Friday, January 09, 2009

Alternative Energy And Natural Gas

At the end of the first full work week of the new year--a week I suspect I am not alone in having found a bit of a slog--a pair of articles in MIT's Technology Review got me thinking about the under-appreciated relationship between alternative energy and natural gas.

In the first, TR looks back at the energy technology developments of 2008. After noting the volatility of oil prices, they paint a picture of steady progress on many fronts. Nothing stands out as a major breakthrough, though several items, including concentrating solar cells and the scheme for storing solar power using catalyzed room-temperature electrolysis, hold breakthrough potential, if they can be scaled up cheaply and efficiently. With a typical lab-to-market time lag, either one might be a major factor by the late 'teens--or not.

Their emphasis on oil prices suggests that TR, like many others with a keen interest in alternative energy, pays too much attention to the influence of oil prices on alternative energy, and too little to natural gas. Other than psychologically, the price of oil really only matters when competing directly with its products, as biofuels do. If you're generating power from wind, sun, or geothermal heat, it's the price of power from the incremental electricity source that matters, and for the immediate future, that's still the gas-fired turbine. Even electric vehicles, which would certainly displace oil, will depend partly for their attractiveness on the price of electricity, which in many markets will be set by gas-fired power. (I know they're supposed to recharge overnight on under-utilized wind power, but I can't help wondering how many consumers will insist on recharging them as soon as they get home.) The scarcely-noticed Big Surprise of the crude oil spike of 2007-8 was the uncoupling of oil and gas prices. Oil's collapse has restored the premium for its BTUs over those in gas to the level of around 25% or so that prevailed from 2002-2006, after peaking at 150% in August. In order for renewable electricity to thrive, it needs high natural gas prices, not just high oil prices.

The other story in TR that caught my eye also concerns gas, but more directly. It features a company that has investigated bacteria that digest coal underground and turn it into methane. They have figured out how to coax them to produce more of it, faster. If this can be made to work commercially, it could dramatically boost the output of coal-bed methane, which now accounts for 9% of US gas supplies. Moreover, it could help solve the conundrum of how to capitalize on the energy potential of the world's vast coal reserves without derailing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This technology might prove especially attractive, once the slowdown in gas drilling caused by the financial crisis deflates the current "gas bubble"--the supply spike resulting from the shale-gas bonanza of the last few years. The success of coal-eating gas bugs, however, would not be good news for renewable power.

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