release the methane by replacing it with carbon dioxide in the crystalline structure. Or so I’ve heard. Although it might be quite hard to collect the methane coming out. Mining methane hydrates would technically be possible, but it really depends on where it is. There are quite a number of territorial claims in the Arctic area. What is Russia claiming about the Arctic Ocean coast ?

    Wouldn’t it just be easier and safer to mine sour conventionals ? Whichever route the oil and gas industry takes now, they will need to build a lot of new kit. If they choose remote sweet gas, they will need to build remote mining plant, pipelines and ship terminals. If they choose sour gas, they can then choose to methanate the Natural Carbon Dioxide that comes out of the wells as part of the Natural Gas. This would uprate the gas and so increase its value, and it wouldn’t be necessary to Capture the carbon dioxide for burial or reinjection. If the gas industry chooses to produce Renewable Hydrogen to enable methanation of acid fossil gas, they can then also be ready for the switch to a fully Renewable Gas without a second phase of building loads of new kit – and that would surely be a bonus ?

    I said that I didn’t really believe in the narrative that significant volumes of methane could be mined cleanly or reliably from underwater hydrates. And that’s where our conversation came to an end.

    I don’t believe that scrambling for the methane locked in undersea “fire ice” is an appropriately-scaled or workable plan. I wonder what the real plan is…and if the oil and gas industry haven’t got one, I wonder if the rest of us should help them ?

    None of the pictures of alternative fuels painted by the oil and gas industry in the last decade have turned out to be meaningful. Let’s talk historical evidence. In oil, the “advanced biofuels” meme is pretty much exhausted, and production plateauing. Is anybody still promising large production volumes of algae biodiesel ? Can second-generation ethanol rise to the challenge of displacing big number percentages of petrodiesel ? Natural Gas Liquids and condensate from Natural Gas processing in the USA could well all be destined to be additives for thinning the bitumen from the oil sands in Canada – but will production ever be high ? Shale and tight oil production is growing overall in the United States of America, but there are disagreements about how significant it can become (and remain, given the likely depletion rates). In gas, the shale bubble could almost be at bursting point. Can we trust future projections ? I suppose it depends on who they come from.

  • Peak Oil : Kitchen Burlesque

    Posted on March 17th, 2014 Jo No comments

    An engineering buddy and I find ourselves in my kitchen, reading out loud from Jeremy Leggett’s 2013 book “The Energy of Nations : Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance”. The main topic of the work, I feel, is the failure of the energy sector and the political elites to develop a realistic plan for the future, and their blinkered adherence to clever arguments taken from failing and cracked narratives – such as the belief that unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, can make up for declining conventional oil and gas production. It’s also about compromise of the highest order in the most influential ranks. The vignettes recalling conversations with the high and mighty are pure comedy.

    “It’s very dramatic…”

    “You can imagine it being taken to the West End theatres…”

    “We should ask Ben Elton to take a look – adapt it for the stage…”

    “It should really have costumes. Period costumes…Racy costumes…”

    “Vaudeville ?”

    “No…burlesque ! Imagine the ex-CEO of BP, John Browne, in a frou-frou tutu, slipping a lacy silk strap from his shoulder…What a Lord !”

    “Do you think Jeremy Leggett would look good in a bodice ?”

  • In Confab : Paul Elsner

    Posted on January 23rd, 2014 Jo No comments

    Dr Paul Elsner of Birkbeck College at the University of London gave up some of his valuable time for me today at his little bijou garret-style office in Bloomsbury in Central London, with an excellent, redeeming view of the British Telecom Tower. Leader of the Energy and Climate Change module on Birkbeck’s Climate Change Management programme, he offered me tea and topical information on Renewable Energy, and some advice on discipline in authorship.

    He unpacked the recent whirlwind of optimism surrounding the exploitation of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, and how Climate Change policy is perhaps taking a step back. He said that we have to accept that this is the way the world is at the moment.

    I indicated that I don’t have much confidence in the “Shale Bubble”. I consider it mostly as a public relations exercise – and that there are special conditions in the United States of America where all this propaganda comes from. I said that there are several factors that mean the progress with low carbon fuels continues to be essential, and that Renewable Gas is likely to be key.

    1. First of all, the major energy companies, the oil and gas companies, are not in a healthy financial state to make huge investment. For example, BP has just had the legal ruling that there will be no limit to the amount of compensation claims they will have to face over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Royal Dutch Shell meanwhile has just had a serious quarterly profit warning – and if that is mostly due to constrained sales (“Peak Oil Demand”) because of economic collapse, that doesn’t help them with the kind of aggressive “discovery” they need to continue with to keep up their Reserves to Production ratio (the amount of proven resources they have on their books). These are not the only problems being faced in the industry. This problem with future anticipated capitalisation means that Big Oil and Gas cannot possibly look at major transitions into Renewable Electricity, so it would be pointless to ask, or try to construct a Carbon Market to force it to happen.

    2. Secondly, despite claims of large reserves of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, ripe for the exploitation of, even major bodies are not anticipating that Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas will be delayed by many years by the “Shale Gale”. The reservoir characteristics of unconventional fossil fuel fields do not mature in the same way as conventional ones. This means that depletion scenarios for fossil fuels are still as relevant to consider as the decades prior to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

    3. Thirdly, the reservoir characteristics of conventional fossil fuel fields yet to exploit, especially in terms of chemical composition, are drifting towards increasingly “sour” conditions – with sigificant levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide in them. The sulphur must be removed for a variety of reasons, but the carbon dioxide remains an issue. The answer until recently from policy people would have been Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. Carbon dioxide should be washed from acid Natural Gas and sequestered under the ocean in salt caverns that previously held fossil hydrocarbons. It was hoped that Carbon Markets and other forms of carbon pricing would have assisted with the payment for CCS. However, recently there has been reduced confidence that this will be significant.

    Renewable Gas is an answer to all three of these issues. It can easily be pursued by the big players in the current energy provision system, with far less investment than wholesale change would demand. It can address concerns of gas resource depletion at a global scale, the onset of which could occur within 20 to 25 years. And it can be deployed to bring poor conventional fossil fuels into consideration for exploitation in the current time – answering regional gas resource depletion.

    Outside, daffodils were blooming in Tavistock Square. In January, yes. The “freaky” weather continues…

  • But Uh-Oh – Those Summer Nights

    Posted on January 20th, 2014 Jo No comments

    A normal, everyday Monday morning at Energy Geek Central. Yes, this is a normal conversation for me to take part in on a Monday morning. Energy geekery at breakfast. Perfect.

    Nuclear Flower Power

    This whole UK Government nuclear power programme plan is ridiculous ! 75 gigawatts (GW) of Generation III nuclear fission reactors ? What are they thinking ? Britain would need to rapidly ramp up its construction capabilities, and that’s not going to happen, even with the help of the Chinese. (And the Americans are not going to take too kindly to the idea of China getting strongly involved with British energy). And then, we’d need to secure almost a quarter of the world’s remaining reserves of uranium, which hasn’t actually been dug up yet. And to cap it all, we’d need to have 10 more geological disposal repositories for the resulting radioactive spent fuel, and we haven’t even managed to negotiate one yet. That is, unless we can burn a good part of that spent fuel in Generation IV nuclear fission reactors – which haven’t even been properly demonstrated yet ! Talk about unconscionable risk !

    Baseload Should Be History By Now, But…

    Whatever the technological capability for nuclear power plants to “load follow” and reduce their output in response to a chance in electricity demand, Generation III reactors would not be run as anything except “baseload” – constantly on, and constantly producing a constant amount of power – although they might turn them off in summer for maintenance. You see, the cost of a Generation III reactor and generation kit is in the initial build – so their investors are not going to permit them to run them at low load factors – even if they could.

    There are risks to running a nuclear power plant at partial load – mostly to do with potential damage to the actual electricity generation equipment. But what are the technology risks that Hinkley Point C gets built, and all that capital is committed, and then it only runs for a couple of years until all that high burn up fuel crumbles and the reactors start leaking plutonium and they have to shut it down permanently ? Who can guarantee it’s a sound bet ?

    If they actually work, running Generation III reactors at constant output as “baseload” will also completely mess with the power market. In all of the scenarios, high nuclear, high non-nuclear, or high fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there will always need to be some renewables in the mix. In all probability this will be rapidly deployed, highly technologically advanced solar power photovoltaics (PV). The amount of solar power that will be generated will be high in summer, but since you have a significant change in energy demand between summer and winter, you’re going to have a massive excess of electricity generation in summer if you add nuclear baseload to solar. Relative to the demand for energy, you’re going to get more Renewable Energy excess in summer and under-supply in winter (even though you get more offshore wind in winter), so it’s critical how you mix those two into your scenario.

