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.

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