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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Monitor staff and guest contributors offer a mix of news, analysis, and commentary on energy and resource issues emerging across the globe.

Visitors walk past TV sets during Russian President Vladimir Putin's live broadcast nationwide phone-in at the DNS electronic shop in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. On the same day as the West and Russia reached a deal on the Ukraine crisis, Europe and Russia also agreed to meet on European energy security. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

Ukraine deal: How energy binds Russia, Europe (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.17.14

On Ukraine, Russia and the West can agree on at least one thing: It's better to talk things out.

Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, Europe, and the United States agreed Thursday to disarm protesters and return illegally seized buildings to legitimate owners in an effort to defuse a volatile situation in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region. A long-term stabilization of Ukraine's fragile economy will be crucial to a complete deescalation, the diplomats noted in an agreement signed in Geneva Thursday.

In a separate but key agreement, EU officials also said Thursday they would meet with Russia to settle Ukraine's multibillion-dollar natural gas debt, and to ensure broader Europe gets the gas it needs from Russia to fuel its power plants and heat its homes. 

The deals come after a long week of increasingly militant pro-Russian protests in Ukraine's Donetsk region, and reports of a buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine's eastern border. Earlier this month, Russia nearly doubled the cost of Ukraine's gas and threatened to cut off supplies over its rising debt. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin again warned of a possible shutoff within a month if Ukraine's bills continue unpaid.  ( Continue… )

A prototype sun tracking solar panel collects energy from its location at the University of California San Diego. A small county in Northern California has leveraged solar power to more than cover its electricity needs. (Mike Blake/Reuters/File)

How a California county produces more power than it uses

By Laurie Guevara-StoneGuest blogger / 04.17.14

California is known for being a leader in solar energy, but a small county in Northern California has taken things a step further. It has become the first county government in the state to not only zero-out its electric bill with renewable energy, but also to become grid positive. Yolo County (population 200,000), just west of Sacramento County, now produces 152 percent more energy from solar panels than it uses.

Terry Vernon, deputy director of Yolo County General Services, is behind much of the solar success. In 2010, the Yolo County government was facing an annual $1.4 million electric bill. Vernon knew there was a better way. In the 1980s, Vernon helped Stanford University put power back into the grid with a cogeneration plant that heated the entire campus. So he was no stranger to innovative energy solutions, and knew that he could help power Yolo County with renewables. The issue he was facing, however, was that Yolo County was, like the rest of the country, in a recession.

"I had to look for a way to do a zero-capital investment because we didn't have any capital funding," Vernon told RMI. "It had to pay for itself the very first day." Vernon said it took a lot of effort; he had to go to the county board numerous times. Fortunately, the board was extremely supportive of the project. Even before board members knew it would produce a positive cash flow, they saw the potential to reduce the county's carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. Once they approved the proposal, the first solar project was under way.  ( Continue… )

A natural gas well is drilled near Canton, in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. A recent report suggests that there is a possibility that natural gas is no better for the climate than coal. (Les Stone/Reuters/File)

Are fracking emissions worse than we thought?

By Nicholas CunninghamGuest blogger / 04.16.14

new study by scientists from Purdue and Cornell suggests that the methane emissions from shale gas could be much higher than previously thought. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at fugitive methane emissions in Pennsylvania by flying an airplane over drilling sites and collecting samples. What they found was a bit unnerving.

“It is particularly noteworthy that large emissions were measured for wells in the drilling phase — in some cases 100 to 1,000 times greater than the inventory estimates,” said Purdue chemistry professor Paul Shepson. “This indicates that there are processes occurring — such as emissions from coal seams during the drilling process — that are not captured in the inventory development process.” The study measured 2 to 14 grams of methane per second per square kilometer over active drilling sites during a two day period. During the fracking process, operators at times drill through coal beds in order to get to gas, and methane can escape as a result. The wells leaking the most amount of methane, according to the study’s results, were in the middle of the drilling phase. (Related Article: House Dems Want EPA to Reopen Investigation on Fracking( Continue… )

A security guard walks amid a solar power project site in Raisan village near Gandhinagar, India. Investments in clean energy worldwide jumped 9 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. (Ajit Solanki/AP/File)

Clean energy: Is a boom coming in 2014?

By Staff writer / 04.16.14

The first quarter of 2014 may ease any worries about clean energy's future.

After two years of annual declines, investments in clean energy worldwide jumped 9 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2014, according to data released Wednesday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), a London-based energy analysis firm. Solar power led the way with a 23 percent increase, more than offsetting a 16 percent decline in wind power. All told, investors spent $47.7 billion on renewables and energy efficiency in the first three months of this year.

Global investment in renewable energy is up, technology costs continue to drop precipitously, and markets are expanding into emerging economies in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The industry still has a long way to go, and many say a shift to cleaner energy is happening too slowly to offset the downsides of carbon-heavy fuels. Even so, the broad, global outlook for renewables is bright, and deployment of the technology verges on rapid acceleration. 

“It is too early to say definitively that 2013 was the low point for clean energy investment worldwide and that 2014 will show a rebound, but the first-quarter numbers are encouraging," Michael Liebreich, chairman of the advisory board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in a statement Wednesday. ( Continue… )

A pumpjack drills for oil in the Monterey Shale, Calif. There is no new abundance, Cobb writes, and oil supplies remain constrained. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File)

Has crude oil production already peaked?

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / 04.16.14

"Wait a minute," you must be saying. "Haven't we been hearing from the oil industry and from government and international agencies that worldwide oil production has been increasing in the last several years?" The answer, of course, is yes. But, the deeper question is whether this assertion is actually correct.

Here is a key fact that casts doubt on the official reporting: When the industry and the government talk about the price of oil sold on world markets and traded on futures exchanges, they mean one thing. But, when they talk about the total production of oil, they actually mean something quite different--namely, a much broader category that includes all kinds of things that are simply not oil and that could never be sold on the world market as oil.

I've written about this issue of the true definition of oil before. But Texas oilman Jeffrey Brown has been bending my ear recently about looking even deeper into the issue. He makes a major clarifying point: If what you're selling cannot be sold on the world market as crude oil, then it's not crude oil. It's such a simple and obvious point that I'm ashamed to have missed it. And, Brown believes that if we could find data that separates all these other non-crude oil things out, the remaining worldwide production number for crude oil alone would be flat to down from 2005 onward.  ( Continue… )

Women read banners as they pass the barricades of pro-Russian activists at a regional administration building that they had seized earlier in Donetsk, Ukraine, Tuesday. Meanwhile in western Ukraine, officials pursued deals with European neighbors that would lessen its reliance on Russian energy. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Ukraine makes inroads on energy security as Donetsk teeters (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.15.14

As tensions in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region escalate, Kiev is quietly cobbling together Western energy supplies to lessen its reliance on Russia.

As of Tuesday, Ukraine has European natural gas flowing from Germany, an extended nuclear fuel contract with an American company, and the potential for expanded gas flows from Slovakia. None of it is enough to offset Russia's stronghold on Ukraine's energy industry, and there are plenty of obstacles to Western neighbors coming to Ukraine's aid. Still, the contracts and negotiations suggest Ukraine isn't wasting any time in finding alternative, Western supplies.

German energy company RWE began delivering natural gas to Ukraine via Poland Tuesday, the company announced in a statement, making it the first European company to supply gas to Ukraine this year. The supplies come under a five-year framework agreement between an RWE subsidiary and Naftogaz, Ukraine's state-owned gas company, which could deliver up to 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of the heating and electricity fuel per year. ( Continue… )

A gas flare is seen at an underground gas storage facility of the Chernomorneftegaz company in the village of Glebovka, in Crimea's Chernomorsky district. (Reuters)

Ukraine crisis: How will energy influence May elections?

By Robert BenshGuest blogger / 04.15.14

As protests in Ukraine’s eastern region turned violent on Sunday leading to the death of a Ukrainian security officer in a shootout with pro-Russian militia, Kiev threatens military action while Moscow flexes its geo-economic warfare muscles.

