Pine Beetles And Biochar  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Tyler Hamilton has an interesting article in the Toronto Star about the damage pine beetles are doing to Canadian forests and the impact this will have in terms of increased carbon emissions unless something is done.

One company is suggesting harvesting the dead wood and using it for power generation, thus making use of the material and emitting CO2 instead of more potent methane - another idea being floated is to convert the wood to biochar (see Black Earth for more on biochar).

According to a report last week in the scientific journal Nature, the mountain pine beetle that has killed 130,000 square kilometres of coniferous forest on the west coast has also turned those trees into net emitters of greenhouse gases.

When healthy, the trees act as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in biomass. When dead, however, the trees no longer absorb CO2. In fact, the opposite happens. As the trees rot and decompose, they release methane and other carbon-equivalent gases.

The B.C. researchers who wrote the report found that the greenhouse gas emissions from these dead trees over a 20-year period would roughly equal all CO2 emissions from Canada's entire transportation sector over five years. "So these are very large numbers in terms of impacts to the atmosphere," said report co-author Werner Kurz, a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada.

No kidding.

But the situation isn't hopeless. When British Columbia released its provincial energy plan last February, it announced that B.C. Hydro would consider proposals for harvesting trees infested with pine beetles for energy generation.

Vancouver-based Nexterra Energy, for example, has teamed up Pristine Power of Calgary to establish a network of small gasification power plants in B.C. that could turn infested wood into 200 megawatts of electricity. Rather than let the trees rot and release methane, which is 21 times more potent than CO2, the idea is to extract usable energy out of them that would displace dirtier electricity and clear the forest for new growth.

The key is to move fast, leaving less time for the dead trees to decay. Another, and arguably more effective, approach is to harvest the trees and convert them to char, or "biochar." Using a process called pyrolysis, the wood is essentially baked in the absence of oxygen and converted into a carbon-rich char.

This char contains about 60 per cent of the carbon in the original wood and, unlike wood, the char won't decay – it remains chemically stable for hundreds of years, trapping the carbon permanently.

Another bonus is that char can be ground up and spread over topsoil to improve crop fertility and enhance nutrients and water retention in soil. Since the carbon is bound in the char, it is effectively sequestered in the soil.

Cornell University's Johannes Lehmann, a leading expert on biochar studies, said it's something the B.C. government might want to look at. "It could be that a good portion of the emissions (from the dead trees) can be avoided by conversion of the damaged biomass into biochar," he wrote in an email.

The beauty with char is that you can pack it and weigh it. You know how much carbon is locked into a kilogram of char, so calculating carbon credits is easy compared to alternatives, such as guessing how much CO2 a new forest will absorb.

Perhaps some clever entrepreneur will see the potential of selling bags of pine-beetle wood char as a way of boosting the performance of residential gardens.

An Electrifying Startup  

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Technology Review has a look at A123 Systems' new lithium ion battery which they think could "help electric cars and hybrids come to dominate the roads".

It is the quickest electric motorcycle in the world. On a popular YouTube video, the black dragster cycle nearly disappears in a cloud of smoke as the driver does a "burn-out," spinning the back wheel to heat it up. As the smoke drifts away, the driver settles into position and hits a switch, and the bike surges forward, accelerating to 60 miles per hour in less than a second. Seven seconds later it crosses the quarter-mile mark at 168 miles per hour--quick enough to compete with gas-powered dragsters.

What powers the "Killacycle" is a novel lithium-ion battery developed by A123 Systems, a startup in Watertown, MA--one of a handful of companies working on similar technology. The company's batteries store more than twice as much energy as nickel-metal hydride batteries, the type used in today's hybrid cars, while delivering the bursts of power necessary for high performance. A radically modified version of the lithium-ion batteries used in portable electronics, the technology could jump-start the long-sputtering electric-vehicle market, which today represents a tiny fraction of 1 percent of vehicle sales in the United States. A123's batteries in particular have attracted the interest of General Motors, which is testing them as a way to power the Volt, an electric car with a gasoline generator; the vehicle is expected to go into mass production as early as 2010.

In the past, automakers have blamed electric vehicles' poor sales on their lead-acid or nickel-metal hydride batteries, which were so heavy that they limited the vehicles' range and so bulky that they took up trunk space. While conventional lithium-ion batteries are much lighter and more compact, they're not cost effective for electric vehicles. That's partly because they use lithium cobalt oxide electrodes, which can be unstable: batteries based on them wear out after a couple of years and can burst into flame if punctured, crushed, overcharged, or overheated. Some auto­makers have tried to engineer their way around these problems, but the results have been expensive.

A123's batteries could finally make lithium-ion technology practical for the auto industry. Instead of cobalt oxide, they use an electrode material made from nanoparticles of lithium iron phosphate modified with trace metals. The resulting batteries are unlikely to catch fire, even if crushed in an accident. They are also much hardier than conventional lithium-ion batteries: A123 predicts that they will last longer than the typical lifetime of a car.

A Cooling Dip ?  

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The Age reports on some risky outdoor adventure activity in Taiwan - going to the beach - Swimmers dive in to nuclear reactor cooling water. Apparently no three-eyed fish have been found nearby (thus far) and the plant owners are keen to encourage the activity - its perfectly safe (not to mention too cheap to meter) !

As Taiwan heats up, swimmers seek relief in the sea ... many at a beach next to a nuclear power plant that spews cooling water straight into the ocean. They try not to think about it.

"I haven't evaluated the safety here. That's something scholars and experts should research more," said fire department employee Hsieh Rong-chan, 36, as he suited up for diving, adding that the water at least looked clean.

State-run Taiwan Power Co's 340-hectare No. 3 Nuclear Power Station opened in 1985 beside a stretch of sand famous among visitors to Kenting, a cluster of beach communities that draw thousands of beach-goers. Taiwan's two other nuclear power plants do not border swimming beaches.

The brown domes of two nuclear plant towers loom in clear view of sunbathers on the white sands, while snorkelers paddle in a coral-rich inlet right next to the open, cement-sided cooling water outtake channel.

"Taiwan people think that if you can't see the danger, then danger basically doesn't exist," said You Hui-chin, 37, as she dipped her toes in a tidal pool a few dozen metres from the cooling water outlet, and watched her twin 4-year-old sons barge further into the ocean.

Some swimmers at Nanwan believe that as long as they only swim next to the nuclear plant occasionally, rather than every day, they will survive. Others are surprised to find the nuclear plant and refuse to touch the water. ...

Kenting locals report no illness or mutated fish.

The power company acknowledges coral blanching from the outtake water, which is 31 to 32 degrees Celsius, higher than normal ocean temperatures. They will spend a one-off $70,000 to protect the surrounding coral reefs.

Natural Gas - the future of fuel ?  

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The ABC's "7:30 Report" last night had a look at the large amount of optimism that many people have regarding Australia's natural gas reserves - "As world oil prices skyrocket, experts warn Australia must find an alternative source of fuel. Some argue a cheaper, greener solution is right under the nation's nose: natural gas."

Both the APPEA and new Energy Minister Martin Ferguson have been arguing this for some time - though its far from clear how long we can continue to expand LNG exports, expand gas fired power generation (as part of the APPEA's "transition to lower carbon emissions" strategy), contemplate building GTL plants and use CNG for most or all of our transport as suggested in this report (not to mention supplying the usual industrial and domestic uses of gas) especially when one major potential source of supply (from PNG via the now abandoned pipeline project) has been removed from the equation.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The recent prediction by the head of Caltex Australia that the price of oil may very well double the already record highs for crude, have only heightened concerns about the security of Australia's future fuel supplies. The Federal Government, for instance, has launched a national energy security assessment.

As oil production in Australian fields declines, the Government has also sought and won approval under the United Nations Convention on the law of the sea, to expand its search for oil offshore by an area equivalent to five times the size of France.

But Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson agrees that unless there is soon a "eureka oil strike", Australia must find a new fuel alternative with sufficient reserves to power a vast and vital national car and transport fleet. But there are those who say there's an obvious solution to the fuel crisis right under our collective nose, a solution that could cut fuel bills by up to 60 per cent. ...

NOEL CHILD, TRANSPORT CONSULTANT: At the moment we're a bit like a bus heading towards the edge of the cliff. Crude oil is going to become short in supply and it's going to become progressively expensive.


JOHN MIKOLAJUNAS, OES NATURAL GAS: The Government and governments all around the world are scrambling to find alternatives to petroleum products.

GREG HOY: They're selling off Australian gas by the ship load. Sixteen million tonnes this year, gas ships loaded with liquid natural gas, gas chilled to liquid minus 161 degrees Celsius to reduce its volume to one 600th of its original 84 billion litres in bulk. 2,200 gas ships have already left our shores in long-term, wholesale supply contracts with China, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain and the United States, nations scrambling to secure their energy supplies for decades to come.

BELINDA ROBINSON, AUSTRALIAN PATROLEUM PRODUCTION & EXPLORATION ASSOCIATION: It provides an energy source for a world screaming out for energy. There's no doubt there's a tightness in the supply of energy, particularly to meet the tigers of India and China. But secondly there's also an enormous appetite for cleaner energy, so natural gas has around half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal fired electricity.

