Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Energy Storage and the Cost of Going Off-Grid

  • New energy storage offerings from Tesla and other manufacturers are widely expected to enhance the attractiveness of rooftop solar power and other renewables.
  • However, recent analysis from the Brattle Group shows that even with rapid cost reductions, grid-independence will remain beyond the reach of most consumers.
Last month's Annual Energy Conference of the US Energy Information Administration included speakers and panels on topics such as crude-by-rail, potential US oil exports, and the role of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, all of which should be familiar to my readers here. However, the topic that really caught my interest this year was energy storage.

Storage has been in the news lately, particularly since the launch of Tesla's new home and commercial energy storage products. In fact, Tesla's Chief Technology Officer spoke on the first morning of the conference. Much of his talk (very large file) focused on Tesla's expectations for the cost of storage to decline sharply as electric vehicles (EVs) and non-vehicle battery applications grow. Whether battery costs can drop as quickly as those for solar photovoltaic (PV) cells or not, storage is likely to become a more important factor in energy markets in the years ahead.

One of the most interesting presentations I saw examined a provocative aspect of this question. Michael Kline of The Brattle Group, which consults extensively on electricity, took a detailed look at whether rooftop PV and home energy storage might become sufficiently attractive that a large number of consumers would employ the combination to enable them to disconnect from the power grid entirely.  That would be an extremely appealing idea for a lot of people. The author of a book I received from the publisher a few years ago referred to it as a movement.

Most people by now appear to understand that solar panels alone can't make a household independent of the grid. The daily and seasonal incidence of sunlight aligns imperfectly with the peaks and troughs of typical home electricity demand. This is why "net metering", under which PV owners sell excess power to their local utility--effectively using the grid as a free battery--has become contentious in some electricity markets.

In a true off-grid scenario, net metering would be unavailable. Onsite storage would thus be necessary to shift in time the kilowatt-hours of energy produced from a home PV array. However, a standalone PV + storage system must be sized to deliver enough instantaneous peak power to handle periodic high-load events like the startup of air conditioners and other devices. Another presenter on the same panel had a nifty chart demonstrating how wide those variations can be, with multiple spikes each day averaging above 12 kilowatts (kW)--several times the output of a typical rooftop PV array.

Brattle's off-grid model included PV and storage optimized to "meet load in every hour given a battery with 3 days of storage (at average load levels.)" Although that is still probably less than the peak load such a system would encounter, it is the equivalent of multiple Tesla "Powerwall" units and would only be practical with the kind of drastic cost reductions Mr. Kline assumed by 2025: PV at $1.50/W and storage at $100/kWh, installed. That equates to around a third of last year's average US residential PV installation and 1/7th the estimated installed cost of Tesla's offering on a retail basis.  

Mr. Kline framed this exercise as a "stress test", not just of the off-grid proposition but of the future of the electric power grid. If many millions of customers were to "cut the cord" for electricity as others have for wireline telephone service, even a "smart" power grid would become much less important and might shrink over time. That same logic should extend to the power generators supplying the grid. If most consumers went off-grid, the value of even the most flexible generation on the grid, which today is often provided by natural gas turbines, would fall, as would demand for the fuel on which they run.

In Brattle's assessment, despite the assumption of very cheap PV and storage, that prospect seems remote. For the three markets analyzed (California, Texas and Westchester County, NY) the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for the off-grid configuration modeled was significantly more expensive than the EIA's projected cost of electricity in those markets in 2025. In fact, for consumers in California and Texas, as well as in all cases of the parallel commercial customer analysis Brattle performed, PV + storage would  be expected to cost a multiple of retail electricity prices.

As Mr. Kline explained, under more realistic assumptions the comparison was likely to be even worse for off-grid options. However, his conclusion that , "going off-grid...is unlikely to be the least expensive option for most consumers" does not mean that some consumers would not choose to do so, anyway. To them, a premium of 10-20 cents per kWh might seem like a small price to pay for personal energy independence. Yet at that price, it is hard to envision it would become a mass-market choice. 

Mr. Kline made a point of reminding his audience that Brattle's analysis did not mean that distributed energy  would  not be competitive in the future, or that it could not provide valuable services to customers and to the grid. Importantly, the figures he presented underlined the continued value of the power grid to customers, even in a future in which large quantities of PV and storage are deployed.  As he put it, "Distributed energy is a complement to the grid, not a substitute for it."

