Planning for a World Without Work

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:08 pm by Administrator

I have read a couple of articles recently that have crystallized my thoughts about a topic that has me concerned about the future faced by my sons and daughter.

The article I read yesterday had the title The Raise that Roared. It is about an entrepreneur in Seattle that decided that he was not paying enough to his employees for them to live a middle class lifestyle. He came to the conclusion that the wage gap between himself and his employees was too large and as a result he lowered his own salary and made the minimum wage within his firm $70,000.

This move has been heralded as visionary and lambasted as cynical and/or socialist. But to my way of thinking it simply highlights the yawning gap between the rich and everyone else that has been growing for more than a decade (recall the “occupy” movement that started in 2011).

One of the contributors to this gap has been the increasingly obscene amounts being paid to corporate executives.

When I started working for Gulf Oil in the 80’s (one of the most profitable oil companies in the world at that time) the CEO of the company made something like 30-40 times the lowest paid worker stocking shelves in a warehouse or answering the telephones at the reception desk.

In the world of 2015 someone performing the lowest paid jobs for a company like that makes about $20,000 (or less) and CEO’s now regularly make $10,000,000 or more. That’s a multiple of 500.

Just last year Yahoo paid out a record $110 Million to executive Henrique De Castro. What incredible feat did he accomplish to deserve such a generous award? He was so bad at his job that he was fired after just 15 months.

I would attribute this rampant escalation in executive compensation to the growth of Mutual Fund ownership of the economy.

Mutual Fund managers rarely look past the last few quarters of results and really don’t have much interest in the long term viability of a company. They have been completely “hands off” when it comes to senior management. At some point the boys in the executive suite figured this out and started giving themselves massive raises and bonuses.

Initially they were probably somewhat surprised that there was no push back but now it is simply accepted that precedents set by the last insane salary increase at one company should be replicated by any company that wants to remain “competitive”. Sort of like elite athletes salaries except that in the world of sport athletes actually have to perform to keep getting their contracts renewed.

The other and perhaps even more disturbing trend is that increasing automation in every field is putting more and more power and control into the hands of those that can afford the tools that are used to replace human labour.

The story that got my attention in this regard was the recent announcement regarding the development of a robotic brick-laying machine. It is not surprising that such a machine could be built. In fact it was inevitable. But what this demonstrates is that even skilled labour jobs are not immune to automation.

It has often been said that technology does not eliminate jobs but in fact creates even more jobs. In my experience that is only because technology when first introduced doesn’t really work very well. Once it becomes mature there are very negative impacts on employment levels.

My father was an underground miner working for INCO in Sudbury Ontario. In the 1960’s INCO employed 17,000 workers. Today that number has dropped to less than 5,000 and the company produces more nickel than ever. Automation and robotics have replaced more than 7 out of 10 workers. Is that is a bad thing? I don’t think so. Those jobs were dirty, dangerous, and dull. But it makes you wonder what jobs will be left when robotics and artificial intelligence reach their true potential in perhaps 30-50 years.

Does anyone doubt that self-driving cars will be the norm within 20 years? There go all the taxi, bus, and truck driving jobs. The result should be more efficient and significantly safer travel and transport – that’s a good thing, right?

If you can imagine self-driving cars then isn’t it realistic to think that airline pilot jobs and many similar highly skilled jobs will also disappear.

You might counter that there will always be jobs where human intelligence and analysis will be required. Maybe that’s true. But back before computers were mainstream could anyone have imagined that a machine could defeat the most talented chess players in the world? And what about that 2011 episode of the game show Jeopardy where IBM’s Watson easily defeated two former champions.

I foresee the day where you walk into a neighbourhood medical clinic and stand in a booth where you are subjected to a full body scan involving multiple sensors. Within seconds a computerized diagnosis would be provided that will be much more accurate than human doctors could possibly come up with.

The widespread deployment of these advanced technologies will require energy – a lot of energy. I have written about many energy storage technologies on this blog and I am absolutely certain that one or more will become economical within the 30-50 year time frame. At that point it will be possible to generate all the energy we need and more from wind, solar, hydro, hydro-kinetics and geothermal sources at very low costs. Abundant energy will also mean abundant water because desalination of seawater will become viable.

In a world where robots and artificial intelligence have come to dominate large parts of the economy how does a social structure based upon humans earning a living by “working” continue to function? The short answer is “it doesn’t”.

Over the next 30 years structural unemployment will creep continually upward. Unemployment rates of 20%, 30% or more will become the norm. It will make no difference how well educated, motivated, skilled, or industrious young people are. They will not be able to compete with either automation or older, more experienced workers. The inevitable result will be social unrest at a scale not seen since the 1930’s. The “Occupy Movement” was only a dress rehearsal.
I don’t think this is a disaster in the making. Society will evolve in order to adjust to the new reality. But evolve it must and the sooner we accept that and start heading in the right direction the better. Allowing the wage disparity to continue to grow is exactly the wrong direction.

As the work available for humans decreases there must be a corresponding reduction in the amount of time that each individual is expected to work. A shorter work week, a higher minimum wage, and better benefits for part-time workers are not luxuries that we as a society cannot afford. These are evolutionary changes that must take place in order to maintain social order.

Personally I feel that shared ownership provides one opportunity to address both the executive compensation issue and the more equal distribution of wealth. Democratically controlled organizations, be they credit unions, co-ops, or not-for-profit organizations such as auto clubs providing insurance and even car-sharing services would never put up with outlandish executive compensation packages. And the one member, one vote structure of these organizations allows individuals to share equally in the responsibilities and the economic benefits that are the reason these organizations exist.

I’m sure that some people will consider this vision of the future to be radical and alarmist. It certainly will be different. I just don’t see any other way that things can turn out over the long run. And organizations as credible as the World Economic Forum and Oxfam seem to agree.


Bike Share/Rent in Northern Europe – a sampler

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:52 pm by Administrator

I recently returned from a three week vacation in Northern Europe and during my visit I made a point of trying out the bike share/rental opportunities in a few different cities. In a previous blog post I mentioned using the bike share system in Chicago. In 2014 I was also able to try out a very similar system in Toronto. I think that after this last vacation I am getting a good sense of what works and what does not work so well with these systems.

Oslo, Norway. I think that the Oslo system would work very well for local residents who can purchase a smart card for the season for 150 Norwegian Krone (currently about $US 18). For tourists like myself the system does not work well at all.

First problem: getting a smart card. These are only available at the Oslo Visitor Center in the east part of the city center. And the smart cards must be returned to the same location. They also cost 100 Krone (about $US 13) per day which is a little expensive for this kind of service.

There are more than 100 bike stations throughout the city but sadly none at the Maritime Museum/Kon Tiki/Fram location which is where I wanted to go. I had to drop off the bike at the Viking museum about a 15 minute walk away.

My final complaint – no bike locks. This is very typical of bike share systems and frankly this is a big problem. Not being able to comfortably leave your bike for even a few minutes to make a purchase or grab a quick snack is a real drag. You end up spending more time trying to find a nearby bike station than you would making the stop. There are a few systems that do provide bike locks and it is a major advantage as far as I am concerned.

Port of Nynashamn, Sweden. After cruising for 9 days and having visited 6 cities we were feeling like a relaxing day when we got to Sweden. As a result we did not go into Stockholm. Instead we enjoyed some of the best desserts ever at the Jannis Cafe after which we burned a few calories biking along the waterfront.

Bike rentals in Nynashamn are through one of the two tourist offices – one at the waterfront at the foot of Centralgatan and the other further east near the industrial port. The staff at both offices were incredibly helpful and the bikes came with built-in locks and helmets. At about $US 2.40/hour these bikes were also relatively expensive but gave us the freedom to explore this charming little port. The short ride over to the outstanding Nynäs Havsbad Spa is very rewarding even if you don’t go for a sauna or massage. Watch out for the troll under the bridge.

Copenhagen, Denmark. Of course we had to try biking in the bicycle Mecca of the world. In our case the hotel we were staying at had rental bicycles so that was easier than using the pedal assist electric bike rental service which is also somewhat expensive at 25 Danish Krone (currently about $US 3.75)/hour.

Most of the streets in Copenhagen have bike lanes which are physically separated from sidewalks and the street by a small ledge with the result that you are never jostling with automobile or pedestrian traffic. The sites in central Copenhagen are easily reached by bicycle and getting around on two wheels is definitely the right way to see the city.

Both the rental bikes we used and the rental electric bikes come equipped with the same kind of “clasp” locks that we had seen in Sweden.

Paris, France.The Paris bike sharing system is very heavily used by locals and tourists alike. That is a good thing and a bad thing.

Getting a bike is very easy. You go through the menus on the screens at any bike station, swipe your credit card, and the system provides you with an ID number and requires you to select a PIN number. For the duration of your pass you just enter the code and PIN to unlock a bike.

One thing I loved about the bikes in Paris is the built in cable lock. That allows you to feel comfortable leaving your bike while you pick up some croisants or better yet some very affordable French wine. It is a simple system with a key to lock and unlock and I wish more bike-sharing systems offered this feature.

In Paris the cost for bike-share is 1.7 Euros for 24 hours or 8 Euros for a week. Those prices are as good as I have seen anywhere.

Like most true bike-sharing systems (Chicago, Toronto, London England) you only get to use the bike for 30 minutes for free. If you keep the bike longer than 30 minutes you pay an additional fee. In the case of Paris it is 1 Euro for the first additional 30 minutes, 2 Euros for the 2nd, 4 Euros for additional 30 minute periods. That means that if you keep the same bike for 2 hours you would end up paying additional fees of 7 Euros – not so cheap. But the whole concept of bike sharing is that you keep the bike for as little time as possible – essentially to get from “A” to “B”, then return it to a bike station so that someone else can use it. If you need a bike for a longer trip you can just park the first bike at a station and take a second and so on – in theory at least.

But that does raise one issue that can make bike sharing a very frustrating experience; bike stations that are full.

Bikes tend to accumulate at tourist sites in the early part of the day. I first encountered that problem in Chicago at the Field Museum. In Paris I encountered full bike stations on several occasions. The operators use trucks to haul bikes away from popular destinations but that seems to be a somewhat unreliable service especially in Paris.

So what do you do if you encounter a full bike station? In Paris you can enter your ID and PIN and get an additional free 15 minutes if the station is full. That may or may not be enough time to get to the next bike station on your route and that station could also be full. The struggle to find a spot at a bike station can get pretty annoying very quickly.

One thing you can do to reduce (but not eliminate) the “full bike station” problem is to pay for one more bike than you actually need. At 8 Euros for a week that is a small price to pay in Paris. With that approach if you encounter a full bike station along your planned route then you can just check out a bike using your “surplus” ID and PIN then check in the bike that is reaching its 30 minute limit.

If the bike station nearest your final destination is also full then you are still hooped. You can use your “surplus” ID and PIN to get an additional 30 minutes free rather than the 15 minutes you could get normally. But you would still have to just wait around and hope that someone shows up to take a bike leaving a spot open for you. If you are traveling with a group the wait to get enough empty spots is unpredictable and in the meantime precious vacation time is wasted.

There is a free mobile phone app (most bike-sharing systems have one) that lets you monitor the bike stations to find one that is not full. If you have a local SIM card or a good roaming plan that is an option. But the status of a bike station will change very frequently as bikes come and go so even that option does not provide a lot of certainty for planning purposes.

Given how busy bike stations can get in Paris would I still recommend using the system? Absolutely! Despite a few short waits to return a bike I never really experienced a serious problem and it was a gas to bike through the narrow streets of Paris. Motorists and pedestrians alike are used to dealing with the shared bikes (although they may not like them) so I never felt that I was in an unsafe situation despite not having a helmet.

London England.The bike sharing system in London is also heavily used. In fact, the website claims that there are more than 10,000 shared bikes available at 700 locations in the city.

A bike-sharing plan can be purchased at any bike station and costs 2 pounds stirling (currently about $US 3) for 24 hours. Additional fees of 2 pounds/30 minutes apply if you keep a bike longer than 30 minutes.

One minor annoyance with the London system is the requirement that you swipe your credit card to identify yourself every time you want to take out a bike. In my case I was traveling with a group and we put all the bicycle rentals on one credit card. That meant that we had to be together to get bikes and there were a few times when that wasn’t convenient. Having a code (Chicago, Toronto, Paris) provides a more flexible approach.

As with many systems the London bikes do not have locks and they also lack the baskets that Paris bikes were equipped with.

After this last trip I am now addicted to bike sharing. In many cities, especially in Europe, riding a bike is literally the fastest way to get around. That means that you can see more in less time which is awesome. Much as I also really enjoy walking in these cities it can get pretty tiring and hard on the feet. Biking for part of the way provides some relief.

If you have considered using bike-sharing but are nervous about traffic I would recommend that you give it a try. In the cities where there are bike-sharing programs everyone is getting used to pesky tourists that flip from street to sidewalk whenever it is convenient. If you want to enhance your experience take along a small backpack, lightweight cable lock and helmet.


Renewable Energy Highlights for the 2nd half of 2014 – Few and Far Between

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:56 pm by Administrator

I haven’t posted anything to the Black Swan Blog for 8 months. One reason is that I have had a few other projects that have really monopolized my time.  But the other reason is that I usually write blog posts in response to something that interests me in the world of renewable energy.  Frankly, not much has been happening since last summer.

I was pretty certain that Texas would be encountering severe problems because of the fluctuations in their wind energy generation.  In fact, they had no problems at all last summer.  That was helped by the addition of 1.3 GW (Net of reductions) of Natural Gas plant capacity (according to the December, 2014  Report on the Capacity, Demand, and Reserves) and a maximum peak demand of only 66.5 GW in August 2014 as compared to a peak demand of 67.25 GW in August, 2013 and an all-time peak of 68.3 GW in August, 2011).

I did find it interesting to note that ERCOT has now redefined the peak capacity percentages for wind resources.  This is essentially the percentage of nameplate wind capacity that can be relied upon during peak demand times.  Based upon 6 years worth of data and a large installed generation base this value is 12% for onshore resources in the summer, 19% for the winter.  For offshore resources the values are 56% in the summer and 36% for the winter. Unfortunately the vast majority of Texas wind farms are onshore and peak demand is in the summer.

Some of my most popular blog posts have been about the experience with renewables in Hawaii and on that topic there have been a number of interesting developments. In many ways, at least with regards to solar energy, Hawaii is on the bleeding edge with regards to dealing with the opportunities and the problems associated with incorporating large amounts of solar energy into their utility grid.

The issues I had raised in an earlier post have started to reach a critical stage. The “success” of the rooftop solar program has brought many of the circuits in the state to the point where they are at risk of becoming unstable, possibly leading to failures or equipment damage. As a result new permit requirements have been put in place and in the last quarter of 2014 there was a dramatic drop in the number of rooftop solar installations, continuing a trend that started in January, 2013 (Note: I am not a big supporter of rooftop solar even in Hawaii for a number of technical and social equity reasons that I have discussed previously. The law suit between Solar City and the Salt River will determine whether or not a fixed infrastructure charge for solar panel owners will hold up in court).

In another blog post I was very critical of the Hawaiian Electric Company’s approach to renewable energy. It seemed to me that they didn’t have a realistic plan and were basically completely lost with regards to creating a sustainable energy environment. So it was no surprise to me that the company was sold to NextEra in December, 2014. NextEra brings economic clout and a track record of successful renewable projects to the Aloha state utility but will also bring a focus on the “bottom line” that was missing.

Meanwhile, Kauai Island Utility Co-op (KIUC) is taking what I believe is a much different and better approach to the development of solar power. A major focus has been on utility-scale solar installations. In December, 2012 the largest solar installation in Hawaii came on-line in Port Allen. On a sunny day the 6 MW facility is able to provide almost 10% of Kauai’s daytime energy needs.

KIUC recognized that solar power output can vary by as much as 70-80% because of passing clouds. As a result the Port Allen facility was designed to have a large battery backup component that could compensate for short-duration power drops. Through real-world operational experience they found that their initial battery configuration could not stand up to the rapid cycling experienced when trying to stabilize solar power. As a result the utility is replacing the lead-acid batteries in the initial configuration with lithium-ion batteries.

KIUC has not been deterred because of the operational problems it has experienced. The utility is taking the sensible position that these kinds of issues can be expected when trying to really push a new technology. They are in the process of commissioning an addition 24 MW of utility-scale solar which will provide up to 80% of Kauai’s daytime electrical needs. And if the new batteries prove to be cost-effective the utility can start to extend the impact of the solar array by releasing stored energy to the grid in the late afternoon and early evening.

As far as I am concerned KIUC is on the right track. Now if only they would combine a Concentrated Solar Plant with their PV installations they could provide solar power 24 hours a day as they do at the Gemasolar plant in Spain.


Doing the “Green” thing on 2 wheels for the environment and for charity

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:15 pm by Administrator

I have been biking to work from time to time for many years first in Calgary (which has a truly awesome bike path system) and now in Vancouver (which has a pretty pathetic bike path system despite lots of hype and money spent on downtown bike lanes). But I have never biked more than a few times per month on a consistent basis.

Here at the Black Swan Blog I have discussed lots of interesting applications in the field of electrically-powered transportation: everything from cars to planes and boats. I have also been keeping a close eye on developments in the area of electric bikes.

The announcement of the e-bike by the folks that make Smart Cars seemed to me to legitimize the whole concept. And after I published my blog on electric cars my good friend and high-tech guru Steve Darden pointed me in the direction of the Copenhagen Wheel. This looks like a fascinating concept but unfortunately (?) they have been so successful at generating interest that they have deferred actual delivery of their product until 2015. (by the way, do not visit Steve and Dorothy’s site unless you are really comfortable with escape fantasies and feelings of envy).

I started looking really seriously at electric bikes and after doing a bit of research I paid a visit to Evolution Bikes and test-drove a couple of different bikes manufactured by BH Bicyles. Although the brand is best know for racing bikes their line of electric bikes offers outstanding technology and design.

These bikes are “pedal assist” meaning you have to actually pedal to engage the electric motor. But with the BH bikes you won’t be breaking a sweat no matter how fast you pedal. The bike senses the pedal pressure and provides more boost the harder you push – you feel super-human as you climb moderate hills at 25-30 kph.

In the end I purchased a BH EasyMotion Neo Carbon like the one pictured above. At about 20 kg it can easily be carried on a bike rack and the 30 gears mean that the bike is a very comfortable ride even without the electric assist (I can’t say the same about the Smart e-bike which felt slow and clunky under electric power and was really not a fun time in manual mode).

The best part about having the electric bike is that it allows me to use my Cannondale Synapse Road bike more as well. I have an 18 km commute each way with several large hills and a rather long and nasty bridge to contend with. I found biking both ways on the Cannondale took just a bit too much time and energy for me to do on a daily basis. But now I am able to take the Cannondale one way and the EasyMotion the other.

Since buying the electric bike I have only driven to work once. The 4,000 lb van can now be used for what it is really good at – hauling around 5 adults plus dog and luggage when we go on family outings and road trips.

Biking every day has been good for my fitness level too. This past week my wife brought to my attention the Vancouver Rotary Club Bike-A-Thon in aid of Deaf and Hard of Hearing in British Columbia. It is a 120 km ride and I now feel that is something I can take on (we’ll find out if that is true on July 13). Of course that will be on the Cannondale, not the electric bike.

P.S. Should you be interested in supporting me on this ride for charity you can make a donation at my Ride-A-Thon page.


40,000 “Reads” at energyblogs.com

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:36 pm by Administrator

Earlier this month the Black Swan Blog registered it's 40,000th "Read" on energyblogs.com. I took the opportunity to compare the most popular blogs now with those from August, 2013 when I celebrated 20,000 "Reads". I found it interesting to note that only 4 of the Top Ten from 8 months ago are still in that group of most popular blog postings. For example, the blog I wrote after the first anniversary of the Black Swan Blog has moved very quickly to sit at number 4. The complete list of the current Top Ten follows:

  1. We should use Concentrated Solar Power ONLY after sunset

    This posting is the only one to have maintained its position in the ranking. In this posting I discuss how photo-voltaic solar panels could be used in conjunction with a Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant to provide relatively economical and dispatchable power.

  2. Post-secondary Institutions Harvest Underground Energy

    This posting climbed one spot. It describes how Post-Secondary Institutions are using Geoexchange (sometimes referred to as Geothermal) systems to provide heating and cooling to their campus buildings. In my opinion all new commercial and industrial buildings should be required to implement Geoexchange systems which use about half of the electrical power as compared to traditional HVAC systems.

  3. What if "Climate Change" is the next "Y2K"?

    This posting from July, 2013 is new to the "Top Ten". It might seem from the title of this blog that I don't believe that climate change is real or that it is at least partially caused by burning hydro-carbons. That is not the case. My point in this posting is that the considerable "hype" around climate change may be distracting us from focusing on the real fundamental problem – we are consuming non-renewable resources in an unsustainable way. I am concerned that should the climate change concerns cool down we would lose interest in what I believe to be the more important problem.

  4. Reflections on one year of blogging

    This posting from October, 2013 discusses my experience with blogging. I am a little surprised at how fast it has surpassed much older postings.

  5. Hawaii Renewables Facing Cross-Currents and Headwinds

    This posting has slipped from the #2 spot but still remains very popular. In it I discuss some of the opportunities and challenges facing the renewable industry in Hawaii. In many ways the Aloha State is leading the movement to a more sustainable future but I am not convinced that they are taking the optimal approach.

  6. The Next 5 years for Renewables – A Best Case Scenario

    This posting from July, 2013 is new to the "Top Ten". It is the second of a pair of postings where I speculate about developments in the renewable energy industry. Interestingly, the "Worst Case Scenario" posting is much less popular. I guess that means we are either eternally optimistic or unwilling to "face the music".

  7. Power Generation – There's No Place Like Home

    This posting slipped from the #4 spot. It discusses several approaches to reducing residential energy consumption and distributed generation such as solar panels, Geoexchange, and community wind projects. I need to revise this posting soon because my views on roof-top solar panels have changed.

  8. How Much Battery Storage is Enough for Roof-Top Solar Panels?

    This posting is also new to the "Top Ten". It discusses the ebb and flow of power between the utility grid and a residential roof-top solar array. It provides a link to a couple of tools that can be used to estimate the amount of battery storage needed and the net electricity generated at different latitudes.

  9. The Hawaiian Electric Company Integrated Resource Plan – Welcome to Fantasy Island!

    When HECO published its IRP I was surprised at how unrealistic the assumptions and development plans were. I reference an independent consultant's report that takes issue with the almost exclusive focus on computer-generated models of supply and demand. As far as I am concerned this plan is not realistic.

  10. The Fright Before Christmas

    This is my Christmas blog posting from 2012 – it has grown steadily in popularity.

Thanks for your continued interest and support.


The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:31 pm by Administrator

Almost exactly 6 months ago The Black Swan Blog celebrated its 1st anniversary. It is about to achieve another milestone – 40,000 “reads” on the first site that I began blogging at – energyblogs.com.

At the same time that I was wondering if I should acknowledge this milestone I was attending the BCNET Conference in Vancouver which had the theme “Building Value Through Collaboration”. The presentations by two of the keynote speakers made me consider the value of my blogging and how I might be able to increase that value.

Jesse Hirsh made the case that traditional sources of “authority” from governments to professors to the legally recognized “professions” (i.e. doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) are being challenged and in many cases discarded or ignored. He suggested that we are entering an age in which a person’s expertise and their ability to influence will allow them to become a “Cognitive Authority”. And he further suggested that by identifying such “Cognitive Authorities” each of us can “tune in” to the “signal” – the useful information – that is becoming more and more difficult to separate from the cacophony of facts and opinions that we are bombarded with every day.

The key message I took from Jesse’s remarks is that there is an important role and even a responsibility for those of us who express opinions on forums such as The Black Swan Blog. In order to earn the right to be considered a “Cognitive Authority” we need to provide significant value for those that choose to read the material that we post.

As far as I am concerned that “value” must incorporate the following principles:

  • The information should be presented with the intent to broaden the reader’s perspective and base of knowledge on the topic being discussed. There are many sides to every story and it is perfectly normal and even useful to forcefully support one point of view. But that point of view must be reasonable. In our legal system we use the concepts of “preponderance of the evidence” and “balance of probabilities” to determine the truth about a body of factual evidence. With The Black Swan Blog I mentally test the ideas I am writing about using those concepts before I publish a blog posting.
  • The information and opinions should be original to at least some extent. I would much rather provide a link to an existing “in depth” study than simply regurgitate ideas that have been expressed previously. The ability to easily refer to other material on the Internet is perhaps the most powerful new capability available to us in the information age. In my postings I make a real effort to refer to original material wherever possible.
  • In responding to comments from readers it is essential to be respectful in all cases and positive and supportive of comments that provide additional insights into a topic, whether or not they support the premise of the posting. However, there is also an obligation to firmly refute statements that are clearly factually incorrect or deliberately misleading. I would also not hesitate to delete any comment that belittles or is otherwise disrespectful of another participant in a discussion.

Another keynote speaker at the BCNET Conference was Dr. Alec Couros, Educational Technology & Media Professor. Alec challenged the audience to truly “think different” about approaches to learning at all levels. He used the example of the Nyan Cat to demonstrate that the content of a work was insignificant compared to the creativity and innovation that the work can inspire. He also emphasized the power of Youtube and Twitter to support rapid learning and the organic creation of groups of people with shared interests.

Alec urges us to move beyond the exchange of data and facts to begin “sharing our collective human experiences”. In a world where knowledge is becoming a commodity, with handheld computing devices leveling the playing field, a deeper understanding of the human experience is perhaps becoming the most important goal we can aspire to achieve.

I consider myself to be a “techie” venturing dangerously close to “Nerdville” but I have to admit that I have not been a very active user of either Twitter or Youtube. Based upon the what I saw at BCNET, including a great presentation on Enterprise Social Collaboration I will be trying to make better use of these tools in the future.

On a related topic I have been in discussions lately with a number of people about the urgent need for digital curators on the Internet. Within the context of a discussion thread a “Cognitive Authority” can play a role. But in the broader sense of information management there is a need to categorize, prioritize, and sort through the millions of documents, photographs, videos and other digital assets that are strewn across the Internet like the contents of a teenager’s bedroom. It is, I realize, an impossible task to complete but any efforts in this area will improve the current situation.

In the academic world authors provide abstracts and in the corporate world we use “Executive Summaries”. But within the Wild, Wild West of the Internet the closest thing we have would perhaps be sites like Wikipedia. We need to do more.

Having taken that position I have to examine The Black Swan Blog with a critical eye. My conclusion, to paraphrase Pogo is  “I have seen the enemy and he is me” .. or is it “I”?  The Black Swan Blog has no table of contents and no abstracts so, as usual, I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to implementing an action plan based upon my own recommendations.  But at least in this case I can remedy the problem relatively easily.  So watch out for a table of contents including abstracts which should be in place within a week or two.


How Quickly will the Electric Vehicle Revolution Come?

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:45 pm by Administrator

In a previous posting I stated my belief that the pure electric vehicle was the way of the future and that this sector of the automobile industry would grow more or less continuously for the foreseeable future. I decided to do a bit more investigation into how quickly that could happen given trends in vehicle sales over the past few years. I also decided to look into what has been happening with fuel economy rates given that retail gasoline prices have more than doubled in North America in the last ten years. Unfortunately, what I found was not terribly encouraging.

The chart below displays U.S. vehicle sales since the turn of the century.

There are a couple of things of note.

First, the shift from passenger cars to “trucks” (which includes SUVs) between 2000 and 2005 was significant. This trend did not slow down until the price of gasoline hit about $2.30/gallon and even then the impact was not dramatic. What was very dramatic was the decline in vehicle sales in the U.S. as the financial crisis of 2008/2009 battered the economy.

In those years, when cash was scarce for so many Americans, vehicle sales dropped almost 30% sending almost every U.S. automobile manufacturer into bankruptcy. Truck/SUV sales were hit particularly hard, dropping below sales for passenger cars for the first time in the 21st Century. Presumably this reflected a recognition that the cost of owning and operating a truck/SUV was hard to justify in tough economic times.

As the economy gradually recovered it could have been the case that this lesson would have had a lasting impact; that more economical and fuel-efficient vehicles would continue to dominate. Sadly (in my opinion), this has not been the case.

Sales of Trucks/SUVs have rebounded even more quickly than sales of passenger cars and have regained their leadership position. There is every indication that the gap will continue to grow despite historically high gasoline prices.

What impact have these buying patterns had upon the average fuel consumption for the U.S. vehicle fleet? The trends are shown in the graph below.

The gap in fuel economy between trucks/SUVs and passenger cars is large and has actually increased from 6 MPG to over 7 MPG since the turn of the Century. This is primarily because the two categories of vehicles are treated differently under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act which mandates certain levels of fuel economy for vehicles manufactured in the U.S.

The bottom line is that despite having made some progress in the past few years Canada and the U.S. continue to exhibit the worst vehicle fuel economy in the world (for an in-depth analysis see “International comparison of light-duty vehicle fuel economy: An update using 2010 and 2011 new registration data”). And despite record-breaking retail gasoline prices, tough economic times, and an increasing awareness of environmental issues we keep slipping back into the habit of driving fuel-hungry vehicles.

There are justifiable reasons for that purchasing pattern. We do get some nasty weather in much of North America including snow and ice which makes a four wheel drive vehicle a safer ride. And because there are so many SUV’s, pickup trucks and 4×4’s on the road driving a smaller, lighter passenger car can be more than a little intimidating. To some extent the whole situation becomes one of “I need to drive a big, strong vehicle because everyone else has a big, strong vehicle.”

Is there any realistic hope that vehicle buying habits will change in North America anytime soon? The incentives for such change could include significant increases in retail gasoline prices (very likely in the next 5-10 years), significant changes to the CAFE rules (unlikely because of intractable opposition from automobile manufacturers and conservative politicians), and/or a real change in public attitudes towards CO2 reductions that could moderate climate change (I have seen very little evidence of this as described in another blog posting).

Taking all factors into account the prognosis for a significant change to more fuel-efficient, generally more expensive and smaller vehicles is poor. That does not bode particularly well for EV’s which are even more expensive and often smaller than fuel-efficient gasoline, diesel, or propane-powered vehicles.

It was recently announced here in British Columbia that the the “Clean Energy Vehicle Program Rebate” has depleted its funding pool and would not be extended. These rebates provided up to $5,000 in direct government grants for EV’s, representing about 14% of the price of a Nissan Leaf. Even with this fairly generous rebate program less than a thousand EV’s were sold in BC in the last two years – and BC considers itself (perhaps incorrectly) to be the “greenest” province in Canada.

There is another concern that may start to become apparent over the next year or two. The new breed of EV’s rely upon Lithium-ion batteries – the same type of battery that is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, iPads and other tablets. Having used these types of devices extensively over the past 10 years I have never had a single device where the battery was not essentially useless after about 3-4 years. Perhaps automobile batteries will perform better – I certainly hope they do. But as the early Nissan Leafs and Tesla’s start to age they may degrade significantly; And that would have a chilling impact on EV sales around the world (note that the Prius uses a NiCad battery that has proved to be extremely reliable over 10 years or more).

So have I changed my opinion on EV’s? The short answer is “No”. I still believe that we have embarked upon a revolutionary change that will take place at a steady pace. However, it could well be that the pace of that change will be slow for most of this decade. Only a serious spike in the price of oil, which is always a possibility, could radically speed up the EV revolution. But that would have all kinds of other negative economic impacts that we would all probably like to avoid.


Less than a week after writing this post I was on a business trip to Anaheim and finally was lucky enough to find a Nissan Leaf “in the wild”. It’s owner, Matt Buchanan was kind enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about his beautiful “Felix”. In fact he stated that he was always happy to talk to people about the car and has had lots of questions about it.

Matt has had the car for a few months and is very pleased with it. He noted that the acceleration was particularly impressive and he feels that the Nissan Leaf is the best engineered car he has ever driven.

In terms of range Matt feels that the 75 mile range on a charge is a reasonable claim although he has not driven more than about 50 miles with the car yet – hasn’t had the need to in his normal driving.

One issue that Matt highlighted was the situation with fast charging stations. Originally almost all the stations were free but some are now charging a fee – typically a monthly subscription plus a per minute charge. So this will impact the economics of driving the car if the trend continues.

Overall Matt is very satisfied with his “Felix” and would recommend a Nissan Leaf to anyone considering purchase of an EV.


Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can?

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:42 am by Administrator

John Lennon’s iconic song “Imagine” has been rated #3 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. It envisages a world where elimination of some of the major things that divide humanity – religion, nationalism, and materialism – are discarded in order to achieve global peace and harmony.

While the ideas delivered so powerfully in this song are immensely attractive at the conceptual level, things get a bit more nuanced when you take a cold, hard look at the details.  Would any of us really want to try and live with “no possessions”?  I don’t think so.  And yet there are social changes afoot that are heading in that general direction.

This fairly radical view of the future is based upon a growing recognition, especially amongst the millenial generation, that we don’t all need to own a copy of every possible consumer item even if we can afford to have one.  Instead, it might be possible to enjoy almost exactly the same lifestyle as we do today by employing a technique which was common in  rural agricultural communities not so long ago – it’s called sharing!

Evidence of the growing popularity of this approach is everywhere.

On a vacation in Chicago last summer my family used the Divvy bike-sharing system.  Unlike a traditional rental shop which requires you to pick up and drop off a bike at the same location, the Divvy system encourages you to pick up a bike from any of hundreds of locations, drive it to where you want to go and drop it off at a station near your destination.  You can keep doing that as many times as you like in 24 hours for as little as $7.

Over the course of a week various combinations of family members drove bikes throughout the downtown area and along the lakeside bike paths for more than 20 hours in total.  The cost? $87 including taxes and some surcharges for trips lasting more than 30 minutes.  The convenience and flexibility of the system really made it a pleasure to use.

An identical strategy is taking place with car-sharing.  Here in Vancouver both Zipcar and the Modo car co-op are growing steadily.  As with the Divvy bike sharing system these services allow you to locate the nearest available car using a computer or Smartphone app, pick it up and drive it to your destination where you simply leave it for the next system user.

Car and bike sharing are really not that innovative in the sense that car and bike rentals have been around for a very long time.  But what about specialty consumer goods?

Do we all really need to have a full set of power tools?  When was the last time you used a router, circular saw, or sonic stud-finder?   And what about that deep fryer, chaffing dish, or food processor?

No doubt it is handy to know that you have these items around in case you need them (if you can actually find them in some dark storage cupboard buried under other “essential” items – I often can’t).

But even if you can afford to own them and even if you have a storage space for them think about this.

What if we could avoid the enormous use of energy required to fabricate these items, package them and deliver them to a retail outlet if we just didn’t require as many?   In order to try and assess what the potential savings could be I recently put together a video on the Fantastic Voyages of the Stackable Chair (See it on Youtube).

The idea of sharing our precious possessions is more than a little bit disconcerting.  And there are certainly things (like my 1975 Stratocaster) that I personally would not feel comfortable entrusting to the use of anyone but a very close friend.   But there are many other things that I use but rarely that it would make sense to make available in some sort of sharing scheme.  How much damage could someone do to my 20 foot aluminium ladder or my wheelbarow?

There might even be a few items that I wouldn’t be too upset to see damaged or destroyed – the Garden Gnome I received as a gift from my aunt Matilda comes to mind.

A recent article in a local newspaper here in North Vancouver described a new initiative which demonstrates how the concept could actually be put into practice as well as providing a great summary of the phenomenon that is becoming known as collaborative consumption.

The benefits go beyond efficiency and a reduction in energy use.  Sharing within a community, be it a University, neighborhood, or club reinforces the social connectivity within the organization and builds that most precious of social commodities – trust.

I grew up in a rural community where helping neighbors take hay off the fields in the late summer was just expected behaviour.  In the winter the outdoor ice rinks were built by volunteers.  When the local recreation hall was destroyed by fire the entire community pitched in to build a new one.  So I get the idea of sharing work.  But the concept of collaborative consumption takes sharing to a new level.

I am not quite ready to go “all in” with this idea.  But I do find it intriguing enough to pursue it in some form or other.  Any concerns I have are definitely not enough to overcome the reality that this is just the right thing to do on so many levels.

“Imagine all the people sharing all the world…”

Unrealistic?  Probably.  But what a fantastic tribute it would be to John Lennon’s vision and legacy if collaborative consumption reaches even a fraction of its potential.






Electric Vehicles – Passing Fad or Paradigm Shift?

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:41 am by Administrator

There has been a lot of discussion about the electric vehicle revolution and what its impacts will be.  Are EV’s gaining traction or getting stuck in the mud?  Will they quickly replace internal combustion powered vehicles or will they represent a “green” niche market for decades to come?  Will manufacturers be willing to lose billions of dollars on EV development forever or will they eventually make most of their profits from this technology?

The questions about EV’s go far beyond the impact on the automobile manufacturing industry (which is one of the biggest industrial concerns in the world).  The impacts upon electricity utilization and the grid, both positive and negative, will in many ways shape future decisions about generation and grid management.  I am going to explore a few of these questions in this blog posting.

Firstly, what is the current status of EV sales worldwide?

In trying to answer this question we are immediately faced with another question.  What is an EV?

One definition would be that an EV uses an electric motor as its primary propulsion system.  Such a definition would probably exclude the Toyota Prius and other Hybrids which normally use the internal combustion engine for motive power and reserve the electric motor for very low speed driving (under 25 miles per hour) and more importantly to boost power during acceleration.  The Chevy Volt would meet that definition as it only uses an electric motor to power the vehicle even though it has an internal combustion engine which can generate electricity to drive the engine when the battery pack has discharged to a certain level.

In my blogs I always stress that we need to be looking at the ultimate goal which is to eliminate our use of hydro-carbons, including gasoline.  Simply reducing our use of gasoline is not sufficient.   By continuing to use an internal combustion engine for long distance travel hybrids and even the Chevy Volt avoid the most difficult issue facing EV adoption.  Namely, an unacceptably short range under normal driving conditions.

The Chevy Volt can travel approximately 45 miles on battery power alone under good conditions.  The Plug-in Hybrid version of the Toyota Prius is rated at 14 miles.  Of course both of these figures can be considerably less in cold winter conditions or under heavy load (for example going uphill for a long distance).

The average commute for U.S. workers is about 16 miles so the Volt would probably work using electric power only.  The Prius would definitely not.   Neither would work for many weekend trips under electric power alone.

For these reasons I am not going to include either plug-in hybrids or the Chevy Volt in my definition of Electric Vehicles.  I will discuss vehicles that are practical, electric power only vehicles that have no gasoline tank.  These vehicles are, in my opinion, the true future of the automobile.

Using that definition there are only two mass-market EVs available today.  The Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S.

Although it is difficult to get accurate quarterly sales figures the graph below represents a reasonable estimate of how sales of these two vehicles have grown since the launch of the Leaf in 2011 and the Model S in mid-2012.

There are now more than 80,000 Leafs on the roads of the world and about 30,000 Tesla Model S’s.  This number has been increasing at a steady pace, notably due to a price decrease by Nissan at the beginning of 2013 and by increasing recognition of the Model S as a vehicle that has dependable long-range capability.

The EPA estimate for “average range” for the Leaf is 75 miles.  That will certainly handle most commuter trips and some longer trips.

The Tesla Model S is EPA rated at 265 miles range with the largest battery available in 2013.  The Model S can also be equipped with super-charging capability which is able to fully recharge the battery in less than an hour.  The large battery range and the existence of super-charging stations make long road trips with a Model S quite realistic.  A map of the super-charging stations in place at the end of 2013 is displayed below.


EPA ratings and marketing brochures are one thing. Real world experience can be quite different.

When I began to write this blog posting I started looking out for EV’s in my home city of Vancouver, B.C.  After a few days I caught sight of a Tesla (I probably missed a few Nissan Leafs which are harder to differentiate from other similiar sized vehicles).  I was able to follow the Tesla into a parking lot where the owner, Barry Yates, kindly agreed to an impromptu interview.

Barry purchased his vehicle the first day they were available locally.  He regularly travels to Whistler Mountain for ski trips, a distance of about 70 miles.  The road to Whistler climbs uphill to an elevation of more than 2,000 feet and has to be done in cold, winter conditions.   Barry told me that he never has trouble making the round-trip on a single charge, partially because there is regenerative charging on the trip down on some of the steeper declines.

One thing that surprised me was that Barry felt the Tesla had good winter road handling despite being a rear-wheel drive vehicle.  The large battery distributes the weight very evenly between the front and rear wheels which probably helps.  Barry has installed snow tires which is a normal requirement for all vehicles travelling to Whistler.


Barry has also made a few trips to Seattle, Washington, about 150 miles from Vancouver.  He has been in the habit of stopping at a Super-charging station at Burlington, Washington, about half-way to Seattle.  The 15-20 minute stop tops up his charge so that he doesn’t have to worry about being low on power as he gets closer to Seattle.  Anyone that has been in the traffic jams on the I-5 can appreciate that.

What is the bottom line?  I think a fair evaluation would say that currently available technology can produce a vehicle that meets the everyday needs of most North Americans.

But that does not guarantee that the adoption of EV’s will be quick or smooth.  The Tesla Model S is an impressive vehicle.  However, the pricetag is also impressive with the long range version costing more than $70,000.  The Nissan Leaf, at about $30,000 is more manageable particularly after various rebates and incentives are accounted for.  But for a vehicle its size it is not inexpensive.

There are very significant savings to be had with a true EV with regards to fuel costs.  Barry Yates indicated that his home electric bill had gone up about $50/month after installing a 220 V charging system for his Tesla.  However, his fuel bill went down more than $500/month.  An annual savings of something like $5,000 isn’t a bad return on an investment of $70,000 – as long as you have the $70,000 to put into a vehicle.

Prices will come down as the technology matures, as manufacturers start to achieve economies of scale, and as inevitable increases in the price of gasoline make the returns more attractive.  So in my opinion the transition to EV’s is underway and won’t slow down anytime soon.

Given that new reality it would be wise to consider some of the non-automotive consequences that will likely result from this transition.

First, what will the impact of EV’s be on electrical load factors?

Like most things when it comes to load factors the impacts are not that easy to predict.  However, it is likely that a typical charge cycle will extend from the time a person gets home from work until the battery is fully charged.

Barry Yates indicated that charging his Tesla takes about 10-12 hours on a 220 V outlet (the same type used for a clothes dryer or oven).  As the number of EVs increases this new source of load will start to have an impact on demand curves and the grid.

In Northern areas where the peak demand is in winter this will be particularly problematic.  The period 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm is already a high demand timeframe and adding EV charging will definitely result in new record demands unless significant changes in energy usage can be implemented.

In the south where summer air-conditioning results in peak demand the impact will not be as severe.  The main impact will be to extend the typical peak demand period (2:00 pm until 5:00 pm) later into the evening but it is unlikely that higher peak demand would result.

For workers with longer commutes there will possibly be a need to charge vehicles after arriving at the workplace.  This should not be much of a problem because the morning peaks are not as high as afternoon and evening peaks regardless of the season.

Based upon this very preliminary high level assessment it would probably be wise to try and delay home EV charging until later in the evening.  A start time of 11:00 pm would still provide a long enough charging period for most users.  As EVs, like other appliances, become “smarter” it may well be possible for them to be programmable to delay the charging cycle until a specified time.  Perhaps, ala Siri, this could be done by voice command.

“Car – start charging at 11:00 pm” – sounds both futuristic and creepy at the same time!

In anticipation of an eventual fleet of hundreds of thousands of EVs, considerable research has been conducted into how this resource can be used for grid stabilization and frequency smoothing services. A number of papers published by scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have discussed implementing real time demand response by controlling when the EV fleet starts and stops charging (see for example “Value of Plug-in Vehicle Grid Support Operation”). Of course this would depend upon vehicle owners allowing the local grid operator to control the charging functions of their vehicles.  It also assumes a reliable grid-toEV communication infrastructure and protocol was in place.

There has also been some speculation that EV batteries could be used as a source of electricity for the grid when sharp drops in generation capacity occur  (as a result of changing weather patterns which impact renewable generation sources such as solar or wind or as a result of an unexpected plant/unit shutdown).  This is much less likely because it would require that whatever outlet the EVs were plugged into was capable of receiving electricity as well as delivering it.

Finally, there have been proposals to combine used EV batteries into an array that could act as utility-scale energy storage, capturing excess electricity at night or other low demand times and delivering it as a peak demand source.  I discussed this research in one of the first postings in the Black Swan Blog.

It was more than 100 years ago that Henry Ford’s Model “T” rolled out of a factory in Detroit Michigan signalling the beginning of the end for steam powered automobiles.  Those were radical times;  the internal combustion engine and the assembly line combined to bring affordable transportation to the masses.  Our love affair with the automobile has never waned since that time.

The change we face today is no less radical.

This revolution will put you in the driver’s seat of vehicles that move so quietly they can hardly be heard; they will not pollute our atmosphere; they will not rely upon the extraction of an energy source that cannot be replenished.

I don’t know about you but I can honestly say that I can hardly wait until I have managed to trade in my 7 passenger Town & Country (can you really call a 4,000 lb vehicle a mini-van?) for an EV – maybe even a Smart Bike!


Where are Natural Gas prices headed?

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:57 pm by Administrator

Having spent more than 25 years in the oil and gas industry I have seen my fair share of hydro-carbon price fluctuations. So it has not come as a complete surprise to me that the “shale gas” phenomenon has had such a dramatic impact on North American Natural Gas prices.

At the beginning of the 21st century Natural Gas prices were about $4.00/Million BTU and thereafter they rose rapidly to $8-$10/Million BTU in the years 2005-2007. The economic crisis that started in the fall of 2008 coincided with increasing production due to the success of shale gas development which translated into a very rapid decline in Natural Gas prices to just over $2.00/Million BTU in 2012. Since then prices have recovered somewhat to about $4/Million BTU.

The low prices since 2008 have resulted in a very predictable decline in the number of drilling rigs exploring for new natural gas reserves. The impact is displayed in the graph shown below.

There are a few very striking features of this graph.

First, the almost total elimination of vertical drilling rigs is interesting. In traditional gas fields widely spaced vertical wells are able to drain the reservoir efficiently because the gas flows quite freely through the rock. In technical terms this type of reservoir has relatively high permeability.

Reservoirs that consist of rocks with lower permeability cannot be produced very efficiently with vertical wells. It is much more efficient, although also much more expensive, to develop these reservoirs using horizontally drilled wells as shown below.

As horizontal drilling grew more common in the late 1990’s it was possible to economically produce reservoirs that previously had been difficult or impossible to exploit. These so-called “tight gas” reservoirs became an ever more important source of Natural Gas in North America.

Because “tight gas” does not flow freely through the reservoir rock these wells produce a lot more gas in the first year of production than they do in subsequent years.  In the industry this is known as the production decline rate.

While a decline rate in a high quality traditional reservoir might be 1-2%  (allowing fields such as the Groningen in the Netherlands which came on-stream in 1963 to produce for an estimated 80+ years) tight gas can decline at 10-20% or more annually.

The “shale gas” phenomenon is a variation on “tight gas” which involves the injection of high pressure fluids and chemicals into a horizontally drilled well to break apart or “fracture” the reservoir rock near the well bore.  After years of research & development fracking techniques have become standard industry practice and reliably result in significant production from shale reservoirs.

The exploitation of “shale gas” has increased dramatically since 2005 resulting in a glut of Natural Gas in North American markets.  This in turn has driven down the price of Natural Gas to near historic lows in constant dollar terms.  The Energy Information Agency forecasts that Natural Gas production in the United States will continue to increase for the next two decades based upon ever-increasing production of “shale gas”. They also forecast only modest increases in Natural Gas prices to the range of $7-8/Million BTU by 2035.

I am not convinced that this scenario is at all realistic.

The steep decline in drilling activity over the past 5 years is going to catch up with us at some point in the near future.  It usually takes a few years to tie new gas wells into the distribution system and put production facilities in place.  Therefore there is a lag between drilling activity and production.

The other difficult obstacle to overcome is the impact of rapid decline rates on total shale gas production.

Assuming a constant amount of drilling activity and discovery success the total production flattens out after about 15-17 years with a 10% annual decline and after only 10 years with a 20% decline, as shown in the graphic below.   As the amount of shale gas in production increases the annual decline eventually is equal to the annual additions made through drilling for new reserves (Gary Swindell has analyzed production decline rates in great deal in a paper published in 1998 and extensively updated in 2005).

As noted above drilling activity has not been constant over the past 5 years but has actually decreased pretty dramatically.  It follows that there will probably not be a large increase or in fact any significant increase in shale gas production over the next five years.

At the same time the older gas reservoirs will continue to decline at a slow rate as they have for decades.

Putting all these factors together it seems likely that Natural Gas supplies in North America will tighten up somewhat in the next few years.  This dynamic of gas “booms” and “busts” is one we have seen many times before and is primarily driven by commodity prices.

When prices reach lows such as they hit in 2012 drilling activity dries up, supplies tighten due to declines and prices go up.  Eventually prices go up enough for exploration companies to be willing to renew the search for new gas reserves.  That process takes a couple of years during which supplies tighten even more and prices go up further.  Eventually the balance swings in the opposite direction and supply meets or exceeds demand and prices soften.

The implications of this cycle are quite worrisome when put in the context of electricity generation.

The MACT regulations will force the closure of more than 40 GW of coal-fired generating capacity in the next few years.  This is firm and dispatchable generation that can be called upon at peak demand times.  No amount of solar and wind can replace that loss reliably without massive amounts of affordable energy storage which does not exist.

Utilities are struggling to come up with plans to replace the lost coal-fired generation capacity.  In many cases the current low prices are pushing utilities towards the construction of Natural Gas fired plants.

That cannot be considered to be a negative choice.  Natural Gas burns more cleanly than coal and produces about half of the CO2 per Watt of electricity generated.  But there are a couple of problems with a wholesale switch to Natural Gas.

For those truly fearful about climate change then the fact that Natural Gas produces CO2 will continue to be a problem.

Probably more important on a daily basis will be the potential impact on utility rates if Natural Gas prices escalate significantly.

There is a reason that more than half of the electricity generated in the United States up until the turn of the century came from the burning of coal.  Coal was and remains the least expensive energy source available.

Coal can also be stockpiled at a generating plant.  That may not seem important but congestion in pipelines can be a real problem when temperatures drop and both residential users and power plants are consuming Natural Gas at the maximum rate possible.  That was an issue in the NE part of the continent during the recent “Polar Vortex” storm.

My fear in all of this is that utilities will spend 10’s of billions of dollars building Natural Gas plants which will help drive prices up – and those price increases will be passed on directly to electricity consumers.

My hope is that this rather bleak future of higher prices and continued CO2 emissions will cause utilities and governments to consider putting more time and money into developing affordable energy storage solutions.  If we could store energy on a very large scale we could time-shift solar and wind generation to match our demand patterns.  That is, in fact, a requirement before we can move completely away from the burning of hydro-carbons to generate electricity.  There are other measures that we can pursue – many of which are described in my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.

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