“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

arpa-e 2013

I've just finished attending the arpe-e Energy Summit for 2013. It was certainly the most star-studded of the three I've attended (Elon Musk, Dr. Steven Chu, T. Boone Pickens, Michael Bloomberg, a handful of Senators and Congresspersons spoke, presented, or participated in panel discussions).

There seemed to be, even for Dr. Chu, the strong sentiment that "the era of energy scarcity is over" based on recent increases in U.S. fossil fuel production, primarily due to tight oil (Bakken Shale, Barnett Shale, Eagle Ford Shale, etc.) and shale gas (Marcellus Formation, etc.). This led to a certain "yeah but..." sentiment in that the existence of arpa-e (advanced research projects agency - energy - a funding mechanism for bringing early stage energy technologies ultimately to market and modeled after "DARPA") is based on the need for the U.S. to develop clean, renewable energy sources not dependent on fossil fuels. The "yeah but..." seemed to be along the lines of "yeah, but even though we have all these new fossil fuel resources, we need to develop clean, renewable alternatives to fossil fuels because:

  • U.S. fossil fuel users are still subject to world pricing pressures
  • Climate effects of burning all of this fossil fuel may be catastrophic
  • We still have a huge trade imbalance due to the need to import oil
  • We are spending billions in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere to defend our ability to import oil

All of these things are true and are certainly good reasons to develop the capabilities represented by the many firms and institutions participating in the Summit. But the underlying concept that the tight oil and shale gas will free us from concerns about fossil fuel shortages is very flawed.

Kurt Kobb of the blog Resource Insights seems to me to have the most insightful information with respect to the real prospects for a fossil fuels energy revival in the U.S. I'd suggest starting with this post and reading all of Kobb's information on unconventional fossil fuel prospects. There is also a huge amount of pertinent information from experts at The Oil Drum site. The most comprehensive and authoritative document I've located on this topic is here, a free downloadable pdf.

The cliff notes version is that these unconventional sources have characteristics that make it extremely unlikely that we'll not have to worry about fossil fuel shortages and high prices for decades to come:
  • They are much more expensive to drill than conventional sources
  • Their depletion rate is dramatically higher than conventional sources
Thus, both economics and geology argue strongly against our entry into a new world of energy abundance. Does that mean that the alternative reasons for funding research into clean, renewable energy sources should be ignored? It does not, but the primary reason - our society's need for reliable energy to turn the wheels of civilization - has not disappeared in the midst an unconventional fossil fuel cocktail.

Dr. Chu, in his keynote address today, had some figures and charts for which his summary was "are we in danger of running short of fossil fuels? I don't think so." Unfortunately, he blew by these slides with little commentary beyond that and no time for me to find the source or even photograph the slide. Hopefully, the materials to come post-Summit will enable me to determine what gives Dr. Chu (a man for whom I have huge respect) such confidence.

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