Friday, July 30, 2004

Yellow River 'drying up'

Along the river's banks live a third of China's enormous population, more than 400 million people.

The vast plains that are irrigated by its muddy waters produce most of China's wheat, much of its maize and even some of its rice.

The Yellow River is also known as "China's sorrow". The name comes from its propensity to run wild, regularly inundating large swathes of the North China plain, and drowning tens of thousands of its inhabitants.

But today the Yellow River is more famous for the exact opposite.

For more than 200 days of the year this once mighty river no longer makes it to the sea.

It's like the Rhine petering out in central Germany, or the Nile drying up in northern Sudan.

Why? In large part humans are to blame, in particular China's communist rulers, who have long believed nature should be bent to man's will.

The river has been overused and abused. Dozens of dams block its flow, drawing off huge quantities of water to grow cotton in the desert.

In 50 years the communists have done more to destroy the river than their predecessors in the last 5,000.

Today the whole region teeters on the edge of disaster. Global warming could push it over the edge.

In the next 50 years temperatures in Northern China are expected to rise by 3 to 4C.

As they do, the already arid climate will dry further.

The drought that has afflicted the region for the last six years would become permanent. The whole Yellow River valley will dry up.

The impact on crops would be dramatic. Scientists predict yields in China's main wheat growing region could fall by 20% to 40%.

This would force China to import huge quantities of wheat, maize and even rice.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Peak Coal?

The debate over peak oil production has so far obscured the fact that other raw materials appear to follow similar curves that peak and then go into permanent decline. For example, look at the history of UK coal production.


In the US, using Energy Information Agency assumptions, coal will peak in 2060. However, as with most EIA assumptions, these are most likely too optimistic. Gregson Vaux calculates that with natural gas production peaking in North America, demand for coal will grow. (Already most new power plant that are being ordered are coal fueled.) With this added demand, Vaux calculates that U.S. coal production will peak around 2032. When it does, this will mark the absolute end of the hydrocarbon era in the U.S.

Other raw materials have already gone well past peak. Arsenic production has been in decline since the late 1940s.

And Manganese production has dropped to virtually nothing.

These raw materials have been replaced by imports, but energy sources will be harder to replace. The inexorable truth that there are limits to growth is creaping up on us whether we care to admit it or not.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Peak Oil

Will it be this year?

J. D. Moody, a former president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, has designated the same year 2004; see John D. Edwards, "Twenty-FIrst-Century Energy: Decline of Fossil Fuel, Increase of Renewable Nonpolluting Energy Sources," in Petroleum Provinces of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Marlan W. Downey, Jack C. Threet, and William A. Morgan, AAPG Memoir 74 (Tulsa: American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 2001), p. 28.

Matthew R. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Simmons & Company International (Houston, Texas), being a major energy-investment bank (dating from 1974), with Mr. Simmons too on the National Petroleum Council, as of the 2000-2001 year, states in his "2003's Constant Surprises May Not Be Finished," World Oil (February 2004): "Despite exceptionally high oil prices for the fourth consecutive year no serious surge in oil supplies resulted" (p. 23). And, second, from "Inventory Data Help Oil Claw Back Some Losses," Financial Times (1 July 2004): "Ali Naimi, Saudi Arabian oil minister, said he believed oil prices were fair [at $35.00 per barrel] and saw no reason either to raise or lower production from current 9.1 m [million] barrels a day" (p. 29). The fact really is that even Saudi Arabia, the one country in the world, which at present supposedly has some excess capacity for increased production, has little leeway for additional output either. Thirdly, as Bruce Stanley reports in "OPEC to Cover for Lost Exports," Philadelphia Inquirer (17 June 2004): Russia and Norway, the second and third leading exporters of oil, after Saudi Arabia, "could do little to help"

Or next year?

At the end of December, Oil & Gas Journal published their oil production figures for calendar year 2003. From 2000 to 2003, world crude oil production has been essentially flat, which is to be expected as we roll over the top of the bell-shaped Hubbert curve. In the revised paperback edition of Hubbert's Peak, the only change required is to add one more dot along the line on page 157.

There was some speculation that the year 2000 might stand as the single largest year of oil production. (Production in 2001 and 2002 was not as large as the year 2000.) However, 2003 squeaked ahead of 2000 by one-half of one percent. The important news is that growth has essentially stopped. Production declines, from most countries, was offset by increases in Russia. However, Matt Simmons has pointed out that the Russians are catching up on maintenance that was deferred during the Communist era. There have been no new field discoveries or major field extensions reported in Russia.

Although it is a bit silly, we can now pick a day to celebrate passing the top of the mathematically smooth Hubbert curve: November 24, 2005. It falls right smack dab on top of Thanksgiving Day 2005. It sounds a little sick to observe a gloomy day, but in San Francisco they still observe April 18 as the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

October Surprise?

There is a huge uncertainty hanging over this year's election--the potential for a major interruption of the oil supply. Excess production capacity has fallen to somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million barrels a day. This is a razor thin margin should any significant disruption occur. Furthermore there is growing speculation that production in Saudi Arabia has peaked;

Hard data has surfaced over the last two years, all of which points to an imminent acceleration in global depletion dynamics, notably in Saudi Arabia. There, Ghawar, the largest field in the world and all of Saudi Arabia's other large fields are old and tired. In recent years, the Saudis have resorted to both water injection and so-called "bottle-brush" drilling to maintain production -- techniques that tend to accelerate decline and damage reservoirs.

For a country with an allegedly huge marginal surplus of oil production, turning to such extraction techniques is likely to prove an unwise move. With bottle-brush drilling, a shaft is drilled horizontally over long distances with a number of brush-like openings. Water is then forced under pressure into the reservoir, forcing the oil upwards toward the well heads. Extraction is thereby increased. However, when the water table hits the horizontal shaft, often without warning, the whole field may go virtually dead and production will immediately drop off to virtually nothing.

Examples of what has happened in other oil producing countries when "bottle-brush" drilling was employed abound. Syria's oil production is now in terminal decline. Yemen is following, according to Ali Samsam Bakhtiari, Vice President of the National Iranian oil Company, who has long suggested that Saudi oil production might have peaked in the spring of 2003. Adds analyst William Kennedy, "For the record, Ghawar's ultimate recoverable reserves in 1975 were estimated at 60 billion barrels -- by Exxon, Mobil, Texaco and Chevron. It had produced 55 billion barrels up to the end of 2003 and is still producing at 1.8 billion per annum. That shows you how close it might be to the end. When Ghawar dies, the world is officially in decline."

In addition, Russia has frozen the assets of Yukos Oil and declared that it owes billions in back taxes. Unless some compromise is reached by the end of July, Yukos may have to shut down its 1.7 million barrels a day of production. Putin is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the word's economy.

Other potential trouble spots include Venezuela where an August recall vote of Chavez threatens to bring the kind of disorder that shut down Venezuelan exports in 2003. In Nigeria, oil workers are threatening to strike for higher wages; and Iraqi insurgents have blown holes in the pipelines so many times some engineers are beginning to fear that the integrity of the lines is in jeopardy.

A nasty surprise is possible from any number of sources that could potentially overshadow even the war in Iraq as an election issue.

Hang on to your seats....

Monday, July 12, 2004

The algae alternative

Another potential new source of energy--one that uses the oldest form of converting the sun's energy into useable fuel;

Isaac Berzin, a 37-year-old chemical engineer, often finds himself mesmerized by algae, as he spends significant stretches of time at his microscope, watching algae cells dance and multiply in reaction to light.

''Photosynthesis," he says. ''That's how all of nature survives. The division time of algae cells is measured in hours. It's very tolerant of everything. You can find it in the Charles River, in sewage, in boiling water, in ice, in Antarctica, in fresh water, in the Dead Sea."

Next week, GreenFuel is taking its systems and ideas out of the laboratory for its first major test drive in the real world. The pilot is set to take place on Vassar Street in Cambridge, on the roof of the MIT Cogeneration Plant, which is the main electrical power plant for the university's central campus. Pending final legal approval by MIT, GreenFuel plans to install a set of about 30 of its bioreactors on top of the plant.

Each of these bioreactors is an eight-foot-high set of clear tubes made of polycarbonate plastic and fashioned into a triangle. Inside the tubes, the emissions from the plant's exhaust will mix with specially designed algae cultures and sunlight. Through natural photosynthesis, the algae will grow in volume while absorbing the carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. The chemical reaction traps the carbon in the algae and gives off oxygen and nitrogen, which by itself is a normal component of air. Finally, the heat from the power plant itself will help dry the algae soup into a flaky coal-like solid that can be recycled and used as fuel in place of natural gas, oil, or coal.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

'Compass' Points to New Direction for Growth

Southern California is taking the first steps toward building more energy efficient suburbs. Under a plan named "Compass," neighborhoods would be built near existing transit corridors and employers would locate near where people live.

Under the proposal, more than 100 clusters of high-density development would be built along the region's transit corridors, neighborhoods would become more pedestrian friendly and more employers would locate near where people live.

While some hailed the "compass" plan by the Southern California Assn. of Governments as a visionary approach to solving the region's traffic and housing woes, others predicted implementing it would be an uphill battle.

The sweeping blueprint, which SCAG officials unveiled last week, was unanimously adopted by the agency's regional council of more than 50 elected officials.

But decisions about implementing specific projects would be made by individual city councils.

Even if a city's SCAG representative agrees in concept with high-density development for the region, positions can shift once politicians start courting voters back home.

"Most cities do everything they can to decrease density. They hit developers over the head," said Montclair Councilman Bill Ruh. "You'll hear people say, 'This is a fine plan, but it's not appropriate for my community … not in my backyard.' "

In a 100-page report, SCAG outlines the need for the plan: The region's population is projected to grow by 6.3 million, to 22.9 million, by 2030, with most of the increase coming from births by families already here. If the region stays on its current course, traffic congestion in some areas would more than triple, air quality would worsen, the cost of transporting goods would increase and the region's economy would suffer, SCAG officials say.

Academics and urban planners say a key way to improve mobility in a metropolitan area is to integrate transportation with land-use planning — a central element in SCAG's effort.

But they also note that benefits typically come only after significant effort. Zoning laws often must change city by city, and substantial investment by private developers would have to be made project by project.

Naturally there is resistance. "The public is not going to stand for high-density tenements," said Gerald A. Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, echoing the view of many community leaders and antigrowth activists. SCAG officials "can lead a horse to water, but they can't get it to drink."

Mark Pisano, executive director of SCAG, thinks that resistance will lessen over time. Peak oil will certainly be a major factor lessening that resistance.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Scientists turn to Popeye to save planet

A potentially significant advance in solar technology--using the photosynthetic proteins from spinach.

Scientists have enlisted a new ally in the battle to save the planet - Popeye.

They have found that spinach, which gives the cartoon sailor hissuperhuman strength, could be the power source the world needs to combat global warming. The discovery could lead to a new version of the old instruction: "Heat up your greens."

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported last week that the leafy vegetable could provide the missing ingredient needed to make solar cells sufficiently cheap and efficient to provide the world with electricity. The cells work by harnessing the power of photosynthesis to covert light into electrical energy.

The MIT team - which reports its findings in the current issue of the scientific magazine Nano Letters - isolated photosynthetic proteins from the leaves, laid them on a thin gold film, and covered them with an organic material that conducts electricity. When they shone light on this high-tech sandwich, power was produced.

Professor Marc Dando said that they aimed "to take advantage of two billion years of evolution" by building on the way that nature had developed to convert sunlight into electricity, rather than doing it artificially.

But why spinach? "There's a lot of it and it's very, very green."He added that the team was now experimenting with peas too, and had thought of using "Olive Oyl" as a stabiliser.

The olive is actually ahead in providing green energy. Five power stations burning olive oil already supply homes in Andalusia, Spain.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

"The single-family house is the single most consumptive and segregational habitat that we can conceive."

Paolo Soleri is a visonary of the sort that we desparately need today. The 85 year old architect, who apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, has spent the last three decades working on a "lean alternative" to suburbia which is designed to provide housing and facilites for 5,000 people on 25 acres. Named Arcosanti, the community is Soleri's experiment in compact, high density living that minimizes the need for transportation, and uses innovative methods for heating and cooling. Residents walk to the foundry, to peach and apple orchards and to greenhouses where they grow herbs and vegetables. A tunnel system is designed to channel solar heated air from a ten acre greenhouse to the entire complex. In the summer, small ponds outside building enrances provide evaporative cooling to interiors. A portion of Arcosanti's electric power is generated by solar panels and a windmill. Although the complex is only 4 percent complete and houses only 75 permanent residents, Soleri remains convinced that something like Ascrosanti is humanity's only hope. "The choice is clear," he says. "The single-family home, and suburbia with it, goes—or we humans go."

After three decades, the approaching end of cheap oil has a growing number of people agreeing with Ascrosanti that the end of cheap energy will mean the end of suburbia.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Farmers Eager to Cash in on Wind

Another feedback loop--as climate change deepens the drought in the west, farmers look for an alternative source of income and come up with wind power--a sustainable source of energy.

Mixed in with the sound of meadowlarks, tractors and the hum of the wind on Colorado's southeastern plains is a low, steady beat: "whoop, whoop, whoop."

It comes from a line of towering turbines that are producing electricity used across Colorado. The sound coming from a ridge south of this farming town has become a beckoning call for people struggling through a fifth year of crop-killing drought.

"I get calls pretty much on a weekly basis, `How can I get a wind farm on my land?'" said Greg Emick, standing atop a ridge near the turbines.

All but 10 of the 108 turbines are on Emick family land. Emick won't detail the agreement with the Colorado Green wind power project, but said the family gets royalties and a fee for each turbine, 375 feet tall. The power goes to Xcel Energy, the state's largest utility.

Besides lighting homes, the wind project on the plains 200 miles southeast of Denver is bringing hope to an area battered by recession and a crippling drought.

"The Colorado Green project has really helped the morale of the area," said Chris Rundell, a Lamar-area farmer. "It used to be people would say, `What is here?'"