Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why I Favor Nuclear Power

The world needs energy
There is little doubt that the world needs lots of energy—cubic miles of oil worth of energy—just to afford the current population a decent standard of living. More than 80% of the primary energy we currently use is derived from fossil fuels, and the immediate consequence is a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, ocean acidification, and an increased risk of climate change. The need for producing much more clean energy, in particular electricity, becomes evident when one considers the 3 billion people living at or near-poverty conditions.

Use of electricity produces no environmental pollutants, and thus its use should be encouraged wherever possible, such as for heating and transportation instead of using natural gas and oil. These transitions only increase the demand for clean electricity. As a rough estimate global production of electricity has to increase at least four-fold its current level of about 25,000 TWh per year. Of course, electricity is only as clean as the method for generating it in the first place.

As some deeply concerned about the state of our environment, I realize that we have to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible, and start relying on zero-CO2 sources like nuclear, wind and solar. On a life cycle basis, all these sources produce only a few grams of CO2 per kWh of electricity compared to nearly a kilogram of CO2 per kWh for coal power plants.

Nuclear power produces CO2-free electricity
Unlike generation electricity by burning fossil fuels, generation by nuclear, hydro, solar, and wind are not associated with direct emissions of CO2. That is not to say that these sources are carbon-free. Varying amounts of CO2 are released in the processes used for producing the requisite materials, construction, and ultimate dismantling. Comparison of various electricity generation technologies must account for both direct and indirect emissions. The figure below was taken from a paper by Markandya and Wilkinson, which compares the direct and indirect emissions of CO2 for various power generation technologies.[1] On a life-cycle basis, CO2emissions from nuclear are the lowest, about 30 g/kWh compared to 1.3 kg/kWh for coal, and even lower than solar and wind because they require substantially greater amounts of materials such as steel, concrete, and glass for producing equivalent amount of electricity.

Figure 1. Nuclear power emits the least amount of carbon dioxide.

Nuclear power has a low environmental footprint
Since nuclear fission releases a million times the energy than chemical reactions (combustion), it takes that much less fuel. We burn billions of tons of coal, oil and gas, but to generate an equivalent amount of energy we need only a few thousand tons of uranium, which greatly reduces the environmental burden of mining for the fuel.

The high energy density means that nuclear plants are compact. They do not require much land and can be located close to centers of power consumers. The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant with its twin 1100 MW units take up only 940 acres (less than 1.5 square miles). Area required for comparable nameplate generation capacity for solar and wind farms is 10 to 100 times greater, and another three times larger to compensate for their low capacity factor. Because of the large area requirement, large renewable power generation systems have to located further away from city centers, and hence have a greater need for easements for  more transmission lines.

The tonnage of commodity materials such as concrete, steel, cement, and glass required for the construction of power generating facilities are also much smaller for a given capacity of nuclear power than other power generation systems, further reducing the environmental burden. Nuclear plants produce power 24 X 7 with occasional scheduled shutdowns for maintenance and refueling. They thus have capacity factors in excess of 90%. Renewable sources such as wind and solar have capacity factors between 25 and 30%. Whereas nuclear plants are built to last 60 or more years, wind and solar facilities last only 30 years. The higher capacity factor and longer life means that nuclear plants produce six times as much electricity as comparably sized wind and solar facilities. Figure 1, taken from the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Technology Review, shows the tons of materials required for producing 1 TWh of electricity from different power generation systems. As is evident from the figure, the environmental burden of nuclear plants is the least of all other sources.

Figure 2. Nuclear power has the lowest materials intensity.

Nuclear power is safe
If we look at the fatalities associated with mining, installation, and operation from power generation of various energy sources, nuclear is the safest. The following chart, compiled by the Canadian Nuclear Agency includes deaths from the pollutants emitted by fossil fuels that cause asthma and other respiratory ailments.1 The figure of 161 deaths per TWh for coal is a global average, and it is worth noting that in the US it is 15, while in China it is 278. There is no doubt that measures to control the emissions of particulate matter and other pollutants from coal plants in the US have been very beneficial.

The figure of 0.04 deaths per TWh for nuclear plants includes the estimated 4000 deaths from radiation exposure following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This estimate is an upper limit for the number of fatalities as it is based on the linear no-threshold model (LNT). This model assumes all ionizing radiation is harmful, and its effects are cumulative; in other words the model assumes that our bodies have no repair mechanisms. We live with constant exposure to ionizing radiation and have evolved DNA-repair mechanisms to deal with certain levels of radiation exposure. A more realistic estimate would further reduce the number of fatalities from nuclear power to about 0.013 per TWh.

Figure 3. Nuclear power has the fewest fatalities per unit of electricity.

The prospect of climate change and ocean acidification are real, and the long time it takes to implement corrective measures means that we must rapidly decarbonize our energy systems. Our fears of radiation are largely unfounded and have had the deleterious effect of continued use of fossil fuels. Even as we deploy wind and solar—the nominally low-carbon sources—the absence of large scale storage systems have forced us into using natural gas power for back up. The design of natural gas power plants used as spinning reserves are selected on the rapidity with which they can be brought online. These designs are among the least efficient of gas-fired plants, with thermal efficiencies around 33%, and thus high carbon emissions. Gas-fired power plants that operate with a combined steam cycle have thermal efficiencies in excess of 50%. Analysis by Larsen and Rez shows that we would do better in terms of carbon emissions if instead of installing low capacity factor wind or solar systems and backing them with natural gas, we simply used a combined cycle natural gas plant.[2]

[1] Markandya and Wilkinson, Lancet 2007, 370, 979-90.
[2] T.C. Larsen, P Rez, Journal of Sustainable Energy Engineering, 2017, 194-206, (https://doi.org/10.7569/JSEE.2017.629514)

Monday, July 31, 2017

Governor Brown, Think Nuclear Power!

California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has been a strong advocate for measures to limit greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions and combat climate change. He demonstrated leadership in face of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by President Trump by speaking out and letting the world know that many cities and states in the US will still abide by those pledges. He led a delegation with major industry leaders to China to explore co-operative ventures. Just this week, on July 25, he signed a major climate bill, AB 398, which will extend California’s cap-and-trade system for ghg to 2030. Gov. Brown never misses an opportunity to remind us that implementing measures to combat climate change has not hurt California’s economy, instead it has made it stronger and resilient.

Thus far, switching from coal to natural gas has been the main contributor towards reduced emissions in CA. However, this model is not a recipe for curbing emissions in energy-impoverished societies where most of the growth in energy consumption is expected. Because they are not profligate consumers of energy, there is very little room for gain by increasing efficiency. As they strive to improve their standard of living they will need to sharply increase the total supply of energy. And remember, emissions do not know state or national boundaries, and California is responsible for barely 1% of global ghg emissions. What California needs to do is develop innovative technologies that avoid carbon emissions at a cost that makes a compelling case for their widespread adoption.

There is a growing global and national need for carbon-free electricity. Even in CA, electricity demand is expected to increase. Additional electricity required to power the projected 1.5 million EVs is 12.6 TWh per year. California’s IT industry also requires large amounts of electricity. Cloud services by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others require 10s of TWh of reliable electricity each year. To put these numbers in perspective, CA consumed 220 TWh of electricity in 2014. Bulk of this electricity (120 TWh) used in CA was generated from natural gas. Coal contributed only about 20 TWh; it was mostly imported from other states as the in-state production of coal power has all but disappeared. Wind, solar, geo thermal, and hydroelectric power generate relatively smaller amounts: 13, 10, 12 and 17 TWh respectively.

Nuclear power is one technology that can produce copious quantities of carbon-free electricity. California used to have three nuclear power plant facilities generating about 44 TWh carbon-free electricity; however, two of them have already been closed and there are talks of decommissioning the third one at Diablo Canyon, which last year generated 17 TWh of electricity. In view of the increasing demand for carbon-free electricity, I find plans to turn off nuclear plants misguided. Germany’s attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions have essentially stalled after it turned off its nuclear power plants.

Existing plants should be re-certified and the development of new inherently safe nuclear power technologies needs to be supported. I am heartened to see construction of the such plants in China and India. It would be nice if such development also took place in the U.S., but that is not likely given the strong anti-nuclear sentiment. This attitude feeds into the “business risk” and renders financing nuclear projects impossible. We must remember that nuclear power has the smallest environmental footprint and is the safest source of energy with the least number of casualties per unit of electricity produced.

A first step CA could undertake is to qualify nuclear power to receive the carbon credits that afforded wind and solar power. This action would make nuclear power more competitive. It would also send a signal to the companies developing advanced nuclear technologies that they are welcome in CA to develop their innovative technologies for both domestic use and for export.

Friday, June 2, 2017

US Withdrawal from Paris Accord

Last few weeks I have often been asked about the effect of the US withdrawing from the Paris accord—and yesterday it happened! It is a good question, but because there are countervailing factors the answer is not straightforward—the net effect ranges from minimal to quite profound.
The Paris Agreement is not a binding treaty; it requires voluntary cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2. The desired target set by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) is to cut energy-related global CO2 emissions from the current 36 Gt-CO2 each year to about 17 Gt- CO2 by 2035 and then be net zero by 2050. If all the signatory nations cut their emissions by the amounts they have pledged, the global emissions are slated to rise to 55 Gt- CO2. Clearly, all nations will have to do a whole lot more if the IPCC targets are to be realized. Indeed, it was the expectation that the signatory nations will periodically review their progress and make additional pledges.
Trump questioned the "fairness" of the agreement by saying that it imposes undue economic burden on US while allowing developing nations to continue emitting CO2. Like I said, no nation is imposing any burden on any other nation. It is all based on independently determined voluntary contributions. Also, I wonder what is Trump's definition of fairness. China may have higher emissions than the US, but per capita emissions in the US is twice as high as in China and much higher than in much of the developing world. Moreover, the US, and other developed nations have been adding copious quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. They have reaped all the benefits of industrialization. The developing nations, with a much larger population, have only recently begun the process of improving the lot of their citizens by expanding energy use. Asking them to share equally in cutting emissions? Now that’s unfair!
As far as global emissions are concerned, the rest of the world will continue to make progress. In the US too, progress will continue along that front thanks to economic factors (i.e. cheap natural gas) and actions at state and city levels. The repeal of rules implemented under Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) does remove incentives for auto manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles, including electric cars. That action will likely result in the US ceding leadership in electric cars and batteries to manufacturers in Europe and Asia. The repeal of CPP is not likely to increase coal use for power generation—liberalization of Oil and Gas industry will increase the production of natural gas, which will continue to be fuel of choice for power production. Switching out coal for natural gas will reduce U.S. emissions, but the lack of regulations and requirements for monitoring fugitive natural gas—a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 —could wipe out any benefits there may have been from fuel switching.
A real opportunity for reducing emissions lies in the advanced nuclear technologies. I spoke on the topic two weeks ago. I devoted much of my talk to addressing the widely-held fears and risks of nuclear power, and on the newer thorium-based nuclear technologies that are walk-away safe and generate a very small amount of radioactive waste that would require safeguarding—essentially, burial under six feet of ground—for only about 300 years.
My talk can be viewed here. Unfortunately, since the slides cannot be seen very clearly in the video, I have posted them my Google Drive and you can download them here. It is a long video (about 1.5 h including Q&A), but I hope you can make time to view it. I would be most interested in hearing about any comments or questions you might have, and particularly so if after you viewing you still think that the world would be better off not developing nuclear power.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

America First Energy Plan: Is it even a plan?

The official website of the White House features a tab on Issues, and the top item on the list is President Trump's “America First Energy Plan (AFEP).” It’s hard to consider this one-page document as a plan.  It does not spell out the energy needs of the country for the foreseeable future, nor does it describe what combination of energy sources will be used to meet those needs. What a contrast from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 of President Bush or the Climate Action Plan of President Obama!

I visited this website hoping to learn what incentives or disincentives the new administration will use to favor the development of various energy sources—specifically, I was curious about its stance toward nuclear power. No luck! There was no mention of nuclear power or for that matter any other energy source except coal, oil, and gas. There’s a multi trillion-dollar global market need for CO2-free electricity, that is best addressed by nuclear energy and it would behoove the U.S. to gear up for it.

AFEP recognizes the essential role of energy in our lives and global economy, and the need for “responsible stewardship of the environment.” Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority.” So far so good; it is hard for anyone to disagree with these platitudes, although one of the first executive actions by Trump reversed a rule forbidding dumping of coal ash in waterways—how is that demonstrating environmental stewardship? 

AFEP blames burdensome regulations like the Climate Action Plan of the Obama administration for the plight of the US energy industry, specifically the coal industry.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), coal production in the U.S. has dropped by a third since 2008, from 1.1 billion tons to 740 million tons in 2016. President Trump has repeatedly asserted that removing restrictions imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will bring back the coal industry. I have previously written that the coal industry is hurting mainly because coal has lost its competitive edge to natural gas. The fleet of coal-fired plants in the U.S. is aging, and the demand for electricity in this country has been mostly flat—around 4,000 TWh/yr since 2006. As old coal plants are slowly phased out they are being replaced by those fired with natural gas. Advances in fracking have increased the availability of gas, and depressed its price such that producing power from gas is cheaper than from coal. 

To be sure, complying with the EPA emissions standards for oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, particulates, and other pollutants adds to the cost of coal-generated power, but we certainly do not want to revert to the days of widespread acid rain or smog choking our cities. That would not be “responsible stewardship of the environment.” Obama’s Climate Action Plan limits the emission rate of a new power plant to 400 grams of CO2 per kWh of electricity generated.  The relatively high carbon intensity of coal-fired power plants (greater than 850 grams CO2/kWh) would essentially preclude building any coal-fired power plant except those that would capture and use or sequester the produced CO2. However, repealing the Climate Action Plan is not going to spur the building of coal-fired power plants. Fuel choice for a new power plant is largely an economic decision, and on this basis gas-fired plants will clearly be favored.

AFEP lays out a vision of plentiful energy and jobs that will be unleashed by tapping into an “estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves.”  I know that the U.S. has large reserves of oil and gas, but $50 trillion worth of reserves stretches credibility. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy lists U.S. oil reserves at 55 billion barrels and natural gas reserves at 369 trillion cubic feet.  At $50 per barrel of oil and $2.6 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas, the listed reserves add up to just $3.7 trillion—a far cry from the $50 trillion! 

The term “reserves” has a special meaning; it refers to only those geologic accumulations that can be recovered using current technology at current prices. The U.S. has a significantly larger deposit of oil and gas resources, but they are not classified as reserves. At a high price of oil, say $120/barrel, many of these deposits could be considered reserves. But with the emphasis on domestic drilling for oil and gas and plentiful availability of these, the prospects of oil price rising to those levels is low. To be sure, there is a positive side to having abundant low cost energy. It makes the energy-intensive U.S. industries more competitive and spurs manufacturing of goods for export.

The U.S. Geological Survey periodically estimates the oil and gas resources and these get reported through the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The latest estimates for the resource base of oil and gas are 24 billion barrels of shale oil and 750 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. Monetizing them would yield an additional $3.1 trillion for a total of $6.9 trillion—still nowhere near the $50 trillion number touted in the AFEP.

