Predictions for 2014: Energy is anything but conventional

With dramatic new sources of both supply and demand emerging across the globe, energy is poised to get even more unconventional in 2014. What's next for oil, gas, and renewables?

A worker walks on an oil pipeline at Khurmala oilfield on the outskirts of the city of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region. Kurdistan's oil fields are a hotly contested source of new conventional oil.

In energy, next year promises to be just as unconventional as the last.

North America's boom in unconventional oil and gas will continue to expand and the shale success could spread elsewhere. Easy-to-reach conventional oil is dwindling, but 2014 could see a reprieve as production from Iraq, Libya, and other war-torn oil nations seems to be stabilizing. And easing relations with Iran has the potential to bring major amounts of oil back onto global markets.

Investments in wind, solar, and other renewables have plateaued, and some countries are scaling back on ambitious energy transition plans. But prices for solar and wind continue to drop, and the drive to promote carbon-free energy isn't going away anytime soon. 

Of course, some things never seem to change. Demand is on the rise as recoveries in the United States and Europe gain steam. Car-loving middle classes are growing fast in emerging economies. And global carbon emissions continue their steady march upward and show no signs of slowing down.   

A look ahead at energy in 2014: 


Depending on how you look at it, the world's oil wells are either half empty or half full.

Unconventional oil and gas resources have redefined the global energy landscape and will continue to do so. A boom in unconventional or so-called tight oil is set to position the US as the world's largest oil producer beginning in 2015. The gains have spawned an emerging dialogue over whether to lift a decades-old ban on US oil exports – a notion that was unthinkable as recently as two or three years ago.

But unconventional oil isn't easy to produce. It takes a lot of energy, water, and drilling to pump hydrocarbons from the stubborn shale rock formations in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere across the US. The easy oil from the world's conventional wells is largely gone, which does not bode well for long-term outlooks. 

"There is increasing concern, especially among international oil companies, about the low levels of discoveries of conventional oil over the last several years," says Pete Stark, an oil and gas analyst for IHS, a global market analytics company based in Englewood, Colo.

Few recent discoveries have surpassed the coveted 1-billion-barrel mark, Mr. Stark notes, and most major discoveries across the globe these days are in natural gas, not oil. 

"It’s the giant fields that yield so much of our oil and gas over time," Stark says in a telephone interview. "That is an overriding issue."  

Worldwide shale

Much of the rest of the world hopes to replicate America's success with shale.

Mexico is in the midst of reforming its constitution to open up foreign investment to its oil and gas sector. That could bring much-needed resources and know-how to an area with big shale resources. Russia leads the world in technically recoverable oil from shale at around 75 billion barrels of oil. It will likely spend a good part of 2014 figuring out how to get it out of the ground. Energy-hungry China desperately wants to tap its shale gas resources, which are the largest in the world. Argentina will try to breathe life into its Vaca Muerta supergiant shale field.

But most analysts say it will take years for foreign shale operations to get going and won't yield the same level of success.

"That’s the biggest unknown out there – if the tight oil and shale gas boom can be replicated in other countries." says Jason Bordoff, former energy security adviser to President Obama and director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

Opposition to hydraulic fracturing is strong in many countries and it will take massive investments in infrastructure and know-how from US experts to coax oil and gas from the world's shale formations. But the challenges are not insurmountable, Mr. Bordoff says in a telephone interview, and we may see unconventional's global rise in five or 10 years. 

A record 400 shale wells are to be built outside the US in 2014, according to Wood Mackenzie, an international energy consultancy based in Scotland. 

Renewable energy

Renewables did not exactly have a stellar 2013. Global investment in renewable energy projects largely plateaued in 2013, and budget-constrained countries in Europe and elsewhere pulled back on policies to promote wind and solar. Still, renewables are slowly but surely gaining prominence in the world's energy mix and are likely to continue their rise in 2014 – particularly solar.

In the US, installations of residential solar panels hit a new high in the third quarter of 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade organization. New photovoltaic installations in the US reached 930 megawatts in Q3 2013, up 20 percent over the previous quarter.

“We’ve now joined Germany, China and Japan as worldwide leaders when it comes to the installation of new solar capacity," Rhone Resch, SEIA's president and chief executive said in a press release. 

With the rise of intermittent energy sources comes demand for better energy storage. Advanced batteries are emerging as a high-profile target for clean-energy research and investment, with big names like Tesla Motors and SolarCity teaming up to find solutions for onsite storage. It's already a major issue within the industry, but look for energy storage to enter the mainstream energy discourse in 2014.

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