Jason Barton

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Archive for the ‘The Future of Energy’ tag

Confusion on the Future of Energy

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Well this article is puzzling. The first paragraph is tongue in cheek (I hope), and yet it has some important and accurate points, as well as some dubious ones.

Gilbert seems to be making some sort of a comment on the proceedings in Davos, but it’s not clear what his comment is, or even if he knows very much about the energy issues he’s discussing. Bloomberg is a trusted media channel, but there appears to be little to trust in Mr. Gilbert’s article.

No, oil disasters are not good. I get the point that when one happens we tend to pay more attention to safety, but it shouldn’t take that. I also get the sarcasm, but would appreciate some clarity.

Yes, our appetite for energy does threaten to compete with food and water. Biofuels can compete with food not only when we divert corn or sugar from food to fuel, but also when we divert land used for food to produce non-food crops such as grasses for cellulosic ethanol, though there are definitely ways to avoid having to make this Hobson’s choice. I’ve written about the validity and exaggeration of the competition between these two at other times, so will leave it for now, but you can read more here if you like.

Traditional fuels such as natural gas and petroleum can also stress our water supplies. Read more about water used in the tar sands for petroleum here, or about natural gas and the potential impacts of fracking on water here.

So it’s tough to know from that first paragraph what Gilbert’s take is on the developments n Davos.

He continues to obfuscate the situation further in the paragraphs that follow.

He goes on to talk about China and their use of coal, proposing they use more hydro power (see paragraph excerpted below). I wonder if Mr. Gilbert is familiar with the Three Gorges Dam. It’s not a small project.

Yes, China will use a lot of coal as they grow their economy in the coming decades, but they are also doing an admirable job of investing in and implementing renewable energy. Read more about that here.

Next is nuclear energy.  Gilbert seems to deride it, but, again, it’s unclear. He mentions the possible security concern, which is a very credible threat, since the technology used for plants such as breeder reactors brings more use and awareness of  the technology used in nuclear weapons. Risky, but potentially worth it since nuclear power can bring energy to disenfranchised people who are at risk of being wooed by terrorist organizations. We can put political or religious faces on the fights, but they are most often between the haves and the have-nots, and helping more people to be haves reduces the motivation to attack. It’s also a nice thing to do, reducing the number of have-nots, just on moral grounds.

Back to energy, Gilbert moves on to biofuels, grossly over-simplifying the issue I touched on above. Yes, the competition with energy can raise food prices, but if energy supplies are constricted, because of dwindling supplies of non-renewable energy resources or geopolitical events in the Middle East or any number of other issues, food prices will rise as well. In fact, the rise in food prices we saw in 2008 had less to do with biofuels than it did with petroleum prices (See Abbot, Hurt, and Tyner, 2009).

It takes energy to fertilize, irrigate, process, package, and transport our food, so if we resign ourselves to the current, non-renewable energy matrix, those ever-decreasing supplies will continue leading to ever-increasing food prices. Diversifying our energy matrix, prudently over time, will help to mitigate if not eliminate this threat. Bread wars could come much more easily from rising energy prices than rising energy prices could be caused by biofuels.

So, thank you, Mr. Gilbert, for giving us all of this food for thought.

Green-Energy Future Looks Black as Recession Bites: Davos Diary

By Mark Gilbert – Jan 26, 2011 6:07 AM MT

The future is black, not green. Get used to oil trading at $100 a barrel. Drilling disasters are good because they focus the oil industry’s attention on safety. Oh, and our insatiable thirst for yet more energy sources threatens to deplete the world’s food and water supplies.

That’s the bleak message from the World Economic Forum’s opening discussion on global energy at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, led a panel that delivered a somber outlook for renewable energy.


Hydropower, for example, would be a great way to meet China’s future needs, especially during demand peaks in the morning and early evening, because you can switch on water- generated supply in eight minutes, whereas coal takes 32 hours to come on line, while a nuclear power reactor takes 56 hours. The problem is the huge capital-expenditure cost because the hydropower plants are typically far away from where the electricity is needed, demanding transmission networks.


The gloomiest aspect of the energy debate is the impact on agriculture. As governments champion the use of biofuels, diverting agricultural resources to producing energy raises food prices. That’s a worrying trend for those of us who reckon food and water security will be the world’s most pressing issue in the coming years.

Read the entire article here.

China, Oil Will Dominate Energy Matrix for Decades

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These are predictable, and not necessarily disappointing. Petroleum is an abundant (for now) and relatively inexpensive energy resource. China is also leading the charge in research and development of clean, renewable energy technologies.

Our best bets here in the U.S. are to increase our efforts in energy innovation so that we can maintain our current position as global leaders in such positive and economically advantageous efforts. Foremost among these objectives should be increasing our efficiency, especially in transportation. This will give us a competitive edge as we are less dependent on imported petroleum, improving our balance of trade as well as environmental health, and will ensure that petroleum is available for generations to come.

A final point on petroleum, as we saw this past summer, is that more and more of petroleum reserves are in places that are difficult to access safely. As we reduce our dependence, we allow time for further innovation, meaning the technologies to access those reserves are less expensive and more reliable.

