Future Energy eNews   IntegrityResearchInstitute.org      Aug 25, 2008       

1) MIT Mimics Plants - Major breakthrough in large-scale solar power storage of energy
2) Space-based Solar Power Video - Great five minute trailer is now online for new documentary on SSP
3) Wind Produces 1% of the World's Energy - New milestone in renewable energy just reached even in US
4) Giving Wind a Second Look as Energy Needs Grow - Virginia has 13 developers for wind electricity
5) Algae Bioreactor Video Online - 33,000 gallons of oil/acre per year for vertical growth algae conversion  
6) Oil: Final Warning - World oil production has a number of disruption points and no slack in the system
    Editor's Note: This is a shortened, end-of-Summer edition of the eNews  

1) 'Major discovery' from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution
Anne Trafton, MIT News Office, July 31, 2008 http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/oxygen-0731.html
Scientists mimic essence of plants' energy storage system
In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique
alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major
barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn't shine.
Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra
solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With
today's announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly
efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock
the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. "This is the nirvana of what
we've been talking about for years," said MIT's Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus
Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July
31 issue of Science. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we
can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a
postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will
allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later,
the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free
electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces
oxygen gas from water;
another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst
consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity
-- whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source -- runs through
the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen
gas is produced.

Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from
water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis. The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up, Nocera said. "That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," he said.

'Giant leap' for clean energy
Sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world's energy problems, said Nocera. In one hour, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet's energy needs for one year. James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis who was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of
humankind," said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College
London. "The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the
door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence
for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem."

'Just the beginning'
Currently available electrolyzers, which split water with electricity and are often used
industrially, are not suited for artificial photosynthesis because they are very
expensive and require a highly basic (non-benign) environment that has little to do with
the conditions under which photosynthesis operates. More engineering work needs to be
done to integrate the new scientific discovery into existing photovoltaic systems, but
Nocera said he is confident that such systems will become a reality. "This is just the
beginning," said Nocera, principal investigator for the Solar Revolution Project funded
by the Chesonis Family Foundation and co-director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center.
"The scientific community is really going to run with this."

Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in
daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen
and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electricity-by-wire from a central
source could be a thing of the past
. The project is part of the MIT Energy Initiative, a program designed to help transform the global energy system to meet the needs of the future and to help build a bridge to
that future by improving today's energy systems. MITEI Director Ernest Moniz, Cecil and
Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, noted that "this discovery in
the Nocera lab demonstrates that moving up the transformation of our energy supply
system to one based on renewables will depend heavily on frontier basic science." The
success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources -
governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science
Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring
to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment
of solar energy within 10 years.

-Daniel Nocera describes new process for storing solar energy:




2) Space-based Solar Power Documentary
The Futures Channel, August 6, 2008, Press Release
 To consider the space solar power concept requires an understanding of
science, technology, engineering, math, energy, policy, environmental
factors, and more. Space solar power (SSP) is an engineering project on a
scale that rivals the greatest in history. Students need to be informed
and able to participate in the conversation.

The upcoming documentary is intended to elevate the awareness of the
space solar power concept as a long-term strategy with the potential to
resolve our planet's looming energy and environmental crisis as well as
highlight the science, technology, engineering and math skills required
to succeed in the 21st Century workforce.

Teachers will also have access to lesson plans, classroom activities and
our popular "close up" video segments that spotlight a specific math or
science topic, all designed to maximize in-class utilization.

Five Minute Trailer Online Link:


4) Wind Power Produces One Percent of the World's Electricity
Lena Qiu, PPI | Trade Fact of the Week | August 6, 2008

Editor's Notes: The PPI "Trade Fact of the Week" is a weekly email newsletter published by PPI's Trade & Global Markets Project. To sign up for a free subscription, click here. (Just make sure to check the box next to "Trade & Global Markets.") http://www.ppionline.org/cobrand/newsletter_subscribe.cfm

Original links are included though some may have expired.