GREG HOY: But with global demand for natural gas expected to double in the next five years, some are left wondering if Australia is missing its own boat.

OLLIE CLARK, NATURAL GAS VEHICLE ASSOCIATION: The thing that strikes me as being rather quaint, to put it mildly, is that we pay anywhere from about $8 billion to $25 billion to import the oil and we get a paltry $4 billion for the gas that we sell to overseas countries. It seems odd to me, especially given gas is a superior fuel for many, many purposes including the use in motor vehicles.

JOHN MIKOLAJUNAS: There's massive reserves of natural gas that are not being used and that's why we're selling them off to China at such low prices. We should be making use of this fuel ourselves locally because if we don't, we're going to be paying for petroleum products. Natural gas can represent a saving of up to about 60 per cent on what you're paying for petrol and that includes diesel and LPG as well. ...

NOEL CHILD: Governments need to look at the issue of where our future transport energy is coming from and take the step, which is a little unpopular in terms of modern economics particularly, of setting some targets and perhaps some mandates otherwise the default position I think is just to continue on the same pathway until the bus does hit the wall.

GREG HOY: The Australian Government is about to embark on an energy security assessment.

MARTIN FERGUSON: With only about a decade of known oil resources remaining at today's production rates, Australia's looking down the barrel of a $25 billion trade deficit in petroleum products by 2015.

GREG HOY: There are other strong reasons, supporters say, Australia should go for gas, not just for generating power with greenhouse efficiency, but to fuel the vast motor vehicle fleet of a sprawling nation, using compressed natural gas, half the price and less polluting than LPG, liquid petroleum gas, a by product of the oil industry.

OLLIE CLARK: Globally there are about 800 million vehicles on the roads of the world and there's about 8 million natural gas vehicles that you pull up at a garage as if you were refuelling with petrol or diesel or LPG and you plug into your car into the natural gas supply and it's full in a couple of minutes just like it is with the other fuels.

GREG HOY: Australia has abundant reserves of gas, enough to last around a century and a half but there is one far greater attraction for motorists who have grown tired of being battered by rising fuel prices.

JOHN MIKOLAJUNAS: You'd be looking at around 40 cents per litre covering all costs including compression of the gas.

Of course, even if you can produce CNG for 40 cents per litre, in the absence of any government regulation you'll still end up paying a price that is driven by global oil and gas prices.

Also at the ABC, an opinion column that has a cynical view of the 2020 summit and its recommendations regarding energy - Solar? Wind? Forget it, we're goin' to gas!.
If what the Government believes to be appropriate policies can be blessed with the appearance of popular legitimacy then the risk of not being re-elected is minimised. A disturbing account by Anna Rose, one well-motivated young participant who was plonked into the sustainability and climate change sector, certainly supports that impression.

But even though Australia is the world's largest coal exporter, I'm not sure that the clean coal lobby is the Government's favourite child. Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson was interviewed by Kerry O'Brien about renewable energy two weeks ago. After several repetitions of an exasperatingly formularised answer about carbon trading schemes, he let slip, "I might also say, you shouldn't forget a relatively clean source of energy, that is gas." A pointer towards the real agenda?

I went "sniffing for gas" and turned up Mr Ferguson telling a recent Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference that the Government wants to encourage more domestic gas projects like the Reindeer development off the WA coast, that the Government is pushing ahead with its review of gas retention leases to encourage companies to exploit their existing reserves, that Australia is facing a $25 billion trade deficit in petroleum products within seven years and that the Government has announced 35 new areas for petroleum exploration in Commonwealth waters this year, most of them in Australia's north west. We are already the world's fifth largest gas exporter, but the thrust of that seems to be "Find more, pump it out and get it sold, ASAP!" So what if it kills the planet, and us along with it?

Mr Ferguson's focus on the trade deficit in petroleum products (his seven-year estimate may have to be revised now that oil hits a "record high" nearly every day) seems a little odd when we have countervailing trade surpluses in coal and gas, and when the trade deficit in petroleum products is a drop in the bucket compared to what has happened to our net foreign debt.

But not if you're pumping for gas. ...

The Domino Effect  

Posted by Big Gav

Nate Hagens has an interesting example of the impact fuel shortages can have on the transition to a renewable energy based economy, with a lack of diesel resulting from the shutdown of the Grangemouth refiniery in Scotland halting construction of a wind farm - A Real Time Example of Energy Quality- How Wind Turbines are Subsidized by Fossil Fuels.

Global oil depletion is not immune to the Law of Receding Horizons, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns, nor it seems to the Law of Unintended Consequences. The Grangemouth refinery shutdown has apparently caused work on a new wind farm in Scotland to shut down for lack of diesel fuel. This is a real time example of how lack of systems analysis of our energy problem will lead to unanticipated problems.

Tomorrow we will highlight another in a series of analysis on Energy Return on (Energy) Investment. Though measuring an energy projects profit and cost in terms of energy is very important, all energy sources are not the same, and the word 'alternative' does not connote 'equality'. In effect, quality matters. Despite some attractive substitutes to oil and gas from an energy return perspective, ALL fuel sources are now heavily subsidized by an infrastructure built and maintained by cheap and constantly available liquid fuels.

In the comment section of theoildrums coverage of the Grangemouth refinery shutdown, we find that a diesel shortage has caused construction to stop on a $300 million wind farm.
MORE than 100 construction workers could face the dole after the fuel crisis brought their project to a halt.

The drivers for Glasgowbased AB2000 were grounded at the new wind farm at Fenwick Moor, Ayrshire, on Thursday after contractors Morrison Construction were unable to find more diesel.

The job was restarted on Friday but bosses fear the limited fuel supply will soon run out and lead to job cuts.

Ted Reilly, of AB2000, said: "We have 70-odd vehicles stuck there because we are hiring men and vehicles to a contractor which can't supply diesel. That situation can't go on any longer.

This highlights an ongoing theme discussed on this website about wide boundaries and energy quality. We need energy to perform work. How we define 'work' is dependent upon how our society is structured. A handful of decades ago, crude oil, despite being extremely powerful and right under their feet, would not have meant much to Saud tribespeople in the Arabian desert, who valued fast, healthy horses as the 'energy quality' that powered their society. Similarly, today we are utterly dependent on crude oil and its refined end products of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil.

There are large amounts of solar energy hitting the planet. The potential scale of alternative energy is massive (at least when measured in its unharnessed state). It IS possible to replace a fossil fuel infrastructure with wind, solar, hydro, etc. but we will need a 20 year headstart and a change in the demand system. Just like most people were unaware of how much systemic risk existed in the financial markets until recently, there is similar unquantified systemic risk in the energy markets. We need diesel fuel, cheaply and consistently available to move parts and components around for wind tubines and solar panel production. We need large amounts of natural gas and electricity to produce crude oil. We need well maintained asphalt roads and clean drinking water and municipal infrastrucuture to keep employees moving to their jobs at alternative energy manufacture. We need hospitals and healthy insurance companies for employees to feel secure and safe in their jobs, etc. There are many many interconnected threads within modern society that all link back to cheap oil and gas.

Back To The Future  

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The Times has an interesting article noting one response airlines can make to rising oil prices - use propeller driven planes - Oil price surge propels planes back to basics

With oil prices hovering at close to $110 a barrel, many are betting that new technologies — biofuels, hydrogen cells and solar power among them — will solve the world's energy crisis. A large part of the airline industry, however, is looking back to basics: planes with propellers.

In the market for passenger planes with fewer than 70 seats, turboprop aircraft, once condemned for the relatively noisy and bumpy ride passengers endure, are now outselling the equivalent regional jets by two-to-one, according to industry estimates.

"Propeller-driven craft enjoy massive fuel benefits on shorter journeys," Kapil Kaul, the chief executive of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, said.

For a journey of less than about 600 nautical miles, or about 90 minutes' flying time, a turboprob may use as much as 70 per cent less fuel than a similar-sized jet, he added.

Higher oil prices have driven aviation fuel prices up more than 60 per cent in the past year and mean that fuel costs now account for about a third of airline's running costs, compared to as little as 15 per cent before. The impact that the cost of crude is having on airline profits has helped to lift turboprop sales to about 400 last year, compared with about 250 jets in the same size bracket.

The Wright Stuff ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Barack Obama probably wishes his pastor would go on a long holiday given the media storm he is creating - though his pointing out that 9/11 is blowback for US policy in the middle east seems unarguable - and its no different to what Ron Paul was saying back during the Republican primaries.

Barack Obama's quest to become the first US African American president has suffered another blow from his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who on Monday launched an all-out defence of his controversial views from the pulpit - and in the process repeated many of them.

These included: that the US Government was responsible for the AIDS epidemic among African Americans; that Zionism was racism; that Louis Farrakan, head of the National of Islam, was an inspiration to many in the black community; and that "You cannot do terrorism on other people and not expect it to come back on you."

The last comment was made in response to a question about his earlier "America's chickens have come home to roost" comment, made the Sunday after September 11.

The Uncharted Depths  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Bloomberg has an interesting report on some of the technical challenges facing Petrobras as it tries to develop new fields offshore Brazil.

Brazil's plan to become one of the world's biggest oil exporters hinges on exploiting crude 6 miles below the ocean surface in deposits so hot they can melt the metal used to carry uranium to nuclear plants.

Tapping what may be the biggest oil finds in the Western Hemisphere in three decades will require equipment that can withstand 18,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, enough to crush a pickup truck, pipes that can carry oil at temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 Celsius) and drill bits that can penetrate layers of salt more than one mile thick.

Petroleo Brasileiro SA, the state-controlled oil company, is betting on the Tupi and Carioca fields to become one of the world's seven biggest crude exporters. Until the tools needed to exploit the reservoirs are invented, the crude will remain locked under the sea, said Matt Cline, a U.S. Energy Department economist.

``This is a very, very technically challenging environment where no one's ever done this,'' Cline, who tracks the Latin American oil industry, said in a telephone interview from Washington. ``These discoveries are in very deep water, and once you get to the seabed they are very deep under the floor, with a layer of salt that is definitely a difficult barrier.''

Brazil's oil will be harder to develop than the Gulf of Mexico, where the deepest wells are now in production, Cline said. Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., the two biggest U.S. oil companies, saw diamond-crusted drill bits disintegrate and steel pipes crumple when they attempted to tap deposits beneath the Gulf's seafloor two years ago.

Pumping oil from the Brazilian finds, parts of which are 32,000 feet (10,000 meters) below the ocean's surface, will require boring almost twice as far down as the world's deepest producing offshore well. ...

The ocean-depth record for production was set last year by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. The company is extracting natural gas from beneath 8,960 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, where pressure measures 3,069 pounds per square inch, squeezing joints and tearing at seals.

``What we do at that water depth in the ocean is similar to NASA's space program, but they get to do it without any pressure trying to attack them,'' Kevin Renfro, production engineering manager at Woodlands, Texas-based Anadarko, said in a November interview.

Petrobras hasn't said how much it spent to sink wells at Tupi and Carioca. Similar drilling by Exxon and Chevron Corp. in the Gulf of Mexico cost $180 million to $200 million for each well.

``A big find might not be a good find if it costs so much to develop that it's not commercially viable,'' S&P's Vital said. ``We don't have any idea at all yet of all the costs that are going to be involved. Those costs are going to set the floor for oil prices.''

The Solar Continent  

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The Liberal Party has markedly changed its tune on solar power since it got kicked out of office, with shadow environment minister Greg Hunt calling for a national feed in tariff for solar power and declaring he "has a vision of Australia becoming a solar continent" at the Climate Action Network Australia Conference in Sydney.

Hunt went on to say ""giant dishes, large fields of mirrors, these are one of the forms of power stations of the future" and "an important part of Australia's future energy" - all of which indicates he is on board with the vision of large scale solar thermal power.

From the Sydney Morning Herald report:

The federal opposition has called for a national solar payment to encourage more home owners to generate solar power. The Queensland and South Australian governments have approved such tariffs, which pay households above the retail rate for electricity generated by solar panels.

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt on Monday said a draft plan should be prepared for a national tariff which has a guaranteed rate of pay for solar electricity feedback into the grid. "We should be aiming for more than a piecemeal approach," Mr Hunt says in notes for a speech given in Sydney on Monday. "A national solar feed-in tariff could provide an immediate boost to domestic solar power uptake." Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and state premiers agreed last month to consider options for a harmonised approach to renewable energy feed-in tariffs.

Mr Hunt also told the Climate Action Network Australia conference that the nation needs to develop large-scale projects to create baseload solar power. "Much needs to be done on this front in relation to cost, reliability and storage of energy. I am, however, convinced that solar baseload can be developed to contribute to average daily base energy needs and over time energy storage technology can be developed to allow full baseload operation derived from solar energy.

The Australian also has a report:
AUSTRALIA must invest far more heavily in solar power, including it as a mainstream energy source in the national grid, Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt has said.

In a speech to be delivered to a climate change conference today, Mr Hunt will spell out the Coalition's vision for a "solar continent", in which the energy source could be stored and sold on the market like coal-generated, baseload power. "In short, we want to set Australia on a path to being a country where everyone willing to invest is within reach of running a solar home," Mr Hunt will tell the two-day Climate Action Network Australia Conference in Sydney.

This would include a national feed-in tariff - a guaranteed rate of pay for solar electricity fed back into the grid by small solar generators, including private households. To date, South Australia and Queensland have approved solar feed-in tariffs that guarantee 44c per KWH of solar energy, but the Coalition wants a truly national scheme.

Mr Hunt said the Coalition's solar strategy had two broad components - increased use of solar photovoltaic power to boost short-term peaking capacity and solar baseload power generated by solar concentrators.

He argues solar energy using photovoltaic panels offers the best and most efficient means of providing zero-emissions energy during periods of peak power use. "In this context, we want to set a clear policy direction of substantially increasing the take-up of Solar PV throughout Australia," he says. And more should be done to encourage the use of solar hot water heaters in both homes and schools. Currently solar heaters are used by only one in 20 Australian homes.

Realising the solar vision would mean the development of baseload power providing storage and conversion capabilities, Mr Hunt told The Australian. "I think that the technology has moved in the last two years. The big move is that globally you are beginning to see storage. There's now no doubt in my mind that it will be a technically viable baseload energy form over time."

The 154 MW solar concentrator being constructed at Mildura, Victoria, will be the largest solar station in the world and the first major local plant generating baseload power.

I think the belief that the Mildura plant will be the world's largest solar power plant is well out of date, but its still a significant first step.

Robert Merkel at Larvatus Prodeo is rather critical about the scheme, focusing on the economics of small scale solar PV and ignoring the solar thermal aspect, which is where the real prize lies in the medium term.

While its clear that solar PV isn't cost competitive with coal, gas, wind or solar thermal power, it doe shave some advantages that he overlooks - it generates power during peak load times (thus reducing the need for peaking plants) and delivers power where it is needed (thus reducing the need for additional grid capacity). It also delivers some intangible "energy security" to the "operator" in the event of any disasters befalling the grid or power generating units.
It may just be that Greg Hunt knows he’s never actually going to have to justify his policy ideas to Treasury or the Productivity Commission. But, at the moment, you’d swear he was the Greens environment spokesperson, not the Liberal Party’s. He’s proposing a whole raft of measures to promote the development of solar energy in Australia.

Of most direct short-term interest is the proposal for a national “feed-in tariff” scheme. To explain this, first some background. If you’ve got access to grid electricity, solar panels are currently financial lunacy. The solar system I’m currently being quoted on (thanks to commenter wilful for the tip) costs about $12,000, and generates about $225 worth of electricity every year. By contrast, if I left that $12,000 in the bank, I’d get at least double that after tax. If I put the money into a share fund, over the course of a decade I’d probably do much better again. I’d be able to pay for GreenPower from my electricity supplier, and have a considerable pile of money left over.

So why am I looking at solar cells? Because of the massive government rort known as the Photovoltaic Rebate Programme. Essentially, the government will pay $8000 towards the cost of my 1 kilowatt installation. I only have to pay somewhere around $4000, and it works out pretty close to cost effective.

This is, as previously stated, extremely silly policy. The same government money subsidising wind turbines, or, better still, energy efficiency in government buildings, would achieve far greater emission savings. Even if you want to specifically subsidize solar cell technology - and I fail to see why you would, given that there’s every likelihood that other forms of renewable energy will be far cheaper - it’s still dumb policy. Why? Because the rebate is limited to 1 kilowatt systems. It would make far more sense to build bigger solar arrays on factory roofs, because the cost of building one 100-kilowatt photovoltaic array is much smaller than the cost of 100 1-kilowatt arrays. But the subsidies don’t work that way.

The Post-Peak Air Force ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Taken on a weekend trip to Canberra to get one of my rare doses of culture that doesn't come out of a yoghurt tub.

Hope Floats  

Posted by Big Gav in

Renewable Energy World has a look at some developments in the world of floating offshore wind power - one of the final frontiers for renewable energy - "Floating offshore wind opens up the deep".

The development of floating offshore wind turbines presents a number of advantages over more conventional foundations, not least of which is the opportunity to exploit wind resources far offshore in deep water.

Until recently a typical state-of-the-art solution for securing offshore wind turbines was to place them on special foundations, which are either lowered onto a permanent position on the sea floor or rammed into the seabed. However, in addition to improving existing offshore foundation solutions and introducing new permanent foundation concepts, several innovative solutions are under development that are based on floating wind turbine foundation systems.

Advocates of floating wind turbine concepts point to a series of disadvantages with conventional offshore wind installations that feature a permanent seabed foundation, which do not affect their more mobile counterparts. These include demanding commissioning, service and repair, and retrofit operations that all have to be carried out offshore. These can be vulnerable to bad weather in conditions characterized by poor installation accessibility. Working offshore also implies high costs for installation upkeep, not least due to demanding sea travel and open sea transfers.

Another key issue is the substantial risk of extended installation downtime during high winds. Under these conditions dynamic turbine loads are at maximum, yields most favourable, and simultaneously the implications of a breakdown most severe due to difficult turbine access. ...

A joint co-operation agreement between power engineering giant Siemens Wind Power and energy company Hydro of Norway aims to develop a floating wind turbine. Based on Hydro’s Hywind concept the partners envisage a floating demonstration turbine offshore in 2009 near Karmøy, an island off the south-west coast of Norway for which Hydro has a licence. Siemens is to deliver the wind turbine for the proposed demonstration unit. while Hydro will apply its offshore platform expertise.

Hydro expects to apply the technology in future on sites located 90–180 km offshore and in water depths of up to 700 metres. Hydro’s design concept is similar to its technology used in oil rigs, which comprises a long, submerged floating concrete cylinder that is ballasted. However, this prominent feature makes the design unsuitable for shallower waters.

Marine engineering consultancy firm Sea of Solutions BV is based in the Netherlands and was founded in 2001. Key activities are the development of dedicated projects and products for operators, contractors and ship owners in the fields of marine exploration, construction and maritime transport. One of its latest products is a new offshore wind turbine foundation concept named the Floating to Fixed Wind Energy Concept (F2F). During the design stage, Sea of Solutions limited itself to a common North Sea water depth of about 25 metres for the initial market focus, but the design, best described as a ‘hybrid type foundation’ can be extended to deeper waters. ...


Norwegian engineering consultancy company Force Technology has over three decades experience in the design and maintenance of offshore structures and has gained extensive additional know-how in related fields like wind and sea wave topics and marine corrosion protection. Now, the company has developed a new patent-pending offshore wind technology. Known as the WindSea, this unmanned floating structure is self-orientating towards the wind and, the company says, has been designed with a dual focus on excellent dynamic response to wave and wind, along with safety and reliability.

The initial structure is calculated to accommodate three wind turbines of 3.2 MW each, but the WindSea concept is scaleable to 5 MW and substantially bigger in future, says company spokesperson Hans Jørgen Mikkelsen. ‘The WindSea lattice-type welded steel foundation structure features a 23 metre draught and towers founded on a structure 17 metres above sea level. One very important design criterion with regards to minimizing the materials fatigue of structural components due to cyclic loading, was stability. The WindSea deflection under normal operational conditions could be limited to one degree only. But even under a 100-year storm extreme load situation, the maximum deflection is less than 4.5o, and this is a condition when the turbines will be shut off anyway,’ says Mikkelsen. ...

Blue H Technology

Netherlands-based industry newcomer Blue H Technology has developed a floating turbine system that, from a conceptual point of view, is rather different from existing solutions. In early February the company’s Chief Executive Neal Bastick said: ‘Blue H is now in the process of installing the world’s first deep-water floating prototype wind turbine. The test location is at 19.6 km off the southern Italian cost at a so-called Tricase site near Puglia, where the water depth is 108 metres.’

The prototype was built in Italy at a shipyard in the city of Brindisi. It is equipped with an 80 kW two-blade variable-speed WES18 mk1 wind turbine, supplied by Wind Energy Solutions (WES) of the Netherlands. Founded in 2003, WES specializes in small to medium-sized variable speed turbines rated from 2.5–250 kW, wind technology it acquired from the bankrupt former Lagerwey.

14 Wedges Please - And Make It Snappy !  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

After Gutenberg points to a Joseph Romm article on a number of wedges that we need to put in place in order to (eventually) halt global warming.

In his post, Romm describes what the entire planet must achieve (which, of course, as we all know, means it won’t get done because everybody will think somebody else was taking care of it):

* 1 wedge of vehicle efficiency — all cars 60 mpg, with no increase in miles traveled per vehicle.
* 1 of wind for power — one million large (2 MW peak) wind turbines
* 1 of wind for vehicles – another 2000 GW wind. Most cars must be plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles.
* 3 of concentrated solar thermal – ~5000 GW peak.
* 3 of efficiency — one each for buildings, industry, and cogeneration/heat-recovery for a total of 15 to 20 million GW-hrs.
* 1 of coal with carbon capture and storage — 800 GW of coal with CCS
* 1 of nuclear power — 700 GW plus 10 Yucca mountains for storage
* 1 of solar photo voltaics — 2000 GW peak [or less PV and some geothermal, tidal, and ocean thermal]
* 1 of cellulosic biofuels — using one-sixth of the world’s cropland [or less land if yields significantly increase or algae-to-biofuels proves commercial at large scale].
* 2 of forestry — End all tropical deforestation. Plant new trees over an area the size of the continental U.S.
* 1 of soils — Apply no-till farming to all existing croplands.

“That should do the trick,” (you can imagine him standing back, brushing off his hands) … “I have thrown in a couple extra wedges since I have no doubt that everybody will find something objectionable in at least 2 of these wedges.” Go read the post, if you want to read how Romm critiques his own suggestions, although I should warn you, he is getting to sound like Donald Rumsfeld.

In addition, the post generated considerable commentary on Climate Progress, to include contributions from such luminaries as Bill McKibben and Ken Levenson. Unfortunately, the commentary degenerated into a discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power. From my perspective, the emphasis on nuclear power exemplified a principle weakness in the post. In offerring solutions, Romm seemed to ignore “solving one problem at the expense of exacerbating another.”

There is some weasel language toward the end of the post. He states that the wedges are conceptually useful rather than analytically rigorous. Obviously we need to be do something, and further delay, even for further analysis is still delay. Inaction is fraught with the greatest risk.

Transparent Security  

Posted by Big Gav

Off topic, but this quote from a Forrester report on Web 2.0 adoption in large organisations made me laugh today.

"Security officers at one of the European airports were using their personal mobile phones to photograph individuals they wanted to track. They uploaded the photos to Flickr to share them with security officers at other airports. This was totally outside IT's perimeter." (Professional services company)

Urban Mining  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Reuters has a report on a surge of interest in recycling old consumer products in Japan, as obtaining rare metals becomes more difficult and expensive - think of it as a market driven push towards "cradle to cradle" manufacturing, without the efficiency of "design for disassembly" - hopefully we'll get there eventually: "Urban miners look for precious metals in cell phones".

Thinking of throwing out your old cell phone? Think again. Maybe you should mine it first for gold, silver, copper and a host of other metals embedded in the electronics -- many of which are enjoying near-record prices.

It's called "urban mining", scavenging through the scrap metal in old electronic products in search of such gems as iridium and gold, and it is a growth industry around the world as metal prices skyrocket.

The materials recovered are reused in new electronics parts and the gold and other precious metals are melted down and sold as ingots to jewellers and investors as well as back to manufacturers who use gold in the circuit boards of mobile phones because gold conducts electricity even better than copper.

"It can be precious or minor metals, we want to recycle whatever we can," said Tadahiko Sekigawa, president of Eco-System Recycling Co which is owned by Dowa Holdings Co Ltd.

A tonne of ore from a gold mine produces just 5 grams (0.18 ounce) of gold on average, whereas a tonne of discarded mobile phones can yield 150 grams (5.3 ounce) or more, according to a study by Yokohama Metal Co Ltd, another recycling firm.

The same volume of discarded mobile phones also contains around 100 kg (220 lb) of copper and 3 kg (6.6 lb) of silver, among other metals.

Feeling Shut In ?  

Posted by Big Gav in

The LA Times has an interesting article on the impact high oil prices are having on small towns in the US - "Gas prices box in an Alabama community".

Norman Finklea filled his jug just past a gallon, letting the analog meter come to rest at $3.88. Then he walked into Roy's with his four crumpled bills and a litany of anxieties, which were rising with the price of gas.

He didn't need to tell them to Saulsberry. As the proprietor of this little country store in one of the poorest counties in Alabama, Saulsberry has already heard them all. It doesn't matter what kind of cars pull up to pumps these days -- stretchy old hooptie sedans, scuffed econo-boxes, king-cab pickups -- anxiety is their common cargo. With the high price of gas, Saulsberry said, "people just can't go as much."

Finklea, a freelance construction worker, had paid a friend $5 to pick him up at his house a few miles down the road and drive him here. His own car was back at home with its pin on empty, he said. He needed it to drive to work in the morning. Finklea said high gas prices were the reason he paid only half his light bill last month, the reason he and his wife were trying to get by with less food, the reason he is turning down jobs that are more than 30 miles away.

Those jobs, he said, are not worth driving to anymore.

CIBC's Jeff Rubin is predicting $200 a barrel oil by 2012 (like Caltex Australia's Des King).
Crude oil prices will soar to more than $200 (U.S.) per barrel over the next five years – driving Canadian pump prices to $2.25 a litre and forcing a fundamental transformation in the North American economy, says Jeff Rubin, chief economist with CIBC World Markets Inc. In a new report, Mr. Rubin forecast a continued run-up in crude prices, despite a slowing world economy and slumping petroleum demand in United States, the world's leading oil consumer.

