Suggestions for ASPO Talk?

I have been asked to give a talk at ASPO this year in Sacramento. Ditto last year for the International ASPO Conference in Ireland, but I couldn’t make it (even though I lived in Scotland at the time, I couldn’t work it in). However, this time it looks like my schedule will allow me to attend. The theme is The Energy Challenge – The Future Starts Now. Here is the Agenda Overview.

As you can see, I got tapped to talk about fertilizer. I contacted ASPO and asked them how it came about that I got assigned to talk about fertilizer, and they said this was essentially a placeholder, and I could change my topic. So, I plan to.

The question is, what do people want to hear about? I have some ideas, but I would like to hear your ideas as well. Have a look at the agenda, see what isn’t being covered that I might be able to cover, and let me know. I don’t want to talk about something so highly controversial as food versus fuel, but I wouldn’t mind talking about Brazil, Peak Lite, U.S. Energy Policy, etc.

What would you like to hear about?

30 thoughts on “Suggestions for ASPO Talk?”

  1. Most discussions of handling peak oil, (heavy or lite) don’t cover the time of implementation. There is always a delay between starting a project and the time of usefulness.
    You might want to include this whatever you choose to discuss

  2. I like to see a conversation on tipping points. Not the usual ones that you’ve discussed but the tipping point in where there is a greater advantage to shift from one transportation mode to another. This simple model would use just the cost of energy but a more complex model would involve time factors as well. A real simple case for me is when is it worth driving 30 minutes to the train which takes me an hour and a half to get to my destination when 60 minutes in a car will get me to my destination?

    In that vein, I would ask the following questions:

    When is a single occupancy vehicle reaches efficiency parity with a light rail or any other form of public transit? Don’t assume a four wheeled automobile, some of the two or three wheeled electric hybrids in experimental use clock in around 200 or 300 miles per gallon? In the same vein, there was an article on Green car Congress about how the Chinese are finding electric bicycles are faster and cheaper than public transit.

    When does the energy savings from urban living pay off the cost of building large residential complexes in migrating people from suburbia to urban spaces? Include in this the cost of compensation to suburbanites for their current equity and giving them the same square footage of urban space. Don’t forget to include compensation for those who have active gardens for food etc.

    Ridership peaks twice a day on all transit systems but people need to travel all times of day and night. At what point does daily per mile cost of running a transit system exceed the cost of running a single-user vehicle. (The goal here is to find out where the cost of running the transit system empty exceeds the cost of running single passenger vehicles. It may just be that a transit system is only really effective during peak load and that the cost outside of that region doesn’t justify running the transit system.)

    Hostage scenarios. In urban complexes how do you deal with the farm community deciding that they’re not getting paid enough and withholding food from urban environments (originally speech recognition said varmints but I figured that was not polite. :-). Importing food over long distances may be more expensive than it would be to pay off the local farmers. The same is true for water and sewerage. If the city he lives in a split environment where all of its resources are external to its borders and are dependent on people living outside the city to provide them with services, then they are in an incredibly vulnerable position with regards to power struggles between service providers and service consumers.

    I think I want to be a farmer labor agitator before I die. I’ll make sure the farmers get paid what they’re worth (and reduce the population while we are at it).

  3. One of your co-panelists, D. Fridley has done a good job with biofuel myths in the past, , so I’d think he might do a good job on covering the biofuels part of the China energy portfolio. I’d think you could provide some good insights on the issues of scalabilty of cellulosic biofuels, both the rate and the overall capacity. One good example could be the Range Fuels Soperton GA project, and another the silly “Algenol” hype earlier this week. Algenol claims they have algae-ethanol nailed, and can build 100 MGY capacity by end of next year! Oh, and to 1 billion (10x) within 4.5 years. They say they would install 3.5 million bioreactors (or over 2000 per day every day for 4.5 years! O&M issues for something with this many small reactors would also seem to be an issue?
    If you look at a document describing the Range plan for construction / operation, , see Final Envir Asses, they indicate they will complete Phase 1 by end of 2009 (a 20 MGY unit), and then plan to complete other 4 phases, building out to 100 MGY by end of 2010!! (See section 2.1.3 and 2.1.4) From your review of the Choren plant, it seems they are taking a long time for start up (which seems right for a 1st gen plant), but these Range folks are planning to go full bore into full production without evaluating performance of 1st modular unit?
    To me these are examples of the unrealistic production claims that are routine for alt fuels and biofuels in particular.

  4. I don’t know if such a crowd is receptive to this idea, but it is this: Demand may fall more quickly than supply, at these prices.
    Germany’s demand for crude fell 10 percent in 2007, if BP figs are right. The US is on the down trend. Countries such as Thailand show decreases, not inreases in demand.
    The world demand grew by 1.1 percent last year, but then prices last year were as low as half of this year’s. If BP figs are correct, world demand fell 11 percent after the 1979-80 price spike.
    On the short horizon (maybe even 2010) are EV’s (Volt and Toyota) that will switch energy demand from oil to the grid. True, fleets will take time to convert, but other lower mpg cars are selling well too, and people are driving less miles.
    A very possible scenario: Popele drive less miles, and gravitate to conventional low mpg cars now, and then migrate to EVs in the longer run. In short, oil demand never goes back up.
    A nation such as France is already close to being post-fossil. They get 85 percent of power from nukes, and if they adopt EVs? They get cleaner air, and quieter cities, and no oil import bills.
    It seems likely France will, in fact, be post-fossil within 10 years. Probably most of Europe, and we will be half-way there.
    In short, Peak Demand may happen before Peak Oil. Lately, oil and condensates production is setting new records, while many nations exhibit declining oil consumption — and we are early in this game.
    Looking ahead 10 years? KSA may have to curtial production (as they did in the 1990s) to limit the glut.

  5. I’ll second Benny’s vote. You should talk about “peak lite”. You coined the phrase. It would be interesting to see how the PO crowd would react to it.

  6. I would suggest that you make presentation of the true costs of natural gas and coal, with current oil price of 135 dollar a barrel.

    If we build thousands of CTL or GTL plants, then oil, coal and gas prices will be linked more firmly. What would be a fair price for coal in such situation?

    Now, coal and gas are bought with long standing contracts. So, the price is lagging behind.

    With balanced costs, wind and solar might already more competitive than with current lagging behind prices.


  7. What the hell, Robert, mix it up and talk about them all.

    I tried to make a post on the Brazil theme but could not see if it made it past the electrons so I copy it below here:

    One thing to note here is that Brazil uses only a very small part of their tillable land for cane ethanol. They can double and quadriple their ethanol production without affecting their food production, and in the process produce huge quantities of surplus electricity which can be used in many ways.

    But that is Brazil. The US solution will be a very different one. The way to find out what that solution is is to allow petrol prices to double.

    Here in Australia where petrol is heading towards $2.00 per litre (currently tickling $1.70 in many places) E85 has suddenly turned up at one filling chain. The fact that it is now available will start the process of demand for vehicles that can cope with the fuel, on the one hand, and send a supply signal to the growers and ethanol producers on the other.

    The real caution with this comes from Brazil where, as they experienced, fluctuations in ethanol supply caused by a raft of natural events can stiffle the move to alternative fuels. ie biofuels have have the danger of being weather dependent. Algal oil does not have this risk.

    My choice for future transport security is for a wall-chargeable biofuel/flexfuel compatible hybride. This covers most of the bases offering both energy price and availability risks, assuming that I can afford the vehicle.

  8. Yes,corn is a whopping 12 cents a pound. But,you can still buy a gumball for 50 cents.

    When oil hits $200 a barrel,we’ll throw every last kernel in the hopper,along with all the sugar,beets,and anything else that will ferment. The world will learn to love sushi.

  9. I think I have read almost everything you have posted here and elsewhere(and I even agree with some of it). :-p I am having a difficult time thinking of what someone that hasn’t heard your energy point-of-view would gain the most from.

    I think that you have made a point that conservation is of much more value than continuing on as we are expecting some other energy source to replace oil. Conservation and localization might be a good topic. Looking at the rest of the mix on the agenda, it might add a bit of positive action to the otherwise gloomy agenda. The problem with direct conservation (or rationing) is that if we truly are running out of oil, it’s just going to put the real crunch on our children and grandchildren rather than ourselves.

    Localization of basic necessities (which would allow conservations) so that there is infrastructure that the next generations can leverage would be something I would like to hear about.

    Green diesel might be another good topic.

    I’ll think about it and see if anything else flops out of my cranium.

  10. Ah fertilizer. A subject dear to my heart. If you do decide to talk about fertilizer, you might recall my relevant posts.

    (1) We can see what’s going to happen to fertilizer prices if oil and natural gas continue getting more expensive. (Similarly, here in Japan most animal feed is imported, and because of the skyrocketing price the government has announced it will subsidize feed.) The cost of transport alone could kill trade in fertilizer. “Reverse globalization” is already happening.

    (2) As a consequence, farmers will switch back to traditional organic inputs (it’s starting already). As the demand for organic inputs grows, biofuel makers will find themselves in direct competition for organic feedstock. Since people will ultimately choose eating over driving, this contest will be won hands down by farmers and gardeners.

    Corollary: Industrial-scale biofuel production is dead, just like globalization.

  11. How about the the incongruence of higher carbon fuels as a solution for peak oil.

    Technically we could just switch to tar sands, CTL, oil shale, etc etc.

    However that would have a heavy carbon price to it.

    Maybe toss in a reference to James Knustler. Why he asks “Why is it the environmentalists responsibility to continue societies driving habit”.

    Reply: Because the kneejerk alternative is even worse than the status quo.

    And of course toss in a few comments on however every single scientific institution in the world, and even the whitehouse now agree that manmade actions are a primary cause of the warming we’ve seen over the past few decades.

    That or maybe just an overview of the extreme logistical requirements for CCS, as it relates to the premise of CTL.

  12. Since your talk is under the track of “Solved by Price? Resource Demand Growth and Competition”, Peak Lite seems to be a very fitting topic, moreso since you coined the phrase, as KoK pointed out. The “Solved by Price?” bit could lean toward the “peak demand” cole theory. Not that I would want you to talk about peak demand, but I would be interested in what you think is likely to help reduce demand. In the ’80s, it was switching from oil-fired electricity plants to nuclear plants, conservation and efficiency. What do you think will be the solutions this time, and which ones are the most likely to happen in what timeframe, and which is likely to have the biggest impact? EV, Biofuels (which ones), non-petroleum fertilizers, conservation, efficiency, reverse globalization, deep recession?

  13. On second thought, since your expertise is in chemical engineering, I’d be more interested in your opinions on such things as the viability of various biofuels, fertilizers, battery technology, efficiency, rather than solar-powered EVs, conservation or reverse globalization. Speak to your strengths while the other experts speak to theirs.

  14. A nation such as France is already close to being post-fossil. They get 85 percent of power from nukes, and if they adopt EVs?

    Thats 85% of electricity is from nukes, the rest (i.e transport) is fossil. Further than many countries, but still not close to post-fossil.

  15. I would like you to compare 2nd, 3rd & 4th generation biofuel options, eg Choren, LS9, Venter’s outfit etc. Thanks.

  16. As a chemical engineer you could talk about the fallacies in the current ‘total fluids’ count. How much is double counted as it it used in the production of those liquids? What is the BTU value for the ‘total fluids’ that are now being counted? Is the total BTU available to the end users going up or down?

  17. The concept and implications of embodied energy, whether it is our food, the fertilizer applied as part of producing that food, the diesel powering the tractor that pulled the implement drilling in the fertilizer or the life cycle analysis of the tractor, including the energy invested in mining, smelting and forging its steel.

    The implications of this cascade are little appreciated.

  18. bc-
    No, if France goes to EVs, they use very little oil. Since 70 percent of oil use is in transportation, if you convert transportation to EV, you slay the dragon, if you have nuked up (the way France has). They are breathtakingly close to being post-fossil.
    I define a post-fossil economy as one in which fossil use declines every year, and thus becomes less important every year.
    To Greyfalcon’s point, a nuke-EV society has a very small carbon footprint. Relax and enjoy it.
    Some people feel we must suffer. I don’t think so. I think we can obtain a cleaner more prosperous world, and the EV is a great step in the right direction.
    Old, farty GM, butt of so many jokes: Yet they are the ones actually building something, not cavilling on post boards. Toyota is following. Honda, maybe. If the EV works, everyone will follow.
    Who cares about oil?

  19. Take the topic of fertilizer and run with it to an unexpected goal line. Take a perspective that deserves more consideration.

    For example, look at Vaclav Smil’s writings for some ideas.

    Or use it to approach bottlenecks, boundaries and substitutions. Fertilizer is but one component of food production and the label covers a number of ingredients. Some components of fertilizers appear to be a limited resource (phosphorus?) with easy ways around, particularly with increasing energy scarcity.

  20. Slide #1
    Saudi Arabia Production Forecast
    (Crude+LC, million bpd)
    2008 9.90
    2009 9.82
    2010 6.48
    2011 5.09
    2012 4.66
    2013 3.39

    Slide #2
    Show of Hands, Implications
    A) Peak oil (global)
    B) Peak oil (OPEC only)
    C) Not peak oil

    Slide #3
    Show of Hands, 2014 oil price
    A) $1000/bbl (+700%)
    B) $500/bbl (+300%)
    C) $250/bbl (+100%)
    D) $125/bbl (unch)
    E) $25/bbl (-80%)

    Slide #4
    Show of Hands, US Response
    A) Invade Saudi Arabia
    B) Economic collapse
    C) Recession, then recovery

    Slide #5
    Actual Saudi Arabia Production
    (Crude+LC, million bpd)
    1980 9.90
    1981 9.82
    1982 6.48
    1983 5.09
    1984 4.66
    1985 3.39

    Slide #6
    Actual 1980-86 History
    A) Not Peak Oil
    B) US recession, then recovery
    C) 1986 oil $8/bbl (-80%)
    D) It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future (Yogi Berra)

    You could talk about how our biases and doomer fantasies affect the way we interpret data, and how important it is to try and check our biases and fantasies at the door when we do analysis. You could then springboard into several different future scenarios (EV/PHEVs, biofuels, peak lite, repeat of 1980-86 via conservation and non-OPEC oil supply growth, etc.).

    If nothing else, you won’t have to worry about re-arranging your schedule to speak at their next meeting!

  21. Doogydog-
    Love your post, but give credit where credit is due: Casey Stengel, not Yogi Berra.

  22. Why not talk about fertilizer? it would be instructive.

    An enormous amount of energy goes into fertilizer (especially synthetic nitrogen) a fact which most people don’t know, and that many who do know choose to ignore.

    Life as we know it would be impossible without Haber-Bosch. But Haber-Bosch in itself is an enormous energy consumer.

    Many people just tell poor Third-world farmers, “You need to increase production by using more fertilizer.” without realizing that may not be possible

  23. Hey, I’ll eagerly listen to whatever you speak on, Robert! And look forward to meeting you in person in Sacramento.

    Seriously, like a couple of other commenters I’d lean toward presenting more of your depthful postings here on biofuels technologies, a good fit for both your background and the ASPO audience.

    Milton Maciel did a good presentation on Brazilian ethanol in 2006, familiar content from his EnergyResources postings, so that ground may not need to be covered again.

    (Good one, DDW, but that would be so memorable they’d have to bring him back next year!)

  24. The Fertilizer Trail. Okay, now I’m curious. How much oil is used to make fertilizer? Oil isn’t one of the chemical ingredients for making fertilizer, is it? I thought natural gas was the big one. What percentage of world oil consumption goes into fertilizer? Some huge percent of world oil consumption is for transportation. So then, the oil consumption for fertilizers is part of that transportation use… mining of phosphates, energy for manufacturing, and then fuel for shipping the fertilizer to the customer.

    It sounds like a rising-cost-of-food issue. But if that’s the issue, why focus on the oil inputs to fertilizers only, and not the other agricultural uses of oil, running tillers, planters, harvesters and irrigation pumps?

  25. In my experience, I have the best results when giving such talks if I take the opportunity (and risk) to push my own envelope of understanding out a fair bit. That way my material is fresh and I’m enthusiastic about it as well. Given your depth of understanding, this approach has the advantage of being beneficial to the members of your audience who are already well grounded in your topic as well as those less so.

  26. Clee asked: ~How much oil is used to make fertilizer?


    As you suggested, the primary fossil fuel input to fertilizer is natural gas. That means the entire Haber-Bosch process is actually built on a foundation of natural gas.

    That also means that corn ethanol is built on a foundation of natural gas. In fact, as Robert has said more than once, “Corn ethanol is little more than recycled natural gas.”

    The last numbers I’ve seen for the U.S. show that more than 90% of the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas feedstock. Of that 90%, about 60% is imported after being made overseas with foreign natural gas. (The reason is that nitrogen fertilizer is much easier to ship across the oceans than natural gas.)

    That means the primary energy input to growing corn (other than the Sun) is foreign natural gas.

    The claims of the ethanol industry that corn ethanol is a domestic fuel ring false. And in fact, converting natural gas to fertilizer; then using that fertilizer to grow corn; and then using fossil fuels to transport the corn; and then using natural gas or coal to convert the corn into ethanol is a horribly inefficient way to turn natural gas into a liquid fuel.

    That’s what I’d like to hear Robert present at the ASPO conference.

  27. In response to hankshaw’s comment about third world farmers, it seems like an awful lot of potential fertilizer is wasted forever when Nigeria flares off huge quantities of oil-associated gas.

    Building on what clee said about addressing the oil costs of agricultural enterprises: if this sector got running totally on a portion of its own yields, the energy independence gained could be viewed as a Brazil-sized accomplishment if looked at from a GDP perspective. But as I think you asserted in your Brazil post, we’d still have a long way to go from the energy perspective. Personally, I think reducing speed limits at least 5 mph across the whole spectrum–with a maximum of 1 mile per minute–would be the single most effective way of inducing the conservation needed.

    hankshaw’s last comment about ethanol is reflected in the tractor advertisements I’ve seen which don’t show agriculture having a lot of confidence in what they are growing when the relevant engines are boasted of running on mixes consisting of mere 6% biofuels. But with 20% supposedly on its way, maybe there is some hope.

    Increasingly, the hydrogen from natural gas used to react with nitrogen in the air to make fertilizer will have to be tapped from renewable methane sources.

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