Posts Tagged ‘energy’
Chapter 5 of the report focuses on the challenges to NEM system reliability caused by increasing VRE penetration, and on possible reforms to the system to accommodate these changes. Price signals, bidding, and market cap prices and floors, as well as many other terms dealt with in this chapter, are definitely outside my sphere of knowledge or interest, but I feel duty bound to try and make sense of them. For a useful beginner’s guide to the NEM, check out this ABC site, though it dates from 2010, and it’s fascinating to note how things have changed since then. The AEMO was only established in 2009.
The NEM is an ‘energy-only’ market, rather than a capacity market. An energy-only market is one in which the companies generating energy are paid for the electricity they sell. In a capacity market they would be paid for keeping generation capacity available to cover what might be a fluctuating demand. With an energy-only market, producers would presumably be focused on demand, not wishing to provide more of something they can’t sell when demand is down, as it has been in recent times. However, base load demand, which is intermittent and unpredictable, becomes a particular problem when investment in the kind of generators that provide base load power is low. The report has this to say on the matter:
The NEM relies on price signals (subject to market price caps and floors), performance standards and market information to incentivise the development and retirement of generation infrastructure. When there is sufficient baseload supply, average prices tend to be low, signalling that no new investment in base load generation is needed. When base load supply tightens, average prices increase, signalling that investment in base load generation is needed. Peaking generators respond to similar patterns but look to higher price periods associated with peak demand.
I don’t really understand this, especially the bit about peaking generators, which sounds as if there are separate generators for peak demand, but that can’t be right. In any case, what this chapter tells me is that the economics of electricity generation in a transforming and uncertain market are fiendishly difficult to comprehend and control. The review ends the chapter, and all other chapters, with consultation questions which help concentrate the mind on the issues at stake. These include questions about the NEM’s reliability settings, liquidity in the market for forward contracts to ensure supply for business and commercial enterprises (and the effect of increasing levels of VRE on forward contracts, and how this can be catered for), and other questions about creating or ensuring future investment.
Chapter 6 deals with the problem of the seemingly ever-increasing cost of electricity to the consumer. The chapter divides itself into sections on wholesale costs and retail pricing. It seems Australia no longer experiences low electricity costs by OECD standards. Network investments have recently driven prices up, and further rises are expected due to generator closures, the international price of gas, and constraints on gas supply. Again the report emphasises the role of gas, at least in the interim:
Gas has the potential to smooth the transition to a lower emissions electricity sector. Gas generation provides the synchronous operation that is key to maintaining technical operability with increased renewable generation until new technologies are available and cost-effective. Furthermore, gas is dispatchable when required.
It seems there’s an intergovernmental understanding that reform is desperately needed to develop and incentivise the local gas market. There are many roadblocks to successful reform, which are currently affecting wholesale costs which will lead to higher retail prices.
Some 43% of current residential electricity prices are made up of network charges, mostly for distribution. Many network renovations were necessary to meet revised standards. A 2013 Productivity Commission inquiry criticised ‘inefficiencies in the industry and flaws in the regulatory environment’ in respect of the planning of large transmission investments and management of demand. Consumer concern about rising prices is driving reform in this area, but we’re yet to see any clear results. Also, there is a difficult balance to be struck between system reliability and cost. A significant proportion of consumers have expressed a willingness to live with reduced reliability for reduced cost.
There has been a difficulty also in forecasting demand, and therefore the spread of cost. Reduced peak demand in the period 2008 to 2013 wasn’t foreseen. The reduction, likely driven increasing electricity costs, was a result of many factors, such as solar installations, energy efficiencies and reduced consumption. There’s a plan to introduce ‘cost reflective pricing’, which means ‘charging prices that accurately reflect the cost of providing network services to different consumer groups’. This is expected to reduce peak demand overall, as will increasing use of solar and, in the future, battery storage.
Retail pricing is another matter, and according to the report there is a lack of transparency in the retail market. Retailing electricity is obviously complex and involves covering wholesale costs as well as billing, connections, customer service, managing bad debts, marketing, return on investment, inter alia. We can only determine whether the retail market is operating fairly when these costs are open to scrutiny.
Chapter 7 deals with energy market governance from a national, whole-of-system perspective. The report stresses urgency on this, though given the complexity of the system and the divided views of policy-makers, it’s unlikely that decisions on integrating the system and making it more flexible will be forthcoming in the immediate future. The governance of the NEM is divided between policy-maker (the COAG Energy Council), rule-maker (AEMC), operator (AEMO) and regulator (AER, the Australian Energy Regulator). None of these bodies, the report notes, are integrated with bodies advising on emissions reduction. Again, the report doesn’t advance a plan for an improved governance system, but posts consultation questions for how improvements might be made. These include amendments to various rules and guidelines, methods for improving accountability and transparency, and expedited decision-making in a rapidly transforming market.
The report includes a number of appendices, the first and most important being a comparison of the NEM with other energy systems and markets worldwide, including those with a large market share of VRE, such as Denmark and Ireland. It is noted that the transformation of these markets, as well as larger markets in Spain and Germany, is being managed apparently without compromising energy security. However, the variety and complexity of many overseas markets and systems makes comparisons well-nigh impossible for someone as uninitiated as myself. Suffice to say that the role of interconnectors for system security is very important in many European regions, and support from governments for a more flexible system to accommodate VRE is more widespread.
Canto: So what’s the latest on SA’s statewide blackout of September 28 last year, who’s to blame, who’s blaming who, and what solutions are in the offing, if any?
Jacinta: Well the preliminary report on the NEM, which we’ve been reading and writing about, has a few things to say about this, and they’re based on the findings of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) in its own preliminary report.
Canto: He said she said.
Jacinta: Well maybe sort of. So the SA blackout is presented as a case study. Here in SA we have a very high proportion of VRE (variable renewable energy) generation – one of the highest in the world. Our peak demand as a region is 3300 MW, and our supply capacity is almost 2900 MW of gas, almost 1600 MW of wind, and 700 MW of installed solar. We’re connected to the rest of the NEM by two interconnectors, an AC connector with a capacity of 600-650 MW, and a DC connector with a capacity of 220 MW. With electricity demand here declining, or at least not growing, synchronous generation and supply have reduced, with a resultant reduction in system inertia.
Canto: I presume by system inertia you mean the tendency for a machine, a vehicle, or a generator, whatever, a system to keep going once the power’s switched off. Like the QE2 has a lot of system inertia.
Jacinta: Right, but it’s a particularly important term in reference to power generation. There are some neat explanations of this online, but I’ll give a summary here. Coal-fired power stations work through the burning of coal which generates steam to turn a turbine, putting energy into the grid, and being massive, it has a lot of spinning inertia. Slow to fire up, slow to wind down. Solar, though, doesn’t work that way. It has no spinning or even moving parts. When the sun’s off, it’s off, but when it’s on it’s on. There’s really no inertia at all in a conventional solar PV system.
Canto: And wind? That’s the principal renewable energy here.
Jacinta: Yes that has inertia, certainly, but it’s variable and not as significant as perhaps it could be. So anyway on the morning of the blackout weather forecasts were grim, but not enough for AEMO to put out alerts for a ‘credible contingency event’. As it turned out there were at least seven tornadoes in the north of the state that day, as well as numerous lightning strikes and high winds which caused structural damage to transmission lines. At blackout time electricity demand in the state was a little over 1800 MW, with nearly half of it being supplied by wind farms, and of the rest about a third came from gas-fired generators, and the other 600 or so megawatts came through the interconnectors from Victoria. The main Heywood connector was approaching its operating limit. Short circuits to the transmission lines, caused by lightning, were the probable proximal cause of the blackout. Thirteen wind farms were in operation at the time, and eleven of them experienced ‘voltage dips’. What happens in these circumstances is that ‘fault ride-though’ responses are invoked. However, nine of the eleven farms had a lower pre-set limit for the ride-through response to proceed, and after a number of dips those nine wind farms cut their connection. The other two had higher pre-set limits and continued operation.
Canto: Ahh, so those preset limits were set too low?
Jacinta: Maybe – that’s one for further investigation. So the lack of generation from the wind farms caused an overload on the Heywood interconnector, and it was disconnected as per protection systems, resulting in frequency failure on the grid, and blackness fell upon all the land.
Canto: Right, so how did things get restarted? What’s the normal procedure?
Jacinta: Well, there’s this contracted service, called the System Restart Ancillary Service, which in SA is contracted to two major electricity generators (unnamed in the report), who can supposedly restart regardless of the grid situation, and provide power to the transmission network, but these servers failed for unexplained reasons, and power was finally restored through the Heywood interconnector together with the Torrens Island power station.
Canto: Okay, so now the fallout. How could things have been done differently?
