Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2010 and Beyond

The start of my seventh year of blogging on energy and its related environmental concerns coincides with the start of a new decade, unless you're of the traditional school that believes the twenty-teens don't really begin until next January 1. Over the holidays I was struck by the number of retrospectives focused on the amply eventful, but profoundly disappointing decade that was ending. Having spent several years reassuring my readers that we weren't reliving the 1970s, in retrospect I'm not so sure. Yet as bad as the '70s were on so many levels, they gave birth to the '80s, which brought revitalization and tremendous technological developments, and culminated in the end of a Cold War that most of us had considered perpetual. There's cause for guarded optimism about the decade ahead, particularly for energy, which is still in the early stages of a massive transformation. The 'Teens will test the capacity of current energy systems to support a return to rapid economic growth and of new energy technologies to go from niche to mainstream.

I could fill the rest of this posting with grandiose predictions about the next ten years, but instead I want to focus on two stories that could provide early clues about energy in the crucial 2010-2020 period. The first almost escaped notice in the energy retrospectives I read last week. Many of them, including one in the Wall St. Journal, attributed the recovery of oil prices in 2009 mainly to the stabilization of the financial system, yet scarcely mentioned the essential role of OPEC's self-restraint. According to the figures in the latest public version of the International Energy Agency's Oil Market Report, between May 2008 and February 2009 OPEC reduced its output by more than 10%, taking well over 3 million barrels per day (MBD) off the market in response to a 3% drop in global oil demand. Despite the usual cheating on its official quotas, its members have avoided the competition for shares of a shrinking market that crashed oil prices from the $30s to $11/bbl in the mid-1980s and set up a decade of low oil prices.

In the process, OPEC's spare production capacity has expanded from less than 2 MBD to roughly 6 MBD. That's quite a buffer against a big price spike as the economy recovers, though it's also the reason oil isn't drastically cheaper than it is today. While we can't know precisely what would have happened if, for example, Saudi Arabia had tried to squeeze the output of its new, Texas-sized Khurais field into the market on top of its existing sales, it's a good bet that oil wouldn't be trading anywhere near its current $81/bbl. The reason this is relevant for the decade ahead is that OPEC could be forced to accommodate even bigger increases from the production agreements recently signed in Iraq, along with more reliable output from Nigeria, if that country's ceasefire with rebels in the Niger Delta leads to a lasting resolution of the problems there. With many of the world's best onshore oil prospects currently off-limits for anyone else to develop, OPEC's members and their continued cohesion hold one of the main keys to oil prices in this decade.

Meanwhile the growth of renewable energy faces a number of important tests as it expands beyond the scale at which it can be tucked safely out of sight and out of mind. We've already seen large solar projects in California's Mojave Desert--one of the most reliably sunny spots on the planet--canceled or relocated to accommodate concerns about wilderness preservation, and now I read that the long-suffering developers of the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod are at risk of having the project's location declared a Historic Site by the National Park Service. With all due respect to the local tribes that apparently consider Nantucket Sound to be sacred, it's worth recalling some of the other history of the region that ought to bear on such a finding. In its heyday Nantucket Island was the center of the global whaling industry, made possible by a fleet of tall-masted sailing ships that used wind power to harvest a key energy resource of the time, from the slaughter of whales for their oil. It's hard to think of a better way to recognize that history--and in a more environmentally-sound 21st century way--than by putting up offshore wind turbines to harness the wind for direct energy production.

And while the permitting for America's first offshore wind farm drags on interminably, the UK government is expected to announce the results of its Third Round of offshore wind bids this week. The new installations would add 25,000 MW of new capacity to a base of offshore UK wind farms in operation or under construction that is already about four times larger than that contemplated for Nantucket Sound.

Oil prices and the expansion of renewables are only two of many factors that will determine the shape of the world's energy economy in 2020, though they rank high on my list of things to watch as the decade begins. Tight oil supplies and high prices would do a lot to promote energy efficiency and new vehicle technologies, while lower, more stable prices might result in a return to the complacency we saw in the late 1980s and '90s. And although renewable power sources are hardly the only means for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and rendering our steadily-growing energy use more sustainable, much depends on the capability of wind, solar and geothermal power to continue their recent impressive expansion. That's true whether you are banking on cleantech and "green jobs" to turn around the US economy or merely interested in the size of the potential opportunity for our suddenly-ample natural gas supplies. I look forward to sharing my observations about these and other trends in the months and years ahead.

No comments: