Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Track for a Golden Age of Gas?

  • The global energy industry must overcome significant new challenges if natural gas development is to achieve the vision of a Golden Age of Gas.
  • Low energy prices and reduced investment are only half the battle as regulations complexify and organized opposition grows. 

Five years ago the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a report entitled, "Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas?" Gas development was booming, from both conventional resources and US shale deposits, and gas was widely seen as a vital tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Much has happened since then, including a collapse in global oil prices, the signing of a new climate agreement in Paris, and a broadening of the anti-fossil-fuel focus of climate activists. If we're still on the path to a golden age of gas, the ride will be bumpy.

This is probably most evident across the pond, where Nick Butler, the Financial Times' respected energy analyst, observed this week, "Unless something changes radically, Europe has passed the point of peak gas consumption." He cited Germany's ongoing "Energiewende" (energy transition) which in order to maximize wind and solar and minimize nuclear power, ends up squeezing gas out between renewables and much higher-emitting coal.

Earlier this month France's Energy Minister announced she was pursuing a ban on imports of US shale gas--effectively any gas from the US--since France already bans domestic fracking. That strikes me as a textbook example of having to keep making bad decisions to be consistent with the first one, but it's their sovereign choice.

As the IEA defined it at the time, this Golden Age would entail faster growth in gas demand in every major sector, compared to the agency's main "New Policies" scenario in its then-current annual World Energy Outlook (WEO). They anticipated compound average growth of 1.8% per year, much faster than oil or coal, with gas consumption ending up 13% higher than the WEO's projection for 2035. That's like adding an extra Russia or Middle East to world gas demand within 20 years.

One gauge of whether that still seems realistic can be found in the US Energy Information Administration's (EIA) just-released 2016 International Energy Outlook. The EIA's long-term forecast actually has gas consumption growing slightly faster than IEA's Golden Age track in the developed countries of the OECD between now and 2035, but with a slower ramp-up to essentially the same end-point in the non-OECD countries.

Of course one forecast can't really validate another, so let's consider how some of the big uncertainties that the IEA identified in the 2011 report have shifted, starting with energy pricing. After oil's recent rebound, oil and gas have fallen by around half their 2011 US prices. That makes investments in oil and gas exploration and production considerably less attractive. Nearly $400 billion of projects have been canceled or deferred, globally, setting up slower growth in production from both gas fields and oil fields with associated gas in the near-to-medium term. This deceleration is evident in EIA's latest monthly Drilling Productivity Report for US shale.

With the contract price of liquefied natural gas (LNG) often tied to oil prices or competing with pipeline gas that has also fallen in price, large gas infrastructure projects like LNG plants look less attractive, too. We've already seen cancellations of new facilities in Australia and Canada. Fewer LNG export facilities are likely to be built in the US than previously planned. All this means less new gas reaching markets where it can be used.

Cheaper oil also reduces the attractiveness of gas as a transportation fuel. Although increasingly popular as a cleaner fuel for buses, natural gas hasn't made much headway in US passenger cars. However, this application has been growing in places like Italy and Iran, for different reasons.

Viewed in isolation, these price-related responses seem likelier to delay, rather than derail the expectations the IEA set out in 2011. The bigger challenges come from a set of issues the IEA identified a year later, in a follow-up report called "Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas." As Dr. Birol, now the Executive Director of IEA, indicated then, these boil down to the industry's "social license to operate."

Transparency, water consumption, emissions including methane leaks--all on IEA's list--are some of the key issues over which companies, regulators, NGOs and activists are sparring today. The UK is a prime example. Conventional energy production is declining rapidly and a large shale gas potential has been identified by the British Geological Survey, but every attempt to drill exploratory wells has encountered strong opposition.

A new factor the IEA did not anticipate is the emergence of political movements focused on fossil fuel divestiture and a "keep it in the ground" mantra. These may be based on unrealistic expectations of how quickly the world can transition to a zero-emission economy, but they illustrate the scale of a stakeholder engagement challenge the global oil and gas industry has so far failed to meet adequately. 

Just as social media are transforming politics, they are also altering the balance of power between organizations and their critics. The gaps that must be bridged if new gas development is to remain broadly acceptable to the public are growing in ways that will demand new approaches and new strategies to address. 

Considering the shifts in the global energy mix that will be necessary to reduce global emissions in line with the goals of last year's Paris Agreement, gas ought to have a future every bit as bright as the Golden Age the IEA described five years ago. Achieving that now likely depends less on the price of energy and the scale of available resource than on convincing regulators and the public that the trade-offs involved in obtaining its benefits are still reasonable.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A New Angle on Carbon Capture

In my last couple of posts I looked at the difficulty of meeting ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) without help from the lower-emitting portions of our current energy mix. Last week ExxonMobil announced that it is pursuing a new pathway for capturing carbon from power plant exhaust. That could help revive another important strategy for large-scale emissions reduction from our existing energy sources.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has fallen out of favor, lately, mainly due to the high cost and technical challenges of the early prototypes for large-scale implementation of the technology. Not only are the initial investment costs of today's CCS hardware still very high, but it is also inherently expensive to operate. That's because of the high energy consumption of the process, resulting in a "parasitic" load on the host power plant that reduces its net output by up to 20%, making the remaining output much more expensive. That creates a large deterrent in any market that doesn't provide either direct subsidies for carbon removal, or a high carbon tax or price for traded emissions offsets.

Another reason that CCS has received less attention recently is that the costs of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power have kept falling. To some they now look cheap enough, especially with further cost improvements extrapolated, to enable us to reach our emissions goals mainly through wider deployment of solar modules and wind turbines.

Even if that were technically feasible, like most other energy industry experts I have met I am convinced that the deep emissions cuts desired for mid-century will require implementing or retro-fitting CCS onto the fleet of coal and gas-fired power plants that will likely still be in service decades from now. CCS underpins several of the emissions stabilization wedges pioneered by Princeton engineering professor Rob Socolow and his colleagues ten years ago.

What makes the approach that ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy, Inc. have described so attractive is that, instead of being a drain on power generation, capturing CO2 via fuel cells would actually add significantly to a facility's reliable power output. It would increase revenue, rather than curtailing it.

The clever bit, and its potential advantage over current carbon-capture technology, is that CO2 capture in a carbonate fuel cell occurs as a byproduct of the power generation step. That means that it doesn't require a big, expensive, power-hungry process unit, the only function of which is to strip CO2 from flue gas and concentrate it for subsequent shipment and storage.

These fuel cells would still require natural gas for fuel, and they would produce CO2 emissions in the process of generating electricity, though at a lower rate than the coal or gas-fired plant with which they would be partnered. However, both their direct emissions and the CO2 extracted from the power plant exhaust would come out in a highly purified form suitable for geological sequestration and stay out of the atmosphere.

That brings up an important advantage of this approach over various schemes to capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Although the article on the Exxon/Fuel Cell Energy development in MIT Technology Review  described the CO2 concentration in power plant flue gas (5%-15%) as "low", that is still hundreds of times higher than its concentration in air.

400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere may be worrying from a climate perspective, but it is still just 0.04% of air that remains mostly nitrogen and oxygen. And the lower the concentration, the harder--and normally more expensive--it is to extract. (Green plants can do this trick cheaply thanks to billions of years of evolution combined with cost-free sunlight.)

The press release makes it very clear that this new carbon-capture technology has so far only been demonstrated in the lab. Scaling it up will require additional work, and success is uncertain. Many other promising innovations, including a host of cellulosic biofuel technologies, have failed to scale. However, its potential applications are compelling enough to justify a lot of patience and persistence. I wish them luck.