Friday, October 28, 2011

Repaying Greece's Debts with Tomorrow's Sunlight

Some days the economic news seems to emanate from the Twilight Zone. When the official summit document from Wednesday's meeting of EU leaders seeking to avert another financial crisis includes a reference to repaying a portion of Greek debt with the output of a huge PV array that might not be completed for several decades, if it is built at all, I don't know how else to describe it. And that's before considering the perplexing economics behind the Helios scheme, which apparently entails Germany or other EU members investing or lending--after lenders have just agreed to take a 50% haircut on previous Greek debt--up to €20 billion to build a 10 GW PV installation in Greece to generate power that would be sent to central Europe via transmission lines that don't all exist yet. Either I'm missing a key element of the plan, or the EU ministers didn't quite grasp the details involved.

Let's start by stipulating that the idea of generating solar power in a sunny location like Greece and sending it to darker northern countries like Germany probably makes a lot more sense than investing billions of Euros installing additional solar in the latter, where it will be lucky to produce annual output equal to an average of 10% of its nameplate capacity, compared to 25% or more in an ideal location. That's the same logic behind the much larger and better-known Desertec plan, which would accomplish much the same goal from installations in North Africa and the Middle East, if it ever gets built. The problem in the case of Helios, as the Greek project is called, isn't the basic engineering concept but the financial one necessary for it to function in the manner suggested in the EU document.

In order for Helios to generate significant value to offset part of Greece's borrowings from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and other EU institutions, it would follow that Greece should actually own either the Helios installation or the rights to most of the power it would generate. Yet it's also clear that Helios could only be built with massive non-Greek investment of either equity or debt. If equity, then wouldn't the foreign investors own most of Helios and its output, leaving Greece little from which to repay its debts? And if debt, wouldn't that mean Greece was repaying one debt with the proceeds of another, rendering this scheme just a circuitous form of rollover?

Perhaps the Greek government assumes it will end up with a large carried interest in the project merely from contributing the land upon which it would sit, and for streamlining the permitting process for building it. But what proportion of most PV projects is attributable to land, especially in competing, high-sun regions such as those involved in Desertec? I'd think it was pretty low compared to the value of all the solar and electrical hardware, which Greece can't afford to buy on its own. And once we determine how much of the project Greece would actually own, then we would need to calculate the revenue out of which debt repayment could be remitted. If they're counting on power prices close to today's German feed-in tariffs, which were just slashed again, I think they're going to be very disappointed at the end of the day. My guess is the power would be worth no more than around 10 €-cents per kWh at the source, to allow it to compete in the German wholesale market after accounting for transmission costs. At that rate a 100% share of twenty years of 10 GW of PV under Greece's average temperature-adjusted insolation might generate an undiscounted €25 billion, but that's before repaying the project's up-front investment and all other expenses.

Not so long ago the prospects for projects like Helios were mainly determined by the interaction of oil prices and climate policy, with strong global economic growth essentially a given. That proposition has recently been inverted, with oil prices, climate policy and energy development all being driven or constrained largely by economic factors. In this context Helios looks potentially useful as a development project that could provide some construction jobs and eventually generate some corporate tax revenue for Greece on the profits from exporting green electricity to the project's effective owners in central Europe. That could give the Greek economy a bit of a boost. However, the line in the EU communique in which , "Greece commits future cash flows from project further reduce indebtedness of the Hellenic Republic by up to €15 billion with the aim of restoring the lending capacity of the EFSF," seems to reflect the same sort of thinking that brought Greece to its current situation.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Key Renewable Energy Subsidies About to Expire

The US renewable energy industry faces a greatly altered incentive environment next year, as eligibility for two of its largest current subsidies comes to an end at the close of 2011. The corn ethanol sector will likely see the complete withdrawal of the blenders' credit that has fueled its growth for more than 30 years, while new projects generating electricity from renewable energy sources must shortly attract investment without the Treasury grants that provided up-front cash in place of federal investment tax credits against taxable income--a commodity sometimes in even shorter supply among recipients than the energy they seek to generate. With these expirations taking place against the backdrop of a US presidential election campaign and record levels of deficit and federal debt, the prospects for another round of one-year subsidy extensions look slim. Yet renewable energy development in the US won't grind to a halt without them, because these two programs represent merely the most generous layer of the complex web supporting renewables.

