Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dissonant Views of Peak Oil and Climate Change—Can You Have Both?

Before I let this, and my previous post on this topic, drift down the gutter into the sewer of unwelcome posts, I am compelled to present a bit more background and to make a few predictions.

There are many notable men of words1 in the transition and peak oil movements that have publically recognized the dissonant views posed by a peak oil/peak fossil fuel scenario and an anthropogenic (man-made) global warming scenario, as portrayed by the IPCC. 

For instance, here is André Angelantoni, the founder of Post Peak Living commenting on this topic in 2007:

It would be going too far to say that the IPCC report is wrong: there is a lot of good science in there and we certainly are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. However, the IPCC authors relied on published numbers for hydrocarbon availability and gradually those numbers are becoming untenable.
In addition to the list of objections people use to deny climate change ("it's the volcanoes," "mars and the other planets are warming up, too, so it must be the sun" etc.) we can now expect a new one to be added, which will sound like, "We don't have to worry: there isn't enough fossil fuel left to be a problem" or "You still want to limit carbon emissions? The market is already doing that as a result of high oil prices and we can't damage the economy even further."

In other words, peak oil will make legislated carbon reductions more difficult, not less. And the arguments actually are reasonable: carbon emissions will go down regardless of legislation because of peak oil
The cap and trade system will collapse because the baseline carbon will be declining due to reduced economic activity and a dramatic increase in efficiency projects.
It is almost certain, in my view, that concern for peak oil will soon replace concern for climate change as oil supplies tighten and prices rise above $100/barrel. This is because the effects of peak oil will be immediate and widespread, unlike the effects of climate change at this time.

Richard Heinberg captures it perfectly when he says: "Climate change makes getting off of oil necessary and peak oil makes it inevitable." In other words, peak oil a very good reason to create alternative, renewable energy sources right now.

And remember: it is not true that peak oil means that the worst of climate change won't occur. Recall that even if we keep atmospheric emissions below 450ppm, we still have only lowered the chance of catastrophic climate change to below 50% — not eliminated it (Source: IPCC Fourth Assessment). All the other problems (drought, rising water levels, lower food production, etc.) will continue to worsen as we climb toward 450ppm.

So what do we do? Now more than ever it's important to transform how energy is used by the economy and move off of fossil fuels. Efficiency (doing the same work using less energy), conservation (reducing demand) and renewable energy generation are what every business should be spending a great deal of time on.

And the climate change community must quickly alter its message to include peak oil or it risks being marginalized.

from André Angelantoni, Peak Oil and Climate Change FAQ (emphasis added)

By the way that estimate of 450 ppm was based on the assumption that the reserves for oil, gas and coal reported  by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) are accurate.  As with the IEA, as discussed by Aleklett, the EIA probably grossly overestimates the recoverable reserves of fossil fuels.

Okay, here is Chris Martenson, the author of the free on-line Crash Course wading in on the subject in 2009:

I don't normally wade into these waters mainly because the entire topic of global warming, for many, comes down to a matter of belief and is therefore subject to a rapid escalation of emotions.

I will say that as a former computer modeler I am quite leery of big models because I know the limitations.  Among them are sensitive dependence on initial conditions (the so-called butterfly effect especially prominent in chaotic systems), the length of time being modeled (longer = less accurate), and getting your variables both completely defined and their feedback loops properly adjusted.
Now let's fast forward to a system (climate) with hundreds if not thousands of variables, some of which may not yet even be characterized (or discovered), many of them not directly testable, with unknown feedback parameters requiring vast ranges to be applied (think back to the butterfly effect here) all being cast forward many years, if not decades.  Suffice it to say that some caution is warranted. 
So my point here is that I am leery of models that I can only understand by their outputs and not their construction.  I daresay that very, very few (here and elsewhere) can really assess the strengths and limitations of such models, upon which everything rests.

But as a person with modeling experience I can tell you that we should all reserve some measure of caution before allowing the results of such models to become incorporated into our personal belief systems.  There are simply too many ways for them to be wrong - in either direction(!). 

Another way one might introduce some caution into believing the output from any particular climate model is to note that there is not even any specific agreement over what the actual temperatures were that inform the baseline positions of the models (here and here). Since I am a "take it down to the base data" kind of fellow, I cringe when I discover that there is so much controversy about the statistical revision of the base data itself as it feels as if there's a bottomless well of inquiry between myself and any opinion I might form about the output of models that rely on that data.

I am somewhat disappointed, however, in many of my scientific brethren out there who do not speak of the obvious limitations in these models and promote the results with more certainty than I know are warranted.  They do a disservice to science in general and to their own branch specifically.  When, not if but when, their models are proven by the real world to be off the mark (and they will be) then their prior claims can, and will, be used against them in the court of political and public opinion. 

.... it is my past experience with models that leaves me especially leery of "letting them in" to my system of personal beliefs.

from Chris Martenson, Global Climate Change: is it worth brushing off? post 243 (emphasis added)

And, here is Martenson again in 2009:

The good news for people worried about ever-increasing carbon emissions from here to eternity is that we'll probably never get all the coal and oil out of the ground to burn.  Our exponentially-designed economic system will gasp a final breath through a dwindling energy straw long before we manage to extract the remaining dregs.  A slumping economy will prevent oil from being extracted from 35,000 feet under the ocean and coal from being pulled up from 4,000 feet under the ground.

Even without the economic dislocation effects, the dire IPCC carbon projections for carbon dioxide accumulation would require the world's extraction and use of coal to climb by more than 600% over the rest of the century, which is pure fantasy.

Here is a 2010 interview of Robert Hirsch the author of the Hirsch Report and co-author of the book, "The Impending World Energy Mess" (which I discussed here):

The science is messy it's by no means clear.  And, by the way, the international group that did the studies, part of which were hijacked by people with their own ulterior motives.  Those studies utilized a continuing growth of world oil, coal and natural gas production world-wide till the end of the century.  And we know that that is just plan dead wrong.  We are going to go into oil production decline in the not too distant future. Natural gas is a finite resource, and it will go into decline sometime after oil production goes into decline. And coal is also a finite resource.  So, fortunately or unfortunately, the people who did that study glossed over the limitations of these finite resources.  So there is simply not enough hydrocarbon there to push things to the extent these folks have assumed.  And so they have made a fundamental error that has to be in fact addressed. 

Finally, here is Erik Curren, the publisher of Transition Voice commenting on this topic in the context of a Clive Hamilton book review in 2011:

If Hamilton took note of what the International Energy Agency said last year, that the world passed peak oil production in 2006 — and if he also recognized that peak coal can’t be far behind — then he would see that IPCC assumptions about the rate at which greenhouse emissions will increase are probably way too high. More likely, given energy depletion, is for the world to use less than half the energy it does today by mid-century. That is, if there’s any global industrial economy at all in 2050.

For the self-described former director of “Australia’s foremost progressive think tank” to write a book about climate and energy and not mention peak oil once seems either grossly negligent or intellectually dishonest. Certainly, Hamilton must have heard about energy depletion during his years of research and advocacy. My guess is that, like many climate activists, he just didn’t want to talk about it.

I do not think that Aleklett, Angelantoni, Martenson, Hirsh or Curren are "climate change deniers." 

But I do think that they, like me, see the disconnect between the IPCC's assumption of a "business as usual" ever growing fossil fuel production and use scenario, versus the likelihood that the world is at or near the production rate peaks in oil, gas and coal.  

I think that they, like me, would like to see a more creditable climate modeling scenario which considers the possibility of peaking fossil fuels.

Personally, I find it impossible to accept a peak oil/peak fossil fuel scenario and to simultaneously accept the IPCC's man-made climate change scenarios.  To borrow from Martenson's article title, you can't have both. 

Of these two dissonant future scenarios, peak fossil fuel versus man-made climate change, it is the latter one that has been widely accepted by national governments and international groups.

And, because there is already substantial emotional, financial and political investment in the man-made climate change scenario, it will be very difficult for these bodies to do what Angelantoni suggested: alter the message to include peak oil or risk being marginalized. 

An about-face acknowledgement of peaking fossil fuels, in my opinion, would indeed cast doubt and would marginalize the man-made climate change scenario presented by the IPCC.  That, in turn, would cause a loss in the creditability of the governments and international bodies that bought into the man-made climate change scenario, and, for the need to spend money on mitigation such a scenario. 

Is it too late for reconciliation?   

For a politician or climate change evangelist,2 yes, maybe it is too late.  Such an about-face would be political suicide or cause a great loss in creditability.  As Martenson said, their prior claims can, and will, be used against them in the court of political and public opinion.  Not impossible, but hard to recover from.

For a scientist, no, of course it is not too late.  It is never too late to dump your hypothesis or at least be willing to explore an alternative hypothesis, especially if you have creditable data at hand, such as what Aleklett provides, to test that alterative hypothesis. 

There have been a few unofficial (i.e., non-IPCC) climate modeling efforts which take peaking fossil fuels into account.  Here's what Ugo Bardi said in reviewing some of these unofficial modeling efforts:

The studies published so far that take into account both peak oil and climate change are a truly minuscule number in comparison to the total number of papers that deal with climate change. This says a lot on how the problem was neglected so far. Nevertheless, a consensus seems to be emerging. Even with different models and different assumptions, it appears that geological constraints pose an important limit on CO2 emissions. All the studies discussed here arrive at the conclusion that, even without policy interventions, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will stabilize in a range that goes, approximately, from 450 to 600 ppm. These values are far below those of the "business as usual" (bau) scenario of the IPCC that predicts a CO2 concentration of about 1000 ppm by the end of the century.

Based on these studies, peak oil (and, in general, peak fossils) is going to have a strong effect on the climate issue. For one thing, it may well make the Kyoto treaty obsolete. There would be no need for policy measures to enforce the Kyoto targets. The emission limits that today are often seen as an insufferable set of constraints on the economy, could become, in the near future, just a consequence of the reduced supply of fossil fuels coupled with a contracting economy. On the other hand, the targets of the Kyoto treaty might well turn out to be insufficient to counter global warming.
In my opinion, the studies I have discussed show that there are serious threats looming ahead. I believe that whether the threat be depletion or warming, we should move away from fossil fuels as fast as possible. Still, it is not at all certain that what we can do will be enough and we might well suffer for both effects: lack of fuels and global warming. It wouldn't be "fire or ice", but fire and ice.

Some Predictions
Prediction #1:  Renegade scientists involved with the modeling of climate change scenarios within the IPCC will run the numbers assuming a peak fossil fuel scenario—and report these unsanctioned results through wikileaks or its progeny. 

The renegades will be simultaneously heralded as heroic, for risking their professional careers, and as heretics, for receiving kick-backs from "Big Oil" or some other nefarious entity that, as conjectured by Bendzela, is hell bent on "burning everything" in a desperate attempt to stave off the social and economic effects of peaking fossil fuel, and, to make a profit, of course.

There will be a media frenzy covering this new "climategate scandal"—at least until Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian do something really important. 

Prediction #2:  The unsanctioned modeling results will support one of two diametrically opposing outcomes. 

