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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.

The Nicaragua national flag flies above the Revolution Square in Managua, Nicaragua. Only 30 percent of Nicaragua's rural population has access to electricity, Guevara-Stone writes, but the people of Sabana Grande have shown that a brighter future is possible (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters/File)

How solar energy empowers women, youth in rural Nicaragua

By Laurie Guevara-StoneGuest blogger / 03.20.14

Forty years ago Sabana Grande, a small community in northern Nicaragua, was ravaged by war. Now you will find people sitting under solar-powered lights, eating solar-cooked chicken, and drinking smoothies made by a bicycle-powered blender. Sabana Grande (pop. 2,000), in the mountains of Totogalpa, about 20 miles from the Honduran border, has embraced a solar culture that has transformed the community.

Turning landmine survivors into solar technicians

The war between the government Sandinistas and the Contra rebels left hundreds of people disabled by landmines, especially in the northern part of the country. In 1999 a Nicaraguan non-governmental organization called Grupo Fenix received a grant from the Canadian Falls Brook Center to reintegrate landmine survivors back into society. The NGO decided it would teach the landmine survivors how to make solar panels, providing them with both a livelihood and a way to get electricity in a poor, off-grid region. It focused on Sabana Grande, an agricultural community in one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest departments of Nicaragua. 

Grupo Fenix, founded by engineering professor Susan Kinne of the Engineering University of Nicaragua and made up of many of her engineering students, taught the villagers how to solder together discarded solar cells they received from some large PV manufacturers to make solar PV panels, up to 60 watts in size. They also held classes on installing and maintaining off-grid solar PV systems. The Sabana Grande solar workshop was born, and soon a few of the trained farmers-turned-technicians started selling small solar home lighting systems to people in the community and throughout the region.  ( Continue… )

General view of the United Nations headquarters behind a wire fence in Vienna Tuesday.The brewing and growing conflict between Russia and the West over Crimea threatens to derail this week's negotiations over Iran's nuclear talks. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

Crimea makes Iran nuclear talks a bit awkward

By Nicholas CunninghamGuest blogger / 03.19.14

Talks are resuming in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 – China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. and Germany. The interim deal agreed to last November between these parties removed some sanctions from Iran, amounting to about $7 billion in economic relief. Iran has capitalized on the loosening grip of the West, and it has boosted its exports of oil as a result. February data suggests that Iran has breached the 1 million barrel-per-day limit imposed upon it for the fourth month in a row. It raised oil exports by 16% to 1.16 million barrels per day, though that rate is less than half of what it was before sanctions were imposed 2012. Iran’s oil exports have gone almost exclusively to buyers in Asia, including China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

And it’s not just oil where Iran is seeing some progress. Last week it signed a deal with Oman to export 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year. It will still require the construction of a $1 billion pipeline that crosses the Persian Gulf, but the deal spans 25 years beginning in 2015, and is worth about $60 billion. Iran sits atop the world’s largest natural gas reserves but has been unable to exploit them to their full potential. But with an eye on future growth of its oil and gas sectors, Iran has voiced optimism that a deal with the international community could be reached. The West and Iran have set a self-imposed deadline of July to reach a long-term agreement. (Related Article: Iran Talks Potential Nuclear-Oil Swap with Russia( Continue… )

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, right, pose for media before heading for talks on Eastern Europe’s security, in Warsaw Tuesday. As Moscow tightened its grip on Crimea, Mr. Biden promised additional economic and military protections against Russian incursions into Eastern Europe, at meetings with NATO allies. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Biden warns Russia about more sanctions, but not US 'energy weapon' (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.18.14

Europe is on its own in efforts to wean itself off Russian fuel – for now, at least. 

As Moscow tightened its grip on Crimea, Vice President Joe Biden promised additional economic and military protections against Russian incursions into Eastern Europe, at meetings with NATO allies Tuesday.

The vice president encouraged Europe's own efforts to boost domestic energy production, but stopped short of the kind of aggressive US energy support many have called for in Washington and Brussels. Meanwhile, Russian and Crimean leaders signed an annexation agreement, according to the Kremlin, bringing Moscow a step closer to securing access to Black Sea oil and gas, and further blocking Eastern European forays into energy independence.  ( Continue… )

New York City emergency responders search through the rubble at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 16, 2014. Replacing New York's century-old gas pipelines will take two decades and more than $100 million a year. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File)

New York pipeline blast shakes up an industry (+video)

By Contributor / 03.18.14

The natural gas pipeline explosion that took down two buildings in East Harlem and killed eight people is raising additional questions about the United States’ reliance on natural gas – or more to the point, whether the infrastructure that carries the fuel source is both safe and adequate.

Similar tragedies have dotted the American landscape in recent years, with the main culprits being older lines that have suffered from corrosion and that have ultimately led to leakage and destruction. In nearly all such cases, the lines had not been inspected for years and they had been made of cast-iron materials that were prevalent more than a century ago – outdated when compared with today’s flexible plastic pipelines.

The increased concerns over pipeline safety are occurring alongside the boom in shale gas, which is increasingly used to fuel electric generation in the United States. That promise is potentially undermined by an aging infrastructure that needs wider tentacles. The network in New York City, for example, consists largely of cast-iron pipelines, just as other northeastern cities depend heavily on those same materials. The ruptured lines that connected to the East Harlem buildings were built in 1887.

“Simply put, too much of the city’s essential infrastructure remains stuck in the 20th Century – a problem for a city positioning itself to compete with other global cities in today’s 21st Century economy,” the Center for Urban Future said – eerily, a day before the Harlem explosions last week. ( Continue… )

Russian flags decorate a vehicle as pro-Russian soldiers stand outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Monday. Crimea imports more than 80 percent of the consumed energy from the continental part of Ukraine, according to the Crimean government. (Vadim Ghirda/AP/File)

Can Crimea survive without Ukraine's power? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.17.14

Crimea, like broader Ukraine, is divided between political ambitions and economic realities.  

Annexing the Ukrainian peninsula would be a political and cultural victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it would also give Moscow more direct access to the Black Sea's oil and gas resources. Crimeans appear eager to go along with the plan, but are hamstrung by their reliance on the rest of Ukraine for its gas and electricity. Recent developments suggest a smaller natural-gas battle is brewing within broader tensions over Russia's role in European energy.

Russian troops seized control of a natural gas terminal just beyond the Crimean border Saturday, as reported by The New York Times. On Sunday, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia in a controversial referendum. A day later, Crimea's parliament voted to nationalize the region's main energy companies, which many saw as a land-grab that would ultimately cede control of Ukraine's offshore oil and gas future to Russia.   

That move creates "a new set of legal problems," according to Mikhail Korchemkin, founder of East European Gas Analysis, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm.  ( Continue… )

Canada's natural resources minister Joe Oliver walks across the road after speaking at the TransCanada pipe yard for the Houston Lateral Project in Mont Belvieu, Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP/File)

Is Canada the next energy superpower?

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 03.17.14

Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said his country is on the verge of becoming an energy superpower. While the United States mulls its options for energy hegemony, a recent free-trade deal with South Korea and pipeline developments suggest Canada may beat it to the punch.

The International Energy Agency said that, despite recent volatility, Asian economies are contributing to the bulk of macroeconomic growth. That, in turn, means global oil demand is expected to grow by 1.4 million barrels per day this year.

Oliver said at an energy conference in Ontario his country has the economic fundamentals and energy wealth on hand to help meet that growing demand. (Related Article: New Report Finds Oil Sands Production Costs Below U.S. Tight Oil( Continue… )

An oil well is shown near Sidney, Mont. When exactly is the US going to drown the world market in oil and thereby challenge the Russian oil export machine? The most plausible answer is never, Cobb writes. (Matthew Brown/AP/File)

Ukraine crisis: There is no US 'energy weapon'

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / 03.13.14

Commentators were falling all over themselves last week to announce that far from being impotent in the Ukraine crisis, the United States had a very important weapon: growing oil and natural gas production which could compete on the world market and challenge Russian dominance over Ukrainian and European energy supplies--if only the U.S. government would change the laws and allow this bounty to be exported.

But, there's one very big problem with this view. The United States is still a net importer of both oil and natural gas. The economics of natural gas exports beyond Mexico and Canada--which are both integrated into a North American pipeline system--suggest that such exports will be very limited if they ever come at all. And, there is no reasonable prospect that the United States will ever become a net exporter of oil.

U.S. net imports of crude oil and petroleum products are approximately 6.4 million barrels per day (mbpd). (This estimate sits between the official U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) numbers of 5.5 mbpd of net petroleum liquids imports and 7.5 mbpd of net crude oil imports. And so, to understand my calculations, please see two comments I made in a previous piece here and here. My number is for December 2013, the latest month for which the complete statistics needed to make my more accurate calculation are available.)  ( Continue… )

An engineer checks the pressure in natural gas pipelines at a gas receiving station in Vecses, Hungary, near Budapest. The EU imports around one-third of its natural gas from Russia, much of it pumped through pipelines across Ukraine. (Bela Szandelszky/AP/File)

Europe looks to cut Russian gas imports amid Ukraine crisis

By Joao PeixeGuest blogger / 03.12.14

At a summit in Brussels next week, European Union leaders are expected to call for measures that would cut Europe’s reliance on imported natural gas, according to draft documents for the meeting. EU leaders are scrambling to reduce their exposure to the political meddling of Russia, which has demonstrated its willingness to disrupt energy supplies for geopolitical leverage. The EU imports around one-third of its natural gas from Russia, much of it pumped through pipelines across Ukraine.

For individual countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, dependence on Russia is much greater. For example, Ukraine gets about 70% of its gas from Russia. Bulgaria is almost entirely dependent on Russia for natural gas.

"The European Council is concerned about Europe's high energy dependency rates, especially on gas, and calls for intensifying efforts to reduce them, especially in the most dependent member states," said the draft document prepared for March 20-21 summit in Brussels. (Related Article: Russia Needs to Sell Gas More than EU Needs to Buy it( Continue… )

Gasoline drips off a nozzle during refueling at a gas station in Altadena, Calif. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File)

Would exporting energy to Ukraine raise US gas prices?

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 03.12.14

Lawmakers in Washington say expanded energy exports could strengthen the U.S. hand overseas while at the same time shielding the economy from overseas shocks. How that affects U.S. consumers, however, depends largely on forces at home, AAA said Monday.

With Russian holding the energy cards in Eastern Europe, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohiosaid it was time for Washington to act. In a letter to Central European leaders, the speaker said President Barack Obama should sign off "immediately" on pending export requests for liquefied natural gas to help U.S. allies overseas.

At the IHS CERA Week energy conference in Houston last week, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee, struck the same chord for oil. She said reversing a ban on domestic crude oil exports could help establish the United States as the premier global superpower while creating more jobs at home. Adam Sieminski, director of the U.S. Energy Information Administrationsaid he was "quite prepared" to review the issue, though how that affects the domestic market remains to be seen. (Related Article: Coal’s Comeback Year Runs into Trouble( Continue… )

Members of the media and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) employees in protective suits and masks visit the central control room for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the tsunami-crippled TEPCO's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Despite the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, Japan is moving toward restarting several of its nuclear plants. (Toru Hanai/Pool/AP)

Three years after Fukushima tragedy, Japan makes U-turn on nuclear energy (+video)

By Contributor / 03.11.14

Exactly three years ago, a tsunami wiped out Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and in doing so, washed away the nation's confidence in nuclear power. But after three years of going almost nuclear-free, Japan has turned a corner – and appears headed back along a similar path as before the March 11, 2011, nuclear disaster.

On Monday,  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said nuclear power plants deemed safe by regulators would be restarted.  By summer, the first of Japan’s idled nuclear plants could be operational – ones that would be located farthest away from the fault lines that triggered the offending earthquake and tsunami.

“I would forecast that of the 49 remaining units that half could come back over the next five years,” says Tom Drolet, a nuclear expert and consultant in Englewood, Fla., in an interview. “But no new nuclear units will be committed in the next 10 years because the Nuclear Regulation Authority is busy reviewing the return of existing units and because the public has to see that those will be successful.”

RECOMMENDED: Japan's nuclear crisis

What's changed? Why is Japan returning to nuclear power three years after a terrible nuclear disaster while the fear generated by a much less dangerous nuclear accident – Three Mile Island – still hangs over the United States 35 years after it happened (also in March, coincidentally). Economics, Japan's long experience with the technology, even the threat of climate change play a role. Perhaps the biggest difference is Japan's lack of alternatives while the energy-rich US, far less reliant on nuclear power to begin with, had several options for creating power. America's embrace of nuclear power looks far less certain. ( Continue… )

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