Monday, July 30, 2007

British Flooding.

I give thanks that we missed the kind of flooding here in the village of Caversham that happened in Gloucestershire and in Oxford. We are close to the river Thames, but it has not risen sufficiently to flood these homes since 1947. According the the Environment Agency (formerly the National Rivers Authority), the latest inundation is the worst to hit Britain in modern history. Do we blame it all on global warming? Well I'm not sure, since as I have noted floods have happened for many years periodically. In 1947 the snow/ice-melt from an especially hard winter plus the much smaller locks that existed to contend with the outpour resulted in the spillage of the river into this lovely corner of England.

Thousands of people were evacuated from the vicinities of the rivers Severn and Thames and there is much to learn about flood-defenses. So, either way, if the global-warming protagonists are close with their calculations which suggest that we can expect far more of this kind of liquidity as the Earth warms-up, or it is down to processes that have no connection with humans, it might be salient to install e.g. sealed aluminium "shield" defenses that can be raised against any future insults of water.

Many were not insured against flood either, and so are left with massive financial costs to put right the devastation. Potentially there are health-risks too, as the sewers back-up and overflow, leaving a bacterial sludge that can infect especially the young and the old, as epidemics often do. It seems that most have been spared such calamities but it would appear prudent to adopt strategies of prevention as a matter of course, particularly for properties that have been built close to rivers.

Building on flood-plains is an easy option for a variety of reasons, but it should be avoided as far as is reasonable, and such properties should mandatorily be defended with what amount to fairly basic strategies, as I have alluded to. We live in a highly uncertain world in which using less and defending against quite anticipatable traumas would appear sensible.

I am leaving tomorrow for the Swiss Alps, where I shall be interested in the level of glacial ice cover that there is now. Last year I was amazed at its depletion say from 25 years ago when I first visited Switzerland as a research student. We exist precipitously on the spinning mass of the Earth and yet mostly burrow through the matters of complexity that confront us. I believe in humankind, that by curbing our excesses of energy use we can survive.

Related Reading.
"The Independent", Tuesday, July 24, 2007; lead story, "A 21st century catastrophe."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Oil Sands show their Dark Side.

The oil sands of Alberta are estimated to hold 174 billion barrels of crude oil, capable of being economically extracted, and are said to be the largest "oil reserves" outside of Saudi Arabia, whose wells hold 262 billion barrels. However, like is not being compared strictly with like in these statistics, since in order to recover the Canadian oil, the oil sands ("tar-sands") must be dug from enormous open pit mines, and the bitumen they actually contain cracked thermally to turn it into oil, rather than simply pumping it from the ground in its natural state as is done in Saudi. Nevertheless, some 1.2 million barrels of oil are recovered from Alberta, daily, which gives some clue as to the scale of the operation there. The oil deposits of Saudi and elsewhere are described as "conventional" while those from tar-sands are listed among the "unconventional" sources of oil, and upon which we will depend increasingly as conventional crude oil supplies decline.

The mine in Alberta covers an area of more than two square miles and is 250 feet deep. The resource lies in an intact ecosystem, which is the boreal forest that covers one third of Canada's land mass. The majority of Canada's oil exports go to the US and the whole enterprise is bringing-in billions of dollars, government tax revenue and well-paid jobs. The Bush administration regards this supply of oil as being a vital component of breaking the US dependency on oil imported from the Middle east. There are however, a number of environmental concerns about the operation overall. The forest is home to hundreds of species of birds, and animals including caribous, wolves and bears. It is also one of the largest holdings of freshwater on Earth.

At Syncrude Canada's Aurora mine, mighty electric shovels scoop-out "earth" 100 tons at a time and load it into lorries which convey their cargo to crushers, from where the dirt is mixed with hot water in huge tanks to the top of which bitumen floats. The bitumen is then cracked and distilled in a full-scale oil refinery to yield the final oil product. The remnants are heaped massively onto the surrounding landscape, with enormous pyramids of sulphur waste and piles of sand, or into tailings ponds the size of lakes.

David Schindler, an ecologist from the University of Alberta, has estimated that in combination with climate change, the tar-sands operations could reduce the flow of the Athabasca River in winter by a half or more. Regulations have been proposed by environmental officials regarding water use, as a means to protect wildlife that depend on the river water, and the federal government has required a 12% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil. The total emission from the tar-sands operations amounted to 4% of that for the whole of Canada in 2005, and seems to be rising. Greg Stringham, who is vice-president of the Canadian Association of Oil Producers, has said that oil sands operators are considering alternative means to natural gas for heating the water, including underground fires or nuclear power. I discussed the latter in a previous posting "Nuclear Powered Oil sands."

Dr John O'Connor, the regional chief of family practice, has stated his concerns over the number of deformed fish found in the locality and also a surprising incidence of rare forms of cancer and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. He said, "It raised the question, were we seeing the result of genetics, lifestyle, bad luck or environmental?" A complaint was filed against him following some remarks he made last year on a radio broadcast, by federal health authorities, alleging that he was unduly alarming the public.

Clearly, this massive "oil" reserve will continue to be exploited, and I anticipate that more such concerns and issues will be raised periodically, but the show will undoubtedly go on.

Related Reading.
"Black gold's tarnish seen in Canada," by Tim Reiterman, Los Angeles Times:

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hydro, not so Green?

We tend to think of hydro-electric power as a totally clean form of energy, but there is a carbon footprint here too. According to figures obtained by Vincent St. Louis, who is a scientist at the Canadian University of Alberta, man-made reservoirs (of which one quarter are used for hydrolectric power production) release one billion tonnes of CO2 annually on top of another 70 million tonnes of methane, which has a global warming capacity of around 100x that of CO2. The problem is that bacteria break down plant materials submerged under their huge reservoirs into greenhouses gases. 80% of electricity is provided by Hydropower in Brazil, as an example of a tropical country, and Norway produces almost 100% of its electricity from hydroelectric sources. Canada and Switzerland, too, use the technology on a large scale since both are well provided for by rivers.

