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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Natural gas - a new game changer

There is a world of events outside of health care, important events. The reality is that the amount of health care we can deliver is limited by the amount of wealth we can generate and the amount of wealth we can generate is dependent upon energy. Roll the clock back to the late 19th century and the revolution in how people live was facilitated by two energy breakthroughs; the discovery of oil at an energy source and the deployment of electrical grid. Prior to the availability of these energy sources, we were very dependent upon animal and human power and the world as we conceive it in developed world is inconceivable without oil (and related fuels) and electricity.

Since the discovery of oil in Titusville Pennsylvania in 1859, the oil business has been punctuated by booms and busts, and predictions of the near term end exhaustion of oil. Despite these predictions, the discovery of new reserves and expanded production has been the norm, not the exception. Still, predictions of peak oil production are consistently raised, although the date of impact is pushed out on the time horizon.

Two observations call the peak oil assumption into question. The first are observations and theories put forth over the past 30 years by the former (and now deceased) Cornell professor Robert Gold. Gold held a number of very contrarian positions regarding the origins of hydrocarbon based fuels, most notably that oil and gas are not fossil fuels. Gold claimed that the real fossil fuel was the oxygen in the atmosphere and that we were more likely to run out of oxygen needed to burn oil and gas before we exhausted oil and gas supplies.

Gold's positions were not without controversy, perhaps less based upon the particular ideas he put forth and more based upon the consideration that they were not his original ideas. Much of the abiogenic oil literature was published in Russian well before Gold's limited popularization of the idea in the English language. Gold was criticized for taking credit for theories which were likely not his original ideas.

Gold also put forth an very interesting hypothesis regarding the origins of life on earth, suggesting that life began inside of and not on the surface of the earth and that the fuel which drive early life was hydrocarbons from deep within the earth. This work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992.

One of Gold's early predictions was that gas should be found at depths which would preclude a biological source. His predictions were validated in the mid 1980's when natural gas was discovered in Oklahoma more than 9 kilometers beneath the surface of the earth. In today's WSJ, Daniel Yergin wrtoe a piece entitled "Stepping on the gas".

Yergin, author of "The Prize" a history of the oil industry (and another book "Commanding Heights" also well worth reading), describes two technological innovations which allow for better access to gas reserves. The two techiniques, "fracking" and horizontal drilling, have literally exploded the available domestic natural gas reserves. The estimates are that we have 2500 TRILLION cubic feet of known natural gas reserves, enough to supply our current needs for more than 100 years. We have so much gas that prices are falling! This fuel is cleaner and cheaper than what we are using.

So what are the barriers to conversion of cars and other vehicles to natural gas? Companies such as UPS are already moving in this direction.  However, there are crippling regulations which block the widespread deployment of conversion kits in the domestic care market. Licensing requirements force shops interested in conversions to pay $10K fees annually for each model and engine type.
The purpose of such stifling regulations is unclear and the barriers to widespread deployment of a cleaner, cheaper, and domestically available fuel are purely political.  Why spend huge sums subsidizing alternative energy sources which are not likely to be economically feasible when we are sitting on huge natural gas reserves? 


  1. I recently had a discussion about natural gas with a friend who is chief economist for a large energy company. (The company advertises that it serves more than 20 million consumers in addition to all sorts of energy infrastructure businesses.) Despite his lofty title, he is a very thoughtful and modest person.

    I had not yet read your post--just "buzz" about natural gas in general. He readily acknowledged that his company is investing heavily in "natural-gas fired" power plants and that this is indeed the "wave" of the future. He also lamented regulatory hurdles that prevent his company (a utility) from diversifying quickly into this area.

    Regarding vehicles specifically (which you focused on in your post), he was a little bit more hesitant, noting that a lot of the cost involved in powering vehicles with natural gas comes from compressing the gas. Thus, the financial benefit of using compressed natural gas (over gasoline) is not as great as it is for, say, home heating. The savings (and, presumably, political benefit of not relying on foreign oil) are there, however.

    The main issue for consumer vehicles is delivery. UPS, other companies with large corporate fleets, and public transit can make one-time large investments in CNG stations. Corner gas stations don't want to heavily invest in infrastructure without a reasonably sized market, and people don't want to buy CNG cars (even if there were financial incentives to do so!) if they don't have a place to fill them.

    While I agree that it doesn't make sense to "spend huge sums subsidizing alternative energy sources which are not likely to be economically feasible," development of a new, economically feasible energy source will still require huge sums.

  2. I completely agree that the development of a robust distribution network will take investment and risk and I suspect that the large vehicle fleet market will be first developed. How it plays out afterwards is anyone's guess. The risk for loosening of the licensing requirements for shops that can to do retro fixes on vehicles is nominal at worst with the greatest risk being to entities that sell other fuels.

    I cannot intelligently comment on the technical challenges to developing networks for compressed gas distribution.