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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.

Central Illinois farmer Adam Wallace unloads harvested corn from his truck at Archer Daniels Midland Curran Grain Elevator near Curran, Ill., in this October 2010 file photo. One issue with ethanol is that it has incompatibilities with certain components of existing fuel infrastructure, Rapier writes. (Seth Perlman/AP/File )

A look at the future of biofuels

By Robert RapierGuest blogger / 01.08.13

During the recent Total Energy USA Conference in Houston, I had a chance to interview Mr. Jan Koninckx. Mr. Koninckx is the global director of biofuels for DuPont Industrial Biosciences – an arm of DuPont that has a strong focus on biofuels. Also present was Wendy Rosen, DuPont’s PR director.

The interview was focused around DuPont’s efforts in 2nd generation biofuels. DuPont is currently engaged in two major projects to commercialize advanced biofuels.

The first is a 30 million gallon per year corn stover-fed facility in Nevada, Iowa. DuPont  has been working on this technology for about 10 years. They focused on corn stover because it is one of the easiest feedstocks to process, and because it is already there as a byproduct of ethanol production.  DuPont broke ground on this facility on November 30, 2012 and start-up is planned for mid-2014. The facility has about 100 farmers under contract to provide 360,000 tons per year of corn stover (dry mass basis) for DuPont’s enzymatic process.

The stover will be gathered in a 30 to 40 mile radius around the facility. Mr. Koninckx said that the yields of stover have been increasing over time, and they expect these yield increases to continue. He also said that they can sustainably remove some stover from the fields without lowering the soil quality, and that the lignin-rich byproduct of the process could be used to replace coal.  ( Continue… )

In this June 2008 file photo, then Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (R), speaks on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Despite questioning human impact on climate change, Hagel has called for assessing global warming's threat to national security. (Lauren Victoria Burke/File/AP)

Chuck Hagel at Defense? Energy, climate activists intrigued.

By Correspondent / 01.07.13

Some environmentalists and clean-energy advocates like the sound of "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel."

It might seem a curious stance, given Mr. Hagel's past. He's been skeptical of claims that humans have had that much impact on global warming. As a Republican senator from Nebraska, he cosponsored a 1997 resolution to stop US participation in the Kyoto Protocol, which passed the Senate 95 to 0.

But the new Chuck Hagel is sounding a different theme – that energy, environment, and economic security are inextricably intertwined. For activists worried about climate change and clean-tech companies eager to sell their technology, the prospect of having Hagel head the nation's biggest energy consumer – the Department of Defense – is intriguing.

"I would expect that [Hagel] would respect the analyses that show, from the military's point of view, the threat multiplication from climate change impact," David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Program, told ClimateWire. "Nothing tells me that he would be in any way hostile to those positions." ( Continue… )

Members of the hacktivist group 'Anonymous' take part in a protest in central Brussels, in this January 2012 photo. (Yves Herman/Reuters/File)

Energy sector cyberattacks jumped in 2012. Were utilities prepared?

By Staff writer / 01.07.13

Cyberattackers zeroed in on computer systems run by power grid operators and natural gas pipeline companies last year, paying less attention to infiltrating networks belonging to water, chemical, and nuclear facilities, a new federal report shows.

Energy companies were clearly in the cyber bullseye in 2012, targeted in 41 percent of the malicious software attack cases reported to a special Department of Homeland Security (DHS) team that responds to cyberattacks on industrial computer networks.

The overall number of attacks remained flat at 198 incidents for the year, the same as 2011. But energy sector companies reported 82 cyberattacks last year, a sharp increase over the 31 cases reported in 2011, according to a report released last week by DHS's Industrial Control System-Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT).

Among those energy-sector cyberattack cases, 23 involved oil and natural gas companies hit by a persistent months-long targeted spear-phishing campaign first reported by the Monitor in May. Also on the upswing were attacks on commercial manufacturing facilities that leaped to 19 last year from 2 in 2011. ( Continue… )

The sun is reflected on a solar panel at a solar power field in Kawasaki, near Tokyo in this June 2012 file photo. Improving the pathway towards competitive clean energy in the US lies in improving the quality of our innovation system, Stepp writes. (Toru Hanai/Reuters/File)

A guide to public investments in clean energy technology

By Matthew SteppGuest blogger / 01.05.13

This is Part 1 of a series of posts analyzing and detailing federal investments in clean energy innovation.

U.S. energy policy is only as good as its innovation-based goals, framing, and emphasis. This is particularly important for climate change policy, which at its core requires public investments in clean energy innovation to spur the development and deployment of cost and performance competitive low-carbon technologies.

Yet a pervasive problem persists in the clean energy policy debate: innovation policy is often misrepresented as only research, or largely ignored by advocates to support rigid economic doctrines or policy goals that divert attention from addressing climate change (e.g. short-term green job creation).

This type of clean energy policy fundamentalism de-emphasizes the need for cheap, new, clean energy technologies and muddles innovation’s foundational role in U.S. clean energy policy. By extension, this process inhibits America’s abilities to drastically cut carbon emissions as quickly as possible. (Read More: Energy Innovation: The Proper Definition and Why it’s So Crucial)

Providing clarity on what characterizes clean energy innovation policy is critically important. In an effort to do so, ITIF has developed the Energy Innovation Tracker – a detailed public database of federal investments in energy innovation across energy-related technologies, agencies, and innovation stages, down to the project-level if appropriate. It’s a useful tool that provides a comprehensive understanding of the relevant stages of energy innovation to inform better energy innovation policy in the future.  ( Continue… )

The Volt logo is displayed on a 2012 Chevy Volt electric car at the sixth annual Alternative Transportation Expo and Conference in Santa Monica, Calif., in this 2011 file photo. GM sold a record 23,461 Chevy Volts in 2012, triple the amount it did in 2011. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File)

Chevy Volt sales triple in year of paradoxes for electric cars

By Correspondent / 01.04.13

Depending on how you look at it, America's most popular electric car either had a standout year, or vastly undershot its sales target.

Indeed, it did both.

GM sold a record 23,461 Chevy Volts in 2012, triple the amount it did last year in the electric car's shaky debut. But the impressive figure is still well below GM's 2012 target of 35,000 to 40,000 – itself a reduction of the 60,000 GM CEO Dan Akerson initially projected.

Still, the Volt's sales growth bodes well for efficient vehicle energy use. The transportation sector has been the second largest energy consumer in the US since the 1950s, behind industry, according to the US Energy Information Administration. In 2010, cars and light trucks consumed 8.63 million barrels of oil per day, according to the EIA.

Chevy reports that Volt drivers have accumulated over 117 million EV miles driven. That adds up to a total fuel savings of about 6.2 million gallons, according to the company's calculations.

Other electric car leaders saw mixed 2012 results. Sales of the electric Nissan Leaf hit 9,819, 1.5 percent over 2011, but still less than half of Nissan's targeted 20,000. ( Continue… )

An oil-covered brown pelican sits in a pool of oil along Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery, about 3 miles northeast of Grand Isle, La., in this June 2010 file photo. In a settlement with the US Department of Justice Thursday, Transocean pled guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act. (Sean Gardner/Reuters/File)

Transocean fined $1.4 billion in Gulf oil spill. Is justice served?

By Correspondent / 01.03.13

Transocean, Ltd., the owner of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, agreed Thursday to pay $1.4 billion in civil and criminal fines for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill, the largest offshore spill in US history.

The fines, which amount to less than a third of what BP paid in fines for the same disaster, may make it seem that the drilling contractor got the better deal. But the relative financial impact on the respective companies suggests otherwise.

Braced for the worst, investors responded positively to Transocean's agreement. Shares of the Houston-based company's stock jumped 5 percent after the Wall Street Journal reported the settlement. 

The company also put the best face on the settlement. ( Continue… )

A natural gas pipeline is seen under construction near East Smithfield in Bradford County, Pa., in this January 2012 file photo. California is likely to be the next big source of shale oil in the US, Grealy predicts. (Les Stone/Reuters/File)

Shale oil and gas predictions for 2013 and beyond

By Guest blogger / 01.03.13

Anyone can make predictions for the next year, and this is the time of year many do. What strikes me looking back with 20/20 hindsight is how today's reality would have gotten me locked up four years ago. Predictions such as US LNG exports, US energy independence and Australian, UK and Chinese shale gas certainly got me laughed out of a couple of conferences in the early days. So in that spirit, here are my predictions for the next three years. Some may happen sooner, some later. But they'll all happen by January 1 2016. Probably.

These are in no particular order, but each one is linked to others in various ways. Natural gas pricing is a globally complex proposition that needs to factor in multiple variables. The evolution of natural gas isn't going to move in a 1,2,3 recipe. This is energy policy as mash up. Or hash up if your country get's it wrong.

Russia wises up.They'll figure out that the story is to increase demand, not try and scare people that supply won't show up. They'll be making so much oil money from their Exxon/XTO technology in the Bazhenov shale that oil gas link pricing won't matter so much.

But there's a connection in there to the oil link. In the be careful what you wish for category, the closer to 2016, the more likely we'll see $50 oil, but even 2013 wouldn't surprise me. All of sudden Gazprom for Russia,  BG for LNG and any number of other energy dinosaurs will be scrambling to set up long term gas contracts at prices half of where UK and Japan prices are now.  ( Continue… )

An oil rig is seen in the Gulf of Mexico near the Chandeleur Islands, off the Southeastern tip of Louisiana in this April 2010 file photo. Oil prices hitting $200 is unlikely to happen, Cobb writes, but if civil war spreads across the Middle East, prices will certainly rise. (Gerald Herbert/AP/File)

Unconventional wisdom: 5 possible energy surprises for 2013

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / 01.02.13

Many people trot out their predictions for the coming year right about now. I'm generally allergic to predictions and think rather in terms of probabilities. Naturally, the world we live in is far too complicated to yield anything approaching certainty concerning such matters as the future price and supply of energy, future economic conditions, and future political developments. In the end, the future is simply unknowable. So, I've tried to think of some developments which conventional wisdom has judged rather unlikely and which would therefore significantly alter our lives and perceptions should they occur--precisely because we are not prepared for them.

I don't think any of the following is likely to happen in 2013. But, any one of them would certainly surprise most people and most experts and upset the plans and expectations of many governments, businesses, investors and consumers. Here are my five possible energy surprises for 2013:  ( Continue… )

Bales of corn cellulose and a tractor mark the site where DuPont's planned Cellulosic Ethanol Facility will be constructed adjacent to Lincolnway Energy's ethanol plant west of Nevada, Iowa, in this November file photo. Cellulosic biofuel isn't ready to produce huge amounts of US fuel, which will require key federal adjustments in 2013. (Christopher Gannon/The Des Moines Register/AP/File)

Food vs. fuel debate: It's about much more than corn

By Jeremy MartinContributor / 01.02.13

Only a few years ago everyone was bullish on biofuels. It was that rarest of things: something that Al Gore and George Bush agreed on.

Times have changed – and changed quickly.

This summer’s drought and the withering of a corn crop, which now dedicates its largest share to fuel rather than food, has thrown the limitations of corn ethanol into stark relief. Yet for all the negative impacts of corn ethanol – it was never a very clean or low carbon alternative to oil – it is now a deeply rooted part of our fuel supply. So, rather than continuing to fight yesterday’s battles over corn ethanol, we should focus on another, more significant, decision over the future of US biofuels production.

And this time, we should nip it in the bud before it becomes as entrenched as corn ethanol. ( Continue… )

Figure 1. World fossil fuel supply based on world production data from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Coal supply jumped after 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization. (Gail Tverberg)

Why is world using more coal? The China trade.

By Gail TverbergGuest blogger / 12.29.12

A primary reason why coal consumption is rising is because of increased international trade, starting when the World Trade Organization was formed in 1995, and greatly ramping up when China was added in December 2001. Figure 1 shows world fossil fuel extraction for the three fossil fuels. A person can see a sharp “bend” in the coal line, immediately after China was added to the World Trade Organization (see Figure 1, above). China’s data also shows a sharp increase in coal use at that time.

China and many other Asian countries had not previously industrialized. The advent of international trade gave them opportunities to make and sell goods below the cost of other countries. In order to do this, they needed fuel, however. The fuel the West had used when it industrialized was coal. Coal had many advantages for a newly industrialized countries: it often can be extracted without advanced technology; it is relatively cheap to extract; and it is often available locally. It can be used to make many of the basic items used by industrialized countries, including steel, concrete, and electricity.

The industrialization of Asian countries was pushed along by many forces. Companies in the West were eager to have a way to make goods cheaper. Buyers were happy with lower prices. Even the Kyoto Protocol tended to push international trade along. This document made it clear that countries signing the document wouldn’t be in the market for coal. From the point of the developing countries, this would help hold coal prices down (at least in the export market). It also likely meant a better long-term supply of coal for developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol offered no penalties for exporting products made with coal, so it put countries that used coal to make products for export in a better competitive position. This was especially the case if Kyoto Protocol countries used carbon taxes to make their own products higher priced. ( Continue… )

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