He said he expects crude prices – now trading at above $116 (U.S.) a barrel - to average $150 by 2010, and more than $200 by 2012. That would translate into pump prices of $7 (U.S.) per gallon in the United States, and $2.25 per litre in Canada, double the current levels.

“Whether we are already at the peak of world oil production remains to be seen, but it increasingly clear that the outlook for oil supply signals a period of unprecedented scarcity,” the economist said.

The Guardian has a report on the strike at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland, which has resulted in the shutdown of around 700,000 bpd of oil production from the North Sea.
Drivers were today urged not to panic buy fuel after talks to avert a strike at one of Scotland’s largest oil refineries failed. A two-day walkout by up to 1,200 workers at the Grangemouth refinery is set to begin on Sunday after negotiations between the Unite union and refinery management broke down yesterday.

Ineos, the company that runs the plant, warned of “chaos and disruption” if the strike went ahead. Petrol prices have already risen amid anticipation of fuel shortages. However, the Scottish government today said it had contingency plans in place to ensure supplies were maintained throughout the dispute.

John Swinney, the finance minister, said there were enough supplies of petrol and diesel to last well into May if buying levels remained normal. “The government has been working very clearly over the last few days to ensure we are prepared for this,” he told BBC Radio Scotland.

Unite officials have spent the last two days in talks with Ineos management in an attempt to resolve the dispute, which was sparked by changes to the company’s pension scheme. “Unite’s negotiators were disappointed with the company’s refusal to withdraw controversial pensions plans, and the two-day strike will therefore go ahead,” a union spokesman said. Ineos accused Unite of being “hell bent” on going through with the strike, saying managers had put forward “significant” new proposals during the talks.

Motoring organisations have urged drivers to remain calm. “I think motorists in Scotland are going to be wondering what on earth is going to happen, but there still is no reason for people to panic,” Paul Watters, the head of public affairs at the AA, said. “We have to put our trust in the petroleum industry to keep Scotland’s pumps filled. What motorists don’t need to do is to keep their tanks full. They should keep filling the normal amount.”

Sky News reports the refinery has now closed, and asks "Can Scotland Cope ?.

TOD Europe has some running commentary and reports on the Grangemouth story.

Bloomberg reports that oil consumption in emerging markets now exceeds that of the US (though there is still a very long way to go in terms of per capita usage - which is the important factor to keep in mind as per capita incomes equalise).
Traffic jams in Beijing and humming air conditioners in Dubai are replacing U.S. highways and suburbs as the driver of global oil prices.

China, India, Russia and the Middle East for the first time will consume more crude oil than the U.S., burning 20.67 million barrels a day this year, an increase of 4.4 percent, according to the International Energy Agency in Paris. U.S. demand will contract 2 percent to 20.38 million barrels daily, the IEA says.

Economic growth of more than 8 percent in China and India, coupled with increasing car ownership among the countries' combined populations of 2.45 billion people, will more than compensate for falling U.S. demand. Oil use worldwide will increase 2 percent this year because of growth in emerging markets, the Paris-based IEA says.

``Does the U.S. matter anymore?'' said Mike Wittner, head of oil research at Societe Generale SA in London. ``Has the U.S. mattered for the last few years? It is debatable. As far as the oil market is concerned, demand growth is going to be continued to be driven by China and the Middle East.''

The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog has a look at Saudi oil production - "Peak Oil? Saudis Squeeze the Stone Even Harder".
As oil reserves get harder and more expensive to suck out of the ground, one big question looms: Is Saudi Arabia facing “practical peak oil” or the real thing?

Saudi Arabian officials made waves last week with an announcement that the kingdom would voluntarily limit future oil production, in order to leave oil wealth “for future generations.” Last weekend, Saudi officials said that the world’s biggest oil producer won’t be diving into new exploration projects after next year, citing sluggish Western demand and the search for alternative fuels to petroleum.

So are the Saudis smartly shepherding their oil resources? Or are they obliquely acknowledging that getting them out of the ground will be increasingly difficult and expensive?

Neil King in the WSJ reports today (sub reqd.) on the challenges facing Saudi Aramco as it launches its last big project before taking an upstream hiatus: The tricky development of the big Khurais field, which could pump more than 1 million barrels of oil per day. The paper says:
Even in Saudi Arabia, home to more than a quarter of the world’s known recoverable reserves, the age of cheap and easily pumped oil is over. To tap Khurais, Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Aramco, has embarked on the most complex earth- and water-moving project in its history. It is spending up to $15 billion on a vast network of pipes, oil-treatment facilities, deep horizontal wells and water-injection systems that it calls “one of the largest industrial projects being executed in the world today.”

With crude oil approaching $120 despite sluggish demand growth in the U.S., the idea of “peak oil”—that the world’s oil glass is already half-empty—is increasingly gaining currency. Other once-formidable oil producers like Russia, the U.K., and Mexico are all seeing production decline as fields age. While Aramco has been very good at squeezing the maximum amount of oil out of each reservoir, even the world’s biggest oil producer is finding that it’s no longer shooting fish in a barrel.

Business Week has a column from "automotive expert" Ed Wallace, claiming "There Is No Gas Shortage" - "but Washington, Wall Street, and ethanol and oil and gas companies want you to think there is" (the dateline for this was April 1, so perhaps it wasn't serious).
Gasoline reserves on hand are at the highest levels since the early 1990s, which is remarkable considering the nation's refineries have been cutting back on the production of gasoline because their margins have declined. In fact, average gasoline reserves on hand have risen since this past October, while oil reserves in this country have gone up virtually every week this year—and only fog in the Houston Ship Channel that kept oil tankers from unloading their crude one week kept it from being every week.

In the same Bloomberg article that quotes from Bodman's CNBC appearance on Mar. 4, he also said that it was thanks to ethanol that the gasoline problem isn't even worse. He then added that the fact that making ethanol is forcing up prices of other farm commodities, including hog and chicken feed, is "nowhere near as important as trying to relieve pressure on [gasoline] supplies."

Of course, there is no pressure on gasoline supplies in this country as of today, but Bodman's statement must have made eyes roll among the executives at Pilgrim's Pride PPC; the Pittsburg, (Tex.) poultry producer announced 1,100 layoffs on Mar. 13, closing one processing plant and 6 of their 13 distribution centers because their company's outlay for chicken feed went up $600 million last fiscal year and was on track to increase by another $700 million this year.

Here's the scorecard, in case you missed it. There's no shortage of gasoline or oil in the U.S. today, and we have near-record reserves on hand. Meanwhile the Congressional mandate for ethanol has jacked up the price of chicken feed for Pilgrim's Pride, which is the U.S.'s largest processor of chickens and turkeys—by $1.3 billion. And that's for just one company processing chicken. This is what passes for acceptable to our Energy Secretary?

Just so we can all get on the same page, here are the verifiable facts on oil supplies, production, and gasoline demand.

In January of this year, the U.S. used 4% less petroleum than we did a year ago. (Oil demand was down 3.2% in February.) Furthermore, demand has been falling slowly since July of last year. Ronald Bailey of Reason Online has pointed out that worldwide production of oil has risen 2.5% in the first quarter, while worldwide demand has grown by only 2%.

Production is expected to increase by 3.3% in the second quarter, and by as much as 4.1% by the third quarter. The net result is that the U.S. daily buffer for oil production against demand, which was a paltry 1.5 million barrels as recently as 2005, is now up to 3 million barrels in excess capacity today. ...

As for the speculators, in 2000 approximately $9 billion was invested in oil futures, while today that number has gone up to $250 billion. Now, if any publicly traded company had an additional $241 billion put into its stock in the same period, its stock would rise out of sight too—even if the company was not worth anywhere near that amount of market capitalization.

Moving on to the weak U.S. dollar as a primary cause for skyrocketing oil prices—there is "some" truth in that statement. But consider this: The dollar has depreciated 30% against the world's currencies since 2002, while the price of oil has gone up 500%. So is it the weak dollar that has caused a 500% increase in the price of oil, or is it the extra $241 billion worth of speculation? You can make the call on that one.

Possibly just to ensure oil prices don't respond to real-world market conditions, Goldman Sachs (GS) forecast on Mar. 7 that turbulence in the oil market could cause oil to spike as high as $200 a barrel. This flies in the face of all known information—but then again, Goldman Sachs is the world's biggest trader of energy derivatives, and its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index is a widely watched barometer of energy and commodities prices.

Jeff Vail has a few Thoughts on Demand Destruction, which should be updated at TOD this week.
Oil is currently well over $100/barrel. Demand is effectively holding steady in the US despite this recent run-up in price. There are some measures that suggest a decrease in demand, and the press has seized upon these to “prove” that high oil prices are causing people to drive less. I think this is cherry-picking of statistics: one commonly watched demand indicator, the one-week domestic gasoline demand figure as published by the Energy Information Agency in This Week in Petroleum actually shows a 91,000 barrel per day increase in gasoline demand for the week ending April 11, 2008 over the week ending April 13, 2007 (9.338 mbpd in ’08 vs. 9.247 mbpd in ’07). That’s a 0.98% increase year on year—so where’s the demand destruction??

This flies flat in the face of repeated statements recently in the press and blogosphere that gasoline demand is going down, so let’s look at it a bit more carefully. Here are the EIA’s full historical tables for gasoline demand, both week ending and 4-week average. Using the smoother 4-week average, the 2008 demand has been consistently lower than in 2007, but not by much. However, using the finer-resolution one week data, 2008 demand was higher than 2007 for the weeks ending 4/11/08, 3/28/08, but lower the weeks ending 4/4/08 and 3/21/08. For two of the last four weeks, demand for gasoline has been higher in 2008 than in 2007. This is hardly conclusive evidence of demand destruction, and completely ignores that the most recent demand figure shows a year-on-year increase.

Will we see significant demand destruction in the future? There is no clear answer to that at this time, but I think one thing is clear: it’s time to take a deeper look at the mechanics behind how demand destruction will work, if and when we see it (or, if we already are).

Does a lack of demand destruction when oil is well over $100/barrel mean that prices must go even higher to destroy demand? How much higher? Or is it enough that prices hold at this level for long enough to cause people to gradually make long-term purchases with this price in mind, and thereby destroy demand? How long? Finally, how much of current US demand destruction (to whatever degree it exists—even if only as a decrease in growth of demand) is due to current economic conditions, and how much can be attributed to price alone? ...

It's also worth pointing out that this analysis only considers US gasoline demand. Even if there is an ongoing demand destruction of 1% per year in the US, two significant factors overwhelm this: global demand growth remains strong, and net exports are falling precipitously (by 150,000 barrels per day in March alone). More on these items in future posts...

Arctic Ice Free In 2008 ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

New Scientist reports that some scientists are speculating that the North Pole could be ice free in 2008

You know when climate change is biting hard when instead of a vast expanse of snow the North Pole is a vast expanse of water. This year, for the first time, Arctic scientists are preparing for that possibility. "The set-up for this summer is disturbing," says Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). A number of factors have this year led to most of the Arctic ice being thin and vulnerable as it enters its summer melting season.

In September 2007, Arctic sea ice reached a record low, opening up the fabled North-West passage that runs from Greenland to Alaska. The ice expanded again over the winter and in March 2008 covered a greater area than it had in March 2007. Although this was billed as good news in many media sources, the trend since 1978 is on the decline.

Arctic ice at its maximum in March, but that maximum is declining by 44,000 km2 per year on average, the NSIDC has calculated. That corresponds to an area roughly twice the size of New Jersey. What is more, the extent of the ice is only half the picture. Satellite images show that most of the Arctic ice at the moment is thin, young ice that has only been around since last autumn. Thin ice is far more vulnerable than thick ice that has piled up over several years.

"There is this thin first-year ice even at the North Pole at the moment," says Serreze. "This raises the spectre – the possibility that you could become ice free at the North Pole this year."

The Vancouver Sun also has an article on the melting arctic - Arctic ice melting at alarming rate.
Barber and his colleagues got an even bigger surprise when they sailed north into M'Clure Strait, the main channel connecting the Northwest Passage to the western Arctic. The strait is legendary as a gateway for thick, rock-hard, multi-year ice that piles in from the Beaufort Sea, but Barber and his colleagues found nothing but clear sailing.

"It was surreal," he said. "The weeks spent on the ship were some of the most remarkable of my career. The multi-year pack ice had migrated about 150 miles (240 kilometres) north from where it has traditionally been located. So the ice-associated, high-pressure system that traditionally forms over the southern Beaufort at this time of year was displaced.

"All that cyclonic activity that was drawn in by the warm, open water not only made for some rough sailing, it also put more heat into the air, keeping the local climate warmer than usual."

Barber isn't alone in wondering whether this winter signals the climatic tipping point that many scientists have been anticipating. That's the moment in time when sea ice in the Arctic becomes so thin and vulnerable that the ice produced each winter can no longer keep up with the spring and summer melts.

Many scientists now believe that when this happens, the world will enter a new era of global change -- one that no one really understands, but that will likely have an enormous impact on the climate of the rest of the world.

Up until last summer, most scientists didn't expect that to occur for another 50 or 60 years. Even the most daring weren't willing to wager that it would happen in 15 years.

But this winter's unexpected developments in the Beaufort Sea suggest that all bets are off. Waters that used to lose 10,000 square kilometres a year in ice cover, according to scientists, currently lose at least eight times that amount. Now, some scientists are speculating that the Arctic could be seasonally ice-free in less than a decade.

"The ice is no longer growing or getting old," says John Falkingham, chief forecaster for the Canadian Ice Service, the Environment Canada agency that helps ships find a way through the Northwest Passage and other parts of the Arctic.

Cold as it was this winter in the Arctic and most parts of Canada, it wasn't enough to temper the heat that warmed the ocean and melted so much ice last summer. By the middle of last September, scientists recorded a decline of almost 50 per cent of the normal ice cover. By way of comparison, the area of sea ice lost was equivalent to 10 United Kingdoms.

Russian Oil Has Peaked ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Bloomberg reports that a Russian oil oligarch is saying that Russian oil production has peaked. He is also asking for a government handout to do more exploration, which immediately makes me suspicious of course.

Oil output in Russia, the world's biggest supplier after Saudi Arabia, has ``peaked'' and may decline in the coming years, said billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, an owner of BP Plc's venture TNK-BP. Russian companies need tax breaks to spur exploration and development of new fields to revive growth, Vekselberg told an American Chamber of Commerce conference in Moscow today.

Oil output is falling for the first time in a decade as Soviet-era wells dry up and the costs of developing harder-to- reach deposits surge. Russia pumped 9.76 million barrels a day in March, down from 9.83 million in December, according to CDU TEK, the Energy Ministry's central dispatch unit. ``The output level we have today is a plateau, stagnation,'' Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said in an interview April 10.

A drop in annual output would end a 58 percent surge in production since 1998, when Russia defaulted on about $40 billion of domestic debt and devalued the ruble. That year, Urals crude, Russia's benchmark blend, averaged $12.02 a barrel. The price reached a record $111.72 yesterday.

Khebab also has a look at Russian oil production at TOD.
Since 2005, the Russian oil industry has been in constant turmoil. Production growth has also slow down significantly maybe as a result. The Exxon Sakhalin-I project has now reached its peak and production is experiencing a steep decline since. On the upside, many projects are expected to come online and the IEA forecasts that oil production in Russia will increase by 90,000 bbl/d in 2008 and 300,000 bbl/d in 2009, following growth of 200,000 bbl/d in 2007.

The dramatic drop down in production growth observed by Stuart is still going on and is now close to 0 (i.e. flat production). Several trend lines can be drawn, in particular the trend for 2007 in purple would imply an immediate decline in 2008. However, several decline acceleration periods have occurred in the past (similar lines could have been drawn in 2001 and 2004) so it is unlikely that the rapid decline observed in 2007 will continue in 2008.

From the above linear trends, we can derive different oil production scenarios as shown [above] where peak production is seen between 2010 and 2015 with a peak production between 9.5 and 10 mbpd.

In terms of corresponding oil reserves, these scenarios are consistent with published reserve numbers. Using various reserve estimates gathered by Dave Cohen, I derived an empirical reserve cumulative distribution function (CDF). We can see that the dotted green line (Middle case) around 105 Gb is close to the median estimate at 116 Gb (F50).

Jonathan at Past Peak points to a Wall Street Journal article on the same topic.
This is one of those stories that probably ought to be front page news all over the world. Oil production in Russia, the world's largest oil producer, declined in Q1 for the first time in a decade. ... New oil pockets are being found in "increasingly remote climates" because that's all that's left. That's what peak oil looks like. Various other news stories, like this one in the Financial Times, cite all sorts of temporary reasons why Russian output is slumping.

So-so living through green chemistry ?  

Posted by Big Gav in

John Vidal at The Guardian has a gloomy look at the prospects and side effects of bioplastics in "'Sustainable' bio-plastic can damage the environment".

The article subtitle says "corn-based material emits climate change gas in landfill and adds to food crisis". I'm not sure that bioplastics necessarily create any additional carbon emissions (in fact some take so long to break down they are effectively a form of sequestration) as the methane produced could be used as biogas (not to mention the fact that decaying plants produce methane naturally anyway). The article also includes arguments about recycling that sound bogus to me - so new recycling processes need to be set up - so what - is every form of change to be opposed, even when it is better than the status quo ?

The food problem is one to be concerned about, but I haven't seen any figures that show how much land is required to grow feedstock for bioplastics in order to replace petrochemical based plastic production, so its hard to get a handle on the scale of the problem.

The worldwide effort by supermarkets and industry to replace conventional oil-based plastic with eco-friendly "bioplastics" made from plants is causing environmental problems and consumer confusion, according to a Guardian study.

The substitutes can increase emissions of greenhouse gases on landfill sites, some need high temperatures to decompose and others cannot be recycled in Britain.

Many of the bioplastics are also contributing to the global food crisis by taking over large areas of land previously used to grow crops for human consumption.

The market for bioplastics, which are made from maize, sugarcane, wheat and other crops, is growing by 20-30% a year.

