Friday, February 27, 2004

Forecast of Rising Oil Demand Challenges Tired Saudi Fields

Those who paint an optimistic future for oil production pin much of their hopes on Saudi Arabia's supposed potential for substantial growth. But a growing number of experts are expressing doubts that the Saudis can increase their production as more and more of their fields go into decline.

Energy forecasts call for Saudi Arabia to almost double its output in the next decade and after. Oil executives and government officials in the United States and Saudi Arabia, however, say capacity will probably stall near current levels, potentially creating a significant gap in the global energy supply.

Outsiders have not had access to detailed production data from Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, for more than 20 years. But interviews in recent months with experts on Saudi oil fields provided a rare look inside the business and suggested looming problems.

An internal Saudi Aramco plan, the experts said, estimates total production capacity in 2011 at 10.15 million barrels a day, about the current capacity. But to meet expected world demand, the United States Department of Energy's research arm says Saudi Arabia will need to produce 13.6 million barrels a day by 2010 and 19.5 million barrels a day by 2020.

"In the past, the world has counted on Saudi Arabia," one senior Saudi oil executive said. "Now I don't see how long it can be maintained."

Saudi Arabia, the leading exporter for three decades, is not running out of oil. Industry officials are finding, however, that it is becoming more difficult or expensive to extract it. Today, the country produces about eight million barrels a day, roughly one-tenth of the world's needs. It is the top foreign supplier to the United States, the world's leading energy consumer.

Saudi dominance has been based primarily on one huge oil field--Ghawar--the biggest oil field ever found in the world. Ghawar alone produces more than 5% of all the oil pumped in the world. But Ghawar has been in production since the 1950s. In order to keep production up, huge amounts of seawater must be pumped into the field to move the oil to the top. Edward O. Price Jr., a former top Saudi Aramco and Chevron executive, estimates that Ghawar's production capacity is now declining at around 8% a year.

"The big risk in Saudi Arabia is that Ghawar's rate of decline increases to an alarming point," said Ali Morteza Samsam Bakhtiari, a senior official with the National Iranian Oil Company. "That will set bells ringing all over the oil world because Ghawar underpins Saudi output and Saudi undergirds worldwide production."

Some people have compared Saudi production techniques to those used in the Soviet Union in the 1980s with disastrous results:

At Abu Safah, Saudi Aramco has experienced increasing water problems as it has turned to submersible pumps to extract oil. Experts, including American and Saudi government officials, say the technique is ill advised. Saudi Aramco, in its written response to questions, defended the use of the pumps at Abu Safah and its ability to manage the water after 37 years of production.

One United Sates government energy expert noted that "submersible pumps is what the Soviets went to on an indiscriminate basis in West Siberia and it went south." Samotlor, a huge field in Siberia, once produced more than three million barrels a day, but it declined sharply in the 1980s after the Soviets pushed it too hard. Today it produces only a few hundred thousand barrels a day.

The problems of maintaining the aging Saudi oil fields which the world depends upon for so much of its oil only underscore the urgency of moving to renewable energy sources and a sustainable economic system

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Energy Info Source

This article shows both the promise and the problems of wind power:

As strong winds blew across Texas this week, electricity produced for TXU Energy customers from wind power set a Texas record.

"For the first time, TXU Energy wind power provided enough energy this week to equal a natural gas power plant," said Carl Bracy, TXU Energy Senior Vice President. "On several days, our electricity from wind energy equaled nearly 400 megawatts per hour -- more than twice the normal amount."

TXU Energy is the largest purchaser and provider of wind energy in Texas. The company obtains this power from 625 wind turbines -- primarily in West Texas.

"Electricity from wind power is highly variable -- when the wind doesn't blow we can't get this type of energy," said Bracy. "This past week, we had the resources in place and the wind kept blowing."

There is no source of energy that completely replace the energy capacity and the ease of use that oil has provided. Wind power is variable, and with apologies to Bob Dylan, it doesn't take a weatherman to know when the wind doesn't blow. Furthermore, it took 625 wind turbines to equal one gas fired power plant, even in a strong wind. The number of turbines that would be needed to meet the country's electricity needs would run into six figures.

This is part of the dilemma we face as peak oil production draws near and we try to move toward a sustainable society. The carrying capacity of the land will become an ever more important subject.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Solar energy's cloudy past / Advocates say 50-year-old industry is finally in a position to heat up

The first solar cells were introduced fifty years ago this year. Solar energy has been "just around the corner" for the last three decades, and according to the industry joke; "it's still just around the corner."

But now it may be an industry whose time has come:

"Solar energy power generation is growing 20 percent to 30 percent a year, and that's not shabby,'' said Roberta Gamble, an energy analyst at Frost & Sullivan, the Palo Alto market research firm that recently completed a report on the industry.

Daniel Shugar, president of PowerLight, a Berkeley firm that installs solar systems, said the fastest-growing niche in the industry is putting rooftop arrays in business settings, where they can recoup their installation costs in four to eight years.

"Today we're doing systems for half the cost of the systems we did seven years ago,'' said Shugar, who is among those who believe solar will eventually live up to its great expectations. "I don't see this as taking another 50 years.''

Over the last 20 years, improvements in manufacturing techniques have lowered the cost of solar cells, while growing use has led to further economies of scale.

"Basically every three years, the overall industry volume doubles, and for every doubling of volume you reduce costs 18 percent, '' said Tim Woodward, a venture capitalist at Nth Power, a San Francisco firm that invests in energy technologies.

Japan and Germany have put in place incentives and policy changes that have made them centers of the industry, while programs in California that defray installation costs and allow users to sell electricity to the utilities have spurred industry growth.

Various estimates say Japan has 40 percent of the world's installed solar cells, followed by Germany with 20 percent and the United States with 12 percent.

Hayes, the environmentalist, says Japanese and German government support gives manufacturers an edge in what could become one of the growth industries of the future.

"Someone is going to do for photovoltaics what Henry Ford did for automobiles, and it pains me deeply that, at this moment, it seems extremely unlikely that someone is going to be an American,'' Hayes said.

One area where solar energy technology has already had a major influence is in fiber optic communication. Electronic data from computers are routed to a laser, which converts the information to photons and pumps them through glass filaments. At the receiving end, a charge-coupled device -- an invention that operates on the same principle as the solar cell -- converts those photons back into electrons and electronic data.

Solar energy is steadily creating a market for itself. Our evergy policies would be well served by giving solar power a central role in any future plans.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Yahoo! News - Japan's NTT develops compact solar-powered charger for mobile devices

Solar technology takes another step into everydayuse with this light, portable solar-celll system:

Japan's telecom giant NTT said it developed the world's first portable solar-cell system that can recharge mobile devices ranging from cellphones to camcorders and hand-held game consoles.

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT) will launch the unit, Pocket Energy, in Japan in May for a little under 20,000 yen (190 dollars) per unit.

"This will enable you to recharge your devices during trips abroad or in the wake of disasters," Keiichi Yasuda, chief producer at NTT's energy and environment team, told reporters Friday.

The unit comprises a solar panel that can be folded in two, an electricity-storing tablet and connecting cables. The system weighs about 300 grammes (10 ounces).

If put in direct sunshine for four hours, it can store enough electricity to run a mobile phone for four consecutive hours of talking.

Monday, February 16, 2004 - A Solar Twist on Desalinization

Solar power may help ease the severe water problems facing a growing number of nations:

Desalinization has long held the promise of helping the world solve its pressing water needs, yet widespread implementation has not occurred because current systems are costly and require large amounts of energy. But engineers at the University of Florida (UF) have turned to nature for a solution that could make desalinization a viable option for those in need.

"We know that nature uses solar energy to get fresh water from salt water," said Yogi Goswami, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of UF's Solar Energy and Energy Conversion Laboratory. "We use the same process as nature, except we enhance the process."

Nature's process for desalination is as follows: fresh water evaporates from the ocean, forms clouds, condenses and falls to the ground as rain. Goswami says he and his colleagues sought to recreate and enhance this process by exploiting solar energy and natural barometric pressure.

The new system uses a gravity induced vacuum and solar energy instead of electricity or fossil fuels to desalinate water, Goswami explained.

The researchers say the system is more efficient than previous solar "stills" for removing salt, but is simple and inexpensive enough to be built in remote locations where conventionally powered technologies would be either too expensive or impractical. This could prove critical, as lack of potable water is a growing problem worldwide.

The World Water Development Report, released this year by the United Nations, says many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia currently face severe water crises, and the number is likely to grow in coming years under the dual pressures of increasing populations and worsening pollution.

The report finds that within 50 years, seven billion people in 60 countries could face water scarcity.

An experimental version of the system was ninety percent efficient, although it only produced a half cup of fresh water an hour. How much it could be scaled up remains to be seen.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Iraq and the Problem of Peak Oil

The connection between the Iraq invasion and oil has always been a bit mysterious. Even discounting the conspiracy theorists, it is a connection that refuses to go away. This article makes the conections a bit more clear.

The article has a good little summary of the problem of peak oil:

The problem in oil production is not how much reserves are underground. There the numbers are more encouraging. The problem comes when large oilfields such as Prudhoe Bay Alaska or the fields of the North Sea pass their peak output. Much like a bell curve, oil fields rise to a maximum output or peak. The peak is the point when half the oil has been extracted. In terms of reserves remaining it may seem there is still ample oil. But it is not as rosy as it seems. The oil production may hold at the peak output for a number of years before beginning a slow decline. Once the peak is past however, the decline can become very rapid. Past the peak, there is still oil, but each barrel becomes more difficult to exploit, and more costly, as internal well pressures decline or other problems make recovery more expensive for each barrel. The oil is there but not at all easy to extract. The cost of each barrel past peak is increasingly higher as artificial means are employed to extract it. After a certain point it becomes uneconomical to continue to try to extract this peak oil.

As an aside--the big problem is not when extraction becomes uneconomical, because then rising oil prices would at some point make it economical again--the big problem is when it takes more energy to get it out of the ground than you get from it. At that point it is no longer an energy source.

Some recent cases make the point. In 1991 the largest discovery in the Western Hemisphere since the 1970's, was found at Cruz Beana in Columbia. But its production went from 500,000 barrels a day to 200,000 barrels in 2002. In the mid-1980's the Forty Field in North Sea produced 500,000 barrels a day. Today it yields 50,000 barrels. One of the largest discoveries of the past 40 years, Prudhoe Bay, produced some 1.5 million barrels a day for almost 12 years. In 1989 it peaked, and today gives only 350,000 barrels daily. The giant Russian Samotlor field produced a peak of 3,500,000 barrels a day. It has now dropped to 325,000 a day. In each of these fields, production has been kept up by spending more and more to inject gas or water to maintain field pressures, or other means to pump the quantity of oil. The world's largest oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, produces near 60% of all Saudi oil, some 4.5 million barrels per day. To achieve this, geologists report that the Saudis must inject 7 million barrels a day of salt water to keep up oil well pressure, an alarming signal of near collapse of output in the world's largest oil kingdom.

The growing problem of peak oil has been known among oil industry insiders since the mid-1990's. In 1995, the leading oil consulting firm, Petroconsultants in Geneva, published a global study, 'The World Oil Supply.' The report cost $35,000, written for the oil industry. Its author was petroleum geologist, Dr. Colin Campbell. In 1999 Campbell testified to the British House of Commons, 'Discovery of (new oil reserves) peaked in the 1960's. We now find one barrel for every four we consume ...'

Another oil industry "insider" who knew about this problem was Dick Cheney:

In a speech to the International Petroleum Institute in London in late1999, Dick Cheney, then chairman of the world's largest oil services company, Halliburton, presented the picture of world oil supply and demand to industry insiders. 'By some estimates,' Cheney stated, 'there will be an average of two percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three percent natural decline in production from existing reserves.' Cheney ended on an alarming note: 'That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day.' This is equivalent to more than six Saudi Arabia's of today's size.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Cheney, as Vice President, was given as his first major assignment the head of a Presidential Task Force on Energy. He knew the dimension of the energy problem facing not only the United States, but the rest of the world.

Cheney is also well identified as the leading Iraq warhawk in the Bush Administration, together with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Repeatedly it was Cheney pushing for military action against Iraq, regardless of which allies support it.

You can argue whether the Iraq war was "about" oil, but certainly oil was somewhere in the calculous that led us to invade.

Friday, February 13, 2004

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Energy crisis 'will limit births'

According to some estimates, the global population may rise from its current 6.3 billion today to almost 9bn by 2050.

But Virginia Abernethy told a Seattle meeting that the loss of fossil fuels would hit world economies very hard.

"Economic hardship discourages people from marrying young and from having closely spaced children," she said.

Reproductive rates have been linked to the availability of fuel
The anthropologist and professor emerita of psychiatry from Vanderbilt University was speaking here in Washington State at the annual gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The availability of energy has been a major factor in population growth," said Professor Abernethy.

"In the modern context, energy use per capita affects economic activity. So a prolonged decline in energy use per capita will tend to depress the economy which, in turn, will cause a decline in the fertility rate."

Abernethy said fossil fuels had become fundamental to the continued economic growth and improving standards of living which many societies had witnessed in recent decades.

Not only does petroleum provide the fuel that powers modern vehicles and the natural gas that people use for home heating and cooking, but petroleum products are also the source for hundreds of industrial and agricultural products, including fertilisers, pesticides and plastics.

This meant that petroleum could not be easily replaced by other fuels and feed stocks, the professor argued.

"Without ample supplies of energy, we lose our agricultural capacity," she said.

"If the price of fossil fuels goes up, pesticides and fertilisers will become more expensive and that will discourage farmers from using these inputs.

"Yields will go down and the price of food will go up and that in turn is perceived as quite an economic hardship."

The limits of energy production and the limits of population are unavoidable problems that have to be faced in the near future. How quickly they are dealt with may determine how severe they become, but it seems unavoidable that there will be a price to pay for them.

Many commentators have pointed to Europe and Japan where low birth rates and aging populations have acted as a drag on the economies and national budgets. But in the long run these may be the very countries that are best postioned for the coming decline in oil and gas production--especially when combined with the increased emphasis on developing renewable resources in these countries (partially driven by their desire to meet the Kyoto limits.) When energy and food shortages are plaguing the rest of the world, these countries that are being criticized now, may emerge the least damaged.

Sustainability within a Generation

The David Suzuki Foundation has drawn up a plan for Canada to achieve "sustainability" within a generation and presented it to Prime Minister Paul Martin. Suzuki reports with pleasant surprise that "Martin seems genuinely concerned about Canada's environmental record."

The sustainability report notes that:

Despite our reputation, Canada is struggling environmentally. In an extensive OECD study (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Canada finished 28th out of 29 developed countries in categories such as air, water, waste and climate change. Canadians are known for their love of nature, but there is a large gap between our environmental values and our environmental record.

The report is wide ranging and comprehensive, but the heart of any policy of sustainability must be its energy policy. Ruefully, Suzuki notes the abysmal record in generating energy from renewable sources. Denmark generates 20% of its electricity from wind power while Canada generates 0.1%. Even the U.S. has 20 times as much installed capacity for wind power as Canada.

Suzuki recommends setting the goals of 30% of electric production coming from renewable resources by 2010 and 80% by 2020. In addition to wind power, the report calls for development of a hydrogen economy, and promoting alternative fuel vehicles such as hybrids and fuel cell vehicles.

It is vital to reframe the renewable energy debate to move it away from the "environment versus economy" argument so often used against it. Indeed, with the world approaching the limits of its ability to produce hyrocarbons, renewable energy is the only viable option for the future.

Monday, February 09, 2004

U.S. Researchers Argue for Harnessing Wind Power

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Wind power, an abundant, clean and affordable alternative to coal, could become a leading source of U.S. electricity with the right political support and investment, researchers said on Thursday.

Writing in the journal Science, Mark Jacobson and Gilbert Masters of Stanford University argue that wind power is both safer and cheaper than coal, the top U.S. energy source.

``There is no reason not to invest in wind at this point,'' Jacobson said in an interview. ``Wind is so obviously cheaper if we look at total costs.''

Wind-generated energy costs 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour -- about the same as coal -- but the indirect health and environmental costs associated with coal increase its costs to 5.5 to 8.3 cents per kilowatt hour, Jacobson said.

The researchers said coal dust kills 2,000 U.S. mine workers annually and has cost taxpayers about $35 billion in monetary and medical benefits to former miners since 1973.

Karen Batra, spokesperson for the National Mining Association, acknowledged that coal mining has an environmental impact, but said ``we are all working toward a goal of reducing emissions and have made tremendous strides in reducing emissions in the past 30 years since the Clean Air Act.''

Critics of wind power argue that the turbines -- which look like giant propellers -- have been linked to the accidental deaths of migratory birds that get caught inside the propeller blades, and that the turbines take up a tremendous amount of space. But Jacobson said these problems could be avoided by selecting sites out of migration paths and by paying farmers to put them on their land.

``Wind has trivial health and environmental problems associated with it in comparison with coal,'' Jacobson said.

Although wind power is the fastest growing source of energy in the world, the United States has been slow to use it because coal is so cheap and wind has received no government incentives, Jacobson said.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

ENN Affiliate News - Troubling New Flows of Environmental Refugees

A new kind of refugee is appearing, although they have yet to get much press, the environmental refugee:

Although the modern world has extensive experience with people migrating for political and economic reasons, we are now seeing a swelling flow of refugees driven from their homes by environmental pressures. Modern experience with this phenomenon in the United States began when nearly 3 million "Okies" from the southern Great Plains left during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, many of them migrating to California.

Today, bodies washing ashore in Italy, France, and Spain are a daily occurrence, the result of desperate acts by desperate people in Africa. And each day hundreds of Mexicans risk their lives trying to cross the U.S. border. Some 400 to 600 Mexicans leave rural areas every day, abandoning plots of land too small or too eroded to make a living. They either head for Mexican cities or try to cross illegally into the United States. Many perish in the punishing heat of the Arizona desert.

Another flow of environmental refugees comes from Haiti, a widely recognized ecological disaster. In a rural economy where the land is denuded of vegetation and the soil is washing into the sea, the people are not far behind. Attempting to make the trip to Florida in small craft not designed for the high seas, many drown. ...

The World Bank expects Sana'a, where the water table is falling by 6 meters a year, to exhaust its remaining water supply by 2010. At that point, its leaders will either have to bring water in from a distant point or abandon the city.

Quetta, originally designed for 50,000 people, now has 1 million inhabitants, all of whom depend on 2,000 wells pumping water deep from underground, depleting what is believed to be a fossil or nonreplenishable aquifer. Like Sana'a, Quetta may have enough water for the rest of this decade, but then its future is in doubt. In the words of one study assessing the water prospect, Quetta will soon be "a dead city."

The signs are growing, day by day, that the world has passed it's carrying capacity for the human race. And the only reason we've gotten this far is because of the unique energy properties of the world's hyrocarbon supplies.

When the world's production of oil and gas peaks and rolls over into decline--which, even under the most optimistic estimates, will happen in most of our lifetimes--the carrying capacity for the human race will diminish accordingly.

Environmental refugees will become a problem that overwhelms even the most affluent of countries.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

ES&T Online News: Britain

The United Kingdom is aiming to become the world’s largest producer of offshore wind power within the next few years. The country is planning to build turbines capable of generating enough electricity to power one in six British households by 2007, including the world’s largest wind farm.

Developing offshore wind power is a key part of the U.K. government’s ambitious plan to dramatically increase the percentage of electricity it generates from renewable resources. The country currently produces 3% of its power from renewables, but in December the government boosted its target of producing 10% (10 gigawatts [GW]) of its power from green sources by 2010 to 15% by 2015.

The announcement came after 15 groups were granted 50-year seabed leases, a key step in securing operating licenses. The developers, which include National Wind Power, Amec, and Total, are looking to install turbines capable of generating 5.4–7.2 GW of electricity—enough to power 4 million homes. The developers will determine the project’s final size, although they must produce at least 75% percent of a site’s capacity. The projects cluster in three shallow sea areas: the Thames Estuary (south England), the Greater Wash (eastern England), and the northwest. The largest grouping, in the Greater Wash area, could provide up to 1.2 GW from 300 turbines.

Britain is scrambling to catch up with mainland Europe where wind power projects have been expanding rapidly for years. It's probably no coincidence that this comes as North Sea oil has clearly peaked and gone into a steady decline. The reality of the need to move away from a relaince on petrochemicals to renewable energy sources seems to be hitting home just about everywhere except the U.S. where congress still seems to think that giving away a few more subsidies to the oil companies will solve our energy problems. We are in for a rude awakening.