One possible outcome predicted by the unsanctioned model could be dramatically lower levels of global warming than portrayed in van Ypersele's presentation at Aspo 9. 

This is what I expect based on the unofficial modeling efforts described above—unless the human consumption of fossil fuels has pushed the world past the tipping point of global warming. 

That in fact is the second possible opposing outcome that could be predicted by the unsanctioned model:  there will be still unacceptably high global warming occurring despite the assumption of peaking and declining fossil fuel production.

I don't believe there is much room for a middle ground between these two opposing scenarios because the IPCC's prevailing business-as-usual assumption of a fossil fuel reserve is several times larger than the estimates of recoverable reserves predicted by the peak fossil fuel scenarios such reported by Aleklett.

I think the inevitable peaking and decline in fossil fuel production will be even more stringent than any kind of planned “mitigation measure” that the IPCC modelers would be allowed to consider, or at least report.  

Just consider the implications of a global warming model which predicts that, even though several times lower amounts of the hydrocarbons are assumed to be released into the atmosphere, we still arrive at unacceptably high levels global warming.   

Prediction #3: Either of these outcomes, predicting much lower levels of global warming, or, predicting global warming occurring regardless of whether mankind burns the remaining fossil fuels or not, will undermine and marginalize the climate change movement, and, the politicians that supported climate change mitigation in the past, will jump ship.

As the world starts to slide along the downside of peak fossil fuel production and exports, the resulting crashing economy will make it even less feasible to extract the more expensive remaining resources of oil, gas and coal.  The crashing economy will also make it even less feasible to spend money on mitigating climate change.

Some savvy politicians may even use the unsanctioned results as a rationale for not passing laws, such as a carbon tax, or strong environmental standards, aimed at reducing the effects of man-made climate change.

They will argue, "if climate change will not be nearly as bad as expected or we are already past the point where intentionally decreasing fossil fuel use will do much good anyway, and, this hurts economic growth, then why are we doing this?"

Prediction #4: Previous true believers in AGW will become true believers in PO without missing a beat.

When people are ready for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program....This receptivity to all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer has become an ardent convert of a specific movement.
Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, 1951, Cp 3(14)

Where does this leave the men of words that are trying to fashion a mass movement that leads to a new society that can survive the enormous global problems that peaking fossil fuels, man-made climate change, or maybe both, will create? 

When asked about why climate change didn't figure into his Crash Course presentation, here is what Martenson had to say:

I very specifically avoided that whole area for two reasons.  The first is that I thought I could create a compelling enough sense of urgency without going into that topic, and the second reason is that I had worked with this enough in various life settings to discover that there are people on both sides of that story that hold very strong beliefs around that material.
And you know, I think I can still tell the story in a way that creates the same sorts of changes that I’m seeking, preaches the same sorts of urgency that I’m seeking, without touching that story.  So it was really a strategic decision and part of it was a tactic and it was really centred on my belief at the time when I was putting the crash course together, that I was going to be opening an enormous can of worms and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to or qualified to manage.

I doubted my ability to go into that territory and come out of it with the ability to reach everybody.  If I had a mission or a goal for the crash course it was to create it in such a way that it’s not partisan, there’s no religious beliefs in there; I’m not engaging in any class or socio-economic warfare zones if you will.  I hope that the crash course is presenting a body of material that is so important that I want everyone to have the chance to hear it, without them shutting down and saying, ‘Oh he holds the wrong position on a political party, on climate change, on a belief-laden area’.  So it was just my belief that I could reach more people telling it the way I did without going into climate change, than if I had.

Similarly, if you take Angelantoni's and Bradford’s free on-line course or the for-fee online  uncrash course (which I have done and I do recommend) you will hear about the importance of preparing for the difficult times that climate change and peak oil will bring, but not much, if anything, about the dissonance between these two scenarios. 

So the strategy seems to be, bite your tongue about the possibility of the IPCC's climate change scenarios being a fantasy, maybe even repress discussion of the topic, for the sake of reaching a consensus view and to recruit the maximum number of people as possible into the mass movement towards transition. Preach to the flock about the commonalities of how one might deal with peak fossil fuels and global warming.  When the unsanctioned results of the renegade modelers and/or reality of peak fossil fuel depletion becomes readily apparent, the AGW believers and members of the climate change movement will find it easy to shift into the peak fossil fuel movement.

Some Final Heretic Thoughts
Adapting to reduced levels of fossil fuel energy consumption is consistent with both the climate change and the peak oil transition movements.  The reduced use of oil may also argue for the advantages of localizing industry and food production.  There are more commonalities to be sure.

But there are also differences in how one might deal with peak fossil fuels versus global warming as modeled by the IPCC. 

In my opinion, the heart of the difference between the believers in the IPCC model of climate change and believers in the peak fossil fuel scenario is that most of the former believe that business as usual remains a possibility while the most of the later do not. 

Specifically, the IPCC's climate change scenario assumes that there remains tremendously large reserves of energy in the form of fossil fuels.  These energy reserves can be used as a bridge to build a more renewable energy infrastructure that relies on windmills, solar panels, batteries, biofuels as so on, and, to help sequester and offset the existing excess levels of carbon already in the atmosphere.  And, the large reserves of fossil energy are still there to use, in a less polluting way if we want to, to maintain and expand the renewable energy infrastructure.  After we get over some rough spots, economic growth can continue on as before. 

In comparison, it is my impression is that those who are fully aware of the peak fossil fuel scenario believe that the renewable energy sources, even if possible to implement in the next few years, can't possibly make up the quantity, reliability and portability of the energy obtained from fossil fuels. 

To establish a low-carbon economy will require us to work against the key trend that has driven wealth creation during the 19th and 20th century – the replacement of small amounts of expensive human labour by large quantities of low-cost fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources do provide energy, but very likely only with reduced benefits, given their higher extraction and conversion effort and thus higher cost. The same is true for cleaner fossil fuel uses. For example, carbon sequestration might reduce generation efficiency by approximately 24% and lead to cost increases of up to 82% over regular coal based electricity.

In Revisiting Rolling Blackouts in Texas, I offered as an example, the problems and costs of making wind power a significant contributor to the electricity grid in Texas.  If the EPA regulations cause some of the old coal and gas fired plants in Texas to shut down or to just have reduced capacity, then it seems likely that late-afternoon rolling blackout will become common-place in the summer.  Rolling black-outs, in turn, will directly affect industry’s productive capacity.  There would have to be an enormous expenditure to replace this capacity with wind power, which is often not too efficient in the summer in Texas.   

In my opinion, with ever-diminishing supplies of total energy and reliable energy, the economy not only will not grow, but will decline, roughly in proportion with the declining total production of energy. 

In my opinion, the most rational approach, if the peak fossil fuel scenario is correct, is to prepare for a future with much lower energy consumption—the endless growth, business-as-usual model is dead.  The human labor component to the economy will have to increase once again.  The complexity of society will have to decrease.  Until the general public hears that message and accepts it, not much effective preparation for the future is going happen.

Finally, what about that carefully-crafted strategy of silence with respect to the dissonance between peak oil and man-made climate change? 

Is this in-itself just another form of “intellectual dishonesty or gross negligence,” analogous to Curren's charge against Hamilton, or a “disservice to science,” as Martenson said when speaking of the IPCC climate modelers?  Or, is this just another case of "the ends justify the means?" 

I don't know, but perhaps you can be a scientist, or you can be an evangelist, but you can't be both. 

1    A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action.  It is usually an advantage to a movement, and perhaps a prerequisite for its endurance, that these roles should be played by different men succeeding each other as conditions require.   from The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer, 1951, Cp 16(113)

2    I use the term evangelist here in its broad sense meaning, "an enthusiastic advocate."

--September 1, 2011--

Is it appropriate to question the integrity of climatologists when “It is IEA's job to come up with reasonable numbers, not IPCC's, and if there is no political will to do IEA's job properly.”

That is a fair question, and I want to review enough background so you can see where I am coming from in making my response.

There is some pretty strong evidence that the EIA has been intentionally inflating their estimates of the global petroleum reserves.  For instance, read the article The Implications and Fallout of the IEA "Leaks"  by Chris Martenson that I referenced in the previous article, and go read the references cited therein (in particular, Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower and Comments on Guardian article: “Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower” by Kjell Aleklett).

Also, you will see in these same articles evidence that the USA pressured the IEA to use the EIA’s numbers.

Finally, we have van Ypersele, the vice-chair of the IPCC, acknowledging that the IPCC was “influenced” to only consider what he calls “non-mitigation” scenarios—which I take as code for the business-as-usual EIA/IEA reserve numbers, and not peak oil or peak fossil fuel scenarios, such as published by Aleklett et al.  (see again Peak Oil and Climate Change: time for some remodeling?).

So, here we have the EIA pressuring the IEA to report over-inflated reserve numbers, the IPCC  being told to only consider the IEAs numbers, and the IPCC doing what they were told.  

Based on this, yes, I do think that it is appropriate to question the integrity of the EIA, the IEA and the IPCC as independent an objective sources of information about fossil fuel reserves and the likely impact that burning those fossils will have on atmospheric CO2.  The EIA, IEA and IPCC are entities—but people work for and speak for those entities.  I think that it is appropriate to question the integrity of those people as well.  

And what of the individual climatologists who are doing the modeling on behalf of the IPCC?  Is it possible that they are all so focused on their own fields that, for the past 10 years or so, they are all completely unaware of peak oil/peak fossil fuels, and, unaware the pressures exerted to not consider the implications that peak oil/peak fossil fuels would obviously have on their climate models? 

That would be quite incredible indeed. 

My hunch is that there is strong internal pressure on the climatologists to only consider the over-inflated EIA inputs in their models, and, that these climatologists have either succumbed to that pressure, to preserve their own careers, or, because they truly believe that using the input-flawed models are still for the "greater good."  In other words the end justisfy the means, in their view.

That is why I predicted that there will be a renegade scientist, probably a senior scientist at the end of his career, who will leak the "unsanctioned" analysis.

If you knew that there was a good chance that one of the most, if not the most, important inputs into your model (i.e., the total amount of fossil fuel available to burn) was bogus, but you kept running and reporting the results of the model anyway, does that not raise the issue of integrity?  

Next time, I will return to a less controversial topic than climate change; the diminishing food supply and the prospects for mass starvation. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The heat wave in Texas continues, as does the threat of rolling blackouts

The heat wave in Texas continues, as does the threat of rolling blackouts:

Texans are being asked to conserve electricity as the The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) saw its operating reserves dropped below 2,300 megawatts due to the extreme heat.

“We are asking Texas residents and businesses to reduce their electricity use until 7 p.m. today,” ERCOT vice president Kent Saathoff said in a press release.  “We don’t expect to need additional steps in the emergency procedures today unless we lose a significant amount of generation over the peak period.”

Later, in a conference call with reporters, Saathoff suggested that students returning to school this week might have contributed to an increase in power consumption as districts turned on lights and turned down A/C systems.

If the situation worsens, ERCOT could declare a Level 2A emergency would trigger large factories, mostly along the Gulf Coast, to power down their operations in a bid to preserve energy reserves.  But Saathoff said he doesn't expect that to happen today, because we have made it through the hour of peak consumption, 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

In a worst case scenario, ERCOT initiates a Level 3 emergency, which involves rolling blackouts across the state. Local electric utilities implemented rotating outages of 15 to 45 minutes in length. Hospitals and other essential services are not supposed to lose power.

The heat wave that hit Texas is causing extreme demands on the electrical grid. ERCOT is urging customers to reduce their power consumption at the risk of rolling blackouts.

Texas is at a Level 2a power emergency as operating reserved dropped below 1,750 megawatts. ERCOT (Electrical Reliability Council of Texas) pays larger customers to be dropped first in the event of a power emergency, but, if overall loads don't decrease, Texas moves to Level 3 and rolling blackouts will ensue.

EARLIER: This afternoon, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas announced they are in “Energy Emergency Alert Level 2,” meaning they have asked certain industries to shut down their power usage - or else Texans could face rolling power outages. Conservation is now critical, ERCOT says.

Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark explained the alert as what happens when the state’s energy reserves, optimally at 3,000 megawatts, drops below 1,500 megawatts. They’re now asking certain power users like refineries or big companies to shut down power usage to get the grid back to normal, Clark said.

ERCOT's website Actual Loads of Weather Zones Report indicates that on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 the peak load was 67136 MW at 5 pm and on Wednesday, August 24 2011 the peak load was at 66552 MW, once again at 5 pm.

This implies that the operating capacity on Tuesday was 69436 MW (67136 + 2300) and 68302 MW (66552 + 1750) on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.  I don't know what the 1134 MW difference operating capacity was between Tuesday and Wednesday.  Maybe a plant was down for maintenance? Or maybe is just the inherent variability in  the wind-portion of the Texas grid's electricity supply?

In any event, this bears following.  If the desired reserve is at least 3000 MW and the operating capacity can fluctuate by over 1000 MW, then it is easy to see how these alerts, and possibly rolling blackouts, will become part of everyday life.  If a power plant broke down or the wind was especially calm, then rotating outages of 15 to 45 minutes in length in the late afternoon during the summer will also become common place.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Peak Oil and Climate Change: time for some remodeling?

I have been slowly working my way through the 9th annual Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO) conference, which has graciously provided most of the conference presentations in video format online for free, here.

There are many good talks to watch, a few standout presentations that I have seen so far being: Paul Stevens, Darren Bezdek, Jeff Rubin, Erik Townsend, and David Murphy.

However, what really caught my eye was the Wednesday April 27 2011 morning session presentations by Kjell Aleklett, Uppsala University Sweden and President of ASPO, and Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor at Université catholique de Louvain France and Vice-chair of the  IPCC, and, the discussion period to follow.

If the relationship between peak oil, or, peak fossil fuels, and climate change has ever troubled you, then you should try to watch these presentations and the supporting materials (in .pdf format).

Aleklett’s presentation
Aleklett’s presentation, titled, “The ASPO Perspective on Fossil Fuels” included an overview of evidence for peaking fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) based on Aleklett et al.’s bottom-up approach of looking at the rates of discovery of new oil, gas and coal finds, and from this, extrapolating future production rates.  By Aleklett’s reckoning, production rates of all of three: oil, gas, or coal are peaking  now, or will peak in the next 20-30 years.  Moreover, unconventional production from oil shale, oil sands, natural gas liquids etc..., can only make up a small fraction of the declines, and consequentially there will still be a steep net decline in production rates.   The implications of this for the economy and food production are not good, to say the least.  Aleklett doesn’t pull any punches and talks about mass starvation.

Aleklett then points out the vast discrepancy between of his group’s analysis, predicting peaks in oil, gas and coal productions rates, and the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) predictions of a so-called “business as usual”  scenarios.

For instance, the IEA, despite the evidence of a steep decline in the number of new oil wells being discovered since the 1960s, continues to predict that crude oil production will remain flat or increase slightly from present levels of production.   In large measure, the continued increasing or flat production predicted by the IEA is supposedly due to “oil field yet to be found” although the unconventional sources are given much more weigh that does Alekett. Analogous predictions are made by the IEA for gas and coal.

Aleklett thinks that the IEA’s claims with respect to future fossil fuel production, to put it nicely, are “far-fetched.” 

Towards the end of the talk Aleklett points out that the IPCC’s global warming scenarios are all based upon the IEA’s claimed “business as usual” production numbers.  Consequently the IPCC global warming scenarios, to the extent that they require the burning of these assumed amounts of fossil fuels are equally far-fetched. 

Here’s one example for oil production: it is apparent that the IPCC assumes far greater amounts of oil will be available to be burnt than Aleklett’s analysis suggests.  You can view Aleklett’s presentation or slide materials to see that there are similar large discrepancies between the IPCC and Aleklett’s future gas and coal production scenarios. 

As Aleklett puts it during his talk, none of the IPCC’s scenarios can happen.

Aleklett points out the paradox between the economist’s view, the environmentalist’s view and the peak fossil fuel view.  Economists say we need more energy use to grow the economy—but this must mean more fossil fuel use.  If there is economic demand, the fossil fuels will appear, they say.  Environmentalists say we need to reduce fossil fuel use to prevent global warming—but population growth means that more food needs to be produced, but this also requires more fossil fuel energy use. 

Aleklett believes, as I do, that the economist’s and environmentalist’s views both hide the real problem.  The world does not have enough energy for predicted future global population increases.  And without fossil fuels by 2050, Aleklett says, the bulk of the global population will die away.  

I agree that this is a likely scenario, and maybe this will happen before 2050 (Part 10: Peak oil exports, peak oil and implications for population change).

Ypersele’s presentation
Unfortunately, the video of van Ypersele’s presentation, titled, “Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Depletion” is not made available, but his slides are available for viewing.  I will just focus on a slide that shows the IPCC’s assumed used and remaining oil, gas and coal resources. 

That tiny little stack in the middle there (black circle) is the combined emissions from oil, gas and coal from 1860 to 1998—which is the data used for the IPCC’s 2001 climate modelling scenarios.  The three separate stacks to the left (red circle) are the IPCC’s assumed future amounts of oil, gas, and coal available to burn in this century.

The figure below is a more detailed look at this same chart, in which I estimate the amount of the oil, gas and coal assumed by the IPCC to be available, relative to the amount already used.  To make the comparison clearer I moved the stacked boxes of combined oil gas and coal already used and laid them next to the IPCC’s assumed amount yet to be used.

Yes, that's right, according to this chart, the IPCC assumes that the world has 6x more oil, 11x more gas and 9x more coal left to burn compared to what has already been used from 1860-1998.  I think that as vice-chair of the IPCC, van Ypersele would know if there was a more up todate model available than this.

Well, if this is true, then all you peak oilers are a bunch of nutters and you can just stop worrying.  Instead, you should be worrying about global warming, because, look at all that additional carbon that is going to be thrown into the atmosphere over the next century. 

On the other hand, if these assumed amounts of future oil, gas, and coal are, well, totally ridiculous, then all you climate changers out there are a brunch of nutters and you can just stop worrying about it.  Instead, you should be worried about peak oil, gas and coal and the devastating effects that this will have on the economy and more importantly, food production over the next 10-20 years.

The Discussion Panel
Finally, we come to the discussion panel which included Pierre Mauriaud (from TOTAL), van Ypersele, Aleklett and Colin Campbell.  You really should watch—it is quite good: 

Aleklett  The A2 scenario can never happen because, for instance, the coal production will not be increased 10x by 2100 (I estimated 11x in the above figure), and there is no possibility whatsoever to come up to those carbon dioxide emission that you have being talked about using the A2 scenario. So when you talk about A2 "I don't believe what you are saying." We need to have real numbers to discuss. When IPCC say business as usual is a possibility, then people who don't understand about climate change will not do anything and this harms the energy situation.

van Ypersele  I am not a scenario specialist, please come and give your views to the IPCC.  I don't care about the A2 scenario actually...even with B1 there is too much carbon released to keep under 2 degrees. 

Aleklett  Even B1 assumes too high a level of fossil fuel emission scenario.  Politicians must understand that business as usual is not possible and we don't have enough fossil fuels for global food production  "There is not enough energy for global food production—we will starve to death ... before the climate [change] will hit us."  Food production is the number one priority

van Ypersele   We are paying the price of those non-mitigation scenarios because of a decision made in the end 1990s by the governments in the IPCC and influences, by some governments more than others, not to look at mitigation scenarios—all of the climate change scenario had to be non-mitigation business as usual scenarios—and that is unfortunate.

The climate change community has been anchored with these scenarios, which is unfortunate because its only a subset of all possible scenarios.  A new family of scenarios that includes climate mitigation and stabilization scenarios are being developed.

That last bit about new more realistic scenarios being developed is interesting to hear and heartening.  If these new scenarios ever see the light of day—then you know what buzz-words to look for.  “Mitigation scenario” will be the code word for “peak fossil fuel scenario.” 

This is analogous to the IEA’s use of the term “undiscovered oil” as a tacit acknowledgement of “peak oil.”   

This is also not the first time that I have heard about pressure and influence being exerted on the IEA and IPCC, most likely coming from the USA (see e.g., The Implications and Fallout of the IEA "Leaks").  

Just why is peak oil or peak fossil fuel “That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named?"  

I think that terms like, “mitigation scenario” or “undiscovered oil” have the connotation that governments actually are on top of, and have some control over, what is going on.  

Governments must not be seen as not being in control, because that would cause you everyday common folk to panic.  

Back in 2009 (comment 21 in The Implications and Fallout of the IEA "Leaks") I suggested that perhaps it makes “political” sense for the IEA’s funding source (i.e., the OECD member governments, who also fund the IPCC) to support “low-carbon emission” policies, driven by concerns about climate change, with the assumption that a business as usual fossil fuel production scenario is still possible, because it is easier to get a consensus between countries, and it implies control over the situation.  

“See, look how we have successfully managed to mitigate further global warming by decreasing the consumption of fossil fuels, thereby saving the world,” governments can loudly proclaim.  When in reality, fossil fuel consumption declined because fossil fuel production had declined, and production declined because the world is on the downside of peak oil, and soon to be peak gas and peak coal.  

This reminds me of President Obama’s pledge to reduce the USA dependence on foreign oil.  As the global market for exportable oil rapidly declines during this decade, he, or a future President, can claim a great victory, and a campaign promise fulfilled (see Estimating the End of Global Petroleum Exports Part 4 future global net export trends).

Similarly, if one is trying to organize a consensus of people to participate in a mass movement to transition to a new economic and societal paradigm, then it is best to just ignore the contradictions between peaking fossil fuels and climate change, as modeled by the IPCC, and try to find the commonalities between the two—reduced energy consumption, localization of industry and food production.   Still, this strategy may back-fire if it turns out that that one of the premises of the mass movement was based on "far-fetched" assumptions which turn out to be an order-of-magnitude off.

For the record, I am not a peak oil denier, climate change denier, tea bagger, liberal fanatic or whatever other derogatory term you want to call me, in order to reassure yourself of your own particular "true belief."

For the record, my hunch is that man-made carbon emissions probably can significantly influence the climate—how much by, I don’t know.   I haven’t explored the climate change models used by the IPCC directly, and I am not likely to do so, so this will remain a hunch.  

Maybe it doesn’t matter if Aleklett is right, that all of the IPCC’s scenarios are wildly overestimating future manmade carbon emissions.  For instance, maybe we are already past a so-called tipping point for a “methane time bomb” to go off in the arctic (see The methane time bomb).  If that is the case, and the die is already cast, then maybe we will need all the energy we can get for mankind to survive.  

To me it seem more likely, however, that fossil fuel production will be “mitigated,” but the mitigation will not have much to do with the IPCC scenarios or government policies.  

“Mitigation” will occur because we have reached peak oil, and in the next twenty to thirty years, peaking gas and coal.   People, voters, will not be too interested in hearing about low-carbon emission policies when they are unemployed, when they are freezing in the winter or boiling in the summer, because there are inadequate gas and coal-fired electricity plants, when they can’t travel like they used to, because the price of gasoline is high, or there is gasoline rationing, and when they are starving because the petroleum based food system has broken down.  

What effect will the “mitigation” associated with peak fossil fuels have on climate change?  Good question, I wish that the IPCC was trying to answer that question.  Maybe some day they will. 

If my comments have left you angry because someone dare doubt the IPCC’s predictions of impending climate change doom, or, peak oil’s predictions of impending doom, then in closing, I offer the following for your consideration:

It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith .... manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move. And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him.

from The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer, 1951, Cp 13(56)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Revisiting Rolling Blackouts in Texas

It was almost six months ago to the day that statewide rolling blackouts were imposed in Texas after frigid weather shut down dozens of generators.

Some may recall that on February 4, 2011, ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas), instituted the rolling black outs when the cold weather knocked over 50 electricity generating units, taking out about 7,000 megawatts of power generators, or about 8 percent of the installed capacity in the state.  Surprisingly, the rolling blackouts in Texas caused the shut down of compressors in West Texas that send natural gas to New Mexico, resulting in too low a pressure in the gas pipelines feeding several cities.  The lack of natural gas heating in New Mexico, in turn, caused a spike in electricity use, for alternative heating, which in turn, caused overloading of the electrical grid and rolling blackouts in New Mexico.  This was a really nice example of cascading energy failure, in my opinion.

Some pooh-poohed this as a freak, once in a +25 year, event.

But, once again Texas is looking at rolling blackouts, not because weather knocked out electricity generating units, but because of a prolonged heat wave with multiple consecutive weeks of temperatures above 100°F: 

HOUSTON, Aug 4 (Reuters) - The Texas power grid operator has scrambled this week to meet soaring electricity demand in the face of a brutal heatwave, and residents of the second most populous U.S. state are one power plant shutdown away from rolling blackouts.  Power demand for Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc, or ERCOT, which runs the power grid for most of the state, hit three consecutive records this week as Texans cranked up air conditioners to escape one of the hottest summers on record. Another record was not likely on Thursday, ERCOT said.  he grid operator on Thursday cut power to some big industrial users, and businesses and households face a repeat of the rolling blackouts they suffered in February, when a bitter cold snap interrupted power supplies.
Power usage in ERCOT reached its highest level ever on Wednesday at 68,294 megawatts, almost 4 percent over last year's peak.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 megawatts of generation was unavailable on Thursday, up about 1,000 MW from the previous day, ERCOT said.

The state's reserve margins have been running razor thin. On Wednesday ERCOT came within 50 megawatts of interrupting flows to industrial customers. That's equal to the output of about 25 industrial-scale windmills.

 One megawatt powers about 200 homes in Texas during hot weather when air conditioners are running for long periods.     More generation supplies would come in handy, but state power generators can't be expected to prepare for every extreme, said Kent Saathoff, ERCOT's vice president of system planning and operations.     "You have to determine if it is worth spending millions or billions to avoid a one in 10-year event," Saathoff told reporters on Wednesday.

ERCOT has about 73,000 MW of natural gas, coal, oil, nuclear and wind generating facilities, but not all of that capacity is available all the time.

Texas has the most wind power in the country, but the wind does not blow during the summer. ERCOT said it got about 2,000 MW from wind during the peak hour on Wednesday. Those wind farms can produce about 9,000 MW when all turbines are spinning.

Even some old, dormant gas-fired electrical generating plants have had to be pushed back into service.  For instance, the 40-year old plant featured in this story has a capacity of 921 megawatts, enough to power about 200,000 homes in the Texas summer:  Power to the people from dormant generating plant to help avoid a grid failure

And, as several power plants go off-line for routine maintenance this weekend, the potential for rolling blackouts continues:  Some power plants to go offline this weekend

Here’s a plot of the power consumption for the day mentioned in the Reuters article, August 3, 2011;

The all-time consumption record, circled in red, was reached at 5 pm in the afternoon of August 3—no doubt as people returning home from work cranked down their air conditioning.

If Texas’s capacity (red line) is about 73,000 MW at maximum—but not all available at one time—and utilization of 68,294 MW is within 50 MW of interrupting flows to industrial customers (i.e. 68344 MW; orange line), then my guess is that interruptions to residential customers will probably start to occur somewhere between 69,000-71,000 MW, unless a power plant generating more than a few thousand MW of power fails, or, goes off-line for maintenance. 

Well, maybe this is just another freak, once in a +25 year event, but I wouldn’t count on that. 

The likely result in the longer run, I think, is that threats of rolling blackout and grid failures will occur with increasing frequency, and, actual periodic blackouts will become a fact of life in the near future.

And, from the sounds of ERCOT’s VP, it doesn’t appear likely that the grid is going to be substantially expanded; perhaps because there just isn’t enough capital to do so. 

Wind to the rescue?

The Reuters article mentions wind power, and Texas has invested substantially in wind power in the past, so let’s consider the possibilities here.

Based on the Reuters article, wind turbines, at least in the summer, may only be about 22% efficient in Texas (i.e., 100% x 2000 MW/9000 MW).  Therefore, to provide a significant amount of ERCOT’s total electricity capacity from wind, say 10 percent, there would have to be a huge increase in the numbers of windmills in Texas. 

For instance, let’s take the Reuters article’s statement, that the output of 25 industrial-scale windmills equals 50 megawatts, as a reasonable measure of the capacity of typical modern-day windmills.  That’s equal to about 2 MW/windmill.  But, in the summer, we might only get about 22% of that power, or 0.44 MW/windmill.

Therefore, to provide just 10% of ERCOT’s total capacity (73,000 MW), in the summer, one would need another 5,300 MWs worth of windmill power, or 12,045 more windmills. 

This is actually pretty close to Texas’s goal to add 5,000 new megawatts of power from renewable sources, by 2015 and of 10,000 MW, by 2025. TEXAS RENEWABLE PORTFOLIO STANDARD SUMMARY. 

But, at a cost of about $3.5 million per 2MW capacity windmill (How much do wind turbines cost?) 12045 windmills will cost about $42 million billion.  Where will that capital come from in the present economy?

Moreover, the wind is variable, so it is quite possible for that 22% efficiency to drop down to 10-11%.  Unless you budgeted for this by over-building windmills, there would still be real risk of hitting maximum power capacity.   

In contrast, the one 40-year-old gas-fired plant's 921 MW capacity is equivalent to about 2093 windmills, each with a power generating capacity of 0.44 MW/windmill in the summer (i,e., assuming 22% efficiency).

If the intent is to replace the aging gas-fired power plants with windmills, then I expect that the  reliability of the power grid will go down, unless there is a substantial overbuild.  Keep in mind we are talking about only 10 percent of a present total capacity of 73,000 MW.  Want to grow in the future?  Well, if that growth requires more power, then I guess the answer is ... more windmills! (reminds me of this old SNL skit).

Anyway, in my opinion, ERCOT better take care of that 40-year-old gas-fired power plant and others like it—it sounds like a bargain to do so—so long as the natural gas lasts. 

It seems very likely that the demand for power will grow.  For instance, if power consumption grows by another 4%, the same percentage as it did this year, and there is an equally hot summer, then there probably would have been rolling blackout for several days this past week.

This story is specific to Texas, but I suspect that other areas of the USA and other countries have, or will be having similar problems, especially if we continue to have weather extremes in both winter and summer.

It is best to make your own plans to handle at least short term periods of electric grid power failure, whereever you live.

--August 9, 2011--

I've learned that the potential for blackouts in the future is even worse than I thought when I wrote this article:

Last month, the EPA included Texas in a new rule on cross-state pollution, catching many by surprise. Coal plants must reduce some emissions by half by Jan. 1, a deadline that has some operators saying they'll cut production or shutter facilities.
That means the state may not have enough electricity to meet spiking demand. The risk became painfully obvious last week after the heat wave set records for electricity usage and emergency measures were taken to prevent outages.
Texas doesn't have much extra capacity when temperatures hit extreme highs or lows, as we've seen this year. Even before the latest EPA rule, regulators worried about attracting more power generation for the fast-growing state.
Yet the EPA says the grid's reliability won't be jeopardized by the pollution controls or the deadline.
"Nearly half of the emissions of soot-forming sulfur dioxide covered by the rule are produced by just three plants, which in turn account for only about one-tenth of the state's electricity generation," EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.
But regulators, power generators and elected officials see a potential crisis.
"If we're short even three old coal plants, even if they're only [reduced by] 50 percent, we'd have rolling blackouts," Commissioner Kenneth Anderson said at a Texas Public Utility Commission meeting last week.
"I don't know what the EPA administrator is smoking in Washington," he said, "but they're flat-out wrong. It will have a reliability impact."
More shocks to the power supply are coming. The EPA is developing rules to reduce ozone, protect water and capture mercury. Those changes, however necessary, may force generators to reassess the entire fleet in Texas.
More retrofits won't make economic sense, so plants will be mothballed. And more incentives may be needed to attract a wave of new generation. ...
If those three coal-fired plants are shut down, thereby taking away 1/10 of Texas's electricity generating capacity, then rolling blackout will be a sure thing next summer, in my opinion.  A 10 percent reduction would take Texas's maximum capacity from 73,000 MW to 65,700 MW. But the peak use of power every week day last week exceeded that amount, and probably also in the weeks before that as well.    Even half of that, a 5 percent reduction to 69,350 MW, probably means rolling blackouts, as suggested by Ken Anderson, because not all of that maximum capacity is available at anyone time. 

My hunch is that it is unlikely that the EPA rules will get followed.  Continous rolling blackouts throughout the summer would wreck the economy of the state and probably put people in danger.  

No doubt this will make for great political theater come 2012. 

Still, it seems unlikely that any new coal-fired or gas-fired plants will be built within the coming years, and the potential is there for existing plants to get shut down.  All the more reason to make your own plans for having backup power.

Finally, if it does not make "economic sense" to retrofit three existing plants that generates 7,300 MW of Texas's total power, then will it make sense to spend the ~$58 billion needed to build the 16591 windmills needed to replace that power in the summer?