The industry, which uses words such as "sustainable", "biodegradeable", "compostable" and "recyclable" to describe its products, says bioplastics make carbon savings of 30-80% compared with conventional oil-based plastics and can extend the shelf-life of food.

Concern centres on corn-based packaging made with polylactic acid (Pla). Made from GM crops, it looks identical to conventional polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) plastic and is produced by US company NatureWorks. The company is jointly owned by Cargill, the world's second largest biofuel producer, and Teijin, one of the world's largest plastic manufacturers.

Pla is used by some of the biggest supermarkets and food companies, including Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Del Monte. It is used by Marks & Spencer to package organic foods, salads, snacks, desserts, and fruit and vegetables.

It is also used to bottle Belu mineral water, which is endorsed by environmentalists because the brand's owners invest all profits in water projects in poor countries. Wal-Mart has said it plans to use 114m Pla containers over the course of a year.

While Pla is said to offer more disposal options, the Guardian has found that it will barely break down on landfill sites, and can only be composted in the handful of anaerobic digesters which exist in Britain, but which do not take any packaging. In addition, if Pla is sent to UK recycling works in large quantities, it can contaminate the waste stream, reportedly making other recycled plastics unsaleable.

Last year Innocent drinks stopped using Pla because commercial composting was "not yet a mainstream option" in the UK.

Anson, one of Britain's largest suppliers of plastic food packaging, switched back to conventional plastic after testing Pla

in sandwich packs. Sainsbury's has decided not to use it, saying Pla is made with GM corn. "No local authority is collecting compostable packaging at the moment. Composters do not want it," a spokesman said.

Britain's supermarkets compete to claim the greatest commitment to the environment with plant-based products. The bioplastics industry expects rising oil prices to help it compete with conventional plastics, with Europe using about 50,000 tonnes of bioplastics a year.

Concern is mounting because the new generation of biodegradable plastics ends up on landfill sites, where they degrade without oxygen, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This week the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration reported a sharp increase in global methane emissions last year.

"It is just not possible to capture all the methane from landfill sites," said Michael Warhurt, resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "A significant percentage leaks to the atmosphere."

"Just because it's biodegradable does not mean it's good. If it goes to landfill it breaks down to methane. Only a percentage is captured," said Peter Skelton of Wrap, the UK government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme. "In theory bioplastics are good. But in practice there are lots of barriers."

Recycling companies said they would have to invest in expensive new equipment to extract bioplastic from waste for recycling. "If we could identify them the only option would be to landfill them," said one recycler who asked to remain anonymous. "They are not wanted by UK recycling companies or local authorities who refuse to handle them. Councils are saying they do not want plastics near food collection. If these biodegradable [products] get into the recycling stream they contaminate it.

"It will get worse because the government is encouraging more recycling. There will be much more bioplastic around."

Problems arise because some bioplastics are "home" compostable and recyclable. "It's so confusing that a Pla bottle looks exactly the same as a standard Pet bottle," Skelton said. "The consumer is not a polymer expert. Not nearly enough consideration has gone into what they are meant to do with them. Everything is just put in the recycling bin."

Yesterday NatureWorks accepted that its products would not fully break down on landfill sites. "The recycling industry in the UK has not caught up with other countries" said Snehal Desai, chief marketing officer for NatureWorks. "We need alternatives to oil. UK industry should not resist change. We should be designing for the future and not the past. In central Europe, Taiwan and elsewhere, NatureWorks polymer is widely accepted as a compostable material."

Other users said it was too soon to judge the new technology. "It's very early days," said Reed Paget, managing director of Belu. "The UK packaging industry does not want competition. It's shortsighted and is blocking eco-innovation." Belu collects its bottles and now sends them to mainland Europe.

Rethinking Inflation Targets  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The Australian reports that some people (with Bernie Fraser leading the way) are finally starting to question the wisdom of raising interest rates as a response to rising inflation when the factors causing the aforesaid rising inflation (rising energy prices feeding into rising prices of everything else) will not be affected in any meaningful way by Australian interest rate levels - "Reserve 'must lift inflation target'".

This is something I've been muttering about to anyone who will listen for some months, so I'm glad to see it reaching mainstream conversation now - all interest rate rises are doing is killing highly leveraged homeowners in outer-ring suburbs and making life even more difficult for exporters who are exposed to the exchange rate - and wiping out either or both of these groups won't bring inflation that is being imported via global market prices down at all (though the rising currency does mitigate this to a certain extent).

THE Reserve Bank should tolerate inflation running above its 2-3 per cent comfort zone for the time being to support economic growth and jobs, according to former RBA governor Bernie Fraser.

He also said the Rudd Government would "probably get away" with the tax cuts due to pour into voters' pockets on July1 without damage to the economy because demand was slowing. "We are very much back into the trade-off game and central bankers are going to have to start working hard again for their money," Mr Fraser said yesterday.

His warning was backed by respected economist and former Reserve Bank board member Bob Gregory, who said Australia risked a severe downturn if the 2-3 per cent inflation target were strictly adhered to when the China-led resources boom was forcing up food and fuel prices. "We ought to be talking about how long it is acceptable to be outside the range when most of the inflation is imported," Professor Gregory said.

The two monetary policy heavyweights were responding to a call from former senior Reserve Bank officer Peter Jonson to suspend the 2-3 per cent inflation target to avoid a recession.

Mr Jonson, a former monetary policy hardman and editor of the Henry Thornton website, now believes that soaring international food and oil prices have changed the ground rules.

The comments, in a series of interviews with The Weekend Australian, confirm a debate is under way about whether monetary policy needs to be rethought to cope with the two-speed world economy in which the US and Europe face recession while China and India are feeding inflation.

Mr Fraser and Professor Gregory emphasised that inflation targeting remained the best approach for an independent Reserve Bank, and did not support a shift to another mechanism. But they believe there should be flexibility in how the regime is applied to ensure the Reserve Bank does not over-cook the response to inflation.

Interest rates have already been lifted to their highest level since 1996, yet there is no sign that inflation is under control. The latest consumer price index showed inflation at 4.2 per cent in the year to the March quarter, with prices jumping across the board.

Green Anarchy  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Viridian Pope Emperor Bruce Sterling has a jaundiced look at John Zerzan, Green Anarchist.

Personally I find Zerzan (and the rest of the Oregon green anarchists) kind of interesting even if I think the primitivist philosophy a fundamentally pointless look backward (its the ultimate form of reversalism). A better figure for Bruce's sarcasm would probably be Derrick Jensen.

As usual, Bruce's interjections are marked ((())).

(((It's important to air out the lunatic fringe on occasion. If you don't listen to stuff like this you don't understand the full scope of the debate.)))

(((I wonder what Zerzan's equivalent is at the "opposite" end of the political debate -- not that anarchists have "opposites." Probably former Iran-Contra spies with "Total Information Awareness.")))

Radical rethinking By Sena Christian

SN&R connected with Eugene, Oregon-based green anarchist John Zerzan for his take on modern society and mainstream environmentalism. Zerzan is a preeminent writer on anti-civilization, anarchist theory. He serves on the editorial collective of Green Anarchy, a biannual journal, and travels the world speaking with others committed to breaking down all forms of domination and moving toward a radically decentralized existence in the quest for liberation and freedom.

In terms of ecological defense, why is civilization the enemy?

You’ve got to go back that far to see the roots of the present crisis. Go back to domestication. (((I blame Fido.)))

As the late author Paul Shepard said, we’re talking about things like nanotechnology and genetic engineering and cloning that begins with agriculture. It’s implicit in the first step.

Worsening environmental degradation stems from that shift to control—the domesticating move where nature becomes an object to be manipulated and dominated. So that’s getting back to a fundamental, primary motor. Oswald Spengler, a person of the right, a rather horrid person I would say, said civilization means ultimately nature’s a graveyard because it just marches forward. Or as German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, all of nature is just the raw material for technology; it’s something to be used up. If you’re not looking at the mainspring, you’re only operating on the surface.

Is this why green anarchists criticize technology?

Technology, a lot of which is clean and shiny and looks nice on the shelf has, you might say, blood on it. It comes from the systematic use of nature as the raw materials for technology. Technology doesn’t fall from the skies. It comes from the existence of mines and smelters and assembly lines. The dominant idea the system gives us is, yes, there’s a crisis, but technology will come up with a solution. We see it as part of the problem. Technology keeps creating the problem, and then it comes around to say more technology will be the answer. We think that’s a false claim.

Should we just throw out mainstream environmentalism completely, or is there anything about it that works?

Mainstream environmentalism does not approach the problem with any depth. You’ve got Sierra Club’s Sierra magazine, the back cover is always Toyota advertisements. That’s really unbelievable. You can’t be environmentalists, in our view anyway, and say big auto companies are just great. That doesn’t make sense.

We feel there are a lot of very sincere, well-meaning people in the mainstream environmental milieu. But we’re not going to get anywhere unless we use a different model instead of just hoping we’ll patch up this one. Just let it go. Al Gore says change your light bulbs, but that’s ridiculous. Even if everyone did everything he said, it would be a minor part. It’s not so much an individual, consumer choice as it is a much deeper institutional choice. Do you want a world of mass production, which devours everything and just hope for the best somehow when you can see it’s only getting worse, or do you want to try some different way?