    The UK Government’s maximum 75 GW nuclear scenario comprises 55 GW Generation III and 20 GW Generation IV. They could have said 40 GW Gen III to feed Gen IV – the spent fuel from Gen III is needed to kick off Gen IV. Although, if LFTR took off, if they had enough fluoride materials there could be a Thorium way into Gen IV… but this is all so technical, no MP [ Member of Parliament ] is going to get their head round this before 2050.

    The UK Government are saying that 16 GW of nuclear by 2030 should be seen as a first tranche, and that it could double or triple by 2040 – that’s one heck of a deployment rate ! If they think they can get 16 GW by 2030 – then triple that by 10 years later ? It’s not going to happen. And even 30 GW would be horrific. But it’s probably more plausible – if they can get 16 GW by 2030, they can arguably get double that by 2040.

    As a rule of thumb, you would need around 10 tonnes of fissionable fuel to kickstart a Gen IV reactor. They’ve got 106 tonnes of Plutonium, plus 3 or 4 tonnes they recently acquired – from France or Germany (I forget which). So they could start 11 GW of Gen IV – possibly the PRISM – the Hitachi thing – sodium-cooled. They’ve been trying them since the Year Dot – these Fast Reactors – the Breeders – Dounreay. People are expressing more confidence in them now – “Pandora’s Promise” hangs around the narrative that the Clinton administration stopped research into Fast Reactors – Oak Ridge couldn’t be commercial. Throwing sodium around a core 80 times hotter than current core heats – you can’t throw water at it easily. You need something that can carry more heat out. It’s a high technological risk. But then get some French notable nuclear person saying Gen IV technologies – “they’re on the way and they can be done”.

    Radioactive Waste Disposal Woes

    The point being is – if you’re commissioning 30 GW of Gen III in the belief that Gen IV will be developed – then you are setting yourself up to be a hostage to technological fortune. That is a real ethical consideration. Because if you can’t burn the waste fuel from Gen III, you’re left with up to 10 radioactive waste repositories required when you can’t even get one at the moment. The default position is that radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be left at the power stations where they’re created. Typically, nuclear power plants are built on the coast as they need a lot of cooling water. If you are going for 30 GW you will need a load of new sites – possibly somewhere round the South East of England. This is where climate change comes in – rising sea levels, increased storm surge, dissolving, sinking, washed-away beaches, more extreme storms […] The default spent fuel scenario with numerous coastal decommissioned sites with radioactive interim stores which contain nearly half the current legacy radioactive waste […]

    Based on the figures from the new Greenpeace report, I calculate that the added radioactive waste and radioactive spent fuel arisings from a programme of 16 GW of nuclear new build would be 244 million Terabequerel (TBq), compared to the legacy level of 87 million TBq.

    The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are due to publish their Radioactive Waste Inventory and their Report on Radioactive Materials not in the Waste Inventory at the end of January 2014. We need to keep a watch out for that, because they may have adapted their anticipated Minimum and Maxmium Derived Inventory.

    Politics Is Living In The Past

    What you hear from politicians is they’re still talking about “baseload”, as if they’ve just found the Holy Grail of Energy Policy. And failed nuclear power. Then tidal. And barrages. This is all in the past. Stuff they’ve either read – in an article in a magazine at the dentist’s surgery waiting room, and they think, alright I’ll use that in a TV programme I’ve been invited to speak on, like Question Time. I think that perhaps, to change the direction of the argument, we might need to rubbish their contribution. A technological society needs to be talking about gasification, catalysis. If you regard yourselves as educated, and have a technological society – your way of living in the future is not only in manufacturing but also ideas – you need to be talking about this not that : low carbon gas fuels, not nuclear power. Ministers and senior civil servants probably suffer from poor briefing – or no briefing. They are relying on what is literally hearsay – informal discussions, or journalists effectively representing industrial interests. Newspapers are full of rubbish and it circulates, like gyres in the oceans. Just circulates around and around – full of rubbish.

    I think part of the problem is that the politicians and chief civil servants and ministers are briefed by the “Old Guard” – very often the ex-nuclear power industry guard. They still believe in big construction projects, with long lead times and massive capital investment, whereas Renewable Electricity is racing ahead, piecemeal, and private investors are desperate to get their money into wind power and solar power because the returns are almost immediate and risk-free.

    Together in Electric Dreams

    Question : Why are the UK Government ploughing on with plans for so much nuclear power ?

    1. They believe that a lot of transport and heat can be made to go electric.
    2. They think they can use spent nuclear fuel in new reactors.
    3. They think it will be cheaper than everything else.
    4. They say it’s vital for UK Energy Security – for emissions reductions, for cost, and for baseload. The big three – always the stated aim of energy policy, and they think nuclear ticks all those three boxes. But it doesn’t.

    What they’ll say is, yes, you have to import uranium, but you’ve got a 4 year stock. Any war you’re going to get yourselves involved in you can probably resolve in 4 days, or 4 weeks. If you go for a very high nuclear scenario, you would be taking quite a big share of the global resource of uranium. There’s 2,600 TWh of nuclear being produced globally. And global final energy demand is around 100,000 TWh – so nuclear power currently produces around 2.6% of global energy supply. At current rates of nuclear generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, you’ve got around 80 years of proven reserves and probably a bit more. Let’s say you double nuclear output by 2050 or 2040 – but in the same time you might just have enough uranium – and then find a bit more. But global energy demand rises significantly as well – so nuclear will still only provide around 3% of global energy demand. That’s not a climate solution – it’s just an energy distraction. All this guff about fusion. Well.

    Cornering The Market In Undug Uranium

    A 75 GW programme would produce at baseload 590 TWh a year – divide by 2,600 – is about 23% of proven global uranium reserves. You’re having to import, regardless of what other countries are doing, you’re trying to corner the market – roughly a quarter. Not even a quarter of the market – a quarter of all known reserves – it’s not all been produced yet. It’s still in the ground. So could you be sure that you could actually run these power stations if you build them ? Without global domination of the New British Empire […]. The security issues alone – defending coastal targets from a tweeb with a desire to blow them up. 50 years down the line they’re full of radioactive spent fuel that won’t have a repository to go to – we don’t want one here – and how much is it going to cost ?

    My view is that offshore wind will be a major contributor in a high or 100% Renewable Electricity scenario by 2050 or 2060. Maybe 180 GW, that will also be around 600 TWh a year – comparable to that maximum nuclear programme. DECC’s final energy demand 2050 – several scenarios – final energy demand from 6 scenarios came out as between roughly 1,500 TWh a year and the maximum 2,500 TWh. Broadly speaking, if you’re trying to do that just with Renewable Electricity, you begin to struggle quite honestly, unless you’re doing over 600 TWh of offshore wind, and even then you need a fair amount of heat pump stuff which I’m not sure will come through. The good news is that solar might – because of the cost and technology breakthroughs. That brings with it a problem – because you’re delivering a lot of that energy in summer. The other point – David MacKay would say – in his book his estimate was 150 TWh from solar by 2050, on the grounds that that’s where you south-facing roofs are – you need to use higher efficiency triple junction cells with more than 40% efficiency and this would be too expensive for a rollout which would double or triple that 150 TWh – that would be too costly – because those cells are too costly. But with this new stuff, you might get that. Not only the cost goes down, but the coverage goes down. Not doing solar across swathes of countryside. There have always been two issues with solar power – cost and where it’s being deployed.

    Uh-Oh, Summer Days. Uh-Oh, Summer Nights

    With the solar-wind headline, summer days and summer nights are an issue.

    With the nuclear headline, 2040 – they would have up to 50 GW, and that would need to run at somewhere between 75% and 95% capacity – to protect the investment and electric generation turbines.

    It will be interesting to provide some figures – this is how much over-capacity you’re likely to get with this amount of offshore wind. But if you have this amount of nuclear power, you’ll get this amount […]

    Energy demand is strongly variable with season. We have to consider not just power, but heat – you need to get that energy out in winter – up to 4 times as much during peak in winter evenings. How are you going to do that ? You need gas – or you need extensive Combined Heat and Power (CHP) (which needs gas). Or you need an unimaginable deployment of domestic heat pumps. Air source heat pumps won’t work at the time you need them most. Ground source heat pumps would require the digging up of Britain – and you can’t do that in most urban settings.