Jacinta: Some near-term fixes have been implemented already. Firstly, having to do with frequency rates which I won’t go into here, and secondly in relation to wind farms. Five of them have made changes to their fault ride-through settings, and AEMO is looking at this issue for wind farms across the NEM. The Australian Energy Regulator, another bureaucratic body, will have completed a full analysis of the blackout by early next year to determine if there were any breaches of regulations. Obviously it’ll be looking at the conduct of AEMO throughout, as well as that of the transmission operator, ElectaNet. It’ll also look at these fault ride-though settings of wind farms and the failures of the System Restart Ancillary Service. It all sounds as if everything’s being done that can be done, but the major problem is that grid security as it stands can only be provided by large generators. The report again mentions gas-fired generators as the best solution, at least in the short to medium term.
Canto: So, as the grid, and the general provision of electricity, undergo these transformations, we’ll no doubt experience a few more of these hopefully minor setbacks, which we can learn from as we develop security for a more diverse but more integrated system…
Jacinta: Greater integration might require less squabbling about the future of energy. I can’t see that happening in the near future, unfortunately.
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, who also happens to be a regular columnist for Cosmos, Australia’s premier science magazine, of which I’m a regular reader, has released his panel’s preliminary report on our national electricity market (NEM), and it has naturally received criticism from within the ranks of Australia’s conservative government, which is under pressure from its most conservative elements, led by Tony Abbott amongst others, who are implacably opposed to renewable energy.
The report confirms that the NEM is experiencing declining demand due to a range of factors, such as the development of new technologies, improved energy efficiency and a decline in industrial energy consumption. It makes a fairly reasonable assumption, but one unwelcome to many conservatives, that our electricity market is experiencing an unprecedented and irreversible phase of transition, and that this transition should be managed appropriately.
The NEM has been in operation for over 20 years, and the recent blackout here in South Australia (late September 2016) was its first real crisis. The issue as identified in the report is that variable renewable energy (VRE) sources are entering and complicating the market, which heretofore has been based on the synchronous generation of AC electricity at a standard system frequency. VRE generation is multiform and intermittent, and as such doesn’t sit well with the traditional system.
There are a number of other complicating issues. Improvements in building design and greater public awareness regarding emissions reduction have led to a decrease in overall energy consumption, while high peak demand on occasion remains a problem. Also the cost of electricity for the consumer has risen sharply in recent years, largely due to network investment (poles and wires). It’s expected that prices will continue to climb due to the closure of coal-fired power stations and the rising cost of gas. Interestingly, the report promotes gas as a vital energy source for this transitional period. It expresses concern about our overseas sales of gas, our low exploration rates, and negative attitudes to the fuel from certain states and territories. Rooftop solar systems, numbering more than 1.5 million, have further complicated the market, as the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) understandably finds it difficult to measure their impact. System integration, which takes solar and wind energy system contributions into account, is clearly key to a successful NEM into the future.
The report also stresses Australia’s commitment to emissions reductions of 26-28% by 2030. It points out that business investors are turning away from fossil fuels, or what they call ’emission intensive power stations’, and financial institutions are also reluctant to back such investments. Given these clear signals, the report argues that a nationally integrated approach to a system which encourages and plans for a market for renewables is essential. This is clearly not what a backward-looking conservative government wants to hear.
So the report describes an ‘energy trilemma’: provision of high level energy security and reliability; affordable energy services for all; reduced emissions. More succinctly – security, affordability and the environment.
In its first chapter, the report looks at new technology. The costs of zero-emission wind turbines and solar PVs are falling, and this will maintain their appeal at least in the short term. Other such technologies, e.g. ‘concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, ocean, wave and tidal, and low emission electricity generation technologies such as biomass combustion and coal or gas-fired generation with carbon capture and storage’ (p13), are mentioned as likely technologies of the future, but the report largely focuses on wind and solar PV in terms of VRE generation. The effect of this technology, especially in the case of rooftop solar, is that consumers are engaging with the market in new ways. The penetration of rooftop solar in Australia is already the highest in the world, though most of our PV systems have low capacity. Battery storage systems, a developing technology which is seeing cost decreases, will surely be an attractive proposition for future solar PV purchasers. Electric vehicles haven’t really taken off yet in Australia, but they are making an impact in Europe, and the AEMO has projected that 10% of cars will be electric by 2030, presenting another challenge to an electricity system based largely on the fossil fuels such vehicles are designed to do without.
The management of these new and variable technologies and generators may involve the evolution of micro-grids as local resources become aggregated. Distributed, two-way energy systems are the likely way of the future, and an Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap has been developed by CSIRO and the Energy Networks Association to help anticipate and manage these changes.
In chapter 2 the report focuses on consumers, who are becoming increasingly active in the electricity market, which was formerly very much a one way system – you take your electricity from the national grid, you pay your quarterly bill. With distributed systems on the rise, consumers are becoming traders and investors in new forms of generation. The most obvious change is with rooftop PV. The national investment in these systems has amounted to several million dollars, with the expectation that individual households will be generating electricity more cleanly, more efficiently, and also more cheaply, notwithstanding the traditional electricity grid. Developments in battery storage and other technologies will inevitably lead to consumers moving off-grid, likely creating financial stress for those who remain. The possibilities for developing micro-grids to reduce costs will further complicate this evolving situation. Digital (smart) metering and new energy management software empower consumers to control usage. And while this is currently occurring mostly at the individual level, industrial consumers will also be keen to curb usage, creating added pressure for a more flexible and diverse two-way market. The report emphasises that the focus should shift more towards demand management in terms of grid security. One of the obvious problems from the point of view of consumers is that those on low incomes, or renters, who have little capacity to move off-grid (or desire in the case of passive users), may bear the burden of grid maintenance costs at increasing rates.
Chapter 3 deals with emissions. In reference to the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has been ratified by Australia, the report makes this comment which has been picked up by the media:
While the electricity sector must play an important role in reducing emissions, current policy settings do not provide a clear pathway to the level of reduction required to meet Australia’s Paris commitments.
The current Renewable Energy Target does not go beyond 2020 and national policy vis-à-vis emissions extends only to 2030, causing uncertainty for investors in an already volatile market. Clearly the report is being critical of government here as it has already argued for the primary role of government in developing policy settings to provide clarity for investment. The report also makes suggestions about shifting from coal to gas to reduce emissions at least in the short term. The report discussed three emissions reduction strategies assessed by AEMO and AEMC (Australian Energy Market Commission): an emissions intensity scheme, an extended large-scale renewable energy target, and the regulated closure of fossil-fuelled power stations. The first strategy is basically a carbon credits scheme, which was assessed as being the least costly and impactful, while an extended RET would provide greater policy stability for non-synchronous generation, so adding pressure to the existing grid system. Closure of coal-fired power stations would reduce low-cost supply in the short to medium term. Base load supply would be problematic in that scenario, so management of closures would be the key issue.
Chapter 4 looks at how VRE might be integrated into the system. It gets a bit technical here, but the issues are clear enough – VRE will be an increasing part of the energy mix, considerably so if Australia’s Large-scale renewable energy target is to be met, along with our international commitment vis-a-vis the Paris Agreement. However, VRE cannot provide spinning inertia or frequency control, according to the report. Basically this means that they cannot provide base load power, at a time when coal-fired power stations are closing down (nine have closed since 2012) and eastern states gas is being largely exported. The Hazelwood brown coal power station, Australia’s largest, and one of the most carbon intensive power stations in the world, will cease operation by April next year.
The difficulty with non-synchronous, distributed, intermittent and variable energy generation (e.g. wind and solar PV) is that these terms seem to be euphemisms for ‘not effing reliable’ in terms of base load, a problem currently being encountered in South Australia and likely to spread to other regions. The report identifies frequency control as a high priority challenge.
Frequency is a measure of the instantaneous balance of power supply and demand. To avoid damage to or failure of the power system the frequency may only deviate within a narrow range below or above 50 Hertz, as prescribed in the frequency operating standards for the NEM.
It’s likely that this narrow range of frequency proved a problem for South Australia when it suffered a blackout in September. I’ll look at what the report has to say about that blackout next time.
Canto: So we’re tasked with solving the problem or problems in SA’s energy system.
Jacinta: We are? What problem? Or should I say crisis, what crisis?
Canto: That’s a good question Jass, because as you know the first step in finding a solution is to define the problem.
Jacinta: Yes I knew that. So we’re talking about how all the power died for a period of – what, 24 hours or so, statewide here in South Africa.
Canto: South Australia, don’t confuse our international readers. So I’ve heard the crisis framed in a number of different ways. First, in terms of the SA government’s irresponsible, unrealistic go-it-alone pursuit of risky renewable energy. Second, in the more or less opposite terms of other states’ and especially the federal govt’s foot-dragging and negative approach to said energy, leaving SA unsupported. Third, in terms of privatisation – a number of electrical pylons fell down like ninepins in the outback, because, it’s claimed, the private owners are pursuing profits over infrastructure maintenance. And a fourth and most comprehensive framing invokes climate change itself – SA was subjected to an unprecedented weather event likely caused by the emissions our gallant state government is trying to reduce..