[The above figure that methane has 100x the global warming potential of CO2 might be disputed since it is often cited that it is nearer 20x. However, that is the average taken over 100 years, if equal volumes of methane and CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere, allowing that methane is oxidised in the troposphere to CO2 over a period of about 12 years. It is the "instantaneous radiative warming factor" that matters, since this would account for the relative effects of a steady release of the two gases, rather than a one-off emission].

The UN has decided to evaluate whether some countries might actually be better off by constructing coal and gas-fired power stations, which is an especially touchy point when heavy financial investments have been pledged, and certainly for the developing nations, e.g. Brazil. According to St.Louis, over a period of 100 years, hydro-dams will account for 7% of the global warming from all human activities. A typical example is the 250 MW Balbina dam in Brazil, which was created by flooding 2,500 square kilometers of Amazonian rainforest, the emissions from which are reckoned at 25% - 38% higher than from a coal-fired power station of equivalent capacity.

The degree of the emissions depend on the area and the depth of the reservoir, and on the nature of the underlying vegetation, and the deeper the better it would seem. However, each dam needs to be evaluated on its individual basis. Philip Fearnside, a conservation biologist at the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus, has concluded that the problem of the Balbina and Tucurui dams (the latter with 20x the generating capacity, but a dam area some 300 km^2 less than Balbina) is worse than previously thought, and that an average tropical hydropower plant emits four times as much carbon during the first four years of its life than a comparable fossil-fuel fired power station. Others have argued that the large emissions are caused by poor system design, and could be improved.

The jury is out still, since "The big issue is what would have happened if the reservoir hadn't been there," so sums-up Mike Acreman, a professor at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. "You can't go to oine and measure the methane coming off the surface and say that that was definitely caused by the hydropower scheme." Nonetheless, he does concede, "Perhaps hydropower is not as green as we thought. A lot of these tropical hydropower schemes would have been made by simply flooding a forest. There would have been a lot of trees and plants, and you need to think about what happens to all that carbon."

To my mind there are two issues here. Global warming and the decline in world oil and gas reserves. In the UK we make most of our electricity from gas, along with coal and nuclear, but hydropower is renewable unlike these finite and rapidly dwindling resources. I think we will need as much hydropower as possible, since the depletion of fuel resources will most likely decimate human civilization ahead of climate change.

Related Reading.
"Hidden dangers," by David Adam, The Guardian:

Friday, July 20, 2007

Britain and Norway watch North Sea begin to run dry.

The UK and Norway share territory and a common geology under the North Sea that was heavily imbued with deposits of oil and gas. The money earned from the export of these fuel commodities pulled Britain out of the economic hole that remained after a decade of strikes and political instability in the 1970's but sadly that particular jamboree has come to its close. The equivalent bestowal too made Norway a rich country. Britain is now a net importer of energy and the energy industry gave a warning recently that government targets to hold North Sea production of oil and gas at 3 million barrels a day by 2010 are rather optimistic and most likely they will not be met. It is estimated that nearer 2.6 million barrels a day of oil equivalents will be produced by 2010, which needles fears that the UK will become dependent on imports of gas from Russia, and other countries like Norway and Qatar.

The UK managed to average a daily production of 2.9 million barrels in 2006, which represents a fall of 9% on the previous year, notwithstanding an assiduous input of investment of £11.5 billion ($23 billion), of which half was necessary merely to maintain the fields in production at a time of rising costs for equipment, personnel and services. The industry has made the case that falling output from the North Sea fields is compromising tax revenues while changes implemented by Gordon Brown (our new Prime Minister) a year and a half ago have also hit the tax revenue running into the treasury coffers. Britain intends to break its reliance on imported oil, and to some lesser degree gas too, on grounds of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However it is far from clear how this might be accomplished especially considering a recent government white paper in which it is accepted that demand for fossil based primary energy will increase by around three quarters by the year 2020.

As noted, Norway has also been a fortunate beneficiary from the North Sea since oil was struck on its continental shelf in 1971. Indeed, this relatively small nation (population around 4.5 million, cf. 60 million persons officially living in the UK) has become the world's third largest oil and gas exporter, yielding 20% of its gross domestic product (GDP). However, forecasts suggest that the North Sea riches of oil and gas have begun their inevitable decline. Einar Stensnaes, the oil and energy minister for Norway, has said: "Not only is it essential to look for other energy resources, it is also important to look for other industrial activities to develop alongside the petroleum activity." For example, Norway makes almost all its electricity from hydro-power some of which is used on a large scale to manufacture aluminium by electrolysis of bauxite (Al2O3) dissolved in a mineral called cryolite (Na3AlF6) which has a much lower meting point. Consequently Norway is a major world exporter of aluminium too.

Norway's greatest potential new oil and gas wells are no longer to be found in the North Sea and the country's considerable expertise in exploration for oil and gas looks likely to be brought to bear on "underdeveloped" areas in the Barents Sea, although the director general of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, Gunnar Berge, has stressed this will be "more challenging in many ways." The Directorate has advised the Norwegian government that expansion of drilling in the Barents Sea was an important part of the industry's future strategy, and late last year the government announced its permission for drilling to take place there.

Drilling in that Arctic is a highly costly endeavour because of the extreme cold and generally harsh conditions that pertain. On top of this is the unresolved political dilemma that both Norway and Russia are laying claim to area of the Barents Sea, which is actually bigger than the North Sea, and is believed to hold an even greater volume of oil and gas. Oil and gas can be considered as separate resources and the decline of one does not necessarily reflect the abundance of the other, even in the same field: hence, although Norwegian oil production is down, gas output is increasing. According to Statol, Norway's largest company involved in the production of both resources, there is enough gas to last for 100 years, profitably, and in five years time there will be as much gas being produced from the Norwegian continental shelf as oil, and subsequently, gas production will outstrip that of oil. Being self-sufficient in hydro-power, Norway does not have to depend on either oil or gas to meet its own energy needs, although presumably it does require fuel for transportation.

One company, "Hydro", is researching into alternative future energy sources, and plans to set-up a pilot project on a small island to make hydrogen from wind-power. The idea is that when the wind stops blowing, the hydrogen can be used to re-generate electricity so overall providing an almost constant power supply. However, it is not thought than any significant profits will be returned from renewables for the next twenty or thirty years.

Related Reading.
(1) "North Sea is running too dry to meet target," by Terry Macalister, Guardian:
(2) "Norway prepares for dry North sea," by Lars Bevanger, BBC News:

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Norway and Thorium.

Norway holds a resource of 170,000 tonnes of thorium, which amounts to 15% of the world's total of 1.2 million tonnes. There is far more thorium than that within the earth's crust all told, averaging 8 ppm compared with around 2.8 ppm for uranium, but the above figures refer to richer ores, most commonly monazite sand which contains up to 12% of thorium. There is some opinion that thorium nuclear power might be a better environmental/energy-strategy for Norway than relying on carbon-capture which is now considered uneconomic. However, the matter of thorium reactors is not straightforward. Professor Egil Lillestol of Bergen University has been pushing thorium for some years now, and thinks that Norway should set the trend in building a prototype accelerator-driven reactor in which a massive particle accelerator converts thorium-232 to uranium-233 by irradiating it with slow (spallation) neutrons generated by the impact of a 1.6 GeV proton beam on a lead target. The conversion is not direct, and involves the initial formation of thorium-233, which decays rapidly to protactinium-233, and then to uranium-233 over a period of about a month. Hence presumably reprocessing is involved in the final stage, since if the protactinium-233 is left in the reactor it will be at least partly converted to protactinium-234, which is not a useful fissile material.

It may well turn out that thorium is the better nuclear fuel as compared with uranium, since it offers the advantages that: (1) it is present in around 3 times the abundance of uranium on Earth, overall, (2) it can be bred into the fissile nuclear fuel uranium-233, (3) far less plutonium and other transuranic elements are produced than is the case from uranium fuel, (4) the thorium fuel cycle might be used to consume plutonium, thus reducing the nuclear stockpile while converting it into useful electrical energy.

However, it is a very big accelerator that will be needed to do the job, and the estimated costs for the project are about 500 million Euros. There are various advantages cited for this type of reactor, including the claim that it can be stopped easily if things get out of hand, and that it produces less long-lived nuclear waste than the uranium-fuelled fission reactors that are currently in common use. However, there are a whole host of scientific and engineering challenges that need to be overcome, and even identified in the first place because nobody has ever built one of these reactors, and hence the plans are still only on the drawing board.

As I have already stressed, it is a very big accelerator that will be needed if the project has any chance of success, so big in fact that there are none with sufficient power anywhere in the world. Some of the suggestions include using molten lead as the coolant for the system, but the reactor would run at a temperature above 700 degrees C. when the material becomes corrosive. A number of countries (including the US, Russia, the UK, France and Japan) have entrenched firm investments in uranium based reactors, and will use them for as long as they can. There are sizable quantities of uranium on the world market, although the price has recently skyrocketed, as I discussed in my last posting. Nonetheless, there is likely to be resistance to the research and development of a brand-new technology based on thorium, in view of huge costs that will effectively be borne by the Norwegian taxpayer if they go it alone down this unlit path.

The immediate future doesn't look optimistic for thorium, certainly with the untested accelerator-driven reactors, and yet two thorium reactors have been operated, which were of the far simpler molten-salt reactor kind. Thus it might prove more expedient to invest in this at least tried technology, which could extend the useful lifetime of nuclear power by hundreds of years. The reason is that converting thorium-232 to uranium-233 is a form of "breeder" technology meaning that practically 100% of the thorium can be processed ultimately into nuclear fuel, rather than just the 0.7% uranium-235 isotope that exists in naturally occurring uranium, and which requires enrichment before it can be used. Indeed, the 99+% of uranium-238 can be converted into plutonium-239 and this used in fuel-rods, but there are many negative connotations attached to plutonium, which is almost the "p-word" for the nuclear industry: i.e. unmentionable, certainly in the tabloid press. There are serious issues of terrorism - dirty bombs at the very least, if not an out and out A-bomb detonation involving plutonium. The word alone would swathe a city and the world with fear. Uranium-233 made from thorium is harder to conceal than plutonium, since it is always contaminated with uranium-232, a strong gamma-ray emitter, and accordingly quite easily detected "in a suitcase" than plutonium which is principally an alpha-particle emitter and far more readily hidden.

There is no doubt that we will see a rise in nuclear power and for a number of reasons - cutting CO2 emissions, and securing energy supplies. Most of current thinking is based around using uranium as the fuel to drive it, but thorium could prove a very useful supplement and might power a new generation of reactors when we are short of uranium and do need to "breed" fuel if it proves uneconomic to mine poor quality uranium ores. I maintain my reservations about how long other resources, e.g. oil and gas will last, with which to mine and process either uranium or thorium, but if the latter appears viable in the longer run, I suggest that molten salt (liquid fluoride) reactors would be a better approach than the far more complex (and as yet untested) accelerator-driven systems.

The latter are reminiscent in scale to the putative nuclear-fusion reactors, said to mimic processes in stars, e.g. the sun, of which a working model is not expected for at least another 60 years. No one should forget that we need to make our energy provisions against a backdrop of 10 - 20 years at best, as oil and then gas begin to run short (the "Oil Dearth Era"). We do not want to back a loser now, as it is a one-off bet with the future of civilization resting on the outcome of this particular race.

Related Reading.
(1) "Are thorium reactors the solution? Coal and renewable energy are the road for now."
(2) There is also a link at the top left hand corner of this blog.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Massive Hike in Uranium Prices.

"Yellowcake", an impure form of uranium oxide (U3O8) which is processed into nuclear fuel, is now trading at a record spot market price of $138 a pound, up from $120 a pound in May. Since the equivalent price was just $7 a pound in 2001, the implications for the costs of expanding nuclear power are obvious. The huge price hike in uranium has attracted at least two dozen mining companies to the uranium mines in the high-desert of New Mexico during the past couple of years, who are reviving old claims, "searching filing cabinets for forgotten geological maps and hiring old timers who know the land," according to John Indall, a Santa Fe lawyer for the Uranium Producers of America.

It is the opinion of William von Till, chief of the Uranium Recovery Branch at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) based in Washington, that the huge price increases in yellowcake are driven by a sanguine view among the energy markets that nuclear power is on the edge of a renaissance and that perhaps 28 new reactors will be commissioned over the next two years, with dozens more planned-for across the world during the next decade. The US is fortunate in having access to its own reserves of uranium, and presumably Canada will continue to supply uranium to the US from its own markets. As a world average, it is reckoned there is something like 40 - 50 years worth of uranium to keep current demand satisfied, but of course this window will narrow if more nuclear power is implemented, as seems likely. There is undoubtedly more uranium in the world to be got if poorer deposits are mined and processed, and I have pointed out before that other resources, e.g. oil and gas, which are employed to extract it, are likely to run-short before the uranium does. Hence the amount of recoverable uranium is not the decider over the long-term future of nuclear power, which is a highly contested issue, especially over the matter of the longer-term disposal of the consequential nuclear waste that will be produced.

Since the US has substantial supplies of uranium, this may place it in a strong position to ramp-up its share of nuclear power, both as a proposed antidote to global warming and to aid in securing its energy supplies, notably by avoiding an over-reliance on imported oil, especially from the Middle East. The US uses relatively more oil for heating buildings than is the case in European countries, whose dependency on oil is predominantly for refining it into fuel for transportation but also as a chemical feedstock for industry. Not that the US is a car-poor nation, and I recall that there is something like a 50:50 split between the proportion of the 22 million barrels used daily in America (one quarter of the world total output) to provide fuel and for other purposes such as space- heating in buildings and as a raw-material for industry.

Unless nuclear-power is used on a large-scale to make hydrogen (which I doubt will happen for many reasons alluded to in other postings here on "Energy Balance") as an "oil replacement", this does not assist directly with the fuel issue nor with the matter of how to run our oil-dependent industries in the Oil Dearth era, but at least it might help keep the lights on (and with far less CO2 emissions than from an equivalent generating capacity of coal- or gas-fired power stations), especially in the US if there is plenty of uranium to be got there. Actually the oft-cited figure of 40 - 50 years "world supply" of uranium is a bit ingenuous, since the reserve is not distributed equally across the world and when the chips are down I imagine that, as is the case with all resources (oil and gas and coal included), some people will be better off than others. In the UK, our indigenous energy resources are rather limited, other than coal, which we will probably need to start digging-up on a massive scale and soon.

New Mexico has by far the greatest reserve of uranium in the US (although there is plenty but more dispersed, elsewhere) and is thought to amount to 600 million pounds. Now this does sound like a huge resource, but let's plug some very rough numbers in to see what this means.

I shall assume that the amount of energy that can be obtained from one tonne of uranium-235 is equal to that from burning two million tonnes of coal (which is about right). If a 1 GW coal-fired plant uses 3.5 million tonnes of coal per year, then its uranium-fired equivalent would get through 3.5/2 = 1.75 tonnes of uranium-235 annually.

However, that it obtained by separating the U-235 (0.7%) from the bulk (99.3%) U-238, and so to get that amount of U-235 would require 1.75/0.007 = 250 tonnes of natural uranium. So that's 2205 lbs/tonne x 250 tonnes = 551,250 pounds per 1 GW reactor. So to run that putative generation of 28 new reactors would need 551,250 x 28 = 15.4 million pounds of uranium, and so (cancelling the millions) that could be done for 600/15.4 = 39 years from the New Mexico deposit.

So long as the existing 104 US reactors can still be fuelled from Canadian or other existing sources of uranium, the whole show could carry on for about 40 years or so, or longer if new sources of uranium are found. But, going back to my earlier point, well before 40 years have elapsed, worldwide conventional oil will have essentially gone, and there is already a depletion in US home-gas production (in the UK we passed ours in 2005), so how will the uranium be extracted? From beginning to end the procedure needs fuel and electricity. Surely, this means that processing even a healthy reserve of uranium as this appears to be will ultimately depend on e.g. imports of oil from Canadian or Venezuelan tar-sands, and of foreign gas too, unless all the electricity is made from coal. Indeed, coal could also provide the fuel from CTL (coal to liquids) processes, but this rather spoils the advantage of "CO2-free" nuclear, doesn't it? It might be necessary to "feed-back" some of that nuclear-electricity to extract and process the uranium into nuclear fuel, but other elements, trucks and diggers etc., would need another means for propulsion. Supplying water may be another issue too in arid, desert regions.

It is a complex balance sheet.

Related Reading.
(1) "Boom times for uranium mines," by William M. Welch, USA Today:

Friday, July 13, 2007

From Wasted-Food to Biofuel.

I have read that in the UK we produce just 60% of our own food, the rest being imported. Now this raises an obvious uncertainty over security of food supplies in the Oil-Dearth era that is at hand, and is further an Achilles-heel that might be compounded were we to turn-over significant areas of arable land to growing crops for biofuel production. However, I hadn't realised how much of that home-grown food actually goes to waste, about one third of it, which would suggest that our current agricultural holdings and production do really add-up to nearly the amount we consume, it's just that we are highly wasteful in how it is used.

An organisation called National Charity Fare Share is now working to redistribute quality surplus food rather than simply letting it be thrown away (e.g. to homeless people), and it involves eight Fare Share schemes across the country and 250 local charities. More than 100 companies are cooperating in the programme by donating to it food that, although still within its sell-by date, could not be distributed in time to meet it on supermarket shelves. Legislation is quite stringent about these matters and sell/use-by dates tend to err well on the side of caution.

Anthony Worrall Thompson, a celebrity chef, said that people were too quick to throw food out. "There's nothing wrong with mouldy cheese - just cut the mould off," he said on the subject. "That's what it's all about - it's just bacteria." He also said it was good sense to use "leftovers", and I quite agree, as interesting culinary concoctions can often be assembled from them. In a wave of nostalgia he recalled, "I remember the old days, when you got a big joint on Sunday. You'd have it cold on Monday, cottage pie (beef) or shepherd's pie (lamb, obviously) on Tuesday, curry on Wednesday and so it would go on until you got a bit of fish on Friday." I don't recall us having a large enough joint to go on until Thursday (Tuesday, maybe), and curry hadn't yet arrived in either South Wales or the West Country where I spent my formative years, but I take his point.

Limited refrigeration at one time meant that it was necessary to be inventive with food and how to reuse it. True, in 1960's South Wales my family didn't have a fridge, but supplies were ordered from local shops every couple of days, and milk, cheese, butter etc. were put by the back door in winter and in a bucket of cold water in sumer. Most homes had a "pantry" then, a cold cupboard open to the outside and with a gauze over the window to keep insects out, in which meat, cheese etc. were stored. Now, we tend to rely on constantly available refrigerated food, including two-for-one offers which often mean that most of that second "freebie" ends-up on a landfill site somewhere. As supplies of electricity become more expensive and probably unreliable when we start to run-out of the means to produce it, those methods that rely less on electrical refrigeration-systems will be used again.

Close to seven million tonnes of food is wasted as part of manufacturing processes and nine million tonnes more of "out of date" or "damaged" (that might just be the packaging) food waste is produced by supermarkets. Many European countries collect food waste separately, which is then sent for composting. I recall that as a child, food from meals served at school was collected into enormous bins at the end of the canteen to be taken away and fed to pigs on local farms. Since much of this was produced locally in the first place, it was I guess a form of recycling, and part of a localised economy.

Attempts to reduce the amount of rubbish going to landfill sites are hampered by the sheer volume of wasted food among its contents. There are also rigidly enforced rules for example to ensure that any catering waste that contains meat must be destroyed to prevent livestock (pigs?) and wild birds from coming into contact with it. However, Defra are reconsidering some of these regulations according to new evidence that the health risk is actually quite low. Since there is now an EU directive that bio-degradable waste should not be thrown among landfill, it would make sense to have separate food collections as a handful of local authorities have done, e.g. Harrow and Enfield, but far more widely. Home composting and the use of the resulting fertiliser for kitchen-gardens would probably be best of all. Now this is action at a really local level, as will be increasingly necessary when our extensive transportation network begins to fail under the burden of huge oil prices.

On a final note, I mention a new proposal to recycle food-waste into biofuels, by means of a plant that can convert unwanted food such as ready meals, fast food, sandwiches, pizzas etc. and the packaging associated with it into biofuel - specifically, methane for electricity production. The proposed operator is called EnCycle and it has applied for planning permission to build and run a centre in North East Lincolnshire, they say in view of good transport links to food producers in the North East Midlands area, where manufacturers and processors are mainly concentrated. Certainly, there is a considerable localisation of food production etc. there, for the simple reason that the goods can be moved thence across the country, but I wonder, ultimately how effective will it be when transportation costs soar and the necessary infrastructure is compromised?

Actions at the local level, will ultimately prove far more effective than those which though seemingly laudable, depend on extensive networks of supermarkets and cheap transportation. Local food production will always be more efficient and will surely help "redress" that figure of 60% home-grown production toward one approaching full sustenance. Though not immediately cheaper perhaps, in the longer run it will be the only option.

Related Reading.
(1) "Saving food from going to waste," by Laim Allen, BBC News:
(3) (This refers to urban agriculture, and is relevant to the whole issue of food production at the local level).
(4) (A site that deals with local food production in

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

World Oil Supply May Fail Within 5 years.

According to a report from the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), rising world demand for oil probably cannot be met and, during the next five years, prices will skyrocket. Making its predictions on the medium-term oil market, the IEA concludes that the overall demand for oil will rise by 2.2% per annum between 2007 and 2012 as the world economy grows at somewhere close to 4.5% a year. The estimated thirst for oil is up by 2% on a previous inference, but it means that by 2012 the world will be getting through 95.8 million barrels per day, following a 1.9m barrel daily increase over this same period. As the IEA report noted: “oil looks extremely tight in five years time” and there are “prospects of even tighter natural gas markets at the turn of the decade”.

It is mainly the burgeoning industrialisation and economic expansion in countries in Asia, notably China and India, and in the Middle East where demand for oil is expected to increase in rate by a factor of three in comparison with the 30 industrialised nations that belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It is thought that industrialised countries will need to rely more and more on the output from OPEC countries in order to slake their thirst for oil, in view of sustained geopolitical tensions involving alternative producers. For example, the report has not included any possible expansion in output from Iran, Iraq or Venezuela nor that the currently closed production of 500,000 daily barrels of Nigerian oil will resurface within the next five years.

Oil prices rose within the last two days to more than $76 a barrel, which has not been reached since last August, in consequence of rising demand and necessary maintenance of the North Sea fields which have prompted anxiety over supplies. A barrel of Brent crude is now worth $76.34, only surpassed by the record of $76.84, 11 months ago. According to analysts, oil prices are likely to stay on the high side, against a backdrop of political tensions of all kinds, recent publicity over kidnappings of westerners in Nigeria and the imminent advance of the hurricane season, which wiped-out significant production last year.

The IEA report said: "Despite four years of high oil prices, this report sees increasing market tightness beyond 2010. It is possible that the supply crunch could be deferred - but not by much. The potential effects of a combination of low OPEC spare capacity and slow non-OPEC production growth are of significant concern - all the more so when considered alongside tightness in other hydrocarbons, particularly the natural gas market."

According to Lawrence Eagles, who is the IEA's head of oil industry and markets division: "The results of our analysis are quite strong. Something needs to happen. Either we need to have more supplies coming on stream, or we need to have lower demand growth." The scenario of providing more global refining capacity during the next 5 years is not sanguine either, as a result of increased costs and a shortage of engineers. Production of "sweet" (low-sulphur) light crude oil peaked in 2005, and what comes out of the ground as "crude" will tend towards a heavier "sour" (more sulphurous) material that is more difficult and hence more expensive to refine. Many engineers too, are discouraged from working in what they perceive as dangerous locations, such as the Middle East and Africa where the possible threat of kidnap or assassination, real or not, must be in the back of their minds.

It is debatable how much unconventional oil e.g. from tar-sands or coal-liquefaction might be produced, and as I have pointed-out before in these postings, the amount of biofuels that can be made without significantly compromising food-production is really quite limited. Current output of biofuels is predicted to amount to 1.75 million barrels a day by 2012, or more than twice the amount marketed last year, but even that optimistic figure still amounts to just 2% of global fuel supplies, and further expansion of the sector is likely to be held-back on grounds of economy.

