Friday, August 28, 2009

Solar-Powered Oil.

This is a nifty idea: an oil field which employs solar energy to generate steam for enhanced extraction technologies. This particular innovation is due to Brightsource Energy who are using a 29 MW solar thermal power plant at a Chevron oil field based in Coalinga, California. The method of CTSP (Concentrated Thermal Solar Power), sometimes abbreviated further to CSP, uses an array of mirrors to focus sunlight onto a central boiler and so generates steam which can be employed to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity in the usual manner. This is a more efficient process currently than photovoltaic technology, but in the present example, rather than the steam being fed into a turbine, it is to be pumped down the oil-wells to help fluidise the oil.

The oil is thick and sticky at normal temperatures but when heated it flows more easily and can be pumped-out more readily. Oil companies often use steam for this purpose of so called enhanced extraction, but normally it is produced using fossil fuels such as gas, for example in the Fresno and Kern counties of California where the oil is particularly "heavy and gooey" to quote from the article cited below. Since this region also collects some of the most intense sunlight in the state, a happy marriage is to use some of it to get the oil out. Indeed, there are a number of other CSPs planned to be built in this region.

Brightsource has investments from Chevron, BP and the Norwegian Statoil Hydro (from a merger of Statoil and Norsk Hydro) and it has signed contracts to provide some 2,610 MW of electricity generating capacity from the CSPs. The solar-powered oil scheme is more important in view of the fact that a significant part of the costs of oil extraction relies on the cost of the natural gas. Presently, gas prices are around $3 per million Btus (British Thermal Units) and it is thought that once the price reaches $8.5 per Btu the solar steam system will prove competitive with the gas-fired units. Gas prices will rise as indeed will the price of oil and so in the longer run this could be a lucrative investment. I suppose there is less carbon emissions too, although since oil is being produced which will be burned overall it is not so environmentally friendly.

The rider is that the solar steam plants only work when the sun is shining and hence back-up units will be needed, which still use gas; the perennial problem of most renewable energy sources - that the power supply is not constant, be it solar, wind or wave.

Related Reading.

"A Solar-Powered Oil Field?" By Todd Woody. The New York Times, Green Inc. Energy, the Environment and the BottomLine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mexico Cantarell Oil Field Dead by End of 2010.

The giant Cantarell oil field, the world's eighth largest will be dead by the end of next year. Output peaked in 2004/2005 at around 2.2 million barrels a day (mbd) but will be well below the 0.5 mpd predicted by the end of 2009 - and extrapolating its apparently linear decline, it will be around zero by the end of 2010. Cantarell was a late field, since it was discovered in 1976, by which time there was a host of new technology available to make sure it kept pumping out oil, and by pressurizing the field, oil was pumped out at around 2 mbd for several years, when without this help a field would normally be expected to fall into decline.

However, a well only has so much oil to begin with and the faster this is recovered the quicker it becomes exhausted. It is likely therefore that the depletion side of Hubbert's peak will be a far steeper decline than the incline that rose to it, for many fields around the world, and it is debatable just how much recoverable oil there is all told. It has been suggested that the use of enhanced recovery techniques - i.e. pumping millions of barrels of seawater per day into e.g. the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia has damaged the geological structure, meaning that less of its oil will ultimately be recovered.

Added to that it is debatable how much oil there was in Ghawar or in that region in general since the figures have been described as a "state secret". I have talked before [1] [2] on the subject of oil reserves and there may well be more than is typically accounted for. However, the limiting factor in avoiding an oil gap is how much can be recovered of a required quality (heavy or light; sour or sweet) in competition with the prevailing demand for it. The recession has put on hold many new oil recovery projects and the consequences of this will be brought forth as the world economy begins to smile once more. It will be a short-lived expression, however, as without enough oil there is no economic growth possible, but rathermore a terminal decline of all of the economy that is underpinned by oil, and that includes pretty much everything, even producing food.

The world's biggest, the Ghawar field is estimated [3] as having 66 - 100 billion barrels [Gb = Giga barrels] left which is around 2 - 3 years worth for the entire world. I doubt it will be evenly distributed though in the final analysis nor will any of the world's remaining oil for that matter, and even the putative 2250 Gb [3] world total is highly misleading since there is a tendency to simply divide it by 30 billion barrels a year or some projection of up to 40 billion barrels a year based on economic growth models and say, "we have decades worth of oil left so don't worry." We do have decades worth of oil left but we won't be able to pull it out fast enough to match such colossal demands and the oil peak is just that "a peak" beyond which decline in oil on the world markets is a matter of simple definition.

Even in its heyday of 2.2 mbd or 800 million barrels a year the Cantarell complex amounted to under 3% of present world oil consumption. Put thus it doesn't seem a big deal, except to the poor Mexican economy which depends considerably on its oil revenue from Cantarell. The Mexican people will undoubtedly suffer, as will we all since the decline of Cantarell is just what is happening elsewhere, and almost all of the giant fields which together account for 65% of the world's remaining oil have already encountered their production peak. In effect, world oil production has peaked or is so close to doing so that it is a matter of mere semantics to talk otherwise.