The Numbers:

Wind energy capacity (in gigawatts), 2007:

Germany: 22 GW
United States: 17 GW
Spain: 16 GW
India: 8 GW
China: 6 GW
Denmark: 3 GW

What They Mean:

Wind is powerful, if hard to catch. According to the Atlantic Oceanography and Meteorology Laboratory, a single hurricane releases about 1.5 trillion watts of energy: the equivalent of half of humanity's total electrical generating capacity. The first successful attempt to harness bits of this potential, the "horizontal" windmill, appeared along the modern Iranian-Afghan border somewhere around 800 A.D. These devices, meant to grind flour and pump water, were stone towers surrounding a vertical axle, with a set of twelve sails at the top revolving parallel to the ground about 5 meters below.

Their modern descendants, renamed "wind turbines," are electricity generators. A typical example, the German-made Enercon-53, is a white steel tower 73 meters tall -- about half the height of the Washington monument, a quarter of the Eiffel Tower, almost precisely equal to the Qutb Minar in New Delhi -- supporting three 8.5-meter blades. Such a turbine quietly generates about 2.7 million kilowatt-hours a year. (An average U.S. household uses around 10,655 kWh of electricity each year; thus one turbine can generate enough electricity for 225 to 300 households.) In total, though wind energy remains a relatively modest source of electric power it is growing at remarkable speed. Total world wind capacity passed the 100-gigawatt plateau early this year -- up from 75 gigawatts in 2006, and supplies about 1 percent of world electrical consumption.

Germany is the world's top wind-power producer. The 19,000 wind turbines spread across the flat and breezy terrain of the northern Lander, represent a total capacity of over 22.2 megawatts and produce about 7 percent of German electricity. Running short of suitable land sites for wind farms, German firms are adding 30 offshore farms in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The German government hopes wind energy will provide 25 percent of electricity consumption by 2020, which is not an unreasonable aspiration: Schleswig-Holstein already gets over a third of its electricity from wind turbines, and across the border to the north, Denmark's national 18.5 percent wind-power share is the largest in the world. The United States, despite its reputation for hydrocarbon addiction, accounted for a quarter of last year's 20-gigawatt capacity growth, and will likely pass Germany as top wind-electricity generator in 2009 or 2010. Among lower-income countries, both India and China are adding wind power very fast.

Further Reading:

The appropriately named Chris Landsea, at NOAA's Atlantic Meteorology Laboratory, explains the power of a hurricane:

The New York Times looks at a 36-turbine wind-farm in Ainsworth, Nebraska. Built in 2005 by London-based Renewable Energy Systems, it provides 60 megawatts a year, 1 percent of Nebraska's energy and enough to power 19,000 homes. Text with pictures and video:

The Global Wind Energy Council's 3rd annual report on the global wind industry:

World Wind Energy Association provides the latest statistics on wind energy capacity:

A map of potential wind-mining sites around North America:

Room to grow -- The Energy Information Administration graphs U.S. energy consumption. Total renewable energy accounts for 7 percent of U.S. energy consumption, mainly through hydro and biomass. Wind energy makes up about 1 percent of U.S. electricity consumption and 0.4 percent of total energy consumption:

But their Energy Department research-side colleagues suggest raising wind energy from 1 percent to 20 percent of electricity use by 2030:


India ranks fourth in the world in installed wind-power capacity, with the first wind farms dating to 1986. Overseen by the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy Sources, India's wind power industry now has a capacity of over 8 gigawatts, or about a twelfth of the world total. Wind power constitutes two-thirds of India's renewable energy, the market for which is worth about $500 million and growing at 15 percent yearly. The Ministry estimates that India's achievable wind energy potential, based on current technology and cost, is between 14 and 45 gigawatts. Turbine manufacturer Suzlon accounted for 7.7 percent of world wind power in 2006. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy Sources:

Then & now -- About 5 of India's 8 gigawatts of wind power are generated in Tamil Nadu. Prince Ilango's 1800-year-old Tamil-language epic Silapathikaram, "The Ankle Bracelet," refers repeatedly to winds. ("Do you not feel the southern breeze bringing us the fragrance of akil and sandalwood, laden with the odors of saffron, chives and musk? It is thick with the smoke of sacrifice, it blows through the palace of the great Pandya king.") Today's Chennai-based Center for Wind Energy Technology is at:

A look at the German wind-energy industry:

And last -- a map of global electricity use from the University of Delaware, based on composite satellite photos of the world by night. (See in particular pitch-dark North Korea vs. brightly illuminated South Korea):

Note: Research and drafting for this Fact by PPI summer research associate Lena Qiu.

3) Wind Is Given Second Look As Energy Needs Grow

Anita Kumar, Washington Post Staff Writer,  August 3, 2008; C07, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/02/AR2008080201382.html

RICHMOND -- Miles of mountain ridges hugging the state's western border could hold the key to Virginia's search for alternative energy sources.

That is where developers are looking to build more than 100 wind turbines taller than the Statue of Liberty, side by side, on 18 miles of the George Washington National Forest.

FreedomWorks, a company with projects in four states, wants to generate electricity for the power-hungry Washington area and beyond, despite concerns about disturbing wildlife, spoiling untouched lands and creating noise and light pollution.

As the United States searches for ways to lessen its dependency on foreign oil, wind energy is getting a second look in states such as Virginia that had not embraced it.

The national push, along with new state financial incentives for renewable energy, has prompted more interest in wind turbines in Virginia.

"Wind is catching fire," said L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia's secretary of natural resources. "It is literally all the rage."

Virginia is one of a dozen states, most of them in the Southeast, with no wind farms. But that might change this year.

The State Corporation Commission has approved a request by another company to build 19 turbines in remote, mountainous Highland County, known as Virginia's Switzerland. That is expected to produce enough electricity to power 15,000 homes in the mid-Atlantic. Construction is expected to begin this year.

Two smaller projects would power Tangier and Wallops islands off the Virginia coast. And Dominion Virginia Power, the largest energy provider in the state, with 2.3 million customers, is working with BP Alternative Energy North America to build and operate wind farms in Virginia. No locations have been announced.

"There is a lot of really good opportunity in Virginia," said Frank Maisano, a lobbyist for 13 wind developers in the mid-Atlantic states, including Virginia and Maryland.

But the new push for wind energy in Virginia has highlighted a conflict within the environmental community.

Some groups, which have long clamored for more renewable energy sources and encouraged wind power instead of a new coal-burning power plant in southwest Virginia, oppose the FreedomWorks project, the largest wind proposal in the state, because of the potential harm to plants and animals.

"We are strong advocates for renewable energy and wind energy," said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. "But we would like to see it developed responsibly."

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of the few groups that supports the FreedomWorks project, said the problem in Virginia is that by the time developers came, their opponents were well-organized.

But, Tidwell said, he thinks opponents in Virginia will change their minds about wind energy when they see a wind farm for themselves and that it is harmless. "Acceptance will grow," he said.

More than half of Virginia's energy comes from coal, a third from nuclear and a small amount from gas, oil and other sources. The state's energy needs are expected to grow by about 1 million homes in the next decade.

Last year, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) presented a plan that calls for in-state energy production, including wind, to increase 20 percent. Some experts have estimated that wind energy in Virginia, on land and offshore, has the potential to produce as much as 20 percent of the state's electric needs.

Today, wind power generates enough electricity in 34 states to power 5 million homes -- slightly more than 1 percent of the U.S. electric supply, according to the American Wind Energy Association in Washington. Maryland officials have approved one wind farm and are considering two others in the western part of the state. None of the projects has been built.

"It's no longer an alternative energy source," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. "It's mainstream."

In May, the U.S. Energy Department released a first-of-its kind report that calls for the country to generate 20 percent of its electricity through wind power by 2030. That national push, combined with state incentives, have fueled the flurry of activity in Virginia.

Last year, when the General Assembly rewrote the complex laws that govern Virginia's power companies, legislators set a goal that 12 percent of the energy generated in the state come from renewable resources by 2022. The legislation includes financial incentives for power companies that allow them to raise rates by a half-percent if they meet one of the goals.

Don Giecek, director of the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative at James Madison University, said the 2007 law acted as the "economic driver" prompting more interest in Virginia.

But Tidwell, of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the utility-supported law is not tough enough to force companies to act.

"Incentives are fine," he said. "But there's a reason 20-some other states have made it mandatory. It's the most effective, fastest way" to spur change.

FreedomWorks proposed its $430 million project to build 131 turbines, enough to power 86,000 homes, along the Appalachian Mountains after the law went into effect.

Repeated calls to FreedomWorks in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., were not returned. But Maisano, who represents the company, said that the project is in the preliminary stages and that testing could begin this year.

The company has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to determine whether the project might affect air traffic. FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the agency is studying the proposal.

FreedomWorks must seek approval for construction from the U.S. Forest Service and the State Corporation Commission. Neither has been contacted by the company.

But a growing coalition of environmental groups and residents has voiced objections to the 44-story turbines in Rockingham and Shenandoah counties.

Rick Webb, a University of Virginia scientist who studies wind energy, said he generally supports the power source, but he is skeptical that the benefits of a project in the Appalachians would outweigh the environmental costs.

Supporters of the wind project say that private companies are using the forest for logging and that no bird populations would be affected. The project could increase the tax base and provide jobs, they say.

Still, residents keep asking: Why do developers need to build in the forest?

"That's where the wind is," Maisano said.

5) Algae Vertical Bioreactor Conversion System Video

Press Release, Valcent Products, March 25, 2008, http://cc.pubco.net/www.valcent.net/i/misc/Vertigro/index.html

Algae Vertical Bioreactor

The research and development team of Valcent Products Inc. has now completed twelve months of the algae vertical bioreactor development program. During a 90-day continual production test, algae was being harvested at an average of one gram (dry weight) per liter. This equates to algae biomass production of 276 tons of algae per acre per year. Achieving the same biomass production rate with an algal species having 50% lipids (oil) content would therefore deliver approximately 33,000 gallons of algae oil per acre per year.

The primary focus of the 90-day continuous production test was determining the robustness of the field test bed. Other secondary tests were also conducted including using different ph levels, C02 levels, fluid temperatures, nutrients, types of algae, and planned system failures. It is important to note that the system has not been optimized for production yields or the best selection of algae species.

The next phase of development will include increasing the number of bio reactor units from 30 to 100 and then continuing a number of production tests that may further increase production as well as initiating various extractions and harvesting tests. Final engineering is being completed at this time with construction of the 100 panel Bioreactor to begin soon. Subsequently, a one acre pilot plant will also be built.

The algae vertical bioreactor technology is being developed jointly with Global Green Solutions Inc whereby both Companies own a 50% interest which is subject to a 4.5% royalty.

Both the High Density Vertical Vegetable growing technology and the Algae Vertical Bioreactor technology have been featured in news stories on MSNBC, CNN, FOX News, and ABC news as well as numerous print and internet articles.

About Valcent Products, Inc:

Valcent Products Inc. (OTCBB: VCTPF) develops highly innovative consumer and industrial products and processes for global markets. Valcent is a pioneer and leader in ecotechnology with its core R&D focus on sustainable, renewable, and intense growth of agricultural products. Valcent also owns 50% of the Vertigro Joint Venture, which has developed algae production technology initially intended for an oil bio fuel feed stock All Valcent products and processes have patents or patents pending on integral technologies. For more information, visit: www.valcent.net.

Contacts: info@valcent.net
Valcent Products Inc.

Gerry Jardine
1-866-408-0153 or 1-800-877-1626

Steve McGuire
1-866-408-0153 or 1-800-877-1626

Media Relations
Vorticom Public Relations
Nancy Tamosaitis (212) 532-2208
Email: Nancyt@vorticom.com

In January of this year, at a meeting of the Engineers Club of Sun City,
Arizona . A.P.S. ( the local power company) gave a presentation in which
they explained their plans to build such a plant south of  Phoenix , below
Gila Bend. Click on the link below and enjoy the video.

6) Oil: The Final Warning

Ian Sample, New Scientist, June 28, 2008, p. 33, http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/mg19826621.500-oil-the-final-warning.html

Explore the interactive graphic associated with this feature. http://media.newscientist.com/data/images/ns/av/mg19826621500V1/oil.html

HOWLS of protest have been echoing round the globe as the price of oil punches through record highs with every passing week. In the UK, last month, hundreds of truckers descended on London to demand that planned fuel tax rises be scrapped. In continental Europe, where police clashed violently with truckers, two people died during the protests. Fishermen and farmers blockaded ports and depots in protest against the rocketing cost of diesel. Similar scenes played out across South America and Asia.

In the US, the world's thirstiest oil consumer, gasoline reached an all-time high of $4 per gallon, forcing the administration to lean on domestic producers and consider suing foreign oil exporters for allegedly rigging the market. When President Bush implored Saudi Arabia, which controls the lion's share of the world's proven reserves, to pump more from its wells, the Saudis came up with only a token increase.

The situation is not about to improve. Bankers Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have both suggested that the crude oil price could rise from the high of $139 a barrel (as New Scientist went to press) to $200 or more, while the financial speculator George Soros predicts that rising oil prices could send the US economy into recession.

Expensive fuel at the pumps is just the start. These battles over the price of oil could be the harbinger of something even scarier. There is a growing realisation that we are teetering on the edge of an economic catastrophe which could be triggered next time there is a glitch in the world's oil supply.

A number of converging forces are making such an event more likely than ever before. First, there is the spectacular rise in global oil consumption, which, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) now stands at 87 million barrels of crude (about 10 billion litres) a day. Most geologists now accept we have reached, or will imminently reach, peak oil. Some fields in the US and the North Sea have been pumped dry and production is becoming increasingly concentrated within fewer countries. Add a boost from speculators betting that things will get even worse, chicanery by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel which over the past two years has added Angola and Ecuador to its ranks to mask the decline in production of its existing members, and it's not hard to see why prices have been forced ever upwards. But price conceals the much more complex mess we're in.

In the past, it has usually been possible to ride out any disruption to world oil flows - whether from accidents or hostile acts - by pumping more oil from the ground. That spare capacity has now all but vanished, as oil producers cash in on soaring prices by extracting as much of the stuff as they can. "There is absolutely no slack in the system any more," says Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington DC-based think tank specialising in energy security. It is this lack of wriggle-room that has brought us to the brink.

In the days when oil producers had more leeway, they could make up for a disruption somewhere in the system by quickly raising production by around 3 million barrels a day, says Nick Butler, head of the Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies, part of the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School. That crucial reserve capacity has now fallen below the daily output of some producers - meaning that if the taps were turned off in any one of a number of unstable oil-supplying nations, such as Nigeria, Iraq, Iran or Angola, the impact would be felt almost immediately.

This has left the oil market so fragile that a few well-placed explosives, an energy-sapping cold winter or an unusually intense hurricane season could send shock waves across the globe. The potential consequences are so serious that governments are drawing up emergency plans to cope should the worst happen. According to one analyst who took part in a simulation of just such a crisis, the situation most experts fear is what they call a "psychological avalanche".

Here's what happens. A small, distant country one day finds it can no longer import enough oil because of a spike in prices or problems with local supply. The news media whip this up into a story suggesting an oil shock is on the way, and the resulting panic buying by the public degenerates into a global grab for oil.

Most industrialised countries keep an emergency reserve as a first line of defence, but in the face of worldwide panic buying this may not be enough. Countries in which the oil runs out face transport meltdown, wreaking havoc with international trade and domestic necessities such as food distribution, emergency services and daily commerce. Without oil everything stops.

The roots of our oil addiction can be traced back to the end of the 19th century, when petroleum began to be pumped from wells across America. It wasn't long before it become obvious what a great transport fuel it could provide. Oil-based fuels paved the way for intensive farming and extensive road networks; they drove the influx of populations into cities, drove growth in shipping and eventually made mass air travel possible. "Oil has shaped our civilisation. Without crude oil you'd have no cars, no shipping, no planes," says Gideon Samid, head of the Innovation Appraisal Group (IAG) at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

And it's not just about fuels. A giant chemical industry relies on oil as its feedstock, and without it many of the products we now take for granted would vanish. "You'd see no plastics, no bags, no toys, no cases on TVs, computers or radios. It's absolutely everywhere," says Samid.

"Much of the economic expansion and growth of the human population in the 20th century is directly tied to the availability of large amounts of cheap oil," says Cutler Cleveland, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. "There isn't a single good or service consumed on the planet, except in rural economies, that doesn't have oil embedded in it. Oil is the lifeblood of the global economy."

The secret of oil's success is its portability and extraordinarily high energy density. One barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of 46 US gallons of gasoline; burn it and it will release more than 6 billion joules of heat energy, equivalent to the amount of energy expended by five agricultural labourers working 12-hour days non-stop for a year.

The vast majority of oil is consumed by transport. In the US, that sector accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the 20.7 million barrels the country gets through each day. The chemical industry turns half of the rest into plastics, solvents and pharmaceuticals.

More than half of the world's oil comes from seven countries, the leading supplier being Saudi Arabia, which produces more than 10 million barrels a day. Then come Russia, the US, Iran, China, Mexico and Canada. Twenty years ago, there were 15 oilfields able to supply 1 million barrels a day. Now, there are only four. The largest is the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia.

The IEA, which advises 27 countries on oil emergencies, requires its members to hold at least 90 days' worth of fuel, which can be pooled and released onto the market if a crisis looms. The system last swung into action in 2005 when hurricane Katrina caused the shutdown of more than 23 per cent of the US's oil production capacity. A few days after Katrina struck, the IEA ordered the release of 2 million barrels a day from reserve stocks for a month, the first time reserves had been released since the Gulf war in 1991.

About half the world's oil is distributed by tankers mainly plying a handful of key routes across the oceans. The rest goes through an extensive network of pipelines that can carry different grades of crude and synthetic compounds, such as lubricants. The bewildering complex of pipelines - extending 90,000 kilometres in the US alone - crosses continents and dips under oceans.

The pipelines are often above ground and vulnerable to accidental damage or attacks by saboteurs. When working, however, they provide an extremely efficient way of transporting oil. A pipeline that pumps a relatively modest 150,000 barrels per day delivers the equivalent of 750 oil tanker truck loads or one delivery every 2 minutes, day and night. Even if a pipeline is damaged, it can usually be quickly repaired. Valves at intervals along the pipe can isolate the leak while the damaged section is replaced.

Disruption can still be costly. A report in 2005 by a US House of Representatives subcommittee on terrorism reported that sabotage to oil pipelines in Iraq had cost the country more than $10 billion in lost revenues, even though protection had been a high priority for the coalition troops since they invaded two years before. The report suggested that groups hostile to the US and its allies were becoming increasingly expert at mounting these attacks.

Choke points

Even outside a conflict zone, accidents can cause serious disruption. Last year, the IEA was on standby to release reserves after an explosion in Minnesota shut down part of the 5000-kilometre Enbridge pipeline, which pumps 1.9 million barrels of crude a day from Canada to the US Midwest. This single incident halted one-fifth of US oil imports for days.

Oil deliveries by sea are vulnerable too. A fleet of 4000 tankers plying six main routes delivers more than 43 million barrels of oil every day. Many of these routes pass through narrow "choke points", and if any of these were to become impassable, even temporarily, the effect on oil supplies could be dramatic.

For instance, more than 16 million barrels of oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, taking oil from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to the US, western Europe and Asia. At its narrowest point, the strait is only 33 kilometres wide. If necessary, some of Saudi Arabia's exports could be diverted through the 1200-kilometre East-West pipeline to the Red Sea, but its maximum capacity is only 5 million barrels a day, half of which is already taken up.

Between 1984 and 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war, both countries attacked tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, causing shipping to drop by 25 per cent. In 2003, the Bush administration claimed it had prevented further attacks on shipping in the strait.

Another pinch point occurs in the Strait of Malacca, which narrows to just 2.7 kilometres between Sumatra and Singapore. Tankers from the Persian Gulf and west Africa transport some 15 million barrels a day through the strait en route to Japan, China and other Pacific destinations. A report by Luft claims that some tankers have been hijacked here by would-be terrorists whose initial aim has been simply to learn how to operate them. In 2003 a small chemical tanker called Dewi Madrim was taken over by 10 armed men, who sailed it through the strait before leaving with equipment and technical documents.

One scenario being suggested is that hijackers might commandeer a liquid natural gas tanker plying one of these shipping routes, load it with explosives and use it to ram an oil tanker. If this floating bomb produced a burning oil slick, it could render the passage impassable for months, tipping the global economy into crisis as alternative routes would fail to make up the lost supplies.

Another key element in the global oil infrastructure is Abqaiq, an enormous processing facility in Saudi Arabia, which removes sulphur from two-thirds of the country's crude. The CIA estimates that seven months after a large-scale attack, output would still be only 40 per cent of its full capacity.

More than half the oil from Abqaiq is pumped to the largest offshore oil terminal in the world, Ras Tanura on the Persian Gulf, which handles one-tenth of the world's oil. This makes it a prime target for attack, and the site is as heavily defended as a military base. "If you have a facility like this and a plane crashed into it, or terrorists get in and somehow succeed in blowing it up, then you have a very, very significant disruption on your hands. That is what analysts see as a doomsday scenario," Lufts says. Reuters reported that one planned attack on the terminal was thwarted in 2006. Saudi oil production is particularly vulnerable because it is concentrated in a few massive production and distribution sites. "If one or two of these facilities goes down, then the entire system goes down," says Luft.

So what would the impact be if oil supplies choked? In 2005, a group of current and former US government and national security officials were asked to address this in a live role-play exercise. Playing the part of the national security adviser was Robert Gates, who the following year became Secretary of Defense. The scenarios that unfolded were developed with officials from the Shell oil company in the Netherlands, a former US presidential counter-terrorism adviser and industry analysts.

The simulation kicked off with an upsurge of political violence in Nigeria, the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the US. In the ensuing turmoil 600,000 barrels of oil production a day were lost from the Niger delta. The violence coincided with the start of a cold winter in the northern hemisphere, which increased demand by 700,000 barrels a day. Together, these events boosted the price of a barrel of oil from $58 to $82; a proportional rise today would push the price beyond $195.

Events began to gather pace when, a month later, the simulation threw in an attack on the Haradh natural-gas processing plant in Saudi Arabia, which forced the country to cut 250,000 barrels per day from its exports - equivalent to the oil consumed every day in Switzerland - to meet domestic needs. Next, news arrived of an attempt to ram a hijacked supertanker into another vessel moored at a jetty at Ras Tanura. This was closely followed by a similar attack at the oil port of Valdez in Alaska, as well as a ground attack which set fuel depots alight. With the world oil shortfall now at 3.4 million barrels per day, the price per barrel had shot up to $123. Against the recent peak price of $139, that rise would take the cost per barrel to $295.

The turmoil leads to an aggressive crackdown on anti-western groups and their sympathisers, which temporarily quells further attacks. Then, six months into the simulation, a terrorist campaign is launched against foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, killing 200 and wounding 250 within 48 hours. Evacuation of foreign workers follows.

Though oil production continues unchecked, this loss of expertise leaves Saudi Arabia unable to meet future demand and with no spare capacity. Fears that this could lead to shortages in the future bring speculators into the market, and the price per barrel rises to $161. At the end of the simulation, global production has fallen by 3.5 million barrels a day, or 4 per cent of world oil supplies. One of the participants, Jim Woolsey, a former head of the CIA, described the scenarios as "relatively mild compared to what is possible", yet this proved enough to almost triple the price of a barrel of crude.

The key conclusion being drawn from this scenario is how reliant the global oil market is on Saudi Arabia's ability to ramp up production on demand. If this extra oil is not available, the price rockets. Saudi Arabia's recent reluctance to increase production and the ensuing price rises in today's real-life oil market amply bear out this prediction.

So where does this leave us at a time when global oil production is approaching the point when it stops growing and starts to decline? Most industry experts, including geoscientists and economists, who were polled by Samid in 2007 said that peak production will occur by 2010. This contrasted with a similar survey conducted two years earlier, in which respondents were split, with many of the economists opting for a later date. "Now, a real consensus is emerging," says Samid.

This tells us that we will have to start making serious attempts to wean ourselves off oil, and fast. It will be no easy task. "It's hardly conceivable that the world could function without oil," says Didier Houssin, director of oil markets and emergency preparedness at the IEA.

Finding a replacement fuel for transport is the biggest challenge. So far all the alternatives have hit the skids. For example, hydrogen, which could potentially replace oil as a green fuel if made using renewable sources of energy, has storage and distribution problems. While biofuels, which could be an easier replacement for fossil fuels, require feedstocks that compete with food crops for water and agricultural land. "To get these alternatives close to what oil can do, you have to invest a lot of money," says Cleveland, something most governments and energy companies have done reluctantly, and at pathetically low levels. "These aren't insurmountable problems, but they suggest the transition has some formidable challenges," he adds. One way or another oil will become more scarce, even more costly and will always have the disadvantage of generating carbon dioxide when it's burned. However hard it may be, the sooner we make the break, the better.

World Oil Production - Graphic which compares oil price, production over time http://environment.newscientist.com/data/images/archive/2662/26621502.jpg

Energy and Fuels - Learn more about the looming energy crisis in our comprehensive special report.

Ian Sample is science correspondent for The Guardian newspaper in London
From issue 2662 of New Scientist magazine, 25 June 2008, page 32-37

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