The fact is that peak-oil is at hand - predicted to come in about 5 years - and we are unlikely to be able to match the gargantuan quantities of cheap oil that the modern "global village" depends upon. The solution then is simple and yet tough. If we cannot meet demand it is mandatory to adopt a lifestyle that uses less oil, and that particularly means a severe cut in our dependency on transportation. It seems insane or even criminal to simply burn a one-off precious resource like petroleum, which we need not just as a fuel-source but to make every pharmaceutical, plastic material, synthetic fibre and so on, and even food-production has become reliant on oil. When it is in short supply or costing $200 or who knows how much per barrel, how will we survive, if we have not implanted an alternative strategy within which to maintain the integrity of civilization? That alternative must involve a relocalisation of society into a network of smaller communities which is far more self-sustaining at a local level and depends far less on goods imported from elsewhere.

Related Reading.
"Energy watchdog warns of supply crunch within five years," by James Moore:

Monday, July 09, 2007

Arctic oil and gas looms!

If ever there was a need for demonstration of the reality of peak oil, Shell have provided it, in the form of their largest exploration plans for over a decade which could create a modern frontier of the oil and gas industry in the Arctic, of all inhospitable places. Shell is an Anglo-Dutch company and it intends to establish a three year programme of ships drilling a dozen new wells in the Beaufort Sea, 30 miles offshore from Alaska. According to industry experts, this may well ignite a stampede into one of the world's biggest virgin energy resources, amounting so it is reckoned to 8 billion barrels of oil and almost 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Unsurprisingly, environmentalists are filled with angst over the proposal, but nonetheless the US Minerals Management Service gave the company the go-ahead last February.

It is understood that Spanish Reposol, Norwegian Norsk Hydro and US-based ConocoPhillips are poised to follow on from Shell if its drilling project is successful. Despite the fact that BP is already operating on the North Star field on the coastline of the Alaskan North Slope, Shell's proposal means an effort 20 or 30 miles closer to the Arctic fringe. Malcolm Brinded, who is the Chief Executive of Shell, said: "There has been drilling there, there has been exploration there, but this is a return to make a new charge at it. Some people say that 25% of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbons (that's oil and gas) sit in the Arctic. I think that may be optimistic but if it's half right then it's worth exploring. It has the right ingredients to be a good energy play and the world needs new energy plays."

Few would argue with his remarks. The point at which oil production will peak globally is a matter of some contention, but it appears most likely that it will occur in about 4 years time, following which there will be an inexorable decline in its supply of perhaps 3 - 6% per year, meaning that within about a decade, that underpinning commodity of the global village will not be in evidence, since just half the presently estimated one trillion barrels remaining will be left, and it is debatable how much of that will in fact prove recoverable. There is evidence that some of the Saudi oil-fields have been damaged by the use of enhanced extraction methods, and will not yield as much as has been bargained for. So really, we don't know how much oil will be finally available to us and now is probably a pretty good time to began planning for a future that depends far less on oil, particularly in terms of greatly reduced levels of transportation by relocalising society into a sustainable network of small communities that are provided for by local farms and businesses.

Shell was involves in a scandal over its estimated reserves three years ago, and the company confessed to overstating its proven holdings by 20%. It has now upped its budget for exploration projects to £1 billion ($2 billion) per year while simultaneously halving the number of countries where drilling will be done. Shell is spending almost £500 million annually on seismic measurements (to find new reserves) and enhanced production methods such as gas- injection (this may be CO2 or steam, as is used in Saudi). The company has stressed the enormous potential of the Alaskan Arctic waters even though it, among other Super-majors, had left the region after exploration of the Beaufort and Chukchi fields in the 1990's. However, the huge hike in oil and gas prices mean that it is now economical to revisit there.

Among the list of Shell's priorities is to assess the possibilities of the "Sivulliq" which is the appellation for the Hammerhead discovery made by the Shell group and Unocal in 1986. This focus demonstrates an increasing aim by Shell to beat its rivals by the implementation of technological advances to find new hydrocarbon reserves, in the face of greater competition to grab "easy barrels" from mature sources such as the North Sea. Shell believes that its experience in working the Sakhalin offshore field in the east of Russia will be of vital use in coping with ice-flows and the Arctic climate.

Shell has turned its attention to the problem of soundproofing at Sakhalin which is a principal feeding-ground for endangered whales, as is also the case in the Beaufort Sea. Nonetheless, the company must still confront serious objections in Alaska, where local authorities are threatening legal action and there is a need to meet a Conflict Avoidance Agreement with the local Inuit people. Whalers have asked that Shell suspend its operations for 30 days during September, which is the time when bowhead whales make their migrations along the North Alaskan coast. Mr Brinded was sanguine that Shell was doing its utmost to address all concerns, saying: "We have spent a huge amount of effort on environmental management and engaging with local communities. We have really prepared for the summer."

Related Reading.
"Huge Shell drilling programme heralds scramble for the Arctic," by Steve Hawkes:

Friday, July 06, 2007

Hands Across the "North" Sea: British-Norwegian Gas Connections.

On October 1st 2006, Norwegian gas exports began to arrive in the UK via the Langeled gas pipeline and the issue currently reigns of whether more gas imports are to be expected from the Troll field, or if that consignment will instead go to Belgium or the Netherlands. The Langeled pipeline stretches some 1,200 kilometres from the Nyhamna terminal in Aukna, Norway via the Sleipner Riser platform in the North Sea to Easington, and is scheduled eventually to carry 70 million cubic metres of gas daily, which is equal to 20% of Britain's entire supply of gas. The pipeline is intended to be opened in two stages: it was the southern section (Sleipner Riser to Easington) that began the operations on October 1st 2006, while the northern section (Nyhamna to Sleipner Riser) is due to open in October 2007.

The Langeled project involves welding 100,000 sections of pipe to create the world's longest subsea pipeline, combining to a total length of 1,200 km. This implies that each section is about 12 metres long. Modifications to the Sleipner facility are also central to the programme of work as indeed is the construction of the reception facility at Easington.