Pro-Russian militia groups have seized government buildings and police headquarters in Ukraine’s eastern city of Donetsk and Slovyanks--where the shoot-out took place--and despite a Monday morning ultimatum by the Ukrainian government, these groups have shown no sign of giving in.

There has been no movement by the Ukrainian military to make good on its ultimatum; indeed, the messages have been unclear and contradictory.

Acting president Oleksander Turchinov has dangled the idea of a referendum that would seek to address the demands of the region’s Russian-speaking population for more autonomy. In the same breath, Turchinov on Sunday promised a “large-scale anti-terrorist operation” to prevent another incident such as Crimea, which was annexed by Russia last month.  ( Continue… )

A Japanese-made liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier is anchored near an LNG plant, which is controlled by state-run top natural gas producer Gazprom, on Sakhalin island near the town of Korsakov, about 50 km (31 miles) from Yuzhno Sakhalinsk in Russia. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters/File)

Ukraine crisis belies shift to Asian energy markets

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 04.14.14

Economic development in the Eurozone is gaining ground, though any recovery there will be tepid. With North America relying less on foreign imports, energy investors should be following shifting demand dynamics to Asian economies.

U.S. and European policymakers have been focused on energy security in the Eurozone as Russian energy company Gazprom rattles its sabers at a Ukrainian government tilting strongly toward the European Union.

Russia in response to Ukraine's pivot raised the price of natural gas by more than 40 percent, prompting a slap down from U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who said Washington was frustrated with the Kremlin's use of energy as a strategic weapon. (Related Article: China Drills Into the “Roof of the World” to Help Alleviate Foreign Dependence( Continue… )

Rejendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, (right) stands with Ramón Pichs-Madruga (left) and Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chairmen of the IPCC Working Group III report prior to a press conference as part of a meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Berlin, Sunday. The IPCC's latest global warming report emphasized saving energy as an immediate, inexpensive way to address a costly, long-term challenge. (Michael Sohn/AP)

IPCC report: How to fight global warming while saving money

By Staff writer / 04.14.14

Energy efficiency is a "key mitigation strategy" in keeping global carbon emissions within a safe range through the end of the century, according to a report issued Sunday by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the near term, it may be the most immediate and inexpensive way to curtail emissions while more costly and complex solutions get under way.

Smarter energy use alone won't solve global warming. The world will also need to quickly shift to carbon-free energy sources, and develop technologies that capture emissions from traditional fossil fuel sources, according to Sunday's report. But efficiency gains have already made large, low-cost contributions to making all energy sources less carbon-intensive, without the expensive and time-consuming infrastructure needs of solar, wind, and other renewables. 

"Reducing energy use would give us more flexibility in the choice of low-carbon energy technologies, now and in the future," Ramón Pichs-Madruga, co-chair of the IPCC team behind Sunday's report, said in a press release. "It can also increase the cost-effectiveness of mitigation measures."  ( Continue… )

View of the Areva Tower, the headquarters of the nuclear company, at La Defense business district in Courbevoie, France. Special 'shake tables' help US nuclear power facilities remain a safe, reliable, and bountiful clean energy source of electricity to power America’s industry, hospitals, and homes. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters/File)

Nuclear energy rides the 'shake table' for earthquake safety (+video) (Sponsor content)

By AREVA Next Energy Blog / 04.14.14

Bucking the challenge at up to 20g’s, the nuclear components from U.S. utilities strive to survive the gyrations of AREVA’s 7-ton seismic shake table.

The centrepiece of AREVA’s Seismic/Vibration Lab, the 10′ x 10′ electro-hydraulic multi-axial 7-ton shake table is capable of testing nuclear components weighing up to 10 tons at a maximum of 100 Hz with peak acceleration from 5- to 20-g, dependent on the item’s mass.

As seen in this video showing two test blocks (total mass ~10,000 lbs.) riding the shake table, AREVA’s component testing can include the powerful earthquake ground movement of greatest concern to utilities, regulators, and communities. ( Continue… )

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