How does green anarchy move beyond a human-centered outlook and lifestyle to a biocentric one?

Well, that’s the whole thing. How do we break our dependency on all these domesticated features that we’ve become accustomed to? When we talk about reconnecting with the Earth, that’s a practical challenge: How do you do that in a real way and not just in terms of ideas of critiques? And that’s a matter of looking to what techniques and tools we can use. For example, with food, there are people working with permaculture: What do they eat? What is their relationship to the actual landscape? These people are moving away from domestication. People ask what do green anarchists offer cities? -- and nothing, in a sense, because ultimately we don’t think cities are tenable.

I just came back from Istanbul, and you’re looking at 15 million people living in tower blocks. They’re going to be dead in about two days if the whole system crashes. We’ve got to start this movement outside or away from these artificial situations where people have no autonomy, no skills to feed themselves.

Does that relate to the anarchist idea of “primitive-future?”

If we’re going to have a future, it’ll have to be primitive to stop destroying the Earth, some kind of return to community. I’ve been writing about social dislocation and what’s been happening with society as much as with the environment, because I think that gets at the core. What we are now seeing in the most developed, most technological countries, such as this one, are these mass shootings -- school shootings, mall shootings -- this is really scary, this is really pathological. It’s what you get when society becomes technology and not much else. It becomes empty and meaningless and desolate and you start having people that are so nihilistic they don’t even care about life anymore. I don’t think it’s just outer nature, I think it’s our inner nature too that is having such a bad time. I’ve got grandkids, and I wonder what kind of world they’re going to live in. What have we become?

Do you find hope in any of this?

In a strange way, I’m optimistic because I think there can be a wonderful change -- a big shift that’s going to come because the system doesn’t have any answers, and we can see there’s no future sticking with this, so there’s a good chance for people to get together and figure out something better.

Anarchists promote direct action over mediated or symbolic forms of resistance. What are some actions you encourage?

I’m not averse to saying I think direct action is a good thing. Damage to property, not violence against people. Things in the streets, like in Seattle in 1999, really got people’s attention. The Earth Liberation Front, when they commit arson, it draws people’s attention to just how bad it’s getting and to take up arms -- and I don’t mean against people. They’ve never injured anyone -- and go after these targets. We literally mean direct action, and we’ve got friends in prison because of it.

Like the war [protests], there are a lot of good people in the streets but it hasn’t meant anything, the killing goes on. Maybe you’ve got to do something more than that. Maybe you’ve got to start blocking the streets. Personally, I would say it’s a dialogue in society; if that gets going, there’s huge potential. And self-sufficiency makes people stronger. If you’re vulnerable, you can’t oppose things very well, you can’t stick your neck out so far. If we’re better situated, we can be a more vigorous voice.

What is meant by a green anarchy revolution?

We don’t really use the word ‘revolution’ because we feel that’s an outdated model that hasn’t worked. But I know what you mean -- what would be the turning point or big social momentum? I think that would be a critical questioning of everything and removing the things that cause the problems. So this is not a political revolution really, but a much deeper one.

Caltex Australia CEO: $200 oil on the horizon  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The ABC's Lateline program during the week had an interview with Caltex Australia CEO Des King, who said we could be looking at an oil price of $200 a barrel in the not too distant future.

ALI MOORE: You've warned you'll cut production if refinery margins fall below operating costs, how close are they right now?

DES KING: We're a long, long way away from that point, but we just wanted to make people realise that we're certainly prepared to run this business for the long term and that means running for maximising cash.

So it would be, for example, if margins were to drop in the second half of the year significantly we would operate the business to maximise cash, which would be cutting back on output if we needed to. That's just a worst case scenario and we certainly hope we don't have to go there.

ALI MOORE: You say worst case scenario, but given the rising cost of crude and the stronger Australian dollar, neither of which show any sign of turning around, is your scenario more likely than not to become reality?

DES KING: I don't think it's likely to become a reality, but it's important that we have plans in place should that eventuate.

What's really going to happen is going to depend on what happens in the United States. The United States is the biggest consumer of fuel, particularly petrol. If their recession becomes extended that could impact the margins for petrol.

It's really that refining margin that's important. We certainly hope the US slowdown isn't extended and they start getting back on track for growth again. It's just scenario planning for us.

ALI MOORE: Let's look at the price of oil. It's currently nudging US $120 a barrel, is $200 a barrel on the cards? Where do you think it's heading?

DES KING: We wish it would go lower rather than higher. We just don't know. It's all supply and demand.

But looking at how the world's demands for energy keep going up and up, I think a $200 oil price is somewhere in the future. We don't know how far away it is. But even though the world is going into a slower growth this year, China and India are still going ahead and a number of people are saying we're going to consume over a million barrels a day more oil in 2008, compared 2007.

ALI MOORE: If we bring it back to Australia and the price at the petrol pump, what will that mean, we're already close to two dollar petrol?

DES KING: We are and if you look at the cost of crude, petrol today is about 1.50 on average and the cost in crude in that is 80 to 85 cents. It is a large component so it does impact the price at the pump.

Obviously if the Aussie dollar gets weaker that will actually drive up that element of the crude price if the crude price stays the same. Hopefully the price of crude will soften before it goes up, but the long term trend unfortunately is for higher crude oil prices.

ALI MOORE: Can you be anymore exact than that? What do you think the price at the pump will be in, say, three months' time?

DES KING: It's very hard for us to project that. It depend on refinery production worldwide, US demand a whole number of features. But I think there may be ups and downs, but long term unfortunately I think the price of petrol is going to keep climbing.

ALI MOORE: At what point do you think price will really become prohibitive for motorists? At what point do people stop buying petrol, leave the car at home, curtail the amount of time they spend on the road?

DES KING: We've already seen pretty slow growth of petrol. If you look at the total demand for petrol in Australia in 2007, compared to 2006, there was only 0.8 per cent more petrol consumed in Australia 07 compared to 06. When we look at the most recent result, first quarter 08 compared to first quarter 07, it was pretty flat. People are already not buying more and, in fact, we're starting to see the impact of the higher prices on consumption.

The Nude Bomb  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The first generation biofuel disaster seems to be having another unexpected side effect, with the surge in grain prices causing cotton farmers to shift away to more lucrative crops. I'm going to make the first call of "peak clothing" and sit back to await the first doomer theories about the problems that will afflict an entirely nude society.

From the BBC - "The end of cheap clothes is near".

Food prices have shot up in response to a surge in crop prices. Now consumers should get ready for clothes prices to follow suit.

US cotton consumption is set to fall 6.5% from last year to less than a million tonnes whilst EU consumption is expected to fall 11% to about 460,000 tonnes, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) predicts. At the same time, they are hit by more expensive raw materials and by soaring oil prices, which make their factories more expensive to operate and which pushes up the cost of shipping to foreign markets. In India, the weaving industry is in crisis. In China, the textile sector is squeezed. And, yet again, the root cause of their problems can be found in America.

In the US, ever more cotton farmers are switching to more lucrative crops - soybeans, corn, and wheat - whose market prices are rising even faster. The prices of these crops have been pushed higher by a mixture of subsidies, growing demand from biofuel producers and market speculation. "Cotton is taking its cue from whatever the other [commodity] markets are doing," according to a US commodities broker. "They set the tone for a lot of the things taking place in this market."

As a result of the shift by farmers, "the cotton harvested area in the USA is projected to decline by a further 15%" in the year ahead, predicts the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC). That would bring the cotton acreage in the US to 9.5 million acres, down from 10.8 million in 2007 and from whopping 15 million acres in 2006. "It is obvious that [cotton] prices will be higher," ICAC says. This year, global cotton prices are set to rise more than 8% to 80 cents per pound, ICAC predicts. Financial market professionals think the rise could be even steeper.

Cotton shortages first emerged last year, when global demand for cotton exceeded global supply by about a million tonnes. In spite of the US shift towards competing crops, this year, the global cotton harvest is set to grow 3%, as major producer regions such as China, India, Australia, Brazil and West Africa are raising production.

Globally, supply growth is thus outstripping demand growth; cotton mill use is set to grow by just 1% this year. But even so, supply is not growing fast enough. This year's production level is expected to peak at 26.9 million tonnes of cotton, compared with demand for 27.5 million tonnes, the ICAC predicts.

But costly cotton is only one factor hitting clothing manufacturers. "It all comes down to energy," explains Bradley George, head of commodities and resources at Investec Asset Management. "We are basically short of power in the world right now." Hence, it is not only a question of whether land should be used to grow crops for food or cotton. It is also a question of how much energy should be used to produce clothes in factories.

Fertiliser costs are also soaring, adding to raw material costs, and the credit crunch is adding to the squeeze as low-margin clothes manufacturers are finding it harder to raise finance.

Of course, I can't let the opportunity pass to invoke the ghost of Maxwell Smart - maybe he can save us ?


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