Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Transforming energy supplies

While I was writing Elegant Technology, I became absolutely convinced that building our way out of the energy trap created by our technological dependence on fossil fuels was by far the most logical course for humans to take.  I assumed that folks would understand the magnitude of the problem and conclude that we should all get to work and that all this new construction would propel the economy forward into a new period of prosperity.

Little did I know.  I grew up in a part of the world where running out of gas on a winter night could literally be a death sentence and so I could not comprehend that there were folks who would act on the large questions of the end of the Age of Petroleum as if it were perfectly sane to drive until the car sputtered and died along the side of the road.  While only a tiny handful of people will allow themselves to run out of gas in their cars, lots of folks seem blithely unconcerned or in complete denial about their societies running out of gas.

But even under ideal circumstances, getting along without liquid fuels with very high energy content seemed so difficult as to be nearly impossible.  Try to imagine a 747 flying on battery power and you get some idea how insanely difficult this becomes.  In the case of air transport, a fossil fuel free alternative is probably impossible in any meaningful sense of the term.  The closest real substitute would be electrically-powered high-speed rail (at least on routes over land.)

So 25 years later, we in USA are still stuck in denial about energy matters.  Our lifestyle is so tied to fossil fuels most of us cannot even imagine how we would live without them.  About the best we can do is try to become more energy efficient and even those efforts are pretty lame.  But other cultures ARE trying to cope with the end of the Age of Petroleum and discovering on a daily basis—this is REALLY hard.

A World without Oil

Companies Prepare for a Fossil-Free Future


Drivers may hate rising gas prices, but some companies are delighted as they watch the oil price soar. Firms like BMW and Airbus which are leaders in fuel efficiency actually benefit from expensive oil. They are just two of a growing number of companies that are already developing technologies for a post-fossil-fuel world. By SPIEGEL Staff

A few cents more and a liter of super unleaded gasoline will cost German drivers €1.80 (around $9 a gallon). That means that someone driving a BMW 3 Series will have to pay over €110 ($150) to fill up the tank, with its 63 liter (17 gallon) capacity.

But Norbert Reithofer, the CEO of BMW, seems surprisingly relaxed for an executive whose company's products depend on gasoline and diesel. "One could see this as a threat," Reithofer says. But the auto executive actually views the rising price of fuel as "an opportunity." He is convinced that his company will in fact "derive a benefit from this."

The Munich-based automaker has invested billions of euros in fuel-saving technologies, such as efficient engines, brake energy recovery and ultra-lightweight carbon fiber car bodies. BMW is now considered a leader in the field, and the company's record sales in 2011 suggest that this is something its customers are willing to pay for. And that, Reithofer believes, is why the company will ultimately benefit from high prices at the pump.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders uses a similar argument. He ought to be upset about high kerosene prices. They have sharply affected his customers, the airlines, whose profits are shrinking and who are investing less money in buying new planes as a result. Nevertheless, Airbus has never had as many orders on its books as it does today.

Last year, Airbus received well over 1,000 orders for its A320 neo model, with scheduled delivery starting in 2015. Thanks to new engines and special wings, the plane uses about 15 percent less fuel, making it significantly more fuel-efficient than competitor Boeing's comparable models. This is a critical selling argument in times of high kerosene prices, says Enders. "To a certain extent, we do benefit from the high price of oil," he adds.

This is certainly one way of looking at things. Drivers are upset about the record high prices at the pump. But on the positive side, they also force companies to change the way they are using the increasingly precious commodity, so that they consume it more consciously and not as wastefully. And that change is necessary.

The world is addicted to a material that is being used up from day to day and from hour to hour, a material that is also much too valuable to be burned. The prosperity of the human race is based on limited resources. Most people know this, and yet they refuse to accept the necessary consequence: reducing their use of fossil fuels.

The record high prices for gasoline are probably the most effective incentive for us to finally kick the oil habit and search for alternatives. And they are fueling the modernization of the economy in the process.

The withdrawal will undoubtedly be tough. The economy will be affected when it is deprived of its lubricant. But consumers and business owners have no choice, and the longer they delay, the more painful the transition will be. more
The "Iron Law" of non-renewable resources states that every unit (barrel of oil, etc.) extracted makes the next unit harder to find and more expensive to extract—like the Elgin platform, for example.
Elgin Leak Points to Drilling Risks

Perils and Price Rise in Hunt for Natural Gas

By Marco Evers   04/02/2012

The Elgin natural gas drilling operation was highly dangerous but fruitful -- until it sprung an unexpected leak that nearly caused an environmental disaster. The out-of-control situation highlights increasingly risky "extreme drilling" efforts to extract the valuable fuel from deep below the North Sea.

It all began like a good disaster film. The gas alarm sounded shortly after noon and the emergency evacuation started just moments later on the Elgin drilling platform in the North Sea. Only a small contingent stayed behind, laboring to plug the leak. Having failed to do so after hours of trying, they turned off all the machinery and electricity and fled the platform too.

When the last helicopter lifted off, it left the drilling rig alone on a swelling cloud of highly flammable gas from the deep.

For almost an entire week, though, something else stirred on the eerily deserted platform. Flickering way up at the tip of the 150-meter (490-foot) stack was an open gas flare, which the crew had failed to extinguish last Sunday as it hastily abandoned the platform.

On Saturday, Total, the French energy company that owns the stricken platform, announced to the relief of many that the gas flare had burned itself out. Up to that point, as a company spokesman thankfully noted, the wind had been blowing the gas vapors away from the platform and would hopefully continue to do so.

If it hadn't, and the cloud of gas had come into contact with the flame, there could have been a massive explosion threatening to trigger an environmental catastrophe. In this case, however, no Hollywood-type hero was needed to avert the disaster in the end.

Nevertheless, Total has still lost complete control over the platform. In response, it quickly brought experts from around the world together in Aberdeen, Scotland, which proudly calls itself the "oil capital of Europe." With the aid of special aircraft, diving robots and computer models, they have been trying to figure out exactly what is happening both on and under the platform, which is located 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Scotland's eastern coastline.

Initial findings have provided cause for optimism, at least in the short term. But in the long run, they have sparked worries about how well the many planned North Sea drilling projects that involve deeply buried reservoirs can really be controlled.

The good news is that the name Elgin most likely won't become seared into our collective memory in the same way that Deepwater Horizon is. After the BP-owned platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11, more crude oil gushed into the sea over the next three months than had ever been released by any man-made disaster. But in the case of Elgin, the mere fact that the volatile natural gas only causes moderate levels of damage in even the worst cases leaves little reason to fear such a devastating "blowout."

Another comforting factor is that the methane surrounding the drilling platform apparently doesn't originate from what is actually the major reservoir 5,300 meters (17,400 feet) below the sea floor but, rather, from what is hopefully a smaller deposit at a depth of roughly 4,000 meters. 
Likewise, the gas is not gushing out as freely as the oil did in the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Instead it appears that it is streaming its way to the surface via cavities in the multi-walled annulus, or pipe casing on the well, and that it is first leaking out once it reaches the Elgin platform itself.

That's good news, says Frederic Hauge, president of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona. "If the gas is only coming up through the well, that enables more solutions." That detail, he says, makes him feel "a little more optimistic." Speaking before the flare had extinguished itself, Hauge also stated that, were it not for the danger of explosion, it would also be enough to simply wait for all of the remaining gas to escape.

Total is also hoping that this will be enough. But if the volatile stream of gas surging out of the deep does not abate this week, the company plans to start drilling two relief wells to divert the gas. It estimates that the operation will take six months to complete and cost at least $3 billion (€2.2 billion). more
As prices for fuels go up and shortages get more numerous, the social order begins to break down—even in a place like England that fancies itself quite civilized.

Suppliers cash in on panic as petrol hits £1.50... and half of our forecourts are running dry

Fuel companies say supply problems caused by panic-buying will continue until Friday 
Petrol price are 'going crazy', a retail motor industry expert said
Ministers accused of sparking the panic are now urging motorists to save on fuel by driving more slowly

PUBLISHED: 3 April 2012

Motorists face paying £1.50 a litre for petrol as shortages continue to hit half the nation’s forecourts.

Fuel companies, which have been accused of profiteering with 10p increases, say the supply problems caused by panic-buying will continue until Friday.

Petrol prices are ‘going crazy’, according to Brian Madderson of the Retail Motor Industry federation.

‘Motorists are paying a significant premium because the wholesalers know they are on to a good thing. It’s the law of supply and demand,’ he said.

‘The withdrawal of fuel in such a frenzy in the mid part of last week means some members won’t be getting any fuel until later this week.’

Ministers, who are accused of sparking the panic by advising motorists to top up before a possible strike by fuel tanker drivers, are now urging them to save fuel by driving more slowly.

We got it right on petrol says Hague: Claims advice to hoard fuel has left UK 'better prepared'

There are reports that suppliers are diverting fuel to supermarkets and petrol stations on main routes, leaving rural and independent garages short of fuel.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Ed Davey, the RMI warned that between a third and half of independent filling stations ran out of fuel for at least an hour on Sunday.

In the letter, one Jet garage owner in the Midlands said: ‘I’m having to put the price up on unleaded petrol from 137.9p per litre to 147.9p per litre and will still be making under 4p gross margin.’ more
And then there is the little problem that anything that actually tries to replace the fossil fuel economy will involve new technologies and so will have ALL the problems of a start-up.  MOST of these business will end in failure.  It's in the nature of the game when you really don't know how to proceed.
Twilight of an Industry

Bankruptcies Have German Solar on the Ropes

By Stefan Schultz    04/03/2012

German solar panel manufacturer Q-Cells filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday.

The German solar industry is at a turning point. The bankruptcy of Q-Cells this week shows that the days of German solar cell production are numbered. Asian competitors took the lead years ago, and German government subsidies were part of the problem.

It wasn't so long ago that people viewed Q-Cells as an energy company of the future. At one point, it was the world's largest manufacturer of solar cells and quarter after quarter, it topped analysts' expectations. The company proved to be a money-making machine even during the financial crisis, with some believing it might one day grow to become part of Germany's DAX index of benchmark companies on the stock exchange.

At the end of 2007, the company was valued at close to €8 billion ($10.7 billion at today's rates). Q-Cells' production facilities were located in the city of Bitterfeld-Wolfen, in a former lignite mining area in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The area was even dubbed "Solar Valley," a play on California's Silicon Valley.

For a some time now, though, the days have been growing darker in Solar Valley, and with this week's bankruptcy announcement by Q-Cells, things are looking to get even darker. On Tuesday, the company as expected submitted its official request to begin bankruptcy proceedings. The energy company of the future looks as though it may no longer have one. The company, it turns out, simply wasn't prepared for the fast changes that have buffeted the industry.

In 2011, Q-Cells posted a loss of €846 million. As of last Tuesday, the firm had a marginal value of only €35 million and Q-Cells' share price had plunged to just 9 cents. In Bitterfeld-Wolfen, concerns are growing about massive job losses among the 2,200 Q-Cells workers in the city.

But Q-Cells' insolvency also comes as a great shock to the Germany's solar industry. It is already the fourth major bankruptcy in a sector in crisis, and it underscores the degree to which German solar firms are being outpaced by competition from Asia -- despite billions in German government subsidies granted each year to the industry. And despite solar energy gradually becoming more competitive, the setbacks are rapidly mounting.

In December 2011, two major solar companies slid into bankruptcy: Berlin-based Solon and Erlangen-based Solar Millennium. In the case of Solon, Indian firm Microsol acquired the core business; but of the company's 1,000 employees, only 400 remain employed today. Solar Millennium's bankruptcy came as a major blow to thousands of small investors who had lent the firm money.

In March 2012, Freiburg-based Scheuten Solar, the firm that presented what was the world's largest solar module at the time eight years ago, declared bankruptcy. The same month, power plant producer Solarhybrid and the Frankfurt an der Oder-based Odersun, which had been prestige projects supported by political leaders in the eastern state of Brandenburg, also filed for insolvency proceedings. Other bankruptcies are likely to follow. more

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