Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When Big Oil Buys the Gas Company

Earlier this week ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas producer, announced that it had agreed to buy XTO Energy, the second-largest producer of natural gas in the US. ExxonMobil will acquire XTO for stock valued at $31 billion, making this the biggest oil and gas deal in four years.

This acquisition (and more like it) will have very significant impacts in at least three areas: energy prices; advances in natural gas innovation; and climate change legislation.

1. The Impact on Energy Prices

By acquiring the second-largest natural gas producer in the US, ExxonMobil will increase its ability to influence natural gas prices.

Prices for natural gas under long-term contracts are currently fairly close to prices for oil when measured on a cost per BTU basis. But prices for natural gas on the spot market are much lower -- often as much as 400% lower -- than prices for oil. The more natural gas that remains available on the spot market, the more likely it is that prices for natural gas under long-term contracts will come down.

When independent natural gas companies like XTO selling gas on the spot market, there is pressure on prices for natural gas to go down. Which makes gas a nice alternative to oil and coal. Which ultimately puts pressure on oil and coal prices.

ExxonMobil and other major oil companies that buy natural gas companies could influence prices by simply selling less natural gas on the spot market. The major oil companies have plenty of cash, so they could hold onto their natural gas inventories until the gap between gas and oil narrows. That is not good for consumers . . . or for the country.

2. The Impact on Natural Gas Innovation

Over the last decade, a handful of the nation’s small energy companies discovered huge amounts of natural gas in new fields stretching from Texas to Pennsylvania. XTO was one of these companies. It grew almost unnoticed into the nation’s second-largest gas producer by amassing a substantial portfolio of gas fields and developing expertise in the complex technology needed to extract the gas from shale beds.

If the major oil companies buy up these smaller, innovative companies that are making all the new natural gas discoveries, then who will pursue new natural gas technologies in the future?

Good question.

3. The Impact on Climate Change Legislation

Oil is one of the major contributors to carbon emissions worldwide. Gas is a much cleaner fuel.

The oil industry and its trade organization, the American Petroleum Institute, have vehemently opposed any aspect of climate change legislation that would raise the price of petroleum-based products. In contrast, the natural gas industry has supported many aspects of climate change legislation. Because natural gas has relatively low carbon emissions, any restriction on carbon emissions will give it a competitive advantage over oil and coal.

If the major oil companies buy up all the significant natural gas companies, then who will advocate for climate change legislation?

Another good question.

John Howley

Orlando, Florida

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Important Than Copenhagen

I told you so.

Four months ago, I predicted that, "Those looking for simple solutions to climate change will be very disappointed by the absence of firm emission reduction targets in Copenhagen later this year. . . . But at the same time, [the US and China] will pursue a second path of cooperation towards achievable solutions with or without an agreement on targets." See US and China Forge a New Path on Climate Change.

That is exactly what the US and China did in Copenhagen yesterday.

Why? Because nothing this important and this complicated ever gets resolved by a committee.

Consider for a moment the race to put a man on the moon. Thomas Friedman and others have said that this should be our model for the Green energy revolution.

I agree. But we did not get to the moon by holding international conventions and listening to dictators and despots like Iran's Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwe's Mugabe, and Venezuela's Chavez lecture us on the evil nature of our plans to be the first to put a man on the moon. Nor did we wait until we could reach the lowest common denominator consensus with Russia, China and 180 other nations on how and when to put a man on the moon.

If we had followed the path of seeking international consensus before we went to the moon, then we probably never would have achieved the goal.

So, now that we have gotten Copenhagen out of our system, let's get down to the serious work of pursuing the Green energy revolution the old fashioned way. With vigorous competition among nations to be the most energy efficient and energy independent economies in the world.

Walmart has given us a good first step. The company has sent out a Sustainability Index survey to 100,000 of its suppliers. The survey asks each supplier to provide information about their carbon footprint, energy and water usage, plans and goals to reduce their carbon footprint, energy consumption and water usage, and other factors that affect the sustainability of their operations. For now, Walmart will review this data internally. But it plans in later stages to release the data to consumers and possibly even disclose a ranking of individual products based on a Sustainability Index for the product and the company that manufactured it.

If you were a factory owner in China, what would provide a better incentive for you to reduce your carbon footprint and use of energy and water? (a) An international treaty that committed China to nation-wide carbon reduction targets over a 20 or 30 year period? Or (b) a Walmart Sustainability Index that made your products unsellable to the world's largest retailer unless you reduced your own company's carbon footprint and use of energy and water?

Forget Copenhagen. We need barriers to entry that will make it difficult for producers around the world to sell their products unless they are made using non-polluting energy sources and sustainable manufacturing practices.

We also need to alter the economics of energy at home. Yes, solar and wind are more expensive than most carbon-emitting alternatives right now. But only because those carbon-emitting alternatives do not pay the full cost of their pollution. If we make coal and oil companies include in their pricing the cost of eliminating their products' emissions (either with cap and trade or a carbon tax), then solar, wind and other non-emitting alternatives would seem very inexpensive by comparison.

Lastly, we need to use government funding and regulations to promote sustainable energy based on the long-term benefits -- just as we did when we used government funds to finance space exploration.

Imagine, for example, if all new construction and renovations in the US had to be "net zero" in terms of direct and indirect carbon emissions. By "net zero" I mean that the amount of energy used by a facility from non-carbon-emitting sources like solar and wind is equal to or exceeds the amount of energy from carbon-emitting sources. This could be accomplished by a combination of building codes requiring higher levels of efficiency in buildings (which many local governments are already imposing) and subsidies for investments in solar, wind and other non-carbon-emitting energy sources.

Yes, this would cost us in the short term. But think for a moment about the competitive advantage this would give us in the longer term. What if five or ten years from now our factories used highly efficient buildings that required less energy, and that energy was supplied by solar and wind plants that had ZERO fuel costs. Our factories would have a tremendous competitive advantage over factories in China and elsewhere that continued to use power generated by coal and petroleum fuels.

I hear all those out there who say that climate issues are different because they transcend borders. But space travel transcended borders too. And we did not succeed with space travel by waiting for everyone to agree. We went out and did it.

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lessons From the History and Economics of Oil

My first assignment as a young lawyer -- and my introduction to the history and economics of the oil industry -- was on a behemoth antitrust case against the major oil companies.  In re Petroleum Products Antitrust Litigation involved allegations that the major oil companies conspired to fix prices by "signaling" price changes to one another and by manipulating supplies and refinery operations during the 1970's.

In between days of reviewing thousands of documents, my fellow young lawyers and I had the pleasure of working with Daniel Yergin, who was retained as one of our expert witnesses and who had just written The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, for which he would win the Pulitzer Prize.  His book is a comprehensive and fascinating account of the history and economics of the oil industry.  It is still about the best book you can find on the subject, and anyone interested in any aspect of the green energy movement must read it.

Recently, I came across a short video of Daniel Yergin reflecting on lessons that can be learned from previous shifts in energy usage as we try to move towards a more sustainable energy future.  He describes the environmental concerns of the 1950's that forced a shift from coal to oil, followed by a shift back to coal as the principal fuel for electricity generation due to coal's cost advantages and emerging technologies that ameliorated some of the environmental harms.  He also talks about the sunk costs in our existing energy infrastructure and how that creates inertia and limits our willingness and ability to change.

Click here to view the video.  Short and to the point . . . . . and definitely worth watching.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wind Energy and Political Grandstanding

Plans to build a $1.5 Billion wind energy project in Texas got some unwanted publicity this week when grandstanding politicians issued press releases and open letters urging the Department of Energy to reject any applications for clean energy tax credits “unless the project relies on US-built turbines and other components.”

Now, this project will create 300 construction jobs in the USA and 30 permanent maintenance jobs, also in the USA.  It will provide a clean, renewable source of electricity for Americans.  And it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  Just the type of thing that deserves tax credits.

But some politicians are dead set against allowing any tax credits for this project because the turbines will be made in China, thereby creating jobs in China as well.  Senator Schumer of New York objects, arguing that, "American taxpayer dollars should not be used to finance those Chinese jobs."

Let’s consider the implications of this political posturing.

First, the US just convinced China to repeal a law that required 70% of technology used in Chinese wind projects to be made in China.  Now I agree that if China were keeping us out of its markets, then fairness, good trade policy and practical diplomacy might dictate that we keep them out of our markets until they agreed to free and open trade policies.  But having convinced them to eliminate their local content rules, it is hypocritical for us to use local content rules to keep them out of our markets.

Second, if we prohibit foreign turbine makers from competing for any wind projects that get tax credits, then we effectively bar them from any wind projects at all.  All renewable energy projects today require tax credits or some other form of subsidy to be economically viable.  (This is because coal and oil get to impose the cost of pollution on our environment at no cost, thereby eliminating a major competitive advantage of non-polluting renewables – but that is a subject for another time).  Barring foreign turbine makers from renewable energy projects receiving tax credits effectively bars them from all renewable energy projects in the USA.

Third, local content rules make no economic sense and will force projects (and jobs) outside the USA.  Any developer who can put together a $1.5 Billion project in Texas has the ability to put that project together someplace else – such as in a foreign country that does not impose local content rules.  If politicians insist that only higher-cost domestic content be used in a wind project, then some developers will decide to put their $1.5 Billion at risk elsewhere.  Like in China.  Which will then get ALL the jobs, including the 300 construction jobs and 30 permanent maintenance jobs that this project will generate in the good ol’ USA.

Fourth, and finally for now, if we are going to refuse tax credits and subsidies to any energy company that creates jobs outside the US, then why don’t we start with the oil companies?  How about eliminating all tax benefits for any oil company that creates jobs outside the US?  Obviously that would be a stupid policy and would put most of the oil companies out of business.  It is just as stupid when it is applied to wind projects.  And it would have the same absurd result.

John Howley

Orlando, Florida

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Of Energy Dreamers, Past and Present

Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, writes a column in every issue called “Digital Rules.” He is a very smart guy and, usually at least, very innovative and forward thinking.

I say “usually” because he just missed the boat in his latest blog entry on the future of renewables.

Mr. Karlgaard argues that we are stuck with coal, oil and nuclear as our major sources of electricity in the United States for the foreseeable future. He asserts that “[t]here is no way the U.S. economy can enjoy future prosperity without the big three electrical energy sources of clean coal, natural gas and nuclear.”

Why? Because only 10% of current electricity generation comes from renewable sources, and most of that comes from hydro. Solar and wind provide less than 3% of current electricity generation.

According to Mr. Karlgaard, solar, wind and other renewables cannot possibly meet a significant part of our electricity needs 10 years from now when they are starting from such a small base. His Forbes colleague Ken Fisher agrees, urging investors to “buy into fossil fuels” because they account for “89% of electricity” and “that fraction won’t change dramatically in the next decade.”

As for Thomas Friedman, John Doerr, and others who point to Moore’s Law and argue that renewables will experience the same rapid technological advances as semiconductors if given the right incentives, Karlgaard calls them “dreamers.”

Funny. That’s exactly what they said about Thomas Edison, Nicolas Telsa, and others who set out to build centralized electric power plants in the late 1800’s.

At that time, centralized electric power plants had an even smaller share of the market than renewables have today. In fact, there were only a couple of electric demonstration projects involving only a few hundred streetlights. Gas companies had a virtual monopoly on powering lights in homes and businesses, and the new electric power plants being built had to charge far higher prices than gas. The gas companies also had an existing and very efficient distribution system for their gas, while the electricity dreamers needed to build very expensive copper mains to carry the electricity to customers.

Edison, Telsa, Westinghouse, and the other dreamers who built our current centralized electric generation system also faced a number of very significant barriers beyond price. There was, for example, the fact that the electric motor had not yet been invented. So they were trying to sell electricity before it could be used in factories.

How did the dreamers prevail? Transportation and municipal contracts. The electricity dreamers got their break by building dedicated power plants for new electric streetcars and streetlights.

Once they built a base of electric generating capacity for streetcars and streetlights, the pace of innovation and growth quickened. Innovators began inventing other things to use electricity, including electric motors which revolutionized the economics of running a factory. By 1892 – less than 15 years after Edison’s first streetlight project – General Electric’s capitalization was $50 million. The incredible speed at which centralized electric power plants developed is described in The Power Makers, by Maury Klein:

“By 1900 electricity had become an integral part of American life, especially in cities. Between 1890 and 1905 the output of electric power in the United States increased a hundredfold. By revolutionizing production and manufacturing, electricity made possible the rise of the consumer economy that was to dominate the twentieth century and transform every corner of American life. Already factories consumed more than half of the electricity generated…. Arc lights illuminated the streets of even small towns and flooded with light the avenues of large cities. In 1902, some 51,000 electric streetcars whisked urban passengers along 22,000 miles of track."

Now Messrs. Karlgaard and Fisher may be correct that coal, oil and nuclear will still be significant contributors to our energy mix ten years from now. After all, centralized electric power plants did not force the gas industry into bankruptcy.

But the history of centralized electric power plants suggests that renewables can and will grow at a much faster pace than traditional fossil fuels as sources of electricity. Once started, that pace will accelerate as the competitive advantage of renewables starts having a significant impact on the bottom line.

Think about it. Five years from now, those who invested in solar and wind today will have ZERO fuel costs for that portion of their electricity needs, while those who did not invest in renewables today will still have to pay the cost of fuel for every kWh – and at higher prices than it is paying today. Add in the fact that renewable technologies five years from now will be even more efficient than today, and everyone will be clamoring for renewables. It is easy to see how the tipping point will be reached.

Or has it already been reached? China has just announced that it is constructing a 2 gigawatt solar power plant in Inner Mongolia, the largest solar plant in the world. That is on top of nearly 80 gigawatts of renewable energy that China has already built in recent years. When China has hundreds of gigawatts of fuel-free energy, what country will be able to compete when it must continually pay for fossil fuels to generate 90% of its electricity? More to the point, what country can afford to wait?

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pollution Economics 101

The oil industry is attacking the proposed climate change legislation that has passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. Here is a summary of the arguments from the American Petroleum Institute:
“The House climate change bill will increase costs of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel, and drive jobs and production overseas, increasing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in foreign countries that will have a new competitive advantage. Under the so-called ‘American Clean Energy and Security Act’, U.S. refiners will have to buy allowances, increasing their costs and giving a competitive advantage to non-US refiners. U.S. jobs will be lost and contrary to the bill’s intention, America will be less energy secure and more reliant on imports of gasoline and other refined products."
Wow. That’s a lot to swallow. Let’s take it step-by-step.

First, the proposed climate bill “will increase costs of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel.”

Yes! Absolutely! Totally true! That is the entire point of the legislation! And it is a good thing!

Now before you think I am some kind of tree-hugging, left-leaning radical, let me tell you what the most famous conservative and libertarian economists say about the subject.

Alan Greenspan – the former Federal Reserve Chairman, acolyte of Ayn Rand, and self-described Libertarian – favors a hefty gasoline tax of at least $3 or more per gallon because, he says, we “need significantly higher gasoline prices to wean us off gasoline-powered motor vehicles.”

Milton Friedman
agrees. Remember him? He was the Nobel-prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago who provided much of the intellectual firepower behind Reaganomics.

Why do these intellectual giants of conservative and libertarian economics favor taxes on gasoline? Simple. It has to do with something economists call “externalities.”

To understand externalities, consider a chemical company that offered to create more jobs and lower prices. There is just one catch. They will save the money to make this possible by dumping their toxic wastes into the pond in your backyard instead of disposing of the waste properly. In other words, they will make the cost of avoiding or cleaning up pollution “external” to the price of their product.

Obviously, that is not acceptable. Proper disposal of toxic waste is a cost of doing business and it should be factored into the price of the product – even if that means higher prices and/or fewer jobs.

The costs of avoiding or cleaning up pollution, however, are not always incurred by the producer or passed on to its customers. For example, coal-fired power plants have delivered relatively low-priced electricity for more than 100 years, but have also been dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The same with petroleum products like gasoline and diesel fuel.

That is why Greenspan, Friedman, and many other conservative and libertarian economists have favored taxes on gasoline and other substances that cause pollution. Because the failure to account for the cost of pollution tends to distort many basic economic decisions such as pricing and competition. People think they are getting a good deal because their gasoline and electricity are relatively cheap. But they are really only imposing the cost of pollution on the environment.

By imposing a tax equal to the cost of avoiding or cleaning up the pollution, the market will make rational choices based on the real cost of the polluting product. And – this is very important – inventors and investors will have an incentive to develop cleaner alternatives that can be sold at a competitive price without the pollution tax.

So, the oil industry does not get any points for arguing that the climate change legislation will increase the price of gasoline, diesel fuel, and aviation fuel. That is what it is supposed to do.

BUT! The oil industry has a very legitimate point when it argues that the proposed legislation will “drive jobs and production overseas, increasing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in foreign countries that will have a new competitive advantage.”

Anyone who has seen horrific pollution in developing countries knows what will happen to our environment if we simply drive up costs in the more developed economies. Without a comprehensive, global approach to pollution and climate change, we will just shift the externalities (costs of pollution) from our own backyards to backyards of very poor and politically less influential people in developing countries. And we will not be able to fence in the adverse effects.

Which leads to questions that have more to do with politics than economics. How do we get to a global solution on climate change? To what extent must we, in the more economically developed world, take the first step and make the first sacrifices? And to what extent should we refuse to budge until the rest of the world agrees to follow?

And you thought economics was the dismal science. More on the politics and diplomacy of a global climate change agreement in later posts.

John Howley
Tokyo, Japan

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Distributed Generation? Try Distributed Storage.

One of the hot topics in renewable energy is "distributed generation." If every home and business would install some solar panels or small wind turbines to generate their own electricity, then any excess electricity could be sold back to the grid. Build enough small solar photovoltaic systems and windmills, the theory goes, and we won't have to build as many coal-fired power plants.

Those who support this concept make analogies to the internet, where the computing power and brainpower of numerous individuals and their personal computers can be harnessed via distributed computing and wikis and social networks into something really big and powerful.

Will the same concept work with “distributed generation” of electricity?

Not exactly.

Asa an energy efficiency measure, putting solar panels and wind turbines on individual facilities is a very good idea. It will reduce the need for that facility to draw power from the grid. But for large scale production of electricity and selling back to the grid, distributed generation does not provide the quality control and economies of scale necessary for the efficient generation and distribution of electricity. Let’s look at those two issues:

Power Quality. The internet works by allowing everyone to post whatever information they want, without any initial filter on quality. That won't work on the electric grid.

An efficient power distribution system requires that power quality (voltage, harmonics, etc.) be maintained at all times. That is difficult enough to accomplish with highly variable generation sources such as wind and solar. Every time the wind dies down or clouds start to cover the solar panels in one geographic area, the grid would have to find power elsewhere to maintain adequate voltage levels. That is a very difficult and complicated task when you are dealing with large wind and solar farms. It is even more difficult when the wind and solar power is being supplied by thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of different sources, each with its own variations in power quality.

Economies of Scale. Building small windmills and solar photovoltaic arrays is not very cost efficient. The number of workers required per megawatt -- and the gasoline they will use going from one site to another -- makes this a very inefficient process. And what about maintenance? Can we really afford a renewable energy system that requires maintenance crews to take care of generation capacity that is located at hundreds or thousands of different locations?

Does that mean our electric power systems will continue to be centralized? Yes, but only on the generation side. On the storage side, distributed networks may offer an excellent solution to the problem of matching generation with demand.

The biggest inefficiency in our current electric power system is caused by the need to build excess generation capacity to meet peak demand. Many electric utilities have generators that are used less than 40% of the time. They exist solely to provide extra power when it is needed -- like from 7 am to 7 pm when every office building has its lights, computers, fax machines and HVAC systems turned on. And on that very hot August day when everyone turns on their incredibly inefficient window air-conditioning units at the same time.

Power companies must build enough generating capacity to handle the highest possible peak demand for electricity. When we operate substantially below peak capacity (like, almost every night of the year), that peak capacity goes wasted.

The real problem is not generation, but storage. If we could use that generating capacity at night and store the electricity for the next day, then we would have a truly efficient system.

Fran Lamparello, my good friend and business partner, sees the future of energy storage by looking at the past. Fran has spent his entire working life in different aspects of the energy industry, from designing building controls systems to running a home heating oil distribution business. He envisions a time in the near future when the electric utilities will address energy storage the same way the home heating oil industry did. At the customer's home or business.

By putting storage tanks at each customer's home or business, the oil companies turned their customers into a "distributed storage" network. It was a very efficient system. The distributor could buy home heating fuel during the off season when prices were low, and then store it until the winter. The distributor did not have to pay for storage of large fuel inventories because it could store that inventory at the customer's home or business. Properly sized, an oil tank at the home or business also reduced the number of trips that had to be made to deliver fuel to the customer.

Fran and I predict that you will see the same type of distributed storage system with electricity. As the efficiency and cost of fuel cells and other storage mechanisms for electricity improve, you will see utilities offering to put that storage mechanism on site at the customer's location. It may be in the form of electric cars as Tom Friedman predicts in his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," or it may be in the form of fuel cells.

The real value of the internet model for electricity is not “distributed generation.” It is “distributed storage.” Do not put a solar panel on every roof. Put a hydrogen fuel cell in every backyard or basement! Or an electric car in every garage!

John Howley
Manila, Philippines

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Free Cooling?

A data center that requires no air-conditioning?

Google has figured out a way to do it. And it is so simple. Locate your data center in a place like Belgium where you can use outside air as “free cooling.”

The concept of “free cooling” – bringing in outside air to cool the inside of a building -- is not new. Building managers in the US and elsewhere have been doing it for decades. By controlling dampers to balance the mix of inside and outside air, building managers can use the “free” outside air to better control temperature, humidity, and air pressure inside buildings without spending money on electricity.

Actually, all of us have done this at one time or another. Like on a Fall day when the sun hitting our windows makes it a little too warm inside, even though the air outside is cool. Instead of turning on the air-conditioning, we just open the window a little. Same concept. “Free” cooling.

All Google has done is take this very basic principle of facility energy management and apply it to complex data centers by adding a dash of information technology and off-shoring. The equipment in data centers generate a lot of heat. By locating them in a cooler climate and carefully managing the amount of cool fresh air coming into the building, Google can control the temperature without needing electricity to generate air-conditioning.

Belgium does have a few days per year (maybe about 7) when the outside air temperature is not cold enough to cool a data center. Google will monitor the weather and outside temperatures. If it gets too warm in Belgium, Google will simply shut down some equipment there (which will reduce the amount of heat being generated inside the data center) and shift some of the work load to other data centers around the world until the weather in Belgium returns to normal.

Now, in complex buildings like data centers, the cooling is not entirely "free." First, you need a building management system to monitor operating conditions inside the building and external data such as weather. Then you need to use the brainpower of facilities engineers to manage the system. But that little bit of data analysis and brainpower leads to tremendous reductions in both energy costs and carbon emissions.

Pretty good results for essentially opening windows.

John Howley
Manila, Philippines

Monday, August 10, 2009

US and China Forge a New Path on Climate Change

Last week the US and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to cooperate on climate change. Some have criticized the document as nothing more than an “agreement to agree” that failed to address the contentious issue of firm targets for carbon emissions reductions.

This criticism misses the point.

To begin, consider how far the US-China relationship has come in such a very short time.

In April 2001, just months after the Bush Administration took office, the US sent a military plane near Hainan Island in China. China responded by forcing down the plane and detaining the 24 American crew members for 10 days until the US apologized.

The message then was clear: Do not mess with us.

In stark contrast, China began its relationship with the Obama Administration by sending 150 senior Chinese officials to Washington to discuss the global economy and climate change. Before leaving Washington, they signed an agreement to cooperate on renewable energy, smart grid technologies, electric vehicles, carbon capture and sequestration, joint research and development, clean air and water, and protection of natural resources.