Meanwhile I am researching Forest Gardens and Permaculture, since without oil and such alternative means to grow food, especially in a country like Britain which imports 40% its food as carried-in by oil-based transport - and relies on oil to farm the rest of it, we are going to starve.

Related reading.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"World Challenge 09" Announces its 12 Finalists.

For the fifth year running, BBC World News and Newsweek magazine have joined Shell in a programme to support groups that provide benefit and support for local communities. "World Challenge 09" is a global competition which seeks to reward projects and businesses which bring economic, social and environmental benefits to local communities through grassroots solutions. The winner will get $20,000 and be announced at an awards ceremony in The Hague in December 2009, while the two runners-up will each get $10,000.

To quote E.F.Schumacher, "think global act local" which was the basis of his 1973 bestselling collection of essays, "Small is Beautiful - a study of economics as if people mattered." Indeed, this will become a paradigm for the entire world, not only developing nations, since industrialised societies will be forced to re-localise and rely on local production of food and energy as much as possible, as cheap resources of energy, especially oil, and other materials, notably metals begin to peak in their production, and the shelves of global "supermarket" begin to run empty.

The finalists are (listed alphabetically by country):

• Afghanistan: ‘Patterns of Change’ – Afghan Hands – assisting and educating women who have been widowed or are unable to provide for themselves as a result of conflict, economic desolation and erosion of serviceable infrastructure.

• Kenya: ‘Fuel Cell’ – Kenya Biogas – promoting an environmentally friendly way of tapping biogas as a clean source of energy.

• Haiti: ‘Love n’ Haiti’ – South-South Co-operation – a multi-dimensional effort to reduce violence and gang clashes in the Carrefour Feuilles district in Haiti, stimulating local economic activity and improving living conditions in the neighbourhood.

• India: ‘Solar Sisters’ – Barefoot Women Solar Engineers of Africa – improving the lives of people living in rural parts of Africa by training them to make clean, renewable and low cost sources of energy.

• Indonesia: ‘Nothing Wasted’ – Danamon Go Green, Danamon Peduli Foundation – converting traditional market waste into organic compost to be distributed amongst local farmers.

• Israel: ‘Off Grid Aid’ – Comet ME – providing basic energy services to off-grid communities in occupied Palestinian territories, in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

• Namibia: ‘No Beating About The Bush’ – The Cheetah Conservation Fund Bush Project – harvesting thornbushes to restore farmlands, using environmentally and socially appropriate means and providing much-needed jobs to locals.

• Sri Lanka: ‘A Bright Idea’ – Safe Bottle Lamps – producing a simple, safe lamp that can be easily mass produced at low cost, using recycled glass. It is an effective, inexpensive and quick solution to serious burn problems encountered in many developing countries.

• Thailand: ‘Old School Thai’ – Andaman Discoveries – began as a tsunami relief effort and is now a leader in sustainable travel and development. It allows visitors and volunteers to directly support community education, village-led conservation, and cultural empowerment.

• UK: ‘Emission Control’ – Mootal – reducing methane emissions by up to 94% with the use of a simple garlic extract, while also improving the efficiency of livestock production.

• UK: ‘Jiko Rescue’ – Stoves for Survival – reducing reliance on local natural resources through the production and distribution of fuel-efficient ‚ ‘Jiko’ stoves, which reduce the consumption of firewood and charcoal by at least 55%.

• USA: ‘Fungi Town’ – BTTR Ventures – turning one of the largest waste streams in America and the vast quantities of coffee ground waste generated daily, into a high-demand, nutritious, and valuable food product for local consumers.

BBC World News will broadcast six 30-minute programmes profiling each of the World Challenge 09 finalists, showing how their projects and businesses are changing lives and local communities. In addition, Newsweek will detail the projects in six advertorials. The audience and readers are then invited to vote online - for their favourite project or business from 28 September.

For further information:
BBC World News Press Office
Tel: +44 208 433 2419

Jan Angilelia, Newsweek
Tel: + 1 212 445 5638

World Challenge 09 will be broadcast on BBC World News from October 3rd, 2009. Full schedule details can be found at:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Soil-Bugs Provide Eco-Solution to Plastic Pollution.

Despite the ubiquitous uses of plastics, from an environmental perspective they are a menace. Rebecca Hosking's "plastic bag" campaign is well known, when driven by the horror of her first-hand experience as a wildlife photographer seeing birds and sea-creatures tangled-up in plastic that had crossed the world's oceans, she persuaded her home town of Modbury in Devon to ban plastic bags in the shops there. Most plastics are extremely resistant to biological degradation and are expected hang around for centuries, causing much environmental calamity. They are also a significant component of landfill. What then, if a simple, cheap and eco-friendly process could be devised with which to not only decompose plastic waste, but to turn it into useful products? There may indeed be such a solution according to the promise of preliminary results from labs around the world, in the form of pseudomonas putida - a bacterium found in soil, known for its ability to destroy naphthalene as a soil-contaminant.

