bottleneck analysis

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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Shale On You

Berkeley (Doe Library)

The big player in the next decade’s energy markets will be shale gas.

As peak oil is being recognized as real by more and more giant companies – notwithstanding the broad and wide scientific consensus ever since the Hubbert’s curve – and as tensions in the Middle East is growing, the whole industry is searching for instructions from the market’s compass.

Renewable energy could be the right thing. Backed by millions, sustained by governments’ subsidies, acceptable to the many that are growing acquaintance of the need for sustainable energy due to pocket money concerns and climate change. Renewable energy has an already established complex of companies, think-tanks, and educational paths that could easily be integrated with the seasoned oil and gas pool of experts and structures. Engineers and policymakers, scientists and economists, all together to rid the world from polluting hydrocarbons and to finally project the globe in the new millennium.

When I woke up from my dream, I saw the world energy majors in a corner, shivering. The Deepwater Horizon incident of 2010 was just fading away, when on March 11, 2011 the earthquake in Japan severely damaged the nuclear power plant (NPP) in Fukushima. Right after Obama had called for the construction of new NPPs in the U.S. territory. Just as the BP oil spill happened a couple of weeks after “Green” Barack had signed the permission for more offshore exploration projects in the East Coast.

The energy majors were shivering for one main reason (while fearing for the next ominous action by Obama): There was nowhere to go.

The nuclear renaissance had been killed by a Japanese tsunami. All of Europe was renouncing to their nuclear programs and discontent was rising in the U.S. In my short life, I’ve lived through Chernobyl and Fukushima. Slightly older people were born before (or even remember) Three Mile Island. And thanks to the breakup of the Soviet Union – and the IAEA regulations – we spared ourselves a couple more accidents.

Meanwhile in the East, China was going back to coal. Beijing has big reserves and feels no constraints (be it Kyoto or Copenhagen) should hinder their cap-com society’s development while at the summit of their growth curve. Both China and India have serious nuclear and coal programs that will not be stopped by societal protests.

“How far North can we go?” is the question that the governments facing the Arctic are asking exploration companies. The drought is such that, without any respect for the environment, international borders, or economic feasibility, Shell, BP, Rosneft, Chevron, and Statoil are all scrambling for the cold deep waters.

Chevron is even trying biofuels from algae! Shell is undergoing futuristic projects in Qatar. In 2010 Gazprom’s energy-related assets only represented a minority in the whole budget. Canada is squeezing tar sands in order to get some drops of oil from them, in a highly environmentally-hazardous process (which is no surprise in a country where Asbestos is the name of a city).

“Hey, how about… no, nothing. No, it’s a foolish idea. OK, I’ll just drop it on the table, and then you judge it.” These must have been the words of the energy genius that came up with the solution for the next decade (or until someone decides to put a ban on it). Utilizing high-pressure water, chemicals, and machinery in order to break rocks (shales) underground, i.e. “fracking”, to then capture the gas emissions of this process would be met with laughter in a kindergarden classroom. Instead, these giants will pursue this idea and “frack” the land under our feet, in search for an amount of gas that is lower than what is flared after oil extraction. Poisoning water basins with chemicals and air with methane that nature had chosen to keep enclosed within porous rocks.

Shale gas is a growing reality in the U.S. energy industry. Fracking is allowed in 30 states. Europe does not have a regulatory framework for rationing and monitoring this practice. Without a severe regulation, we will walk over land-crumbs in a few decades.

Ah, to the energy wise men that orchestrated this: “Shame – not shale – on you!

Education Bottlenecks: Narrowness, Constraint, or Niche

SF (State University Cafeteria)

Upon enrollment in graduate programs, the student is like a sponge in search for inspirations, ideas that might revolutionize its field of study. The requirement is in fact to write an “original” thesis.

When the pupil exposes for the first time her genius idea to her favorite professor, seasoned eyebrows start twisting and the first words are: “Too broad”, usually followed by either “you should narrow your question down and talk to me again”, or “I want to see you die in the library (or lab), go for it!”. I have yet to witness the latter situation, but I bet there are professors who enjoy their students’ pains.

One field. One subject. One topic. One approach. One facet. The student climbs down the stairs of abstraction and finds out that most of the research on that very original topic has already been carried through. Which translates in the realization that “research” would only mean searching for more information. Sure, there are many who find original solutions to original problems. But time is an overwhelmingly bigger constraint than quality in today’s higher education. Therefore students stick to a subject-related niche that would blind themselves from searching elsewhere. The outcome being usually a thesis reinforcing mainstream theories.

The dirty water absorbed by the sponge was in fact clay and the effort of writing under such circumstances just helped it dry and solidify. Building up a niche for one’s own specialization does not mean to narrow-mindedly pursue a justification for an accurately defined question under the already established constraint of traditional theories. This is the reason why multidisciplinarity is the key for almost all scientific questions, more so when dealing with energy issues, which will be the backbone of this blog.

Numbers need to be substantiated by in-depth knowledge of social and political patterns and not everything can be quantifiable, notwithstanding the current trends in American graduate programs in social sciences. The problem is not “too many PhDs” as The Economist and, more recently, Nature keep yelling, in fact the puzzle is that students look at grad programs as a profession, rather than a vocation.

Such academic trends generate an educational bottleneck, through which numbers on transcripts and standardized tests overshadow the human component and the real scientific relevance of the research question. And leave no room for multidisciplinarity. Do not ask yourself why there are so few Energy Studies programs for which is worth the time to fill in an application.

Draghi flies and doesn’t spit fire

SF (Ingleside)

Economics is a weird science. “Weird” has an informal and an archaich meaning. Both of them apply.

Prediction is also a non-perfect science. However when it comes to forecasting, I am pretty good. Incapable of telling beforehand if it’s going to rain or shine, my best quality is to predict stuff that I am very distant from and that I have little chances to influence.

Last year, approximately 14 months ago, I was sitting in the rear seats at a Monday staff meeting at the Atlantic Council in Washington, where I served as an intern on Eurasian energy. Still I am a European citizen so when the topic addressed concerns “home”, my attention level rose. Two European members of the staff were talking about the successor at the chair of the European Central Bank after the end of Trichet’s term. Having Germany a big leverage on European economy at large, they both sensed Axel Weber’s nomination as the most plausible. Frankfurt hosts the headquarters, Germany was at the time the strongest European economy, while Portugal, Greece, Spain and Italy were struggling. Yet, a doubt came to my mind. I almost rose my hand and stepped up to the floor to say what I was thinking. But I didn’t, I felt too “little” and young to have a relevant word on the matter.

Nevertheless, I knew history would have taken a different path. I knew there was a quiet and well-prepared economist who felt like a stranger in Via Nazionale in Rome, where he was heading the Italian Central Bank since 2006. His studies and experiences in Italy and in the US seemed impressive and therefore almost ruled him out from any respectful position in post-1992 Italy.

The quiet one, however, keeps winning over petty political battles both in Italy and Europe. Now he’s going to sit on the most independent chair in European economic affairs. A reward for his preparation, a compensation for what Europeans had been suffering with their trifling bar fights while the globe keeps spinning.

Political, Science?

SF (Ingleside)

Graduation, without a well-defined future already shaped before your eyes, could be deceitful. Having graduated from a social science department (“major” in the US), I have kept asking myself whether such a degree was clever to pursue at all or I would have been far better off by taking a bath in math (hard sciences). Who knows? But, seriously, why am I questioning my choices?

The last question opens a huge life review, sliding-doors thoughts, “what if” hypotheses… Nah, there must be a reason why I chose this path. All my life I have been questioning and testing human behavior, mainly through self-experimenting. Being picky, nerdy, and almost socially awkward were my attempt at understanding why humans could not understand another of their kind behaving similarly but with slight differences (“you don’t like dancing?, and you don’t drink?, wait, you don’t eat cheese either? wtf!?”). Italians are far more indulgent on Paolo’s food constraints, whereas Americans (and Spanish) put more stress on the partying mood. What’s more, they wouldn’t understand how I manage to enjoy a party without drinking and dancing.

Enough with background information, my quest for understanding why human beings like to exploit other humans, why they like escaping from their brains, why they don’t act logically even when they have perfect information waving its hand on their faces, has been my long-standing puzzle. My long arguments, full of entertaining mental exercises, are never based on the purpose of being told “you’re right, you win”. The optimal outcome I seek for is to understand the “why” and the “how”. That’s science for me. Causality and method. With a little bit of chaos to be added in the imperfect equation.

Political Science, as an academic school, is the best gym I could think of to practice my favorite experiments. Granting a background in many fields (Economics, Law, History, Statistics, Sociology) it allows the student to (re)search the micro-field that best fits their qualities and interests. It’s just like the foamy pillow I just bought. It’s a subject that adjusts itself to your head. And lets your thoughts flow better. Unbiased.

Past the First Post

I wanted to write my first post on May 1st.

I thought it would have meant something important as it is International Workers’ Day, therefore unveiling my political views once and for all. I believe May 1st is the day in the calendar that best represents me. There are a lot of references in my life that relate to “work”. The first article of the Italian Constitution, my attempt to understand how society works and should work, my overall philosophical approach to life (“working is a way for humankind to avoid realizing that there’s no need to live”).

Starting a blog is starting to travel online. I do travel “offline” a lot. But I feel a need for a platform to express my views that can be easily reached. Here we go.

Take off!

p.s.: as you may have noticed, the title of this post is a pun. I hope you won’t be annoyed by the fact that I will indeed use puns both in titles and texts of my posts.