As an undergraduate, I was trained to read between the lines and to interpret the words on the page in context with the author’s background and intent. With that in mind, I see an interesting marketing plan in between the following words from page 31 of ExxonMobil’s 2012 The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040. The heading of this page is “Electricity Generation: Choosing the Right Fuels”.
Imagine you are the CEO of an electric utility that is building a new power plant. What type of fuel would you design the plant to use to generate its electricity? Your choice would depend on a number of factors, with the goal of providing reliable, affordable electricity to your customers over decades of operation. When ExxonMobil prepares The Outlook for Energy, in order to estimate fuel demand, we also must consider these same factors on a country-by-country basis:
- Cost, availability and diversity of fuels. Today, in most countries, natural gas and coal are the most economic options for new power plants, followed by nuclear and wind. Economics also are influenced by utilization rates, because while a nuclear plant uses about 90 percent of its capacity to make electricity, utilization rates are much lower for wind and solar because they are intermittent sources. Availability and diversity of supplies also matter, as countries seek to enhance energy security.
- Policies to reduce CO2 and other emissions. ExxonMobil expects that by 2040, OECD countries will – directly or indirectly – have a cost of CO2 of $80 a ton. China will introduce more modest measures around 2030, followed by other Non OECD nations. The desire to improve local air quality will also encourage use of natural gas, nuclear and renewables in the Non OECD.
- Construction cost and timelines. It costs a billion dollars or more to build a new 1-gigawatt power plant. Coal and nuclear plants can take more than five years for permitting and construction, but in Non OECD nations with low labor costs, these options are very cost-competitive. In contrast, most natural gas and renewable plants can be permitted and erected in less than two years.
- Technologies and consumer attitudes. New technologies can lower costs, as unconventional production has done for natural gas in the United States. Public sentiment also matters. For example, Japan’s Fukushima disaster is expected to slow global growth in nuclear capacity.
Taken together, these factors point to a continued shift to lower-carbon fuels, particularly natural gas. Gas emits up to 60 percent less CO2 emissions than coal when used for electricity generation. It is flexible, reliable, affordable and available on a scale large enough to meet the world’s enormous – and growing – need for electricity. Also, unlike some zero-emission options, gas-fired generation plants are based on proven technology, can be built quickly and are cost effective today.
My suspicious nature classifies the above statements as a subtle call to action to the people who will be the most likely ones to read this report – the people that shape energy policies through either government action or by investing in future systems. ExxonMobil is not talking to people who will merely imagine that they are the CEO of an electric utility company. The expected audience for this detailed energy industry report includes people who are CEOs or people on the board of directors for electric utility companies.
I believe that Exxon Mobil is expecting to influence that important group of people by telling that that they should continue to emphasize an assumption that the aftermath of the natural disaster of the Great North East Japan earthquake and tsunami will be a reduction in demand for nuclear energy development.
After all, didn’t the whole world repeatedly watch the brief hydrogen explosions and see scary photos of the visible damage done to four nuclear power units ravaged by the natural disaster? Didn’t the petroleum industry do such a better job in keeping its own damage from the same events from being repeatedly shown on television?
Just as a reminder to those few people who frequent pro-nuclear blog sites, here is a photo of the uncontrolled fire that raged at Cosmo Oil’s Chiba oil refinery for ten solid days after the earthquake. I am pretty sure that there were numerous other examples of earthquake or tsunami damage to petroleum and natural gas facilities that did not make it into the public’s consciousness because they were kept off of television through editorial deference to important advertisers.
Update: A commenter suggested that the below video better represents my point about the dramatic impact that the earthquake had on an oil refinery. The news was reported, but quickly relegated to the category of “fish wrapping” or yesterday’s news as the entire world’s attention was (purposely?) focused on the slowly developing story at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Remember – the fire in the video below raged – out of control – for ten SOLID days after the earthquake.
Do you remember seeing any commercial media talking heads wringing their hands about the long term health effects on the people who might have been breathing in the toxic substances tossed high into the atmosphere? This video was put on YouTube on March 11, 2011, very soon after the report, viewed by about 8,700 people and commented on by about 19. No comments have been received in the past 9 months.