Jacinta: And our little Torrens River has been torrenting like the mighty Amazon.
Canto: Yeah right. So with all these and more framings of the problem, it looks like we’ll have to spend a few posts on this issue.
Jacinta: Or a lifetime. But yes let’s try to be thorough. And positive. I thought we might start with the 9-point plan for solutions to complex problems which we found in the enlightening book The origin of feces by Stuart Waltner-Toews, and which was presented in simplified form on the Solutions OK blog.
1. What is the problem situation or issue? How did it come to be a problem?
2. Who are the stakeholders? What do they care about? Where are they coming from (motives, investments)? What are the agreements, discords among them?
3. What are the stories being told by these different stakeholders re their roles and concerns in the problem?
4. What’s our best systematic, scientific understanding of the situation/problem?
5. What’s our best understanding of the social & cultural issues to be addressed?
6. How are 4 & 5 related? How do they constrain or support each other?
7. What are the scenarios and narratives here that people most connect with? On what things can we agree on? What are the power relations between people who agree or disagree? Given these constraints and acknowledgements what do we realistically expect that we can do?
8. What course of action, governance structure and monitoring system will best enable us to implement our plans and move towards our goals?
9. Implement. Monitor. Adjust. Learn. Re-Start.
Canto: Yeah, that’s pretty comprehensive all right, maybe too comprehensive.
Jacinta: No I think it’s a good basis. Take point 1. What’s the problem? That’s easy. The problem is that SA had all its power cut for the best part of a day, and although many are saying this was a one-off, freak event, many others are saying it could happen again and that SA’s the most vulnerable state, it wouldn’t have happened to any other state.
Canto: Though I think our Premier said the exact opposite, it could’ve happened anywhere. Lots of conflicting narratives and opinions. So let’s get started.
Jacinta: Well let me first say that, whatever the cause, we are experiencing extreme weather here for October – rainy and stormy conditions which have certainly never been experienced here in a good long lifetime. And right now we’re got rain and strong wind conditions. There’s been little let-up for some time.
Canto: Interesting – we’re only a few days into October, but the average rainfall for September in Adelaide, since records have been kept, is about 58 millimetres. This year it was over 130 millimetres. October, though, might be the most interesting month for records. Certainly I can’t recall anything like this, and we have flooding in many parts of the state.
Jacinta: So we have extreme weather conditions, and the direct cause of the outage, according to our Premier, was freak weather conditions north of Adelaide, including two tornados which knocked over transmission towers near Melrose. More than 20 transmission lines were damaged. The question being asked, of course, is how could these storms knock out the power for a whole vast state for a long period? What were the back-up arrangements?
Canto: Well the back-up apparently relies on two interconnectors to the east coast. Presumably there must be some arrangement so that when local power isn’t forthcoming, the interconnectors receive a signal to transmit. However, only one was operational at the time of the outage. Now I don’t really understand this interconnector thing and how they work. I’m not clear on why one interconnector was shut down and why the other one didn’t just do the job. Is it just a matter of ‘firing up’ an interconnector and a whole state’s lights come back on? How simple or complex is it?
Jacinta: And what, if anything, has this got to do with renewable energy and the shutting down of the coal power station in Port Augusta?
Canto: We might get to that later. I haven’t been able to find exactly how interconnectors work, and nothing much at all on interconnectors in Australia, but currently in the UK there are four interconnectors, linked to France, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, of which the France one is largest, with 2GW capacity. It would be interesting to know the capacity of the two interconnectors linking us to the east, and whether that has any relevance. Anyway, these interconnectors are spruiked as providers of energy security and flexibility, so the more interconnectors the better. Maybe there’s a case for having a third interconnector, so that we’re never, or rarely reduced to having just one to rely on.
Jacinta: So why did we have no power? Why didn’t the interconnector provide it for so long? Or was it the interconnector that provided it, or was it the local system?
Canto: Well there was certainly local work going on from the start, as soon as conditions allowed, to fix local faults, but I can’t find too much info on the role of the interconnector. However, word has just come out that there’ll be a state inquiry into South Australia’s unique situation, so maybe there’s no point in us continuing this conversation.
Jacinta: Wait up, I think it might be fun speculating on and researching the matter, and then comparing our findings with the inquiry.
Canto: Which’ll come out in, what, five years?
Jacinta: An unnecessarily jaded remark. So let’s get stuck into some research, and look for solutions, always keeping in mind that 9-point plan.
There is more global investment in solar power today than there is in fossil fuels. We’re talking about hard-headed investment for profit by business and governments worldwide, not greenies or special interest groups. And another interesting factoid: China today is generating more energy from wind power than the whole of Australia’s energy production. Not to mention the Chinese government’s massive investment in other renewables. That’s info I got from a recent ABC Science Show podcast. Renewable energy really is making inroads, and this is most encouraging for those around the world fighting the damaging environmental effects of mining and fracking in their regions, though it’s clear that such operations are dying hard.
I remember some time ago at a meeting of skeptics (not climate change ‘skeptics’, just regular sciencey anti-quackery, anti-UFO-type skeptics), when I was spruiking the virtues of wind power, so successfully taken up here in South Australia, being told dismissively that it was too expensive to be really viable. However, wind-power only really has establishment costs. Ongoing costs are quite minimal. Furthermore, a research group conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Global Ecology Department has recently conducted the most wide-ranging expert survey on wind (or any other) energy. Sure, it was a survey of those already heavily invested in wind, but that does make them the experts in the field. Predictions about the cost of wind energy into the future were based on two approachess. First, a projection into the future of falling costs over the past three decades or so – what they call the ‘learning curve’. One would assume those projections would vary from ‘most optimistic’ to ‘most pessimistic’, with consensus somewhere in between. The second approach involved a ‘bottom-up engineering assessment’, looking at the costs of individual turbine components into the future. Science Daily has summarised the findings:
On average, the participants expected wind power costs to continue falling for the next several decades, for three major classes of wind turbines, both onshore and offshore, with prices falling by 24-30% by 2030, and 35-41% by 2050.
Meanwhile governments worldwide are getting on board in a determined effort to drive down the cost of solar. Vox Energy & Environment reports on the US target:
…the US Department of Energy has a program, the SunShot Initiative, devoted entirely to driving down the cost of electricity generated by solar panels — the target is solar power with $1 per watt installed costs by 2020, a 75 percent reduction in costs from 2010.
It’s hard to get the head around the growth of solar energy worldwide since about 2007. It’s been a whirlwind ride, but starting from an extremely low level. And in the US since 2012, large or utility-scale solar has been growing faster than domestic, rooftop solar, and with falling prices and increasing module efficiency, the growth trend in big and small solar should continue well into the future. Yes, there’s government stimulus, but solar is being seen more and more as a sound investment on its own terms. Solar’s steady growth also makes for sound investment against the high volatility of the natural gas market. And this of course is just as relevant for many regions outside the US.
I’ll be taking another look at Australia’s situation, while many of our governments bicker and focus elsewhere, in an upcoming post.
Canto: The price of oil, if you’re looking at Brent Crude, is just over $35 per barrel. That’s today, February 4 2016. But what’s Brent Crude, and whose dollars are we talking about, and who if anyone controls the oil price?
Jacinta: Don’t look at me. So we’re going to talk OPEC and Saudi Arabia, and gluts and reserves and peak supply and peak demand and carbon emissions and oil geopolitics now are we?
Canto: Why not? The oil price has just picked up slightly from a 12-year low of just under $30 a barrel, and nobody seems to know what’s causing the volatility, because there are so many players and factors affecting the global market. The uncertainty is as much long-term as short-term. It’s probably fair to say that the glory days of oil, that ineluctably diverse commodity, are behind us, but the decline will be slow, and we’re still a long way from finding a viable alternative in the transport sector.
Jacinta: Well, especially in air transport. So it’s hard to know where to start, but what’s OPEC?
Canto: Well you probably know that it’s an organisation of the major petroleum exporting countries, an organisation with a slightly shifting membership but always centred around the principal exporter, Saudi Arabia. It was founded in 1960, at a time when it was becoming clear that oil was the world’s most bankable commodity, and that most of that commodity was to be found in the Middle East – in Saudi in particular.
Jacinta: Right, and of course OPEC was formed to protect the interests of suppliers, and to ensure sovereignty over supply, against a background of exploitation and corruption. Not that the new ‘owners’ of the oil are any less corrupt than the previous ones.
Canto: I don’t know how useful it is for us to go into all this, I mean surely we don’t want to get caught up in the labyrinthine politics of the Middle East and its antagonists…
Jacinta: No no you’re right, though I do find it all very intriguing. I mean, this oil dependence we have is a recent phenomenon, essentially a 20th century issue, and it has had extraordinary consequences. To take just one example, it is the absolute basis of the wahabist Saud dynasty’s stranglehold on power, and I think it’s fair to say that this hasn’t been a good thing – particularly for the women of the region. I know I’m not alone in finding it demoralising that the rise to riches of Saudi Arabia in recent decades has seen no increase in freedom or in education outside of some narrow technical areas.
Canto: Yes, it’s depressing, so shall we instead focus on the commodity itself, and its future?
Jacinta: Fine well its immediate future was secured in the past with the invention of the automobile and the aeroplane. Before that the stuff was mostly used for kerosine, for heating.
Canto: And don’t forget plastics.
Jacinta: Absolutely but as I’ve said, it’s the transport sector that’s most dependent on oil, so how do we solve that problem, assuming we want to wean ourselves from the stuff?
Canto: But are there really any serious alternatives? I mean you mentioned air travel. We’ve heard of electric cars, solar cars, hydrogen cars, but air travel? Remember the Hindenburg?
Jacinta: Well I heard one expert put it this way. The world is largely tooled for liquid fuel – that’s petrol, LPG, diesel etc. That’s an investment of multi-trillions of dollars, an investment that continues every day. And there’s no viable alternative ready to go now or in the foreseeable, and even if there was, trashing all this perfectly functional machinery and all the ancillary technology and business that connects to the oil and gas industry – the consequences need to be realistically considered. You can’t be too simplistic about this stuff. So it is going to be incremental change no matter what.
Canto: So you mean a continual tinkering with current fuels to minimise their environmental impact while experimenting with new forms of fuel which we might be able to exploit without too much retooling.
Jacinta: Yes, at least not in the short term.
Canto: So how does LPG compare with petrol in terms of viability and environmental impact? I know there are those in the oil and gas industries who point to gas as a ‘green’ alternative, while others like Naomi Klein dismiss it as just another fossil fuel. Is it plausible or sensible to aim for LPG as the predominant road fuel while developing renewable alternatives?
Jacinta: Well there seems to be quite a few problems with LPG technology in cars – lots of extra plumbing and wiring, things to go wrong, high costs to fix problems, no doubt largely due to it being a minority system. And that’s the main problem – LPG has been around for a long time now but has never really taken off and been seriously competitive with petrol. That means availability is limited – a major inconvenience – and maintenance costs will be higher. That doesn’t look like changing.
Canto: How about biofuels? They were all the rage a while back but they seem to have gone out of fashion. Something about wasting good food, or grain or whatever, and the precious land to grow it on, on something so trivial as travel.
Jacinta: Well yes, there are those problems but there’s a new, or newish idea being worked on re biofuels – the use of algae. But I plan to write about that, and other possible solutions, on our other blog, Solutions OK.
Canto: Yes, and that’s also the place to consider the future of autonomous vehicles, and even autonomous electric vehicles, because it’s quite likely, isn’t it, that if these vehicles eventually take off (and I don’t mean flying vehicles, though they’ve also been developed), they could revolutionise our road usage, and why wouldn’t we use a better source of energy, such as electricity – already a proven technology for road transport, pre-dating the infernal combustion engine, or at least its use in motor vehicles.
Jacinta: Yes, so talk about future energy solutions is verboten here, and talk about geopolitics is obviously beneath us, so what’s left?
Canto: We’ll think of something, next time.
