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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.

People and security officials are seen Wednesday after a shelling attack in Akcakale, Turkey, on the border with Syria. Had Syria been a major oil producing country chances are the US would have already dispatched military forces, according to (Anatolia/AP/File)

What does Syria's lack of oil mean for US involvement?

By Claude SalhaniGuest blogger / 10.04.12

There is a popular belief in the Middle East that Washington’s foreign policy, particularly as it relates to this precarious region, is largely driven by America’s dependency on, and insatiable appetite for Arab oil.  One can make a good argument for that.

Had Syria been a major oil producing country chances are the US would have already dispatched military forces to impose a pax Americana and to put a stop to the horrific fighting that has been slowly, but without any doubt, ripping Syria apart and dismantling the infrastructures that make the Syrian state what it is today. Even if the war was to end today it would take years for Syria to return to its pre-war position from an economic and military perspective. 
Some analysts believe that oil is what drove the United States to become militarily involved in Kuwait in 1990-91, in Iraq in 2003 and more recently in Libya
Asides from some stealth behind the scenes support to a few of the many rebel groups engaged in the conflict that has been forthcoming in the form of weapons (mostly light weapons) and some intelligence delivered to a handful of the multitude of forces demanding the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the US-NATO-Saudi-Qatari alliance has refrained from moving to the next step; full scale military intervention.  Last week the Qataris made some attempts at the UN General Assembly in New York to drum up support for an Arab military intervention in Syria but that did not seem to take any traction with other Arab countries. (RELATED: Iraq to Invest $500 Billion in Energy Sector)

In the 18 months since the Syrian strife began in earnest human rights groups claim that some 30,000 people have been killed so far and some 350,000 Syrians have fled their country seeking refuge in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. If the current pace of refugees continues – and there is nothing to indicate it will abate anytime soon -- human rights groups and the UN relief agencies anticipate that number to jump to a staggering 700,000 people by the end of this year. In a country with a total population of some 20 million, those are frightful numbers. Those are frightful numbers by any means and with winter just around the corner the fate of the refugees becomes even more concerning.
While Syria may not be a major oil producer, it does however have some oil, though not abundantly, therefor placing the country in a non-strategic second-tier position, as far as the interests of the United States and its allies in the region are concerned. Nevertheless, it is Syria’s geographic location on the old caravan route between Turkey and Arabia, or as it used to be known in the days of old, between Constantinople and the Hijaz -- that still holds the same strategic importance today as it did in the days of the caravan trains. (RELATED: All You Need to Know About LNG)

The names on the maps may have changed, Constantinople becoming Istanbul and the Hijaz, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but very little else has changed in the end game except for the caravans giving way to trade routes and oil pipelines. And unless the geography of the region can change (unlikely), Syria remains very much the pathway to the Arab hinterland.

During the last several decades Lebanon and Turkey have been described as gateways to the Middle East. And indeed, they often are. However, it is important to remember that just as double security doors that one finds in many banks where customers enter the establishment through two sets of doors, where the first set needs to shut before the second set can be opened, Syria plays the same role in the region today. Lebanon and Turkey may be the “gateways” to the Levant and beyond, however in both instances the next overland point for any overland traveller or goods goes obligatory through Syria.  If people have to travel through Syrian territory to get to/from points beyond these traditional “gateways,” then so do goods and natural resource such as oil and natural gas pipelines. 
Understand that and you can begin to understand part of the on-going conflict in the Middle East today.  


Steam rises during a test from a well at the Coso geothermal field at the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California in this July 2008 file photo. (Fred Prouser/Reuters/File )

Scientists identify massive geothermal hotspot in Utah

By CER News DeskGuest blogger / 10.04.12

Following two full years of study, scientists have confirmed that they have identified a huge geothermal hotspot in Utah, presenting the possibilities of exploitation of the find for cheap energy production purposes.

