Energy Alert for June 17, 2015

In a recent issue, we noted that the battery industry is poised for growth as both utilities and their customers look for ways to store energy for use when demand is high or the electric grid fails. Battery tech is advancing and costs are falling, but batteries are far from the only viable way to store energy or provide backup power in emergencies. Two other approaches — one novel and one traditional — are also making strides.

Hydrogen Power

Fuel cells have long held the tantalizing prospect of providing abundant and clean energy. By combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity (and water as a by-product), fuel cells emit no greenhouse gases or pollutants; they run silently; and, unlike batteries, they can be “recharged” quickly by adding more hydrogen.

But logistics have long hampered fuel cells. Though hydrogen is the most abundant element, very little of it exists in pure, elemental form. So providing the fuel for fuel cells means extracting hydrogen from other molecules, such as the methane in natural gas, and then transporting pure hydrogen to where it’s needed. And with very little infrastructure in place to move the hydrogen, fuel cells can’t be used in many places.

However, fuel cell makers such as Plug Power of Latham, N.Y., are gradually starting to overcome that obstacle by improving the shipping of hydrogen to customers who like the idea of using efficient, emissions-free fuel cells but traditionally haven’t been able to procure the hydrogen to power them. Plug Power installs its fueling dispensers and other gear on-site and trucks in hydrogen as needed.

So far, that strategy is catching on with big retailers such as Walmart and Kroger, which are switching over to fuel cells from Plug Power to operate forklifts at their distribution centers. Forklifts so equipped can run almost constantly, says Plug Power president Andy Marsh, allowing for more-efficient operation than battery-powered forklifts, which have to either recharge for hours or swap out batteries to keep going. Turning to hydrogen isn’t cheap, but for large industrial sites that can fuel hundreds of forklifts from a central location, the economies of scale can pay off.

Clearly, warehouse forklifts represent a fairly small and specialized market for fuel cell adoption. But Marsh sees expansion possibilities elsewhere. One juicy market he’s targeting: Next-generation cell phone towers, coming on line in a few years, that will need a portable energy source because they won’t be connected to the electric grid.

Meanwhile, cars powered by fuel cells are quietly making some inroads in the electric car market, even as batteries get most of the attention. The basic knock on battery-powered cars — that they can’t drive very far before needing a lengthy recharge — doesn’t apply to fuel-cell-powered vehicles, or FCVs. A quick hydrogen fill-up allows for hundreds of miles of emissions-free driving.

If you can find a hydrogen fueling station, that is. Such stations are starting to pop up in California, which has led Toyota to prepare the first FCV you’ll be able to buy in America. Called the Mirai, it’s a compact sedan with a driving range of up to 300 miles, running on hydrogen in a carbon fiber tank that Toyota calls “durable” and “incredibly solid” (probably to assure potential buyers that the car won’t go the way of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg zeppelin).

With enough hydrogen fueling stations (California is shooting to have 100 by 2020), the Mirai or a car like it could be the anti-Tesla electric car: One you can refuel in five minutes from a pump and then drive across a medium-size state without being afraid of getting stranded with a dead battery. As an added bonus, Toyota says the onboard fuel cell could even act as an emergency power source for a home during blackouts. (It’s not yet clear if that feature will be available on U.S. models.)

Backup Power, the Old-Fashioned Way

Of course, there’s a far simpler way to power your home or business during a blackout: An emergency generator. Small, portable units running on gasoline can keep the lights on in a pinch, and larger, stationary generators burning propane or natural gas can power your whole building automatically when grid power goes down.

Sales of emergency generators have been a bit soft lately, says Clement Feng of Generac, a major generator supplier. But that’s largely due to the absence of major hurricanes and associated blackouts in recent years, he adds; folks who haven’t dealt with that headache in a while tend to be less eager to invest in a generator. It takes only “one big storm” to ramp up demand, says Feng.

Meanwhile, Generac is doing brisk business selling large, trailer-mounted generators fueled by natural gas to oil drillers. Well-site equipment requires a lot of electricity, and gas-fired generators are a good solution in the many parts of the oil patch where natural gas comes up the well as a by-product of oil production. Much of that gas has traditionally been flared off as a waste product, even as drillers hauled in costly diesel to run pump jacks and other gear.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we spoke with Jim Baugher of online power equipment retailer Power Equipment Direct to find out what folks should know if they are in the market for a generator (as many in the Northeast were when Sandy took down much of the grid).

Among his recommendations:

  • Have an electrician assess the power needs of your home or business so you can buy a generator that handles the job without going overboard. An electrician can also install the wiring needed to automatically route the generator’s power to essential equipment — your fridge or furnace, say — without having to run extension cables.
  • If buying a portable unit, you’ll want one with pneumatic wheels for easier movement; a battery for easy start-up; and a voltage regulator. If you’re interested in a large, stationary backup unit, first consult a building inspector to make sure your intended site won’t run afoul of local building codes.

Generator costs can vary substantially, depending on your power needs. Generac’s Feng says buying and installing Generac’s largest standby generator — a 22-kilowatt unit — generally runs $7,000 to $8,000. The company’s smallest standby model puts out 7 kilowatts and costs about $1,900 before installation.

Energy Alerts, June 3, 2015

The boom in shale oil and gas isn’t just unleashing a flood of new energy sources in the U.S. It’s also driving a massive build-out of the nation’s energy-carrying infrastructure, which is needed to bring that big bounty of crude oil and natural gas to market. At the same time, big changes for the electric grid mean utilities are investing heavily in new transmission lines to make sure your lights stay on.

Pipes, Tanks and Trains

The growth in oil output alone is taxing the energy industry’s carrying capacity. Though it briefly leveled off this winter when prices plummeted, crude production is on the rise again. By the end of the year, there’s a very good chance U.S. output will eclipse the record of roughly 10 million barrels per day, set in November 1970. Moreover, drillers are also tapping significant amounts of ethane, propane and other liquid petroleum.

Getting that gusher of oil from wells in N.D. and Texas to refineries on the coasts calls for more pipelines, more rail tanker cars and more storage depots. Last year, market research firm Industrial Info Resources tallied proposed pipeline projects that would be capable of moving a combined 8.2 million barrels per day — almost matching today’s 9.5 million barrels of daily output — and cost tens of billions of dollars to build. Most of that new construction figures to be in the Midwest.

IIR also identified proposed storage depot projects that would provide more than 80 million barrels of capacity, most of them in the West and Southwest. Firms such as Enterprise Products Partners and Kinder Morgan are betting on a mounting need for more storage tanks, especially after the big rise in crude oil stockpiles this winter sparked concerns that storage space would run out and helped push oil prices down.

Much of the surge in oil production isn’t getting to refineries by pipeline; it’s coming by rail. In North Dakota — the second-biggest oil-producing state (Texas is first) — rail is crucial to serving the mushrooming oil wells pumping crude from the Bakken Shale formation. But because this crude can be volatile and prone to exploding during train derailments, federal regulators are requiring the energy industry to upgrade or replace thousands of older rail tanker cars deemed unsafe for shipping crude (or ethanol, another volatile fuel).

How those regulations affect the crude-by-rail business remains to be seen. But the oil industry is clearly not happy with the mandate to overhaul or replace what a study by the Brattle Group estimates could be 30,000 rail tanker cars. American Petroleum Institute spokesman Brian Straessle said in a May 8 interview that the group, which represents oil and gas producers, was still reviewing the Department of Transportation’s new rules, but called them “very difficult” to implement. He questioned whether the rail industry has the ability to deliver so many new or upgraded tanker cars on the tight schedule regulators are requiring. Three days later, API filed a lawsuit against DOT to block the rules.

A slew of orders for new tanker cars figures to benefit manufacturers such as Trinity Industries, Union Tank Car Co. and the Greenbrier Cos. But DOT’s crude-by-rail rules pose challenges for those companies, too. In particular, car makers worry about the government’s mandate that tanker cars eventually adopt electronically controlled pneumatic brakes to prevent future derailments. The Rail Supply Institute, which represents car makers, argues that ECP is an expensive technology that does little to enhance safety.

While oil production draws near its all-time high, natural gas output is already breaking records. Gas production set a new high in December of last year and is likely to eclipse that record before long. Meanwhile, gas demand is also building (as we wrote two weeks ago). New supply and new demand spell many new gas pipelines crisscrossing the country.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approves applications to build interstate gas pipelines, is tracking a bevy of proposed gas lines to keep up with supply and demand. All told, FERC data show enough pending pipelines to move about 15 billion cubic feet of gas per day — equal to about 20% of current gas usage. Major builders include Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. and Energy Transfer Partners.

Power Lines

Meanwhile, electric utilities are pursuing more transmission capacity. Unlike for the oil and gas industries, the challenge for utilities isn’t moving more of the commodity they produce or sell; it’s rerouting power on the electric grid from new generating stations — as old coal-fired power plants close and gas-fired plants replace them — and coping with the ebbs and flows of highly variable wind and solar power.

That means more high-voltage power lines throughout the U.S. From now through 2017, electric utilities plan to spend nearly $20 billion per year on new transmission lines, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group. Some big spenders include Entergy Corp., Southern Co. and Southern California Edison.

Many utilities will also be shelling out more for large batteries to store excess energy during periods of low demand and quickly deliver it to customers when demand jumps — good news for battery firms such as Panasonic, Toshiba and NEC Energy Solutions.

A Note on Oil Statistics

Readers sometimes ask about the best sources of information on oil production and consumption, and of other statistics. The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration publishes a wide variety of reports on these topics; so wide, in fact, that it can be a bit overwhelming.

Perhaps the single most informative snapshot of the U.S. oil industry appears on Wednesdays, when EIA publishes its Weekly Petroleum Status Report. The Status Reports Highlights are a handy summary that runs down total petroleum consumption for the previous week, along with the rise or fall in stockpiles of crude and gasoline; how close to full capacity the nation’s refineries are operating; and how much gasoline and diesel refiners churned out that week. The Data Overview is even more informative, with details on oil production and refinery activity by region.

But note that EIA’s weekly report of crude oil output is based on an estimation and isn’t as accurate as the monthly figures the agency puts out. This winter, the weekly updates were pegging daily U.S. oil production at 9.1 million to 9.3 million barrels. But in hindsight, the monthly report quotes output at 9.4 million barrels in January and February. EIA publishes the monthly figures with a two-month lag, but given their greater accuracy, they’re worth waiting for.