OWOE Staff: The world recently celebrated Earth Day on April 22 – 52 years after the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Unfortunately, like pretty much all the prior Earth Days, very little concrete progress was committed to addressing the world’s global warming crisis. If I may paraphrase my favorite environmentalist, Greta Thunberg, it was all “bunny, bunny…blah, blah, blah“. Perhaps the biggest news in the fight against climate changes was Denmark’s proposal for a new corporate carbon tax, which would set a value of 1,125 Danish crowns ($164.21) per tonne of carbon equivalent and make it the highest such tax in the world if implemented. But again, that’s just a proposal. In the meantime, fossil fuel use has recovered from its Covid lows, CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets continue to melt, and environmental damage from storms, fires, and rising sea levels continue. I personally witnessed a real-life example of that the very week of Earth Day when I visited one of my favorite beaches in the world, Cancun. I have been going to the beaches of Cancun almost every year since the early 2000s, and the change to the beach caused by the increase in seaweed over the past few years is dramatic. We all tend to miss the big picture when all we see are incremental changes, but after skipping two years because of pandemic travel restrictions, the magnitude of the beach changes was more obvious and led me to look back at my earlier visits and take a broader perspective. Figure 1 shows the change over the last 8 years, with a) from April 2014 and b) from April 2022, both the exact same stretch of beach.
This seaweed is Sargassum which reproduces vegetatively and never attaches to the seafloor. The Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea was named after the seaweed for the large amount of Sargassum that collects there. More recently, an area of Sargassum has developed off the coast of Brazil near the mouth of the Amazon River.
Figure 2 from the University of Florida Satellite-based Sargassum Watch System (SaWS) shows how the Sargassum bloom off the coast of Brazil has evolved. Since 2011, Sargassum seaweed has appeared in the Caribbean Sea every summer except 2013, creating many environmental, ecological and economic problems. The seaweed originates in the tropical Atlantic and drifts with the current into the Caribbean. It is believed to be a result of climate variability combined with other natural and anthropogenic processes and has been getting progressively worse. One of those anthropogenic processes is deforestation, which causes soil erosion that leads to surplus nutrients being washed into rivers and flowing into the ocean, ultimately feeding the Sargassum. Deforestation also releases carbon into the atmosphere which contributes to climate change and increases ocean temperature, which then accelerates Sargassum growth.
2018 was a bad year for the seaweed, but April 2022 seaweed quantities have exceeded all prior years. The overall Sargassum amount increased significantly across the tropical Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Central West Atlantic (the region east of the Lesser Antilles), setting a new historical record for the month of April.
How has Cancun been dealing with this problem? Not very well. Although there has been some attempt to clean the seaweed with vessels, most still washes ashore. Figure 3 shows the various ways the individual resorts in the Hotel Zone have been dealing with the problem: a) bury using tractor, b) what’s left after burying – “sandweed fluff”, c) leaving to decompose naturally – resulting in a prickly mess that is unsightly and uncomfortable to walk on, and d) haul-off using backhoes and dumpsters. Not shown is another common approach – hotel workers burying the seaweed by hand on the beach. They spend all day raking and shoveling and go home exhausted, only to return the next day and start over again. All approaches, other than leaving in place, result in significant cost for the hotels, and all impact the beach. The famous soft, white, pristine Cancun sand no longer exists.
Ultimately, this has an impact on visitors who hear about the problem and choose a different destination or who visit Cancun, are disappointed in the beaches, and choose to not return in the future. According to the Mexican government, tourism will fall by as much as 30% at Quintana Roo (state that includes Cancun and the Mayan Riviera) beach destinations this year due to the invasion of Sargassum.
When organizations try to calculate the cost of climate change, they focus on measurable costs – how much it costs to fight the impact of the change or repair the damage caused. But what about the indirect costs? What is the value to the world of walking on the beaches of Cancun or scuba diving along the Australian coral reefs or skiing in the Andes mountains or living on the coast of almost any place in the world, all (and much more) of which are at risk of disappearing?
Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: Governments’ penchant for wasting taxpayer money and harming the environment is not a recent phenomenon but it went industrial in 20th century at all levels. At the beginning of the century Mother Nature and society had a tremendous capacity to forgive bad decisions even when some such decisions resulted in millions of deaths over the span of several decades. Human, sorry, people-kind abused Mother Nature and the pocketbooks of taxpayers in the name of progress and energy transition but managed to overcome crises such as anthropogenic acid deposition and the oil embargo of the 1970s. People-kind barely limped out of the 20th century into the 21st century. In all likelihood Mother Nature and taxpayer pocketbooks are now beyond the capacity to forgive our shortcomings and bad decisions for much longer. Who is to blame for this? Big business has big shame, but most blame lies entirely before the governments who are elected to be wise but are faddish populists with inherent graft and “ism” agendas. Difficult and complex solutions require deep thinkers, not pot-addled Princes of Privilege (shout-out to Justin Trudeau, see notes 1 and 2).(more…)
Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: It is very difficult to keep up with all the energy changes in the world. Every week, some Big Government Agency, NGO, International Think Tank or Big Company proclaims some new solution to the looming global energy problem of too much of the wrong kind of energy and too often from the wrong place. While most of the analysts and prognosticators seem knowledgeable and well intentioned, OWOE analysts cannot conclude for certain that the resultant big government plans foisted through bureaucrats onto ordinary citizens are based upon sound knowledge and understanding of energy markets, resources, technology and costs. I emphasize technology and cost because most government edicts are based more upon woke and vote political expedience than anything technically attainable without causing significant long term economic pain, e.g., recent decisions to shut down nuclear reactors. Nor have governments shown themselves to understand the political issues of energy supply, as we now see with Europe stuck paying for Russia’s conquest of Ukraine. We have some insightful and interesting comments about the Russian war, but these won’t be discussed in this blog – maybe later.(more…)
Guest blog by Mr. R. U. Cirius: Here are some interesting and somewhat offbeat energy stories that haven’t gotten much media attention that OWOE readers might have missed.
Very Small Modular Reactors There has been a lot of press coverage for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) recently, with some touting them as the solution to the world’s energy challenges to others expressing doubt that they can actually be successful (see also OWOE blog Nuclear Power: Climate Solution or Hype). However, a new version of these nuclear reactors has just been announced that may actually meet the high expectations. William Fences, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, and his company MicroPower, claims to have developed the first Very Small Modular Reactor (VSMR). This is a stand-alone suitcase-sized micro nuclear reactor for both private and commercial use. The reactor includes: molten salt nuclear fuel module, molten salt pump, thermo-electric battery with inverter to export power at 480v, water coolant system that connects directly to the home or business water supply, and auxiliary air cooling motor that plugs easily into a standard 220v power receptacle, all enclosed withing an easily movable case (see Figure 1). Although not yet available for purchase, MicroPower is planning to sell units with power generation capability ranging from 5kW to 50kW.(more…)
OWOE Staff: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy on many fronts – for the civilians caught in the crossfire, for the concept of democracy, and for the rest of the globe that will certainly feel the impact of economic sanctions imposed in an interconnected world. One impact of those sanctions in the US can be seen in the sharp rise in gasoline prices. In high-priced gasoline states like California, gas prices at the beginning of this week reached an average of about $5.40/gal (up about 10% from the previous week – see Figure 1).
Such a sharp increase, especially coupled with inflation stemming from the Covid pandemic stimulus packages and more recent supply chain issues, is certainly going to have a significant impact on Americans. Other impacts of the sanctions, including the US banning of Russian oil imports will create another round of challenges. US companies curtailing business in Russia will see impact to their financial bottom lines which will have a follow-on effect on the stock market. And now we are now getting warnings that prices for other commodities that Russia exports to the world have become volatile and are surging. But can something good come of this?
OWOE believes that the world can use this opportunity to step back and reassess how it moves forward to address the challenges of energy security, energy transition and climate change. In particular, how we can change our dependence on fossil fuels from a supply-focused approach to a demand-focused approach? This has been a recurring OWOE theme (Don’t Blame the Suppliers; The Fundamental (and Somewhat Existential) Source of Climate Change – and How We Might Overcome It). And just recently, Hal Kvisle, a former chief executive of TransCanada Corp., was quoted in BNN Bloomberg as saying: “Until consumers have other alternatives, other ways of getting around, or other ways of heating their homes effectively – until we address the demand on the consumer side – we’re not really going to change the balance”. Prior to the Ukraine invasion, the Covid pandemic dominated not only the news cycle but our daily lives. In 2020 the demand for gasoline (i.e., oil) dropped dramatically to a level not seen since the mid-1990s. This was driven in part by the economic stagnation during the first year of the Covid pandemic, with many people losing their jobs or being forced to take time off work and many others forced to work from home. As a result, transportation by both vehicle and plane dropped dramatically. Figure 2 shows petroleum consumption history from 1950 through 2020, with consumption by the transportation sector dropping from a yearly average of 14.1 million barrels/day in 2019 to 11.9 million barrels/day in 2020.
But we managed to survive. Then in 2021 as many of the Covid restrictions were lifted, people started to return to a normal life, and, driven by the pent-up demand from the prior year, oil consumption surged. In November 2021 consumption in the transportation sector jumped up to 13.7 million barrels/day, or just 3% under the 2019 peak, as shown with the added data points.
The first conclusion that can be drawn from these numbers is that, with the right behavior, banning Russian oil imports should have essentially no impact on the US economy. In 2021 average oil imports from Russia were 672,000 barrels/day. That was only 5% of transportation needs (and only 3% of total oil consumption of 23.2 million barrels/day across all sectors). Loss of all Russian barrels would mean the November 2021 transportation consumption would have been about 13 million barrels/day, which would still have been well above the 2020 value. Given that Americans in 2022 are now driving on average 14,263 miles/year (on track for 3.2 trillion miles total) and that the average car in the US gets 23 mpg, it would only take a decrease of about 25 miles per year per vehicle to eliminate completely the need for the Russian oil imports. Certainly, support of Ukraine against Russian aggression is worth driving 1/2 mile less each week.
The second conclusion is that we now have a very good data point for what behaviors can quickly result in a 10-15% reduction in oil consumption, i.e., the 2019 to 2020 drop. This drop was not driven by the cost of gasoline; it was driven by a much broader reduction in demand. While a Covid-scale drop might be too aggressive and costly to the economy, an intermediate value seems very doable. Let’s continue to support clever ways to work remotely and reduce commuting; let’s focus on energy efficiency with electric vehicles, LED lights, home insulation, etc.; let’s scale back our rampant consumerism; let’s walk and bike more in place of driving. These are easy technology changes that can be made with minimal impact to lifestyle and the overall economy and could be greatly enhanced with government encouragement, including ad campaigns and incentive programs. The result would be a huge step forward in the US effort to reduce oil imports, and, concurrently, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help slow global warming.
OWOE also notes that we have been pointing out the risk that dependence on oil supplies from non-democratic countries creates for several years now. See OWOE blogs: Is There Any Limit to How Dumb Can Governments Get?, It’s a Mad Mad World of Energy, Time for a New Energy Policy, etc. This crisis appears to be the catalyst might make that a reality. The European Commission just published plans to cut EU dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year and end its reliance on Russian supplies of the fuel “well before 2030”.
Hopefully, the Ukrainian tragedy can be used to change the mindset and approach of governments around the world. We’ve proven that we can live with less oil; now we need to make that the norm. It is time to eliminate dependence on Russia for any commodity, moderate our seemingly limitless demand for fossil fuels, and save the planet!
Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: The answer is no, there is no limit to how dumb governments can get in terms of irrational legislation, fanciful proclamations and of course impossible energy policies. There are a few fundamental things that governments need to do right for society to survive, let alone thrive. Amongst them are protecting their citizens from external threats (military or viral, for instance) and protecting individual rights to conduct commerce or disagree with the government. After that, arguments start about everything else that people think governments should do or not do. I won’t argue those points, but I will argue that governments all around the world, except for China, are being complete idiots when it comes to energy trade and transition.(more…)
Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: In early November of 2021, the UN’S COP 26 climate conference wrapped up in Glasgow with all sorts of politicians pledging this or that with respect to greenhouse gas emission reductions, renewable tech investments and invoking equity across the world. But really, what are the actions that followed those ballyhoo words bantered about in public? The staff at OWOE took at look at some of the subsequent oil production announcements away from the public spotlight. The following summarizes planned increases / decreases and shares what we found is the most amusing quote associated with each country’s plans.(more…)
OWOE Staff: California tends to be a polarizing state. As the most populous US state and what would be the 5th largest economy in the world if it were a country, as the home of the television and movie industry, as the home to Silicon Valley with its technology leaders and billionaires, and as the home base to many environmental organizations, it has always been a trendsetter. In the battle against climate change, California has been a leader. It is the #1 state for installed cumulative solar electrical capacity by a factor of about 3 over the #2 state (Texas). It has the highest volume of Electric Vehicles owned of any state by a factor of about 7 over the #2 state (Florida). It has required higher vehicle emission standards than the rest of the US since the 1970 Clean Air Act. It has set a goal of 100% clean electric power by 2045. It has banned the sales of new gasoline powered automobiles by 2035 and is moving toward accelerating that to 2030. Progressives and those concerned about the health of the planet love these programs. Conservatives and those beholden to the fossil fuel industry hate these programs. But, suddenly, California is making a move against residential rooftop solar power as in Florida, where utilities argue that rooftop residential solar affects their business model. That’s correct; suddenly California is limiting the ability of its residents to achieve both energy independence and greatly reduce the State’s overall carbon footprint.(more…)
OWOE Staff: An OWOE contributor shared a BBC News article with OWOE staff regarding the possible construction of four (4) Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the UK. This would be a demonstration project for nuclear reactors based on nuclear submarine technology that some companies are touting as a key contribution to the sustainable, renewable energy mix of the future. The following day Rolls Royce announced that it had procured sufficient funding to develop its SMR concept that would trigger additional funds from the UK government to kick-off the project, with the first plant targeted for completion in the early 2030s. A further BBC News article referenced these Rolls Royce SMRs again, along with barge mounted SMRs being developed by Denmark’s Seaborg Technologies. The problem here is not with the projects themselves or the technology, but with the way they are characterized to the public. To quote the first BBC article:(more…)
OWOE Staff: The energy world has been rocked by a number of crucial events during the past two months. In the transition to renewable energy and more particularly in the removal of fossil fuels form the energy mix, there are possibly three history-making game changers: Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against environmental activists who are trying to save our planet. In principle, I support most of the stated goals of these individuals and organizations, and of all the people I greatly admire, Greta Thunberg could well be at the top of my list. But the recent focus of these activists on shutting down big oil, closing nuclear power plants, blocking new pipelines, banning plastic straws, etc., is misguided. Yes, all of these are contributors to global warming and other forms of pollution, and yes, the world would be better off without all of them. However, the problem is that these things represent the supply side of the economic marketplace. They are there because people want them, either directly – we want gas to drive our cars, or indirectly – we want to buy lots and lots of stuff that takes energy to manufacture and transport. Cutting supply does not solve the problem if the demand remains: cleverer or less scrupulous players will gladly jump in to fill the void. And, at the end of the day, all of us will likely be worse off.(more…)