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Have we reached peak oil?

I just finished reading Jeff Rubin’s book “Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization“.  Was a good thought provoking read.  In summary, Rubin is stating that the world has reached peak oil production and that ultimately prices will continue to increase post economic crisis and supply will continue to dwindle.  The ultimate effect of this on society is that transportation costs will increase so high that it will no longer be economic to source goods from low labour cost countries like China and others.  The cost of transportation will more than offset the lower production costs.  The result will be a return to building factories much closer to market.  So in the case of North America, jobs will return as making product locally will once again become economic.

In fact there are really two issues as I see it, combined into one.  On the one hand, he notes that transportation costs will become so high that we move jobs closer to home.  On the other hand, the high cost of oil will mean that we won’t be able to sustain our current standard of living so we will have to do with less.

I think that a good case is made with some evidence that we may indeed have achieved peak oil.   The case for the world getting smaller is somewhat more anecdotal in nature.  Rubin also accepts that people are smart and that technology may indeed come to rescue although he does not think it will come fast enough for us to avoid large structural change in our economies.   

There have been numerous reviews of this book so I will not try and do another review.  In my case, I would like to focus on making a few points that came to me as I thought about these issues.  And yes, the book does make you think.

First, while the world may try and get smaller once again as it was in the past, we cannot forget the great strides in communications technology.  So while we may not be able to travel as much, we will continue to be aware of the goings on all around the world.  The internet will continue to bring us together with increasing global collaboration.  Just imagine all of the ways that improved technology can reduce oil use.  And we know from this recession that it doesn’t take a really huge drop in demand for oil prices to fall.  Think of all of the communications technology that can reduce consumption.  For example, how much oil does it take to print and distribute newspapers?  Well, it now looks like the future will have paperless newspapers fed to us on e-readers.  How about magazines?  Books?  If we eliminate these from use (or even reduce their use dramatically as a start) what will the impact be?  No oil to ship the paper to the factory, no printing requiring energy, no packaging and most of all, no distribution.  And this is only one example.  How about business travel?  Of course, it will never go to zero but with improved video conferencing the need to travel by plane to far away places or even by car somewhere closer is being reduced.  Look at the reductions in business travel already apparent in this recession.  In these cases, it means that we will hopefully be able to use oil to transport only what needs to be transported as we get more efficient and reduce overall transportation.

He discusses climate change as well.  This is also an important point.  The global concern about carbon emissions is leading us to price carbon, thus increasing the cost of oil from its normal economic position.  The goal is to use policy to change behaviour and find ways to move off oil to more carbon friendly forms of energy.  This means that governments are working to try and encourage fuel switching BEFORE the oil actually runs out due to concerns about its current use – not due to concerns about its scarcity.  This should have a positive impact as policies continue to encourage demand reduction in advance of a global supply catastrophe.

Next, if he is right and factories once again move closer to home, yes, blue collar jobs long lost to far away places may indeed come back home to North America.   But the current trend of white collar jobs moving off shore will not be reversed.  It is ironic that the man on the factory floor may once again have a good job while the engineer designing the process may more often be in places with low cost professional labour.  Engineering, accounting and other professions in the service sector that produce mostly paper will not see their jobs return as the internet will assure that quality work can be done literally anywhere around the world.  So does this mean that in the next phase of globalization it is the higher paying jobs that will be moved away to lower cost locations while the low paying jobs return home? 

Was an enjoyable read.  I am interested in other’s thoughts on this book. Let me know what you think.

MIT Report Update “The Future of Nuclear Power”

This week MIT released an update to its 2003 report, “The Future of Nuclear Power”.  Back in 2003 this report brought the economics of nuclear power in the United States to the forefront.  It supported new nuclear as a low carbon option for electricity generation and considered a scenario that would see the increase in capacity by a factor of 3 (meaning building about 200 new units) by the middle of this century.  It is commonly accepted that this report was an important input into the policy that followed with respect to nuclear power including the nuclear power 2010 program and the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

This update looks at progress over the past 6 years and of most interest, updates the economics.  The following table from the report shows the new versus old analysis.

Click on table to enlarge

Click on table to enlarge

As can be seen, the costs have increased significantly over this time period with the projected costs of nuclear increasing faster than the costs of the coal and gas alternatives.  However, the authors draw the same conclusions as they did in 2003; that nuclear is competitive with the alternatives. The report continues to assume a higher project risk for nuclear than fossil.  This translates into a higher cost of capital and the highest cost of electricity.  Assuming the same cost of capital as the alternatives results in nuclear being extremely competitive.

I want to comment on the costs and assumptions.  I have to admit, that back in 2003, when I worked for a nuclear vendor, I was not happy with this report assuming nuclear at $2,000 /kW.  At that time we all believed that we were making strides to lower the cost of new plants and we wanted to see that reflected in the analysis.  Well, I was wrong.  Today the cost of nuclear power has increased and I do accept that $4,000 /kW is a reasonable assumption to make in today’s world.  Does that mean that I think that it is OK for nuclear plants to cost $4,000 /kW?  I definitely think that more work needs to be done to bring these costs down but that is the subject for another discussion.

On the other hand, things have evolved so that the other assumptions do need to be challenged.   While it may have made sense to assume different costs of capital in 2003, this is no longer the case.  The argument in the report is based on the industry’s poor track record of building on time and on budget.  It states that issues with new plants since that date confirm this and that the risk premium can only be eliminated with proven plant delivery performance.  While I do agree that the industry needs to prove it can deliver a new fleet of plants to budget and schedule, things have changed since 2003.

In the current environment, the majority of new plants under consideration in the United States are with regulated utilities.  These plants will be financed on balance sheet so they will be financed at the cost of capital of the utility itself, no different than if it were to build a coal or a gas plant.  And now that the cost estimates have escalated significantly, it is reasonable to assume that part of this increase is due to utilities being more conservative and taking the risks into account in the cost estimates themselves.

Also, the risks of the alternatives have changed significantly.  The risk of new climate change initiatives being put into place after the coal or gas plant is committed has increased.  This means additional costs to the utilities to implement new carbon control requirements or charges due to additional costs for releasing carbon are likely.  Is $25/t sufficient?  At this stage nobody knows meaning higher risk.

And finally, it is interesting how the success of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is assumed, even though the technology has yet to be demonstrated while the success of building a new nuclear plant is consistently challenged.  The MIT study itself recognizes that CCS is not proven. The costs of CCS seem to go up every time a new estimate is made, yet they assume that nuclear has a higher risk profile and cost of capital than coal with a yet to be proven technology attached to it.

In the case of a merchant plant, should there be one; it will very likely only be implemented under the US government loan guarantee program.  This means that they can achieve the 80/20 debt/equity ratio assumed for the other technologies with even a lower potential cost due to the benefit of the government guarantee.

All that being said, the timing of this update is useful.  Their conclusion that more needs to be done is important.  As stated “The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.” It will be interesting to see how both government and industry respond.

Welcome to MZConsulting Inc

This is the beginning.  MZConsulting Inc was started about four years ago.  We are in the clean energy business.  We work with technologies that are low carbon.  This means renewables such as wind and solar and nuclear power as the major large scale low carbon option.  Our primary business is advising companies and governments with respect to new build nuclear projects.  Our experience is mainly related to the commercial aspects of energy generation projects so our focus is on energy economics and competitiveness. 

We also advise companies looking to make investments in the uranium sector.  This is focused on companies in Asia as major users given their growing nuclear programs.  We are not investment advisers in the sense of recommending stocks; we recommend and work with companies who have a need for uranium and help them find and implement suitable investments that meet their requirements.

We do have a web site at www.mzconsultinginc.com that summarizes our capability and records all of our public presentations and papers.  So why start a blog?  I have been thinking about it for some time now and what pushed me over the edge was recently reading a book by Jeff Jarvis called “What Would Google Do?”  I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it made me think of how quickly things are changing and the direction that world is moving.  I want to be part of the change.  I want to contribute and get feedback from others to help me shape my own company direction for the future.  Energy issues are certainly high on many people’s agenda these days and the interaction between energy and the environment is crucial to creating the low carbon future that we seek.

I don’t want to make this first post too long so I will stop about now.  I hope to provide input on a somewhat regular basis on a number of energy related topics and get some interesting discussion going.

So as I said at the top “Welcome to our Blog”.

Milt