Energy in 2035: China and oil dominate

By Aaron Smith, staff writerNovember 9, 2010: 8:05 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — China will continue lead the charge as the No. 1 energy consumer over the next quarter-century, and oil will remain the dominant fuel despite huge investment in alternatives, according to a International Energy Agency report released Tuesday.

The agency forecasts that China’s demand will soar by 75% between 2008 and 2035, compared to an overall surge of 36% in international energy use. While Americans still lead the world in per capita energy use, China overtook the United States last year as the primary energy user.

Read the entire article here.

The Coming Era of Extreme Energy?

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I am not an alarmist who believes we need an immediate, radical shift in our nation’s energy matrix. The compendium of tragedies in the article below presents another perspective containing several sound points, but also some impractical emotional appeals not based in fact nor reason.

Were it published in February, Klare’s article would raise few eyebrows. Now, because of a single terrible disaster, it sparks ample discussion, including an article by Daniel Gross today in Slate Magazine called “The Dangerous New Era of ‘Extreme Energy.'” In the second paragraph of that article, Gross claims that “When the land-based oil was exhausted, American prospectors went to sea. And when the shallow-water oil was exhausted, they went farther out.” Even if one didn’t immediately know that these claims were inaccurate, Gross graciously contradicts himself just a few sentences later to confirm that he’s simply engaging in yellow journalism: “Today, deep-water Gulf wells account for about one-quarter of the oil the United States sucks from the earth.” The other 75% come from the places Gross just said were exhausted.

I like Slate Magazine, but come on, Mr. Gross, we don’t need to lie to make the important points about changing our practices when it comes to our energy resources. Such dishonesty or carelessness only undermines your point.

When we see a car accident, even a massive one involving several vehicles and loss of multiple lives, do we say we should no longer drive? Do we argue that cars and roads need to be completely redesigned? No. We learn from the details, such as the dangers of drinking or texting while driving, the importance of seat belts, etc. The Deepwater Horizon rig may have been a bad idea from the start, or there may have been clear mistakes as the companies involved were trying to close the well, and these problems should be examined and learned from so they do not happen again. But there is little evidence to suggest that the problems that occurred should lead to the elimination of the thousands of rigs in shallower water that have been operating safely for decades.

Klare is correct to argue that government oversight of health and safety regulations in oil and gas drilling has been woefully inadequate. But as I pointed out in an earlier post, given the poor track record of these government bureaucracies, expanding their size or giving them more power may not be the best option. As citizens and consumers, as well as energy executives, politicians, and bureaucrats, paying greater attention to our sources of energy and their impacts is as fundamental to a safe energy matrix as energy is fundamental to our way of life, to all life.

If it’s true that sunlight is the best disinfectant, then the disaster in the Gulf should expose the many problems that led to the explosion, and even to the poorly planned implementation of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the first place. We should learn from these mistakes and move forward.

Yes, we need to pay greater attention to health and safety considerations as energy resources become more difficult to locate and extract. Let us be pragmatic in this pursuit, and not fall victim to alarmist calls for unrealistic or unnecessary measures. One market based solution is simply to make companies liable for most or all damages from accidents such as the one occurring now in the Gulf, rather than capping their liability and forcing taxpayers to cough up the rest.  Consider the current estimates that put clean up costs around $1 billion. BP recorded first quarter profits of just over $6 billion. They can afford to foot the bill, and if they try to pass the costs of their negligence on to the consumer, competition from other companies will inhibit this effort.

Most importantly, as readily available resources become more scarce, we need to examine our energy use more carefully. Increasing energy efficiency saves money while reducing our exposure to risk. Long term planning needs to include increased efficiency as well as development of technologies that can gradually enter our energy matrix in the coming decades as oil and gas become more scarce, more difficult to extract, and more expensive.

The next few decades could have us witnessing more problems like the one in the Gulf; but thoughtful, measured, gradual changes in our energy practices are possible, and necessary.

Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare

Author and Professor of Peace and World-Security Studies at Hampshire College

The Relentless Pursuit of Extreme Energy: A New Oil Rush Endangers the Gulf of Mexico and the Planet

Yes, the oil spewing up from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico in staggering quantities could prove one of the great ecological disasters of human history.  Think of it, though, as just the prelude to the Age of Tough Oil, a time of ever increasing reliance on problematic, hard-to-reach energy sources.  Make no mistake: we’re entering the danger zone.  And brace yourself, the fate of the planet could be at stake.

It may never be possible to pin down the precise cause of the massive explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20th, killing 11 of its 126 workers.  Possible culprits include a faulty cement plug in the undersea oil bore and a disabled cutoff device known as a blow-out preventer.  Inadequate governmental oversight of safety procedures undoubtedly also contributed to the disaster, which may have been set off by a combination of defective equipment and human error.  But whether or not the immediate trigger of the explosion is ever fully determined, there can be no mistaking the underlying cause: a government-backed corporate drive to exploit oil and natural gas reserves in extreme environments under increasingly hazardous operating conditions.

Read the entire article here.