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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.

A rail tanker passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa. Rail is becoming an important cog in the energy transport wheel, Graeber writes. (Nati Harnik/AP/File)

US oil boom fuels rail industry resurgence

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 03.11.14

Despite mounting concerns about safety, and developments in the midstream sector, John Gray, a senior vice president of the Association of American Railroads, said crude oil is now a key commodity group for the rail industry.

AAR said less than half of the 20 commodity groups carried on the U.S. rail network saw increases in delivery volumes last month when compared with February 2013. Outside of coal and grain, carloads for most commodity groups were lower by some 5,100 carloads.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said last month the brutal winter season was affecting everything from refinery performance to pipeline deliveries. Gray said "it would be nice" to blame the decline in rail delivery on the weather, but that would be misplaced. (Related Article: Oil Train Derailments Reaching Crisis Point( Continue… )

Sunlight is concentrated onto a boiler (top) in Tower One during the grand opening of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border last month. But only a few other projects are going forward because PV solar power is cheaper. (Steve Marcus/Reuters/File)

Concentrated solar power: Did it miss its chance?

By / 03.07.14

Now that the world’s largest concentrated solar plant is operational in California’s Mojave Desert, the question is whether it will prove its mettle and whether more of those facilities will crop up.

The 392-megawatt Ivanpah solar plant doesn’t just have competition from natural gas and nuclear facilities. It is also up against photovoltaic (PV), or rooftop solar panels, which have fallen in price by 70 percent since 2010. Odds are that concentrated solar power (CSP) technology, which focuses the sun’s rays to produce heat, will have a tough time competing, unless it can reduce costs and perfect the technology.

“CSP has fallen by the wayside of the solar industry after attracting huge amounts of government and investor money in 2010 and 2011,” says Ed Cahill, a research associate with Boston-based Lux Research and lead author of its recent report on CSP. “ But the industry can still bring the technology back to the forefront for utility-scale, stand-alone power applications.”

The plunge in solar PV prices has led to 4,400 megawatts of solar-panel installations in the United States. PV’s gain will be CSP’s loss. Because several large plants are in the pipeline, the 520 megawatts of CSP capacity in operation now could become 1,300 megawatts by year end. But after that, while PV takes off, CSP's growth will slow and eke its way to 2,000 megawatts by 2018. ( Continue… )

A monument to Ukrainian poet and writer Taras Shevchenko is silhouetted against an apartment building with a sign advertising Russia's natural gas giant Gazprom, in Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File)

Why Russia needs to sell natural gas more than EU needs to buy it

By Nicholas CunninghamGuest blogger / 03.06.14

The Russian occupation of Crimea has raised concerns about the European Union’s dependence on its eastern neighbor for natural gas. The EU gets about 34% of its natural gas imports from Russia, a large portion of which transits Ukraine through a web of pipelines. For Eastern Europe, that dependence is much greater. In the brutally cold winter of 2009 Russia cut off gas supplies to Europe allegedly over a pricing dispute with Ukraine. However, it was also a lesson to Western Europe on its dependence on Russia for energy.

Russia has a track record of using its natural gas supplies as a political weapon. The latest incursion into Ukraine has no doubt revived worries among European policymakers that saw what happened back in 2009. Thankfully, Vladimir Putin eased tensions on March 4, indicating that he wasn’t seeking a military conflict. This allowed natural gas prices to fall back a bit after spiking by 10% the day before. (Related Article: Ukraine Refinery Halts Amid Tensions with Russia)

But how vulnerable is Europe to the political machinations of the Kremlin? It appears that this time around the EU is in better shape. A mild winter and stagnant demand have left Europe with higher levels of inventory than in past years. According to a spokeswoman at the European Commission, the EU has 40 billion cubic meters of natural gas on hand in storage, which accounts for 10% of annual demand for the entire European Union.  Those figures vary by country (Czech Republic and Slovakia have 90 days of supplies; Hungary two months; Austria six months), but as a bloc, the EU has 20% greater supplies at its disposal than it did last year.  ( Continue… )

Ukrainian recruits receive military instructions from a commander at a recruitment center at Kiev's Independence Square, Ukraine, Tuesday. The US oil and gas production boom sparked a push to loosen restrictions on US energy exports. The unfolding crisis in Ukraine shifts that debate into high gear. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Ukraine crisis: Could US energy save Ukraine?

By Staff writer / 03.04.14

Ukraine needs energy. The US has a lot of it. Why not send American oil and gas to Ukraine, thereby lessening its reliance on Russia and easing a delicate situation in Eastern Europe?

