Archive for the 'Energy' Category

Elizabeth Kolbert = excellent.

Monday, November 26th, 2007

This time around, the New Yorker staff writer has a solid piece — not her very best work, but good — on the gigantic tar sand-mining operations of Alberta. Unhelpfully for the purposes of conveying the story to you, the magazine’s site is running only an abstract of it:

A Reporter at Large, “Unconventional Crude”

However, despite my lack of Dvorak skillz, I’m a fast typist, so here’s the excerpt I want to pull out so as to tantalize you to, uh, well, I guess to find a back copy of the November 12 issue. (Memo to The New Yorker: please make my life easier here.)

Alex Farrell is a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the impacts of unconventional oil. A few years ago, Farrell realized that all the major climate models were based on the same faulty premise: they assumed that in the future increased oil demand would be met with increased supplies of conventional crude. Together with a graduate student named Adam Brandt, Farrell decided to try to come up with projections that more accurately reflected reality. For their calculations, the two assumed that where there was a gap between demand and conventional supply it would be filled with synthetic fuels, first with tar-sands oil and later with oil from coal and shale. (According to high-end estimates, coal and oil shale could together yield some ten trillion barrels of unconventional crude.) They then calculated what the impact would be on global carbon-dioxide levels.

“All unconventional forms of oil are worse for greenhouse-gas emissions than petroleum,” Farrell told me. “And it’s pretty easy to understand why. It’s not so hard to turn liquid petroleum into liquid fuels. Turning a solid material like coal into a liquid — it sounds hard to do, and it is hard to do. And that extra effort shows up in higher energy consumption and higher water use and higher emissions.” In the case of tar-sands oil, total greenhouse-gas emissions per barrel — which is to say, the carbon dioxide produced in creating the oil and then burning it — are between fifteen and forty per cent higher than those from conventional oil. In the case of coal-to-liquids, or C.T.L., total emissions are almost two times as high as with conventional oil, and for oil shale they can be more than twice as high.

Sobering stuff to contemplate. What it makes me think of is how some black-market devotees continue to pay a fortune for powdered rhino horn (it’s used as a purported aphrodisiac) long after rhinos have come under legal protection in virtually every jurisdiction. You’d think that at some point the black-market customers would just give up on the rhino horn, but they don’t. True, the problem is many orders of magnitude bigger when we talk about energy and petroleum, but I wonder whether the psychology isn’t similar at some level. We want what we want, and we’ll go to whatever lengths to get it.
One more quote from the good Prof. Farrell, concerning efforts by some U.S. legislators to promote the C.T.L. extraction industry:

“If companies could lay off the risk of oil prices dropping below forty dollars a barrel, there would be enormous investment in this,” Farrell told me. “But, when policies are proposed to promote C.T.L., I think the question to ask is, Is this an industry we want to start now?”

Well put. Read this article if you get a chance.

Useful environmentally-oriented links of the day.

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

WorldChanging has conveniently grouped a wonderful list of environmental sites/blogs/organizations for us:

A Map of Worldchanging’s Favorite Online Destinations

In addition to that list, I’d also point you to Geoff Styles’s Energy Outlook blog. While his blog isn’t specifically devoted to environmental issues, he treats them in turn in his well-written short essays on technical, political, and economic aspects of the world’s energy issues.

Thomas Friedman on “The Power of Green”

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman often frustrates me with his breathless pronouncements, but in this long article, published back in April, he offers more than enough cogent points to make up for it.

The Power of Green

The whole piece is well worth reading, but I’ll summarize it briefly. Friedman’s principal goal here is to show how assertive U.S. action toward environmental sustainability will help the United States not just to combat global warming, but to improve the U.S. and global economy, and combat terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »

Possibly interesting comments on gasoline prices.

Friday, July 13th, 2007

On my professional blog, I wrote something that the folks here might find interesting. Note especially the couple of paragraphs of commentary at the very end.

(Much) more on gas prices

Worldviews will often disagree, especially when there are interested parties on various sides with competing objectives. It’s human nature. But the assumptions embedded in these worldviews deserve to be examined. […] Smart investors always look at both “upside potential” and “downside risk.” When I read comments like Lundberg’s, it seems to me that those who defend the status quo of the petroleum industry focus on potential and risk strictly for their own industry, without acknowledging the possible downside risks for the world at large.

It’s blog-crossover madness, I tell you!

An ethic of waste.

Saturday, May 19th, 2007

This week the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting interview with George David, the highly regarded chief executive of United Technologies Corporation. David is one of the all-stars of the corporate world: in the fifteen years that he’s run UTC, the company’s value has grown tenfold. Today its offerings include everything from Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines to Otis elevators.

One of the things that struck me in David’s comments was his insistence on the importance of energy efficiency and conservation.

I think the solution to the energy problem is actually not alternative energy. To me, the solution immediately is conservation by greater efficiency. Too much in the mind of the public is this idea that conservation means deprivation. You’ve got to be cold at night, shut off the lights, stuff like that. That’s simply not true. The bottom line is that energy is wasted in the world to a phenomenal extent. There’s enormous energy savings potential in the conservation agenda where you do it by efficiency. In our own internal operations, we dropped the energy consumption at UTC by 19% over a decade at the same time the company doubled its size. All of America can drop its energy consumption by 20% in a decade easily. We’re now working with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to come up with a building that uses zero net energy.

This is music to my ears, especially considering its source. For myself, I think that the solution to our energy problems must include alternative sources of energy, but I also welcome mass adoption of David’s view on the current level of waste in our human operations. The truth is, an abundance of cheap energy over the past century, while enabling huge strides in technology, global travel, and trade, has also instilled an ethic of waste in many of us. It has become incredibly easy and cheap — relative to the prior course of human history — to make more things, to ship them quickly, and then to whisk away the leavings. It has been incredibly easy to leave the lights on, and to build in pockets of waste in our systems, simply out of habit, or for want of better forethought. It has become normal to waste. Indeed, we have come to see it as our birthright, at least judging by the way that we cling to some of our old, wasteful habits. We stamp our feet and insist that we must be able to have our cake and eat it, too, because, because . . . well, we’ve just got to.

George David isn’t buying it. He sounds like he wants a revolution in efficiency.

[Mr. David:] You can’t walk through life with a trained eye and not see the opportunities for productivity. Every time you sit in traffic, that’s a productivity loss. Every time you go to the doctor and fill out a bunch of forms and he refers you to somebody else and you fill out the same forms all over again, that’s a loss of productivity. Whenever you wait for something, that’s waste. I believe you can have 10 times more. I really do.

WSJ: Ten times more of what?

Mr. David: Everything. Everything. Just look at the differences in personal productivity between people, educated versus not educated. Or people in good, really productive labor environments, versus people who are kind of struggling because they’re in disorganized or ineffective companies.

A large number of people have been deprived by opportunity, by education, by life’s circumstance, and they end up having less than fully productive lives. It’s not only bad for them as individuals, it’s also very bad for the society because it’s all lost work.

The whole interview is well worth reading. Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of all the areas of my own life — whether it’s sitting in traffic or watching the paper recycling pile up in the garage — where a changed approach could radically lower the amount of waste, and lost productivity, that I see as normal.

Just a good, old-fashioned festival of links, is what it is.

Monday, April 9th, 2007

What with it being Monday, and all, what say we just tidy up the links backlog, eh?

–Start your week out right with this forward-looking cartoon from Wake Up Tiger:

the field of opportunity is waiting to be seeded

–A long and detailed post by Laree Draper about testing for heart health. This is a compelling subject for her because Dave Draper (her husband, and a great guy to read on anything to do with weightlifting) just had quadruple-bypass surgery.

Testing for Heart Disease

–One of the hardest things about making better environmental choices (“bright green” choices, my friends at WorldChanging would call it) is that so many of our engrained habits will likely require significant trade-offs as we attempt to improve them. One example of this comes from Patagonia’s new blog, The Cleanest Line:

The Flip Side of Ethanol

–Thor of Satisfaction writes an excellent post on how Zappos’ customer service drives the amazing success of their business. Sure, you could shop elsewhere for shoes, but knowing what you know from this post . . . why would you?

How to run a call center that doesn’t suck

–The Zappos experience calls to mind a recent item by Joel Spolsky, the first item of which is labeled “Fix everything two ways”. At his company, customer service reps do whatever it takes to fix a customer’s immediate problem, but then also go the extra mile(s) to make sure that the same problem never recurs for anyone else. The iterative power of the thing is just stunning, or so says Spolsky.

Seven steps to remarkable customer service

–Austin Kleon posts an apt long quotation from Bruno Bettelheim, in which Bettelheim praises the utility of fairy tales for introducing children to some of the hard facts of life in a way they can digest.

Bettelheim on the Potential for Evil

This reminds me to spend more time with my kids and the d’Aulaires.

–I’m hoping that Kathy Sierra will return to blogging when she’s ready to. I was thrilled to meet her at SXSW Interactive last month, and her devoted readers will be thrilled to have the continued benefits of her thinking. Meanwhile, the online hatred that led her to suspend blogging has drawn sustained attention, including this piece from the New York Times.

A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs

–Jon Lebkowsky points to efforts by Whole Foods Market and Green Mountain Energy to help customers reduce their carbon footprints.

Whole Foods Market + Green Mountain Energy – Carbon


Andrew Donoho on Austin’s Resource Management Commission.

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

One of the many nifty people I met during SXSW Interactive was Andrew Donoho; we had a nice chat on the upstairs porch of Opal Divine’s during the Worldchanging happy hour.

Last week Andrew posted an interesting piece on Worldchanging’s local Austin blog:

Last Night at the Resource Management Commission…

Andrew’s particularly well suited to discuss this, since he is one of the citizen-commissioners on the Resource Management Commission. I share both his hope that Austin will do the right thing when it comes to neutralizing its carbon impacts, and the worry that, when push comes to shove, we the citizens, our public officials, or the folks at Austin Energy will shy away from footing the bill for it.

More on Peak Oil.

Monday, March 5th, 2007

Following up from yesterday’s longer post on Peak Oil, I note that this story from the New York Times gives lots of detail on the rise in secondary and tertiary production at older oil fields in the U.S. and beyond.

Oil Innovations Pump New Life into Old Wells

The short version: when oil prices stay high, and as technology improves, predictions rise for the amounts of oil that can be feasibly extracted from older fields.

N.b.: Daniel Yergin (author of The Prize) and his Cambridge Energy Research Associates firm, which are cited more than once in the article, are consistently bullish — very bullish — about the long-term ability of oil companies to produce more and more oil.

A little something on Peak Oil.

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

My friend Tom asked me to write here about the phenomenon of “Peak Oil,” which reminded me how much I have to learn on the subject. For the moment, then, just a sketch.

What is it? Peak Oil is the point at which oil production peaks and can’t go up any further. From that point on, production trends down, regardless of production techniques or inputs. In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of fancy production methods you use at that point; production can only go down, because of all the petroleum you’ve already tapped out of the earth. The Wikipedia entry on the theory behind “Hubbert’s peak” makes this useful distinction in terms:

Hubbert’s peak can refer to the peaking of production of a particular area, which has now been observed for many fields and regions. “Peak Oil” as a proper noun, or Hubbert’s peak applied more generally, refers to a singular event in history: the peak of the entire planet’s oil production.

Domestic oil production within the United States peaked in the early 1970s, with many important ramifications for U.S. political economy, domestic and international. The jury is still out on dating of the global Peak Oil event, but it may be happening ’round about . . . now.

Why is it important? For a variety of reasons, but most importantly because cheap petroleum underlies so many aspects of modern industrialized life. The recent run of high oil prices reminds us of the many direct and indirect affects that oil price has on the economy. Yes, the price you pay for gasoline goes up, but so does the price you pay for airline tickets, UPS shipping, and a diverse range of other goods, from corn to kiwi fruit, that rely on cheap petroleum to be produced and delivered at low prices. Everyone agrees that high oil prices exert broad market effects; the big debate is over how dire these effects are, or will be, when Peak Oil is reached and the world petroleum industry truly goes into its long period if diminishing returns. For the moment, I’ll simplify by saying that the scariest predictions are dire in the sense that, oh, The Black Death was “dire”.

Where could I go to learn more? The Wikipedia entry already referenced has a lot of information, plus many links to other sources. Read it all with a grain of salt and remember that there are fundamental disagreements about when the Peak comes and what the Peak means when it comes. (If you detect a note of apocalyptic language here, you’re onto something.) Another good place to start, if you want a ton of information on the subject delivered daily, is The Oil Drum. The folks who write it take the existence and the broad threat of Peak Oil for granted. They have organized a useful primer on the subject, which they call “The Book”. This takes you through many, many aspects of petroleum production and pricing, and the impacts of these on — well, on just about everything. They guys use copious graphs, by the way.

There are also a number of useful books on the subject, many of which are listed at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry. I would start with Twilight in the Desert by Matthew Simmons. The book is about the decline of production that Simmons perceives in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Simmons is a favorite of the Peakers (as Peak Oil buffs are often called) because he has for many years run a Houston-based investment bank dedicated to making deals in the oil industry; ergo, he’s an insider, and can’t be brushed aside lightly by those (inside the oil business or out) who categorically deny the threat posed by Peak Oil. Also worth your while are Hubbert’s Peak and Beyond Oil by the eminent professor of petroleum geology Kenneth Deffeyes. Deffeyes thinks we’re in pretty big trouble. Another notable voice on this subject is James Howard Kunstler, who has long been a critic of American suburban sprawl, and who wrote the influential book The Long Emergency about what he sees as the coming oil crunch. You will very quickly come to grasp his approach and tone if you read his site.

So, that’s hardly a comprehensive introduction, but at least it can serve as a placeholder for further discussions later.


TXU links roundup.

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

So, maybe you heard about this little buyout that’s been proposed? If not, here’s a smorgasbord o’ links so’s you and I both can come back and re-inform ourselves at any future point.

As for what it all means? I haven’t been able to guess.