    District Heat Fields

    The other way to get heat out to everyone in a low carbon world – apart from low carbon gas – is having a field-based ground source heat pump scheme – just dig up a field next to a city – and just put in pipes and boreholes in a field. You’re not disturbing anybody. You could even grow crops on it next season. Low cost and large scale – but would need a District Heating (DH) network. There are one or two heat pump schemes around the world. Not sure if they are used for cooling in summer or heat extraction in the winter. The other thing is hot water underground. Put in an extra pipe in the normal channels to domestic dwellings. Any excess heat from power generation or electrolysis or whatever is put down this loop and heats the sub-ground. Because heat travels about 1 metre a month in soil, that heat should be retained for winter. A ground source heat sink. Geothermal energy could come through – they’re doing a scheme in Manchester. If there’s a nearby heat district network – it makes it easier. Just want to tee it into the nearest DH system. The urban heat demand is 150 TWh a year. You might be able to put DH out to suburban areas as well. There are 9 million gas-connected suburban homes – another about 150 TWh there as well – or a bit more maybe. Might get to dispose of 300 TWh in heat through DH. The Green Deal insulation gains might not be what is claimed – and condensing gas boiler efficiencies are not that great – which feeds into the argument that in terms of energy efficiency, you not only want to do insulation, but also DH – or low carbon gas. Which is the most cost-effective ? Could argue reasonable energy efficiency measures are cheapest – but DH might be a better bet. That involves a lot of digging.

    Gas Is The Logical Answer

    But everything’s already laid for gas. (…but from the greatest efficiency first perspective, if you’re not doing DH, you’re not using a lot of Renewable Heat you could otherwise use […] )

    The best package would be the use of low carbon gases and sufficient DH to use Renewable Heat where it is available – such as desalination, electrolysis or other energy plant. It depends where the electrolysis is being done.

    The Age of Your Carbon

    It also depends on which carbon atoms you’re using. If you are recycling carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels into Renewable Gas, that’s OK. But you can’t easily recapture carbon emissions from the built environment (although you could effectively do that with heat storage). You can’t do carbon capture from transport either. So your low carbon gas has to come from biogenic molecules. Your Renewable Gas has to be synthesised using biogenic carbon molecules rather than fossil ones.

    […] I’m using the phrase “Young Carbon”. Young Carbon doesn’t have to be from plants – biological things that grow.

    Well, there’s Direct Air Capture (DAC). It’s simple. David Sevier, London-based, is working on this. He’s using heat to capture carbon dioxide. You could do it from exhaust in a chimney or a gasification process – or force a load of air through a space. He would use heat and cooling to create an updraft. It would enable the “beyond capture” problem to be circumvented. Cost is non-competitive. Can be done technically. Using reject heat from power stations for the energy to do it. People don’t realise you can use a lot of heat to capture carbon, not electricity.

    Young Carbon from Seawater

    If you’re playing around with large amounts of seawater anyway – that is, for desalination for irrigation, why not also do Renewable Hydrogen, and pluck the Carbon Dioxide out of there too to react with the Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane ? I’m talking about very large amounts of seawater. Not “Seawater Greenhouses” – condensation designs mainly for growing exotic food. If you want large amounts of desalinated water – and you’re using Concentrated Solar Power – for irrigating deserts – you would want to grow things like cacti for biological carbon.

    Say you had 40 GW of wind power on Dogger Bank, spinning at 40% load factor a year. You’ve also got electrolysers there. Any time you’re not powering the grid, you’re making gas – so capturing carbon dioxide from seawater, splitting water for hydrogen, making methane gas. Wouldn’t you want to use flash desalination first to get cleaner water for electrolysis ? Straight seawater electrolysis is also being done.

    It depends on the relative quantities of gas concentrated in the seawater. If you’ve got oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that would be nice. You might get loads of oxygen and hydrogen, and only poor quantities of carbon dioxide ?

    But if you could get hydrogen production going from spare wind power. And even if you had to pipe the carbon dioxide from conventional thermal power plants, you’re starting to look at a sea-based solution for gas production. Using seawater, though, chlorine is the problem […]

    Look at the relative density of molecules – that sort of calculation that will show if this is going to fly. Carbon dioxide is a very fixed, stable molecule – it’s at about the bottom of the energy potential well – you have to get that reaction energy from somewhere.

    How Much Spare Power Will There Be ?

    If you’ve got an offshore wind and solar system. At night, obviously, the solar’s not working (unless new cells are built that can run on infrared night-time Earthshine). But you could still have 100 GWh of wind power at night not used for the power grid. The anticipated new nuclear 40 GW nuclear by 2030 will produce about 140 GWh – this would just complicate problems – adding baseload nuclear to a renewables-inclusive scenario. 40 GW is arguably a reasonable deployment of wind power by 2030 – low if anything.

    You get less wind in a nuclear-inclusive scenario, but the upshot is you’ve definitely got a lot of power to deal with on a summer night with nuclear power. You do have with Renewable Electricity as well, but it varies more. Whichever route we take we’re likely to end up with excess electricity generation on summer nights.

    In a 70 GW wind power deployment (50 GW offshore, 20 GW onshore – 160 TWh a year), you might have something like 50 to 100 GWh per night of excess (might get up to 150 GWh to store on a windy night). But if you have a 16 GW nuclear deployment by 2030 (125 TWh a year), you are definitely going to have 140 GWh of excess per night (that’s 16 GW for 10 hours less a bit). Night time by the way is roughly between 9pm and 7am between peak demands.

    We could be making a lot of Renewable Gas !

    Can you build enough Renewable Gas or whatever to soak up this excess nuclear or wind power ?

    The energy mix is likely to be in reality somewhere in between these two extremes of high nuclear or high wind.

    But if you develop a lot of solar – so that it knocks out nuclear power – it will be the summer day excess that’s most significant. And that’s what Germany is experiencing now.

    Choices, choices, choices

    There is a big choice in fossil fuels which isn’t really talked about very often – whether the oil and gas industry should go for unconventional fossil fuels, or attempt to make use of the remaining conventional resources that have a lower quality. The unconventionals narrative – shale gas, coalbed methane, methane hydrates, deepwater gas, Arctic oil and gas, heavy oil, is running out of steam as it becomes clear that some of these choices are expensive, and environmentally damaging (besides their climate change impact). So the option will be making use of gas with high acid gas composition. And the technological solutions for this will be the same as needed to start major production of Renewable Gas.

    Capacity Payments

    But you still need to answer the balancing question. If you have a high nuclear power scenario, you need maybe 50 TWh a year of gas-fired power generation. If high Renewable Electricity, you will need something like 100 TWh of gas, so you need Carbon Capture and Storage – or low carbon gas.

    Even then, the gas power plants could be running only 30% of the year, and so you will need capacity payments to make sure new flexible plants get built and stay available for use.

    If you have a high nuclear scenario, coupled with gas, you can meet the carbon budget – but it will squeeze out Renewable Electricity. If high in renewables, you need Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Recycling into Renewable Gas, but this would rule out nuclear power. It depends which sector joins up with which.

    Carbon Capture, Carbon Budget

    Can the Drax power plant – with maybe one pipeline 24 inches in diameter, carrying away 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – can it meet the UK’s Carbon Budget target ?

  • Gain in Transmission

    Posted on January 13th, 2014 Jo No comments

    It constantly amazes and intrigues me how human individuals operate in networks to formulate, clarify and standardise ideas, tools, machines, procedures and systems. Several decades ago, Renewable Electricity from sources such as wind power was considered idealistic vapourware, esoteric, unworkable and uncertain, and now it’s a mainstream generator of reliable electricity in the UK’s National Grid. Who would have thought that invisible, odourless, tasteless gas phase chemicals would heat our homes ? It’s now just so normal, it’s impossible to imagine that Natural Gas was once considered to be so insignificant that it was vented – not even flared – from oil wells.

    Judging by the sheer number of people working on aspects of Renewable Gas, I expect this too to be mainstream in the energy sector within a decade. What do others think ? I have begun the process of asking, for example, see below.


    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A. Sears
    date: Mon, May 2, 2011 at 11:59 PM
    subject: Question from your TED talk

    Dear [Professor] Sears,

    I was intrigued by your TED talk that I recently viewed :-

    Yes, I am interested in the idea of “printing” solar cells, which is what I think you might be alluding to with your reference to abalone shells.

    But I am more interested in what you base your estimate of “Peak Gas” on. I recently did some very basic modelling of hydrocarbon resources and electricity, which look somewhat different from the IEA and EIA work and reports from BP and Royal Dutch Shell. My conclusion was that Peak Oil is roughly now, Peak Natural Gas will be around 2030, and Peak Electricity around 2060 :-

    I am going to try to improve these charts before I submit my MSc Masters Thesis, so I am trying to find out what other people base their projections on. Could you help me by pointing me at the basis of your assessment of Peak Natural Gas ?

    Thank you,



    from: Richard A. Sears
    to: Jo Abbess
    date: Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 5:30 PM


    I am just now finding a number of old emails that got archived (and ignored) when I moved from MIT to Stanford a few years ago. A quick answer is that I did about what Hubbert did in 1956. No detailed statistical modeling, just look at the trends, think about what’s happening in the industry, and make what seem like reasonable statements about it.

    A number of interesting things have happened just in the last two years since you wrote to me. Significantly, US oil production is on the rise. When you count all hydrocarbon liquids, the US is or will soon be, the world largest producer. This just goes to one of my points from TED. Don’t expect oil and gas to go away any time soon. There are plenty of molecules out there. I first said this internally at Shell in the mid 1980’s when I was Manager of Exploration Economics and since then I’ve felt that I got it about right.

    I did just look at your website and would caution you about extrapolating very recent trends into the future. The rate of growth in shale gas production has slowed, but there’s an important economic factor driving that. Gas prices in the US are very low compared to oil. With the development of fraccing technology to enable oil and liquids production from shale formations, the industry has shifted their effort to the liquids-rich plays. A few statistics. Gas is currently around $3.50/mcf. On an energy equivalent basis, this equates to an oil price of about $20/barrel. Brent currently sells for $110/barrel and the light oils produced from the shale plays in the US are getting between $90 and $100/barrel, depending on where they can be delivered. As a consequence, in the 3rd quarter of 2013, compared to one year ago, oil well completions are up 18% while natural gas well completions declined 30%.

    Yes, you are right. Printing solar cells is an example of what I was talking about with Abalone shells. Similarly, what if you had paint that as it dried would self assemble into linked solar cells and your entire house is now generating electricity. I was totally amazed at the number of people that didn’t actually think about what I was saying and called me an !d!*t for imagining that I was going to transform coal itself into some magical new molecule. […]

    In any case, I think it’s good that you’re thinking about these problems, and importantly it appears from your website that you’re thinking about the system and its complexity.

    Best regards,
    Rich Sears

    Richard A. Sears
    Visiting Scientist
    MIT Energy Initiative
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology


    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A Sears
    sent: Monday, May 02, 2011 3:59 PM

    Dear [Professor] Sears,

    Many thanks for your reply.

    I had kinda given up of ever hearing back from you, so it’s lovely to
    read your thoughts.

    May I blog them ?




    from: Richard A Sears
    date: Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 5:03 PM
    to: Jo Abbess


    I have personally avoided blogging because I don’t want to put up with people writing mean comments about me. But the data is worth sharing. You should also know the sources of that data otherwise you open yourself to more criticism.

    The data on production comes from the International Energy Agency and a research firm PIRA. All of it was in recent press releases. The Energy Information Administration makes similar projections about future production. The data on well completions was recently released by API.

    No need to reference me. The data is out there for all to see. But if you do, fair warning. You will get stupid comments about how I used to be a VP at Shell so of course these are the things I’m going to say. […]

    By the way, there’s something else that’s very interesting in the world of peak oil and various peaks. I have long believed, as hinted in my TED talk that the most important aspect of peak oil is the demand driven phenomena, not the supply side. It’s worth noting in this context that US oil consumption peaked in 2005 and has declined about 10% since then. This data can be found easily in the BP Statistical Report on World Energy. This is real and is a result of economic shifts, greater efficiency, and the penetration of renewables. Future energy projections (references above) show that this trend continues. A big component of US energy consumption is gasoline, and US gasoline consumption peaked in 2007. I think that data can be found at, although I haven’t looked for it lately. It’s a little factoid that I think I remember.


    Richard A. Sears
    Consulting Professor
    Department of Energy Resources Engineering
    Stanford University


    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A Sears
    date: Sun, Jan 12, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    Dear Professor Sears,

    HNY 2014 !

    This year I am hoping to attempt the climb on my own personal K2 by writing an academic book on Renewable Gas – sustainable, low-to-zero carbon emissions gas phase fuels.

    I am not a chemist, nor a chemical engineer, and so I would value any suggestions on who I should approach in the gas (and oil) industry to interview about projects that lean in this direction.

    Examples would be :-

    * Power-to-Gas : Using “spare” wind power to make Renewable Hydrogen – for example by electrolysis of water. Part of the German Power-to-Gas policy. Some hydrogen can be added to gas grids safely without changing regulations, pipework or end appliances.

    * Methanation : Using Renewable Hydrogen and young or recycled carbon gas to make methane (using the energy from “spare” wind power, for example). Also part of the German Power-to-Gas policy.

    NB “Young” carbon would be either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, and be sourced from biomass, Direct Air Capture, or from the ocean. “Old” carbon would come from the “deeper” geological carbon cycle, such as from fossil fuel, or industrial processes such as the manufacture of chemicals from minerals and/or rocks.

    Precursors to Renewable Gas also interest me, as transitions are important – transitions from a totally fossil fuel-based gas system to a sustainable gas system. I have recently looked at some basic analysis on the chemistry of Natural Gas, and its refinery. It seems that methanation could be useful in making sour gas available as sweetened, as long as Renewable Hydrogen is developed for this purpose. It seems that there is a lot of sour gas in remaining reserves, and the kind of CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) that would be required under emissions controls could make sour gas too expensive to use if it was just washed of acids.

    I don’t think the future of energy will be completely electrified – it will take a very long time to roll out 100% Renewable Electricity and there will always be problems transitioning out of liquid fuels to electricity in vehicular transportation.

    If you could suggest any names, organisations, university departments, companies, governance bodies that I should contact, or research papers that I should read, I would be highly grateful.

    Many thanks,


  • Curmudgeons Happen

    Posted on January 5th, 2014 Jo 1 comment

    I was talking with people at my friend’s big birthday bash yesterday. I mentioned I’m writing about Renewable Gas, and this led to a variety of conversations. Here is a kind of summary of one of the threads, involving several people.

    Why do people continue to insist that the wind turbine at Reading uses more energy than it generates ?

    Would it still be there if it wasn’t producing power ? Does David Cameron still have a wind turbine on his roof ? No. It wasn’t working, so it was taken down. I would ask – what are their sources of information ? What newspapers and websites do they read ?

    They say that the wind turbine at Reading is just there for show.

    Ah. The “Potemkin Village” meme – an idyllic-looking setting, but everything’s faked. The Chinese painting the desert green, etc.

    And then there are people that say that the only reason wind farms continue to make money is because they run the turbines inefficiently to get the subsidies.

    Ah. The “De-rating Machine” meme. You want to compare and contrast. Look at the amount of money, resources, time and tax breaks being poured into the UK Continental Shelf, and Shale Gas, by the current Government.

    Every new technology needs a kick start, a leg up. You need to read some of the reports on wind power as an asset – for example, the Offshore Valuation – showing a Net Present Value. After it’s all deployed, even with the costs of re-powering at the end of turbine life, offshore North Sea wind power will be a genuine asset.

    What I don’t understand is, why do people continue to complain that wind turbines spoil the view ? Look at the arguments about the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.

    I have contacts there who forward me emails about the disputes. The yachtsmen of Poole are in open rebellion because the wind turbines will be set in in their channels ! The tourists will still come though, and that’s what really counts. People in Dorset just appear to love arguing, and you’ve got some people doing good impressions of curmudgeons at the head of the branches of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and English Heritage.

    There are so many people who resist renewable energy, and refuse to accept we need to act on climate change. Why do they need to be so contrarian ? I meet them all the time.

    People don’t like change, but change happens. The majority of people accept that climate change is significant enough to act on, and the majority of people want renewable energy. It may not seem like that though. It depends on who you talk with. There’s a small number of people who vocalise scepticism and who have a disproportionate effect. I expect you are talking about people who are aged 55 and above ?

    Example : “Climate Change ? Haw haw haw !” and “Wind turbines ? They don’t work !” This is a cohort problem. All the nasty white racists are dying and being buried with respect by black undertakers. All the rabid xenophobes are in nursing homes being cared for in dignity by “foreigners”. Pretty soon Nigel Lawson could suffer from vascular dementia and be unable to appear on television.

    The media have been insisting that they need a balance of views, but ignoring the fact that the climate change “sceptics” are very small in number and not backed up by the science.

    Why does Nigel Lawson, with all his access and privilege, continue to insist that global warming is not a problem ?

    Fortunately, even though he’s “establishment” and has more influence than he really should have, the people that are really in charge know better. He should talk to the climate change scientists – the Met Office continue to invite sceptics to come and talk with them. He should talk to people in the energy sector – engineers and project managers. He should talk to people in the cross-party Parliamentary groups who have access to the information from the expert Select Committees.

    And what about Owen Paterson ? I cannot understand why they put a climate change sceptic in charge of the Department of the Environment.

    Well, we’ve always done that, haven’t we ? Put Ministers in Departments they know nothing about, so that they can learn their briefs. We keep putting smokers in charge of health policy. Why do you think he was put in there ?

    To pacify the Conservative Party.

    But I know Conservative Party activists who are very much in favour of renewable energy and understand the problems of climate change. It’s not the whole Party.

    We need to convince so many people.

    We only need to convince the people who matter. And anyway, we don’t need to do any convincing. Leaders in the energy industry, in engineering, in science, in Government (the real government is the Civil Service), the Parliament, they already understand the risks of climate change and the need for a major energy transition.

    People should continue to express their views, but people only vote on economic values. That’s why Ed Miliband has pushed the issue of the cost of energy – to try to bring energy to the forefront of political debate.

    What about nuclear fusion ?

    Nuclear fusion has been 35 years away for the last 35 years. It would be nice to have, because it could really solve the problem. Plus, it keeps smart people busy.

    What about conventional nuclear fission power ?

    I say, “Let them try !” The Hinkley Point C deal has so many holes in it, it’s nearly collapsed several times. I’m sure they will continue to try to build it, but I’m not confident they will finish it. Nuclear power as an industry is basically washed up in my view, despite the lengths that it goes to to influence society and lobby the Government.

    It’s going to be too late to answer serious and urgent problems – there is an energy crunch approaching fast, and the only things that can answer it are quick-to-build options such as new gas-fired power plants, wind farms, solar farms, demand reduction systems such as shutting down industry and smart fridges.

    How can the energy companies turn your fridge off ?

    If the appliances have the right software, simple frequency modulation of the power supply should be sufficient to trip fridges and freezers off. Or you could connect them to the Internet via a gateway. The problem is peak power demand periods, twice a day, the evening peak worse than the morning. There has been some progress in managing this due to switching light bulbs and efficient appliances, but it’s still critical. Alistair Buchanan, ex of Ofgem, went out on a limb to say that we could lose all our power production margins within a couple of years, in winter.

    But the refrigerators are being opened and closed in the early evening, so it would be the wrong time of day to switch them off. And anyway, don’t the fridges stop using power when they’re down to temperature ?

    Some of these things will need to be imposed regardless of concerns, because control of peak power demand is critical. Smart fridges may be some years away, but the National Grid already have contracts with major energy users to shed their load under certain circumstances. Certain key elements of the energy infrastructure will be pushed through. They will need to be pushed through, because the energy crunch is imminent.

    The time for democracy was ten years ago. To get better democracy you need much more education. Fortunately, young people (which includes young journalists) are getting that education. If you don’t want to be irritated by the views of climate change and energy sceptics, don’t bother to read the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the online Register or the Spectator. The old school journalists love to keep scandal alive, even though any reason to doubt climate change science and renewable energy died in the 1980s.

    Although I’ve long since stopped trusting what a journalist writes, I’m one of those people who think that you should read those sources.

    I must admit I do myself from time to time, but just for entertainment.

  • Bursting Shale Gas Bubbles

    Posted on October 23rd, 2013 Jo No comments

    I am not confident that the American Shale Gas “boom” is as solid as energy analysts describe, so I set out to find some numbers, to try to check my suspicion.

    You know how it is with government websites : lots of webpages with little intelligence to help you navigate them to find out exactly the answers to your questions.

    I was trying to ascertain current American shale gas production data, and I kept finding myself at this webpage on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) website, and this one, too, which only have shale gas production data up until 2011 (just checked it again – still true).

    The only other thing I could see immediately was a computer model of USA Natural Gas production until 2040, Figure 91 on Page 79 of the Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) for 2013, and also on the website, at this webpage, where I could download the data from the model run. On Page 118 of the downloadable AEO, it indicated that the most recent real data was from the year 2011 :-

    “Figure 91. Natural gas production by source, 1990-2040: History: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Natural Gas Annual 2011, DOE/EIA-0131(2011) (Washington, DC, January 2013). Projections: AEO2013 National Energy Modeling System, run REF2013.D102312A.”

    I was unable to find any more recent data, although I knew it had to be captured, so I emailed the EIA to ask for help, and they said that more recent data on Shale Gas production was to be found here, at the bottom of the page with the chart “Monthly dry shale gas production”.

    The first thing of note is that only three shale gas regions or “plays” are still showing rising production – the Marcellus, Eagle Ford and a smidgen in the Bakken.

    The second thing of note is that the actual production of shale gas is higher than the projection from the Annual Energy Outlook for 2013 (based on 2011 data) :-

    Actual (average for the period 1st July 2012 to 30th June 2013) : 28.01 Bcf/d
    AEO 2013 Figure 91 model (average for 2012 and 2013) : 22.92 Bcf/d

    The third thing to note is the slowdown in the growth of shale gas production as a whole, tending to zero in maybe a few years time, whilst the AEO 2013 Figure 91 model projects continuing low figure percentages for growth in shale gas production. This model probably has an underlying assumption that new drilling for shale gas will take place.

    The fourth thing to note is where the AEO 2013 Figure 91 model expects significant growth to occur in Natural Gas production – Tight Gas – starting around 2016, Alaska starting in around 2024, offshore around 2030 and 2040, and Coalbed Methane starting in 2035.

    Conclusion : the EIA does not anticipate major growth trends in shale gas production in their projections – step change is expected from elsewhere.

  • Shale Gas Snake Oil

    Posted on August 9th, 2013 Jo 2 comments

    Annoyances. The New Scientist magazine for 10th August 2013 carries what at first glance appears to be a propaganda puff piece for the wonders of planet-saving, economy-boosting shale gas, and sadly, it appears that UK Prime Minister David Cameron MP has swallowed the shale gas snake oil

    “Britain must not miss out on fracking: Cameron says drilling for shale gas should take place at more sites : PM said it would be ‘big mistake if Government did not encourage fracking : Wants to dispel ‘myths’ that drilling for gas leads to earthquakes : By Tim Shipman and Nazia Parveen : PUBLISHED: 00:45, 9 August 2013 : David Cameron warned last night that Britain was ‘missing out big time’ on the benefits of fracking by not drilling at enough sites in the search for shale gas. In his most outspoken comments about the technology, the Prime Minister said it would be a ‘big mistake’ if the Government did not encourage fracking across Britain. Mr Cameron said the Government would dispel ‘myths’ from green groups that drilling for gas would lead to earthquakes, and he dismissed fears that it could lead to water taps catching fire. But campaigners last night accused him of lying about the dangers, as he suggested the UK should copy the US, where thousands of wells have been bored […]”

    What are these purported benefits of shale gas, then ? Apparently, drilling for shale gas may bring gas prices down, by comparison with the American experience :-

    “Gas prices could fall by a quarter with shale drilling, Government advisers say : Gas prices could fall by a quarter and help bring down household energy bills if Britain exploits its shale gas reserves, a report commissioned by Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, suggests. : By Rowena Mason, Political Correspondent : 5:08PM BST 17 Jul 2013 : The study by Navigant Consulting backs up David Cameron’s claim that shale gas drilling could help cut the cost of living for families struggling with average bills of more than £1,300 per year. However, it contrasts with the claims of Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, that shale gas is “unlikely” to bring down household bills. He has said higher gas prices are probable regardless of the discovery of Britain’s shale reserves and used this argument to justify spending billions on wind farms and nuclear power stations. […]”

    OK, let’s do a propaganda scan and a fact check.

    Meme #1 : American Natural Gas prices have dropped because of shale gas drilling.

    Fact #1 : American Natural Gas prices have risen during 2013.

