The Deathwatch for Cheap Oil  

Posted by Big Gav

The New York Times isn't taking the current dip in the oil price too seriously, predicting the end of cheap oil (they aren't jumping on the ethanol bandwagon just yet either).

THOSE falling prices at the gasoline pump may only be temporary. Indeed, they could signal the start of an era in which, forecasters say, “the death of cheap, abundant crude might unleash war and plunge the world into a second Great Depression.”

“Peak oil is a reality,” says Willem Kadijk, a hedge fund adviser quoted by Bloomberg Markets magazine. He is just one of many who believe that global oil production is now at or near its peak, and the only place to go is down.

“Once the flow crests and starts to decline, and some geologists say it already has, oil will no longer be able to slake the world’s growing thirst for energy,” Deepak Gopinath writes in summarizing the argument. “The result will be the oil shock to end all oil shocks.”

The price of a barrel of crude oil, which closed yesterday at $58.68, “will spiral to $200 — and keep rising,” he writes.

Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Maryland Republican, has formed the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus to draw attention to the issue. “The world has never faced a problem like this,” he told the magazine.

The nation’s oil companies dispute the assertions. An Exxon Mobil spokesman says the company’s geologists expect global oil production to keep rising for at least the next two decades.

ON SECOND THOUGHT If you think ethanol is a simple answer to solving our gasoline needs, think again, argues Consumer Reports in this month’s cover article, “The Ethanol Myth.”

“Despite the avid support of the Bush administration and major American car companies,” E85 — a commonly used blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — “is unlikely to fill more than a small percentage of U.S. energy needs,” the magazine says.

Reasons for the pessimism are that ethanol costs more, is hard to find outside the Midwest — only about 800 gas stations out of 176,000 nationwide sell E85 — and provides fewer miles to the gallon. The magazine tested ethanol on a Chevrolet Tahoe and found that the fuel economy dropped “27 percent when running on E85 compared with gasoline, from an already low 14 m.p.g.”

The NYT also has an editorial on "science is being ignored, again".
The Bush administration loves to talk about the virtues of “sound science,” by which it usually means science that buttresses its own political agenda. But when some truly independent science comes along to threaten that agenda, the administration often ignores or minimizes it. The latest example involves the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reject the recommendations of experts inside and outside the government who had urged a significant tightening of federal standards regulating the amount of soot in the air.

At issue were so-called fine particles, tiny specks of soot that are less than one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair. They penetrate deep into the lungs and circulatory system and have been implicated in tens of thousands of deaths annually from both respiratory and coronary disease. The E.P.A., obliged under the Clean Air Act to set new exposure levels every five years, tightened the daily standard. But it left unchanged the annual standard, which affects chronic exposure and which the medical community regards as more important.

In so doing, the agency rejected the recommendation of its own staff scientists and even that of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council, a 22-member group of outside experts that had recommended a significant tightening of the standards. Stephen Johnson, the agency administrator, claimed there was “insufficient evidence” linking health problems to long-term exposure. He added that “wherever the science gave us a clear picture, we took clear action,” noting also that “there was not complete agreement on the standard.”

One wonders how much evidence Mr. Johnson requires, and how “complete” an “agreement” must be before he takes action. A 20-2 vote in favor of stronger standards seems fairly convincing to us; likewise the unanimous plea for stronger standards from mainstream groups like the American Medical Association.

The environmental and medical communities suspect that the administration’s main motive was to save the power companies and other industrial sources of pollution about $1.9 billion in new investment that the more protective annual standard would have required. But here, too, the administration appears to have ignored expert advice. Last Friday, the agency released an economic analysis showing that in exchange for $1.9 billion in new costs, the stronger annual standards could save as many as 24,000 thousand lives and as much as $50 billion annually in health care and other costs to society. Studies like these always offer a range of possible outcomes, but even at the lower end — 2,200 lives and $4.3 billion in money saved — the cost-benefit ratios are very favorable.

