Guest Post: The New Future Of Energy Policy

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Gregor Macdonald of Peak Prosperity,

Flood myths are common to human culture. Swollen rivers, tidal storms, and tsunamis make their appearance frequently in literature. But Hurricane Sandy, which has drawn newly etched high-water marks on the buildings of lower Manhattan (and Brooklyn), has shifted the discussion from storytelling to reality.

Volatility in climate has drawn the attention of policy makers for a decade. But as so often is the case, a dramatic event like superstorm Sandy – the largest storm to hit New York since the colonial era – has punctured the psyche of the densely populated East Coast, including the New York-Washington, DC axis where U.S. policy is made.

Not surprisingly, in the weeks since the historical hurricane made landfall, new attention is being paid to the mounting costs that coastal world megacities may face.

Intriguingly, however, this new conversation about climate, energy policy, and America’s reliance on fossil fuels comes after a five-year period in which the U.S. has dramatically lowered its consumption of oil and seen an equally dramatic upturn in the growth of renewable energy. America’s production of CO2 in the first quarter of 2012 fell to twenty-year lows. The country is using less coal, increasing its use of natural gas, and (like the rest of the OECD) is seeing its transportation demand migrate from cars and trucks to rail. While Europe is often cited as being at the forefront of renewable power, the U.S. has also started to produce very strong growth rates for wind and solar power:

The combination of declining oil use and a greater reliance on the global powergrid is going to shape energy and climate policy. Especially at a time when the concerns of climate change – or, rather, rising seas and the greenhouse dangers of fossil fuel dependency – are being increasingly raised. This will make for a rather muddled and complex array of diverging policy initiatives.

Moreover, as the oil-based economy (which was harder to meter) gives way to the electricity-based economy, policy makers will find there are more levers to shape energy demand in their economies. The Oil Age was a more natural fit for free-spirited individualism. The Electricity Age will see an era more comprehensively dominated by policy, as the powergrid becomes the mechanism for governments to shape the future of energy demand.

Rebounding to the Grid

The oil age went into decline roughly ten years ago.

Oil’s share of total global energy demand, which had been on the rise since the 1930s, peaked in the mid-1970s but held steady for over twenty years until the new millennium. But starting early last decade, through a combination of oil’s repricing and the industrialization in the Non-OECD, oil’s market share in the global energy mix retreated.

This decline of oil in the global economy explains perfectly why the weak rebound since the 2008 financial crisis has grown along the contours of the powergrid. It’s not just the United States. In Japan, and especially in Europe, oil use has continued to decline right through “the recovery,” as increasing numbers of car drivers are taken off the road, as jet travel declines, and as trucking has given way to higher deployment of freight rail.

However, this opens up a number of new constraints as well as new opportunities, because while there is high growth in solar and wind power, the growth of global electricity is largely driven by coal. That means awareness of coal’s role is going to widen among populations, and governments are going to be drawn into action over coal.

Carbon Taxes, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and Feed-In Tariffs

Global coal markets have recently sputtered in the face of slower growth in China as well as the rise of natural gas in the United States, which has dislocated consumption of its own coal. If glanced at quickly, this looks like an interruption in the supertrend. Alas, no such interruption is taking place.

Instead, the coal which Americans are no longer consuming is being exported to the rest of the world. Even Europe is taking greater volumes of U.S. coal, which in 2012 is on pace to see the highest level of exports in U.S. history.

But a more important phenomenon to understand regarding global energy consumption is that much of the upswing in Asian coal demand over the past decade, especially in China, is really just an offshoring of OECD manufacturing capacity. In other words, an increasing proportion of goods purchased by Westerners since the year 2000 is the result of goods made in Asia. And these goods are made in factories powered by coal-fired electricity generation. Clothing, appliances, electronic devices – yes, iPhones, too – are made in facilities powered by coal.

This is why, as policy is increasingly driven either by concerns about climate, increased distaste for dependency on fossil fuels, or both, the clamor for carbon taxation is going to grow.

In a recent essay, Forget Kyoto: Putting a Tax on Carbon Consumption, the author takes note of the emerging emphasis on the global trade of energy use:

China’s phenomenal economic growth has been based on exports, notably of energy-intensive goods, from steel and petrochemicals to a host of manufactured products. These have been bought largely by the U.S. and Europe, which together account for nearly 50 percent of world GDP. It is carbon consumption that measures the carbon footprint and hence responsibility, not the carbon production in particular geographical areas. Yet remarkably the Kyoto framework does not take consumption into account. Instead it focuses on carbon production, and mostly in Europe, where deindustrialization and the collapse of the former Soviet Union make compliance with the targets easy.

