Sunday, November 1, 2009

Watching the oil and gas peak manifest slowly

For anyone who wonders what peak production of fossil liquid and gas fuels might feel like, this Guardian article is interesting.

Notice that the shortage is politically and economically manipulated by anyone who has a finger in the pie and market or political power over the resource, including the Russians, the two largest UK political parties, the gas companies themselves, the EU, the Norwegians, and, behind the scenes, multiple unions and of course, the newspapers, looking for a scary headline.

While the real story is as mundane and banal as a few empty gas reservoirs and the worry that a state-owned gas monopoly won't honor it's contracts. The rest is just political and commercial noise.

But isn't that how an economic shortage will manifest itself?

No-one wants to be cold. But see how each thread is connected to the next, and how hard it is to separate physics from politics and commerce?

And isn't it the European's own fecklessness and foolishness that gives the Russians such power? And are we not subject to similar idiocies, even here in Maine?

When I was a kid in the 1960s, Britain was powered and heated by indigenous resources: primarily coal and hydropower. Every house on my row-house street in Sheffield had not one but two coal fireplaces, and used about 25 lbs of coal a day in winter. Coal was cheap, and came out of the ground less than a dozen miles away. Of course it was filthy and we shouldn't redeploy it widely today without a working CCS system. But it was under our local and national control. What electricity there was that didn't come from coal came from hydropower in the Welsh, Cumbrian and Scottish mountains, and Britain's independent nuclear power.

But if you have told us, in 1972 or 1973, that we were better off with this mix than with clean oil and gas, we would probably not have believed you. We thought of coal as dirty and outdated, hydropower as industrializing the mountains, and we believed oil and gas were the energy supplies of the future.

I guess we wanted to be like America.

In the same seasons that Monty Python so funnily debunked legendary Yorkshire hardiness in the "When I were a lad..." scene, the not-so-funny forces were gathering that would eradicate the coal system in Britain. By 1979, Britain's newly-elected free-market conservative PM, Margaret Thatcher, knew she needed to dismantle British unionism before she could dismantle the Welfare State before she could give the huge tax breaks she wanted to give to her upper class and upper middle class conservative supporters, most of whom were from the south where coal mines and mining villages were a foreign concept.

But the groundwork for this had been laid earlier by Labour itself, in an attempt to clean up city pollution in places like Sheffield. In the 1970s, the beginning of the end of Old Labour was there for anyone to see who was able to see it: the organized replacement of those coal fireplaces with government-provided gas heaters running on North Sea gas.

Did they think North Sea gas would last for ever?

The old saying about food, "you are what you eat," suggests that eating bacon is more than just bad for you physically. Is there an allegory in energy?

Certainly, whatever you think your politics are, at root all politics is money, and all money is made through the use of energy. Your political environment, particularly your political freedom, is directly conditioned by the forms of energy you use.

If northern Britain had still been heating with coal in 1984, the miners would have won their battle with Margaret Thatcher.

The result, of course, of all those free and subsidized gas heaters was that Britain got out of the coal business in a big way, the unions were broken, and large parts of the Welfare State dismantled. That might have been alright in the 1970s and 1980s when we had some North Sea oil and gas, but it set us up for the 1990s, when of course Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Soviet Union dismantled itself and began looking for cash industries with products the west actually wanted, and the current global oil and gas political system began to set itself up.

And now Britain, formerly energy independent, still sitting on one of the largest coal reserves in the world, is dependent on Russian gas for winter heat. While the US and its allies are struggling to find a way to pacify the middle east so oil prices will remain below $100 a barrel, so we won't have to all buy new electric cars and put up wind turbines and possibly nuclear power plants.

It's an uphill struggle, and one we had better begin to give up on. Let the Russians and the Saudis and Iranians hang on to their oil and gas.

So far we are lucky here in Maine. Unlike Britain, we don't have to worry too much about our energy stockpiles for the winter. As the weather gets colder here, and the snow begins to fly, most of us fill our oil tanks, which gives us a handy buffer, 250 gallons or more for most households and smaller buildings. Firewood piles in dooryards and palletized pellets in warehouses and basements all around the state are another huge buffer.

Gas of course behaves very differently: Pipeline pressure must be maintained for storage buffers to work at all. Which means, in effect that you have to put as much in at one end as you take out of the other, with just a few days or hours of excess. Feel sorry for the Europeans now at the mercy of Gazprom. We are lucky ours comes from Canada.

If anyone ever needed a better picture of why energy independence is so vital, this is it: however mundane the British exposure to Russian manipulation might seem, it is vitally important not to get in a similar position.

Maine has abundant renewable energy: biofuel, hydropower, wind, solar, and tidal resources. We will soon have to begin to really think about how to deploy them wisely. Thus far we've only been practicing, which is why our booming wind industry is in such ill repute with what is truly only a misguided and vocal minority.

This too shall pass. Think about it: If the Russians were restricting our gas, or prices zoomed back up to $140/barrel, and you could buy an full-American size electric or electric-hybrid sedan car for less than $20,000, wind would become as American as apple-pie, and as popular a New England product as maple syrup, although possibly never as uncontroversial.

But the political dynamic would be reversed and it would be the anti-wind activists that would be shouted down in town meetings by ordinary Mainers worried about energy, not the other way around.

And has anyone noticed that even in a recession, with 10% unemployment, gas is still just under $3.00 a gallon. Once the recession really ends, it's obviously going to zoom up again.

I'm not psychic, just because I can see this coming. It's a logical process of deduction. And we will embrace wind power here in Maine. Especially as we figure out how to have community-owned turbines and community micro-grids and electric vehicles, all working together.

Of course, the best energy unit is the one you never have to use in the first place. Insulation comes first. The stimulus money going into weatherization is a good deal for our national security and for jobs, but we will need to ramp up, and up, and up.

There is probably no more righteous activity in Maine right now than insulating and weatherizing peoples' houses. Maybe that's what our anti-wind activists should be doing with all their abundant energy and rectitude.

Transportation comes next. The sooner we get the new electric vehicles like the Volt and plug-in Prius widely available, the faster we can begin to disentangle ourselves from middle east politics, the quicker the Islamic petrostates such as Iran or Saudi Arabia will have to begin to solve their own internal problems, instead of exporting their radicals, who would otherwise focus inward, as terrorists, the faster we can bring our own troops home.

Developing Maine's energy and energy efficiency resources is the real public duty we all have to begin to accept.

We need to be sure not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, though. Reasonable restrictions on wind power development such as the State Model Wind Ordinance, or the few town-written ordinances not written by anti-wind activists or cobbled together from untested boilerplate downloaded from Wisconsin, make good sense.

We will need new standards for biofuel forestry operations, or our forestry lands will undergo a second round of Nader's The Paper Plantation syndrome, only this time to make pellets.

And we need to deploy this energy wisely and efficiently, using localized production and other "smart grid" ideas to offset transmission losses and create a "hardened," more secure grid, with lots of the local, separable micro-grid nodes that would help us keep the power on in more locales, the next time a big ice storm hits.

One new thing I'm excited to see when I visit CAT next year (see below) is the micro-grid switchgear that lets the Centre disconnect itself from the UK grid and run as a stand alone local grid.

I wish we had one of those in Jackson, Maine.

Today, I think, will be an energy day. I need to get some more firewood. And I think I will refill the spare gas tank for my generator.

Let's increase the buffer a little.

That sounds like a good, precautionary Sunday's chores.

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