Past Peak has a look at the gyration of oil and gas prices and the Goldman Sachs connection.
As we've noted in the past, presidential approval ratings historically closely track the price of gasoline. The higher the price of gas, the lower the approval rating (see the graph here). That makes the recent plunge in gas prices good news for the White House, and for Republican candidates generally, going into the November elections.

Why have gas prices dropped so precipitously? Why now?

One significant factor that has gone largely unnoticed is a decision by investment bank Goldman Sachs to restructure its Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) in a way that prompted the sudden selling of some $6 billion in gasoline futures. NYT:
Politics and worries about oil supplies may have caused gasoline prices to go up at the pump earlier this year, but one big investment bank quietly helped their rapid drop in recent weeks, according to some economists, traders and analysts.

Goldman Sachs, which runs the largest commodity index, the G.S.C.I., said in early August that it was reducing the index's weighting in gasoline futures significantly. The announcement did not make big headlines, but it has reverberated through the markets in the weeks since and some other investors who had been betting that gasoline would rise followed suit on their weightings.

"They started unwinding their positions, and those other longs also rushed to the door at the same time," said Lawrence J. Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation.

Wholesale prices for New York Harbor unleaded gasoline, the major gasoline contract traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, dropped 18 cents a gallon on Aug. 10, to $1.9889 a gallon, a decline of more than 8 percent, and they have dropped further since then. In New York on Friday, gasoline futures for October delivery rose 4.81 cents, or 3.2 percent, to $1.5492 a gallon. Prices have fallen 9.4 percent this year.

The August announcement by Goldman Sachs caught some traders by surprise. [...]

Unleaded gasoline made up 8.72 percent of Goldman's commodity index as of June 30, but it is just 2.3 percent now, representing a sell-off of more than $6 billion in futures contract weighting. ...

There's an element of crowd psychology in commodities futures trading, as there is in the trading of stocks, real estate, etc. A number of factors contributed to the crowd's psychology changing course with respect to gasoline futures. But the fact that Goldman's announcement came on August 9 and gasoline futures plunged more than 8% the following day is hardly coincidence.

It is impossible to know if Goldman's motives were in part political, but one could be forgiven for concluding that Bush administration economic policy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. Henry Paulson, current Secretary of the Treasury, was CEO and Chairman of GS, as was Stephen Friedman, formerly the chair of Bush's National Economic Council and currently the chair of his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Bush Chief of Staff (and former director of the Office of Management and Budget) Josh Bolten is a GS alumnus, as is Reuben Jeffery, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. It would be the responsibility of the latter to investigate any questions about manipulations of the futures markets. Not for nothing did Tom Wolfe call them "Masters of the Universe".

Alex from WorldChanging has an essay up at Tom Paine on "carbon blindness" and the need to pursue sustainable solutions to global warming (and I'dd add the same goes for peak oil).
Climate change is real; it is here; it is part of a looming crisis which presents a greater threat to our civilization than anything we have ever faced; and we need to act decisively and immediately to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses. It is, indeed, time to get real.

What is worrisome, though, is the idea, which one is beginning to hear all over the political map, that climate change trumps every other environmental issue, or, even more, that climate change is not an environmental issue at all. These arguments usually precede a call for some action which reduces carbon output but has other demonstrably negative environmental impacts, whether that's damming a river for hydropower, launching into a massive nuclear energy program or seeding the ocean to produce a plankton bloom.

The climate crisis we face will not be bested through the kind of thinking that got us into the problem in the first place: because, seen with any degree of rationality, the climate crisis cannot be distinguished from the overall planetary crisis of environmental degradation, massive poverty, conflict and inequity of which it is a part.

I am pro-technofix. I believe that climate change can only be contained through ingenuity and innovation. But innovating to solve the wrong problem usually fails as a strategy, and the problem we have today, I believe, is not that our climate is changing, per se, but that we have created an unsustainable civilization which is deeply instable.

Therefore, our task is not just to reduce our carbon emissions, but to do it in the context of a renewed and restored international order; not just to grow a more efficient economy, but a more dynamically fair one as well; not just to stave off the worst effects of cooking the planet but to protect and promote the health of ecosystems around the world; not just to fear runaway global warming but to move strongly towards a civilization which doesn't destroy nature and people's lives to generate fleeting advantages for a tiny fraction of a percentage of the world's population. This, I am sure, is an all-or-nothing fight, because all these issues—climate, biodiversity, population, poverty, conflict, public health, toxics, terrorism—are bound together and part of the same fabric.

To think otherwise is to suffer from a carbon blindness which could lead us actions which undermine the future, taken in the name of the future itself.

Bill Totten points to an article in The Independent called "Americans Want It All, and Hang the Consequences".
Who uses washable cloth nappies rather than throwaway ones? Who has solar panels installed on their roof? Only those who can afford them.

The severely limited impulse to conserve is not only about economics. It is also deeply cultural. The United States is a place where the prevailing instinct is to want it all, no matter the consequences. Sure, there may be wars in the Middle East, Islamic militants on the march, smog in the air, pollutants in the water, hurricanes, floods and other tangible side-effects of global warming but that's not going to stop most people from hankering after a big car and a big house with state-of-the-art gadgets.

Cutting back is not cool or sexy. Given the choice between laboriously reviving old city centres with apartment renovations and corner shops, or ripping up cornfields to create suburban developments with huge houses and monster shopping malls, most Americans opt for the monster.

People certainly have mixed feelings. At the height of the Iraq war, it was not uncommon to see huge, gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives sporting "No Blood for Oil" stickers. Americans aren't happy about their obesity epidemic or their tendency to overspend in grocery stores or over-order in restaurants, even while they consume 200 billion calories a day more than they need and throw away around 200,000 tons of edible food each day.

But will anything ever change? Telling Americans to consume less doesn't work. Giving them environmentally smarter versions of the same things - more fuel-efficient cars, better insulated houses, less heavily packaged food - may be a more promising avenue. Until the government, however, gets serious about forcing manufacturers to produce these things, the age of the more rational American consumer will remain a distant prospect.

Technology reviw takes a look at new diesel standards in the US and how diesel technology could cut oil imports.
One easy way to reduce both carbon-dioxide emissions and oil imports is to switch to diesel engines in cars and trucks, since they're inherently more efficient than gasoline engines. In fact, diesel engines are almost as efficient as gas-electric hybrids, without the need for hybrid technology.

But to date, consumer diesel vehicles have not been widespread in the United States, where tight emissions controls made them more expensive to develop than in diesel-loving Europe. What's more, U.S. drivers' historical indifference to fuel economy--along with their perception that diesel engines are smelly and dirty--convinced automakers that Americans wouldn't buy them anyway.

Starting on October 15, however, ultra-low-sulfur diesel will be available throughout the United States at the pump, as a result of EPA regulations originally devised by the Clinton administration.

By itself, the new diesel fuel will cut soot emissions by 10 percent--but it also opens the way for affordable technologies that can reduce emissions by 90 to 95 percent. The reason sulfur is so significant is that it forms organic sulfates, which create soot, clog emissions filters, and render ineffective catalysts that help convert the soot to harmless materials.

Red Herring has a report on the top three trends in the solar industry.
1) A focus on silicon

A worldwide shortage of solar-grade silicon, the key material that turns sunlight into electricity in most solar-power systems, is constraining market growth.

According to a report by Photon Consulting, the research and consulting arm of trade magazine Photon International, there’s worldwide demand for 5 gigawatts of solar power, but only enough silicon to supply between 2.2 and 2.4 gigawatts.

Solar manufacturers and integrators are trying to ensure they will have enough products to grow by signing long-term agreements for silicon and solar modules. On Thursday, for example, PowerLight announced it signed a five year, $150-million agreement to buy solar cells from Q-Cells, a large German solar cell manufacturer (see PowerLight Snaps Up Solar Cells).

