Monday, 31 January 2011

What *is* the present day grid parity cost of Solar Panels in the US?

Grid parity always seems to be around the corner. It's already there in sunnier parts of Southern Europe and South Africa. But what about the U.S.? Is there anywhere it's already reached grid parity?

As it turns out, the answer is yes. In Dallas, Texas, it's possible today to purchase a solar panel system which over the course of 40 years (the active service life of installed solar panels, with data reaching back to the 1970s), the per kilowatt cost of solar panels installed today is at par with electricity bought from the spot market.


We're not there yet for the rest of the country for varying reasons, but I suspect we're pretty close.

Now we may ask a particularly relevant question:
What does this mean?

Well let's take a couple of scenarios:
Scenario 1:
Let's say that fossil fuels are doomed to decline over the next twenty years or so.
Scenario 2:
Technology will be developed to unlock the vast resource of unconventional fossil fuels.

In the case of Scenario #1, the price of fossil fuels will start on an upward slope and since it will be far cheaper to generate power from solar panels then that's exactly what we'll get.
The economy will probably grow slower initially since although the electrical economy is more efficient than the fossil fuels powered one, renewables are starting from further back and so will take some time to build up a head of steam.

In Scenario #2 we will get more of the same (i.e. greater quantities of fossil fuels than before). The economy will continue to grow based on the old paradigm, but technology will continue to advance and the transition to a sustainable renewables powered electrical economy will just take longer than in scenario #1.

In either case, however, we're not going to be seeing any kind of dieoff graph. Instead we're going to continue to see the global economy grow.

Wide Spectrum Solar Panels coming to a theater near you

So I've talked a bit about solar panels in the past and I'm a big fan of them, not least because one of America's most successful inventors of all time predicated they would ne the ultimate in energy production.

To my mind, the piece we're missing is *inexpensive* and *easy to manufacture in bulk* are the key pieces missing. Looks like we might be nearly there.

Recently, however, the US department of Energy's Berkeley lab demonstrated a solar cell which can be made cheaply and easily using a well known and commonly used manufacturing process from the semi-conductor industry.

In other words we're more or less talking about solar cells being printed as if they are silicon chips.

On a related note, even without this technology, the naysayers (such as Exxon Mobil) are saying that in their estimation, solar will continue to grow at 10% annually till 2030.

Back In reality, however, the installed base of solar has been doubling every two years, not every seven. At that rate of growth we will see 10% of electricity supplied by solar by 2022 and 20% by 2024. Along with wind, hydro and nuclear we should be easily over 50% by the projected end date, with the balance made up by coal, natural gas and greater efficiency.

Given the greater efficiency of electrically powered transportation - 4x - (by far the greatest consumer of oil), it is not a stretch of the imagination to take a guess and say that even if we maintain total energy production at today's rate but change the ratio from 80% fossil fuels and 20% renewables/nuclear to 50% fossil fuels and 50% renewables/nuclear then we in fact have two times the total utility from a static energy supply. Also it's worth pointing out that once we see grid parity (i.e. the cost of solar energy produced by solar is the same as that produced by other forms of electricity) we should see solar power explode in terms of installations. There is evidence to suggest that we're already there in some parts of the world and will be there in North America by 2015 and China earlier still.

If we assume (and this is incorrect - but let's play their game to be ultra-conservative) that there's a 1:1 correlation between energy utility and GDP growth then we're talking about doubling the size of the global economy by 2030. I make that to be an annual average growth rate of 3.7% even while standing still in terms of energy output. Not too shabby.

Are we doomed yet?

Now that the new year is upon us I thought it would be appropriate to check out the predictions from the other side. So I have included the graph from our good buddies at the antithesis of this site.
This is the graph from with the *very specific* timelines in it as to exactly *when* we are doomed. Does anyone else think it's very conspicuously coincidental that the "collapse" will be coming in 2012? Only one year till Dooooooooooooooooooom!!!!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Death by Jevons Paradox

One of the most quoted myths among doomers is that it's impossible to cut back on Energy Usage without collapsing the economy or that any attempt to cut back in one area of oil usage will ultimately lead to more consumption in another area or that substitutes are impossible.

I won't argue in this post about efficiency programs such as those proposed by the Rocky Mountain Institute, but here instead I will focus on one application of "Jevons Paradox".

Jevon was a late industrial revolution thinker who suggested that Britain would eventually collapse because of it's dependence on coal. His reckoning was that consumption would be reduced in one area of demand but would balloon in another once overall demand was reduced temporarily.
The reasoning was that coal was so useful combined with no available substitutes that no attempt could be made to reduce demand. It's a variation of a single variable commodity in a commons accessed by multiple players with no incentive to limit their consumption, known as "the tragedy of the commons". This theory along with Jevons Paradox has several flaws, not least of which is specialization of trade in secondary commodities in exchange for the commodity produced from the commons.

This is the exact same fallacy that drives dieoff theory and most of the peak oil doomer arguments. There is no substitute to oil they say and demand can not be reduced by greater efficiency and thus once oil supplies peak and start to decline, death of industrial civilization is guaranteed.

Over time, it has become apparent that this is simply not true and that not only can efficiency and demand destruction reduce overall demand, but also there are substitutes to oil.

But wait, say the doomers, there is something called the export-land model.

This theory is also deceiving. What it basically says is a continuation of the original fallacy (there is no substitute and no possible efficiency gains) but that in exporting countries, the demand will continue to rise ad-infinitum until the point at which peak production is reached.
At that point, production will be declining but demand in the exporting country will be rising along with everybody else in the importing countries. Since the exporting countries demand rise will make less available for export, the importing countries will see a greater hit than the overrall decline rate.

Although the data bears this out (especially in Saudi Arabia) to a large extent for several (though not all) conventional crude exporters, there is no 100% consensus on the data across the board.
In reality we have at least one clear example where an exporting country limits its own consumption in order to export as much as possible: Norway.
There are other outliers, though the data suggest *some* basis to the export-land model.
In particular, the export-land people point to Saudi Arabia and Iran as both increasing consumption ahead of any declines and potentially even past decline.

Now taking any desire to build Nuclear Weapons out of the picture, it could be argued that the Iranians are going counter to Export-Land by seeking to build nuclear power stations rather than continue to burn oil in their power stations. Across the globe, import-land countries have substituted out oil fired generating plants for alternatives such as natural gas fired, nuclear and renewables.

Also, according to export-land it should be impossible for heavy importers such as the United States to decrease internal demand for oil never mind start exporting oil or oil substitutes. And yet, even when the United States has to spend a proportion of it's GDP to defend oil supplies militarily AND import two thirds of its oil, it is *still* exporting oil substitutes such as liquid natural gas. It should by all rights be converting every last cubic inch of natural gas into oil according to export-land, shouldn't it?

But let's ignore that and return to the star of export-land itself: Saudi Arabia.

Just recently, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi stated that he sees "no difference between oil reserves and alternative energy" and that Saudi Arabia is now taking steps to utilize other forms of energy such as "their massive resource of solar energy combined with nuclear energy".

He notes that current consumption of oil within the Kingdom is around 3 million barrels per day and projects that consumption could rise to 8 million barrels per day around 2030. Since the volume of exports is 8 million barrels per day, even with no peak and decline in production, by 2030 there will be no oil available for export from Saudi Arabia.

Not even considering the effect on importing nations of losing Saudi Arabia, the impact on Saudi Arabia itself would be dramatic, since the economy is so skewed towards oil production and so lacking in other areas.

al-Naimi goes on to say, "a continued rise in local consumption will ultimately limit the export capacity of the Kingdom and it's DEVELOPMENT (emphasis mine). We must therefore
transform a country dependent SOLELY on oil to one using different sources of energy - nuclear and renewables,in order to conserve oil and keep it for export."

Thus the export-land paradigm is being intentionally broken even by it's superstar Saudi Arabia.

Further, al-Naimi goes on to say, "We are consulting with everybody who has technology in these areas - Koreans, British, Americans, Japanese and French".

In other words, the one with the most to gain from an increase in oil prices recognizes the solution both to Jevon's paradox and to the tragedy of the commons: Trade and Substitution. Even as oil prices go up and up, Saudi Plans to spread the wealth and limit the damage from rising oil prices precisely to those economies who would be most impacted by oil price rises and decreasing exports (assuming no substitutes existed).

Human ingenuity, greed, self-preservation and the profit motive win again.

Nice try doomers, but still no cigar.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Global Extinction Event

An anonymous poster asked about possible human extinction caused by acidification of the oceans. I believe I answered him reasonably well enough why I think that ocean acidification is unlikely to cause an extinction.

That said I did some reading about "anoxic events" and extinction events etc and the big one appears to be the K-T exinction where more than 90% of the world's species went extinct over a period of a couple million years.

Here's what's interesting:
There was at least one and probably many comet impacts during this period combined with a long (half a million years) period of volcanic eruptions.

What's interesting about this is that the food chain collapsed.

Well if we ask what that means it's the following: photosynthetic plants perished in great numbers during this period.

Sounds like "the road"!!!

If we ask ourselves what could cause this then we loop back and take a look at what actually happened then maybe we can draw some conclusions.

So first of all: what would cause photosynthesis to decline?
Well the most obvious answer is if the amount of sunlight went down.
That obviously didn't happen, since the Sun isn't very variable, so what else could have caused it?
Possibly massive plagues on plants or something blocking the ability of plants to use the available sunlight.
We don't have any evidence of any plagues on plants but comet impacts and volcanoes both throw huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere. We have evidence for both comet impacts and a long (half a million years) period of intense volcanic activity.

So maybe during this period the available sunlight was severely blocked by dust?

If that happened again I'd have no problem believing in "the road" type scenarios being in our future, but the situation we have isn't analagous. In fact it's more analagous to suddenly turning up the thermostat with the same amount of sunlight getting in.

The evidence suggests that plants do better with more heat so we're unlikely to see a collapse in photosynthesis on land. In the oceans we could see some issues for deepwater organisms and carbonate shelled organisms due to acidification (yet there's also evidence for foraminfera during super greenhouse events so clearly they don't ALL die out).
On balance it's hard to say what would happen without all the dust being injected into the atmosphere concurrently with carbon dioxide as happened during the K-T extinction event. I suspect there would be winners and there would be losers.

Animals on land did better during the K-T event. Although many died (primarily herbivorous animals), omnivores and detritus eaters did well.

I also suspect (call it anthropocentric arrogance if you like) that we would survive even a dust+carbon dioxide catastrophe given that we are omnivores and very very inventive, but carbon dioxide and global warming alone are not going to cut it to wipe us out.

Civilization itself is also pretty resilient as long as there is enough sunlight to grow crops. Some extreme doomers have said that the human species has never had to pass through a climate as warm as the super greenhouse climate of the cretaceous. I beg to differ. Saudi Arabia regularly reaches temperatures of 50C which is ridiculously hot, yet civilization continues there quite happily, though they depend heavily on technology and also on trade, similar to Las Vegas. Given that Canada, Siberia and Greenland would become productive farmland at the expense of other regions which warmed up too much to continue to be as productive agriculturally as they are now*, the losing regions would have to depend on trade, but technology would allow them to continue to survive. Las Vegas is damn hot for example and it survives on trade, thought the ecologists would say it's "unsustainable".

*Astute readers may note the apparent contradiction that plants like more heat with the fact that beyond a certain point, raised temperatures start to cause declines in agricultural production. The reason for this is that as it gets hotter, there is more and more evaporation and while the total quantity of water remains the same and plants are able to continue to photosynthesize, the plants aren't able to access the water because it's in the air instead of the soil. The solution to that particular problem is rainforests which are able to hold on to and regulate the water cycle more efficiently than we can in hotter regions. What that implies is the shift of agriculture to higher latitudes. Luckily, however we have tons of land up north.

Returning to the question of whether human civilization is robust at higher temperatures versus the charge by the ecologists that the human *species* has never dealt with such high temperatures before even though we have proof right now that we have (the cities in hot regions):
If what the ecologists and doomers are really saying is that human beings unaided could not survive such extreme temperatures well duh. I've been arguing all along that our current population depends on technology and technology will be required to maintain our current population.
Additional greenhouse gases and increased temperatures will do nothing to affect our ability to continue to maintain our technological base. On the contrary, the greenhouse gas doomers are the ones demanding the shutdown of our economy and the collapse of our technological base.

In fact the cut back solution is equivalent of pulling the rug out from under civilization if you examine the evidence of what actually DOES cause extinctions.

Shut down the economy and we're fucked.

Those who support that concept in order to reduce greenhouse gases are insane misanthropists nothing more nothing less.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Yet More Global Dieoff by Global Warming

This post is a little bit of a rant. Forewarning.

I'm not a "global warming is bullshit" kind of guy given that I have a bachelors in math and physics. I can do the math and I get the science.
As an analyst and an MBA, however I'm not even slightly convinced by the analysis and the conclusions.

To wit:
As a scientist I'm not disputing the *possibility* of global warming (or even of global cooling). Clearly the science shows that adding CO2 to the atmosphere does *something* and there is indeed a mathematical formula that predicts (all things being equal) that if you double the CO2 you get X amount of temperature forcing.