Politically speaking, carbon taxation has been a very tough sell, especially in the United States. Interestingly, there have been trial balloons since the election that the Obama Administration may even tie together (or try to tie together) new carbon taxes as a way to lower the U.S. budget deficit. That, too, is unlikely to have much political appeal, though it does signify the shift coming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and this summer’s extraordinary drought.

However, there are interesting divergences about the effectiveness of carbon taxation among those who work in the areas of energy and climate policy.

Chris Nelder, writing in Smart Planet, Why America Needs a Feed-in-Tariff, makes the case that a carbon tax policy will not necessarily spur construction of renewable energy. Essentially, if getting renewable energy infrastructure built is the ultimate goal shared by both climate policy and energy policy, then why not pursue a national FiT (feed-in tariff), of the kind deployed in Europe?

Given the obvious success of FiTs as a policy tool in Europe, one must wonder why the U.S. has not embraced them. Germany already tried all the incentives that we’re using in the U.S., such as aspirational targets like renewable portfolio standards (RPS), rebates, and low-interest loans, and eventually turned to FiTs because they proved to be far more effective, simple, low-cost, and efficient.

But while it’s true that growth of wind and solar power is already growing at a very strong rate in the U.S. (as discussed previously), it’s not clear this will continue at the same rate.

California’s RPS (renewable portfolio standard) has triggered the construction of a great deal of new utility-grade solar power. However, this is small in comparison to California’s overall energy challenge, as it sees its own dependency on out-of-state power supply continue to expand. As I have addressed previously, California’s energy production from all sources is at 50-year lows. This comes at a time when, just as in the rest of the country and the world, transportation demand is switching over from cars and trucks to the grid as light rail is built out in its cities.

New Energy, Climate, and Urban Infrastructure

(image: Thames Flood Barrier, Greater London, UK)

Western cities are aging, and the forecast for rising sea levels may hold true regardless of any climate policy. In a recent post, Roger Pielke Jr notes that mitigation of rising sea levels through aggressive CO2 reduction may not change the current trajectory all that much:

One of the more reasonable discussion points to emerge from efforts to link Hurricane Sandy to the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions focuses on the role that future sea level rise will have on making storm impacts worse. Logically, it would seem that if we can "halt the rise of the seas" then this would reduce future impacts from extreme events like Sandy. The science of sea level rise, however, tells us that our ability to halt the rise of the seas is extremely limited, even under an (unrealistically) aggressive scenario of emissions reduction.

If cities like New York are compelled instead to construct tidal barriers, and other coastal cities in the U.S. follow, then changes in global energy consumption and in the public's perception of climate issues may see governments drawn in more closely than ever before to such policy making.

After all, the construction costs for mitigation through infrastructure will come through state and federal partnership. Indeed, the discussion about tidal barriers for New York has already begun. Given the extent of recent flooding, this is no surprise. And subsequent storms will only push such initiatives along further.

The New Policy Era

The decline of oil’s share in the global economy marks the end of a kind of free-ranging era in which individual discretion over energy use reached spectacular heights. Cheap oil gave rise to cities such as Los Angeles, where the freedom to drive all distances was a luxury enjoyed by most people. It’s not surprising that the cultural adjustment to a new era, where individual choice in energy use will be redefined, is proving cantankerous.

Moreover, as new oil supplies emerge from domestic American sources, the dream of resurrecting this cheap oil era will no doubt come back around several more times. But none of these new resource plays will change the trajectory of global oil supply much, nor will they lower the price of oil. So far, new oil supply mostly offsets declines elsewhere – but at substantially higher marginal cost. This should now be clear.

In Part II: Investing Strategies for the New Energy Era, we take a look at some of the risks but also opportunities that will present themselves to investors, as the global powergrid rises and comes under heavier scrutiny from government regulation.

While renewable energy is growing almost exponentially, coal still remains the global anchor for many of the most important electricity networks, especially in the developing world. The inevitable switch to the powergrid will draw two competing forces: 1) massive new investment, with many losers and winners, and 2) the attention of governments who will see the grid as a way to implement climate policy and to raise revenue.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
FoolsAdvice's picture

A 10-year trading plan: buy gold using dollars, buy oil using gold, then use oil to buy rare-earth metals and ag commodities. Durations of each phase could range from 3-5 years, but this is the trading sequence.

Sockeye's picture

"coastal world megacities"
Maybe that's the issue, not climate change.

Alea Iactaest's picture

Maybe climate change. But I'm hard-pressed to see how curtailing greenhouse gasses by mandate will help. The article states we are in the midst of "a five-year period in which the U.S. has dramatically lowered its consumption of oil and seen an equally dramatic upturn in the growth of renewable energy." So help me out here. The US and other countries have been cutting back on oil consumption for the last five years. Somehow we're supposed to believe that even MORE cutbacks are the answer?

Oh regional Indian's picture

AI, it's Agenda 21 implimentation time.

The technocrats want to know what muppets consume, every minute, every hour, how, where...

Cash, money, all this was just substitutes for what has always been an energy exchange economy. For ever.

Smart meters, dumb sleeple.

Technocracy, it's upon us/US.


SmallerGovNow2's picture

"Especially at a time when the concerns of climate change – or, rather, rising seas and the greenhouse dangers of fossil fuel dependency – are being increasingly raised. "


Water vaport constitutes 95% of all "greenhouse gases".

The greenhouse effect is important to maintain life on the planet.

All plants use CO2 and give off O2 which humans need.

Climate "scientists" are political activists, not scientists, who have been caught manipulating their data.

"Sea Rise" has been under 8" since 1870!!!!  And there are MANY other factors that could account for this "rise".


LawsofPhysics's picture

Hmmm, oil is infinite you say?  Hhmmmm, the attention span of the average human versus the geological time scale and the laws of Nature and Physics?  Just the same, I think I know who "wins" in the end.

SmallerGovNow2's picture

Start with this article on abiotic oil theory, google and expand to others.  This "production" of oil well below the surface is a chemical reaction producing oil from common elements under immense pressure.  Now I'm not saying it will not become more costly to extract oil in the future under an ever increasing consumption, it certainly would.  But I don't buy the peak oil arguement in that we will "run out" of oil...

Flakmeister's picture

Well maybe the Peak oil argument was *never* about running out of oil...

Abiotic oil is completely irrelevant, esp. given that there is zero evidence for it...

Urban Redneck's picture

There could be evidence, such as the proximity of major hydrocarbon deposits to impact craters, but that could also be explained if oil actually comes from Paul Krugman's aliens and their Interplanetary Economic Development initiative.

Flakmeister's picture

Show me just one field that the evidence for an abiotic origin outweighs the conventional interpretation....

Urban Redneck's picture

I don't have any evidence, I'm not a geologist and my interest is entirely corollary as opposed to causal.  However, the Caspian basin does jump to mind, since, if oil originated from the breakdown of organic matter, then in antiquity the Paratethys would have distributed organic matter somewhat evenly between the Caspian Basin, the Black Sea Basin, and Eastern Europe, which it didn't. However, the Caspian did have a significant tectonic movement that the others areas didn't, furthermore the decaying Garden of Eden doesn't quite explain the high concentration of hydrocarbons in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, as opposed to other locations where there was organic material in antiquity, and hydrocarbons have never been found.

Flakmeister's picture

Sorry, if you do not have evidence and fail to demonstrate the most basic grasp of geology, you really should just STFU...

As for the Arabian penisula, google anticline, non-permeable rock and get back to us,  throw in Ploesti as well (pun intended)....

Urban Redneck's picture

Money trumps geology in both energy mineral and mineral extraction.  At this point in time  the Romanians are now primarily refining oil produced from ever more eastward fields (towards the Caspian).  Domed or ridged strata of non-permeable rock (which have a funny correlation to tectonic pressure in a lot of places) explains why oil is found "there" but if fails to explain why oil isn't found "there."  Science is supposed to be infinitely reproducible, and yet even with the latest 3D survey equipment and the collective thought of a whole bunch of really smart and motivated people, the industry cannot sustain an success rate on exploratory wells much above 60%, and the barriers to entry for amateurs are rising not falling.  If the existing science had all the answers, then the exploratory well success rate should be higher.     

Urban Redneck's picture

We know that at certain places in the earth, carbon is being pushed from the core to the surface, and that from a chemistry standpoint there is more than one way to construct a hydrocarbon chain, some of which are more desirable than others, from an extraction/profitability standpoint.

Flakmeister's picture

You do realize that you are babbling....

Maghreb's picture

The funny thing about Agenda 21 is if its real is it that it is mostly self defeating. If they cut consumption down they will lose the only trump card they have over the masses. People will fall off the grid. Agenda 21 will only be "sustainable" if they build an arbritary hierarchy of consumption, enforce it in the name of enviromentalism and refuse to allow anyone to break off from that system. It can and will never be about the enviroment merely enforcing economics on people.

You can see it forming today. They hate these survivalists who in many ways are a model for sustainable living, going off the grid to take care of themselves sink or swim but revere mega corporations or climate lobbyists who want to restructure peoples lifestyles from the top down. 

I have a great deal of hope for the real Green movement who are more interested in producing agricultural output in a sustainable manner and switching over to renewable energy. If used correctly it will do a great deal of good for humanity in terms of making smaller groups more Independent and increase the scope for growth, progress and freedom. Agenda 21 is the exact opposite of this, harnessing this trend which is ubdoubtedly necessary to enforce moribund stagnancy, managed decline and oppression.

Lord Koos's picture

I don't know what "other countries" you are talking about, the BRICs consumption of fossil fuels has been rising steadily.  A more aggressive national program of conservation would help a lot.

Midas's picture

So we ship the iron ore over to China, and they process it with electricity from coal we shipped over.  Next they ship back some punches for one dollar and we break them on the first blow.  What's not to like?

SmallerGovNow2's picture

And the shipping back and forth requires more energy than would have been used if we had produced it and consumed it right here....

Debt-Is-Not-Money's picture

"What's not to like?"

Loss of productive employment,

loss of tax revenue,

loss of our economy.

Internationalists get rich(er).


New_Meat's picture

Gregor, good article, but really?:

"the largest storm to hit New York since the colonial era – has punctured the psyche of the densely populated East Coast, including the New York-Washington, DC axis where U.S. policy is made."

as my bretheren up nawth say: au contraire, Meathead.

No stories, no realization is at all wide extended.

- Ned

{or prove me wrong!}

THE DORK OF CORK's picture

eurostat is reporting major increases in north  & south American (columbian) shipment of coal to Europe.

For example The UK is turning back to coal for much of its base load.


But when yee US folks get Italian like oil consumption declines get back to us.



Italy has had much more drastic reductions in oil consumption but with little more then token systems put into place to capture any new future base money flows.

Y1998 (1.94 MBD)  

Y2010 (1.53 MBD) 

It current moving average consumption is probally near 1.33 ~ MBD in october (see current November oil market report)


I.e. the country has been destroyed by the regin of the two Marios.

Where has those 600,000 ~ KBD gone ?

Its as if 3 celtic tiger Irelands has been subtracted from the Italian economy


New_Meat's picture

"Western cities are aging, and the forecast for rising sea levels may hold true regardless of any climate policy."

So, let's see on this, Venice might have a skosh' more water?  We don't know what the fuck is going on so we ought to spend billions?

- Ned

{dang, catch yourself Meat.  We don't know what the fuck is going on, so  the Polz are actually spending billions!  Who knew????}

dognamedabu's picture

If this post interests you, you might be interested in reading/listening to

glenlloyd's picture

Two things I'm not convinced of:

1) that the changing climate is actually related to our behavior as humans versus a natural cycle that we should, as logical people, expect to occur on our planet, after all the planet is not static.

2) that we can morph an economy based entirely on oil into one based on other sources of energy without huge dislocations and negative consequences.

DaveyJones's picture

1) take a harder look at the ice cores and their curious timing for recent rapid change

2) you're right

Urban Redneck's picture

It's funny that even elementary chemistry textbooks that delve into solid state chemistry often mention that carbon dioxide is soluble in ice.

Urban Redneck's picture

The way those ass clowns write- sheeple could easily infer that a snowman melting in their backyard in a significant source of methane clathrate breakdown releasing methane into the atmosphere, at least on par with bovine flatulence.  Are the BBC whores really that stupid or do they have an alterior motive?

LawsofPhysics's picture

As it turns out, most gases are indeed more soluble in water (ice when cold enough) at cooler temperatures.  This is just a simple physical property of gases and aqueous solution.  The laws of Nature and Physics are what they are and really don't give a shit either way.

Money Squid's picture

Is there anyone left here at ZH that still believes in the global warming carbon taxation scam?

Flakmeister's picture

That the scam is a hoax?

Only the ones that are not afraid of heavy lifting...

Oh regional Indian's picture

Flak, have you heard the term "Technocracy"?

King Hubba-Dubba was an early technocrat.

Peak Oil is a Scam/Sham.

A 30% increase in efficiency....what would that do to all equations?

Our problem is one of efficiency. 10-15% average from burn to use.

And that does not even begin to count embedded energy.

You sound smart, but you've been had I think.

Your POV will buy you a seat on the upcoming Carbon-Table though, so there is that. ;-)


Flakmeister's picture

Sure thing... Do the math and tell me what 30% buys. Problem is that if you could you would not even bring it up in the first place...

Oh regional Indian's picture

30% changes the shape of the Demand/Supply curve to such a significant degree that we can actually transition out of Oil, whose day/time in the Sun is done, instead of being shocked, again and again, as is the plan.

30% would be compounding on all new Oil based infrastructure coming on line.

The impact of a 30% net increase in consumption efficiency would turn the Peak oil lie on it's head.

Adn I don't need to do any math, I've got the science to DO the 30%. Alone.

All in good time.



Flakmeister's picture

When you said 30% compounding you played your hand....

Sorry, ORI, you are making shit up or have been fooled by a charlatan...

You can start by reading up on Jevon's Paradox....

Oh regional Indian's picture

Don't need "studies" by "experts" to tell me what is up and what is down Flak.

Mainstream science is a polluted river of Paradigm trapped, Normalcy Biased Closed minds.

Yes, 30% would compound over time, backward integration by retro-fits, current integration by re-fits and future by new designs that have greater efficiency built in.

Compounding is actually understating IF the vested interests were to allow a true re-evolution of this current madness we call engineering and de-sign.

You live in a world of statistics perhaps. 

All good though, clearly most people will change their mind-set only with hammer-blows. Till then, it's Echo-chamber time.

Also, in such a compounding scenario, Jevon's paradox would be moot.


Bicycle Repairman's picture

"Mainstream science is a polluted river of Paradigm trapped, Normalcy Biased Closed minds."

LOL.  You are much too generous.  Mainstream science is bought off, controlled and completely corrupt.

Oh regional Indian's picture

Indeed BicycleR.

Calling them whores is doing whoring (a perfectly respectable profession in my opinion) a dis-favour.


LawsofPhysics's picture

Are you suggesting that the peer-review system isn't working?  Poor baby, sounds like you need a hug and a few more friends in high places.

steve from virginia's picture


Sorry kids, you never get more than 30%, the rest is lost as waste heat.


The taxman is Thermodynamics, it cannot be reasoned with ... it does not feel pity ...

Bicycle Repairman's picture

"Are you suggesting that the peer-review system isn't working?"

Now just what does "peer-review" mean?  Think it through.  There you go.

Flakmeister's picture

Let me guess, are you proposing that the veracity of facts should be determined by the free market?

Bicycle Repairman's picture

I'm proposing that peer review between corrupt entities is an intellectual circle jerk.

Flakmeister's picture

So you are advocating ignorance then....

Somehow I am not surprised by this coming from you, you always were attracted by superstition and the like...

Orly's picture

You mean the sham hoisted upon the world by Al Gore and David Blood, of Goldman Asset Management?

No.  No one believes that any more.


Oh regional Indian's picture

Blood and Gore, cannot make this stuff up eh, Orly?

Someone is laughing at us all, very hard too, methinks...


SmallerGovNow2's picture

Flak cannot deny these facts...


Water vaport constitutes 95% of all "greenhouse gases".

The greenhouse effect is important to maintain life on the planet.

All plants use CO2 and give off O2 which humans need.

Climate "scientists" are political activists, not scientists, who have been caught manipulating their data.

"Sea Rise" has been under 8" since 1870!!!! And there are MANY other factors that could account for this "rise".


And by the way, show the wind and solar chart to represent the percentage of over all energy produced.  It will be a flat curve under 5% instead of this exponential looking BS....

Flakmeister's picture

Do you practice at being an idiot or did it come naturally?

The internal inconsistencies in your logic are appalling....

BTW, provide evidence of manipulation that has been verified... problem is you can't...