Energy Modelling Workshop

‘New Energy Challenges’

Energy modellers are invited to partake in the ‘New Energy Challenges’ Energy Modelling Workshop that will take place in Edinburgh on the afternoon of Friday June 28th, as part of the Global Energy Systems conference.

The focus of the workshop is on those new energy challenges that are not well represented in some of today’s energy models. Some of these challenges include:

  • Coming constraints in the supply of conventional fossil fuels
  •  The challenge to balance greater CO2 emissions due to the use of unconventional fossil fuels with global targets to decarbonise energy due to climate change.
  • The need to include in energy models various practical limits such as water availability, net-energy, skills availability that restrict the rate at which transitions to new energy technologies, energy-saving measures, and energy supplies, can be made.
  •  Lower energy return ratios which characterise many non-conventional fossil fuels and some renewable energies, and the need to integrate these ratios into energy models.
  • The need to understand, and correctly model, the impact of high energy cost on levels of economic activity, and on available investment and economic resource allocation.

The workshop is directed primarily to groups operating models that examine future supply and demand of energy at country, regional or global levels. Such models typically examine a range of achievable energy trajectories for the region studied typically covering periods up to 40 years ahead.

The workshop is free to those registering for the conference, but to get an idea of numbers we also ask those wishing to attend to please e-mail: r.w.bentley [at] reading [dot] ac [dot] uk

Any conference delegate may attend the workshop, but because of time limitations main discussants at the workshop will be restricted to those actually running models.

Again because of time limitations, should you wish to present details of your model you may find this is best done via a poster presentation. Details of how to submit a 200-word abstract can be found here.

In due course, we will send a questionnaire to attendees aimed at helping make the workshop more effective in terms of information transfer, particularly as regards workshop format and topics.

If you have questions about the workshop, please address your questions to:

Dr. R.W. Bentley, Visiting Research Fellow, Dept. of Cybernetics, the University of Reading, RG6 6AY, UK.

Phone: +44 (0)1582 750 819; mobile: +44 (0)7799 728 988.


Some of the ‘New Energy Challenges’ that need to be modelled:

(a) Coming constraints in the global supply of conventional fossil fuels

(i) Global maximum in the production of conventional oil

Recognition of the risk of a possible maximum in the global production of conventional oil has changed in recent years.

The idea of such a maximum has changed from being seen as erroneous, based on ‘fixed-resource’ modelling, to now gaining fairly widespread recognition – supported by the IEA & US EIA – that to-day’s high price of oil is driven in part by intrinsic limits in the global supply of conventional, low-cost, oil.

Note that calculating this limit requires access to oil-industry proven-plus-probable data, rather than the proven oil reserves data often relied on by analysts over past decades.

Challenges raised by a global maximum in the production of conventional oil include:

  •  Determining its date. Most calculations place the maximum as about now; although some by-field models delay the date by 10 or so years, based on announced projects and scope to bring on-stream currently fallow fields. Most likely is that a combination of below-ground and above-ground factors forces the global conventional oil maximum to be about now.
  • As is well known, there are very large resources of non-conventional oil, but most are more expensive, emit more CO2 per unit of energy, and have lower EROEI ratios than conventional oil. Capturing these factors correctly, as the production of conventional oil declines and that of non-conventional oil increases, is an important modelling issue.
  • There is a crtical question – framed on Day-1 of the conference – as to whether production of non-conventional fossil fuels can fully replace the conventionals. In the case of oil, models such as those from the IEA forecast conventional oil’s decline, but see production of non-conventionals as more than taking up the slack. Contrasting ‘all-oil’ peak models see constraints on increased production of non-conventional oil as being strong, such that the global supply of ‘all-oil’ (excluding GTLs, CTLs & biofuels) declines in the near- or medium-term. (For a discussion of these models see Technical Report 7 of the 2009 UKERC ‘Global Oil Depletion’ report.)

(ii) Global maximum production of conventional gas

Similar considerations apply to the maximum in the global production of conventional gas as they do for conventional oil. Simple global ‘mid-point’ modelling, based on industry proven-plus-probable data, puts the date of this global conventional gas maximum at less than 15 years from now. Other models have the date sooner, due to resource, pipeline, and LNG constraints.

Challenges raised by a global maximum in conventional gas production are several:

  • Many countries predicate their future energy plans on significant increased use of gas. Although much non-conventional gas exists in the world, US experience highlights the high field decline rates often associated with some of this, such as shale gas; as well as the often high average cost when full accounting (excluding factors such as lease sales) is used. As with conventional oil, it is far from clear how the future global production of ‘all-gas’ might evolve once conventional gas is solidly into decline.
  • Some countries have lowered their CO2 emissions by switching power stations from coal to conventional or non-conventional gas. To what extent this route to reduced emissions remains viable once conventional gas is in decline is also unclear.

(iii) A possible constraint in maximal world traded coal

For many years analysts have seen coal (conventional plus non-conventional) as a ‘backstop’ energy – there being up to 3,000 years’ worth of potential resource by some counts (e.g., IIASA’s GEA, Table SPM-3).

But newer studies (e.g., Energy Watch) look at the dramatic difference between potential resource and probable maximum production rates, and see limits to the quantity of global coal that can be traded.

Again this is important, as many countries look to growing coal supply (with or without CCS) as a key contributor to their future energy security.

As with oil & gas, coal has large non-conventional resources, and one of the papers at the conference focuses on scope for in-situ combustion to access coal seams that are too thin or too deep for conventional production.

(b) Challenge of balancing the higher CO2 emissions of many non-conventional fossil fuels with the requirement to de-carbonise energy due to climate change

Most non-conventional fossil fuels have higher CO2 emissions per unit of energy than the conventional fuels they replace. This will require detailed modelling when making country & regional carbon forecasts.

As widely recognised, there is a need to rapidly de-carbonise the world’s energy supply if possible 2 or 4 degree Celcius thresholds are not to be passed in the medium or longer term. Papers at the conference, including Lord Oxburgh’s keynote, will cover scope for CCS to assist in this task.

(c) Need to include in energy models the practical limits – including water limitations, skills availability, and net-energy – that restrict the rate at which transitions to new energy-saving measures, and energy supplies, can be made

An under-appreciated constraint on future energy modelling is the net-energy rate-limits that restrict the rates at which societies can usefully transition to energy saving measures, or new energy supplies.

If any energy-saving, or energy-providing, measure grows at faster than an annual rate determined by its technology, it yields no net energy saving, or net energy provision, to society during its growth phase. And even if growth is slower than this critical rate, only a proportion of the technology’s expected energy yield is available to society while growth is underway. This effect is often not accounted for in those models that see rapid transition to new energy paradigms.

In addition to net-energy, there are a variety of other empirical limits that are likely to restrict the practical rate at which energy transitions can occur (except perhaps in ‘war-footing’ situations, where measures can be mandated, and where the resources allocated to change can be a high proportion of GDP).

These empirical constraints are various, and include technical, social, and ‘learning-curve’ manifestations. At least one poster paper at the conference will cover some of these.

As with net-energy, these ‘other’ constraints need particularly to be included in the models that foresee rapid transitions to new energies, or to new energy-saving measures.

(d) The need to understand, and correctly model, the impact of high energy cost on levels of economic activity, and on available investment and economic resource allocation

In this list of ‘new energy challenges’, we highlight the need to model correctly the impact of high energy cost on regional and global economic activity (see, for example, the data in Murray & King; Nature, Vol. 481, 433-435) , and on potential levels of investment and resource allocation.

It is generally recognised that some of past modelling has not been especially good at correctly capturing the nexus between energy provision and economic activity. A number of authors (such as Slessor; Odum; Hawker, Lovins & Lovins; Kümmel; Hall and Klitgaard; and others) have suggested new paradigms, but it is perhaps fair to say (?) that none of these views has been adequately tested.

But clearly if we are to properly understand the energy future, the link and between economic activity and the availability of affordable energy needs to be understood and captured in the models to the extent possible. This includes also the consequent effect of availability of resources for investment; and the general question of diversion of GDP to ‘necessary’ activities.

(e) Lower energy return (EROEI) ratios that characterise many of the non-conventional fossil fuels and some renewable energies, and the need to integrate these ratios into energy models

As many analysts recognise, most of the non-conventional fossil fuels currently have lower energy return on energy invested (EROEI) ratios than the conventional fossil fuels they replace. This is primarily due to the extra energy and extra material needed to win these resources (but note, this is not necessarily intrinsic, as better extraction technologies may come along to improve EROEI’s of the non-conventionals).

Hall et al. have shown that modern society needs a minimum EROEI in its energy supplies if it is to function; and even if ratios are higher than this level, reductions in EROEI reduce society’s overall wealth. Unfortunately, the need to include EROEI data in global energy modelling is still seen as very much a minority interest (repudiated, for example, by at least some at the IEA), even though it is important if the global energy future is to be properly understood.

Many renewables also have rather low EROEI ratios, which restricts their ability to be simple ‘like-for-like’ replacements for conventional fossil fuels in the overall energy picture.