Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Natural Gas Vehicles Already Big in Italy, Iran

The sudden abundance of natural gas in the US triggered a startling divergence of crude oil and natural gas prices that, in turn, has energized the advocates of using more gas in transportation. Yet despite the availability of wholesale natural gas at less than $0.60 per gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE), and with retail compressed natural gas (CNG) prices under $2.00/GGE in many locations, natural gas accounted for less than 3% of US transportation energy consumption in 2011--most of it attributable to pipeline compressors. The picture is very different in countries like Italy and Pakistan, where CNG has a significant market share in motor fuels. As the US looks ahead to greater reliance on secure domestic gas for road transport, it's worth considering why other countries have such a big head start.

The obstacles to greater market penetration by natural gas in transportation are well known. CNG and LNG (liquefied natural gas) require new infrastructure. Many more retail gas facilities would be needed to assure motorists of convenient access at service stations. CNG takes a separate dispenser and compressor on the forecourt, while LNG requires both a new pump and insulated storage. Where pipeline gas is unavailable, such as in parts of the northeast, additional investments in the local "gas grid" may also be necessary.

Vehicle conversion costs represent another significant barrier. Engine modifications and crash-resistant fuel tanks add significant costs for both new vehicles and retrofits. Even with gas priced well below gasoline or diesel fuel, the payback for these costs can be lengthy. That's one reason that gas has made greater strides in bus, truck and delivery fleets in the US than for personal cars, since the more intensive use of such vehicles substantially shortens the resulting payout periods. Countries with high gas-vehicle penetration typically have government policies and incentives in place to promote the use of gas by mitigating these obstacles.

Italy leads the EU in CNG vehicle adoption, with more than 11% of new passenger cars equipped for natural gas last year. That compares to 0.01% for the US in 2012, where only one CNG model, a Honda, was sold. The Italian government promotes natural gas use in vehicles both directly and indirectly. The country provides a subsidy of €700 ($945) to purchasers of CNG automobiles, while manufacturers like Fiat offer discounts to expand their market for CNG cars. Incentives were even larger a few years ago. The government also makes retail petroleum products extraordinarily expensive with high taxes. So even though Italy is a large net importer of natural gas, CNG is much cheaper than gasoline or diesel at the pump.

Fuel availability may also have something to do with the disparity in adoption rates. Despite having an 83% smaller overall vehicle population , Italy has over 40% more CNG or "Autogas" refueling stations than the entire US, at around 900. This is due in part to state-level incentives, with 50-70% of the cost of a new CNG filling station reimbursed by regions such as Liguria, Lombardy, and Piemonte.

In terms of market penetration, Pakistan, which appears to be self-sufficient in gas, leads the world in natural gas vehicles, at 80%. That translates into over 2 million CNG vehicles, the result of a determined effort on the part of the government to reduce imports of petroleum by shifting to domestic fuels, with gas as its best option. This is a common theme in the non-oil-exporting developing world, where oil imports impose a large drag on national trade balances. CNG use in Iran is even higher than in Pakistan, as an unintended consequence of protracted international sanctions.

For the US, where oil production is increasing and oil imports declining, a shift to natural gas for transportation is likely to remain an opportunity, rather than a matter of necessity. The "NATGAS Act", a bill proposing incentives for CNG and LNG along the lines of the Italian model has languished in the US Congress for several years. It remains to be seen whether this will become a higher priority in the new Congress, which has shown early signs of interest in breaking the recent logjam on energy legislation.

In the meantime, adoption of natural gas vehicles in the US will proceed based on market forces, supported by a small advantage in the way CNG cars are counted in manufacturers' fleets under the stringent federal fuel economy regulations issued last summer. That could lead to natural gas fueling 3% of US vehicles --mostly trucks--by 2020, based on the analysis of a partner at McKinsey & Co. Much like the case for energy efficiency investments, the available savings indicate a much larger potential, but funds for CNG/LNG transport must compete with other priorities.

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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is Small Nuclear Reactor R&D Fleecing the Public?

Two weeks ago I received an email announcing that Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a D.C.-based watchdog organization, had awarded this year's Golden Fleece for wasting tax dollars to the federal government's efforts to promote the development of small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).  My quick perusal of the award's justification left me with distinctly mixed reactions, before I filed it away with the other announcements I received that day.  Since then, every time I ran across a reference to SMRs I was drawn back to the group's assertions about the technology, while questioning whether my opinion of the award would have been different had they singled out the renewable energy loan guarantee program, renewable energy cash grants, or some other example of recent federal generosity toward emerging energy technologies. 

The Golden Fleece awards were started in the mid-1970s by Senator William Proxmire (D-WI).  He had a knack for highlighting egregious examples of government waste and bureaucratic excess, though he also periodically skewered legitimate scientific research.  My view at the time was that he possessed a genuine passion against waste but a poor understanding of how science benefits society. TCS apparently revived the award in 2000.  Its targets since then have included projects such as Alaska's infamous Bridge to Nowhere.  Fair enough.  Yet as I reread the group's claims about the government's support for this technology, it came across less as a balanced critique and more like a one-sided attack that misinterprets the concepts involved, thus falling into the same trap that the late Senator occasionally did. 

