Navigant Research Blog

Fracking Well Microbes Could Be Boon or Barrier for Oil & Gas Industry

— October 27, 2016

Pipeline (2)“Life finds a way.” It’s a quote seen on inspirational posters, calendars, and mugs. One location where this phrase is particularly applicable, though, is in hydraulic fracturing wells. Scientists recently discovered unique colonies of microbial organisms growing in these wells. Microbes have a massive impact on the flow of elements through our environment, so their presence in highly inhospitable fracking wells could have widespread implications for the oil & gas industry.

Thirty-one unique colonies of microbes were found in two separate wells in Ohio. Despite being geographically separated by several hundred miles, the microbial communities were strikingly similar. One species, never before identified, has been dubbed Candidatus frackibacter. This microbe likely developed in hydraulic fracturing wells, having only been found in that environment. The rest of the colonies probably came from surface ponds and adapted to the high pressure, temperature, and salinity of the shale well environment.

Increased Yield

The impacts of these microbes on the oil & gas industry are multifold. First, a number of the microbes identified are methanogens, which produce methane as a byproduct of metabolism. Methane is a key component of natural gas, so the presence of methanogens could actually increase the net yield of a natural gas well. Osmoprotectants, compounds produced by certain bacteria to protect them from very high salt concentrations, are converted into methane by these microbes. In this case, the compound in question is glycine betaine. More research must be done, but someday oil & gas companies might stimulate wells with osmoprotectants in addition to fracturing fluid. The process of exploiting microbial methane is already in use in the coalbed methane industry.

Potential Damage

On the other hand, these microbes could have a profound impact on the longevity of fracturing infrastructure. Corrosion of metal pipes can be a microbial process, and can happen rapidly in aqueous systems once microbes grow to a sufficient concentration. Microorganisms can greatly change the pH and alkalinity of water, leading to corrosion. This is one motivation behind adding chlorine or other disinfectants to drinking water distribution systems. As microbes become more adapted to fracturing wells, the rate of corrosion could increase over time, resulting in additional costs to natural gas producers. Thus, it may become necessary to inhibit growth of microorganisms, including the methanogens mentioned above.

Previously thought too inhospitable an environment to support life of any kind, we now know hydraulic fracturing wells host their own unique population of microorganisms. These microbes can have a huge impact on the productivity—and lifespan—of these wells. As their exact composition becomes better understood, the oil & gas industry will need to make adjustments to maximize profits and minimize any potential damage.

 

Presidential Candidates at Odds on Climate Change

— October 6, 2016

Oil RigOne year ago, my colleague Casey Talon published a blog on the energy and climate change policies of various presidential hopefuls. With the nominees now chosen and the first official presidential debates now over, the nation’s energy future should be clearer, but widely disparate policies have instead made it more nebulous than ever. Let’s take a look at how each nominee could affect US climate policy.

  • Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s plan for climate action involves a heavy focus on solar panels, increasing the installed base of solar power in the United States by 700% within her first term. Clinton’s plan also includes creating a White House transmission office, which would coordinate permitting for siting transmission lines on the state and federal levels. This plan would rely heavily on either a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions or a carbon tax. Without increased pricing for emissions, natural gas is currently too cheap for renewable energy to be competitive in some applications. One item Clinton’s plan is relatively vague about is energy storage. In order to meet the solar energy goals set forth by the presidential nominee, a large amount of storage would have to be implemented, as solar and wind are both intermittent power sources that do not necessarily produce power at the time when electricity demand is greatest.
  • Republican nominee Donald Trump promises a return to coal-fired power plants, as well as other fossil fuels. The candidate’s America First energy plan involves a dissolution of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan, as well as the EPA itself. Any move toward clean power would be entirely dependent on free market adoption. Shifting back to more coal power could be problematic from an emissions perspective, as 71% of 2015 carbon emissions from the electric power sector came from coal. Meanwhile, natural gas, the second largest fossil fuel energy source, represented only 28% of emissions. Increasing CO2 emissions would not only mean a faster rise in global temperatures, but also a deviation from international agreements on climate change. In addition, due to declining renewable energy prices and the increasing prevalence of natural gas fracking, coal is not as economically attractive an option as it once was. A lack of regulation surrounding the energy sector could either result in widespread adoption of renewables on the market or a sharp rise in carbon emissions.

Electricity demand is increasing in the United States, and carbon emissions have remained fairly consistent in the past several years. It is true that cleaner energy is needed in greater quantities, both to balance out the added demand from smart metering, electric vehicles, and increasingly connected cities and to reduce emissions. In the 2015 Paris Agreement, the United States promised to cut its carbon emissions 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. It’s currently not on track to reach that goal, and a reduction in the amount of clean power being utilized would hinder the nation’s ability to meet this pledge.

The future of America’s energy policy is uncertain. November’s election could bring some much needed clarity.

 

Beefing Up the Meat Replacement Industry

— October 4, 2016

BiofuelThe environmental impact of agriculture is astounding. Water, fertilizer, large farm vehicles, processing, shipping, and spraying crops all take a major toll on the planet. But for as great an impact as farming plants has, raising livestock for meat has it beat. According to a 2014 study from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, beef production releases 2 to 6 times as many greenhouse gases as any other animal product.

But the burger has always been a staple of the American diet, and it’s not leaving our dinner tables anytime soon. How can the industry reconcile this staggering carbon footprint? The answer lies in high-tech substitutes to the traditional beef burger.

Plant-based meats are one solution to the resource-intensive meat production industry. There are a variety of veggie patties available on the market, and their popularity in American cuisine is on the rise. Most of these do not share the same protein or fat content as actual beef burgers, and therefore are marketed as more of a healthy alternative than a direct replacement. Despite having existed for many years and wide distribution networks, many veggie patties simply do not fill the hockey puck-shaped hole left by beef on the American table.

Some companies are developing more realistic plant-based meat replacements by distilling plants into protein and fat components, creating a more familiar (but environmentally friendly) burger. Beyond Meat, a company based in Manhattan Beach, California, has developed a pea-protein based substitute that not only tastes meatier but, due to the addition of beet juice extract, also resembles hamburger in its color. These burgers are entirely plant-based and, theoretically, cut down on the environmental impacts of beef farming. Beyond Meat’s burgers were released on the market in the spring of 2016. It will be interesting to see whether these products and similar burgers become popular outside of their debut city of Boulder, Colorado.

Where’s the (Lab-Grown) Beef?

The most similar alternative to large-scale farmed meat starts with a single cell. By growing meat cells directly in a lab, scientists have successfully grown hamburger without ever having to set foot on a ranch. This technology is relatively nascent, and lab-grown beef will probably not become available on the market for several years. Memphis Meats, one company developing a lab-grown meat product, expects to have its wares on the market within 5 years.

One of the biggest issues with lab-grown meat is that it does not fall under the same regulatory body (the Food and Drug Administration) as normal meat. However, once licensing and regulation issues are worked through, you can expect to see lab-grown sausages, meatballs, and burgers on grocery store shelves.

The world of technology is becoming more connected, and humanity is becoming more aware of its impact on the planet and climate change. As with all other fields, agriculture will undergo major changes over the next several decades. Soon, the energy- and emissions-intensive burgers of yore may become a thing of the past.

 

It Takes a Lot of Energy to Catch ‘Em All

— July 29, 2016

Cloud ComputingPokémon GO has taken over the world. For those who have not yet played the game, it’s an augmented reality smartphone app where players walk around collecting Pokémon, battling in gyms, and generally having a good time. It’s also on the forefront of technological innovation, combining mapping data from Google with a narrative from the longstanding franchise. Niantic Labs, the developers of the game, have risen to the forefront of the technology world. Nintendo, one owner of the Pokémon franchise, became the most traded company by value of shares swapped on the Tokyo stock market this century. However, shortly after this rise, the stocks plummeted. Nintendo is not, after all, directly responsible for the development of the popular game and only owns a 32% stake in The Pokémon Company.

However, there is, as they say, a Butterfree in the ointment. The immense popularity of Pokémon GO has caused overrun servers and overheating data centers, making the free app crash every few hours. In addition, players are expressing frustration with the app’s  intense battery draining ability. A typical smartphone battery can drain in as few as 40 minutes of gameplay. The game is based entirely around GPS capabilities, which are notorious battery hogs. While GPS is running, a mobile device cannot enter a sleep state. In addition, communications channels with GPS satellites are very slow, and mapping software is processor-intensive, further compounding the energy intensity of such applications.

The intense data and energy use of the game has caused Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, to offer Niantic assistance in operating its servers. This intense usage of GPS capabilities, smartphone data, and server capacity promises to bring Pokémon GO to the top spot in smartphone application energy usage. According to SimilarWeb, in its first 4 days of use, the number of Pokemon GO users nearly surpassed Twitter users in the United States.

 Daily Active Users: Pokémon GO vs. Twitter

PokemonBlog

 (Source: SimilarWeb)

In terms of average time users spend using the app, Pokémon GO has surpassed social media sites WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger. The average player uses the app for 43 minutes a day. What’s more, Niantic plans to launch the app in over 200 countries as soon as servers are bolstered. With the current bulk of Pokémon trainers in the United States, a global phenomenon could have a large carbon footprint.

Pikachu-Powered Data Centers?

There’s little information available on the data centers that Niantic is using for the app, but the company is presumably using Google cloud data centers or something similar. Niantic was a part of Google until April 2015, when the two split. Google has always been known for its environmental stewardship in big data. The company’s data centers are reported to use 50% less energy than most in the industry, and it uses renewable energy to power over 35% of its operations. So while no data is available on Niantic’s end, it can be assumed that the company is using industry best practices in its data centers.

Niantic has not released any sort of impact statement on the app’s actual energy use, though it is almost certainly astronomical. Niantic is already hard at work developing improvements to the game, such as limiting the amount of personal data the app could access. The energy use could be measured to assess the app for potential energy improvements. A new tool called EnergyBox, developed by Ekhiotz Jon Vergara from Swedish Linkoping University, measures the energy consumption of mobile devices due to data communication. This tool finds that the way apps are designed helps to curb the energy used to send and receive large amounts of data. Niantic should take note of its app’s energy consumption before rolling it out globally, lest we be trapped in a Diglett-infested desert due to GO-related global warming.

 

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