By extension, flexible generating assets like fast-reacting gas turbines should also continue to provide significant value, especially during those seasons when daily solar input is low, and in locations where average sun exposure is generally much weaker than in the US Southwest and other prime solar resource regions.  As appealing as the idea might be to some, storage seems unlikely to make either the grid or any class of generating technologies obsolete for the foreseeable future. As Bill Gates recently observed, that has implications for the cost of a wholesale shift to current renewables and away from fossil fuels.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Rare Earths Not So Rare?

  • The bankruptcy of the main US producer of "rare earth" materials signals the end of a multi-year crisis over their global supply and cost.
The announced Chapter 11 filing of US-based rare earths mining and refining company Molycorp effectively marks the end of a crisis that managed to escape the notice of most people. Rare earths are elements of low abundance, compared to the ores of metals like iron and copper. Despite their relative scarcity, they have proved extremely useful in industrial applications including renewable energy technologies. Five years ago it appeared that China had cornered the market on rare earths and was exercising its market power to, among other aims, lure businesses reliant on these minerals to shift their operations to China.

Molycorp's modernization of its rare earth mine in California and subsequent expansion into other aspects of the business were responses to a perceived global crisis. China's restrictions on rare earth exports threatened the economic competitiveness of hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines, non-silicon solar cells, compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), and other devices of interest to energy markets and policy makers.

The situation also raised concerns in the defense industry, due to the importance of rare earth metals and alloys in the manufacture of missile components, radar and sonar equipment, and other military hardware. Governments created or expanded strategic stockpiles for these materials, and took other steps to manage their reliance on supplies from China.

However, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations last fall, the effectiveness of efforts by the Chinese government to leverage their control of rare earth supplies was short-lived. Its policies led to mostly market-based responses, involving both supply and demand, that undermined China's near-monopoly and ultimately contributed to Molycorp's present financial difficulties.

Molycorp wasn't the only company to bring new supplies into production, or the only one to struggle as the crisis unwound. New supplies were already in the pipeline at the time China restricted its exports, in reaction to price spikes that preceded the policy as global demand bumped up against the output of China's mines and processing facilities. Nor was government control of China's fragmented rare earth industry sufficient to prevent continued exports exploiting loopholes of the restrictions.

Finally, and probably most importantly for both China-based and non-China-based producers, innovators in the industries using these materials found ways to make do with lower proportions of rare earths in permanent magnet motors and generators, or to do without them altogether.

The upshot from an energy perspective is that if anything will slow the expansion of wind and solar power, hybrid cars and EVs, and other alternative energy and energy-saving technologies, it is unlikely to be a shortage of rare earths. They may be rare relative to other industrial commodities, but in the small proportions used it seems they are not rare enough to pose more than a temporary bottleneck.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Where Is the Stimulus from Cheap Oil?

  • Those expecting a boost to the US economy from lower oil prices--the opposite effect of past oil price spikes--have been disappointed by the anemic response so far.
  • In GDP terms cheaper net oil imports have been offset by cuts in oil & gas investment. However, consumers now have billions saved at the gas pump to spend elsewhere.