Consider the venerable ethanol tax credit, which was made mostly redundant by the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, with its Renewable Fuels Standard mandating the use of increasing quantities of ethanol in gasoline. In fact, ethanol producers were never more than indirect beneficiaries of the $0.45 per gallon credit, which was paid to refiners and other gasoline blenders in order to help create a market for ethanol. Mission accomplished. Moreover, with US gasoline sales having stalled at a level that can barely absorb all the ethanol that existing US ethanol plants can produce, unless gasoline blends containing more than 10% ethanol become popular, there is simply no need for corn ethanol output to expand further. In fact, the market will be more than sufficiently challenged providing outlets for the limited quantities of cellulosic and other advanced ethanol likely to be produced in the next few years. As I've noted previously, forward-looking members of the industry are now seeking help in expanding the market for high-ethanol blends, rather than perpetuating an outdated support for existing sales.

The situation for renewable electricity sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy is more complicated. The expiring Treasury grants were introduced as part of the 2009 stimulus to stand in for the "tax equity swap" market, a category of financial transactions that froze up during the financial crisis. These swaps provided a private-sector cash-flow bridge between project expenditures and tax credits that only paid off after start-up as income was earned or energy produced. That was particularly helpful for smaller, less profitable developers, but it also provided an additional check on marginal projects. Even after credit markets eased, most developers understandably preferred the cash grants, which reduced their financing costs and avoided the fees that bankers charged on tax equity deals. However, that preference doesn't justify continuing the cash grant program--particularly for the large, profitable corporations that increasing dominate this space. The industry should focus more effort on fostering the revival of a liquid and competitive tax equity market and less on lobbying for an extension of a temporary stimulus measure.

Either way, the tax credits behind these grants and swaps won't last forever. Under current law, the principal federal tax credit for wind will be in place only through 2012, for biomass and geothermal through 2013, and for solar through 2016. Instead of a scenario of perpetual last-minute extensions such as we've seen in the past, the industry and its investors should be thinking about a scenario in which all these tax credits end, either as part of comprehensive tax reform that eliminates most such "tax expenditures"--including the ones for the oil and gas industry that have become so contentious in the last few years--or a transition to providing renewables with similar sorts of incentives as oil and gas, which essentially amount to forms of accelerated depreciation and modest tax breaks for manufacturing in the US, rather than in other countries.

It's also important to realize that even without these tax credits and in the absence of comprehensive federal energy legislation that looks unlikely any time soon, the industry would still retain numerous state-level benefits, starting with the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) for electricity currently in place in 29 states and the District of Columbia, a tally that encompasses most of the states with the best wind and solar resources. These RPS's are similar to the Renewable Fuel Standard for biofuels in requiring utilities to include increasing proportions of renewable energy in their supply portfolios, whether owned or purchased. Such standards, including California's aggressive RPS targeting 33% renewable electricity by 2020, stand outside the polarizing political debate over taxation and government expenditures. They function as an implicit tax on ratepayers, rather than taxpayers, because they show up within customers' utility bills rather than on their 1040 forms. That distinction could be particularly important if the congressional supercommittee fails to reach a consensus, and the default spending cuts built into the Budget Control Act that resolved this summer's debt ceiling crisis kick in.