Let's set aside the question of cost for a moment.  The US is exiting an era in which government could unquestioningly pay for any idea that anyone in the administration or Congress could think up.  Programs and projects like this should indeed have to vie with each other for scarce funding, guided by a clearly articulated list of our national priorities, a consensus on which is long overdue.  However, that's not the argument TCS is making.  It rests instead on four points specific to SMRs:

First, they treat SMRs as an entirely unproven technology with no cost-performance track record, despite having reminded us a few paragraphs earlier that at least some SMR designs are an outgrowth of extremely successful naval reactor programs.  Their contention that "no one is clamoring to buy an SMR because there is no assurance that the electricity will be remotely competitive with power from other sources" could have been made about any early-stage energy technology.  That raises basic questions about the legitimate role of all federal energy R&D spending, but in the context of a single technology that happens to be at the starting blocks today.  Moreover, disqualifying SMRs on the basis of today's low natural gas prices conflates a genuinely challenging commercial environment with a standard that, if applied consistently, would soon leave us 100% reliant on natural gas for electricity generation.  Not even the most ardent supporters of shale gas would advocate that.  The better question to ask is how nuclear--small or large--fits into a diverse future energy mix.

Next TCS states that the case for SMRs contradicts the logic behind large-scale nuclear power--implying that both can't be valid--rather than viewing them as distinct and different models for nuclear generation.  If anything, the real contradiction lies in saddling SMRs with the history of cost overruns in large-scale nuclear, much of which has resulted from protracted permitting delays and lawsuits, or on-site construction problems that SMRs are specifically intended to circumvent. 

I agree with TCS when they say, "There is no assurance that SMRs would pass regulatory muster."  Yet when has any new energy technology arrived with such a guarantee?  Their concerns about the organizational challenges that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would face if SMRs progressed strike me as a better argument for reviewing the funding, structure and processes of the NRC, than one against SMRs.

Finally, the award text evokes unmanaged nuclear waste and terrorist attacks on SMRs emplaced in suburban locations.  There's little I can add to the decades-long debate on nuclear waste other than to observe that the challenges involved fall more into the realm of politics than science and engineering.  As for SMRs in suburbs, although that might be the vision of some nuclear entrepreneurs it seems realistic now only if we define "suburb"--a word that TCS went out of its way to repeat-- as any part of the country not within some urban zone.  The likeliest locations for at least the first generation of SMRs are within the site boundaries of operating or retired large-scale nuclear power plants: locations already well-protected against terrorism and other threats.  SMRs are not coming to a neighborhood near you any time soon, with or without federal funding.

Returning to my discomfort with my initial, somewhat reflexive reaction to the award, Taxpayers for Common Sense raised some concerns about federal support for small modular reactors that could fairly be aimed at a wide array of programs within the roughly $10 billion per year portion of the Department of Energy's budget that isn't related to nuclear weapons, along with the recent federal stimulus.  Despite that, SMRs have significant potential as a future source of low-emission electricity on a scale that could prove more compatible with the current capital budgets of the power industry, and with an emerging, renewables-intensive, smart-grid-enabled energy mix.  Without singling out this technology, I agree that in a post-sequestration world of limited budgets we should be asking more of the kind of hard questions that TCS raises about "market-distorting subsidies."   However, if their intention was to stimulate that kind of debate across the whole energy space, their cause might have been better served by taking it on directly, rather than targeting a concept that enjoys wide support as a legitimate focus of federal R&D spending.  

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Secretary of Energy for a Leaner DOE?

I've read a number of stories on President Obama's nomination of MIT physicist Ernest Moniz to be the next Secretary of Energy.  This overview of his background from the Washington Post is as good a place as any to start.  Although I haven't met Dr. Moniz, I've seen him on various panels and am familiar with some of his department's work, such as MIT's reports on the Future of Natural Gas, Future of Coal and Future of Nuclear Power.  As many comments since his announcement have suggested, it would be hard to find a more ideal steward of an all-of-the-above energy strategy. At the same time, this choice also reflects many of the key challenges facing the Department of Energy at this moment, not least the preservation of its R&D activities and other capabilities in a post-sequestration environment.  This is likely to be a different Department of Energy (DOE) than the one that Dr. Chu guided for the last four years. 

If I thought it likely that the DOE would continue to pursue large-scale industrial policy, such as the expanded energy loan guarantee program and other renewable energy deployment-focused activities that originated in the 2009 stimulus bill, I would be a lot more concerned that the President has selected another scientist and academic administrator to lead the DOE, instead of someone who has actually run a large energy business.  Lack of commercial experience was arguably a key factor in the DOE's decision to fund Solyndra even as its main business proposition was unraveling, along with promoting a premature and excessive expansion of US electric vehicle battery manufacturing capacity. 

However, the federal budget sequester is now in place and Congress has little appetite for expensive new programs.  Business acumen seem less critical for a department that must make do with less for the foreseeable future while remaining relevant in an administration focused on advancing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  From the relatively little I know of Dr. Moniz, his prior experience in government--including a stint as an undersecretary of energy--and prominent role in a first-class research institution should equip him well for this task.

Dr. Moniz faces criticism from environmentalists for his views on nuclear power, natural gas and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking.")  It's hard to imagine any nominee for this job who wouldn't spark some level of controversy, given the conflicting energy goals we've pursued over the years.  I don't give much credence to the Post's inclusion of the views of Professor Howarth of Cornell on the Moniz nomination, considering that much of Dr. Howarth's widely-disseminated analysis of shale gas emissions has subsequently failed to withstand scrutiny.  In any case I prefer the choice of a Secretary of Energy who has some appreciation of the importance of the energy sources that still supply roughly 90% of our energy needs, and possesses a clear understanding of the complexities of the long transition to cleaner sources, rather than one exclusively focused on the latter.