For the last couple of months media coverage has reflected skepticism about the benefits of lower oil prices, and especially cheaper gasoline, for the US economy. This is somewhat puzzling, since the US is still a net importer of crude oil, and as such has enjoyed significant savings on our collective oil import bill during this period. And while the fallout for US oil producers whose rising output helped to trigger last fall's oil price collapse might negate some of the upside of that decline for the nation as a whole, the benefits for consumers ought to be more obvious.  
Start with some basic figures. From January to September of last year, West Texas Intermediate crude oil, the main benchmark for US petroleum, averaged $100 per barrel (bbl), in line with the average of the previous three years. From October through mid-May of this year, WTI has averaged just over $60/bbl, near where it trades today. The data for what US refineries paid to acquire imported oil through April reflect a similar drop, implying national savings of around $60 billion since the price of oil fell below the previous year's lows last October, on the basis of 7 million bbl/day of net crude oil imports. That equates to $94 billion on an annualized basis.
However, as I've noted before, the US has become a significant net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline and diesel fuel. If the revenue from those sales has fallen in parallel with oil prices, that would shrink the benefit for overall US petroleum trade by about a third.
At that level, the GDP gains from cheaper imported oil appear to be more than offset by cuts of over $90 billion in capital expenses as US oil producers seek to reduce their costs and manage their cash flow in a low-price environment.  Those cuts, along with reduced operating expenses, ripple through oil companies and their supply chains, resulting in job losses and suppliers that have less, in turn, to invest in new equipment.  
Of course the flip side of that is that with US net petroleum imports below 5 million bbl/day, out of total consumption of just over 19 million bbl/day, the country would suffer much less than previously from a sudden increase in oil prices due to some geopolitical event or a further change in OPEC's strategy.
Nor does this alter the fact that US consumers whose jobs are not tied to the oil industry have more left to spend or save every month, thanks to lower prices at the gas pump. Since the beginning of last October, US retail gasoline prices have averaged $0.84 per gallon less than at the same point a year earlier, peaking at a $1.25 year-on-year discount in mid-April. Current prices for all grades average $0.92/gal. less than in early June of 2014, following the Memorial Day weekend. As a result, consumers have gained around $90 billion in gasoline savings through May, equivalent to $137 billion per year.
If they're not yet spending the difference on other goods and services, they have reacted in other ways more directly related to cheaper gasoline: They appear to be driving more. The US Department of Transportation's gauge of vehicle miles traveled is up sharply, at or near a new high. API's oil statistics for the first quarter of 2015 show total US gasoline consumption ahead by 2.9%, compared to the first quarter of 2014. As cold and snowy as the past winter was, that's surprising.  If this trend persists, it could indicate a reversal of the generally downward trend in US gasoline demand since the financial crisis.
Consumers also appear to be purchasing larger, somewhat less fuel-efficient new cars. The Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan reported that average US new-car fuel economy of new cars sold in April was 0.6 mpg lower than at its peak last August, though still up by 5.1 mpg since October 2007.  Consistent with the figures on fuel economy, sales of hybrid cars fell by 16% in the first quarter, compared to last year, and now make up just over 2% of US new cars. Plug-in hybrids fell by nearly a third. Only battery-electric EVs bucked this trend, driven largely by Tesla's growth in sales.
Despite these shifts, I don't believe the return--for however long--of fuel prices that start with a "2" instead of a "3" or "4" will turn the US back into a nation of gas guzzlers. Consumers are only spending a fraction of their savings at the pump buying more fuel, and the preference of many for cars larger than those they were buying when gas prices reached $4 per gallon seasonally in much of the country doesn't alter the fact that even light trucks are becoming steadily more efficient.
Wherever the rest of that $100-plus billion a year from cheaper gasoline is going today, Americans would be wise not to assume it will carry into the future indefinitely. Oil prices remain volatile and uncertain. Although OPEC might be correct in projecting that we will not see $100 per barrel again soon, current prices may not prove sustainable, either. 

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Monday, June 01, 2015

EPA's Blown Call on Ethanol

  • EPA's proposed revision to renewable fuel quotas achieves the appearance of compromise by cutting non-existent volumes, while still attempting to force more ethanol into the market than consumers seem to want.
Last Friday the US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited proposal for untangling a broken federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). Although it provides all parties with greater certainty, it fails to resolve the regulation's fundamental flaws. This is all the more disappointing for the duration of the wait involved, finalizing 2014's quotas 18 months late and leaving refiners and fuel blenders to operate for the first five months of this year on hints and guesswork about how much ethanol and biodiesel they would be required to sell in 2015.

The proposal meets at least one definition of a compromise, with most affected constituencies apparently disappointed or irate about the result. To someone unfamiliar with the situation, it might even seem that, as ethanol groups claim, the agency has leaned far in the direction of assuaging the concerns of the petroleum refining industry by cutting a total of 11 billion gallons from the 2014-16 quotas for ethanol and other biofuels. However, as EPA's accompanying analysis makes clear, the omitted volumes were unlikely ever to be purchased by end-users, given the decline in US motor fuels consumption since the statutes imposing the RFS were passed in 2005 and 2007. Nor do the facilities yet exist to produce the quantities of cellulosic biofuels that account for the lion's share of the proposed cuts.

EPA's documentation repeatedly cites the "intent of Congress." This seems to refer to the Congressional sessions that bequeathed us this policy, rather than to the current Congress, which is waking up to the fact that the program has largely been superseded by reality. The RFS was designed to address two problems: US fuel scarcity and transportation-sector emissions of greenhouse gases. The former has been overcome mainly thanks to the shale revolution, transforming the US from a net importer of refined petroleum products to the world's largest exporter.

As for automobile-related emissions, they are being managed more effectively by fuel economy improvements and new vehicle technology. The RFS may even be counterproductive in its overall emissions impacts, as noted in a press release from the Environmental Working Group. Nor are emissions the only issue for which crop-based ethanol may be doing more harm than good. Evidence points to periodic impacts on global food prices. It's hard to conclude we could divert 38% of the US corn crop without causing unintended consequences somewhere.

EPA's analysis of the snarl at the core of the existing RFS is perplexing. First it describes how ethanol has effectively reached its maximum possible penetration of the US market for ordinary gasoline containing up to 10% ethanol (E10)--the so-called "blend wall." It goes on to acknowledge that sales of gasoline blends containing up to 15% or 85% ethanol, respectively, remain minuscule relative to total gasoline sales. However, it then ignores these facts and persists in the hope that by continuing to increase its ethanol quota, albeit more slowly, it can convince consumers to embrace fuels for which they had little appetite even when gasoline cost $1 more per gallon than it does today.

As the Washington Post noted, most car manufacturers still warn automobile owners that using gasoline containing more than 10% ethanol could result in engine damage not covered by their warranties. Although I was pleased to see that the car I recently purchased is warranted up to 15% ethanol, I cannot envision buying a single gallon of E15 unless it was priced at a discount to E10 gasoline, reflecting its inherently lower fuel economy and range. As for E85, in only a handful of states does the market discount meet or exceed the fuel's 27% calculated deficit in delivered energy, compared to E10. Is it any wonder that for a decade E85 has failed to take off as envisioned by the EPA and previous Congresses?

The EPA does not have a free hand to rewrite this regulation in any manner it would like, to fit the greatly altered circumstances in which the US now finds itself. The agency may well believe it has gone as far in that direction as it could, although I suspect it could have justified freezing ethanol from all sources at current levels, and allowing cellulosic ethanol gradually to displace corn-based fuel as new facilities come online. However, no adjustments that EPA seems prepared to make can repair a biofuels policy that was fundamentally broken at its inception, due to its inherent contradictions with other policies and consumer preferences.

We have reached the point at which conflicting federal biofuel quotas, emissions regulations, and  chronically weak GDP growth have rendered the original goals of the RFS not just ambitious but unattainable. The EPA has taken its best shot at addressing this and come up short. It is now up to the US Congress and the Administration to work together to fix this mess, before the consequences of inaction put a damper on one of the few bright spots of the current economy.

Monday, May 04, 2015

US Energy Independence in Sight?

  • The data analysis arm of the US Department of Energy is forecasting that despite low oil prices, the US will become energy independent within a decade. 
  • That result depends on frugality as much as resource abundance, and it includes substantial volumes of energy trade with the rest of the world.
The US Energy Information Administration's latest Annual Energy Outlook features the key finding that the US is on track to reduce its net energy imports to essentially zero by 2030, if not sooner. That might seem surprising, in light of the recent collapse of oil prices and the resulting significant slowdown in drilling. EIA has covered that base, as well, in a side-case in which oil prices remain under $80 per barrel through 2040, and net imports bottom out at around 5% of total energy demand. Either way, this is as close to true US energy independence as I ever expected to see.

It wasn't that many years ago that such an outcome seemed ludicrously unattainable. I recall patiently explaining to various audiences that we simply couldn't drill our way to energy independence. The forecast of self-sufficiency that EIA has assembled depends on a lot more than just drilling, but without the development of previously inaccessible oil and gas resources through advanced drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. "fracking", it couldn't be made at all. The growing contributions of various renewables are still dwarfed by oil and natural gas, for now.

Every forecast depends on assumptions, and it's important to understand what would be necessary in order for conditions to turn out as the EIA now expects in its "reference case", or main scenario. This includes a gradual but pronounced oil-price recovery, to average just over $70/bbl next year, $80 within five years, and back to around $100 by the end of the 2020s. That helps support a resumption of oil production growth next year, followed by a plateau just above 10 million bbl/day--surpassing 1971's peak output--for the next decade and a gradual decline thereafter. EIA also expects natural gas prices to head back towards $5 per million BTUs by the end of this decade, in tandem with a further 34% expansion of US gas production by 2040.  

However, attainment of zero net imports also depends on the continuation of some important trends, including energy consumption that grows at a rate well below that of population, and a continued decoupling of energy and GDP growth. This is crucial, because through 2040 EIA assumes the US population will grow by another 20% and GDP by 85%, while total energy consumption increases by just 10%. That has important implications for greenhouse gas emissions, too. Energy-related emissions barely grow at all in this scenario.

Renewable energy output is also expected to continue growing, with US electricity generated from wind surpassing that from hydropower in the late 2030s and solar power in 2040 yielding roughly as many megawatt-hours as wind did in 2008.

Finally, reaching a balance between US energy imports and exports also depends on the continued contribution of nuclear power at roughly current levels. That suggests that new reactors in other locations will replace those that are retired, including for economic reasons.

In last month's rollout presentation at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, EIA Administrator Sieminski also emphasized what is not included in the Outlook's assumptions, notably the EPA's "Clean Power Plan" that is currently under review.  It would be hard to imagine US coal consumption remaining essentially unchanged at 18% of the total energy mix in 2040, if EPA's plan to reduce emissions from the electricity sector by 30% by 2030 were fully implemented. EIA will apparently issue its analysis of the impact of the Clean Power Plan this month.

It's also worth comparing EIA's view of zero net energy imports with popular notions of what energy independence. It certainly does not mean that the US would no longer import any oil, natural gas, or other fuels from other countries. Even as the US approaches zero net imports, routine imports and exports of various energy streams will remain necessary to address imbalances between regions and fuel types.

Because EIA's forecast is predicated on current laws and regulations, it does not include any significant growth in oil exports. As a result, exports of refined products such as propane, gasoline and diesel fuel would continue to expand, eventually exceeding 6 million bbl/day gross and 4 million net of imports. In its "High Oil and Gas Resource" case the constraint on US oil exports forces an expansion of refined product exports that seems nearly incredible when refinery capacity in Asia and the Middle East is also slated for expansion, while refined product demand growth slows globally. Perhaps this is EIA's subtle way of focusing attention on the US's outdated oil export regulations. 

Exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) would also take off, accounting for around 9% of US production by 2040, while imports of pipeline gas from Canada would shrink but not disappear. In the high resource case, US LNG exports would grow dramatically until the late 2030s, reaching 20% of a much bigger supply.

The report provides a few surprises, including one that won't be welcomed by advocates of biofuels and a continuation of the current federal Renewable Fuels Standard, the reform of which has gradually become a topic of lively debate in the US Congress. EIA's figures show total US biofuel consumption growing by less than 1% per year, with ethanol's only real growth coming in the form of a modest increase in sales of E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, to around 3% of gasoline demand in 2040.

Overall, I'm struck by several things. First, the value of the EIA's forecasts comes mainly from identifying the implications of current trends and policies, rather than accurately predicting the future. Administrator  Sieminski seemed appropriately humble about the latter task in his remarks at CSIS. Yet the reference case this time suggests an eventual reversion to pre-oil-crash conditions, ending in 2040 at the same oil price in 2013 dollars as last year's forecast--a level that would exceed the 2008 peak by a sizeable margin. That seems inconsistent with a world of expanding energy options, improved drilling efficiency, at least for shale, and a growing focus on the decarbonization of energy.

There also appears to be a disconnect between the forecast's rising real price of natural gas, with implications for the cost of electricity generation, and its virtual flatlining of solar power's expansion after the scheduled expiration of the current solar tax credit in 2016. This looks like a bet against further solar cost reductions and technology improvements, along with structural changes that are already occurring in some electricity markets.

Despite these reservations, I wouldn't dispute the headline finding of steady progress toward a version of US energy independence featuring large volumes of energy trade with both North America and the rest of the world. The combination of resource growth and steady energy efficiency improvements looks like a recipe for finally putting the US on an energy footing that politicians of both major parties have only dreamed of for the last 40 years.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation

Friday, April 10, 2015

An Energy Perspective on the Iran Nuclear Framework

  • With enormous natural gas reserves and renewables potential, Iran has little need for nuclear power, and even less for uranium enrichment.
  • If Iran's sacrifices in pursuit of its nuclear program cannot be explained by a gap in its energy mix, what will motivate its leaders to abide by the current nuclear deal?
The coverage of the recently agreed international nuclear framework for Iran's nuclear program has missed an important aspect of the story. Nearly all of the reporting and analysis I have read considered the deal from a security and geopolitical perspective, without examining the merits of civilian nuclear power within Iran's domestic energy mix. That goes to the heart of Iran's motivation for future adherence to the terms of the detailed agreement that must shortly follow the broad framework negotiated in Switzerland.

This line of analysis dates back to an article I wrote for Geopolitics of Energy, published by the Canadian Energy Research Institute exactly 10 years ago, in April 2005, and subsequently reprinted in my blog. Other than some outdated figures on energy consumption, reserves and cost, it has held up pretty well, particularly in terms of its main proposition:

"Iran makes an unusual candidate for civilian nuclear power, compared to other countries with nuclear power. Most of these fall into either of two categories: those that lack other energy resources to support their economies, such as France, Japan and South Korea, and resource-rich countries that developed nuclear power as a consequence of their pursuit of nuclear weapons, including the US, former USSR, UK, and arguably China. Blessed as it is with hydrocarbon reserves, Iran does not fall into the former category, and it claims not to fall into the latter. Does it represent a unique case?"

In the years since I wrote that, we've seen a growing interest in nuclear energy elsewhere in the Middle East, including a reported memorandum of understanding between Saudi Arabia and Korea for constructing civilian power reactors in the Kingdom. Such projects in energy-rich Gulf States beg the same questions as in Iran, although the "displacement of oil for export" rationale holds up better for Saudi Arabia and the UAE than for Iran under the current circumstances.

As in 2005, the key to understanding the fit of nuclear power within Iran's energy mix is natural gas. In the most recent country analysis by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) Iran's domestic energy consumption has grown by roughly two-thirds since the 2003 data on which I based my 2005 article. The EIA data indicate that around 75% of that growth has been fueled by gas. That's not surprising, since Iran now claims 18% of the world's proved reserves of natural gas, having leapfrogged Russia for the top spot a few years ago. At current production rates, Iran has over 200 years of proved gas reserves, compared to about 14 years for the US. (Higher US estimates are based on the less-restrictive category of resources, not reserves.)

Moreover, since 2005 the cost of building nuclear power plants has increased, in some cases significantly, while the cost of natural gas-fired combined cycle turbine power plants has generally declined, thanks to substantial efficiency improvements. For that matter, the cost of alternatives like solar power, which Iran's geography favors, has declined even more in the interim.

A decade after I first examined this question, it is still hard to find a compelling energy rationale for Iran to pursue civilian nuclear power with the persistence it has demonstrated. Developing more of its abundant natural gas would be more cost-effective, perhaps in combination with solar power, which presents natural synergies with gas relating to solar's intermittency. These options would not have triggered the kind of economic constraints to which Iran's choices have led.

Nor does the other rationale to which I alluded above withstand scrutiny in this case, involving the application of domestic nuclear power to free up for export oil and gas that would otherwise be consumed to generate electricity. The implied cost of Iranian gas displaced from power generation would likely be higher than the cost of new gas development, especially when the costs of the full nuclear fuel cycle that is the crux of international concerns are included. If anything, Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy in the last decade has functioned as a reverse fuel displacement mechanism, resulting in costly reductions in oil exports due to international sanctions.

As for the benefits of nuclear energy in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Iran did not include nuclear power in the list of mitigation measures it presented at the UN climate summit in Durban in 2011, nor did it commit to specific emissions reductions at the Cancun Climate Conference in 2012.

On balance, Iran's objective need for civilian nuclear power scarcely justifies the sacrifices it has endured, or the lengths to which it has gone to secure its nuclear program. Over the last 10 years, buying time through engagement and negotiations led to an opportunity for the "P5 +1" countries to impose the tough sanctions that brought Iran to the point of the current deal, once rising US shale oil production effectively defused Iran's "oil weapon." However, if the current agreement merely buys more time, it risks squandering the best chance to bell this cat. We cannot count on having more slack in energy markets 10 years hence than we do today.

Viewed from an energy perspective, the primary purpose of Iran's nuclear program seems unlikely to be an expanded energy supply, rather than a weapons capability. In that context, the concerns about this deal recently expressed by two former US Secretaries of State who negotiated Cold War arms control agreements with the Soviet Union should be sobering. They deserve serious consideration by both the White House and a Congress that seeks its own opportunity to weigh in.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

How Will Low Oil Prices Affect Natural Gas?