It's a question many in Washington and the energy industry are asking as Russia leverages its own energy largesse to keep Ukraine in its orbit. But the US has long banned oil exports to maintain its own energy security, and has only recently begun to approve large, expensive terminals that would export liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Even with all the permitting in place, boosting energy exports is not an overnight solution – at least not in the case of LNG. Those terminals can take years to build and ramp up exports, and producers may be more interested in shipping to the higher-price markets in Asia and Latin America. Exporting oil could technically happen much more quickly, but it is a delicate political debate that has only begun to evolve after decades as a nonstarter.  ( Continue… )

A woman passes by a barricade in a street heading to Kiev's Independence Square Tuesday. Oil prices spiked Monday on rising tension between Ukraine and Russia. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Oil prices: Ukraine crisis jolts energy markets

By Nicholas CunninghamGuest blogger / 03.04.14

The brewing war in Ukraine has quickly reverberated through the markets, sending stocks down and commodities up. Tension heightened over the weekend with Russia’s move to send troops to Crimea in an effort to secure its strategically critical naval base in Sevastopol. The new Ukrainian government responded by putting its armed forces on “combat readiness.” What began as domestic unrest in Ukraine over former President Yanukovych’s coziness with Moscow is now rapidly escalating into not only a potential civil-war, but also a Russian invasion of Ukraine and a clash with the West.

With events quickly unfolding in real-time, global markets are reacting negatively. Russia itself is already paying the price – on March 3rd the Ruble dropped by 2.5% against the Dollar and 1.5% against the Euro, both all-time lows. Russian stocks also dived to their lowest level since the global financial crisis, with the Micex Index down 9.8%. Gazprom, which the Kremlin uses as its piggy bank, was down 10.7%. The Russian central bank was forced into action, raising interest rates from 5.5% to 7%. Yields for Russian government bonds increased to 8.84%, within 25 points of an all-time record. (Related Article: Can U.S. LNG Break Russia’s Gas Grip on Europe?)

The Obama administration has promised that there will be significant costs for Russia’s actions. But, the markets are already acting. Russia has inflicted an immediate economic cost upon itself – one that appears to be stronger and swifter than anything the Obama administration has thus far considered.  ( Continue… )

Major routes of gas pipelines through Ukraine

Ukraine crisis: Would Putin shut off gas again?

By Staff writer / 03.03.14

With the standoff between Ukraine and Russia showing no signs of easing, energy markets pushed European crude oil prices up $1.71 a barrel to start the week.

As it has done in the past, Russia is using its role as Europe's dominant natural gas supplier to hold sway over Ukraine and the West. Over the weekend, Russia's gas-export monopoly Gazprom warned it may boost prices to Ukraine if the former Soviet republic doesn't pay the $1.55 billion it reportedly owes for the heating fuel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a history of shutting off the gas to Ukraine when it falls behind on its bills, and there's some concern Mr. Putin might make such a move again. But a lot has changed since the Russia-Ukraine gas disputes of 2006 and 2009. Europe has diversified its natural gas sources to some extent, and Ukraine has long-term options for boosting its own production.  

"Russia is in a much weaker situation now than in 2006 and 2009 because they have overplayed their hand," says Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who has advised Russia and Ukraine. "Given that they’ve managed this so badly before, I would not exclude that they would be foolish once again, but the cost would be for Russia, not Europe or Ukraine."  ( Continue… )

An oil derrick is seen at a fracking site for extracting oil outside of Williston, N.D. 'There are some people who really think they can replicate the United States shale gas boom,' Ms. Van der Hoeven says in an interview. 'It’s not as easy as that.' (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File)

IEA chief: Only a decade left in US shale oil boom

By Staff writer / 02.28.14

The United States is awash in hydrocarbons, the result of good geology, supportive prices, a favorable regulatory and investment climate, and technology innovation. But the US energy boom is temporary, and not easy to replicate in other parts of the world, Maria van der Hoeven, chief executive of the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), says in a Feb. 22 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. Here are edited excerpts:   

Q: The energy industry has undergone a revolution in drilling techniques that has opened up vast new sources of so-called “tight oil” and “shale gas,” particularly in North America. Is the promise of this unconventional oil and gas overhyped?

A: The light tight oil revolution in the United States is changing the geographical map of oil trade.  But we also mentioned [in an IEA analysis] that this growth would not last – that it would plateau, and then flatten and go down. That means that from 2025 onward, it’s again Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that will come back. Because of the changing trade map, this oil will almost completely go to AsiaChina, India, Korea and Japan.

There are some people who really think they can replicate the United States shale gas boom. It’s not as easy as that. The land ownership and the resource ownership go together here in the United States – the only country where that is the case. It’s also about having the right gas industry, the right knowledge, the right infrastructure, the water, the human skills, the geological information, etc. And geology in this part of the world, especially where the shale gas boom is, is quite different from Ukraine or Poland. You can learn from it, but it’s not a copy-and-paste. The United Kingdom is changing its attitude to shale gas. China wants to develop its shale gas, but it’s in a very dry part of the country. South Africa is looking to its shale gas resources. The point is there’s a lot of shale gas in the world, but it’s not as easily accessible as it was in the United States.  ( Continue… )

The sun sets over a oil refinery in Tarragona, Spain. The high cost of oil has spurred interest in developing new clean energy technologies. (Manu Fernandez/AP/File)

Is the future of clean energy in the janitor's closet?

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / 02.28.14

"If you want to beat carbon, it's the only way to do it unless you change the chemical charts." So says Jack Robertson about the prospects for making ammonia the world's go-to liquid fuel and renewable energy storage medium.

Robertson is chairman and CEO of Light Water Inc., an ammonia energy storage startup. The carbon he mentions refers, of course, to the major carbon-based fuels of oil, natural gas and coal that provide more than 80 percent of the world's energy. The charts he mentions refers to the periodic table of elements, a listing of the basic elements of the universe which are about as likely to change their properties as the proverbial leopard is to change his spots.

Most of us think of ammonia as a pungent household cleaning agent that disinfects and deodorizes. Farmers are familiar with anhydrous ammonia (essentially ammonia that is not mixed with water) that is a common nitrogen fertilizer.

But the idea that ammonia can be used as a fuel, while not new, is not widely known. That's not really surprising since the last 150 years have been powered by another better-known liquid fuel called oil. And, the ubiquitousness and historically low price of oil prevented other liquid fuels from gaining a foothold in the marketplace. The use of historically cheap coal and natural gas has kept ammonia on the sidelines in the electricity market as well.  ( Continue… )

A Pakistani mechanic works on an oil tanker, used to transport NATO fuel supplies to Afghanistan, while parked with other tankers in Karachi, Pakistan. Afghanistan is exploring the possibility of developing its own energy resources. (Shakil Adil/AP/File)

Could natural gas transform Afghanistan?

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 02.27.14

Three years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey said some of the resources in Afghanistan could transform an economy normally dependent on illicit narcotics. With this year's pivotal drawdown of international forces, how a post-war government handles those reserves could determine its future.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said opium, a heroin precursor, represents the equivalent of roughly half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. A 2011 study by the USGS, however, found natural resources could "completely" transform the nation's economy.

USGS studied two dozen reserve formations in Afghanistan and found "giant" deposits of copper and cobalt near Kabul, gold in the south of the country and rare-earth elements in parts of Helmand province. (Related Article: Is Iran fooling the West?( Continue… )

A floating wind turbine works off the coast of Castine, Maine. New research suggests that offshore wind farms can absorb large amounts of energy from hurricane winds, before they hit shore. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File)

Offshore wind farms can protect against hurricanes (+video)

By / 02.27.14

Hurricane Sandy may have darkened and damaged parts of the East Coast when it blew ashore in the fall of 2012. But it also forced the region to enter its era of enlightenment – to come up with new ideas on how to beat back Mother Nature.

The latest big idea: wind turbines. New research from the University of Delaware and Stanford University suggest that offshore wind farms remove energy from a storm’s edge and slow down fast-moving winds. Thus, they would reduce hurricane wind speeds, wave heights, and storm surge that leads to flooding.

In the case of hurricane Sandy, strategically placed wind turbines would have reduced flooding by up to 34 percent. Windmills in the Gulf of Mexico would have reduced hurricane Katrina flooding by up to 79 percent. They would also have a dramatic effect on reducing wind speeds, beginning at the outer reaches of both hurricanes – reducing hurricane winds by up to 87 m.p.h. and 92 m.p.h., respectively.

The turbines would not be enough to knock down the highest winds around the eye wall of a Category 2 hurricane, for example, to make it a Category 1, says Cristina Archer, a co-author of the report and professor at the University of Delaware, in an interview. But the lower wind speeds at the hurricane’s perimeter would gradually filter inwards and to the storm eye, mitigating the overall damage. “The turbines do more than a wall, because they take up the energy” of the wind.   ( Continue… )

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