The area in question, covering an area of about 100 square miles, lies in Utah’s Black Rock Desert basin, south of Delta. During the two-year study, researchers drilled nine deep wells in the basin in an effort to confirm that water at very high temperatures was close enough to the surface to be manipulated, potentially allowing it to be converted relatively easily into steam to be used to generate electricity. (See more: World Energy Consumption Facts, Figures, and Shockers)

Rick Allis, director of the Utah Geological Survey, will report his team’s findings on the site to the energy industry at next week’s annual meeting of the Geothermal Resources Council in the hopes that it will generate interest among developers. The site itself offers particular benefits given its state of industrial development, including a large wind farm and a major transmission line currently serving a nearby coal-fired power plant.  ( Continue… )

President Obama (right) and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first 2012 presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. Mr. Romney criticized Mr. Obama's subsidies to 'green' energy companies: 'You don't just pick the winners and losers; you pick the losers.' (Rick Wilking/Pool/AP)

Romney zinger: Obama backs 'green' energy losers. Is he right? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.04.12

One of the clearest dividing lines in the 2012 presidential campaign is 'green' energy subsidies. President Obama has pushed them in his four years in office. Challenger Mitt Romney wants to eliminate them, under the theory that government should avoid tinkering with the private sector.

At Wednesday night's presidential debate, GOP candidate Romney summarized the difference with this zinger:  "You put $90 billion — like 50 years worth of tax breaks — into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1," he told the president. "I had a friend who said: 'You don't just pick the winners and losers; you pick the losers.' "

He has a point. In pushing green energy, Mr. Obama has pursued a high-risk strategy of handing out loan guarantees and other federal subsidies to green energy companies, a strategy most of his predecessors have avoided. The results have not always been pretty.

Romney cited four examples: Solyndra, Ener1, Fisker, and Tesla. The first two – a solar-panel manufacturer that got $528 million in federal subsidies and a car-battery company that got up to $118 million – went bankrupt. (The Solyndra loan was actually initiated by the Bush administration.) Ener1's paid-by-the-USA technology now belongs to a Russian tycoon.

Plug-in hybrid car manufacturer Fisker is still afloat, but delays and high-profile failures have pushed it to begin talks with other companies to share parts and technology. After getting a $529 million US federal loan guarantee, it began assembling its cars in Finland. ( Continue… )

Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda (L), flanked by Tesla Motor Inc. Chief Exective Elon Musk, drives a Tesla Motor's Roadster electric car upon their arrival for a news conference in Tokyo in this November 2010 file photo. Tesla plans to build 100 charging stations for the Model S--of which it has made only 255, according to (Issei Kato/Reuters/File )

The numbers conundrum for Tesla's electric car 'Superchargers'

By Charles KennedyGuest blogger / 10.03.12

Tesla has unveiled the first Supercharger station of its ambitious plan to install 100 throughout the US by 2015. The EV charging station is one of six that will be installed in California (Folsom, Gilroy, Coalinga, Lebec, Barstow, and Hawthorne), as well as the 94 others that will be installed in high traffic corridors around the country.

The Supercharger stations are powered by solar cells, made by SolarCity, and can provide the Model S sedan with a 90 kilowatt charge, which is enough for an extra 150 miles of driving. (RELATED: Gazprom Funds Anti-Fracking Campaigns in Europe?)

The problem with the project is that Tesla’s charging stations are only compatible with Model S sedans. Of which, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Tesla has only built 255, and delivered just 132. A very small number of sales to justify installing 100 charging stations at an estimated cost of $20 to $30 million. (RELATED: Energy New Front in Economic Warfare)

A lot of money to invest, when revenue is small, and cash flow is poor. On the 25th of September Tesla announced that they wanted to sell 4.3 million shares, hoping to raise $228 million in cash from the stock sale. The DoE has just made things more difficult by demanding that Tesla submit a new loan repayment plan, which will see them pay off the debt much sooner.


US President Barack Obama talks to the media on the Heil Family Wind Farm, in Haverhill, Iowa, in this August 2012 file photo. A small Chinese company sued President Obama for squashing its wind farm projects that were close to a military training site, saying the president overstepped his bounds and the law. (Larry Downing/Reuters/File )

Obama blocks Chinese wind farm ownership in Oregon

By CER News DeskGuest blogger / 10.03.12

President Barack Obama has blocked a Chinese company from owning interests in four northern Oregon wind farms, citing national security risks given their close proximity to a United States military base where unmanned drones and electronic-warfare planes are tested.

The decision marks the first time in more than 22 years that an American president has vetoed a foreign business deal in the interest of American security. While every American president has the power to void foreign transactions involving United States-based businesses under the Defense Production Act, the ability has not been exercised since President George H.W. Bush preempted the sale of Mamco Manufacturing to a Chinese-owned agency in 1990. (See more: Wind Power Layoffs Abound as Industry Threatened by Tax Credit Expiration

Owned by Chinese nationals, Rall Corp. purchased interest in the wind farms, located only miles away from the Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility in Boardman, Oregon, earlier this year. With this turn of events, the company will have to divest its interests in the wind farms immediately.

The company has already filed suit against the Obama Administration, alleging that the president had “acted in an unlawful and unauthorized manner”.

“By failing to provide Ralls with sufficient notice and opportunity to be heard prior to prohibiting its acquisition of the wind farms and imposing extraordinary restrictions on the use and enjoyment of its property interests, CFIUS and the president have unconstitutionally deprived Ralls of its property absent due process,” the complaint reads.

The news of President Obama’s decision comes during an election campaign that has seen his opponents accuse him of being soft with China, helping the president to combat such claims, but the call is likely to further irritate already tense economic relations with China. With this risk obviously in mind, the Treasury Department statement attempted to play down the political gravity of the decision.

“The President’s action demonstrates the Administration’s commitment to protecting national security while maintaining the United States’ longstanding policy on open investment,” said a statement from the U.S. Treasury Department. (See more: Why China’s Purchase of a Canadian Oil Company is NOT Harmful to U.S. National Security)

“The President’s decision is specific to this transaction and is not a precedent with regard to any other foreign direct investment from China or any other country,” the statement reassured.

Source: ‘National Security’: Obama Blocks Chinese Wind Farm Ownership in Oregon

In this 2011 file photo, a large drilling rig sits outside the Covelli Center in Youngstown, Ohio. Natural gas futures fell Wednesday amid predictions of a mild winter. (Mark Stahl/AP)

Natural gas futures fall. A mild winter to blame?

By Contributor / 10.03.12

Natural gas futures slipped 3.8 percent Wednesday amid forecasts of milder weather.

The drop comes after a six-day rally in which futures rose more than 24 percent.

Front-month November natural gas futures peaked at $3.546 per mmBtu Tuesday, the highest since December 2, 2011. The gains were driven largely by earlier forecasts of cooler weather.

But new forecasts projected milder weather ahead and cast doubt among traders Wednesday.

Temperatures will likely be above the 10- and 30-year normal ranges this winter, according to MDA EarthSat Weather. 

A warm winter means reduced heating consumption and less demand from power plants. Should the forecasts prove accurate, it would be the second consecutive winter, typically measured as December through February, to produce low energy demand.

“Traders are looking at the forecasts,” Bob Yawger, director of the futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “We’ve run out of momentum after trying to stay above $3.50. A pullback is justified here.”

By early Wednesday morning, the streak had broken. Futures dropped 11.1 cents, or more than 3 percent, to $3.42 per mmBtu. 

Muhammed Oladineji, left, and Orlando Muentes with Wind Energy Services paint the leading edges of 280 foot-tall turbine in Kodiak, Alaska in this September 2012 file photo. September has seen an unusual increase in the number of green job openings, according to and The Green Job Bank. (Marion Owen/Kodiak Daily Mirror/AP/File)

Want a green job? Here's who's hiring in wind energy, solar

By Jen AlicGuest blogger / 10.03.12

This month has been a fortuitous one for green jobs, despite the ups and downs particularly in the wind energy sector, and there are a handful of companies who seem to be on a hiring spree, on the look-out for qualified applicants with backgrounds in everything from agriculture, engineering, construction, design, natural sciences and marketing.

Wind energy, environmental consulting, biotechnology, and solar power topped IBISWorld’s list of fastest-growing industries in 2011, and Forbes listed solar installers among its highest paying jobs that require only a two-year degree. Beyond that, Forbes also came out with a list for 2012 of six-figure green jobs.
With jobs a key issue ahead of November elections, it may also come as a surprise that traditionally Republican-held states and swing states are leading the green jobs market. According to a report released earlier this month by San Francisco-based DBL Investors, green jobs are showing the most growth in traditionally Republican and swing states. Of the top 10 states for job growth—Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nebraska, North Carolina, Nevada, New York and Colorado-- four of them are traditionally Republican and four are swing states. Furthermore, of those 10 states that represent the largest percentage of clean energy jobs, six are held by Republicans and one is a swing state.  ( Continue… )

Extended range electric vehicle Fisker Karma arrives at the start of an electric car rally from Tallinn to Monte Carlo in Tallinn in this June file photo. Fisker Automotive, the maker of the $100,000-plus Karma hybrid sports car, said it's in talks to share technology and parts with other companies. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters/File)

Fisker tries new tack as woes pile up for plug-in carmakers

By Staff writer / 10.03.12

If you want to get a feel for how hard it will be for the United States to embrace electrified cars and slash its dependence on foreign oil, take a look at Fisker Automotive.

On Monday, Fisker revealed it is looking to share parts and technology with other companies. It also wants to raise new money by selling stock to the public. Translation: The financial situation isn't exactly rosy for the Anaheim, Calif., hybrid carmaker.

How could they be? A year ago, it was roundly criticized for getting a $529 million US federal loan guarantee and then assembling its cars in Finland. In March, Consumer Reports revealed that its brand new $107,850 Fisker Karma broke down during initial testing. Last month, the publication gave the Karma a failing grade for everything from poor dash controls to cramped space and long battery recharge time.

"Most all of the bumps can be fixed" for a company that went to market too quickly, Fisker CEO Tony Posawatz said in a speech Monday to the Automotive Press Association. "I did not want to let this company not have a fighting chance."

That's hardly a ringing endorsement for the automaker's future. Then again, several electric plug-in car companies are struggling to make and sell their cars at a profit.

Last week, startup Tesla Motors warned  its revenue outlook for the third quarter would come in some 45 percent below what analysts had been expecting, due to lower production of its new Model S sedan. ( Continue… )

This publicity photo shows the second-generation Nest Learning Thermostat, available in stores later this month. Programmable from a smartphone, the Nest will "learn" your heating and cooling habits. (Nest)

Nest Learning Thermostat: temperature control for the iPhone crowd

By Contributor / 10.02.12

If the iPhone were round, wall-mounted and able to control the temperature of your house, it would look something like this.

The Nest Learning Thermostat, a slick, energy-saving thermostat for the era of big data and green everything, was released for the first time last year.

Tuesday, the Palo Alto, California-based Nest company released an updated version of the space-age thermostat that promises to be compatible with 95 percent of low voltage heating and cooling systems.

This isn’t your grandfather’s thermostat. Nest takes the notion of a “programmable” heating and cooling system and launches it firmly into the 21st century. The silver and black hockey puck-shaped device functions like most thermostats—you turn it up when you’re cold and down when you’re hot—but it also “learns.” By tracking when and by how much you adjust the temperature, the Nest builds a customized, highly optimized schedule for you, according to its makers.

Orwellian? Maybe. But certainly convenient.

And what modern device would be complete without a handsomely designed, flashy online portal that delivers monthly reports with personalized energy-saving tips? Nest has that too. 

What about an app that lets you control the thermostat from your smartphone? Nest’s got it.

But are all these bells and whistles really necessary for something as mundane and ubiquitous as a thermostat?

“We didn’t think thermostats mattered either,” the company’s website reads. “Until we found out they control half of your home’s energy. That’s more than appliances, lighting, TVs, computers and stereos combined.”

The fancy technology behind the simple, user-friendly facade is designed to reduce your energy consumption and save you money—up to 20 percent on your heating and cooling bills, according to the makers.

While people may not be lining up out the door days in advance of Nest’s release just yet, the thermostat looks poised to capture the hearts of the iPhone generation when (or if) they start settling down and buying houses.

The Nest doesn’t start shipping until October 15, but for $249 you can preorder it at The thermostat will also be available at Lowe’s, Amazon and, appropriately, the Apple Store.

In this June 2012 file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa. The US Energy Information Administration’s initial estimates are that there may be 485 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in South Africa's Karoo Basin, accessible through fracking. (Keith Srakocic/AP/File)

South Africa OKs fracking for natural gas

By John C.K. DalyGuest blogger / 10.02.12

In many countries, the contentious issue of using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,”  to develop otherwise unexploitable natural gas reserves has led to policy debates of prosperity versus potential environmental damage.

For countries faced with massive hydrocarbon import bills the issue is particularly acute, and many countries are keeping their fingers crossed about the practice. For South Africa, a net importer of energy with about 90 percent of its power supply being coal-based, any and all alternatives are under consideration.

South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources in April 2011 placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. Two weeks ago the DMR lifted the moratorium, specifically on fracking for shale natural gas and last week released the detailed version of the report it commissioned on hydraulic fracturing.  ( Continue… )

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