Clean Power Moniz pitches small hydropower

Published on May 25th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Ernest Moniz, Natural Gas And The “Forgotten Renewables”

May 25th, 2013 by  

In a town hall meeting with staffers last week, new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz dropped a bombshell and a hint. The bombshell, at least as far as fans of natural gas are concerned, is that Moniz sees natural gas not as a permanent fixture in the US energy landscape, but merely as a temporary “bridge” to a globally competitive, low-carbon future that is well within our grasp.

As for the hint, Moniz mentioned that the Energy Department will ramp up its efforts to develop small hydro, engineered geothermal systems, and other “forgotten renewables.” That could have a profound impact on the ability of different areas of the country to leverage local and regional energy resources for economic development.

Moniz pitches small hydropower

Water by dr_relling

Forgotten Renewables

The phrase “forgotten renewables” came up during Moniz’s confirmation hearings, in the opening statement by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).

While spending considerable time acknowledging the current advantages of low-cost natural gas, Wyden makes clear that natural gas is not the answer for sustainable, long-term competitiveness in the global marketplace, given the potential for low-cost renewable energy technology breakthroughs outside of the US:

“Today, low cost natural gas provides our nation’s economy with a competitive advantage. However, new technological breakthroughs could put our competitive advantage at risk in the foreseeable future…. Renewables must be part of that solution. The committee this month will take up bills that will encourage hydropower and geothermal, which we would call the forgotten renewables.”

Moniz And Natural Gas

Moniz echoed this sentiment at the Energy Department town hall. Though he started off by stating that “this natural gas boom is a boon” in terms of its relatively low-carbon emissions, he uses that to make the case for a more aggressive pursuit of a long-term solution in the form of advanced alternative energy technology, including small hydro and engineered geothermal as well as “other options:”

“…gas [is] kind of a bridge to a very low carbon future… it affords us a little bit more time to develop the technologies, to lower the costs of the alternative technologies, to get the market penetration of these new technologies.”

The significance of that approach becomes clear if you take into account Moniz’s mention of solar power. He describes solar as a form of energy that will be “a lot bigger than most people think sooner than they think,” but he goes on to acknowledge that it is a regional strength, not a national one.

Given that context, Moniz is pitching “forgotten renewables” as policy platform not only for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but just as importantly for an increased focus on local energy sourcing that will enable all regions of the US, including Senator Wyden’s rainy, cloudy Pacific Northwest, to offer competitive renewable energy options.

National Energy Policy And Fossil Fuel Transportation

That brings us to something we’ll call the “forgotten fossil fuel problem,” namely, the environmental risks and costs of long-distance fossil fuel transportation.

Though major disasters like the BP Gulf Coast oil spill have brought attention to the risks involved in oil drilling, the fact is that fuel transportation is a risk factor that faces a current and future double whammy of increased development combined with an aging, under-monitored infrastructure.

That’s a problem begging for a policy that focuses more on local sourcing, with long-distance transport reserved mainly for electricity and not solid or liquid fuels.

Regarding the aging infrastructure of oil pipeline transportation, take a look back at the disastrous Enbridge oil pipeline spill that polluted 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan two years ago with full cleanup nowhere near in site, or consider the damage done to a residential area and adjacent Lake Conway by the more recent ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas.

Now add in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. Even the notoriously lame draft Environmental Impact Statement written for the State Department noted that the pipeline will cross well over 1,000 waterways on its way from Canada down to the Gulf Coast, and the Environmental Protection Agency piled on by pointing out that the pipeline will carry a slurry of tar sands oil, which is exponentially more difficult to clean up than conventional oil.

We could go on… for example, there’s the issue of impacts from centralized natural gas storage and distribution hubs, wastewater transportation from natural gas fracking operations, the growing impacts of coal transportation, and the looming problem of petcoke disposal.

Given all of the above, it is little wonder that Ernest Moniz has called this “the crucial decade” for getting advanced renewable energy technologies off the ground and into the mainstream marketplace, natural gas or no natural gas.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Ross

    I’d call natural gas as a bridge fuel orthodoxy.

    The bombshell would have been a war plan to go straight to renewables.

    • jlmur

      Hopefully we will not have endure a John Brown like incident before we are heard this time.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Yes, but that would have taken a commitment on the part of all of us that we weren’t ready to make. If we were adequately concerned about climate change we would have pushed the government to build the large scale storage needed to go straight to renewables.

      We didn’t do that. So what is happening, IMHO, is that the “invisible hand of the market” is taking us to a renewable future via the natural gas route.

      Luckily for us, natural gas got very cheap and because people in the electricity business want to make money it’s getting used a lot.

      And luckily for us, the price is unlikely to stay cheap which will mean that as we get better storage solutions we’ll be able to push NG to the curb.

      • Ross

        April’s Scientific American had an article on “The true costs of fossil fuels” which had nice tables of the EROI (energy obtained per unit of energy spent to obtain it) for various electric power sources. The article referenced this

        A New Long Term Assessment of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for U.S. Oil and Gas Discovery and Production

        There are some nice graphs in there showing how the EROI for finding and exploiting oil and natural gas have plummeted and the trend is continuing down.

        • Bob_Wallace

          From your link…

          “We found two general patterns in the relation of energy gains compared to energy costs: a gradual secular decrease in EROI and an inverse relation to drilling effort. EROI for finding oil and gas decreased exponentially from 1200:1 in 1919 to 5:1 in 2007. The EROI for production of the oil and gas industry was about 20:1 from 1919 to 1972, declined to about 8:1 in 1982 when peak drilling occurred, recovered to about 17:1 from 1986–2002 and declined sharply to about 11:1 in the mid to late 2000s.”

          For those not familiar with EROI/EROEI, it’s Energy Returned On Energy Invested. The ratio between the amount of energy it takes to find or extract energy and the amount obtained.

          If we look at solar panels they pay back the energy it takes to manufacture them in two years (less than one year with thin-film). They produce electricity for 40+ years, best we can tell. So a 40+:2 or 20+:1 EROEI.

          Wind turbines take 3 to 8 months, depending on the quality of the wind site where they are installed. Newest technology should produce electricity for 30+ years. A 30+:5.5 month or 65:1.

          That makes wind and solar a lot more attractive than the ~10:1 EROEI with gas and oil.

          But wait, there’s more!

          The big reason that EROEI is so important with fossil fuels is that we are using up some of our finite supply in order to obtain a larger amount. We’re using up what we want just to keep our supplies flowing. At an EROEI of 1:1 we’re out of business.

          Solar panels and wind turbines can be built with 100% electricity. There’s no fuel limit for panels or turbines, or at least no limit for a few billion years. EROEI for panels and turbines built with renewable electricity is irrelevant.

          In 2012 we had more electricity going on the grid from solar panels than we used to manufacture that year’s solar panels. We must have hit that point a lot time ago with wind turbines.

          For a truly sustainable future we need to electrify the rest of the material extraction/refinement process for panels and turbines. At that point the ERO(finite)EI becomes gazillions:zero.

          • Ross

            I like your point about 1:1. It may be even better than that (in the sense of driving us to renewables), the SciAM article claims the “minimum EROI required for the basic functions of an industrial society” is in the range 5 – 9.

            It has a table of the following EROIs for renewables (+ nuclear)
            Energy Source EROI
            Hydroelectric 40+
            Wind 20
            Coal 18
            Natural gas 7
            Solar (PV) 6
            Nuclear 5

            Here’s the table for liquid fuels (not including distribution costs)
            Fuel Type EROI
            Conventional oil 16
            Ethanol from sugarcane 9
            Biodiesel from soy 5.5
            Tar sands 5
            Heavy oil from California 4
            Ethanol from corn 1.4

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’d like to see how they calculate the EROEI for wind and solar. I didn’t find the SA article on line, just the article you linked.

          • Ross

            Here’s the author’s notes for his calculations behind the EROI numbers.


          • Arthur Yip

            So what do you guys think about the EROI of shale gas estimated to be 70-100?

          • Bob_Wallace

            I think we need to be cautious when it comes to natural gas. I’m seeing reports that the wells are dropping in output very quickly in most of the fields.

            Great production for the first year and soon after the flow drops to a very small percentage of what originally came out.

            The information is mixed.

            In 2010 the DoE and natural gas industry (Potential Gas Committee (PGC)) agreed that we had 1578 tcf of known, proven, and possible reserves. 842 tcf in the ‘known and proven’ categories.

            in January 2012 the US Department of Energy lowered the 842 tcf ‘known and proven’ to 482 tcf based on more detailed information provided by gas explorations in shale deposits in the preceding year. Wells are slowing production much faster than was expected. That’s a 43% drop.

            Then the Potential Gas Committee (PGC) increased their estimate from 2192 tcf to 2,384 tcf at year end 2012. (The higher 2192 tcf number includes “speculative” gas.) That’s 25% (486 tcf) more than the previous record-high assessment 2 years earlier.

            So the DoE is saying 43% less and the NG industry is saying 25% more.


            Then I found this…

            “Hughes, who recently published his findings alongside an analysis by the Energy Policy Forum‘s Deborah Rogers of Wall Street’s role, calculated that nationwide, 7,200 wells will need to be drilled annually, at a cost of more than $42 billion each year, simply to keep shale gas production from falling. But last year, drillers didn’t even make enough money to cover that $42 billion, Hughes discovered.

            “In 2012, US shale gas generated just $33 billion (although some wells also produced substantial liquid hydrocarbons, which improved economics),” Hughes wrote in a February 21 article in the journal Nature.”


            If the last report is the correct one then it sounds like the EROI could be quite low. If it’s a EROI based on unrealistic production expectations, then it’s not very useful.

            Aside from that, natural gas burning puts more CO2 into the atmosphere. Not ruining the planet for human life is probably a bit more important than getting a nice, high EROI number.

          • Ross

            Looking at the Well Head price time series for US natural gas there’s no sign of the cost of it dropping down dramatically as one might expect if it required so little energy to extract.


            I see calls for the current price to go up to make it economical.

            I think that estimate is fanciful.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Looking at some data on your link, the price of NG to electricity plants rose 30% from Sep 12 to Fed 13.

            Since 2003 the price of NG for electricity has been almost always above $5/tcf except for the ‘supply glut’ period starting in July ’11. Most recent reported price is $4.59/tcf and it looks like the price is working its way back over $5.

            Looks to me as if the market is going to improve for storage and more renewable installations.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Found it. Sources are buried deep. I’ll try to dig in later.

          • Otis11

            Any news on this?

          • Bob_Wallace

            No. I forgot about it. And I can’t even figure out what I was going to dig into. Was it the SI source for EROI?

          • Otis11

            Yeah – why the SciAM EROI differs from your calculations.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Memory refreshed.

            I did dig further. Got stopped by the $35.95 fee required to read the source.

            The article author does state that the EROEI for solar at 6 is likely outdated and low.

            Anyway, what does the EROEI matter if the input energy can be 100% renewable? Cost, of course, counts. But in the case of fossil fuels we are using fossil fuels, a finite commodity, to obtain more fossil fuels. We can build solar panels and wind turbines for the new few billion years with energy from the Sun.

          • Otis11

            Yes, as long as the EROEI > 1. Because if EROEI is 1 there would be no point in making it… it would only generate enough power over it’s lifetime to make 1 more for 0 net increase.

            An EROEI of 6 is still fairly disappointing as that means for every panel made we can only make 6 panels for a net increase of 5 panels… but I suspect that number is significantly out of date. (They may also be assuming net lifetime of 20 years like most of the more conservative estimates – which means we can fairly safely double it based on what we are seeing in the actual market.)

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yeah, but I still think EROEI is fairly meaningless when it comes to turbines and panels. We’re not using up a finite source of energy if we make them with wind and sunshine.

            The amount of energy going in only matters in terms of cost and the cost of both panels and turbines has become quite reasonable. And will continue to fall.

            At a EROEI of 2 for panels we could still grow our supply of panels exponentially.

            EROEI is an issue with finite energy sources. It’s a way of tracking the point at which the game is up.

          • Otis11

            “The amount of energy going in only matters in terms of cost and the cost of both panels and turbines has become quite reasonable. And will continue to fall.”

            Yeah, actually when you put it that way I’d agree… the EROEI doesn’t matter as long as the price is still acceptable.

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