Where I break ranks with these guys, however, is when they build their models with dubious assumptions, without fully understanding the feedback loops and THEN extrapolate toward the SAME GOAL EVERY SINGLE TIME:

i.e. reduce ENERGY USAGE rather than reduce FOSSIL FUELS burning and also REDUCE THE SIZE OF THE ECONOMY?!?

Sorry my ecocologist friends, but that does not FUCKING COMPUTE.

There are yet other examples of where they get a model to say "something different is going to happen" THEREFORE "that's bad" AND "we must therefore shut down the economy".

One such bunch of claptrap is the idea that if we add another 600 ppm of emissions to the atmosphere and we get the same temperatures as we had 30-50 million years ago then we are FUCKED.

The scaremongerrs state that given that the poles during the above mentioned epoch were 15-20C warmer and the tropics were 5-10C warmer then that's an unmitigated DISASTER.

Funny I thought, if the poles melt and Greenland, Siberia and Northern Canada suddenly become prime farmland is that a big fucking DISASTER? I think not.

Anyways, returning to the disaster meme.
Why is EOCENE like temperatures an unmitigated disaster?

Well, they say, "because human civilization has never had to deal with temperatures like that before".


South Texas deals with temperatures like that every summer.
So does Las Vegas.

Admittedly Las Vegas is a *strange* kind of civilization but you can HARDLY argue that it doesn't classify as HUMAN civilization.

Come on guys, you're starting to sound like quacks now.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Shale Gas in North America to plug the liquids gap?

This piece is pure speculation.

That said, take four unrelated pieces of information and attempt to draw conclusions.

As of December 2010, the quantity of recoverable shale gas reserves was upgraded from some 400 trillion cubic feet to some 800 trillion cubic feet (in the USA ALONE - i.e. ignoring Canada) as better survey data came in.

Another is that due to improvements in process technology for extraction of this gas, in a large minority of cases, the cost of extraction of this gas was less than that for conventional gas.

Currently the price per BTU for gas on the North American market is significantly less than the price per BTU for oil.

Last but not least is the interesting tidbit that SASOL corporation, the worlds leading producer of coal and gas to liquids has been eyeing up the undeveloped shale gas play in Northern British Columbia with a view to building a gas-to-liquids plant.

Can we connect the dots here? Is there a pattern forming?

One last question: obviously money can be made at this since there is a differential between natural gas prices and oil prices which should only widen as oil supplies tighten. Since SASOL is apparently already in play, HOW MUCH can be produced?

Can we plug the gap in decline in North America at the least while production of electric vehicles ramps up?

Interesting times

Monday, 10 January 2011

Rare Earth Mines in California and Australia

For those who want to know, here is the skinny.

The first mine I'll be talking about is Mountain Pass in San Bernardino County, California.

This mine is owned by Molycorp Inc (USA) and previously to the Chinese cornering the market with their cheaper production, it supplied almost the entire global production up till 1995 and finally being shuttered in 2002 due to inability to compete economically with the much cheaper Chinese production.

The mine was mothballed rather than abandoned and is currently in the process of being refurbished and brought back on line. The expectation from Molycorp is that it will be in full production once more by the end of 2011.

The rare earth metals which are in this deposit include Cerium, Lanthanum, Neodymium and Europium. Known remaining reserves are estimated to exceed 20 million tons.

Note that Neodymium is one of the key metals used in high tech and specifically in electric vehicles and the motors of wind turbines as well as ceramic supercapacitors. Lanthanum is used in advanced batteries. Cerium is used in catalysts. Europium is used in LEDs. Dysprosium is another metal that like Neodymimium is used in variation of high magnetic flux magnets.

On another note, one of the other key rare earths, dysprosium is found in a mineral known as monazite which is found in one of the mineral reserves in a mine at Mount Weld in Australia, owned by Lynas Corporation.

Lynas is currently mining (and stockpiling) monazites, which will be ultimately transported to a processing facility. At the present time, they do not have their own facility in Australia (but are in the process of building one) and instead will have to send the monazite to Malaysia to be processed on their behalf.

In addition to the near term ready-for-production sites as above, there is also Hoidas Lake in Northern Saskatchewan which has large deposits of heavy rare earths including dysprosium. Another likely candidate is Strange Lake in Northern Quebec.
Neither Hoidas Lake nor Strange Lake have yet any fixed plan for production.