A very different but equally clear message: We want to work with you on climate change.

Consider also the importance of a US-China consensus on: (a) the existence of a climate change problem, and (b) the need to address it.

Many in the Bush Administration – including Vice President Cheney – did not believe that we had a problem or that we needed to do anything about it. The official position on climate change was that America should not sign any agreements until China and other developing nations agreed to firm targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

China responded by arguing that they should not consider firm targets until the US and other developed nations first agreed to firm targets to remediate their much longer history of carbon emissions.

As Wu Changhua of The Climate Group in Beijing has noted, very little progress was possible when the US and China each “used the other as an excuse for inaction.” The agreement last week is meaningful because it signals an intent by both sides to find ways to work together. That is the essential first step towards any progress.

Equally encouraging are the reasons why the US and China are beginning to work together:

1. A solid consensus in the US on the need for renewable energy. This consensus rests on beliefs that transcend partisan lines, including: (a) that US national security requires a shift away from dependence on foreign oil; (b) that we are leaving a legacy of significant environmental damage for generations in the not-so-distant future; and (c) that economic growth in the US depends on becoming a world leader in new, clean energy technologies.

2. A recognition in China that it must move quickly to prevent environmental disaster. In each of the past five years, China has built an average of 70 gigawatts of electric generating capacity – about the same amount as exists in all of France. Most of these plants have been dirty coal plants with obvious environmental impacts. Remember when China had to shut down factories before and during the Beijing Olympics to make sure the air quality would not kill the athletes? China knows that it cannot continue on this path.

Does this mean that the US and China will agree on firm targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions in Copenhagen later this year?

I hate to disappoint you. But I think the answer is "No."

The underlying message of the agreement signed in Washington last week is that the US and China are going to forge two paths to address climate change. Yes, they will still argue with one another over how much each country should reduce its carbon emissions and by when. But at the same time, they will pursue a second path of cooperation towards achievable solutions with or without an agreement on targets.

Those looking for simple solutions to climate change will be very disappointed by the absence of firm emission reduction targets in Copenhagen later this year. But what would you rather have? A Copenhagen Agreement on firm targets without any agreement on how to reach them? Or a Copenhagen Agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without firm targets?

Whichever you prefer, get ready for the latter.

John Howley
Manila, Philippines

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Big Savings from Unusual Places

One of the wonders of sustainable energy is how some off-beat, even odd inventions can have very significant impacts on fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Take, for example, solar-powered trash compactors. Sounds cute, right?

Well, the City of Philadelphia has discovered that they can generate significant fuel savings.

Traditional trash cans have to be emptied about 19 times per week. By installing solar-powered trash compactors from Big Belly Solar, Philadelphia only has to empty its trash cans 5 times per week.

From 19 times per week to 5 times per week? That is a 74% reduction in the number of trips that have to be made by garbage trucks. In other words, a 74% reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Pretty good for a lowly garbage can.

Or consider solar-powered refrigeration. Another gimmicky idea? Maybe, but also one that can cut fuel consumption in half while greatly improving the lives and income-earning potential of dairy farmers in the developing world.

Cows get milked twice a day in India, usually at remote farms that have no electricity and therefore no refrigeration. The milk will spoil in 5 hours, so trucks have to travel hundreds of kilometers, twice every day, to collect the fresh milk before it spoils.

By installing solar-powered refrigeration from Promethean Power Systems, dairies can cut those trips in half -- to only once per day. Half the fuel consumption. Half the carbon emissions.

A refrigerator that reduces fuel consumption and carbon emissions by 50%?? Now that is a pretty good gimmick.

For more information:

Solar-powered trash compactors: www.BigBellySolar.com

Solar-powered refrigeration: www.Promethean-Power.com

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Solar Panel Glut??

Yesterday's electronic version of the Wall Street Journal had an interesting headline:

"Solar Prices Headed Down on Massive Glut"

The story reports that the "supply of solar panel modules ramped up at the beginning of this year and came into collision with slack demand, sending inventories up 64.3%." (emphasis in original).

Wow! Massive Glut! Inventories increased by 64.3%! That is terrifying! The solar energy industry must be headed for disastrous over-supply and ruin!

Wait a second. What does a 64.3% increase in inventories actually mean?

It means, according to an expert quoted in the WSJ story, "the equivalent of one-and-a-half months of excess inventory."

So, let me get this straight. The Stimulus Bill contains tens of billions of dollars for investments in renewable energy including solar, plus it looks like we will have some sort of "cap and trade" or other carbon reduction legislation in the US that will provide a further incentive to invest in solar, plus the Obama Administration is taking a leadership role in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions which will require more investments in renewables like solar, plus the price of oil is still over $60 per barrel despite the worst global recession in most of our lifetimes -- and who knows where the price of oil will go once we start emerging from recession -- which makes renewables like solar attractive alternatives.

But the solar panel industry is experiencing a "massive glut" because it has one and a half months of excess supply?

Fortunately, solar energy investors have a slightly longer perspective than journalists and financial analysts. That one and a half month excess supply of solar modules will soon be history.

John Howley
Orlando, Florida

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Make No Small Plans

My problem with President Obama's stimulus package is that it lacks ambition. Especially when it comes to investing in the new grid we will need to support renewable energy.

We know that our energy infrastructure is at the breaking point. Yet the stimulus package allocates only $80 billion over a number of years for a wide range of energy projects. A lot of that money will go to basic energy efficiency upgrades like replacing old boilers and insulation in public buildings. All things that should be done, but these investments will not be enough to create a 21st Century energy infrastructure.

The problem is: We are making small plans with short-term objectives. This is no way to reinvigorate the most important economy in the world.

To understand why, let's look back at the successes of the 20th century.

Imagine what the US economy would have been like in the first half of the 20th century if we never built the railroads. Without railroads, we would have remained a predominantly agrarian economy in which most people lived their entire lives without traveling more than 50 miles from their birthplace.

That changed with the railroads. In the 25-year period between 1875 and 1900, almost 200,000 miles of new railroad tracks were built in the US. Because of this massive investment in the late 19th century, we started the 20th century with about 260,000 miles of track in the US, compared to about 280,000 miles of track in the entire rest of the world combined.

Building the largest railroad network in the world gave us a competitive advantage that helped transform the US from a mostly agrarian society to a diversified economic powerhouse during the first half of the 20th century.

Now imagine what the US economy would have been like in the second half of the 20th century if we never built a national highway system.

Beginning with planning during WWII, the national highway system has grown into 160,000 miles of roads connecting virtually every part of the continental United States -- making it the largest highway system in the world.

Building the largest road system in the world gave us a competitive advantage that was essential to our success as the most dynamic economy in the world during the second half of the 20th century. Do you think computers are important to the US economy? Remember that they would never have reached the store (or your home) without a truck on a highway.

Now imagine what the 21st century will look like if we do not invest in new energy infrastructure.

The electric grid we rely on today is not much different than the one we began building at the turn of the last century (and not much more reliable either). We use higher voltages, and we have some basic demand response programs, but our electric grid is still essentially as dumb (lacking intelligence) as it was when Nikola Tesla delivered his famous lecture on polyphase alternating currents in 1888. This grid based on a 100-year-old design is not capable of supporting the economy of the future.

The questions we face are pretty straightforward:

Will we continue to rely on a 19th century electric grid design to power a 21st century economy?

Or will the US make the investments necessary over the next 20 years to build the largest and smartest electric grid in the world?

Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect, inspired many at the start of the 20th century with his admonition that we should "make no little plans." We need to adopt his charge today when it comes to investing in the future of energy infrastructure in the US.

Now is not the time to make small plans. We must make massive investments in our energy infrastructure starting today and continuing for a few decades. The number will be in the trillions, not the billions. That is the only way we will create jobs today. And it is the only way we will secure a future of prosperity for our children and grandchildren.

P.S. -- Here's Burnham's full quote:

"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons [and daughters and granddaughters] are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey