Posted tagged ‘Oil’

The Stone Age Didn’t End Because of a Shortage of Stones

January 24, 2013

The operator of the New England power grid (ISO New England) issued a media release yesterday noting that because of the decline in natural gas prices, overall, wholesale electricity prices in the region dropped in 2012.  Reader”s” (if there is more than one) of this blog know I write a lot about energy issues and have noted the trends and benefits of natural gas to energy prices in the region (here, here, here, and here as well as in posts about other energy issues).

Increased U.S. production of natural gas has resulted in price declines and price declines are resulting in more fuel switching that will put more pressure on the price of natural gas unless production increases faster than increased demand.  U.S. production of  natural gas is likely to continue to increase faster than other fossil fuels (see chart below), but increased fuel switching will put more pressure on natural gas prices.

US fossil fuel production

One problem for New England is that our infrastructure for delivering natural gas to the region is the weakest of any region of the country and one result is that unless or until that changes, we won’t benefit as much as other regions from increased production.  The chart below shows a forecast of real, inflation adjusted fossil fuel prices to 2040.  Nationally, natural gas prices will rise faster than coal, but more slowly than oil.  The natural gas price trends here are for prices at Louisiana’s  Henry Hub distribution point (the reference price for natural gas prices), New England prices are higher but the question is, how much faster or slower will they grow in New England?  Improved infrastructure would help.

US fossil fuel prices

Coal is abundant and prices will grow relatively more slowly, but the economics of coal as an energy source still don’t give it an advantage over gas.  Over the next 3-5 years over 200 coal-fired electric generating plants will be retired according to a coal trade group.  They blame environmental regulations but there is more to it than that.  Besides the greatly narrowed gap in fuel costs between natural gas and coal, the fact is most people don’t want coal used, or have it used near them.  The cost of burning coal more cleanly is relatively high (it’s not just regulators that impose those costs, it’s the only way a majority of the public will support coal and if it costs too much they wont support it as long as there are more competitively priced alternatives – as there are now). Finally the cost of constructing a coal plant, compared to combined-cycle natural gas power plants is much higher (even without the new equipment required to reduce emissions) and they take longer to build 4-5 years compared to 2-3 years for natural gas, making financing of such projects more difficult.

I am not a coal hater.  Although I have worked on many more combined-cycle natural gas electric generating plants, I have also worked on two or three electric generating projects that burn coal, most recently one involving super-critical clean coal technologies and carbon capturing,  but phasing out older, less efficient, coal-fired plants makes perfect sense and can be done over time without jeopardizing the reliability of the grid if new natural-gas fired plants are built.  Relying just on natural gas doesn’t solve our  CO2 problem but it helps (ok deniers, let loose – I am a believer that CO2 is a problem that needs to be addressed).

The point of this post (by now you are probably asking if there is one) is that fossil fuels are not going away anytime soon.  Not too long ago there were apocalyptic predictions about the availability of fossil fuels in the future.  Those predictions aren’t proving accurate but at some point fossil fuels will run out.  Not in my lifetime, which is a good thing for my business as long as I still can get hired to work on natural gas or (gasp) coal-fired electric generating projects.   But more abundant fossil fuel doesn’t (or shouldn’t) lessen environmental concerns over its usage.  The stone age didn’t end because of a shortage of stones and the fossil fuel age shouldn’t wait to end until we run out of it.  Somebody will have to pay for developing new technology that ends the fossil fuel age.  Unless we start now,  the cost of the U.S. debt that we pass down to future generations will look small compared to the costs of developing new energy technologies that we will be passing down in the face of genuine declines in fossil fuels.  It is not just a matter of  increasing renewable energy,  although that will help.  Solar and wind and even hydro generation suffer from over/under demand issues.  Balancing power output to need is extremely problematic once you try to get renewable power above 20% of total generation, new technologies need to be developed.

The stone age was replaced because newer and better technologies were developed despite an abundance of stones, lets hope the same is true for the fossil fuel age.

Natural Gas Price Outlook Improves Again This Year

December 7, 2012

The U.S. Energy Information Agency issued an early release version of its 2013 Annual Energy Outlook and the increase in U.S. energy production and the production outlook over recent years continue to keep forecasts of price increases modest.  That is especially true for natural gas where long-term price forecasts have fallen by 15% to 30% in just the past three years (chart below).

Nat Gas Forecast

Of course all sorts of national and international events can interrupt these trends, but the  price forecast along with the expectation of a continued, long-term, price differential between oil and natural gas should  result in continued  fuel switching by electricity generators, and an increase in switching by end users as well.  Natural gas is already the majority source for home heating everywhere in the country except the Northeast, but opportunities for fuel switching in the  transportation sector are enormous.  Unfortunately, with a gasoline station located about every quarter mile, and large industries supporting them, the prospect of consumers being able to fuel their autos at home using the existing natural gas infrastructure and a relatively small investment in equipment for their home doesn’t have the same appeal to everyone as the economic, environmental and consumer  rationale of switching  implies.

Fuell Price Forecast

Burn More Gas to Burn Fewer Dollars

October 15, 2012

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting over 20 percent more heating degree days for East of the Rockies and depending on your fuel, heating costs could be up by as much as 19%  over last year (if you heat with oil).  That’s bad news for the almost 50% of NH households that heat with oil  (compared to just 6% nationally).

The growing disparity between oil and natural gas prices during the past decade ( graph above) has led to greater use of natural gas in the commercial, industrial, and electric industries in NH and elsewhere,  but NH still lags in natural gas usage as a percentage of all energy use in the state.

That is unfortunate because later this decade growth in domestic supply of natural gas (led by dramatic increases in the supply of shale gas) is forecast by the U.S. Energy Information Agency to outstrip growth in demand.  Prices, although expected to rise gradually, are still forecast to be lower in 2035 than they were in 2005.

Stable natural gas prices should make investment in natural gas conversions more attractive to NH  households. Lending programs by NH banks and credit unions, directed at energy efficiency,  could facilitate that.  But it is in transportation that conversion to natural gas could have the biggest impact on NH’s and the nation’s energy expenditures and our need for oil imports.  The last time I checked, however,  there were no dealerships in NH offering the one natural gas powered passenger vehicle produced by major auto manufacturers, there are less than a dozen natural gas “filling stations” in the state, and there are no rules and regulations in place for homeowners to make use of the natural gas lines to their homes by installing already commercially available residential natural gas auto refilling equipment.

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