So while it might appear that the US renewable energy industry is about it be cut loose from the key incentives that enabled it to grow to its present dimensions, it will continue to benefit from supports not enjoyed by other industrial sectors. Even when the current tax credits expire, renewables will have a mandated market providing a floor beneath them. Ethanol output won't revert to 2005 levels, nor will renewables vanish from the landscape, even if their growth slows a bit while the rest of the economy struggles to emerge from the aftermath of the Great Recession and financial crisis, and to avoid a double-dip. Meanwhile, global overcapacity in wind turbine and solar module manufacturing will keep their prices trending lower--and installations stronger--pending industry consolidations that will position both for healthier, more sustainable growth in the long run. All of this falls well short of the level of help for the industry that most renewable energy supporters would like to see, but it's far more than the level playing field (ignoring externalities) that would see cheap and abundant natural gas sweep away all competition for new power generation.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

US Energy Poll Reveals Contradictions

Yesterday I received a press release announcing the results of a new poll on US consumer attitudes towards energy conducted by the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin. I wasn't surprised to see that a plurality of the poll's respondents thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction on energy--triple the proportion that think we're on the right track--and many expect the situation to get worse in the next 25 years. That meshes with numerous readings on Americans' views of the overall economy. The poll also showed consumers broadly dissatisfied with the job that government and industry are doing in this regard, though the renewable energy sector, along with engineers, scientists and academia received somewhat better marks. At the same time, the results on several questions either contradict current consumer trends or reveal a poor understanding of energy market influences. Perhaps the most reassuring finding was that less than a quarter of consumers consider themselves knowledgeable on energy, while a large majority is interested in learning more.

The main question that grabbed my attention concerned consumers' "expectations for adopting new technology." 38% reported they were likely to use smart meter technology within the next five years, 30% said they were likely to own a hybrid car, and 21% were likely to install solar panels on their homes. On the face of it, these should be very encouraging results for the renewable energy and advanced vehicle sectors and those who invest in them. At the same time, it's hard to square these figures with the actual adoption rates for such technologies in the marketplace.

Consider hybrids, which have lost most of their novelty in the last decade, with cumulative US hybrid car sales standing at just over 2 million at this point. That's less than 1% of total US light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs and light trucks), but it's still impressive, considering they started at essentially zero in the late 1990s. The problem is that even now, with practically every major carmaker offering at least one hybrid model, and several fielding an entire range of hybrids, 2011 sales have averaged just 2% of total US car sales of 9.5 million through September, based on figures compiled by Add plug-in electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf and you get to 2.1%. Even before hybrid supplies were constrained in the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, advanced vehicle sales never topped 3% in any month of this year.

The poll provides few insights into why the actual "take rate"would amount to less than a tenth of those with favorable attitudes towards buying a hybrid. However, it does suggest that the standard explanation that gas prices just aren't high enough yet is out of step with how consumers view those prices. Fully 95% of respondents described gas prices as either "very high" or "somewhat high", and 78% expected them to be somewhat or significantly higher in six months. One possible conclusion is that despite coming in compact, SUV, truck and luxury flavors, hybrid technology still doesn't deliver the value and/or performance most consumers are seeking, even if they're receptive to it in the abstract.

Then there's the even more dramatic disconnect on solar power. If 21% of single-family dwellings in the US were to install rooftop solar panels of 3 kW or more in the next five years, that would equate to at least 228 GW of solar power--about 90 times current US installed capacity--for average installations of 46 GW per year, or nearly three times the amount installed globally last year, mostly in Europe. As of the end of 2010, there were 153,000 grid-connected PV systems in the US, including commercial and utility installations. Even if all of them were on the rooftops of homes, that would still amount to just a 0.2% market penetration. Although PV prices are coming down rapidly and sales could approach 2 GW in 2011, this divergence between sentiment and sales suggests that a lot more Americans like the idea of rooftop solar than are actually willing to invest in buying (or leasing) it at this point.