Perhaps the administration is also including the oil shale resource, which is estimated to be 1,500 billion barrels, and could conceivably generate $50 trillion. But oil shale—not to be confused with shale oil or tight oil—is a rock that bears the precursors to oil called kerogen. The kerogen must be heated to produce the oil because the geology has not done the conversion. Fracking will not produce oil from this resource; it will require mining the rock and retorting it, or somehow heating it underground and collecting the oil. The process is very expensive and certainly not something that could be commercialized when oil sells for $50/barrel.

I can forgive conflating reserves and resources, or oil shale and shale oil, in newspaper articles but not in a national energy plan. But then again, I am not surprised by the blatant exaggeration of the reserves and the emphasis on increasing fossil fuel production with total disregard to the rising CO2 levels in the air and concomitant ocean acidification. After all, the administration appointed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) Scott Pruitt who doubts that global warming is being caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions and has on many occasions challenged the EPA in courts. The administration has indicated that it will cut funding for NOAA, the agency that monitors the state of the planet’s climate. It will no longer require natural gas companies to measure the amount of gas that leaks from their wells and pipelines. These decisions are cause for concern.

In the AFEP there is no mention of sources of electric power like, hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear that have essentially no CO2 emissions. The new administration will likely reverse the requirement that car manufacturers increase the fuel efficiency of their fleets to 54 mpg by 2025. To meet this stretch target, car manufacturers will have to start building many more electric vehicles. Without the pressure to increase fuel efficiency, U.S. car manufacturers will abandon their electric vehicle programs and cede leadership of this emerging market to their European and Asian competitors. That’s not putting America First.

As I mentioned above, global demand for electricity is on the rise and not by just in the developing nations. Even in the OECD countries the demand for electricity will rise as the transportation sector gets electrified and more of the service sector moves to cloud-based services. Server farms deployed by Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Amazon require around a gigawatt of steady uninterrupted power, the size of a nuclear reactor. Renewable sources like wind and solar cannot deliver this power as they require gas-fired power plants to back them up, and hence in practice they turn out to be not entirely carbon-free sources. Advanced nuclear technologies that are inherently safe and proliferation-proof can deliver this energy but market forces currently do not favor investments in them in the U.S. With government support, some of these designs are being developed in Korea, China, and India. There is an opportunity here for the Trump administration to support the necessary R&D on these new nuclear technologies in the U.S. and get them ready for commercial deployment both here and abroad. That would help the U.S. regain leadership in this vital area.

An earlier version had an error in the estimate of US oil reserves.  I have corrected that, but my bottom line conclusion remains the same. March 13, 2017.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Presidential Debates: Lost Opportunity to Discuss Energy Policy

The number times the subject of energy was brought up by a moderator in this year’s three Presidential debates is precisely zero. The only time the issue came up was during the town-hall style debate in St. Louis citizen when Ken Bone asked the candidates, “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job layoffs?” In his brief response, Trump berated the Obama administration and the EPA for “killing” our energy industry and letting foreign companies come in. He was forgetting that more than the EPA it is the abundance of cheap gas that is killing coal production. If oil and gas is production is increased, so will the economic pressure to close coal mines. And, yes we do need regulations; thanks to the Clean Air Act emission of toxic particulates from coal power plants have been markedly reduced, and as a result we are all breathing easier.
In her statement, which was cut short by the moderator, Clinton only emphasized the need to revitalize the coal country as coal prices are down globally and the government can’t walk away from miners and other workers of the region. We missed a great opportunity to hear our candidates lay out their policies on this very important topic.
Hillary Clinton wants to invest heavily in transforming the US energy supply and touts the large number of green jobs that will create.  While consideration of jobs is understandable, I think the emphasis on the number of jobs in energy industries is misplaced. The role of the energy industry is not to employ many workers within itself, but to produce a commodity at an affordable price to enable other industries and businesses to flourish and in so doing provide employment for many. We don’t necessarily want many people employed in the production of energy—a commodity; rather we want more people employed in the consumption of energy. Wages for every employee engaged in production add to the cost of producing the commodity, making it more expensive for other businesses and industries to use it and employ more workers.
It is true that green energy employs many more people, but to get more quantitative—which is my wont—I browsed through the databases published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to cull some relevant data. For the amount of energy produced by each sector, I used the data from the 2016 BP Review of Global Energy. Whereas the BLS continues to track the numbers for the Oil and Gas, Coal, Nuclear, Hydro, and many other industries, it stopped tracking Green Energy jobs in 2013—a casualty of the sequestration that went into effect when the Congress could not agree on a balanced budget. Besides, its definition of “green jobs” was very broad. Fortunately, the International Renewable Energy Agency does track the global employment in wind, solar, and other renewable technologies.
The following table lists the number of workers employed in the different energy sector and the amount of energy produced by them. For the first four entries the numbers refer to the US only, but for Wind and Solar they refer to global employment and global energy production. The relevant point for comparison is the per capita productivity. Whereas each worker in the Nuclear power produces over 100 GWh/year, the productivity of workers in the wind power sector generate less than 1 GWh/yr, and in the solar less than a tenth of that. At this rate, the solar power sector would need to employ about 43 million workers, or roughly a third of the US workforce, to generate the 4,000 TWh of electricity that the US currently produces and consumes!
Table 1. Per capita energy productivity is the highest for nuclear power.
No. of Workers
Energy Produced (TWh)
Nuclear (US)
Coal (US)
Oil & Gas (US)
Hydro (US)
Wind (Global)
Solar (Global)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Trump's energy policy speech

I haven’t been paying much attention to the statements made by the presumptive Republican nominee, Mr. Donald J. Trump. His bombastic and inflammatory comments early in the campaign had turned me off. On May 26 he gave speech on energy policy at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, in Bismarck, North Dakota. A friend sent me a news clip of his speech wondering if his statement about the relative oil reserves of the US and OPEC were correct. Energy happens to be a subject that I am quite familiar with: having worked in the area for thirty years and written a book and blogging on the subject. My immediate response upon hearing him was that he was totally wrong. US oil reserves are only a fifth of those of Saudi Arabia, and even with the recent gush of shale oil, the US reserves remain a tiny fraction.
What puzzled me was why a candidate for the US Presidency would make such an obvious mistake. And so I listened to his statement again; this time very carefully to see if I had missed something—and indeed I had. Here is a link to his full speech.
In a single sentence Trump says that the US has 1.5 times oil than the combined reserves of OPEC. One would think that when he says "US has 1.5 times oil" he is also referring to the oil reserves of the US, otherwise the comparison would not make much sense. But he did not say that US reserves of oil are 1.5 times those of OPEC. He only said that US “has 1.5 times oil…” Such a comparison would be as meaningless as me saying I have more money than Trump has cash in his pockets—a statement while most likely true is totally disingenuous and insincere!
Here are some numbers in cmo units—cmo stands for a cubic mile of oil and is equal to 26.2 billion bbl (barrels) or 3,784 million metric tons of oil equivalent (MTOE). US oil reserves are less than 2.0 cmo; Saudi Arabian reserves are over 10 cmo. The reserves of all OPEC countries add up to 43 cmo. Russian reserves are about 4 cmo. If by “has” Trump is referring to all US resources, including oil shale (not just shale oil, which can be produced by fracking), then yes he may be correct. US has an estimated 70 cmo of oil shale, but for whose recovery we do not have an economic technology. Remember, oil shale is that vast resource that has oil precursors embedded in shale, but the geology has not yet done the job of producing the oil. We have to dig up the rock and heat it to produce the oil or heat it underground to liberate the oil. For a fairer comparison of respective resources we should look at the resource base of OPEC too, which is estimated at about 40 cmo on top of the 43 cmo of reserves.
Trump also makes the audacious claim that the US has more natural gas than Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The natural gas reserves of the US are 2.2 cmo, while those of Russia are 4.0. The combined reserves of Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are 23 cmo. Hard as much as I try, I cannot rationalize Trump's statements about natural gas.
A basic premise of Trump’s speech was that the regulations had been curtailing production in the US energy resources. He wants to declare US energy dominance a strategic, economic, and foreign policy goal. He would achieve that goal by getting rid of those onerous restrictions by the EPA and other agencies. He will cancel the Paris Climate Agreement (COP21) and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N global warming programs.
His main assumption is that once the regulations are gone, the oil and gas industry could ramp up production and bring wealth to America. This line of reasoning takes no account of the fact that the global market is already oversupplied. Increasing US production will only further depress the prices and make much of the US production uneconomic. When oil prices fell from $100/bbl in 2014 to below $30/bbl in 2015, investments in new drilling ceased, rig counts plunged from 1900 to 400, and many boom towns in North Dakota, Montana, and Texas became emaciated skeletons of their roaring days. This decline was not a self-inflicted wound; it did not occur as a result of EPA-imposed regulations. In order for the US oil to garner a greater share of the global market, it would have to undersell the low priced competition from Saudi Arabia—and there goes the economic incentive for any oil producer in a free economy.
Trump blames regulations like the Clean Power Production as the chief reason coal production and use in the US has dropped sharply—from producing 50% of US electricity to producing only 33%. The Clean Air Act and its amendments dating from the 1970s and 1990s increased the cost of electricity from coal, but they did not remove the dominance of coal in power production. The main reason for the decline has been the availability of cheap natural gas. Cleaner and cheaper natural gas has made coal burning power plants relatively uneconomical. Under Trump’s plan, restrictions on fracking for oil and gas would be lifted and flood the market would be further flooded with cheap gas, which would only hasten the demise of coal. Those coal mining jobs that he talks about cannot be restored as long as there is an abundance of natural gas, unless he artificially raises the price of natural gas. He cannot have both gas and coal industries flourish simultaneously—at least not in a free market democracy.
According to Trump, “President Obama entered the United States into the Paris Climate Accords – unilaterally, and without the permission of Congress. This agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use right here in America.” To begin with COP21 is an Agreement, not a treaty that would require congressional approval.  Under COP21 foreign bureaucrats do not control how much or how we use energy in America. In fact, the Agreement relies solely on “intended nationally determined contributions (INDC),” which are put forth by the signatory nations themselves.  The problem with COP21 is that the current set of INDCs do not go far enough to meet the reductions required to limit the Earth’s warming to 2°C above the pre-industrialization level.  But then again, Trump does not believe in climate change results from greenhouse gases.
What these considerations show is that Trump lacks the basic understanding of the facts of the global energy market—who has what and how much. He has no appreciation of the interrelatedness of the energy markets. Given the centrality of energy in matters of national security, foreign relations, and trade, I am afraid that should Trump become our next president, we better fasten our seat belts—it’s going to be a very bumpy ride.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Update January 2016

This is a long overdue post!  The BP Statistical Report came out in April, the Pope’s Encyclical was published in June, oil prices have stayed below $50 a barrel for over a year, the Obama administration issued its Clean Power Plan in August, Climate Talks in Paris were held in December.  Lots of items to cover, so let’s get down to it. 
Overall Energy Use
First, a quick review of the global energy scene in 2014 as reflected in the BP Statistical Review of 2015.  Since 2006, the year for which the data were used in the writing of A Cubic Mile of Oil, energy use has increased from 3.19 cmo to 3.74 cmo. Most of 0.55-cmo increase in energy consumption since 2006 has come from increased use of coal (0.23 cmo), natural gas (0.14 cmo), and oil (0.10 cmo), and not surprisingly, the global emission of CO2 from energy use increased from 31.2 GtCO2 in 2006 to 36 GtCO2 in 2014. The updated pie charts of energy sources are in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Distribution of sources of global primary energy in 2006 and 2014.
Energy consumption in the last 8 years has increased by 17.4%. The period includes the financial crisis of 2008 and a marked decline in energy consumption and economic output for two years. Yet, the net increase in energy consumption corresponds to a compounded average growth rate (CAGR) of almost 2%. I should note that the increase in energy demand in 2014 was less than 1% compared to the 2-3% increases seen in recent years.  The low energy demand reflects a softening in the global market. Annual GDP growth in China is down below 7% and there is considerable economic uncertainty in several European countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy, and Russia.
Nuclear Power
There was a noticeable reduction in the production of nuclear power; from 2806 TWh (0.17 cmo) in 2006 to 2537 TWh (0.15 cmo). The share of nuclear nuclear power to primary energy consumption dropped from 5.4% to 4.0% during this period. Japan shut down all its nuclear power plants following the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011, which caused a major accident at Fukushima. Japan has now begun the slow process restarting those plants. The plan is to resume generating power from all the plants by 2020 but there remains much public opposition to restarting nuclear power plants. 
Following the general elections in 1998 Germany’s coalition government, which for the first time included the Green Party, adopted a plan to phase out nuclear power. The new Social Democratic Party government led by Angela Merkel reversed that policy in 2009, but reinstated it following the Fukushima disaster. It closed down nine out of the 17 power plants, as a result, instead of providing 25% of domestic electricity, nuclear power provided only 16%. Between Germany and Japan, almost 360 TWh of nuclear power production was lost. Some of the lost nuclear production was made up by increases in China (72 TWh) and India (17 TWh). 

Replacing the loss of 300 TWh of nuclear power by coal would increase CO2 emissions by 0.3 Gt CO2, or about 6% of the increase in emissions since 2006. The steady increase in CO2 emissions does not augur well for climate change. The IPCC reports have been steadily increasing the certainty with which anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are expected to cause catastrophic damage. Shutting down nuclear plants at a time when there is an urgency to transition to CO2-free energy is counterproductive.

Low Oil Prices
Starting in mid 2014, crude oil price began a precipitous decline from over $100/bbl to the current price of about $35/bbl. There are a number of factors for this decline. Commentators in the US tend to attribute this decline to the rise in the US production of tight oil (aka, shale oil). Since 2006 the US oil production has steadily increased by about 3 million bbl/day. It may seem a small fraction of the global consumption which is around 90 million bbl/day, but given the tightness in the market between the supply and demand, a swing of 3 million bbl/day is significant.  However, the story of low oil prices a bit more complicated and involves events and policy changes elsewhere in the world as well. Increase in US production took place at a time when global demand was high and when events in the Middle East had constrained the supply. The excess oil in the US more or less offset the loss of oil from Iraq and Libya in the world market. When Iraq oil started to flow and the global demand was softening a global glut was imminent, but that was prevented by the sanctions against Iran. Now with prospects of the nuclear deal and the lifting of the sanctions, 2.5 million bbl/day from Iran would once again flow into the global market and that fact combined with low demand has depressed oil futures. For over 40 years now, the US has had a policy of not exporting crude oil. With the recent availability of excess domestic crude, the US refiners increased their capacity to produce refined fuels—something that was also aided by the increased supply of fracked natural gas. The US recent lifting of the US ban on exporting crude oil only exacerbates the situation and further depresses oil futures.

Saudi Arabia has traditionally played the role of the swing producer and. as recently as 2013, dropped its production by a million bbl/day to stabilize oil prices. In June 2014 Saudi Arabia reversed its policy and decided in favor of retaining market share by increasing oil production back up to over 10 million bbl/day. This oversupply caused the oil prices to tumble and while it has been largely a boon to oil consumers, the price drop is causing economic hardship in many oil producing countries, including Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, Iraq, and also Saudi Arabia itself.  

Saudi Arabia’s has sufficient cash reserves to support running the current level of deficit for about five years. It is counting on the fact that many of its competitors will not be able to sustain their deficits that long, and will be driven out of business. Under the current circumstances it makes little sense to drill for new oil, particularly in hard-to-produce resources like tight formations, deep water, or under the Arctic Ocean. Companies will produce oil only from wells whose up-front costs have already been paid and for which the cost of continued production can be recovered at the prevailing price of oil.  Wells that are no longer economical will be shut down.

Saudi Arabia’s strategy has already had an impact in the US where rigs used for fracking oil is down from 1900 in January 2015 to 650 in December. The total oil production dropped by 400,000 bbl/day. That the drop in rig count is far more precipitous than the drop in production reflects the fact that there is little appetite for digging new wells, and it is wells with poor productivity that get shut down first. If and when the oil price increases oil from fracked formations can resume in a short time. This quick start-up and shut-down of production allows fracking companies to act as the new swing producers. However, if the low prices continue for several years and investments in new production and distribution facilities are not made, any future rise in oil prices will likely be very steep.

Rise of Renewables
The past eight years have witnessed a marked increase in the production of electricity from wind, solar and geothermal energy sources, from 138 TWh in 2006 to 992 TWh in 2014.  The installed capacity of wind increased five-fold from 74 GW to 373 GW, and for solar it soared 27-fold from 6.7 to 180 GW. The last eight years have seen a substantial drop in the cost of electricity from these technologies. In 2006, PV panels used to sell for about $3/watt, their price has dropped to about $0.75/watt.  The levelized cost of electricity from solar in 2006 was around 36¢/kWh; in 2015 it is below 10¢/kWh.  Many Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) from solar facilities in 2015 have electricity priced at less than 5¢/kWh. Most notably perhaps are the two agreements signed by the utility NV Energy, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway: one with SunEdison for power from a solar plant in Colorado for 4.6¢/kWh; and the other with First Solar for power from their plant in Nevada for 3.87¢/kWh. Wind power prices have also come down over these years.  In 2006, wind energy costs were about 15¢/kWh; in 2015 PPAs signed for wind power in the interior states in the US having a purchase price of about 2¢/kWh. These low prices do come with subsidies in the form of a 30% investment tax credit for the solar power and a 2.3¢/kWh of production tax credit for wind power.  

Since 2000 wind and solar power have enjoyed an exponential growth in production. The growth has been driven by market forces—falling prices—as well as government policies like Energiewende in Germany and Renewable Portfolio Standards in many states across the US. Advocates of of these energy sources project this growth to continue at this level or even at an accelerated pace such that electricity production from these sources will soon provide the majority of global electricity, which in 2014 was 24,000 TWh. The graph below (Figure 2) shows the amount of electricity produced by wind and solar plants on a logarithmic scale. While it is true that for a period solar installations were doubling every two years and wind every four, the doubling rate has slowed down. The slow down since 2011 relative to the growth during the preceding five years is a sobering reminder that once the installation base gets large enough resource constraints—such as material supplies, labor and capital—slow down the process. Rosy forecasts by proponents notwithstanding, unless drastic policy measures are taken, it does not look like wind and solar will generate even 10,000 TWh/yr by 2025, by which time total electricity demand could well exceed 36,000 TWh.
Figure 2. Growth of wind and solar power generation has been remarkable, but current rate is not fast enough to allow wind and solar to be the dominant electricity producers by 2030.

Battery Storage
Storage of electrical energy is an important factor for increasing the penetration of intermittent sources like wind and solar.  The only significant electrical storage capacity in the grid currently is in the form of pumped hydro. Although there are a number of battery systems, such as flow cells and liquid metal cells, in early stages of development, they currently do not provide any grid-level storage. 

Noteworthy advances in Li-ion batteries have also been made in these intervening years. In 2006 Li-ion batteries cost about $1000/kWh, and that was a serious impediment to their broad application electric cars. Cost of Li-ion batteries has now dropped to about $300/kWh. The 24-kWh battery pack in Nissan Leaf cars, which cost an estimated $18,000 in 2010 can now be replaced for $5,500 plus the used battery.  If we include the $1,000 for value for the used battery, the cost of the new battery pack would be $6,500 or $270/kWh.  Life of the battery packs has also increased through better management of heat and charging/discharging currents.  A lifetime of over 1000 deep-discharge cycles is now quite typical. For residential applications Tesla announced its PowerWall units in April 2015. Each $3,500 unit can store 7 kWh—there is also a 10 kWh unit available for $3,500. The price is still steep for use as a simple backup power system during power outage; the main value of these units is for homes with PV systems as they extend the use of solar power during nighttime and largely eliminate the need for grid power. 

CO2 Emissions
There has been increasing pressure on the world’s largest emitter, China, and the largest per capita emitter, the US, to curb emissions. US and China emissions of CO2 in 2006 were 6.4 and 6.9 Gt respectively. In 2014, the US emissions were down to 6.0 Gt, but China’s emissions had risen to 9.8 Gt. On a per capita basis, US emissions still far exceed those of China—18 metric tons per capita in the US versus 8.2 metric tons in China. In Nov. 2014 presidents Obama and Xi Jinping signed an accord under which the US would reduce its GHG emissions to 28% below 2005 level by 2025 and China would peak its emissions by 2030 after which it would reduce them. President Obama followed up that pledge by issuing the Clean Power Plan (CPP) in Aug. 2015 under which there would be a federal standard for reducing CO2 emissions from power generation by 32% over 2005 levels by 2030, but it would be up to individual states to determine the mix of technologies to achieve those goals.

It is not clear how successful CPP will be in cutting down GHG emissions. Market forces have already led to a substantial reduction of emissions in the US by the switch from coal to natural gas, and perhaps more could be achieved with further decline in the cost of wind and solar power. Politically, the CPP has not garnered much support.   Many state governors have already announced their opposition to The CPP. Nevertheless, the joint agreement with China and the CPP have helped pave the way for the COP21 Climate Talks in December.

The Papal Encyclical issued in July also drew attention to the growing threat of climate change and its disproportionate impact on the impoverished.  Pope Francis noted, that “… our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products,” and called for “changes of lifestyle, production and con­sumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggra­vate it.” His statements about combating climate change received much attention, but there was another deeper message in his statement, the one about consumerism and social injustice it engenders when “(w)e fail to see that some are mired in des­perate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.” The pope recognized the need for vastly expanding renewable energy sources, but also noted that, “(f)or poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people.” 

Around the same time as the Pope’s Encyclical, the World Bank also issued Sustainable Development Goals for the world which lists goals and targets in 17 areas: eradicating poverty, providing adequate food and clean water, reducing gender inequality, taking urgent action to combat climate change, and ensuring access to affordable reliable energy is listed among the goals. Achieving most of these goals requires increasing global energy supply. Speaking about the enormous progress the world already made Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of World Bank noted that over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 25 years, and he could foresee lifting another billion in not too distant future. 

The progress Dr. Kim noted was made on the backs of coal and oil. Can we afford to do the same to help the next billion? The SDG of removing poverty runs up against the need to curb CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, the one CO2-free energy source that is capable to generating the required scale of power, nuclear, is something that the World Bank does not support developing. In view of its policy of not funding nuclear power I have to wonder how serious is the World Bank about the SDGs.
In early December 2015 with much fanfare about 200 nations signed the COP21 Agreement to curb global GHG emissions. It was an unprecedented achievement given the previous failed attempts.  All nations acknowledged the peril the world faces from climate change being engendered by continued emission of GHG, principally from the use of fossil fuels. The countries pledged to cut down their GHG emissions either in absolute numbers or relative to an expected business-as-usual (BAU) scenario. The individual countries determine the GHG reductions they pledge to make. However, there is no mechanism of punitive action to force the countries to stick to the pledged contributions except a public shame. The intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) are reported to the UN and the emissions of each country are measured and reported in an agreed-upon standard way, and both these are in the public domain. The lack of enforcement is a recognition of political realities; any Agreement that had forced compliance would not have had the support of many countries.
COP21 Agreement sets a goal of limiting the rise in global to temperature to 2°C above the pre-industrialization level, with a stretch goal of limiting the rise to 1.5°C. Even achieving the 2°C target is a daunting challenge, and requires a major upheaval of the global energy system. It would require achieving a net zero emissions by 2050, and limiting total emissions to about 350 Gt CO2

The world currently consumes about 3.6 cubic miles of oil equivalent (cmo) of primary energy and emits over 36 Gt CO2 from energy use.  Under BAU the annual energy consumption is expected to rise to more than 6 cmo by 2050. Burning of each cubic mile of oil releases 12 Gt CO2, about 17 Gt if it is from coal and about 8 Gt CO2 if natural gas is the source of the energy. Even under an all-renewable, all-electric scenario, which could conceivably avoid two-thirds of the primary energy, an energy consumption of 6 cmo/yr would lead to a requirement of generating of 82,000 TWh of electricity relative to 24,000 TWh in 2014; in other words, more than tripling the current global electricity production.

I found it appalling when it was brought to my attention (thanks to Morgan Bazilian)  that the word energy appears only three times in the 31-page Agreement. The word appears twice on page two where the Conference of Parties “acknowledges the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa, through the enhanced deployment of renewable energy.” The third time the word is used is on page 31 as part of the the name of UN’s IAEA:  International Atomic Energy Agency. No wonder then that there is such huge chasm between the target reductions in CO2 and the pledged INDCs.

I paint a rather gloomy picture, but I would like to end on a more hopeful note. Perhaps the most important outcome of COP21 was the formation of the Mission Innovation fund by many prominent philanthropists like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and others to help innovative solutions cross the “valley of death” and transition to commercialization. They have been joined by 20 governments to double the collective annual budget of energy research from $10 B to $20 B. It may be too little too late, but I can only hope some of the Mission Innovation funds will provide the necessary support to bring the nascent nuclear power technologies that are inherently safe and scalable to market.