Bioenergy Potential and Tradeoffs with Food Production?

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its Fifth Assessment Report’s Working Group III Contribution, “[b]ioenergy coupled CCS (BECCS) has attracted particular attention since AR4 because it offers the prospect of energy supply with negative emissions.” However, as the IPCC report also cautions, BECCS poses serious challenges, among them, the potential threat to food supplies posed by diversion of biomass to energy production. A study published a few years ago in the journal Biomass & Bioenergy (subscription required) provides an excellent overview of the potential interrelations between food and energy production, and the potential for projected climatic change to either ameliorate or exacerbate the tensions between food and energy production. The study employed what it termed a “socioeconomic metabolism approach” to formulate a biomass balance model (to 2050) to link supply and demand of agricultural biomass, excluding forestry.
Among the conclusions of the study:
1.    Climate change could have dramatic impacts on available biomass in 2050. If some projections of the CO2 fertilization effects are correct, bioenergy potential could rise by a whopping 45% to 151.7 EJ y-1, or it could decline to 87.5 EJ if CO2 fertilization is completely ineffective.  To put this in context, humans currently harvest and utilize a total of amount of biomass with an energy value of 205 EJ y-1. “This implies that the global bioenergy potential on cropland and grazing areas is highly dependent on the (uncertain) effect of climate change on future global yields on agricultural areas.”
a.    However, part of the potential benefits of the CO2 fertilization effect could be obviated by potential decreases in protein content and higher susceptibility to insect pests
2.    There is huge uncertainty in potential bioenergy from forests, ranging from zero to 71 EJ y-1 in 2050;
3.    After taking into account projected food needs, primary bioenergy potential is estimated to be between 64-161 EJ y-1 However, this is “only a fraction of current fossil-fuel use.” Moreover, realizing bioenergy potentials on grazing lands of this magnitude would require “massive investments” in agricultural technologies, e.g. irrigation and could also particularly threaten populations practicing low-input agriculture.
This study demonstrates that BECCs remains a highly contested proposition in terms of potential tradeoffs of food and energy production. Moreover, the “wildcard” of the potential impacts of climate change on biomass production are likely to remain unknown for many decades, making it difficult to determine if large-scale BECCS should be pursued as a policy option.

Among the discussion questions this article could generate:

  • How can society determine if potential tradeoffs between food and bioenergy production, if they exist, are acceptable, i.e. what should be the pertinent metrics? How do we take into consideration equitable concerns, e.g. potentially disproportionate on particularly vulnerable groups, e.g. small-scale farmers?
  • What are other pertinent questions to ask about BECCS, including the viability of CCS technologies; concerns about finding adequate storage capacity to effectuate “negative emissions,” and the potential threats associated with carbon dioxide leakage;
  • Should BECCS be considered a form of “geoengineering”? Does it matter?

The Sin of Synthetic Natural Gas in China?

While discussions of Chinese energy policy have often focused on its prodigious burning of coal for electricity production, there’s been very little coverage of its plans to massively expand its use of coal for production of synthetic natural gas (AKA substitute natural gas). China has already approved nine large-scale SNG plants this year, with total capacity of 37.1 billion m3 of natural gas per year, and 30 more are in the planning stages, with a combined capacity of 120 billion m3. To put the magnitude of this commitment in perspective, the pioneering Great Plains Synfuels Plant in the United States has a capacity of only 1.5 billion m3.

A recent article in Nature Climate Change makes a strong case that this path could prove environmentally disastrous. Authors Chi-Yen Yang and Robert B. Jackson outline the stark implications of a commitment to SNG. SNG produces life-cycle GHG emissions approximately seven times that of conventional natural gas, as well as 26-82% high than pulverized coal-fired power production for generation of electricity. Overall, the combined projected carbon dioxide production of all of the approved and projected plans could result in an “astonishing” ˜111 billion tons of carbon dioxide over 40 years, severely undercutting any prospects for reduction of GHG emissions over the next half century. The plants would also require tremendous water resources, dramatic exacerbating water shortages in several regions already facing substantial water stress.  In analyzing the economics of such plants, the authors conclude that because such plants would continue to be operated for as long as revenues exceeded fuel and operation and maintenance costs (even without recovery of initial capital investments), there’s a very real danger of technological lock-in and slowing of market penetration of renewable energy sources.

Is China about to render its bottom-up commitments under the UNFCCC chimerical?

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International Energy Outlook 2013

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s summary of its International Energy Outlook 2013 report would be an excellent student reading for an energy or climate course. The report’s summary page also includes many other excellent resources for use in the classroom, including detailed data tables and a 33-slide Power Point summary.

Among the key conclusions of the report:

  1. World energy consumption grows by 56% between 2010-2040, with a 90% jump in use by non-OECD States;
  2. Fossil fuels continue to supply almost 80% of world energy needs through 2040, dropping from 84% of the energy mix in 2010 to 78%:
    1. Global use of petroleum and other liquid fuels increases from 87 MBD in 2010 to 97 MBD in 2040, driven by growth in demand in the transportation and industry sectors, with the former accounting for 63% of this growth;
    2. World natural gas consumption increases by 64% in the Reference case, driven by several desirable characteristics, including lower carbon intensity than oil and coal, relatively low capital costs and favorable heat rates;
    3. Global coal consumption is projected to raise at an average rate of 1.3% annually from 2010-2040, with three countries (China, U.S. and India) accounting for 75% of consumption in 2040. However, environmental considerations and declining costs of natural gas is projected to reduce coal’s share of the global energy mix, including from 40% in 2010 to 36% in 2040.
  3.  Renewable energy sources and nuclear will post the fastest growth of world energy sources, increasing at 2.5% annual rate through 2040. Yet, to put this in discouraging perspective, in the Reference case scenario, renewables share of total energy use only rises from 11 percent in 2010 to 15 percent in 2040, with nuclear energy’s share growing from 5 percent to 7 percent;
    1. Almost 80% of the projected increase in renewable electricity generation will come from hydropower (52% of total) and wind;
  4. Perhaps the most discouraging conclusion of the report is that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase from 31.2 billion metric tons in 2010 to 45.5 billion in 2040, a burgeoning 46%.
    1. Non-OECD emissions are expected to exceed those of the OECD by a whopping 127% in 2040;
    2. The largest share of carbon dioxide emissions during this period are from coal;
    3. Carbon intensity of output is projected to decline by 1.9% annually in OECD countries and 2.7% annually in non-OECD countries.

    This reading could also stimulate some good discussion of what would need to be done to substantially deviate from the “Reference case,” both from a technical and political perspective. It might be coupled with pieces that project potentially far higher market penetration of renewable sources by the middle of the century. This could facilitate discussion of the importance of different methodological approaches, as well as the intrinsically difficult task of projecting energy and climate data so far into the future.



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Shale Oil: The Next Energy Revolution?

A new report by the UK branch of PriceWaterhouseCoopers assesses the future of shale oil in the United States and globally.

In the United States, the report concludes that shale oil production has grown at a rate of 26% annually, reaching 553,000 barrels per day in 2011. It is projected the shale oil production in the United States will rise to anywhere from 1.2 million barrels per day  to 3-4 million barrels per day by 2035, with total shale resources pegged at 33 billion barrels. As such shale oil could displace a whopping 35-40% of waterborne crude oil imports to the United State. Moreover, beyond substantially reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil, it could also result in substantially lower oil prices.

The report also pegs global shale oil resources at between 330 billion and 1.4 trillion barrels, with significant recent discoveries in many countries, including New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. Based on scenarios projecting oil prices of $127-133 per barrel, PWC projects that global shale oil production could rise to up to 14 million barrels of oil per day in 2035, comprising 12% of total oil supply. Depending on OPEC’s response (i.e. whether it chooses to lower production to maintain prices), oil prices may range from $83-100 per barrel in real terms. The study concludes that this could result in global GDP increases of 2.3-3.7% by the end of 2035, translating into a $2.7 trillion boost in global income. .Of course, there would be winners and losers in this scenario, with India and Japan doing particularly well, and Russia and the Middle East suffering the most from the decline in oil prices.

However, the report also cautions that oil price declines associated with shale oil production may substantially reduce investments in renewables. To avoid this scenario, countries will have to develop policy responses, e.g. keeping fossil fuel taxes higher and recycling proceedings into R&D for low carbon technologies. Moreover, major oil producing nations may have to consider substantial limitations on supply to maintain oil prices.