  • The growth of US natural gas output in recent years has been sustained partly by gas produced in conjunction with shale or "tight" oil.
  • The slowdown in oil drilling in response to lower oil prices could also affect future natural gas production, and thus prices, especially in the US.
Media coverage of energy has focused heavily on oil prices, lately, for understandable reasons. Oil's dramatic plunge and subsequent volatility would be newsworthy, even if petroleum weren't still our leading source of energy, especially for transportation. In this context, the dog that hasn't barked is natural gas, although oil and gas are still linked by common drilling hardware and often produced from the same wells. With oil drilling being curtailed in response to low oil prices, should we be concerned about natural gas supplies in the months and years ahead?

At first glance the answer ought to be a straightforward "no." As most people now know, US drillers figured out how to tap the country's vast shale gas resources economically. US gas production is at record levels, after rising steadily since 2006 and surpassing former top producer Russia around 2009. US natural gas inventories were severely depleted following last year's "Polar Vortex" winter, but output grew fast enough to keep the benchmark price of gas below $4 per million BTUs this winter, despite below-average temperatures east of the Mississippi. 

However, in assessing gas supply under low oil prices we must factor in the industry's response to the natural gas price collapse in 2008. The prices of oil and gas both dropped precipitously during the financial crisis, but gas didn't recover to the same extent as oil. In 2007 the average spot price of natural gas on an energy equivalent basis was just over half that of West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI). By 2010 gas was worth only a third as much as oil, and by 2012 just 17%--the equivalent of $16 per barrel in a world of $100 oil. Drillers responded accordingly.

As the Energy Information Administration (EIA) chart below depicts, drilling for gas fell sharply from 2009-12, while  "oil-directed drilling" rose just as sharply. In fact, these were mainly the same rigs, redeployed to pursue different targets--sometimes in the same shale basin--as gas grew cheaper.

 So shouldn't natural gas production have fallen in tandem with the decline in rigs drilling for gas? The extremely useful charts in the EIA's latest Drilling Productivity Report help to explain why gas output continued to climb. First, just as the increasing productivity of shale oil drilling has confounded expectations about how soon US shale oil production would begin to decline after prices fell below $50 per barrel, shale gas drilling productivity improved rapidly following the gas price collapse.

For example, between 2009 and 2012 average gas production per rig--not per well--in the mainly gas-yielding Marcellus Shale more than tripled. From 2012 -14 it doubled again. Those gains reflect the combination of improvements in drilling efficiency (more wells or more feet drilled per month), improvements in hydraulic fracturing effectiveness, and companies targeting more productive well sites as knowledge of the basin's geology increased.

A key development following the gas price collapse was the growth of gas production from wells drilled in pursuit of shale oil. The best example of this is in the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. While oil production there grew from virtually nothing to over 1.7 million bbl/day, the region's gas output nearly quadrupled, to 7.5 billion cubic feet (BCF) per day, or 10% of total US gas production.

Now we've entered a new chapter, due to a global oil surplus. As of the latest drilling rig count from Baker Hughes, oil-directed rigs employed in the US have fallen by around 45% since November 2014, and gas-directed rigs are down  by a quarter. A few companies may have shifted from oil back to gas, but the overall rig trend is still down for both.

The net result is that the EIA expects oil production from the major US shale basins to remain essentially flat from March to April, while gas production should still grow by about 0.3%. How much farther would US shale oil and gas drilling have to contract before lower rig counts swamped productivity improvements for gas? Comparing those figures to the growth rates in previous months, perhaps not very much.

Of course the US represents only about a fifth of the global gas market. Elsewhere, especially in Europe and Asia, many gas sales contracts are pegged to oil prices, while supply is dominated not by flexible shale, but by large conventional gas fields and the trade in liquefied natural gas (LNG). So outside the US, lower oil prices may do more to stimulate gas demand than to shrink supply. Cheaper gas imports into China are apparently already having an impact on coal consumption.

That could create new opportunities for companies developing LNG facilities to export US gas, at the same time that the economics of such exports become more challenging. In markets like Asia, the effect of lower oil prices has cut the gap between landed LNG prices and US pipeline gas--and hence the motivation for exports--by more than half.

Even after oil's collapse, US natural gas at the Henry Hub has recently traded at about one-third of the price of WTI, per-BTU of energy. The contraction of drilling in response to low oil prices may tighten supplies and nudge the prices of both commodities higher, reminding us that gas isn't entirely immune to oil's influence. However, with US gas inventories ample, the market doesn't seem to anticipate either a spike in gas prices this summer, or a narrowing of gas's discount vs. oil any time soon.

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation