Several years ago, when I was working on my book Power Plays, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of energy. One thing I concluded was that solar power would become one of the world’s most important sources of energy – if not eventually the most important source of energy. I also discussed this in the 2007 column “The Future Is Solar.”
There are a couple of reasons I still believe this. But first, I should make it clear that it will be a long time before solar power rivals the consumption of oil in the global energy market.
While solar power is growing rapidly, we still use about 100 times as much energy in the form of oil (and about 90 times as much in the form of coal). Further, even though solar power is growing at a fast rate, the absolute growth in oil consumption from 2013 to 2014 was about 3 times the growth in solar power consumption. In other words, even though solar consumption grew at a 38% rate and oil consumption grew at about a 0.7% rate, this amounted to an increase in solar consumption of 11.6 million metric tons of oil equivalent versus an increase in oil consumption of 32 million metric tons. CONTINUE»
I spent a lot of time in 2015 warning that at year-end we would see a huge decline in crude oil reserves. As I have explained in the past, the reason I expected this is because of the relationship between proved oil reserves and oil prices. This relationship is important for understanding oil reserves. Some articles that recently began making the rounds made certain conclusions from this paper — A global energy assessment — in which some subtleties about oil reserves have been lost. So let’s review.
An oil resource refers to the total amount of oil in place in particular area. Generally, most of a resource can’t be technically recovered, but the resource refers to the amount that could potentially be recovered. These estimates can go up and down, but the resource is what could be recovered at 100% recovery based on current estimates.
As an example, it is estimated that the Bakken Shale centered under North Dakota contains several hundred billion barrels (bbl) of oil (the resource). However, what is technically and economically recoverable in the Bakken has been estimated at less than 10 billion barrels (<10% of the resource). CONTINUE»
A few people have asked if I can reproduce more of my Forbes columns here, because they don’t like wading through the ads there to get to the content. This week I wrote an update on the progress toward cellulosic ethanol commercialization, and given my previous coverage on the topic (especially Why I Don’t Ride a Unicorn to Work) this seems like an appropriate subject to discuss here.
Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that during the first quarter of 2016, just over 1 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol were produced. In fact, production for the month of March jumped 64% from the previous month to 446,000 gallons produced, the highest levels of the modern era. Production this year is well ahead of the pace in 2015, when 2.2 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol were produced for the entire year.
So, have we finally reached the long-promised realization of commercial cellulosic ethanol? CONTINUE»
Coal Goes Bust
Today, as had been expected, Peabody Energy Corp. (NYSE: BTU) — the largest coal producer in the United States — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Following the announcement I immediately began to receive press releases from various environmental organizations crediting the rise of renewable energy and/or the campaigns to divest investments from fossil fuels for the decline in the U.S. coal industry.
A press release from 350.org declared Peabody’s bankruptcy “A harbinger of the end of the fossil fuel era.” While I applaud a transition away from coal, these organizations are falling all over themselves to give credit to everything except the primary culprit behind the demise of the U.S. coal industry, which is natural gas (as I demonstrate below). In fact, many of these organizations have circulated stories — usually from those with clear vested interests — intended to discredit the indisputable role that natural gas has played. So let’s take a closer look. CONTINUE»
In my previous article — Leonardo DiCaprio’s Huge Carbon Footprint — I discussed the seeming inconsistency of Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change activism and his excessive fossil fuel consumption. My argument was that with his own large carbon footprint, DiCaprio is undermining his message and making himself an easy target for critics.
My argument wasn’t specifically that he is a hypocrite, although that has indeed been the argument of many. But others have argued that DiCaprio isn’t a hypocrite at all, because he isn’t actually asking anyone to sacrifice. This is the position articulated well by David Roberts at Vox in Rich climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio lives a carbon-intensive lifestyle, and that’s (mostly) fine. I generally find a lot of truth in what David writes, even when I disagree with him. But here I kind of think David misses the point.
Roberts acknowledges the appeal of the critiques against DiCaprio, noting that there are even plenty of liberals and environmentalists who are quick to criticize climate activists with high-carbon lifestyles. He believes there are two arguments that DiCaprio’s critics make, and then he sets out to debunk them. My intention today is to challenge his debunking. CONTINUE»
Leonardo DiCaprio recently won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Revenant. I saw the movie, and to my layman’s eye it certainly seemed like an Oscar-worthy performance. I was rooting for him to win, as was, it seems, most of America. His victory reportedly set a social-media record, with 440,000 posts in about a minute to become the single-most Tweeted minute during an Oscar telecast.
While I applauded his victory, I took exception to part of his acceptance speech. Here is an excerpt:
“Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this.”
