Navigant Research Blog

Biomethane Offers Solution to Energy-from-Biomass Limitations

— February 6, 2015

My colleague Mackinnon Lawrence recently provided a thorough examination of the prospects for biofuels as a viable source of energy for transportation and power generation in the coming years – from both negative and positive points of view.  Last week, the negative outlook was reinforced by a World Resources Institute report that found that using valuable farmland to grow crops for energy is a wasteful practice that will never supply a significant portion of the world’s energy and that will divert land more urgently needed for growing food crops.

By 2050, the report states, the amount of calories available from crops will need to expand 70% simply to keep up with increased demand for food.  Since three-quarters of arable land is already used to provide human needs, “a growing quest for bioenergy exacerbates this competition for land.”  Bioenergy supporters have called for biofuels to supply 20% of the world’s total energy demand by 2050 – a goal that would require about 225 exajoules from biomass each year.

“That amount, however, is roughly equivalent to the total amount of biomass people harvest today—all the crops, plant residues, and trees harvested by people for food, timber, and other uses, plus all the grass consumed by livestock around the world.”

All Aboard

That is simply unrealistic, especially given the anticipated growth in consumption of plants for food and other human uses such as clothing, timber, and so on.  What’s more, clearing forests to burn wood pellets for energy results in a net carbon increase, once you factor in loss of the CO2 removal capacity of the standing trees.  The numbers don’t add up for massive increases in biomass cultivation for energy.

There is, however, another source of renewable, bio-based energy that could be scaled up without robbing food producers of land: biomethane, often called renewable natural gas (RNG).  Biomethane can come from cultivated crops, such as corn silage; but other, more promising sources include municipal waste and livestock operations.  (Navigant Research’s report, Smart Waste, explores the potential for diverting municipal waste streams for energy recovery.)

One advantage of biomethane is that it is chemically indistinguishable from the methane that constitutes natural gas, which means that the infrastructure – pipelines, turbines, vehicle engines – that uses conventional gas collected underground can also run on RNG.  A “poo-powered” bus, fueled entirely by gas collected through sewage treatment, went into service in the U.K. city of Bristol last November.

Not the Trees, Please

On the electricity side, the United Kingdom now has 28 biomethane-to-grid projects connected to the gas distribution network, using gas produced from the transformation of food, brewery, and van wastes – and energy crops.  “These plants have the capacity to produce 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of gas per year, enough to meet the heating and cooking needs of around 100,000 homes,” reported the Green Gas Certification Scheme, the organization advocating increased use of RNG in the United Kingdom.

In Canada, biomethane advocates are aiming “to have a fully developed RNG marketplace by 2020 that helps meet energy needs, supports growth and innovation for business, and offers a solution to issues associated with waste emissions,” according to a December, 2014 report from the Canadian Gas Association (CGA).  The report found that the potential supply of energy from various biomethane sources could reach as high as 1.3 trillion cubic feet of RNG – equal to one-half of Canada’s natural gas consumption in 2012.

Such optimistic projections must be tempered, though, by the limits on sourcing biomethane from crops.  More than half of the supply of biomethane projected in the CGA report would come from one source: forests.

 

With Cheap Oil Flowing, U.S. Looks to Next Energy Revolution

— January 26, 2015

With oil prices continuing to languish and Saudi Arabia moving through a royal succession upon the death of King Abdullah, the idea that the “OPEC era is over” has gained credence among government officials and industry analysts. “Did the United States kill OPEC?” asks New York Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter. The answer, he argues, is essentially yes: “The Nixon administration and Congress laid the foundation of an industrial policy that over the span of four decades developed the technologies needed to unleash American shale oil and natural gas onto world markets,” thus loosening OPEC’s grip.

The reality is a bit more complicated than that: OPEC still produces nearly 40% of the world’s oil; the United States produces less than 18%. And oil at $50 a barrel could actually increase OPEC’s power as producers of unconventional reserves, which are more costly to produce, are driven from the market. Like the coal industry, OPEC is not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Big Opportunity

The shale revolution does, however, offer some other welcome knock-on effects, if policymakers are alert and astute enough to take advantage of them.  “Cheaper oil and gas will contribute an estimated $2,000 per American household this year, and $74 billion to state and federal governments coffers,” note Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, a San Francisco-based energy and climate think tank. The Breakthrough Institute has done extensive research on the role of public-private partnerships in the development of the seismic and drilling technology advances that underlie the shale revolution. Should the government choose to take advantage of it, this windfall could fund a multi-decade R&D program for renewable energy similar to the one that led to the shale boom.

“We can afford to spend a tiny fraction of the benefits of the bounty that cheap oil and gas have brought so that our children and grandchildren can similarly benefit from cheap and clean energy in the future,” declare Nordhaus and Shellenberger.

The Gas Tax Solution

That’s an inspiring concept. The execution is likely to be messy, though. Any such spending would probably need congressional support, or at least consent – and the U.S. Senate only last week finally reached agreement that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” That’s a long way from dedicating billions to develop alternative energy sources.

One suggestion put forth by clean energy activists is an increase in the U.S. gas tax. A few cents extra per gallon (on gas that’s about half the price it was a year ago) could help fund a massive crash program to develop inexpensive, clean energy technology (not to mention shore up the failing U.S. Highway Trust Fund).

But raising the gas tax is like the National Popular Vote – a terrific idea that’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. Even though polls consistently indicate that consumers are willing to spend slightly more for the energy they consume in order to limit climate change, actually slapping extra taxes on motorists at the pump is unlikely to be a winning move in Washington – which explains why President Obama left it out of his call for a “bipartisan infrastructure plan” in his State of the Union address.

 

Oil Price Crash Rocks Producers’ Worlds

— December 22, 2014

The effects on U.S. consumers of the steep decline of oil prices in recent months have been very welcome: in mid-December, average nationwide gas prices dropped below $2.50 a gallon, leading some analysts to predict a very green and merry Christmas.

The geopolitical ramifications, however, are much less benign.  They can be seen most visibly in Russia, where the value of the ruble is collapsing and the economy is slipping into recession.  The impacts of a crippled economy, clobbered by plummeting oil prices and economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, on the government of Vladimir Putin are impossible to predict.  But Russia in chaos is not a good thing for international security.

The December issue of Navigant’s NG Market Notes examines the likely implications of the current price dive on the global oil and gas industry.  Below is a rundown on the consequences in three critical OPEC countries.

Venezuela

Plunging oil prices have deepened Venezuela’s economic crisis, bringing “massive shortages of basic goods, the world’s highest inflation rate, and a steep currency devaluation,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  The decline poses a serious threat to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who has attempted to continue Hugo Chavez’s program of massive socialized welfare and subsidized prices.  In mid-December, Fitch Ratings downgraded Venezuela’s credit rating to “CCC,” which signals a strong possibility of default.  Low oil prices also deepen Venezuela’s dependence on China, which has lent some $40 billion to prop up the faltering Venezuelan economy through loans and other credits.  Venezuela now exports about 540,000 barrels of oil a day to China, most of which is unprofitable because it goes to repay Chinese loans.

Iran

Overruled at the November OPEC meetings in its bid to push the producing countries to cut production, the Islamic Republic of Iran has moved to the paranoid phase.  Oil minister Bijan Zanganeh declared, “The prolongation of the downward trend of the oil price in world markets is a political conspiracy going to extremes,” according to the British newspaper The Telegraph.  Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 8% of its value against the dollar in recent weeks as Iran copes with not only plummeting oil prices, but also the crippling effects of economic sanctions from Western nations over its pursuit of nuclear weapons technology.  The impact is also being felt in neighboring Syria, where the Assad regime is propped up in the country’s 4-year-old civil war by support from Shi’ite Iran.  Iranian officials have insisted that support for Syria will continue.  But the steep price fall “will break Iran’s back, not just the level of support for Assad,” a Syrian businessman told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia

Perhaps the most significant effects of falling oil prices can be seen in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer for decades until being overtaken by Russia and, more recently, the United States.  The Saudis, who can produce oil from their desert fields at a cost of as low as a few dollars per barrel, have calculated that, at least for the time being, they can endure the effects of very low-priced oil.  In so doing, they are choosing to price other, higher-cost producers out of the market.  Already, production in the North Sea and western Canada is jeopardized, although the common notion that the Saudis are waging a “war on shale” by making U.S. shale oil production uneconomical is probably wrong.  U.S. shale producers can still make money with prices as low as $30 a barrel, according to Morgan Stanley.  How long Saudi Arabia can put up with oil below $70 a barrel, however, is an open question.  The desert kingdom has spent billions on defense, largely with U.S. material, in the last 5 years.  According to RBC Capital Markets analyst Helima Croft, whose calculations were presented on BusinessInsider.com, if prices persist at around $75/barrel, Saudi Arabia’s government reserves could be depleted by 2018.

 

As Demand Soars, Construction of LNG Terminals Booms

— November 24, 2014

International marine construction companies are seeing a bonanza of new projects as countries around the world approve massive new terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) – for imports in most cases, and for exports from North America, Australia, and some Southeast Asian countries.  Altogether, this frenzy of port building could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade as seaborne trade in LNG climbs to meet spiraling demand, particularly in the energy-hungry countries of China, India, and other Asian nations.

Total deliveries of LNG were flat in 2013 compared to 2012, according to the BG Group, but this masks pent-up demand, as producers in the United States are ramping up export capacity and importing countries are scrambling to build import terminals.  BG Group forecasts that worldwide LNG demand is expected to increase at a rate of 5% annually through 2025, with much higher rates in the developing countries of Asia.

North America

In September, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave final approval to the Cove Point LNG facility, overruling the objections of environmental groups and bringing to four the number of U.S. export terminals officially approved and under construction.  All told, 14 terminals are seeking approval by federal regulators in the United States, on the Gulf Coast, the East Coast, and the Pacific Northwest.  The Northwest facilities, in particular, face fierce opposition from environmentalists opposed to the increased fracking that large quantities of U.S. exports will entail.  With big potential markets waiting not only across the Pacific, but also in Europe, U.S. oil & gas companies and their representatives in Washington, D.C. are eager for more export capacity to come online.  There are also at least a dozen LNG terminals proposed along the coast of British Columbia.

Europe

With unrest in Ukraine giving rise to fears of disruptions of natural gas supplies from Russia, which provides 30% of Europe’s natural gas, European governments and companies are scrambling to build new import facilities.  Paradoxically, with international supplies limited and with Japan, which relies more heavily on imported natural gas for its energy supply than any other country, soaking up much of the available supply at inflated prices, imports to Europe have declined in the last couple of years.  The Gate terminal on the North Sea coast near Rotterdam was built with the support of the Dutch government to maintain the Netherlands’ status as a regional gas hub.  It is now running at 10% of capacity, according to The Economist.

Nevertheless, imports from the United States are sure to increase, and the European Union sees the construction of new import terminals as a critical matter of regional energy security.  Lithuania, for example, is due to open a massive new floating terminal this year or in early 2015.  New terminals are especially important along Europe’s vulnerable southeastern coast, as currently countries in the area are essentially captive customers to Russia’s Gazprom.

Amos Hochstein, the acting U.S. special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, testified recently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying that “[there is a] critical need for Europe to improve its energy infrastructure by constructing new pipelines, upgrading interconnectors to allow bidirectional flow, and building new LNG terminals to diversify fuel sources … We support proposals to build LNG terminals at critical points on European coasts, from Poland to Croatia to the Baltics.”

Asia

The biggest building boom is underway in China, where three import new terminals came online in 2013 and at least two more are expected begin operation before the end of this year.  Already, half of the world’s capacity for regasification (the conversion of LNG to conventional natural gas, for transport by pipeline) is located in Asia.

“China’s imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) are growing at a record pace,” reported Reuters earlier this year, “as it aims to use cleaner fuels to cut smog in big cities, creating a powerful new source of demand that has the potential to reshape the market for the super-chilled gas.”  China’s LNG imports grew 35% in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2013.

Meanwhile, new production is emerging from Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.  Also, Singapore, which sits at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, through which passes more than half of the world’s seaborne LNG, has formed ambitious plans to be the LNG trading hub for Southeast and East Asia.

These LNG terminals tend to cost around $10 billion apiece.  It’s a good time to be in the business of building them.

 

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