March 31, 2014

Death Cross For European Energy

Published on Monday March 31 2014 (AEST)

Commentators have begun to focus on the “moving average” of European energy demand  – always downward – as the moving average of European energy prices always rises. They easily conclude this is a death cross caused by the always-unrealistic energy policy and programs of the European Union. Making this more deadly, the “bearish outlook” for future energy supply in Europe is hard-baked into the policy mix and kept that way by political grandstanding and corporate inertia.


There is no point arguing that normally-speaking, when markets are working properly, shortage leads to higher prices which in turn leads to investment in new supply. This is not the case.
In a large number of EU countries, especially the UK, Germany, Spain but in general all EU member states from Poland to Portugal, power generating capacity is expected to fall further as declared-obsolete coal and oil-fired plants close, and made-obsolete gas-fired power plants are either mothballed or demolished.  The coal plants emit too much CO2, the oil plants cost too much to run – like the gas fired plants – and the intermittent renewable based power plants cost too much to install and operate when their infrastructure and support costs are included. Nuclear power plants, apart from their fantastic capital costs, have a degraded public image and their forward construction time, when or if they are funded, is excruciatingly long.

In several countries such as the UK and Germany, the government pleads to no avail with producers to restart their gas plants that are mothballed, and not yet demolished, but without cast iron revenue and profit guarantees the power producers will not operate them. With typical year-round capacity utilization rates that can be as  low as 15%, gas fired power plants in many EU states operate at a whopping loss. One example is the biggest power producer in Germany, E.On whose CEO in 2013 noted that his corporation's fleet of “state of the art” gas power plants was losing about 93 euro cents on every 1 euro of power produced by them. Mothballing these recently-built, high-cost, low emission, high-efficiency gas power plants is expensive, for plants that when they were used, were only able to operate 20 hours a week.


Governments Cajole, Then Threaten

EU governments plead with the continent's power producers to invest in the renewables, but to declining avail. Germany's No 2 producer, RWE in 2013 has pulled out of a number of large scale renewable power projects, such as Britain's mooted but unfunded giant-scale offshore windfarm in NW England, and has officially announced that the corporation could or might totally abandon electric power production and distribution by or before 2020. Corporate energy in Europe, led by the power companies, is backing off and away – from energy.  

This “reality gap” between European electric power prices, and the growing corporate and investor disinterest and abandonment of the power sector, is glaringly massive. In the poster child country for European “energy transition”, German household electricity prices are around 25 euro cents per kiloWatthour in early 2014, pricing their power at an oil equivalent (1600 kWh per barrel) of around $540 per barrel equivalent. Can we be surprised that German electricity consumption is falling?

Inevitably therefore, governments of all political complexions in Europe – from light blue to pale pink – are now asking why energy companies are not putting their increased profits into building new power plants, and new transmission infrastructures of any kind that can produce power and a profit?

Government spokespersons go on to ask: Why are the producers “out to lunch”?  The totally superficial nature of the politically-charged reaction and response of European governments to a steadily growing outlook of future power shortages, brownouts and blackouts – only held back, this winter, by record warm weather -  is proven by the dire “bottom lines” of most major power producers in Europe. This is the basic reason they do not invest, and their share prices continue to wilt.

Also inevitably, the governments of EU states whether Liberal Left or Liberal Right, have started to accuse the power producers and distributors of profit-gouging, market rigging and a general “failure to invest”. This accusation of course destroys any regulatory predictability for electric power and can only further depress the “will to invest”. The UK is a classic example.

Former UK Conservative Prime Minister John Major has proposed a windfall profits tax on the power companies. Labour leader Ed Miliband promises to freeze power prices for 20 months if he wins next year's election. With zero surprise, this has made the word “investment” equivalent to “leprosy” for the UK's electricity sector, more especially when both government and opposition, as in other EU states, threatens to further tax “fossil energy”, to fund and cross-subsidize renewables. If the power companies will not do it – governments will!

Newspeak jargon used for this not so much creeping, but rapidly accelerating, government takeover of electric power in Europe includes, in the UK, the key term “contracts for difference” with the stock exchange-friendly buzzword of “strike prices” for electricity added. At the same time, UK power producers (and similar legislation is creeping forward at a fast snail's pace, say a hungry snake's pace in other EU states) will have certain “capacity obligations”, that is power production capacity they will have to build and-or own, or buy – whether they use it or not.

The death cross for European electricity continues.


At Least Eighty Percent Less Emissions of CO2

EU member states such as the UK, whether government or Opposition, have at mostly “mildly diluted” their commitment to the Low Carbon Future. Across the continent, all major mainstream political parties continue to make green promises. In the UK, soon to be followed by other member state governments and opposition parties, government is threatening to “break-up the energy cartels” that it imagines firstly exist, and secondly imagines are thwarting the Low Carbon Goal.

Following the Dec 2008 European parliament vote in favour of the “climate-energy package”, this was quickly and unquestioningly transposed into the laws, regulations and policies of all the member states. By or before March 2009 only a very few countries had not yet “enshrined” the goals of the package – and more important the potential forward extensions of these goals.

Whatever the “liberal politics” ruling in the member states, whether pale blue or slightly pink, political leaders leapt on board with their own national extensions of the Dec 2008 goals. In the UK, during the 2010 election campaign, the Conservative Party endorsed the low-carbon rhetoric of the package, which had so thrilled the Greens and Ecologists, and UK Tory party leader David Cameron belted out the slogan "Vote blue, Go green." After winning the mandate, the Tories continued to support the UK's almost instant adoption of the European parliament resolution, by the previous New Labour government which in its own 2008 Climate Change Act committed the U.K. to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.

In some countries preaching holier-than-thou (but rarely practicing it), such as Germany, the 80-percent-goal was soon drawn back towards the 2030s.

Shifting the definition of emissions, and above all outplacing national CO2 emissions to supplier countries of its uranium fuel, France was able to brandish nuclear power as the clean-green solution for achieving at least an 80% reduction by the 2040s. Several EU politicians such as former Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero before he was massively voted out of power, had brandished the possibility of a 100% reduction in Spanish CO2 emissions “by about 2045”.


The Dirty Diesel Debacle

For more than a week in late March, on a recurring base, several major French cities including Paris were swathed in a brownish smog dubbed “particules fines” by the media. That is microparticles emitted by “clean low carbon” diesel-fueled cars, now making up 75% of the French 40-million car fleet and over 85% of new car sales. The reason is ultra simple – diesel fuel is subsidized at a lower pump price than gasoline, despite diesel fuel having 10% more energy in every liter compared with gasoline. The apparent higher mileage of diesel-fueled cars is explained by that, but for politicians and the consumer public, especially in France, the diesel car was a miraculous weapon for fighting the catastrophe of global warming. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo warmly supported French car fleet dieselization at the 2009 Copenhagen conference.

To no avail, public health and environmental associations point out that the UN WHO's Institute of Cancer Research, ironically based in the French city of Lyon went so far, in 2012, as to give a hard-edged estimate for the number of cancer deaths caused by inhaling and ingurgitating diesel fuel residues, of about 200 000 per year for the EU, and 44 000 per year in France. Only cancers linked with cigarette smoking cause a higher annual death toll, according to the UN WHO.

But who would take any notice of the WHO when sea levels are rising at seven-tenths of 1 millimetre per year and diesel cars are so cheap to run?

Diesel fueled cars are “green and ecological” by government fiat, and supposedly offer reduced oil consumption, as demanded by the political goals of “European energy transition”, set by the climate-energy package of Dec 2008 - and the increase of its goals set by later political grandstanding in various EU states. As a result of the “particules fines” smog alert in major French cities, some schools were closed, physical activity in remaining open schools was banned, oxygen was supplied to elderly and infirm persons, public transport and car parking outside city centers was supplied free, car speed limits were drastically reduced, industrial users of heavy fuel were “invited to reduce” their fuel burn. The struggle against global warming has to continue!

Drilling down, the climate-energy package's original format called for totally impossible rates of replacing “fossil oil fuels”, with renewable liquid hydrocarbon fuels – bioethanol and biodiesel. Due to massive increases of bioethanol fuel production, in Europe, being even more impossible than large increases in biodiesel fuel production – using imported intensively cultivated palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia needing wide area devastation of tropical rainforest areas – the “diesel solution” was taken as the most feasible “upfront option” for shaving oil consumption.

Already existing pro-diesel policy and programs for increasing the diesel car fleets of the EU member states, based financially on “refinery crack spreads” using heavy and dirty crudes, costing less than lighter sweeter crudes, were bolstered by the Low Carbon rush to cut emissions. The collateral increase – a large increase - in cancer deaths was tucked away from public view.

Official policy and communication on the “dirty deadly diesel” spinoff from “clean low carbon” has been at best confused, and at worst – the majority of official communication – plain and straight lying. In France for example, government spin on the subject following the smog brownout in most major cities in late March, merely recycled the publicity of leading diesel car manufacturers. These claim that “by or before 2020” French diesel cars will be so clean they almost emit no “particules fines” at all. Move along now, there is nothing to see! (Circulez – il n'y a rien a voir).


Death Cross for European Energy

Noted in several other of my articles, and concerning the supposed-heroic EU struggle to “anchor Ukraine to Europe”, the reality is that there is basically no shortage of energy – of any kind – in Europe. Rumors that Ukraine is a critical pivot for European energy have been drastically exaggerated.

In this particular and specific case – Ukraine – the country has about 125 years of its current bloated natural gas consumption in the form of unexploited and ignored – but real – domestic conventional gas reserves. Why it ignores or ignored them, is for historians and political scientists to discuss.

The EU, IMF and US at least in theory, could run an emergency, heavily funded E&P program for Ukraine with the objective of turning it into a net exporter of gas to the rest of Europe - but the likelihood of that is minimal. Much better to practice austerity politics as in Greece, leaving a train wrecked economy behind.
Mass media spin and political grandstanding invites us to swallow the argument that Europe is facing a do-or-die struggle with Putin's Russia for “energy security”. Swallowing and breathing diesel fuel residues in French cities may now be “patriotic”. Paying extreme and unreal prices for electricity – while the supply of electricity declines – will be the New Normal.

Unfortunately (or not) this will do nothing to resolve the death cross facing European energy. Future supply is on a downward track. Prices, including taxes and charges and government grubbing of the wherewithal to provide energy subsidies, are on an upward track. This in fact is a long-term paradigm, with a host of subsidiary and related impacts – or collateral damage. As one simple but not immediately evident impact, European urban development policy and programs now have so many energy question marks hanging over them, that actual hard-edged decisions and real world projects are decreasingly easy to define and execute. For example, the question “Are European city dwellers (over 80% of national member state population in most EU states) willing to go on breathing and swallowing what the UN WHO calls carcinogenic diesel fumes “to protect the climate”, and give importers of Malaysian and Indonesian intensively-cultivated, genetically modified, pesticide and oil-rich “clean green palm oil”, a look-in to a New Market for European biodiesel fuel”?
Maybe they are that stupid but we do not yet know.


A Somber History of Gimmick Thinking

Tracing back to the 1980s  when I was an in-house policy analyst at the EC's Energy Directorate, and well paid, the original version of the European car fleet dieselization urge did not yet have a Low Carbon climate change mitigation handle. It was a straight economic gimmick. Heavy and dirty crudes, although they contain more energy than lighter crudes cost a lot less than them – in the 1980s. This is no longer the case, since heavy-light crude price spreads are small, these days. Heavy crudes like Saudi Heavy are in this specific case a standard 2.92% by weight Sulphur. They also contain a range of heavy metals such as Ni, Cr, V, Mn, Co, Hg and in some cases even Thorium and Uranium! Processing them costs much more than light crudes, but if the heavy crudes are cheaper to buy than light crudes this additional cost can be rationalized. Heavy crudes yield more middle distillates like diesel and heating fuel, so car fleets have to be dieselized to use the refined products.

The economic rationale for heavy crudes and more diesel fuel output shrunk or disappeared by the 1990s, but the Global Warming gimmick was rising, and European consumers were buying diesel cars to sop up the increased availability of heavily-subsidized diesel fuel, noting again that you buy 10% more energy in a litre or gallon of diesel fuel than a litre or gallon of gasoline. This was a classic Sorcerors Apprentice story, for political deciders also facing the problem of the European refining industry which despite massive investments was still producing too much gasoline – and facing tougher environmental standards for its inevitably dirtier, more-polluting heavy crude “pallets”.

The net result is cities polluted with (if you believe the UN WHO's Cancer Research Institute) provenly carcinogenic diesel fuel residues, a loss-making European refining industry, and massive numbers of recently-built, recently-purchased diesel cars in national car fleets of most major EU states. Telling the public they are breathing and swallowing carcinogens “to save the climate”, and-or “reduce their dependence on Putin's oil exports”, is unlikely to be voter-friendly, but we can count on our ruling elite to try this number – as they did in France, in late March 2014.

By Andrew McKillop


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