Monday, 24 June 2013

What If We Never Run Out of Oil?

Ralph Wilson/AP
My hard copy of The Atlantic drops on my doorstep here in Hong Kong rather late each month, so I've only just go around to reading this fascinating article by Charles Mann.
Learn all about "tight oil" and methane hydrates.
It's ironic isn't it?
First irony: the US, which didn't sign the Kyoto Protocol (remember that?), has achieved larger reductions in CO2 emissions than any of the countries that did sign the protocol. And that's because they allowed fracking to develop, so far with no adverse effects, and so replace some of its dirty coal fired power stations with natural gas, which has about a third of the CO2 . 
As its proponents point out, fracking technology is not really new -- the US has been using it since 1947.  What is new is that they can no go deeper and horizontally, releasing resources that couldn't be reached before.  A side effect of going deeper, by the way, is that it's virtually impossible that deep fracking will affect drinking waters (one of the fears of opponents). [Later, 25 June: just heard on BBC Radio that a study in the US has found higher levels of methane and ethane near fracking operations].
Second irony: that instead of "peak oil", and "running out in our lifetime", as we've so often been warned, we may in fact be on the verge of a period of such production and resources that we will, as the article suggests "never run out of oil".

A counter argument to Charles Mann's, in the same magazine is Are Methane Hydrates Really Going to Change Geopolitics?, by Chris Nelder.
Later, 25 June: The internally linked article about Solar PV written in early 2011, is interesting.  It shows that the cost of solar is dropping sharply as production increases.  Looking at how those figures hold up after a few years, they seem not too bad. Eg, at the end of 2010 there was 40 GW of installed solar PV capacity.  Van der Leun estimates that even if growth slows to 25% pa, capacity will have grown to 320 GW by 2018.  In the event, installed capacity was 100 MW in early 2013, for a compound annual growth rate since 2010 of 58%.  Mind, 320GW still a very small amount compared with total installed capacity of 5,000 MW worldwide, but if the growth continues, and even drops, solar PV could be 18-20% of the total, by, around 2030.  That's my calculations; still, if anywhere near likely, we could realistically have a much more solar future, and who could argue against that -- not even climate change skeptics, if it's done by the market and helps clear the air.