The universe is more turbulent than we imagined. It’s a quantum computer. It’s nothing but information. Where’s all the lithium? Is it really spinning, and are we anywhere near the axis? What was in the beginning? Pure energy? What does that mean? Energy without particles? The energy coalesced into particles, so I’ve read. Sounds a bit miraculous to me. The fundamental particles being quarks and electrons. Leptons? But quarks aren’t leptons, they’re fermions but leptons are also fermions but these are but names. Quarks came together in triplets via a strong force, but from whence this force? Something to do with electromagnetism, but that’s just a name. I’m guessing that physicists don’t know how these forces and particles emerged, they can only deduce and describe them mathematically. Quarks and leptons are elementary fermions, that’s to say particles with half-integer spin, according to the spin-statistics theorem. Only one fermion can occupy a particular quantumstate at one time, that’s according to the Pauli exclusion principle. Fermions include more than just quarks and leptons (electrons and neutrinos), they can be composite particles made up of an odd number of quarks and leptons, hence baryons made up of quark triplets. Fermions are often opposed to bosons in the sense that they’re associated with particles (matter) but bosons are more associated with force, but the intimate relation between matter and energy blurs this distinction. Anyway this strong force pulled quarks together to form protons and neutrons, while an electromagnetic force pulled together protons and electrons and voila, hydrogen atoms. All this in the turbulent immediate post-bang time. Hydrogen fused with hydrogen to form helium and so on all the way up to lithium, but that’s not far up because lithium comes after helium in the periodic table. The amount of hydrogen and helium in the universe fits precisely big bang expectations, and in fact is bestevidence for that theory but where’s all the lithium? There’s only a third as much lithium isotope 7 (with four neutrons) as there should be, but that’s okay cause there’s a superabundance of lithium-6. No, not okay. Some argue that it’s a big problem for the big bang theory, others not, surprise surprise. The period of creation of hydrogen and helium is called the primordial nucleosynthesis period, and it covers the time from a few seconds to 20 minutes or so after the bang. More precisely, the heavier isotopes of hydrogen, as well as helium and some lithium and beryllium, the next one in complexity, were created then and everything else was created much later, in stellar evolution and dissolution. Obviously the big bang released a serious amount of energy, and then things quickly cooled, permitting somehow the creation of elementary leptons such as electrons and electron neutrinos. During these first instances there was also a huge degree of inflation. The earliest instants of theuniverse are referred to as the Planck epoch, and it’s fair to say that what we know for certain about that minuscule epoch is equally minuscule, but it’s believed that the different fundamental forces posited today were then unified, and gravitation, the weakest of those forces in the present universe, was then much stronger, and maybe subject to quantum effects, which is interesting because though I know little of all this stuff largely due to mathematical ignorance, and of course inattention, I do know that gravity and the quantum world have proved irreconcilable since first theorised. Needless to say the Planck epoch is very different from ours, and it’s at this scale that quantum gravitational effects may be realised. We can’t test this though even with our best particle accelerators. It’s one for the future. Meanwhile, the renormalisation problem. Well actually renormalisation began as a provisional solution to the problem of infinities.
We describe space-time as a continuum. So there are three dimensions of space, what we call Euclidean space, and a dimension of time. But how does that actually work? Perhaps not very well. I’m talking about a classic-mechanical picture, but in relativistic contexts time is enmeshed with space and velocity and gravity. Cosmologists combine the lot into a single manifold called a Minkowski space. All I know of this is that it involves an independent notion of spacetime intervals and is mathematically more complicated than I can begin to comprehend, though supposedly it’s a relatively simple special case of a Lorentzian manifold, which itself is a special case of a pseudo-Riemannian manifold. I’m engaging in mathematics, not humour. Or vice versa. All this is beside the point, it’s just that trying to reconcile quantum theory and relativity is impossible without the creation of infinities, and infinities are much disliked by many cosmologists, being far too messy, and time is out of fashion too, the quantum world simply ignores it. And we still don’t know what happened to the lithium.
Mathematics has so far been absolutely central to our understanding of the universe. So is the universe or multiverse no more than a mathematical construct? If it is, it’s one that we’ve not yet figured out, and it’s unlikely that we ever will, it just gets more complicated as we develop more sophisticated tools to examine it. I’ve always suspected that the universe/multiverse is as complex as we are capable, with our increasingly ‘precise’ tools and increasingly sophisticated maths, of making it, and so will continue to get more complex, but that’s a sort of sacrilegious solipsism, isn’t it? The universe as increasingly complex projection of an increasingly complex collective consciousness? Is that what they mean when they say it’s a hologram? Probably not.
One more point about infinity. Max Tegmark says that the idea of a finite universe never made sense to him. How could the universe have a boundary, and if so, what’s on the other side? Another way of thinking about this is, if the big bang involved an explosion or, more accurately, a massive, near-instantaneous expansion, what did it expand into? Did this expansion involve a contraction on the other side of the boundary? It’s said that space-time began with the big bang, so there’s no outside. How can we really know that though? Of course if you believe that absolutely everything began with the big bang, then you’ll believe in a finite universe, as the bang began with a particular mass-energy point-bundle, which would have to be finite, and could not be added to or subtracted from, according to what I know about conservation laws. Anyway, enough of all this paddling in the shallows. It’s funny, though, I’ve recently encountered people who are extremely reluctant to talk about such matters, even in my shallow way. They actually suffer from ‘cosmological fear’ (my invention). Something to do with existential lostness, and mortality.