    Fact #2 : American Natural Gas prices have been tied to oil prices. Take away the oil-price related spikes of the last 20 years, and Natural Gas prices have stayed fairly constant :-

    Fact #3 : The cost of drilling natural gas wells has risen sharply :-

    Fact #4 : A boom in Natural Gas well drilling has come to an end :-

    Conclusion : It appears that the rise in shale gas production and the lowering of American Natural Gas prices are strongly correlated to the well-drilling boom that ended around about 2008.

    Meme #2 : Natural Gas is displacing coal

    Fact #1 : It did while the drilling boom was in full swing. Not now :-

    Meme #3 : Shale Gas production is going to contribute significantly more to overall Natural Gas production in the next decades.

    Question #1 : Not necessarily :-

    The Future of Fracking

    Frack on or frack off: Can shale gas save the planet?

    08 August 2013 by Michael Brooks
    Magazine issue 2929.

    Optimists see the new resource as a cheap, clean “bridging fuel” to a low-carbon future.

    The true picture might not be so simple

    IT’S all right. Everything’s going to be OK. If there’s a problem, we’ll fix it.

    Such reassuring words are the hallmark of a certain way of thinking, sometimes known as rational optimism. Things will always turn out fine because we humans are almost infinitely creative and adaptable. Confronted with a problem, our technological ingenuity will provide a solution.

    In few places is this idea more powerful than among those planning our future energy supply. Yes, demand is rising. Yes, there are issues with greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, renewable technologies aren’t quite ready for prime time. But a technological miracle will fill the gap until solar, wind and tidal power come fully on stream. It’s called shale gas.

    At first glance, it is a strange claim. Shale gas is methane trapped in tiny pockets in shale rock formations, sometimes in vast quantities. Forcibly extracted by the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, it is still a fossil fuel; burning methane produces greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

    But to see the optimists’ point, look to what has happened in the US, traditionally the global climate bogeyman. Between 1981 and 2005, US carbon emissions increased by 33 per cent, from 4.5 billion to 6 billion tonnes a year. Since 2005, they have fallen by 9 per cent (see graph). There are many factors, not least economic recession, but according to figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) just under half of that reduction is down to one thing: shale gas. Replicate that success globally, and we might begin to solve the emissions problem without rushing into an ill-thought-out renewables revolution, say the enthusiasts. Shale gas is technology’s answer to the climate problem, a “bridging fuel” to a cleaner, greener future. The burning question is: are the optimists right?

    There is no doubt that we need to clean up our ways of generating energy, and fast. In the West, we think of coal as a fuel in terminal decline. Globally, we have never burned more. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal provides 40 per cent of the world’s electricity, and could surpass oil as the world’s primary source of energy by 2017. As we exploit the cheapest sources we can find, coal is also getting dirtier. It now produces more than twice the carbon dioxide emissions of natural gas – and a lot more soot, radioactive ash, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants besides. Not least because of our appetite for coal, global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise relentlessly.

    Shale gas represents a new source of natural methane gas perfectly placed to displace coal in power stations. Shale rocks are found throughout the world, formed when mud is slowly crushed so that particles of clay, quartz, calcite and other minerals end up loosely held together. The Canadian Rockies have the Burgess shale, laid down in the Cambrian era some 500 million years ago and famed for the insights into evolution given by the fossils preserved there. The UK has the 315-million-year-old Bowland shale in the north of England, and other formations dotted around. The US is riddled with different formations, among them the Barnett shale in Texas, which dates back some 350 million years, and the 400-million-year-old Marcellus shales of the Appalachians (see map).

    All of these shales have one thing in common: the tiny gaps between their particles provide pockets where both oil and methane gas can happily sit undisturbed for millions of years. Fracking involves drilling into these pockets and pumping a liquid down at high pressure to break up the shale and release the stored hydrocarbons. Oil and gas escape via a central pipe to the surface where they are collected and shipped off, the methane to be burned just like conventional natural gas in homes and power stations.

    Fracking has been used to extract “tight” gas trapped in highly impermeable rock formations in the US for a couple of decades now. Shale-gas extraction has been slower to get going. “The US shale gas sector took 25 to 30 years to get to where it is now,” says Joseph Dutton, who researches energy policy at the University of Leicester, UK. The first big field to be exploited was the Texan Barnett shale starting in the late 1990s. More followed, including the vast Marcellus shale that stretches from New York state through Pennsylvania and West Virginia into Ohio.

    But it is only in the past five years, with innovations such as horizontal drilling, that fracking has really taken off. Here the initial vertical shaft into the shale becomes a hub for radiating spokes, sometimes kilometres long, running parallel to the surface. This allows vast volumes of shale to be exploited while causing minimal disruption at the surface. “You can have an area the size of a small parking lot, and drill 16 wells all splaying out from the same location,” says Richard Davies of the Durham Energy Institute in the UK. Thanks to such techniques, the US now has the most productive shale gas fields in the world, contributing over a third of its natural gas supply (see diagram).

    As a result, shale gas is now cheaper than coal in the US, and is rapidly displacing it for electricity generation. With its vast supplies of shale gas and oil, the US could become self-sufficient in energy by 2035, according to the EIA. With labour costs in China set to rise over the same time, for many ambitious US politicians this cheap energy is nothing less than a chance for the US to regain its status as the world’s manufacturing and economic powerhouse – while getting greener too.

    Small wonder other countries around the world would like to pull off a similar trick. China is one. The world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, in 2010 it covered 70 per cent of its energy needs with well over 3 billion tonnes of the stuff – almost as much as the rest of the world combined. It is now the world’s top CO2 emitter. By happy coincidence, it is also thought to be sitting on the world’s largest reserves of shale gas – over 30 trillion cubic metres. That’s 50 per cent more than the US and 12 times greater than China’s conventional gas resources. Using even a fraction of that to displace coal would make a huge difference to global emissions.

    So keen is China that it is even breaking with precedent and calling on Western expertise to help kick-start production, says Julio Friedmann, an energy expert at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. An agreement between Shell and the state-controlled PetroChina, for example, will see Shell spending $1 billion a year to help recover shale gas from 3500 square kilometres in the Sichuan basin in central China.

    In the UK, a couple of exploratory fracking sites are up and running, and the government recently announced generous subsidies for would-be frackers. In its World Energy Outlook, the IEA predicts that more than a million shale gas wells could be drilled worldwide by 2035.

    Not everyone is happy. Opponents across the world point out that fracking destabilises the ground (see “Earth movers”), and that the chemicals pumped into the ground during fracking can leak out, perhaps contaminating groundwater (see “Water worries”).

    Supporters argue that such concerns are overblown. And in global terms, given the urgency of the climate situation, the size of shale gas reserves and the slow pace of development on renewables, it is understandable why so many people are keen to override objections. Even some green groups say shale gas makes sense as a “coal killer” – a cheaper, greener electricity generating solution. Perhaps it obviates the need to develop alternative energies entirely. “For some people, gas is not only the bridge to the future – it is the future,” says Jim Watson of the UK Energy Research Centre in London. But are things that simple?

    A complex space

    Let’s start with the economics. Shale gas is very cheap right now, so heady predictions are being made when its price and cost are in “disequilibrium”, says energy economist Francis O’Sullivan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shale gas was developed in the US when conventional sources of oil and gas were drying up, so shale gas could command a decent price. As fracking technology matured, productivity rose and the price fell. In fact, it has fallen so low that many companies are only continuing with production to keep a stake in the market. The productivity of the wells also falls over time: the more gas you get out of a well, the more pressure you have to apply to keep the flow coming, and there are limits to the pressure you can generate. All this means that higher prices will make a comeback once the first wave of exploitation is over, says O’Sullivan. The EIA projects that the price of natural gas, including shale gas, will double over the next 20 years. “People need to look beyond what the price has been for the last six months. This is a very complex space,” says O’Sullivan.

    And even if the US shale-gas revolution is more than a flash in the pan, there is no guarantee that its success can be replicated elsewhere. There are the poorly understood vagaries of geology, for a start. Every shale in the world is different. The Barnett shale is a flat, solid expanse, whereas shales in the UK and China tend to be more fragmented, existing as a peppering between other types of rock. Hitting such a shale with a fracking drill is not straightforward. And different shales have different origins: marine-deposited rock, which is the predominant form in the Texan Barnett shale, contains almost twice as much organic material as deposits that come from land-based plants and organisms, so should be richer in gas.

    In the case of the UK, it is not yet clear whether or not the shales are likely to yield much worth burning. The government-sponsored British Geological Survey (BGS) and others are currently working to assess the size of the national reserves. Last month they released a report estimating that the Bowland shale contains something between 23 and 65 trillion cubic metres of “gas in place”, doubling previous estimates. Most of that gas will never see the light of day: not all shales are brittle enough to fracture under pressure, and not all gas can be extracted using feasible pressures. Usually less than 10 per cent of gas in place is a recoverable reserve of the sort that the EIA and others base their figures on. Different layers of shale will contain different amounts of recoverable gas. “The key question is which layers in our thick shales will yield good gas,” says Michael Stephenson of the BGS. In particular it would be good to know which, if any, contain evidence of bacterial or algal matter likely to make them a good source of hydrocarbons. “We need a way of predicting where these sweet spots will be, but at the moment we don’t have that nailed down,” says Stephenson. Until that happens, any shale-gas revolution in the UK remains a pipe dream.

    In Poland, things have proved particularly frustrating. The country has perhaps the largest shale gas reserves in Europe, but for reasons no one quite understands, fracking there has released negligible amounts of methane, leaving even Texan experts scratching their heads. “Some companies have left already,” Stephenson says. “But it wasn’t easy in Texas either, at the beginning.”

    Not so rosy

    So no one should bank on shale gas coming at all, and certainly not on it coming cheap. “It’s dangerous when people try to build policy based on low pricing that is not going to be sustainable,” says O’Sullivan. The head of the IEA, Maria van der Hoeven, has recently warned that geology and economics mean that other countries are unlikely to replicate the US’s shale-gas boom.

    Leaving local environmental concerns aside, the global environmental picture of shale gas may well not be so rosy, either. One hotly debated issue is the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that escapes into the atmosphere during fracking. Such escapes are generally not included in point-of-use emissions comparisons with coal (see “Gas alert”).

    More insidious, though, are the knock-on effects of shale gas on world energy markets. The US shale-gas revolution has not stopped coal being burned, but merely shifted where it is burned. Cheap gas has led to a surfeit of US coal that is now being greedily consumed elsewhere. In 2012, US coal exports reached a record 104 million tonnes, 70 per cent to Europe. Contrary to perceptions of a “dash for gas”, the UK’s consumption of coal increased by over 30 per cent in 2012, according to government figures, with gas generation falling by a comparable amount (see graph). Despite near-zero economic growth, the UK’s total carbon emissions rose by 3.5 per cent in 2012, “primarily from lower use of gas and greater use of coal for electricity generation at power stations”, a government report made plain.

    Having decided to abandon nuclear power, Germany needs to generate more electricity in the short term from fossil-fuel sources, and has similarly been liberally helping itself to US coal. Where coal is cheaper than gas, energy companies will always choose the dirty option. With the jury out on whether any European country has any economically or technologically viable shale gas reserves, this impact on emissions is likely to continue in the short to medium term. If and when shale gas does come on stream, its depressing effect on the price of coal will probably lead to more coal being burned elsewhere.

    But it is in China that the global emissions trajectory will be decided over the coming decades. Here, it seems unlikely that shale gas will have much impact, either. “Coal will still be much cheaper than the estimates of how much [Chinese] shale gas is going to cost,” says Sergey Paltsev, an energy economist at MIT. A significant factor is that China’s shale-gas reserves are in precisely the wrong place: in mountainous, earthquake-prone Sichuan and the water-starved desert of Xinjiang in the north-west of the country, far away from big population centres. “Transport costs and infrastructure requirements are likely to add at least another 50 per cent to the cost of gas to consumers in major urban areas,” says Paltsev.

    “There isn’t going to be a wholesale swap of coal for gas,” says Friedmann. China still plans to build another 400,000 megawatts of coal-powered electricity generation over the next decade or so. Given coal’s cheapness, Friedmann doubts that China will use shale gas for power generation at all, predicting that it will instead be used to provide “high value” products such as fertiliser, district heating and transport fuel. The impact on the country’s environmental balance is likely to be limited. “I believe it’s possible to reduce Chinese emissions by 100 to 150 million tonnes a year by 2020 or 2025,” says Friedmann. “In a country that’s emitting 8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, that’s not quite what we’d like.”

    So, frack on or frack off, in both local and global terms, environmentally and economically, shale gas is unlikely to be a magic bullet. Used wisely, it could be part of the climate solution. But in the real world, economics and energy policies being what they are, its emissions will come in addition to coal’s, not instead of them. In the crucial coming decades when we need to begin reducing emissions fast, that is no help at all. “All these issues mean the urgency around climate change persists,” says Friedmann.

    For Paltsev, the worry is that, seduced by a false promise of cheap, plentiful energy from shale gas, we will cut back on investment in truly green, renewable alternatives. If so, as the costs and emissions associated with shale gas rise in the future, as they inevitably will, we will end up on a costly bridge to nowhere. To see shale gas as a solution is certainly optimistic; whether it is entirely rational is quite another question.

    Earth movers

    To opponents of fracking, nothing symbolises its dangers and uncertainties more than its seismic potential. The issue hit the headlines in the UK in 2011 following tremors of magnitude 1.5 and 2.3 that were felt around an exploratory fracking site near Blackpool in the north-west of the country.

    There is little doubt fracking caused the quakes, as reports commissioned by Cuadrilla Resources, the company involved, and the UK government concluded. Anything else would be a surprise, says Joseph Dutton of the University of Leicester, UK. “You’re taking something out of the ground so something’s going to shift – that’s basic geology.”

    Should we be worried? Richard Davies of the Durham Energy Institute in the UK and his colleagues have analysed 198 instances of seismic activity of over magnitude 1.0 induced by human activity since 1929. Causes are varied: mining, oil-field depletion, filling reservoirs with water, injecting water into the ground for geothermal power, waste disposal, atomic bomb tests.

    Fracking is directly implicated in two instances, one of them being the Blackpool events, and another three resulted from fracking wastewater disposal. The largest of these, in the Horn river basin in Canada in 2011, was of magnitude 3.8, but it was barely detectable by people on the surface.

    By comparison, the impoundment of water in reservoirs has caused 39 earthquakes of magnitude up to 7.8. Even if fracking is a relatively new technology, the evidence suggests that seismicity is not a prime concern. “Earthquake is a wonderful word: it induces visions of a disaster movie,” says Dutton. “But the debate about seismic activity has got out of control.”
    Water worries

    The water used in fracking contains sand to prop open cracks, lubricants to get the sand into those cracks, biocide to make sure bugs do not clog up the pipes, and hydrochloric acid to dissolve excess cement in the pipe bore and parts of the fracked rock. About 20 per cent of this chemical cocktail does not remain in the ground, but flows back to the surface carrying heavy metals and radioactive elements flushed out of the rock. In most US states this water can be treated in standard wastewater plants, but the safety of this practice has been questioned. The state government of Pennsylvania, which sits on the large Marcellus shale formation, has banned it.

    But could toxic chemicals from fracking leach into groundwater and reach reservoirs and drinking water supplies underground? So far, the indications from studies by Robert Jackson and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, are that the risks are low. “We have not found evidence of the fracking chemicals that people are most concerned about, such as benzene, and we have not found evidence for metal salts from deep underground,” he says.

    Their studies have, however, found an issue with methane contamination in water drawn from within a kilometre or two of some wells. “It may be that the high volumes and high pressures used in fracking make leaky wells more likely,” says Jackson. He suggests a variety of regulatory measures to avoid this problem, such as stricter building codes for wells and increased minimum distances between wells and groundwater sources. The US Environmental Protection Agency is carrying out an investigation of the effect of fracking on drinking water, due out next year. The arguments will continue at least until then.

    Gas alert

    One problem with shale gas is very much up in the air: leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane. “It’s much more powerful than carbon dioxide – 25 to 30 times more, molecule for molecule,” says Robert Jackson of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

    While he and his colleagues have found evidence of direct methane leaks from a small proportion of hundreds of wells they investigated, Jackson sees them as symptoms of poor construction and ineffective regulation, and therefore potentially curable.

    Not everyone is so bullish. Robert Howarth of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, points out that methane is also released from the “flowback” water that returns to the surface during the fracking process. Working with figures from the US Environmental Protection Agency and General Accountability Office, Howarth and his colleagues have calculated that between 4 and 8 per cent of a well’s total production of methane goes straight into the atmosphere. Such a methane release creates an increased greenhouse gas burden of between 20 and 100 per cent over coal for the first 20 years of a field’s exploitation. “Shale gas is not a suitable bridge fuel for the 21st century,” they conclude.

    That analysis is highly controversial. Lawrence Cathles, also at Cornell, points out that the 20-year timescale biases things against shale gas because methane has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than CO2. Emissions from coal will have longer effect. Francis O’Sullivan and Sergey Paltsev of MIT have calculated that the practice of “flaring” – burning off methane for a few weeks while a well is established – brings the greenhouse-gas footprint of shale gas back down in line with that of natural gas, and much better than coal’s.

    Jackson’s analysis suggests that, rather than worrying about emissions from fracking itself, we should concentrate on leakages downstream in the supply chain. “In Boston alone we found 3000 methane leaks from pipelines,” he says. Fixing those problems is more easy than fixing the emission problems of coal.

    Michael Brooks is a New Scientist consultant. His latest book is The Secret Anarchy of Science (Profile/Overlook)

    This article appeared in print under the headline “Frack to the future”

    Issue 2929 of New Scientist magazine

    From issue 2929 of New Scientist magazine, page 36-41.


    The fracking debate needs more light, less heat

    07 August 2013
    Magazine issue 2929.

    DEBATES over fracking tend to generate more heat than light.

    Nowhere is that more true than in the UK, where the past week has seen a former government energy adviser suggest that the practice should be confined to the “desolate” north-east, even as vociferous protests erupted near a normally tranquil village in the prosperous Home Counties.

    Safety concerns over fracking are overblown – but so are the boosterish claims made for its environmental and economic benefits (see “Fracking could accelerate global warming” and “Frack on or frack off: Can shale gas really save the planet?”). The British Geological Survey has so far assessed only the Bowland shale in the north of England, concluding that there is perhaps twice as much “gas in place” as previously thought. But it remains to be seen if this gas is recoverable or good for burning.

    So drill and find out, say advocates. Not in my backyard, say protesters. Enough. Neither nimbyism nor bravado is appropriate given what we know about the risks and rewards of fracking. Better to bring that vigour to bear on a wider debate aimed at shedding light on the nature of a truly sustainable energy policy for the UK – and, for that matter, the world.

    This article appeared in print under the headline “More light, less heat”
    Issue 2929 of New Scientist magazine

    From issue 2929 of New Scientist magazine, page 5.

    Fracking could accelerate global warming

    07 August 2013
    Magazine issue 2929. Subscribe and save

    Editorial: “The fracking debate needs more light, less heat”

    THE row over fracking for natural gas has hit the UK, with protests over plans in the village of Balcombe. Could they have a point? Studies are suggesting fracking could accelerate climate change, rather than slow it.

    The case for fracking rests on its reputed ability to stem global warming. Burning gas emits half as much planet-warming carbon dioxide as an equivalent amount of coal. That is why, after embracing fracking, CO2 emissions have fallen in the US.

    But leading climate scientists are warning that this benefit is illusory. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, concluded in a recent study that substituting gas for coal increases rather than decreases the rate of warming for many decades (Climatic Change,

    Firstly, burning coal releases a lot of sulphur dioxide and black carbon. These cool the climate, offsetting up to 40 per cent of the warming effect of burning coal, Wigley told a recent conference of the Breakthrough Institute think tank in Sausalito, California.

    Fracking technology, which involves pumping water at high pressure into shale beds to release trapped gas, also leaks methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and Wigley says that switching from coal to gas could only bring benefits this century if leakage rates get below 2 per cent. If rates are at 10 per cent – the top end of current US estimates – the gas would deliver extra warming until the mid-22nd century.

    A recent review by the UN Environment Programme agreed that emissions from fracking and other unconventional sources of natural gas could boost warming initially, and would only be comparable to coal over a 100-year timescale.

    This article appeared in print under the headline “Frack for warming”
    Issue 2929 of New Scientist magazine

    From issue 2929 of New Scientist magazine, page 6.

  • They Think It’s Not All Over

    Posted on June 11th, 2013 Jo No comments

    [ Image Credit : Lakeview Gusher : ]

    So, the EIA say that the world has 10 years of shale oil resources which are technically recoverable. Woo hoo. We’ll pass over the question of why the American Department of Energy are guiding global energy policy, and why this glowing pronouncement looks just like the mass propaganda exercise for shale gas assessments that kicked off a few years ago, and move swiftly on to the numbers.

    No, actually, not straight on to the numbers. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out the public relations strategy for promoting increasingly dirtier fossil fuels. First, they got us accustomed to the idea of shale gas, and claimed without much evidence, that it was as “clean” as Natural Gas, and far, far cleaner than coal. Data that challenges this myth continues to be collected. Meanwhile, now we are habituated to accepting without reason the risks of subsurface and ground water reservoir destruction by hydraulic fracturing, we should be pliable enough to accept the next step up – oil shale oil fracking. And then the sales team can move on to warm us up to cruddier unconventionals, like bitumen exhumed from tar sands, and mining unstable sub-sea clathrates.

    Why do the oil and gas companies of the world and their trusted allies in the government energy departments so desperately want us to believe in the saving power of shale oil and gas ? Why is it necessary for them to pursue such an environmentally threatening course of product development ? Can it be that the leaders of the developed world and their industry experts recognise, but don’t want to admit to, Peak Oil, and its twin wraith, Peak Natural Gas, that will shadow it by about 10 to 15 years ?

    A little local context – UK oil production is falling like a stoneover the whole North Sea area. Various efforts have been made to stimulate new investment in exploration and discovery. The overall plan for the UK Continental Shelf has included opening up prospects via licence to smaller players in the hope of getting them to bet the farm, and if they come up trumps, permitted the larger oil and gas companies to snaffle up the small fry.

    But really, the flow of Brent crude oil is getting more expensive to guarantee. And it’s not just the North Sea – the inverse pyramid of the global oil futures market is teeteringly wobbly, even though Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) are now included in petroleum oil production figures. Cue panic stations at the Coalition (Oilition) Government offices – frantic rustling of review papers ahoy.

    To help them believe it’s not all over, riding into view from the stables of Propaganda Central, come the Six Horsemen of Unconventional Fossil Fuels : Tar Sands, Shale Gas, Shale Oil (Oil Shale Oil), Underground Coal Gasification, Coalbed Methane and Methane Hydrates.

    Shiny, happy projections of technically recoverable unconventional (night)mares are always lumped together, like we are able to suddenly open up the ground and it starts pouring out hydrocarbon goodies at industrial scale volumes. But no. All fossil fuel development is gradual – especially at the start of going after a particular resource. In the past, sometimes things started gushing or venting, but those days are gone. And any kind of natural pump out of the lithosphere is entirely absent for unconventional fossil fuels – it all takes energy and equipment to extract.

    And so we can expect trickles, not floods. So, will this prevent field depletion in any region ? No. It’s not going to put off Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas – it literally cannot be mined fast enough. Even if there are 10 years of current oil production volumes that can be exploited via mining oil shale, it will come in dribs and drabs, maybe over the course of 50 to 100 years. It might prolong the Peak Oil plateau by a year or so – that’s barely a ripple. Unconventional gas might be more useful, but even this cannot delay the inevitable. For example, despite the USA shale gas “miracle”, as the country continues to pour resources and effort into industrialising public lands, American Peak Natural Gas is still likely to be only 5 years, or possibly scraping 10 years, behind Global Peak Natural Gas which will bite at approximately 2030 or 2035-ish. I suspect this is why EIA charts of future gas production never go out beyond 2045 or so :-

    Ask a mathematician to model growth in unconventional fossil fuels compared to the anticipated and actual decline in “traditional” fossil fuels, and ask if unconventionals will compensate. They will not.

    The practice for oil and gas companies is to try to maintain shareholder confidence by making sure they have a minimum of 10 years of what is known as Reserves-to-Production ratio or R/P. By showing they have at least a decade of discovered resources, they can sell their business as a viable investment. Announcing that the world has 10 years of shale oil it can exploit sounds like a healthy R/P, but in actual fact, there is no way this can be recovered in that time window. The very way that this story has been packaged suggests that we are being encouraged to believe that the fossil fuel industry are a healthy economic sector. Yet it is so facile to debunk that perspective.

    People, it’s time to divest your portfolios of oil and gas concerns. If they have to start selling us the wonders of bitumen and kerogen, the closing curtain cannot be far away from dropping.

    They think it’s not all over, but it so clearly must be.