Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Snow. My son is five days old today. Energy security tonight is keeping him warm. It’s a warm bath, lemon tea, a separation of our lives from the wind and falling snow outside. Energy, in its most important form tonight, is heat. But also light, light to read by, to write by. Light that is the words on the page, the page itself; this light, if a bit sickly, shines nonetheless.

Post partum is a strange elation, and then a contest, perhaps, of new pleasures and new stresses, all atop the old. An all-consuming time. But the world of energy is alight, so much happening, I will try to document a few pieces that have come my way.

The most recent, a comment by German regulators that things may not be well in old Europe.

German regulator warns of Europe power shortages

Tue Feb 19, 2008 6:06am EST

ESSEN, Germany, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Europe risks power shortages if it does not press ahead with new power station projects to replace and add to ageing generation capacity, German energy regulator Matthias Kurth said on Tuesday.

Coal-to-power projects were being cancelled because operators feared tougher emissions rules or because citizens did not want polluting plants in their neighbourhood, while rising prices of materials and labour added to delays, he said.

"The EU needs an overall strategy to deal with blocked decision-making, protests and the CO2 question," he said at a conference during the E-World trade fair.


Germany had planned to replace 20,000 megawatts of ageing power station capacity up to 2012 alone, but his authority only had knowledge of projects underway for 7,000 MW, Kurth said.
Aging power stations need replacing, no doubt about it, but it's not clear the plans are in place. An important contribution to the Oil Drum from Chris Vernon, "Nuclear Britain", showed a daunting scenario with respect to future nuclear generating capacity in the UK. It looked something like this:

The image of falling off a cliff, literally as we speak, seems a powerful one. What lies below? Is there a cushion? Is it simply darkness, impenetrable with our current tools? Does this image not generate a sense of intense insecurity?

The nuclear generation problem is compounded by a looming decline in the quality of uranium ores, and thus a rise in (energy) costs, and a declining EROEI for uranium. On a global view, according to this fact sheet from the Oxford Energy Group (pdf) we can expect the EROEI from nuclear power generation, excluding the energy costs of building and maintaining generating stations and all the other infrastructure, will reach one by about 2070. At that point it will be so difficult to mine a kilogram of uranium that no (energy) profit can be obtained from its use in a power plant. Coincidentally, they also use the image of an "energy cliff".

But the ORG's focus in this project ("Secure Energy") seems less oriented toward the problem of supply, than the problem of "security" under the demands of nuclear energy. That is, as nuclear forms an essential part of Europe's energy mix, its future is assured. Yet nuclear poses its own dangers, not least concerns about "nuclear terrorism" and the links between uranium processing and nuclear weapons proliferation. Thus while seeking to respond to the twin challenges of climate change and energy security, the UK government's Energy Review, "The Energy Challenge", suggests nuclear energy as an essential component. Yet this arm of the "secure energy" agenda generates its own insecurities, both nationally and internationally.The continuing threats toward Iran are a case in point.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Unpacking Energy Security

Let me take a minute to outline what I'm trying to do, which is in essence about figuring out what is meant by “energy security”. Energy security is a concept that is usually taken to mean something like "the assurance of sufficient supplies of energy at affordable prices". A few points here.

One, such a definition already contains a “security” term – assurance. That is, security is about being secure. So what does assurance mean? Certainty, perhaps? Can we be confident in our supply? Do “certain” and “confident” here not mean essentially the same as “secure”? (This circularity is rampant in our language, of course, and does much to generate the nonsense that we put up with in life J. ) Furthermore, are certain, confident, and secure not essentially subjective and emotional terms? They refer to perceptions, expectations, nerves… (The anthropomorphization of the state; do states have feelings? Do they fear, and feel insecure? Do they not-fear?)

More interesting, perhaps: how is that certainty or confidence or absence of fear to be achieved? Through promises from Russia? Via the occupation of Iraq? Perhaps through the elimination of competitors – the destruction of China (or at least, of China’s energy demand)? Policing the pipelines? Guarding the straits? Arming Nigeria? Etc etc etc.

Second is the notion of “sufficient supplies”. But “sufficient” for what? For continued economic growth and consumption? (We’ll allow Albert Bartlett to respond to that one.) Sufficient for business as usual? Sufficient to enable a transition? Sufficient to keep England’s homes warm? Sufficient seems to me to imply “such that things don’t have to change much” – but of course, they do. So is this a useful term? Is it indicative of a fantasy of the viability of the continuity of our way of life?

Again, sufficient FOR WHOM? The World? The USA? Montreal? My family and household? Everyone, or only the rich? 6.5 billion, or 10 billion? Note: at some levels we’re clearly already NOT energy secure. This relates very closely to the question: WHOSE CONCERN IS IT? The “global community”? NATO? The USA? Me?

Finally (?), sufficient FOR HOW LONG? For this electoral cycle? For a century? Until next winter? Or until alternatives (in energy supply, in living, working, and industry) are established? Sufficient to get us through the transition? There is a big question here, regarding the inevitability of transition – in effect, maybe it’s a question of whether our remaining and emerging energy supplies can suffice to keep this going awhile longer, or to power the transition… or can they, in fact, do both? (Let's face it, it's not as if the transition can occur instantaneously... so they have to do both!

Third: “affordable”. Well, again, energy seems barely affordable now for a lot of the world’s people, including many in the homeland who are borrowing money to pay their heating bills. Affordable in that an economy can keep functioning? Affordable for the US army to keep doing its thing, and our cities to maintain operations? Affordable in terms of inputs into energy extraction – i.e., can we afford to go get more (uranium, oil, copper)? Affordable in not requiring militias to maintain public order? (Wait, do we not already rely on them…?)

Clearly, all these factors are interrelated: What, how, how long, for whom…? My research interest is to draw out some of these links, and specifically to relate them to food security, and policies regarding biofuels, farm aid etc. That also relates to what may be the biggest question: WHAT FORM OF ENERGY? Oil and gas, yes. Electricity. But also heat. Mobility. And food. You can’t eat Uranium. And as I recall it’s a bad idea to put sugar in your gas tank.

So what am I trying to do with these questions? I think I’m just trying to hold up a mirror, so that those who use such terms can see what they’re saying, and maybe to help us realize how little we understand about the words we use. And if that helps us through what I see as the certainty of change, all the power to it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Energy Security: Here we go again...

So just what is it these people are referring to, when they refer to "energy security"?

Michael Klare is perhaps the leading academic currently engaged with "energy security", at least as it pertains to national and military concerns - that is, to traditional conceptions of "security". But "energy security is different. As Klare suggests in a recent article, ES may most readily be seen in terms of "the uninterrupted acquisition of adequate petroleum to satisfy national requirements". In this context we might even afford a quote to G.W. Bush, who refers to the priorities of a new national "strategy", among the goals of which is "to ensure a steady supply of affordable energy for America’s homes and businesses and industries.” (1). That is, energy security is a matter of both supply and price.

It may seem that, in a position of "security", the fact of scarcity is not an issue. Scarcity, of course, will necessarily drive up prices according to supply constraints, and affordability must be relative to various economic factors. Somehow, this mechanism is not to function in an energy secure condition. We might presume that the vision of "security" entails a promise of actual supply not being constrained. This, of course, is (excuse the pun) a pipe-dream. Supply is always constrained by some factors. The "cheapness" of oil in previous years (and even now) is relative: if we can afford oil, it is thereby affordable. But it is by and large less affordable for many than it was three years ago. (And even then, for some, it was not affordable.) Security must clearly be seen as a far more calculated quality, a matter of "more secure", or "less". And of course, "scarcity" too is a relative term. ("There's plenty of oil, so long as you can pay for it.")

Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, interviewing Frederick Smith (founder of FedEx), who expresses a belief that
The country's continued and increasing dependence on imported petroleum has created an enormous economic and national-security risk probably second only to terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
This "security risk" extends to a threat to both the US Economy and "our national security situation", due especially to price rises. (Fareed Zakaria, "A Marine’s New Mission", NEWSWEEK,
Feb 11, 2008.) The question of affordability, which is already related to a question of supply, is clearly an issue for "economic security".

Equally interesting is Smith's attention to the military aspects, and the place of energy in history:
It shouldn't be forgotten that the proximate cause of World War II was the U.S. oil embargo against Japan, when we were an oil-exporting nation. And World War II was largely won in Europe by the United States' attack on the fuel supplies of Germany. In fact, they were making more Messerschmitt fighter planes in late 1944 and early 1945 than anywhere else in the world—they simply didn't have the fuel to train the pilots to fly them. The first gulf war was caused totally by oil—it was Saddam Hussein's insistence that he own certain oilfields that led to his invasion of Kuwait and our ouster of his forces there. The subsequent presence of the United States in the Middle East was in large measure driven by the protection of the oil trade. And a lot of analysts think that as much as 40 percent of the entire U.S. military budget can be attributed to protecting the oil trade.

As Zakaria notes, Smith is a member of the Energy Security Leadership Council, "a group of transportation executives and retired military officers advocating greater American energy independence." The Council's website notes that Smith is in fact co-Chair.

Interesting bunch here. The Council, codenamed SAFE ("Securing America's Future Energy") is composed of a number of transport-oriented businesspersons (FedEx, UPS), and a whole lot of retired military heads. They made headlines in 2005 with a oil-disruption simulation that the Washington Post sat up and noticed:

The United States would be all but powerless to protect the American economy in the face of a catastrophic disruption of oil markets, high-level participants in a war game concluded yesterday. (John Mintz, "Outcome Grim at Oil War Game: Former Officials Fail to Prevent Recession in Mock Energy Crisis", Washington Post Friday, June 24, 2005; Page A19)

And if you thought the alternatives would be entirely benign in terms of "security", the UK's Ministry of Defence has called the large offshore windfarms "a threat to national security", due to their interference with radar operations.

Giving evidence to a planning inquiry last October, a senior MoD expert said that the turbines create a hole in radar coverage so that aircraft flying overhead are not detectable. In written evidence, Squadron Leader Chris Breedon said: “This obscuration occurs regardless of the height of the aircraft, of the radar and of the turbine.” He described the discovery as alarming.


(1) Michael Klare, "The Futile Pursuit of 'Energy Security' by Military Force", Brown Journal of World Affairs 13 (1), (Spring/Summer 2007): 139-153.