Addendum: The Company that owns the Hoidas Lake rights (Great Western Minerals) also has access to a site in South Africa with close-to-production reserves of monazite which includes a large quantity of neodymium.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Follow up on China's "breakthrough"

From research on the web, my best guess is it looks like China's "breakthrough" new nuclear processing technology is a variant of the fast breeder reactor which uses highly radioactive highly processed plutonium isotopes or higbly processed Uranium-238 in order to generate fast neutrons which allow "spent" nuclear fuel to be re-processed into higher grade fuel.

Given that spent nuclear fuel is typically up to 5% "used" there is 95% of the extractable energy still remaining, as long as it is processed.

This, however, is a stable and well understood technology. Several nations have worked with fast breeder reactors in the past and there are a handful of functioning fast breeder reactors outside China.

In China's case, however, you could at a stretch say this is a breakthrough for them since they only have a limited supply of Uranium within their borders. The utilization of fast breeder technology allows them to use all of it rather than just the 50 years supply (at current rates of usage).

To get to the 3000 year quoted figure, however, they must be using something else other than just their Uranium reserves, since 50 x 19 comes out to 950 years instead of 3000.

I speculate that they might be using Thorium since a fast breeder reactor is quite capable of using Thorium to breed Uranium-233 which while still a very useful fissile material, is not suitable for the production of Nuclear bombs, yet another bonus.

Given that Thorium is up to 10 times as abundant as Uranium, it's conceivable that this is the answer.

Interestingly, Thorium could theoretically be used in very small modular reactors which would be perfect for shipping or air-freight applications. India has a research program underway to try to develop small scale cluster Thorium + Uranium seed reactors. Their program is called advanced "twin" fast breeder reactors.

We should support India's efforts to do this as everyone would benefit from nuclear power that did not lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

EDIT: I note that China has in fact publicly declared support for a molton fluoride thorium reactor program. Interesting. The race is now on.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Is Hyundai the stock to chase for Electric Buses?

There are several companies globally who have dipped their toes into the waters of Electric Bus Development.

One interesting player in this space is Hyundai.

Although it's clearly a big outfit kickback from Seoul Local Government, nevertheless, Hyundai are the first to be placed to get mass production of electric buses going.

For the last year and a half, Hyundai Heavy Industries has partnered with the Seoul Metropolitan Government in order to figure out the best project plan to replace 50% of the diesel bus fleet with an all-electric bus fleet. This is not an insignificant sized fleet at 240,000 vehicles. The specifications of the buses involved are a top speed of 60 miles per hour, with a range of 60 miles and a full recharge in 30 minutes. That specification basically covers 80% of all potential bus routes globally.

The first steps were taken in December 2010 with the installation of 12 electric buses on the Mt Namsan circular route section in Seoul.

I await the outcome of this with great interest.

Monday, 3 January 2011

China's re-processing breakthrough

Chinese state owned China National Nuclear Corporation is claiming that they have developed a means of re-processing heavily irradiated (and up to now useless) spent nuclear fuel.

The implications of this are tremendous: they mean that China can now extend it's uranium reserves from 50 years to a claimed 3000 years.

If this is true, China is effectively the new superpower and will not have the achilles heel of coal dependency.

That gives China with 97% of the world's rare earths production a head start on everyone else on the planet for moving to a post-carbon economy and maintaining (even strengthening) it's grip on global manufacturing.

This is great news since it removes a reason to fight over oil supplies.

The downside is this: it also removes leverage that we in the West have over coal supplies which will become increasingly irrelevant and thus limited leverage over the current production of rare earths. For that reason, this report *may* be simple smoke and mirrors.

If this report turns out to be true then the question for us in the West is this:
Can we duplicate what the Chinese have done in order to extend our own supplies of Uranium?

Australia Discovers it's own Bakken

Looks like the Ozzies have their own version of the Bakken.
The Georgina Basin has very similar geology to the Bakken and with current technology there should be 5 - 11 billion barrels recoverable.

To put that into perspective, Australia uses about 1 million barrels per day which is 365 million barrels per year.
So this resource should last 10-20 years for Australia alone.

Putting that another way: We have another friendly jurisdiction (like Brazil) which will be now be capable of continuing to manufacture post-oil technology during a period when it's conceivable that global peak and decline are reached.

If we take the Hirsch Report at face value we are facing a LIQUID FUELS shortage. Well this new discovery means that Australia won't be. Also it's worth pointing out that Canada won't be either due to the Oil Sands. So at least two USA friendly jurisdiction capable of continuing to manufacture.

I wonder how many more Bakkens are out there?