Whatever the UT poll results indicate about the potential medium-term market share of new energy technologies, they provide a data point that Americans view energy as another important issue they believe government is getting wrong. They also highlight the need and opportunity for more education on how energy markets really work, with supply constraints and growing demand actually having a much bigger impact on energy prices than the limited pricing power most energy companies enjoy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Pipelines in the Spotlight

There aren't many parts of the energy value chain that normally receive less attention than pipelines. Energy production, whether from oil and gas fields, nuclear power plants, or rapidly growing renewable sources usually garners far more attention for the impressive technology and capital involved. By contrast pipelines are long-lived, relatively low-tech and low-return assets that often seem invisible to those outside the industry. Sunday's announcement of Kinder Morgan's bid for El Paso Corp., uniting two pipeline giants into a $94 billion enterprise, reminds us just how big this low-key infrastructure can be. This deal also signals important shifts underway within the fossil fuel industry. Just as the rise of wind and solar power requires an upgraded electricity grid, changes in the sources of our oil and gas have big implications for the networks required to bring these fuels to market.

As an article in today's Wall St. Journal states in its title, the Kinder Morgan-El Paso deal heralds the arrival of the Age of Shale. It simultaneously validates the potential of US shale gas resources and points to a new set of growth opportunities created by unconventional oil and gas resources that couldn't have been produced a decade ago, either economically or technically. This couldn't have come at a better time for the pipeline industry, when its bread-and-butter business of transporting refined products to distribution terminals is reaching a plateau, as developed-country markets exhibit Peak Demand and biofuels output grows. That's a big change from when I worked in the "mid-stream", which includes pipelines, distribution terminals and trading. Then, the challenge was keeping conventional crude pipelines full as domestic onshore oil fields depleted, while expanding capacity to transport gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to meet steadily rising demand. Today the advent of shale gas, shale oil and oil sands crude coincides with the development of a much more diverse energy market.

Recent changes in the economy also make pipelines, which used to be considered dull, more interesting as an investment. With interest rates historically low and equity markets weak and volatile, the modest but stable returns that midstream oil and gas assets offer must seem a lot more attractive than they did prior to the financial crisis, particularly when managed in tax-efficient structures such as the master limited partnerships that Mr. Kinder helped pioneer. And those same low interest rates make the capital required for new private-sector infrastructure projects more affordable. Such projects also look doubly beneficial in the current environment of high unemployment, providing both large numbers of jobs in the short term, during construction, and ensuring the reliable energy supplies needed for sustainable job growth once the economy hits its stride again.

Of course pipelines aren't always dull, particularly when they are the focus of controversies such as the current one concerning the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. But what many of that project's critics, including celebrities who appear to know less about such facilities than most of my readers, have missed is that despite rare, unfortunate accidents, pipelines remain the best and most efficient means of transporting large volumes of fuel over long distances. Unless you honestly think we can do without these fuels entirely--a scenario that I am convinced will not be realistic for at least another few decades--then it makes little sense to shun pipelines and thus proportionally increase the quantity of fuel that will be carried by truck, rail and ocean-going tankers, all of which are also subject to accidents. Like all infrastructure pipelines require proper maintenance, but they are not inherently risky.

No bet on the scale of the one Kinder Morgan is making can ever be a sure thing, and I can think of several things that might go wrong, topped by a double-dip global recession that lasted for years and sapped both energy demand and gas drilling economics. However, this deal taps into a number of converging trends supporting a US natural gas boom that is part and parcel of the potential global Golden Age of Gas that the International Energy Agency recently described. I wouldn't be surprised to see more transactions along these lines.

Friday, October 14, 2011

More Lessons from Solyndra

I'll bet that those working and investing in renewable energy are even more tired of the steady stream of headlines from the unraveling Solyndra mess than the rest of us are. Today's crop includes more evidence of the political linkages to the overall process for determining the company's suitability for federal backing and the revelation that an investor in Solyndra was advising the US Navy to sign a contract with them, even as the firm was on the verge of collapse. None of this has done either the industry or the administration any good, and there is much to be learned from this episode. That includes lessons concerning direct government support for the full-scale deployment of renewable energy and other technologies.

Start with the ethics issues. No one should be surprised that investors in Solyndra were lobbying the DOE and White House in support of the company's application for a federal loan guarantee. That was hardly unique to Solyndra or renewable energy. And I'm perfectly willing to accept, unless proven otherwise, that both the DOE advisor whose wife works for a law firm representing Solyndra, and the venture capitalist who apparently advised the Navy to buy Solyndra's technology in his capacity with the Pentagon's Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative, thought they had done everything necessary to resolve any potential conflicts of interest in this matter. Yet in both cases it seems clear that even if nothing improper was done, the appearance of impropriety is very hard to dispel after what seemed like a routine transaction turns into a front-page scandal.

Whenever I see this sort of thing I can't help recalling the early training I received as a petroleum products trader for Texaco, which took anti-trust compliance very seriously. The lawyer who advised our Supply & Distribution department on such matters always reminded us to think about how our dealings with other companies might look if we had to explain them from the witness stand in a court of law. He invariably advised going beyond mere compliance; his mantra was, "Avoid the appearance of evil." That's a lesson that it seems many of the officials involved in the Solyndra debacle either forgot or never received, even if they believed they were in full compliance with existing ethics policies.

When you step back from such details it becomes apparent that these are precisely the sorts of conflicts that result, when the government involves itself so deeply in transactions of a magnitude that would normally be handled in the commercial sector--which even when it makes mistakes does so with shareholder dollars, rather than tax dollars. And make no mistake, if Solyndra had gone broke after receiving $500,000 from Uncle Sam, rather than $535 million, none of these other issues would matter or have seen the light of day.

It's perfectly appropriate--even necessary--for the government to make modest-sized bets on new technology in key areas, particularly when they require greater patience than most corporations are capable of. And it's to be expected that many or even most such bets will turn out to be dead ends, as Solyndra did. The problem is that while a few million dollars will buy a lot of renewable energy R&D, they will buy only a negligible amount of deployment. While the government can afford to make numerous small bets that don't turn out well but advance our knowledge in the process, it can only afford to make a small number of bets on the scale of the Solyndra loan. That ought to be especially true when the deficit and debt loom as large as they do, unless you're a firm believer in the "broken windows" theory of stimulus, or Lord Keynes's suggestion that the government could productively bury bottles of money and let people dig them up.

The easy question is whether the Department of Energy should have backed Solyndra. I have concluded the answer is no, and not just based on after-the-fact information. The much harder question is whether the US government should be in the business of providing this level of support for large-scale manufacturing or deployment, rather than just R&D. And even if it should, can it develop the necessary expertise and processes, not only to make such decisions at least as well as its commercial counterparts would, but also to insulate the decision-makers from the political influence that such high stakes are bound to attract. Answering that depends on a lot more than just one's political or economic philosophy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Mount Everest the Best Place for Solar Power?

A new study on the impact of regional temperature differences on solar generating potential arrives at some surprising conclusions about the world's best locations for solar power. While the US desert southwest still ranks high, as you'd expect, it turns out that some of the best sites may be in places most of us would never suspect, including the Himalayas and Antarctica. That's because the crystalline silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) cells that dominate the market today are sensitive to ambient temperature and perform best at low temperatures, such as those found in the polar regions and high altitudes. These results could have interesting implications for future energy supply and greenhouse gas emissions in India and China, and for regional cooperation in what has historically been a tense neighborhood.

The paper by researchers from Japan's National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology was published in Environmental Science & Technology. Their approach involved superimposing mapped global average temperatures onto the map of average solar radiation, or "insolation", that has been the standard guide for assessing solar power potential. This produces some interesting shifts in the world's best solar locations, particularly by reducing the PV potential of the tropics and increasing that of colder regions. (Note that this comparison isn't applicable to solar thermal installations.) High-altitude locations look especially attractive for PV for two reasons: Not only are they colder, with average temperatures falling by 4-10ºC for each kilometer of altitude (12-28ºF/mile), but they also receive more sunlight, due to the thinner atmosphere at these heights.

The resulting differences in output are significant. The same PV module that generates 600-800 kWh/year per Watt of nameplate capacity in the UK or Germany and 1,400-1,600 kWh/W in Arizona would top 2,000 kWh/W in the Himalayas and parts of the Andes, as well as near the South Pole. The authors recognize that the latter might not be very useful without low-cost, high-volume energy storage, perhaps in the form of hydrogen, due to extended periods of darkness in the antipodal winter. I would note that the enormous distances to the nearest market might also be overcome by borrowing some ideas from the plans for space solar power (SSP). Either way, it doesn't take high storage or logistical costs to render large-scale Antarctican PV impractical, and the installation, maintenance and transmission challenges in the Andes and Himalayas aren't trivial, either. Whether the paper's conclusions turn out to be more than just scientifically interesting will depend on the detailed economics of the projects necessary to implement them.

The economics of PV entail a lot more than just the solar generating potential in a given location. Proximity to markets, or at least access to transmission, is a big factor, as is price, including both the market price for power and any relevant government or utility incentives or carbon pricing. However, it's also true that it takes either very high local prices or very high subsidies, such as Germany's solar Feed-in Tariffs, to make PV competitive in regions with low temperature-adjusted solar output. Such subsidies are a rich-country game on any scale large enough to matter, and even European countries are finding it hard to sustain these added costs as their economies teeter on the brink of another financial crisis and recession. The advantages to developing countries like China and India of pursuing high-altitude solar--even if it requires long transmission lines--could be compelling in the long run.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Energy Efficiency: An Uphill Battle on A Slippery Slope

With apologies for the dueling clichés in today's title, that image conveys the conflicting messages I received from a pair of events on the topic of energy efficiency this week. Yesterday I watched a panel discussion on energy efficiency finance, part of the valuable First Wednesday series of seminars from Resources for the Future in D.C. Yet as I listened to the discussion of creative mechanisms for overcoming the numerous financial and behavioral obstacles impeding the widespread adoption of efficiency technologies, I couldn't help framing it in the context of Tuesday's blogger call on "efficiency rebound", also known as the Jevons Paradox, hosted by the Breakthrough Institute. This latter, offsetting effect has been controversial in the US but is apparently more widely accepted in EU policy circles.

Energy efficiency is probably the energy topic to which I've devoted the least space in this blog in the last seven years. That hasn't been a deliberate slight, though perhaps it reflects the bulk of my personal experience on the supply side of energy. It's also a tricky subject because it's a moving target. We often hear efficiency described as the low-hanging fruit in discussions of energy security or emissions reductions, but that usually ignores the fact that the truly low-hanging fruit in efficiency was mainly captured during the energy crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, and in subsequent price spikes in electricity and natural gas. That doesn't mean there isn't still ample scope for further improvement, but it does leave those efforts subject to the long list of barriers described in yesterday's presentations. They include lack of funding, low awareness, landlord/tenant issues, and lack of expertise.

One of the other obstacles that intrigued me was the mismatch between the scale of most efficiency projects, even in the commercial sector, and the much larger scale of investor interest in financing efficiency, as described by the panelist from Citibank. He suggested the answer lies in aggregation, in which the financing of numerous smaller projects would be bundled and sold off in tranches to investors. If that sounds familiar, it should, because it reflects a similar approach to securitization to the one that contributed to the recent housing bubble. However, I would stress that efficiency instruments need not be inherently very risky, as long as they are assembled with due concern for the creditworthiness of the project owners, and without heroic assumptions about the risk-abating portfolio effect of aggregation. Another element that could assist this process is the sort of project performance guarantees described by the panelist from Johnson Controls. In any case there is no shortage of federal, state and local programs focused on energy efficiency financing, including the controversial Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) mechanism.

I hope you get the sense from this brief summary that implementing energy efficiency on a large scale is quite difficult enough in its own right, even when those investing in such improvements can safely assume that they will enjoy 100% of the promised cost savings when the projects are completed. The research on rebound by a team commissioned by the EU's Directorate General for the Environment highlighted a number of mechanisms by which efficiency gains may lead to additional energy consumption, either by the individual or organization implementing it or within the larger economy. In some cases this could even lead to post-efficiency consumption exceeding the pre-efficiency level, a condition referred to as "backfire." The potential for these offsetting effects not only makes efficiency a tougher sell on a project basis, but it also undermines the efficacy of macro-scale efficiency measures in mitigating climate change or reducing energy imports. This view is consistent with the findings concerning rebound assembled by the Breakthrough Institute.

The logic of rebound begins simply and locally, before becoming complex and widespread. When you invest in efficiency, your energy bill goes down, leaving you more money to spend on either more of the services that consume energy (e.g., transportation, lighting, heat or air conditioning) or on other goods or services, after accounting for the cost of the upgrade or the cost of financing it. Now think about what happens in the economy: the demand for energy has dropped by a little bit, as has the money spent on it. You'd expect energy prices to fall and the freed up money not spent on energy to result in consumption or investment somewhere else. But those goods and services likely consume energy, too, along with the embedded energy in the efficiency technology, the installation of which started this cascade. And as overall energy productivity goes up, economic growth should also increase, resulting in additional energy use. The EU report found evidence of rebound in the range of 10-30%, including 26% for the UK efficiency investments that were studied. For example, the UK government apparently assumes that 15% of the benefit of home insulation will be lost to rebound.

Some of these mechanisms are more intuitive than others, and I am still thinking through what I heard, particularly in terms of why much of the rebound effect wouldn't be offset by market feedback mechanisms or by the reaction of company management to disappointing post-expenditure reviews on efficiency projects. When I raised these points during the call, Dr. Maxwell, the co-leader of the EU study team, assured me that my concerns weren't supported by the empirical research they examined.

If this rebound effect is as prevalent as the evidence seems to indicate, then the implications aren't very positive. Although individuals and companies implementing efficiency measures are likely to get most of the value they expect, even if it's in some form other than direct savings on their energy bills (e.g., more mobility, more comfort, higher output) society likely wouldn't see the expected energy and emissions savings at the level of the entire economy. That requires increasing efforts on efficiency even further--against all the barriers discussed above--or expending more effort on the supply side of energy, through promotion of higher energy production and more investment in renewables. In other words, those low-hanging efficiency gains that have defied so many efforts to implement look even harder to achieve in practice and somewhat less valuable.

I'm not sure to what extent I buy into all this, yet. Direct rebound due to less expensive energy services for the individual or firm seems fairly straightforward, but the wider ripple effects involve positive and negative feedback loops requiring complex modeling to assess--with all the uncertainties to which such models are subject. Nor does it require the existence of a large rebound effect to appreciate just how difficult it will be to move the needle on total energy consumption and emissions very far by means of efficiency measures that must ultimately be implemented by individual companies and consumers that already face a large array of competing priorities. I intend to look into this further and report later on any insights that turn up.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Energy Glass Is More Than Half Full

A recent comment from a frequent reader got me thinking about the good news that has accumulated on the energy front, even as the rest of the economy has bogged down in pessimism. There's actually quite a lot of it, though perhaps it has been easy to miss, because most of these developments look like bad news from someone's perspective, as organizations and social-media-empowered individuals seek to outdo each other in the hunt for negative ramifications and unintended consequences. Recognizing the positive aspects of such nuggets as shale gas and its recent extension into shale oil, along with factors like the plummeting price of solar panels that contributed to the Solyndra debacle, requires stepping back to view them through the lens of the big energy problems that have plagued us for decades.

As recently as a few years ago, it was widely assumed that the US was running short of both oil and natural gas. Domestic oil production was declining steadily, as it had been since the mid-1980s, even as US oil consumption kept rising. The result was a wedge of oil and petroleum product imports that seemed likely to widen indefinitely. Moreover, US natural gas production appeared destined for the same outcome, as non-associated gas fields in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico declined faster than expected, and diminishing oil production slowed associated gas output. The combination of these trends made energy security a priority concern again, after more than a decade of complacency.