Startups with technologies that use less silicon to produce more watts of electricity are also benefiting from the shortage.

On Tuesday, SolFocus said it signed an agreement for Moser Baer India to manufacture and distribute its concentrating solar panels in India and neighboring countries, and also said it raised an additional $7 million in funding from Moser Baer to close out its Series A round of funding. The company raised $25 million in July (see SolFocus Soaks Up $25M).

SoLFocus is Palo Alto, California-based startup that uses lenses and mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a tiny amount of germanium, which converts the sunlight into electricity more efficiently than silicon (see Concentrating the Sun).


2) More Funding

Investment in solar power is heating up even more, and roughly 300 conference attendees have registered from the financial sector, Mr. Kaye said. With big names like Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson making commitments to clean energy, it could be getting harder more money—but many investors are certainly willing to try (see Too Late To Get Into Cleantech?).

Aside from SolFocus, which Tuesday raised an additional $7 million, bringing its Series A round to $32 million, VantagePoint Venture Partners told VentureWire on Tuesday that it is hoping to raise more than $150 million for a clean technology fund.

EnerWorks, a solar thermal company, also announced Thursday that it raised $3.65 million from Chrysalix Energy and Investco Capital, and Fat Spaniel said Friday that it has raised an additional $3.5 million in Series A financing from DFJ Element and Chrysalix Energy.

Fat Spaniel provides software and web-site integration services to remotely monitor and manage distributed energy systems, and says its software transforms energy data into easy-to-understand presentations and makes them accessible from any Internet-enabled device (see CalCEF Invests In 10 Startups, Energy Startup Gets $3.5M).

The money brings Fat Spaniel’s round to $7 million. President Chris Beekhuis said Fat Spaniel will use the money to expand further into wind power, fuel cells, and variable speed drives, and also to expand into Europe and other regions. It will also expand further in the solar market, he said.

No longer Birkenstock-clad early adopters, now many of solar customers are big businesses that are asking installers for more intelligence from the get-go so they can more effectively manage their energy costs, he said.


3) Advances in supporting technologies

Aside from announcements about new cells and modules, you can expect plenty of news about all the other parts and services required to grow the solar industry. Fat Spaniel is one example. Another is Xantrex Technology, a publicly traded inverter company. Inverters convert power from AC to DC, for instance to turn solar energy into usable electricity. Xantrex said Friday that it plans to unveil two new inverters at the conference.

The first, the XW Battery-Based System, is an off-grid product, meaning it can be used by homes with no connection to the electrical grid. The inverter is more efficient than competitors’, converting 93.5 percent of the AC into DC, compared with an average of about 90 percent for other off-grid inverters, said CEO John Wallace.

The off-grid inverter can convert up to 6 kilowatts of AC into DC, is intelligent enough to be able to convert power from wind, solar, hydro generators, and batteries all at once, and provides power that’s high-quality enough to be able to run delicate plasma televisions, he said.

The other product is the GT 5.0 Grid Tie Solar Inverter, a grid-connected inverter that is more reliable and “handsome” than competitors’, Mr. Wallace said. Unlike most inverters for grid-connected solar-power systems, the system continues to operate as if it were an off-grid system when there’s a power outage.

All these support technologies are essential to making solar mainstream, companies said.

Today's tinfoil decoration is from Rigorous Intuition - this one has a look at developments in the propaganda industry. It seems graphic novelist Frank Miller is now producing propaganda comics, which are now being made into a movie.

I've only ever read 2 graphic novels - both in my late teenage years, one of which was Miller's "Dark Knight Returns", a particularly bleak take on the Batman story. The other was Alan "V for Vendetta" Moore's "Watchmen", and the contrast between the two was quite stark (I thought both were excellent at the time - but my tastes may have changed over the years). Moore's story was, as usual, an anarchist fable about the abuse of power ("Who watches the Watchmen ?"), while Miller's was an authoritarian fable about the need to have greater control and discipline (I think it was Alan Moore who described traditional superheroes as quasi-fascist creatures, and he's not far off in the Dark Knight's case).

The post also notes that the videos of Allan Francovich's series on Operation Gladio are now online. I haven't watched them yet, but hopefully I'll find some time as this is an interesting topic (though Francovich's demise while passing through US customs after he made the series is something of a dampener on wanting to know too much about it). The Gladio story is one example of the difficulty of separating propaganda from reality as time passes. The basic idea that the "stay behind" networks existed seems to be uncontroversial - the tinfoil aspect is the claim these were (1) populated mostly by fascists, (2) used "false flag" terror attacks to undermine the left in post war Europe and (3) still exist today, doing much the same thing.

The US State Department claims that point (2) is false and is regurgitating propaganda spread by the Soviets in the 1970's (they don't address the other 2 points, but presumably (1) could be argued as a necessary evil at the time and (3) would be viewed with horror and denial). This is a pretty rational explanation, though I don't see how you could prove it one way or the other (unless the successor to the KGB publically released their records on the matter). Regardless of what the truth is, considering the story does raise some interesting questions about cold war morality and the boundaries between democratic and un-democratic behaviour...
In wartime, and in a time of re-mythologizing war, America's mythmaking undergoes a radical makeover to favour Sparta and the 300 of King Leonidas. It's too tempting a story to resist, because no matter its overwhelming might, it seems that for the good of its soul America must also, at least in its fiction, regard itself as the underdog. (You could perhaps sense something of this in the relish with which supporters of the Iraq war recounted America's "abandonment" by its traditional allies and the United Nations. "Going it alone" never felt so good.)

A new film treatment of the Battle of Thermopylae, 300, will be released early next year, and it looks like just the ticket to introduce the legend of Sparta to America's popular culture of perpetual war. Particularly appropriate, since Persian arms are once again the perceived enemy, and the few who stand against them now are Rumsfeld's 150,000. (And that reminds me: do you remember reading how, "in the summer of 2001, when security agencies were regularly warning of a catastrophic attack by Al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s office 'sponsored a study of ancient empires—Macedonia, Rome, the Mongols—to figure out how they maintained dominance,' according to the New York Times"?) This latest, and most extreme version is based upon the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller, of the admirable Sin City, but who is also an unabashed propagandist for the White House shooting script. His next project is Holy Terror, Batman!, in which bin laden targets Gotham City and the Dark Knight "kicks al Qaeda's ass."

...

By the way, this may be old news to some, but if you haven't viewed BBC's nearly three-hour documentary from 1992 on Gladio and NATO's secret fascist armies, please do. You can find it in three parts on Google Video. The first segment establishes the context of history and the prominent role played by future CIA wizard James Angleton, and features interviews with William Colby and Licio Gelli; the second examines the Bologna railway station bombing, and the third the Brabant Massacres and the assassination of Aldo Moro. Perhaps because it's another British production from the early 90s, or because it's a history that's largely unknown to North America, or because William Colby appears in both shortly before his likely murder, it has a strong Conspiracy of Silence vibe about it. And I mean that in the best possible way, about the worst possible truth.

I quite liked this comment from the irrepresible Iridescent Cuttlefish:
Going against the grain a bit--and not just because it feels good, or in some transparent attempt to be provocative--all that Miller and the Pimps of War are doing is what has always been done to fire up the troops and throw another body on the fire: lying about the nature and necessity of war. This they do because they have to, since we would always choose peace, given the chance. Please don't throw up your hands and indulge in symphonies of grief over man's beastly nature because that just spreads the lie even further.

Most of us are familiar with the famous quote from Göring on the ease of manipulating domesticated herds into warlike formation. Here's the real source and context of that quote, from the Urban Legends Reference:

"The quote...does not appear in transcripts of the Nuremberg trials because although Göring spoke these words during the course of the proceedings, he did not offer them at his trial. His comments were made privately to Gustave Gilbert, a German-speaking intelligence officer and psychologist who was granted free access by the Allies to all the prisoners held in the Nuremberg jail. Gilbert kept a journal of his observations of the proceedings and his conversations with the prisoners, which he later published in the book Nuremberg Diary. The quote...was part of a conversation Gilbert held with a dejected Hermann Göring in his cell on the evening of 18 April 1946, as the trials were halted for a three-day Easter recess:

We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Göring shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."


The only left question appears to be why it's so "simple" to do this--that we're neurological putty, infinitely malleable, is one common explanation; that we're so used to being led by the nose, so trained and domesticated is another common response--but these explanations ignore the the naked truth that stupid fat Göring revealed: that, despite the multi-million Mark propaganda machinery of the 3rd Reich (and the most terrifying "hard" tyranny in history), the people still "don't want war." Think about the effort put into modern propaganda, from the Army's new $200,000,000-a year recruiting slogan ("Army Strong") to graphic novelist Frank Miller's pathetic self-packaging (from the 9/11 fifth anniversary NPR "interview"):

"For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years. All of a sudden, I had a patriotic epiphany which illuminated the beauty of war and blinded me to the continued manipulation of the masses by the leaders, aided by lying, soulless whores like me who prostitute ourselves for money, for pleasure, for innumerable ignoble 'reasons'."

Okay, so I added a few words to Miller's "authentic emotions," like maybe the whole second all-of-a-sudden sentence, but the point is that no matter how much money, time, and miseducation Goebbels and his heirs pour into turning us into mindless killing machines, it never connects with the core of our being and always wears off or is washed off with one reading of All Quiet on the Western Front or Johnny Got His Gun or any of the true representations of war that have come out in the last hundred years, because it is alien to our nature. It is inimical, not identical. The problem, of course, is that the programmers are not big fans of peacenik literature. Video games, with the exception of the Civilization games, pretty much toe the bloodsport line. Still, Göring's observation stands: no matter what they do to indoctrinate us in servility and savagery, we are social beings who have evolved (and survived) far more through cooperation than competition.

Jeff started the post off with a quote from David Brin--his books, and those of many other sci-fi writers, provide an alternative to the retro-neanderthalic "Army Strong !" programming that floods the media. Maybe such fare will provide some defense against the dark arts of Miller and his ilk. Maybe--like Göring's "poor slob on a farm"--we don't really need it, since we can still smell shit, even though we've been told it's something else entirely...

4 comments

Gav,
The redherring site, in stating that
"Inverters convert power from AC to DC, for instance to turn solar energy into usable electricity."
is wrong.
An inverter converts (or inverts) DC to AC. The process of converting AC to DC is rectification. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverter_%28electrical%29]

Solar power is DC. Most of the appliances in homes are AC... even though all consumer electronics are essentially DC devices... all of them containing there own AC-DC transformer. An example of fail safe redundancy or wasteful redundancy or just what worked at the time?

Shane

Dunno if you saw this:
"Gasoline Price Manipulation Before the Elections"
http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig7/stojan1.html
I can't say I'm a believer in this particular conspiracy theory, but it wouldn't put it past the Bushies to try.

Shane,

Quite right - regular power is AC (and thats got to do with how the stuff is generated IIRC) and solar is DC. It would be interesting to see how much energy loss you get from going DC - AC - DC again (though as long as you're tied into the grid its just an intellectual exercise)....

Dave,

I've posted a few links on "gas" price manipulation - while there are plenty of undlerying reasons for the price to fall at the moment I'm still a partial believer in this conspriacy theory (Goldman's serendipitously timed commodity index changes and the government halting SPR refills - not to mention all the Jack 2 publicity - would seem to be intended to amplify the trend even if they may not account for it on their own)

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