Someone once said “Better late than never”; I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly! Especially as it has taken me nearly 2 years since I started my PhD to finally get a science blog going, and more pressingly, over two weeks to finally get around to blogging about the Global Energy Systems Conference (26 – 28 June 2013) held at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Since doing my Masters a few years ago, I’ve got quite interested in energy policy and the challenges we face in providing ever more energy while trying to reduce our CO2 emissions. Obviously, the need to curb CO2 emissions to our atmosphere is something close to my heart, given that I’m a PhD researcher in the field of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), so while the GES conference was not specifically about my PhD work its themes put into context the work I carry out.
This conference was my also first experience of tweeting during an event. I have to say it wasn’t exactly fun, but it made me pay attention to all the talks (well, most of…) and really got me to think about what the key messages or facts might be. If you’re feeling particularly bored you can retrospectively read my @VitaminCCS tweets here, and the #GES2013 hashtag here (although tweets from the 5th July are something entirely unrelated). And to really keep me on my toes, I decided I would also blog about some of the things I found particularly interesting, although I had originally intended to do this immediately after each day. Ah, youthful naivety! FYI, the speakers’ presentations are on this page: GES 2013 presentations.
The keynote speaker on Day 1 (theme: Fossil Fuels: Can we turn Unconventional into Conventional?) was Lord Ron Oxburgh, who set out the stall for anthropogenic climate change and the need to reduce, or mitigate, our conventional primary energy consumption of coal , oil and gas (~81% combined global use for 2010). Consumption of energy, expressed as millions of barrels of oil equivalent (mboe) is rising 50% faster than the global population, Figure 1.
With large shale gas reserves, particularly in countries which were previously gas ‘poor’ (e.g. Argentina, Mexico and S. Africa), and the sheer amount of coal that China consumes, mboe is set to continue rising at a faster rate than population growth. With many mitigation options available, such as increased energy efficiency, the switch to renewables, etc., Lord Oxburgh focused particularly on the role which CCS has to play in curbing CO2 emissions, although acknowledging the myriad of challenges that CCS still faces before becoming a commercial reality. In this respect, China, which could be significantly impacted by climate change, could bring to bear its significant resources and efficient (ahem) implementation of government policies to drive development of CCS. One can only hope, as CCS has lost impetus in Europe.
The keynote was immediately followed by Dr. Roger Bentley, who outlined the limits to global energy supply:
- Peak production of conventional oil is probably about now, Figure 2, and forecasters should be careful to distinguish between ‘proved’ and ‘probable’ reserves, since proved reserves continue to rise, but probable reserves are in decline.
- Peak production of conventional gas is around 10-15 years away, Figure 2, again cautioning on how gas reserves are estimated and reported.
- Conventional coal production peak is probably also soon.
- The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) factor is lower for non-conventional and renewables than for conventional oil/gas/coal, and has been decreasing for conventionals e.g. EROEI for oil was 100 in the 1930’s, but is only 13 at present. It is suggested that modern society needs this number to be 10-15 (Hall et al, 2009).
- The change away from conventional energy is rate-limited e.g. investment availability, technological ‘readiness’, net energy limits (i.e. the EROEI may not be high enough yet), etc.
- Global – or local – economic activity may be hindered by high energy prices, but the lowest costs are associated with conventional energy supplies, so how can we balance economic growth and a shift to alternative energy supplies?
- Finally, what is the limit on atmospheric CO2 – for how long can we continue to emit greenhouse gasses unabated?
With no particular answers to these problems, it nonetheless made for an insightful talk which generated a fair bit of discussion at the coffee break.
The third talk of the morning was presented by Kevin Jianjun Tu, and was an insight into China’s current love affair with coal. Did you know, for example, that despite China having the 2nd largest coal reserves in the world (after the US), it surpassed Japan in 2011 as the world’s largest coal importer? It currently imports around 300 million tonnes of coal per year, with 48% of total coal consumption (2010) used for power generation. Obviously, this comes at a price: some 80-90% of China’s CO2 emissions are from coal use, and 80% of global coal mining fatalities occur in China. Therefore despite the nation’s increasing wealth and power, it is vulnerable to global energy supply and must keep its neighbours and business partners happy in order to continue growing, while also recognising that pollution, climate change and safety are serious issues it needs to address. No surprise there, but I think many are skeptical and will ‘believe it when we see it’.
Two consecutive afternoon talks by Dr. Kenneth Chew and Dr. Ruud Weijermars were concerned with American shale oil and shale gas, respectively. Both speakers emphasised the role that technological development has played, from the idea of fracturing ‘tight’ formations (i.e. shales) conceived in the late 1850’s in the US, through to horizontal drilling in the 1920’s and the improvement of well measuring and monitoring through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The future projections of shale oil and gas in the US, however, are quite different. Initially high gas prices and good internal rates of return accelerated the shale gas industry, however now that the US gas prices have dropped due to overproduction, shale gas has rapidly become uneconomic for developers and a sharp decline in operational rigs has been seen in recent years, Figure 3.
On the other hand, shale oil in the US is seeing a boom, since around 2005 when shale oil began reversing the US decline in oil production, Figure 4. Recovery factors remain low, however, and require a high density of rigs to extract; in fact, rigs are moving off shale gas to shale oil. Shale oil is, like shale gas, still vulnerable to the economics of difficult extraction and depressed prices, but for the moment is holding up well. Again, both Dr. Chew and Dr. Weijermars stressed that technological advances will improve production, potentially improving the economics. For example, increasing the recovery factor by just 1% using enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques could add 70 billion barrels oil equivalent (bnboe) of oil to global reserves (UK has produced 40 bnboe in 40 years, for comparison), according to Prof. Mehran Sohrabi in his talk on CO2-EOR.
Moving closer to home, the long term prospects of hydrocarbon production on the UK continental shelf (UKCS) was set out by Prof. Alex Kemp. Despite a decline in significant discoveries, new fields, and production, and in increase in development costs through the years, the future looks apparently rosy for North Sea production. Projections made by Prof. Kemp for the period 2012-2050 estimates that between 10.3 and 33.0 bnboe is potentially extractable. Don’t just take my word for it: please look through his extensive set of slides for all the assumptions made in the modelling. Good news, particularly if you’re a Scottish Nationalist, clearly.
The day ended for me with talks on underground coal gasification and gas-to-liquids (GTL) technologies, which I won’t detail here, except to comment thus: Guy de Kort‘s (Shell) slick presentation on GTL revealed that their Pearl GTL plant in Qatar produces around 140,000 barrels per day of GTL at an energy cost of 560MW just for air compression, which is essential for GTL. If I got my sums right, 560MW in the UK would power around 62,000 homes. Crazy!
So, in summary: conventional energy sources are in decline, or about to decline while energy consumption is rising globally. On the question of whether unconventional can become conventional, this depends on many factors, such as the economics of recovery, technological advances, and any ambitions to reduce our input of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Day 2 addresses the future of electricity supply – my blog post will appear sooner than some of the proposed technologies, I hope!