The turnaround in these trends has been nothing short of astonishing. Last week the Houston Chronicle published an article with the headline, "N. American oil output could top 40-year old peak", accompanied by a graph showing a clear inflection point in 2008--not by coincidence about five years after oil prices began their climb from the $20s to a peak just shy of $150 per barrel. Motivation plus investment equals production, after an inherent time lag. But what's really changed is that those investments weren't just going into more of the same onshore conventional oil fields that had been declining; they were going into deepwater drilling, oil sands extraction, and lately into the application of shale gas drilling techniques to similar deposits of shale oil that weren't in anyone's reserves just a few years ago, because no one knew how to tap them effectively and economically.

The latter provides a fascinating example of innovation, today's hot buzzword. Drillers have been hydraulically fracturing oil wells since the late 1940s--about a million of them--and horizontal drilling has been around for more than a decade, too. Combining these techniques, along with modern seismic visualization, has unlocked what looks like a century's worth of natural gas supplies. But if this weren't enough of a game-changer, setting up gas-fired power plants as both a replacement for coal and as the on-demand backup for intermittent renewables like wind and solar, some smart folks realized that the same combination of techniques could produce oil from other shale deposits. Suddenly fields like North Dakota's Williston Basin (the Bakken formation) and the Eagle Ford shale in Texas are counted among the largest oil fields in the country, with billions of barrels of potential reserves and production in the hundreds of thousands of barrels per day.

When we look at these successes and recognize that some of the most prospective US oil resources remain locked away behind actual and virtual drilling bans, the mantra that we can't drill our way to energy independence at least merits a serious reassessment. But what's even better about these recent energy revolutions is that they aren't occurring in a 1970s' context in which all this extra oil and natural gas would merely be burned in gas-guzzling cars and inefficient power plants. Instead, they coincide with impressive advances in fuel efficiency, in which muscle cars like the Camaro and Mustang can get at least 30 miles per gallon on the highway, while true economy cars get over 50 mpg today. Meanwhile, we've squeezed almost all the petroleum out of the utility sector, with just 0.9% of US power generation last year coming from oil-based fuels, while nearly 54% came from lower-emission sources such as gas, nuclear and renewables. These trends are moving in the right direction, too.

Renewables have come a long way, since solar cells were niche or novelty items and the economics of wind power only appealed to wealthy taxpayers seeking write-offs against marginal tax rates of up to 70%. Notwithstanding the struggles of individual firms like Solyndra and Evergreen Solar, global photovoltaic (PV) generating capacity grew by 74% last year to 40,000 MW, roughly where wind power was in 2003, if you ignore how much of the former has been installed in places with miserably poor solar resources. Wind power is still cheaper than solar power, but solar looks much more useful in the long run, because its output is more predictable and better aligned with demand. Both remain more expensive than conventional energy sources, though the gap is narrowing, especially for solar, and without cheap and abundant natural gas from shale resources it might not exist at all in some markets. Together with a resurgent geothermal energy sector, these renewables could soon survive with little or no subsidies by concentrating on regions with the best combinations of resources and transmission-accessible markets. (Germany would have installed its last solar panel in that scenario.) That wasn't an option just a decade ago.

The greatest contribution the energy sector can make is providing affordable and reliable inputs for the rest of the economy. Building on the developments above it should be possible to craft cost-effective energy policies to improve US energy security significantly and greatly reduce the leverage of the sources of our imported oil, including OPEC as a whole. At the same time we could move the electricity sector, which never really had an energy security problem but remains the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions, towards much lower emissions without breaking the bank. Those outcomes seem attainable, if we can moderate our impulses to treat energy policy as a piggy bank for patronage or a laboratory for industrial policy. In that respect, energy just might be the most solvable of all our big problems.