Some of the class discussion questions that this reading could generate would include the following

  1. Is it realistic to believe that countries will use oil taxes to artificially elevate petroleum prices to prevent the displacement of renewable energy?;
  2. What would be the optimal way for governments, from a climate policy perspective,  to spend the tax windfall associated with shale oil production?
  3. What are the environmental implications of shale oil production in terms of climate change?;
  • Associated with this question might be parsing out the arguments of proponents that higher GHG emissions associated with shale oil production might be more than offset by displacement of coal production and production of energy from more environmentally sensitive areas, e.g. the Arctic and Canadian tar sand regions.


Stakeholder Forum article for WFES 2013: Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Energy Development for Small Developing States and Remote Nordic Communities

Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Energy Development for Small Island Developing States and Remote Nordic Communities for Stakeholder Forum publication for the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, UAE in January 2013.

Sustainable energy development can assist Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and remote communities and regions in mitigating and adapting to climate change, especially with pursuing an integrated approach to the development of renewable energy in synergy with heat and water and waste treatment. There are common linkages between renewable energy, water, carbon reduction and sustainable economic development, including tourism and sustainable economies, for SIDS and remote communities and regions. Communities and islands that embrace the integration of energy, water and carbon reduction will be more desirable destinations and economies for both travel and business.

The integration of renewable energy, heat and water is quite advanced across the Caribbean and Pacific, and for remote communities and capital cities in the Nordic region. There are common trends through all these regions. Integrated approaches to renewable energy can occur in synergy with heat, water and waste for SIDS and communities in these Nordic regions, and could inspire parallel development of these fields globally. This article builds on research under the Sustainable Energy Development project and the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Strategic Adaptation Research. It is consistent with the international collaboration on energy and water research at the World Future Energy Summit and International Water Summitin Abu Dhabi, and regional efforts for Latin America and the Caribbean under by the Department of Sustainable Energy Development of the Organization of American States.

One key aspect that ties together SIDS and remote northern communities are the high costs of electricity from imported fuel, and diesel generation, which in turn increase the cost of heating, cooling, and water and waste treatment. However, these locations also have significant renewable energy resources, or could, at a minimum, benefit from higher energy efficiency or burning natural gas liquids in substitution for diesel fuel.

The Renewable Energy to Desalination and Tourism Project for Caribbean Islands combines renewable energy based power generation and desalination, with cooling and heating as additional by-products. It works with Caribbean islands and businesses which are tourism dependent to integrate clean energy, carbon reduction, tourism and travel, and the project is a participant in the Climate Technology Initiative Private Financing Advisory Network (PFAN) Clean Energy Financing Forum in Central America and the Caribbean Business Plan Competition.

The island of Aruba in the Caribbean is working with Richard Branson and the Carbon War Room to transition the island to 100% renewable energy, thus creating the world’s first sustainable energy economy. In the Pacific, the three atoll islands of Tokelau, a non-self governing territory of New Zealand, have recently completed projects allowing them to meet all energy needs from renewable energy, with one of the world largest off-grid solar systems, along with batteries and electricity generators powered by coconut biofuel produced on the islands. All these islands have existing tourist economies.

Innovative energy approaches are being used throughout the Nordic region to integrate energy and heat, and increase energy efficiency, supporting local economies and the attractiveness of those communities for visitors and investment. In Nuuk, Greenland, a hydrogen plant uses hydroelectricity to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen is stored for conversion into electricity, and on-demand heat in a fuel cell. Excess heat from hydrogen production and fuel cells heats Nuuk, while the electricity goes to the grid or buildings.  In Qaanaaq in north-western Greenland, above-ground pipes combine multiple energy and water services, while diesel engines and district heating provide highly efficient fuel use exceeding 85%. If this system was supplemented by a thermal storage mechanism, wind could also be integrated, and biogas from wastes could be used to generate electricity and heat.

This article is also located at:

What are the strengths and shortcomings of existing and proposed offshore safety regulations? Ways to strengthen and support existing and proposed offshore safety regulations

Professor Muir contributed to an October discussion of CommentVisions on What are the strengths and shortcomings of existing and proposed offshore safety regulations? Her comments in that forum are provided below:

What are the strengths and shortcomings of existing and proposed offshore safety regulations? Ways to strengthen and support existing and proposed offshore safety regulations

·         Value of comparisons between Europe and other offshore jurisdictions such as Canada, Brazil, China, Russia, US etc.. Though existing European regulations are based on Norway and UK, there can be mutual learnings between all offshore jurisdictions for both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches. For example, Canada is a federation of provinces and territories, where the federal and regional governments have shared responsibilities for offshore energy development and work cooperatively within joint institutions to regulate hydrocarbon safety. Comparitive and shared approaches will be particularly relevant for the development of Arctic hydrocarbons between Scandinavian countries and other Arctic Council member states such as Canada, United States and Russia.
·         Culture of safety within hydrocarbon corporations and offshore operators, and encouraging that safety culture through regulations, industry agreements, and voluntary measures such as environmental management systemsThe real key will be the way in which the regulations are viewed and internally implemented by the hydrocarbon industry and offshore operators. Regulations can be implemented to support the development of this safety culture, and have been done in other jurisdictions and by regulators, such as Canada’s National Energy Board.
·         Enforcement and compliance:  Regardless of the strengths and shortcomings of any regulations, a very important aspect is the willingness and ability of European and national authorities to operationalise these regulations consistently across all jurisdictions, and to use the full range of enforcement and compliance tools and mechanisms.
·         Public acceptance is crucial for offshore hydrocarbon development and other offshore activities. Tthe Renewable Grid Initiative and European Grid Declaration for Electricity Network Development and Nature Conservation in Europe provide lessons for engaging stakeholders, reconciling conflicting interests, and developing public acceptance for offshore developments and infrastructure. See for further information.
·         Special safety regimes for special circumstances: Certain offshore hydrocarbon activities may require unique safety regulations and regulatory approaches. This includes hydrocarbon development in the Arctic where remote and difficult conditions combined with vulnerable ecosystems could turn an oil spill into an environmental disaster; hydrocarbon activities occurring in proximity to other oceans uses (such as renewable energy) or in areas of great biodiversity; or  the development of marine methane hydrates in coastal and marine waters.
·         Data, research and technological development to support environment and safety and realize future economic benefits for Europe. There is a distinct role for the European Union and in particular the Director General Maritime Affair in supporting data, research and technological development for offshore hydrocarbons and related sectors like offshore wind and ocean energy. This development is consistent with Europe’s Blue Growth initiative to support growth in the maritime sector by focusing on existing, emerging and potential activities.   Community level research and supervision can occur from the EU bodies and agencies best placed to sponsor, coordinate and supervise this research and development, particularly for activities in European waters or to assist in the transfer of knowledge and practices from international jurisdiction.
·         Maximize benefits of offshore hydrocarbon activities through regulations: Maximizing benefits through regulations, such as multiple use and design parameters of offshore platforms, no-take zones in proximity to facilities, seasonal restrictions on hydrocarbon activities, underground pipelines implemented through horizontal and directional drilling beneath seabed through areas of great biodiversity value or multiple uses. Research is already underway for multiple use ocean platforms under the European collaborative TROPOS project which develops floating modular multi-use platforms for use in deep water with18 partners and 9 countries (including the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and Denmark) under the coordination of the Public Consortium Canary Islands Oceanic Platform .
·         Connections between offshore hydrocarbons, offshore carbon capture and storage (CCS), and offshore renewable energy: Proposals forCCS under the North Sea would use depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs and existing pipeline infrastructure for the long term storage of greenhouse gases under the seabed. As such, it will be important to have flexible regulatory regimes that will facilitate the safe re-use of this infrastructure. For both offshore hydrocarbon activities and renewable energy, common regulatory approaches could be useful for marine spatial planning for shared or overlapping areas of operation; ship-based support and space monitoring,; the multiple use or re-use of offshore hydrocarbon platforms for wind and ocean energy; and knowledge sharing and transfer betweee industries.
·         Lessons learned and applicability to other emerging marine sectors. Regulations for offshore hydrocarbon sector will provide important safety lessons and models for other emerging offshore sectors that such as offshore carbon capture and storage, offshore wind and marine renewable energy, power transmission infrastructure, ocean mining, marine biofuels and biomass, fishing and aquaculture.
Complete text of the CommentVisions discussion “What are the strengths and shortcomings of existing and proposed offshore safety regulations?” is available at: