peak natural gas

Richard Heinberg's Edmonton Talk

I don’t think that anyone explains the predicament that we humans are in more clearly and intelligently than Richard Heinberg. I was disappointed to miss his Edmonton talk in February, but lo and behold, the entire thing was captured on youtube for our viewing pleasure (by no less than the City of Edmonton itself).

I watched all six 9-minute videos, and I recommend them to everybody.

Heinberg tells it like it is:


Natural Gas and Hard Limits

North American Natural Gas Production as of 2002


"It’s not that hard to predict what will happen in the future (I will die; Fifi, my son Fallon’s stuffed orca, will eventually need restuffing, etc.) but it is very hard to predict with any accuracy when things will happen."

Robert X. Cringely (in a recent blog post)


In 2003, the AUMA held a conference called the Alberta Municipal Energy Efficiency & Greenhouse Gas Conference. I always laughed at the title, because the real reason we were all there was high natural gas prices. "Expensive Natural Gas Conference" would have been more accurate, as prices exploded circa 2000, and suddenly we cared about greenhouse gases.

Conventional natural gas production (ie. the old, easy way to produce gas) in North America has been on the wane for some time now. It has most probably peaked and will continue its decline forever. This fact led many, including myself, to be alarmed at the prospects for natural gas going forward. I asked myself "how will the hundreds of thousands of energy-hungry houses and buildings stay warm in 2030?" I think that everyone should be concerned about the availability of finite resources instead of assuming that someone else will figure it out for us.

Unfortunately for the climate, a resource called shale gas has come into play over the past few years. Apparently there is a lot of it, and it is being brought on stream in large quantities. So the price of natural gas has dipped significantly, and the pundits are starting to talk about gas as a major player in North America for the next long while. While there are many unanswered questions about shale gas (such as how much energy is needed to get it out of the ground and the steep rate of well depletion), it seems that a continent-wide snooze button has been pressed on the subject of heating our homes and fuelling our industry with a depleting, finite resource.

We waste what is cheap, so cheap energy is bad news on many fronts. Interest in green building will decline, investments in renewable energy will be less than they would have been with pricier gas.

It’s frustrating that the apparent near-term abundance of natural gas will keep so many people apathetic about energy. Yet every day we approach the physical limits of growth. It’s not hard to predict that we will hit them. It’s not even hard to predict that we will hit them soon. What is hard is to get people to care when the price signal isn’t there, and when we have just bought ourselves another few years of complacency on the natural gas front.

Of course, peak oil is another story entirely.

Wood Burning: Resilient and Carbon Neutral


Thomas Homer-Dixon is a smart Canadian with some keen insight on the problems that our species face. His book The Upside of Down is an exploration of the biggest threats facing us and the planet. Two of his top five are the problems that I think will have the most influence on our way of life this century: Peak Oil and Climate Change.  read more... »

Geothermal Heating

The proper term is "ground source heat pump" (GSHP). I often get questions about this technology, and I think that there are some misconceptions out there, so here goes.

How It Works

The way I think of it, there is a magical black box that can take heat at low temperatures and "pump" it up to higher ones. In Edmonton, the ground a few feet below the surface remains at about six degrees Celsius all year round. This is seasonally-stored solar energy - it accumulates in summer and doesn't cool very much during the winter because there's just so much dirt.

So, a contractor comes and drills long holes (150 - 200 feet, I think) in the back of your yard, and runs tubing down the holes. Then, when heat is needed, the heat pump runs a fluid through the tubes in the earth, and pulls solar heat from it. The exact same effect happens in reverse.

With a GSHP, you can pull 3 - 3.5 units of heat from the earth for every unit of electricity that the heat pump uses.

The Hype - Imported From Elsewhere

Using a GSHP is a brilliant idea in Manitoba or Quebec or Vancouver Island - somewhere where no natural gas is available. The thing is, if your only choice is heating with electricity, a GSHP is in effect 350% more efficient than regular electric heating. That is, with regular electric heating (like from a resistance heating baseboard heater), you get one unit of heat for every one unit of electricity invested. As stated above, the GSHP will give you up to 3.5 units of heat for every one. That's pretty good.

The brilliance of the GSHP in other locations, though, doesn't necessarily translate to Alberta. Here, natural gas is available ubiquitously. AND our electricity is mostly derived from burning coal - the enemy of the human race.

So in Alberta, the only fair comparison for a GSHP is a super-efficient natural gas furnace.

Electricity vs. Natural Gas

Most of Edmonton's electricity is generated by burning coal near Wabamun lake. The generators burn the coal, and convert about 30% of the energy in the coal into electricity. Then, it gets sent down the power line to our great city (some of it gets lost along the way, but we'll ignore that for now). If we use the electricity in a GSHP that is 350% efficient, we get 3.5 units of heat back for every 1 put in. The thing is, we're using electricity that contains only 30% of the coal's original energy value. 30% * 3.5 = 105%. A coal-fired GSHP is 105% efficient, then, when considering the energy that was initially in the fossil fuel.  read more... »