The aim of the pipeline is to transport natural gas from the Ormen Lange gas process terminal to the U.K., but since it operates via the Sleipner Riser "connector" there is a further option of sending gas through the existing Gassled network to continental Europe. The annual capacity of Langeled is around 20 billion cubic metres which will augment the Vesterled gas-system running from the Heimdal Riser platform in the North Sea to St. Fergus in Scotland, with an annual capacity of close to 12 billion cubic metres. It is believed that when the full output from the Ormen Lange gas field comes on stream in October 2007, it will be able to fulfill 20% of the UK's gas needs for several decades. When Ormen Lange reaches plateau production in 2010, Norway will move up the league table of world gas-exporters from third to second place (after Russia).

The UK government has launched a strenuous lobbying campaign to persuade Norway to build another vital gas pipeline to this country rather than to continental Europe, and which is thought essential to the final mix of energy supplies that the Royal Society have concluded are necessary to power Britain at least until the year 2050. The putative new pipeline would provide another 18% of the UK total demand for natural gas by the time it came on stream in 2012 (coincidentally also the year of the London Olympics, and I would suggest the more important of the two events!). It would further reduce the reliance of the UK on obtaining its gas from continental Europe - a clear case of cutting-out the middle man - and safeguarding supplies against potential gas-supply "shortages" as occurred when President Putin closed the gas-valves on several former USSR countries (e.g. Ukraine and Georgia) which further disrupted exports to western Europe.

Within the potential outcome of plans to expand the giant North sea,Troll gas-field the new pipeline might go to three destinations: St Fergus in Scotland, Den Helder in the Netherlands or Zeebrugge in Belgium. Several Department of Trade and Industry officials have met with their equivalents in Norway to press-home the case for Britain; Willy Rickett the DTI energy group's director general, flew to Oslo last month for negotiations and it is understood that National Grid and Centrica are both acting to support the government's efforts. A decision is expected within a month or so. One industry expert is quoted as saying: "Losing the pipeline would not necessarily mean losing the gas as it would go to the continent. But that market is not as transparent as ours."

Since the UK has changed its status from being a net exporter to a net importer of gas, it is mandatory that the country's energy supplies are secured. In a white paper published last week, a clear decision was unveiled to implement a new generation of nuclear power plants, which has been on the cards for while now but without a definitive conclusion one way or the other - "yes or no" - but now it looks to be "yes". It is considered these will be an essential component of policy in averting an otherwise growing energy gap in Britain. The government predicts that by 2010, gas imports could be providing up to one third of total gas used in the UK, a proportion that could potentially rise to 80% by 2020. Not all of this is from Norway, however, and a huge gas terminal is being constructed at the harbour town of Milford Haven in south west Wales, with five giant gas-holders lagged with "loft-insulation", intended to accommodate liquefied natural gas shipped from Qatar in the Persian Gulf, which will supply an additional 20% of the UK's gas.

Related Reading.
(1) "UK presses Norway to direct new gas pipeline to Scotland", by Sylvia Pfeifer, Sunday Telegraph:
(2) "Gas from Langeled reaches the British market":

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Israel makes Biofuel from "Seaweed".

I have considered previously the possibilities of making biodiesel from algae, which can in principle be achieved on an amount per hectare some 100 or more times that derived from common "bio-crops". Against the backdrop of conventional oil supplies running short within a decade and the serious compromise that would exist between growing crops to produce either food or fuel - and still nowhere near meet current demand for the latter - this is a most attractive prospect. I remain optimistic about the technology, albeit noting that there remain many problems to be overcome before it might be used reliably on the large scale. In what can be thought of as an adaptation of the strategy, a company in Israel have used an undisclosed "green technology" to make biofuel from seaweed. The connection with algae may not appear immediately obvious, but seaweed are in fact macrocolonies of algae. It is reported that 1 litre of fuel can be made from 5 kilograms of dried algae.

Seaweed is a common name for all the large complex multicellular algae, and have the most complex anatomy of any algae. Some seaweeds have tissues and organs that resemble those of higher land plants, and yet they are more closely related to the unicellular algae we are more familiar with in using the term. Hence it seems that their anatomical complexity evolved independently. The seaweed body form is called "thallus" and usually the entity has a root-like holdfast which anchors the plant to the substrate (seabed or rock), a stem-like "stipe" and a leaf-like "blade" - the collection of which provides most of the photosynthetic apparatus for the algae.

The Israeli company, Seambiotic Ltd., have unveiled a new technology they say for "efficiently extracting fuel from seaweed", which involves the absorption of CO2 from fossil-fuel fired power plants. Rather than simply allowing the gas to escape into the atmosphere, it is passed through a filtration system in which it enters a pool to feed "microscopic seaweed", so the report describes it. The technology was developed by Seambiotic Ltd. three years ago on an experimental farm located on the site of the Ashkelon power plant, with the support of the Israeli Electric Corporation. The seaweed pools are located several hundred metres from the plant smokestacks, and are filled with seawater that has been used to cool the electric turbines. The seaweed employed grows naturally in the Mediterranean sea in small amounts, but in the pools the forcing conditions of elevated CO2 concentrations increase its growth by a factor of one million.

I think it is more likely that Seambiotic are cultivating unicellular algae, not seaweed as we usually think of it. I understand also that they are currently doing well in the highly profitable Food Supplements market, so this may represent a branching-out of their business interests. The essential premise is particularly fortuitous for Israel given that both land and freshwater are highly costly there. So, seawater is used as the bulk medium, and introduced in relatively small area, shallow ponds, or mainly vertical flow-systems made of light-transparent plastic tubes to maximize the solar energy input. Taking unwanted and highly undesirable (global warming!) CO2 from otherwise "polluting" power stations to actually enhance the algal growth is a wonderful bonus. The one remaining component is "fertilizer". Will this be supplied in the form of seawater "naturally" polluted by sewage, or in some other way? If waste CO2, sewage and seawater are all that is required to provide the necessary culture-medium for the project, it looks like a winner!

Amnon Bachar, who is the director of Seambiotic, said: "In the scientific literature it is stated that it is impossible to grow seaweed through the use of carbon dioxide from power plants, because of large quantities of pollutants released from the smokestacks. But it appears that whoever wrote that does not know how to grow seaweed. We have found that seaweed can grow on the basis of the carbon dioxide being emitted from power plants. We get the carbon dioxide for free, and the power plant produces less pollution."

There are about 30,000 species of micro-algae known, most of which have not been researched into in regard to fuel production. Since they exist or can be grown in large amounts it is an exciting outlook if algae can be substituted as the new "crude oil", for the production of both fuel and chemical feedstocks for making pharmaceuticals, plastics, textiles, soap etc. etc. Algae might even form a significant proportion of the world's staple food in the future, as its population rises. Consequently, it is important to invest in finding the best algal strains to work with and exploit the benefits of.

Related Reading.
(1) "Israeli firm: seaweed could be used to solve energy crisis", by Ofri Ilan, Haaretz:
(2) "Israeli technology derives bio-fuel from algae", by Stephanie Field, ISRAEL21c: http:/

Monday, July 02, 2007

Nuclear "Solution" Untenable.

Nuclear power is often hailed as a "CO2-free" form of energy, and a significant component of the energy mix that will be required to keep civilization running during the testing period post peak oil. The technology is not entirely free of CO2 emissions once all contributions are costed-in: making concrete and steel, building the plant itself, mining, milling and processing uranium into fuel rods and the ultimate decommissioning of the plant (presuming they will be safely and carefully taken apart, and not left to rot in a world with rather more pressing resource agendas by that stage). Estimates vary enormously as to exactly how much CO2 a nuclear plant will produce, and appear to range from 20 - 40% of the emissions that a conventional coal-fired power plant will produce during its lifetime [See Related Reading (2)] down to just about 3%, according to the nuclear industry (3). In the UK, the majority of electricity is produced from gas, but the share of the total taken by coal has increased to 30% during the past 2 years. Nuclear power contributes around 20% of the whole, which is a far cry from the almost 80% that the French rely on nuclear for.

Clearly, if the world is serious about implementing nuclear to reduce fossil-fuel based emissions incurred in electricity generation, a very large expansion of the sector will be necessary, as is the subject of a recent report which concludes that nuclear power plants must be constructed at a rate of four new ones every month if any appreciable difference will be made to cut human-induced CO2 contributions: the so called "fight against global warming".

It is inferred that this is impossible for logistical reasons, as stated: "A world-wide nuclear renaissance is beyond the capacity of the nuclear industry to deliver and would stretch to breaking point the capacity of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to monitor and safeguard civil nuclear power." Now, apart from these problems of policing any such wholesale expansion in the number of reactors on the planet, there is surely the limitation that unless serious exploration for new sources of uranium is undertaken on a large scale too, including attempts to work poorer ores than the industry is used to, even at current rates of uranium consumption the resource will run-out in about 40 years. Thus, without a renewed supply of the basic fuel, or the employment of breeder reactors (using uranium or thorium) to make it go further, nuclear is not the long-term solution it is frequently purported to be. There is of course the issue of nuclear waste, although some pretty sensible strategies have been proposed, and I remember seeing a cartoon by "Friends of the Earth" which depicted a Roman Centurian and the caption "If the Romans had had nuclear power, we would still be guarding their waste."

The report by the Oxford Research Group has been published within a week of the World Energy Council (the global organisation of electricity producers - a bit like OPEC, maybe?) stated categorically that nuclear power had to be a significant part of the new energy mix both to counteract global warming and to guarantee security of (energy) supply. As a fraction, nuclear provides just 16% of the total electricity used on earth, and the demand for it is expected to at least keep in step with the growth in human population, which is estimated to reach 10 billion (it is now 6.54 billion) by the year 2075. The report concludes that in order to match this rise in demand for electricity, one third of all electricity will need to be made using nuclear by then, and to achieve this four new nuclear plants must be built each month for the next 70 years - making a grand total of 3,360 of them.

It is not clear, however, how the uranium (or thorium) fuel will be dug from the earth to run so many nuclear power plants, and it seems that the "solution" has created yet another "problem". Is it assumed that during the latter portion of that 70 years timescale, e.g. breeder reactors will be brought on-stream, or that more uranium will be recovered from as yet unknown sources, or that "unconventional" supplies of oil and gas will be "discovered" with which to construct and fuel the putative new generation of nuclear offspring? It always takes resources to extract resources and nuclear is no exception, needing supplies of conventional (fossil fuel) energy to underpin the various stages of construction, fuelling and decommissioning (allowing for my earlier caveat that this ultimately won't happen in a world with more pressing demands on its energy resources, whatever they may ulimately prove to be).

The report went on to say, "Unless it can be demonstrated with certainty that nuclear power can make a major contribution to global CO2 mitigation, nuclear power should be taken out of the mix." So there! Worldwide, there are presently 429 nuclear reactors in operation, ranging from a density of 103 in the US to just one in Armenia - the highly controversial Armenian Nuclear Power pant at Metsamor, which neighbouring countries and the EU want to see closed down. However, since it produces around 40% of the entire country's electricity, this is easier said than done. I visited Metsamor in 2001, returning to London amid high security on the morning of 9/11. There are 76 new reactors planned and 162 proposed as present blueprints stand, and so another almost three thousand is no mean ambition.

The report concedes that breeder reactors would be necessary, since they produce ("breed") more fuel than they consume, specifically by converting uranium-238 to plutonium-239. To realise the perceived 2075 secenario would necessitate the processing of around 4,000 tonnes of plutonium each year, which is clearly quite a headache in terms of security. Indeed, we may note that 4,000 tonnes of plutonium is around twenty times the current military stockpile of "weapons grade" plutonium, just to place the matter in context.

It is concluded that the probabilities are "large" that some of this plutonium would end up in the wrong hands and be used as a "dirty bomb" even if it was not used to make a sophisticated nuclear device. I suspect, however, that civilization will have fragmented into smaller communities long before then, and being a global phenomenon, the threat of terrorism will evaporate along with the world's supplies of oil and gas. In the face of a massive dearth in our conventional sources of energy, this will be the least of our worries.

Related Reading.
(1) "World cannot afford nuclear climate solution", by Jeremy Lovell, Reuters. news/newsdesk/L27192438.htm