Cleantech Market Intelligence
Old Technology Fuels New Energy Boom
With U.S. oil imports hitting a 17-year low, the mainstream media has awoken to the fact that, as I pointed out in a Fortune.com article 3 years ago, peak oil is not happening anytime soon. Charles Mann’s excellent cover story in this month’s Atlantic, “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?” focuses on an obscure though potentially vast source of energy: methane hydrates, or crystalline natural gas trapped below the seabed. If early exploration ventures by Japan and other countries succeed, this gas “could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day.”
An Associated Press story last week reached a similar conclusion about “unconventionals” in general: companies are opening huge deposits of shale gas, “tight oil,” and other hard to reach petroleum sources that will essentially flip the energy world upside down, as the United States regains its status among the world’s largest exporters of petroleum.
Both of these stories, though, share a common misconception, captured in the AP article’s headline: “New Technology Propels Old Energy Boom.”
In fact, the technologies underlying today’s petro-boom are not new at all; they are innovative applications and refinements of technology that has existed for decades. The boom’s core technology is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And drillers have been fracking wells for nearly 60 years. More than 1 million wells have been developed using fracking since the 1940s, according to EnergyFromShale.org, an industry-supported website.
The early use of fracking to get at reserves previously thought of as unrecoverable, emerged in the early 2000s after exploration companies began examining geologic formations using x-ray computed tomography, or CT scanners. The CT scanner was invented in 1967.
What’s happening today is not a new-technology revolution; it’s an evolution of new applications for existing technology. We are doing things that we’ve been doing for decades more efficiently, more effectively, and in much wider applications.
That may sound like a fine distinction, but it’s an important one: Silicon Valley has for years invested in sexy new technologies, from smartphones to social media to exotic solar power materials. The cleantech industry itself has not benefited from a fascination with the new, the exotic, and the high-tech. The technology for embedding sensors in a drill head so that technicians on the surface can map a formation as they drill is not all that sexy, and it didn’t come from a VC-funded startup in a Mountain View garage. It came from drilling engineers in the field figuring out, incrementally, how to do things better, cheaper, and smarter. Often, as in the case of the 21st century oil and gas boom, imaginative tinkering can be more fruitful than reinvention or laboratory R&D.
Leaving aside, for the purposes of this blog, the question of how we can move toward a carbon-free energy system in a world suddenly awash in hydrocarbons, the next phase of technology will almost certainly focus on how to better store, transport, and distribute the seemingly limitless supplies of natural gas now becoming available. The difficulty and expense of liquefying and transporting natural gas have been a drag on the wider use of the relatively clean fuel for many years, particularly in the transportation sector. In 2012, GE Oil and Gas introduced its Micro LNG plant to power remote industrial locations and fuel long haul trucks and locomotives, and last month the company debuted its LNG In A Box system for small-scale retail fueling stations. The Norwegian gas producer and distributor Gasnor in 2009 launched the world’s first specialized, small-scale LNG carrier, the Coral Methane, designed to deliver fuel to remote ports along Norway’s coastline.
These are not “new technologies,” and they’re not being developed and funded as such. But they’re exciting innovations. And they are helping to power an energy transformation that will shape the world’s economy and its geopolitics through the rest of this century.