The problem isn’t the message. I believe we are engaging in a dangerous experiment by dumping ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I don’t think there is an easy fix to the problem, but I agree with his characterization that it is an urgent threat. CONTINUE»
The USDA recently updated the numbers on the energy balance of corn ethanol in 2015 Energy Balance for the Corn-Ethanol Industry. Today returning guest Todd “Ike” Kiefer scrutinizes the numbers in the report and he raises some critical questions about the data and methodology.
Previously Mr. Kiefer wrote an article critical of the Navy’s efforts to promote biofuels in a periodical that is sent to Congress and top military leaders. The article was entitled Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels (discussed here). He also wrote a guest article here in the past called EPA’s Sleight of Hand on Cellulosic Fuel Rule Change. His biography can be found at the end of the article.
I would remind readers that while I may agree with much, if not most of what Mr. Kiefer writes, these are his opinions. I have not taken a close look at this USDA paper myself, so it is possible that we could have a difference of opinion on some element(s) of the analysis. I don’t know that to be the case, but until I read the paper myself I offer up that caveat. CONTINUE»
Ten years ago a visionary named Vinod Khosla gave a presentation called Biofuels: Think Outside the Barrel. It seems to have disappeared from his Khosla Ventures website, but you can find an archived version here. In that presentation Mr. Khosla outlined his vision for biofuels. He projected that ethanol produced from biomass – aka “cellulosic ethanol” – would scale up rapidly. From zero commercial production in 2006, Khosla foresaw the first 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol hitting the market in 2008 (see Slide 78), ramping rapidly to 2.5 billion gallons in 2011, 14.6 billion gallons in 2015, and ultimately 173 billion gallons per year by 2030. Combined with corn ethanol production, he believed cellulosic ethanol could totally end U.S. dependence on petroleum for transportation fuel – but he needed to get the government on board to foot some costs.
Khosla addressed potential obstacles in his presentation. Certainly cellulosic ethanol wouldn’t fail because of technology. There were too many companies working on it. The magic of Moore’s Law and black swans would be the ticket to success. (As an aside, he doesn’t seem to understand the black swan theory, as he frequently cites these “high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events” as an expected outcome). The only real barrier he could identify was those despicable oil companies, who had to be shaking in their boots that this 100-year old upstart technology would spell their demise.
But he would deal with the oil companies through legislation by forcing them to purchase this product that had yet to be commercialized. So he lobbied, and he testified before Congress. He lost a vote or two, but he was instrumental in getting cellulosic ethanol mandates included in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The EPA was charged with implementing the RFS, and they based the mandated volumes on the amount that potential cellulosic ethanol producers claimed they would be able to produce. For 2010 the EPA was counting on 100 million gallons of cellulosic fuels based on claims primarily from two companies associated with Vinod Khosla: Range Fuels and Cello Energy. CONTINUE»
A few days after Christmas I appeared on CNBC Asia’s Squawk Box to discuss the volatility in the oil market. Bernie Lo asked a question about OPEC’s strategy, and I characterized their decision to defend market share as “a big, costly mistake” that had already cost the group over $500 billion in 2015 and would likely cost them that much again in 2016.
I followed that appearance up with an article for Forbes called OPEC’s Trillion-Dollar Miscalculation (which went viral and received more than 100 times the traffic of their typical energy article). In that article I detailed the numbers behind my assertion.
Two weeks later, Continental Resources CEO and shale drilling pioneer Harold Hamm went on CNBC and reiterated my argument. He called OPEC’s strategy “a monumental mistake for them, I might add, a trillion-dollar mistake.” While there were a number of responses to Hamm’s comments that displayed varying degrees of schadenfreude over the huge decline in his net worth, I didn’t see much acknowledgement that the point is correct. So let’s review. CONTINUE»
When I made my annual energy predictions a year ago, I noted that I foresaw a “lot of uncertainty in the energy markets” and indicated that “the direction on several fronts is unclear.” That certainly proved to be the case as numerous pundits – including me – missed on oil price predictions.
Unfortunately, the market uncertainty is carrying over into 2016. This has implications for several predictions so, as I cautioned last year, it will be a challenge to repeat 2014′s record. But as always, the context is more important than the prediction itself, because context allows one to adjust one’s own views as events play out during the year. I may predict an oil price, but I also try to provide context as to what could go wrong with a prediction, so that readers can adjust their own expectations as the year unfolds.
As a reminder, I strive to make predictions that are specific, measurable, and preferably actionable. If forecasts are broad and vague, one can almost always declare victory. CONTINUE»