A modified version of the pseudomonas bacterium has been shown able to decompose styrene, which is recovered by pyrolysis (thermal decomposition in the absence of oxygen) of styrofoam (polystyrene), and to convert it into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), which are themselves useful plastics, e.g. in medical procedures including skin-grafts, but are biodegradable. Dr Kevin O'Connor at University College Dublin thinks that the bacteria can save the world from being suffocated by toxic plastic waste. The bacteria seem to show an affinity for aromatic molecules, and so feed on polystyrene, polyethyeneterephthalate (PET), which in low-grade form is used to make plastic drinks bottles. Thus, rather than all of this ending up in landfill, it can be used as a feedstock for production of PHA in digesters in which pseudomonas putida grow, using the waste plastic as an energy source.

Around 126 million pounds (sixty million tonnes or so) of styrene waste is released into the environment in the United States each year, contaminating ground, water and air. Styrene is itself carcinogenic (causes cancer). O'Connor believes that within five years, each pound of styrene will be convertible by pseudomonas into half a pound of useful PHA. To place this in context, 126 million pounds of styrene waste could yield 63 million pounds of PHA which is about the same amount that Americans buy each year in terms of plastic goods. When exposed in soil, air or water for several weeks, the plastic simply degrades like a banana-peel. It may be possible to genetically modify the bacteria so that it eats other kinds of toxic waste and converts that to different kinds of useful, biodegradable plastic.

The new, useful plastic can be recovered from the bacterial cells simply by treating the mixture with a mild detergent, which breaks down the cell walls and releases the PHA as tiny granules - nonetheless, separating the plastic from dead cell debris does pose a challenge. The pound to half a pound conversion figure, while being an optimistic projection in five years time, is quite a leap from the mere pound to a tenth of a pound that is obtained using the current technology. If the process can be made cheaper and the price of the PHA pound for pound reduced to a similar order as that for conventional oil-based plastics, then business is likely to be more interested, and that is likely key to the success of this technology. I am enthused by this, as a good example of working with nature to find a solution to an environmental problem, which does not add a greater burden, e.g. using detergents to break-up oil slicks, but that a living organism can be grown to do the job rather than placing a further reliance on oil-based chemicals, which have both caused the problem in the first place and are likely to soon run into short supply.

Related Reading.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dangerous Swiss Glacial Lake to be Drained.

A glacial lake has formed above the town of Grindelwald in the Swiss canton, Bern. Since the lake has no overground drainage, it poses a risk of bursting through the weakest point and flooding the valley below. The formation of the lake is attributed to global warming over the Alps and melting of the lower Grindelwald glacier (Unterer Grindelwaldgletscher, in German) leaving a huge basin filled with meltwater. I have noted before that I am convinced by the recession of this glacier, that I have witnessed personally over the past 25 years that there is a redistribution of heat over the earth, and the Alps are indeed warming, whether the planet as a whole is or not. In 1984, my wife and I actually sat on the edge of the glacier, so close was it to the alpine path; now it has receded tens of metres back.

I became aware of this glacial lake only last week, while visiting the Bernese Oberland, and finding the Glacial gorge (Gletscherschluct) was closed beyond the first 150 meters. The reason for this is that a serious engineering project is now underway to help the lake to drain. A tunnel is to be dug by drilling and blasting some 2 km diagonally in the flank of the Maettenberg mountain to the glacial lake, allowing a giant "plug-hole" through which the lakewaters can drain into the gorge. It is proposed that the working 700 metre "hole" will be ready by september (the lower 1.3 km being only to provide an access channel), and allowing that 3 metres of rock are advanced by each blast, this must amount to say three blasts per day (over 60 or so days), removing around 11,000 tonnes of rock altogether, in 15 tonne segments, the detritis from which will be cleared out by a large scooping-machine that can traverse the incipient tunnel, and dumped into the gorge. Interestingly, enormous quantities of rock are discharged into the gorge and Luetchine river system there naturally, and further downstream there is a cement factory, which uses this bestowal of rock (converted to a pulverised form) as a useful raw material, so nothing goes to waste. A good example of Swiss pragmatism.

The lake is 700 metres long, 300 metres wide and 35 metres deep and is estimated to hold currently 1.7 million cubic metres (tonnes) of water. It is feared that an avalanche or heavy rainfall could trigger severe flooding of the areas below, even as far as Interlaken. Since this is a central region for tourism in Switzerland, if it did flood it would be very bad for business.

It is planned that the drain will be in full operation by spring 2010.

Related Reading.