Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Burton Richter: natural gas vs oil, energy, price, and reserves

Burton Richter was the boss of SLAC when it co-discovered J/psi particle on November 11th, 1974. Samuel Ting at MIT led the Brookhaven team that discovered it on the same day, so these two experimental apparatchiks shared the 1976 physics Nobel prize.

I find it a bit unfortunate to give Nobel prizes to officials. It's bad if someone is rewarded as a top scientist for having been elected the director.

The J/psi particle itself was important to support the GIM mechanism - the existence of the charm quark, as deduced from the strange quark and the SU(2) weak symmetry (or its equivalent) but I don't think that it's been among the most important discoveries of the last 50 years.

Richter himself has been highly critical about any new physics, not just supersymmetry and string theory, and I am not sure whether his net contribution is positive or negative. He just doesn't understand the meaning of particular experiments and discoveries too well.

At any rate, he's just promoting his new book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors. It seems to be a pretty standard alarmist book although Richter wants to place himself at the "center". He calls us "deniers" while the other side are "exaggerators". He is a "citizen" in the middle and the task for all citizens is waste the very same money as the exaggerators want to waste.

Video via Willie Soon. See also Andrew Revkin's comments.

The book only reveals that he supports nuclear energy and natural gas (instead of oil and coal). Now, the natural oil is supposed to be better than oil or coal because it produces less CO2 per unit of energy (by a factor of two or three). Well, I don't think that there's anything wrong with CO2 so I won't bother with the calculations of CO2.

But let us look at the basic numbers that matter - the price, energy content, and reserves.

Natural gas vs oil

The world's proven reserves of natural gas are 180 trillion cubic meters or so; Russia, Iran, and Qatar (combined) have more than 50% of it.

In the U.S., one cubic meter costs about $0.25 and produces 10.8 kWh of gross heat when combusted.

Various products and ratios may be useful. The price of 1 kWh of gross heat is about 2 U.S. cents, or $0.02, which is, of course, well below the price of electricity in the U.S. around $0.12 per kWh (but don't forget that you can only get a fraction of the energy if you burn the gas, and you must pay many other things).

The 180 trillion of cubic meters in reserves cost $45 trillion at the price I indicated. These proven reserves would produce 1900 trillion kWh of gross heat when burned.


The world's proven oil reserves are about 1.3 trillion barrels. At the current price of $78 per barrel, the total price of the proven (and revealed) reserves is about $100 trillion - which is twice as much as the price of the natural reserves.

The energy/heat content of one barrel of oil is equivalent to 153 cubic meters of natural gas. So the proven reserves of 1.3 trillion barrels of oil contain as much energy as 200 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

You can see that this is almost exactly the same amount as the proven natural gas reserves - it is only 10% higher (but the accuracy is much worse than 10% here).

What about the price of one kWh of gross heat? Well, one barrel of oil costs $78 but produces 153 x 10.8 = 1650 kWh of gross heat when combusted. That's almost $0.05 per kWh. So indeed, the energy from natural gas may be by a factor of two or three cheaper if you neglect everything else.

You see that both oil and natural gas are comparably cheap and produce comparable energy per dollar. Well, there are way too many things that may be more important and that go well beyond the price, energy, and reserves.

The world's electricity consumption is 17 trillion kWh per year. I noticed that the natural gas contains 1900 trillion kWh of gross heat. Together with the slightly higher amount from the proven oil reserves, we have 4000 trillion kWh of gross heat.

If there were no losses, that would be enough for 235 years of electricity consumption. ;-) Of course, the electricity consumption is actually not covering all the types of energy we consume.

I didn't know what numbers I would get but if the prices were what they seemed to be and if there were no other major issues, I would agree it is sensible to try to burn the natural gas first because it's cheaper.

The main disadvantages of natural gas are expensive pipelines, extraction side effects, and the toxic nature of the gas. While someone who is only obsessed with the "bare price" or "energy content" or "CO2 emissions" could easily miss all these "more subtle" issues, they are actually behind the fact that the natural gas is replaced by coal or oil in many applications.

So even though the simplest calculations of the energy efficiency (and price) seem favorable for the natural gas, it makes no sense for people with a limited knowledge of these "engineering" issues - e.g. Burton Richter - to dictate what the "right" mixture of energy sources should be.

And that's the memo.

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