Let us see how oil barrel prices have really fluctuated in recent weeks: in April, in fact, the European and Asian Brent benchmark, in parallel with the US West Texas Intermediate (WTI), decreased by about 1 U.S. dollar per barrel a day.
The WTI, however, is a mixture of different light and sweet American crude oil and is refined especially in the Midwest and on the Gulf Coast.
The benchmark known as Brent, instead, is oil extracted in the North Sea and it has greater and faster access to large markets. It is therefore used as a common benchmark for the broader oil market, while the WTI is now used above all as a reference for the American market.
It should be noted, however, that in the previous month of March, the two benchmarks had fallen by 26.5 U.S. dollars per barrel and 24 U.S. dollars per barrel respectively.
In short, the imbalance in the oil market fully affected the March futures prices in particular, while the April fluctuations were mainly due to the OPEC plus agreement reached on April 2, setting the price at 26.03 U.S. dollars per barrel.
The breakdown in negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Russia led to a Saudi super-production – at first of 10 million barrels a day and then immediately of 12 million barrels a day – with a subsequent choice by OPEC to agree on a “fall” in the oil barrel price at 60 U.S. dollars, given the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
A mistake, but probably a too classically macroeconomic forecast that does not consider strategic and internal competition assessments within OPEC, which are often essential to set prices.
Later the oil barrel price increased immediately to 34.44 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 9, then to 16.04 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 22 and finally closed at 25.04 U.S. dollars per barrel.
In mid-April the WTI opened at 20.48 U.S. dollars per barrel, then reached 28.26 U.S. dollars and finally closed at 19.29 U.S. dollars, after having also reached the negative and paradoxical price of -37.63 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 20, 2020.
Moreover, on April 14, the International Monetary Fund published a forecast from which it could be inferred that the world GDP would decrease by 3% in the remaining period of 2020, while on April 15 the International Energy Agency published its own analysis which estimated a reduction ofthe oil demand by 9,300,000 barrels per day by the end of 2020.
Hence the WTI futures for May delivery, immediately collapsed to -37.63 U.S. dollars per barrel. Here, however, the real problem is storage.
Short-term contracts do not envisage it at all.
In fact, as many industry analysts maintain, this caused the fall in prices.
It is no coincidence, in fact, that U.S. commercial oil stocks have risen significantly, from 469,193,000 barrels on March 27 to 527,631,000 barrels on May 24. Hence, in all likelihood, the U.S. ETF Oil Fund – which plunged by 15% in the April 27 session alone, after the announcement of major changes in the composition of its portfolio – has fallen due to unexpected overstocking.
In other words, the U.S. Fund has stated it plans to remove all WTI contracts expiring in June from its portfolio and replace them with longer-term contracts, with obvious immediate losses.
Therefore,the US Oil Fund will be broken down as follows: 30% of the portfolio will be WTI contracts expiring in July; 15% of the portfolio will be WTI contracts expiring in August; then contracts expiring in the following month up to the remaining 10% expiring in June 2021.
The losses of the U.S. Fund are now -87% since the beginning of this year.
The U.S. Fund has an estimated value of 3 billion U.S. dollars. A financial phenomenon that has made it similar to other funds specializing in oil futures.
It is clear that this behaviour has contributed to the bearish trend of recent months and this has certainly not favoured Donald J. Trump’s election campaign.
Furthermore, the WTI decline can also be explained by the structural logistical shortcomings that characterize the oil transport system within the United States.
Nevertheless, based on the ideas of the current Algerian Chairman-in-office, OPEC predicts that the oil barrel price will be equal to 40 U.S. dollars at the beginning of the third quarter of 2020 and that, in any case, the oil market will return to balance before the end of this year. A very unlikely hope.
The new OPEC plus plus agreement, however, entered into force on May 1, 2020.
The first phase of the agreement signed on April 12, 2020envisaged that all OPEC members plus the others would reduce production by 9,700,000 barrels a day until June 30, 2020.
At the beginning of May, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia brought their production to 8,750,000 barrels a day (with a decrease of 2 million barrels per day), with the further intention of bringing their output to the limit of 8,500,000 barrels a day.
The first phase of the bilateral agreement signed on April 12 also envisaged that the producers nor belonging directly to OPEC would “voluntarily” cut production by at least 5,000,000 barrels a day over the same period of time.
It should be recalled that these important non-OPEC producers include Norway, Canada, Brazil and, obviously, the United States.
Nevertheless, the non-OPEC total cuts have reached – with some difficulty – just 4,100,000 barrels a day.
Indeed, according to Standard & Poor’s calculations, the United States decreased production by as many as 11,600,000 barrels a day and only for the week which ended on May 8.
Hence a decrease of 1.5 million barrels a day, compared to the level of 13,100,000 barrels a day reached on March 13, 2020.
Therefore, for the first time since February 2019 the U.S. production has fallen below 12,000,000 barrels a day.
Moreover, on April 30, 2020, the U.S. strategic oil reserves reached 636 million oil barrels, compared to a total maximum capacity of 714 million barrels.
According to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, however, global oil demand will decrease by as many as 11,400,000 barrels a day throughout 2020, before slightly increasing by 10,600,000 barrels a day in 2021.
Despite all possible statistical tricks, however, the unemployment rate has currently reached 14.7% in the United States and it is rising quickly.
This leads to a fall of about 30% in U.S. oil consumption, but the Russian Federation records a 4-6% GDP drop at least until the end of 2020.
Moreover, on April 24, the Russian Central Bank cut rates by 50 basis points to 5.5%, while the Russian inflation rate is expected to rise by 4.8% until the end of this year.
According to data of April 30 last, China shows an increase in the composite index (manufacturing + services) from 53 to 53.4, while the index of services alone has grown from 52.3 to 53.2.
However, the index of Chinese purchases in the manufacturing sector alone has decreased by two points, while the CAXIN index – which measures Chinese private SMEs – points to a small recession.
Chinese oil imports in April, in fact – driven only by public enterprises – increased by 4.5% year over year.
Chinese imports from Saudi Arabia, however, decreased by 90,000 barrels a day while, despite U.S. sanctions, Chinese purchases of Iranian oil rose by 11.3% as against the previous year.
Therefore, we are faced with a new distribution of geopolitical and oil control areas.
The alternative for China is between Iran, the core of the new Silk Road, and Venezuela, although both Russia and China have agreed to give Russia a primary role in Venezuela.
Hence the global geopolitical games are postponed to the return of a robust oil demand after the Covid-19 crisis, which will end only with a vaccine or a universally accepted therapy. On a geopolitical level, however, it will probably concern a new agreement between China, the United States and the Russian Federation.
An agreement that this time could see a real role of mediator for Italy, involving both ENI and governmental and private technical structures.
There are many issues to be considered in the relations between the United States, China and Russia: Russia’s alleged penetration into the North American electoral and political machinery and apparata; the commercial negotiations between the United States and China which, coincidentally, exacerbated during the oil price crisis; finally, the infra-US conflict regarding the reduction of local oil production.
It has to be said that if there is a recovery of the oil market, demand could reach 90-95 million barrels a day, but the country recording the greatest loss of production will certainly be the United States, which has the highest cost of oil barrel production.
Meanwhile, in its anti-coronavirus aid programme of April 30 last, the Federal Reserve envisaged direct support to U.S. oil and gas companies.
As many analysts maintain, however, several companies of the shale sector, which live only on high prices, would go bankrupt by the end of 2020.
In terms of global assessments, however, world oil demand is estimated to fall by 19,000,000 barrels a day during this quarter of 2020 and by 8,600,000 barrels a day throughout 2021.
Global oil supply is expected to decrease by 12,000,000 barrels a day since May to 88,000,000 next year.
OECD stocks have increased by 68,200,000 barrels a day to a total of 2,961,000,000, well over 46,000,000 barrels a day above the average of the last five years – a quantity worth 90 days of average demand.
Non-conventional crude oil production in the U.S., however, declined by 183,000 barrels a day with a peak until March 13, before falling by approximately 12,000,000 barrels a day on May 8.
There are currently 374 drills operating in the United States, of which 292 oil and 80 gas ones, plus 2 mixed ones.
They are 228 fewer than those recorded on April 9, 2020, the minimum level since 1940.
In short, the Covid-19 pandemic is redesigning all geopolitical scenarios, through oil, above all, but not only through it. Here not only energy counts, but rather the whole economic system which, however, is still currently oil-dependent.
The G20 has already put forward international cooperation proposals to cancel the debt of some of the poorest countries and for a coordinated response against the pandemic by the most technologically advanced countries.
Hence any radical transformation of energy systems entails a paradigm shift at geopolitical level.
According to the International Monetary Fund, no oil-producing country can make money with an oil barrel price at 40 U.S. dollars. Only Qatar barely can, but every country in the Middle East needs prices of at least 60 U.S. dollars per barrel.
However, there is more than the tax or productive breakeven point: the producing countries’ economic diversification is essential.
From this viewpoint, only Mexico, the Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates could survive, while some others with less differentiated economies can still ask for loans or temporarily stop public spending.
Nevertheless, this depends not only on macroeconomic evaluations, but above all on political and structural issues: the presence of foreign manpower that can be easily sent away (Saudi Arabia); the possibility of using other forms of energy (Morocco) or the negative impact of some old Welfare State on the oil price (Algeria).
Other countries are, instead, particularly vulnerable: Iraq, which is currently also one of Italy’s main suppliers; Oman, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Angola, Surinam, not to mention Iran and Venezuela, where the oil issue is part of a severe international political crisis.All these countries can shortly fail or fall into an indefinite crisis, with unpaid salaries in the public sector and primary services largely reduced, as well as military crises and great political instability.
In some cases, this may lead to the expansion of “terrorism”, more exactly of the “sword jihad”, which can drive a wedge within the hotbeds of crisis and rule the States or the areas left by the old legitimate governments. It may also lead to the uncontrolled expansion of the great international crime, which can turn the failed States into bases to attack the still relatively healthy economies of some Western countries, and to connect the areas of illegality one another and hence turn the crime territories into a new great geopolitical player.
A further possibility – not to be ruled out at all – concerns the mounting of regional tensions, which could become a not entirely irrational option, at least for some producing countries.
Just think of the oil barrel price crisis triggering a final showdown between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There will also be Asian or African countries that will benefit from the vertical fall in prices.
It should be recalled, however, that on April 20 last, the West Texas Crude contract expiring in May fell to -40.32 U.S. dollars.
The countries which will benefit – to a certain extent – from the fall in prices include Argentina -which is currently already prey to yet another default, but which will pay much less for energy imports- as well as the Philippines, India, Turkey and South Africa.
These countries will no longer be burdened by the cost of oil imports, but will also attract less investment from producing countries, whose availability of capital will collapse quickly.
Previously oil prices had fallen due to the expansion of the shale market in the United States, to lower global growth and to the slow, but stable shift to renewable energy in most consumer countries.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, which accelerated all these factors and, in fact, blocked the economy and saturated oil inventories and warehouses.
The world economy will not “recover” soon or, more exactly, will no longer be as it was before the pandemic.
Global Value Chains will become much shorter and many mature, but essential productions will go back to the countries which, in the times of rampant globalization, moved everything – except for high technology and finance – to countries with low labour costs and low taxes.
The producing countries’ adaptation to the new context will certainly be slower than needed.
The large solar energy basin planned by Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 was stopped indefinitely last November, while the privatization of Saudi Aramco has now proved to be a failure.
Once the profitability of the Saudi oil has ended – and hence the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S. penetration in the Middle East -currently a phase of great instability in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is beginning, in which Iran could play other cards besides the purely military ones.
However, the Iranian oil extraction cost is higher than the Saudi one.
The Russian Federation “falls” at an oil barrel price of 40 U.S. dollars and, if it cannot control its internal areas and the border with China and the Caucasus, it is very easy to imagine what could happen.
Even the United States is not in a better situation.
Shale oil is the biggest source of employment in Michigan, Arkansas and Ohio. These are essential States for the re-election of Donald J. Trump and surely the President will do everything to support the workers-voters and these States.
The end of the oil economy is near – or probably it has already arrived – and no one can imagine what will happen to energy markets and to our economies in the near future.
Nuclear Energy is not Dead! The Drivers Underpinning the Ongoing Nuclear Renaissance
As a result of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in the Soviet Union of 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, public opinion remains reluctant to endorse nuclear technology in both the civilian and military sectors. Nevertheless, such energy remains the most ecological and realistic method of production to curb global warming, which explains the commitment of environmental parties, such as the Swedish Miljöpartiet de gröna, to nuclear power until renewable energies have more potential for electricity generation.
The debated civilian nuclear power supplied 2,586 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2021, equivalent to about 10 per cent of global production, and represented only the second-largest low-carbon power source after hydroelectricity. With over 442 civilian fission reactors in the world (392 gigawatt), combined to 53 nuclear power reactors under construction (60 GW) and 98 reactors planned (103 GW), nuclear energy remains of interest, especially in the emerging economies.
While some argue nuclear production is a dangerous path, the main challenge, however, remains the sustainability of countries for maintaining and upgrading reactors.
At the time of the collapse of the USSR, many post-Soviet countries had to reduce or even shut down their nuclear capabilities due to a lack of economic resources and technical skills to maintain the production facilities. Financial issues also help explain the wish to transfer nuclear weapons to (post-Soviet) Russia, with Moscow having sufficient logistical means to ensure the maintenance.
In the end, the main concern when building a nuclear power plant or developing a nuclear arsenal is less about its completion than about its long-run sustainability. Indeed, nothing suggests that a country will remain politically and economically stable in the upcoming years, decades or even centuries.
Let us take the example of France and the United Kingdom, two countries which at the time of the development of their nuclear arsenals (1952 and 1960 respectively) and their civilian power plants were global powers able to counterweight Washington and Moscow (e.g. France withdrawal from NATO command structures in 1966).
Nowadays, these two countries—France and the United Kingdom—do not have the same maritime or land surface, and their international presence and financial weight have been greatly reduced, which for the time being has not led to problems related to the maintenance of nuclear power plants, but could one day occur in case of an unexpected crisis. In the same manner, a country could—due to political change, resurgence of radicalism or institutional crisis—turn into a hostile force while keeping its nuclear military capabilities, leading to greater instability on the international scene.
Leaving the military aspects aside, nuclear power is fundamental to the efforts to tackle global warming, at least for the time being, and this energy appears to be the gateway to space colonization. While there is still a lot of research to be done in this area, it will undoubtedly enable the travel to the Moon, Mars and exoplanets as well as the production of the much-needed electricity for colonization (e.g. 3D printing systems to build large-scale facilities).
Nuclear-powered robots are commonplace when it comes to space conquest, and a number of spacecraft—Cassini-Huygens, Curiosity (rover), Galileo, Kosmos 954, Lincoln Experimental Satellite, New Horizons, Viking 1 and 2, Voyager 1 and 2—already rely on this type of energy to operate.
Nuclear energy thus represents an opportunity as well as a responsibility, as shown by the Finnish case with the Onkalo deep geological repository, based on the KBS-3 technology for disposal of high-level radioactive waste developed by the Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB (SKB).
Considering the emergency related to global warming and the increasing tensions in international relations (e.g. growing U.S.-China competition in the Pacific and in space), we will have to learn to cope with civil and military nuclear power: as a matter of pragmatism until we have a better option, if one exists.
Therefore, this article explores solutions for the future by addressing the example of French management in this area, a country with a production of 379.5 TWh (70.6% of the national electricity), the highest percentage in the world.
The Russian floating nuclear power station may also provide an adequate answer for countries that do not have the financial and technological resources to build their own nuclear power stations, providing a solution without forcing governments in least developed countries into significant commitments. The Rosatom project deserves to be mentioned because it might inspire other states, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, France and China, to develop their own floating nuclear power stations, which might lead to the possibility of seeing nuclear-powered container ships appearing, avoiding over-consumption of fossil fuel energy in the supply chain.
In general, nuclear power also seems necessary as the banking sector transitions from traditional banking to blockchain and will consume more energy in the future, which will require an increase in the low environmental impact energy production.
Finally, nuclear power is necessary to ensure the success of the colonization of space, thus preventing humanity from relying on a single solar system, as the chances of survival on two planets are considerably greater than on one.
French nuclear paradise: France’s successful management of its nuclear assets
As mentioned above, France has a nuclear power output of 537.7 TWh providing 70.6% of the total electricity, the highest percentage in the world. This is due to several historical factors and motives, the main one being De Gaulle’s policy in the 1960s to ensure that France would remain a great power capable of competing with the United States and the Soviet Union.
Although it may seem difficult to imagine nowadays, in the 1950-1960s France was an Empire covering several continents (e.g. Indochina and Algeria) and as such was by demography, territorial holdings and GDP capable of representing an alternative to the two superpowers. After the collapse of the French Empire in the second half of the 20th century, France became a “middle” power even if it remains the largest maritime territory in the world and possesses land in Africa, Latin America (French Guiana), and in distant territories such as French Polynesia.
De Gaulle’s desire to develop nuclear research, albeit for military purposes, led to the parallel development of French civil nuclear energy, which was necessary to produce large quantities of radioactive components for the future nuclear arsenal. While France has not been able to match the United States and remains behind Russia and China today, the civilian aspects have succeeded in making the country a nuclear paradise with clean and affordable energy.
Largely owned by the French government (85% of the company’s shares), Électricité de France (EDF) is the country’s main electricity generation and distribution company in charge of its nuclear power plants. While looking at the French management, EDF remains heavily indebted. Its profitability has suffered from the recession that started in 2008 and made a profit of €3.9 billion in 2009, which fell to €1.02 billion in 2010, with provisions amounting to €2.9 billion. Overall, the main problem in France remains the government, and as long as the state is in charge of nuclear production (EDF), the company does not need to strongly increase its efficiency to survive.
As such, an interesting option for the future of French nuclear production would be privatization, as large companies would increase nuclear capacity and optimize production costs while reducing the number of people in the administration. Public opinion and the French government are opposed to this idea, as it would give the private sector more flexibility and could lead to safety concerns, while the reality is probably the opposite, as government management is the main problem and the reason why the services are less efficient than the private sector, as can be seen in almost every aspect in which public administration is involved (e.g. NASA as opposed to SpaceX).
The French administration could privatize nuclear power generation, while setting laws and ensuring compliance by the private sector, which would mean that the French government would guarantee the safety of production standards, while nuclear power providers would optimize production efficiency, as has already been done with airlines and telecommunications.
Although France has successfully managed civil nuclear power at the national level, the lack of privatization has led to missed business opportunities in the nuclear field. We might have expected France to create more nuclear facilities in French Guyana to sell electricity to the neighboring Latin American nations, thereby increasing profits in a continent that demands more. The same is true in Europe, as with German nuclear facilities closed, France could have increased domestic production to become the nuclear powerhouse of Europe, a fruitful business given French expertise in this area and the high demand for electricity in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland, to name a few.
In this sense, Russia has been able to innovate more quickly and is now offering the floating nuclear power plant, which has enormous potential in the developing countries, with a prospect to emerge as a world leader in this growing sector.
The bright future of Russian floating nuclear power plants
Floating nuclear power plants are vessels designed by Rosatom—the Russian state-owned nuclear energy company—and are self-contained, low-capacity floating nuclear power plants able to move around the world. Rosatom plans to mass-produce these plants in shipbuilding facilities to tow them to ports near places where electricity is in great demand, which can increase access to nuclear energy in some parts of the world.
The concept dates back to the MH-1A in the United States, which was built in the 1960s in the hull of a World War II Liberty Ship; however, the Rosatom project is the first floating nuclear power plant for mass production.
When it comes to the technology itself, a large part remains classified, though we know that floating plants must be refueled every three years, nevertheless saving up to 200,000 tons of coal and 100,000 tons of oil per year. The reactors are expected to have a 40-year life span and are designed around the reactor itself, successive physical protection and containment systems, active and passive self-activating safety systems, automatic self-diagnosis systems, reliable diagnostics of the condition of equipment and systems, and planned accident control methods. In addition, the on-board safety systems operate independently of the plant’s power supply.
According to Rosatom, 15 countries, including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Sudan, Namibia, Cape Verde and Argentina, have expressed interest in leasing such a device. It is estimated that 75% of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a port city, the fact turning Rosatom’s device into a typical example of Blue Ocean strategy in the nuclear energy sector.
The Russian floating nuclear power plant is an attractive alternative for developing countries, as it offers the technical expertise of Russian engineers, while it does not require a state to provide the uranium and can only be used when needed.
African and Latin American countries will need more electricity in the near future, especially when it comes to transitioning from central banks and gasoline-powered vehicles to blockchain-based digital currencies and electric cars. As such, the Russian project is one of the first of its kind that should provide a temporary solution in emerging countries. Market liberalization in this area is to be expected, with competition from China, the United States, and perhaps countries such as France, depending on how Rosatom manages to sell this business model versus its competitors.
Space conquest and safety of humanity can almost only be achieved through nuclear power
While it can be perceived as a threat on Earth, nuclear energy is essential in space, and nuclear decay processes are used in niche applications such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators in space probes like Voyager 2.
Moreover, the production of electricity from fusion energy remains the focus of international research. Because nuclear power systems can have a lower mass than solar cells of equivalent power, this allows for more compact spacecraft that are easier to steer and direct in space. In the case of manned spaceflight, nuclear power concepts that can power both life support and propulsion systems can reduce both the cost and duration of flights.
NASA in the United-States
In 2001, the safe affordable fission engine was under development, with a tested 30kW nuclear heat source to lead to the development of a 400kW thermal reactor with Brayton cycle gas turbines to generate electrical power. Waste heat rejection was to be provided by low mass heat pipe technology. Safety was to be ensured by a robust design.
A concert example is the project Prometheus, a NASA study of nuclear-powered spacecraft from the early 2000s, while Kilopower—preliminary concepts and technologies that could be used for an affordable fission nuclear power system to enable long-duration stays on planetary surfaces—is NASA’s latest reactor development programme.
American interests in space technology are also connected with classified project regarding the 6th generation fighter jet, and it is possible the Northrop TR-3 Black Manta (temporary name) will require more energy to sustain the consumption of energy for non-gravitational field on the edges and the middle of the triangle.
In Russia, TEM (nuclear propulsion)
The TEM project started in 2009 with the aim of powering a Mars engine, with Russia declaring to have completed the first tests of the water droplet radiator system in March 2016.
On 19 March 2021, the M.V. Lomonosov Research Centre in Keldysh plans to conduct flight tests of ion engines in 2025-2030. According to the press service, the Keldysh Centre has already created products with a capacity of 200W to 35 kW. At the moment, the characteristics of their resources are confirmed and the creation of a 100kW engine is in the preliminary stages.
While details of declassified nuclear space applications are sometimes available in the United States and Russia, China has been more secretive about the current state of knowledge in this area. In addition to space conquest, nuclear research can be applied to hypersonic missiles, as nuclear technology applied to space remains the only solution for space exploration until another propulsion source of equivalent power is developed.
Overall, a nuclear renaissance would be much appreciated, not only to secure the future of our planet by protecting the environment but also to ensure humanity will survive around our universe, with the conquest of the Moon, Mars and exoplanets relying on nuclear-powered spacecraft.
While nuclear power has suffered from Chernobyl and Fukushima, even in some countries where it has shown positive results, such as France, ambitious projects like the Russian floating nuclear power plant have proved to be a valuable solution for advanced countries to provide clean and affordable energy to the rest of the world.
Future disasters are a possibility that cannot be ruled out, and while they are a tragedy, we must weigh the invisible costs of other means of electricity generation on the environment (e.g. coal), bearing in mind that civil nuclear power plants have improved and will hopefully continue to do so with nuclear fusion.
In the long term, this does not mean that renewables should not be improved, but nuclear will nevertheless remain complementary, until and if renewables are able to take over on Earth, with the nuclear mainly used for space purposes thereafter.
From our partner RIAC
Hydrogen Could Be A Key Player In The Recovery And Resilience Plan
Thanks to the contribution of vaccines, the Covid-19 pandemic is slowly beginning to abate and gradually lose its aggressiveness, with the consequent reduction of its impact on people’s health worldwide.
However, while the health effects of the pandemic appear to be fading, the negative economic effects of a year and a half of lockdown and forced closure of many businesses are being felt heavily at a global level and seem bound to last well beyond the end of the health emergency.
With a view to supporting and encouraging the “restart” and revival of the economy, the European Union has launched a “Recovery and Resilience Plan”, allocating a huge amount of funds that shall be used in the coming years not only to help countries in difficulty with contingent measures, but also to stimulate economic and productive growth capable of modernising production models with specific reference to environmental balance, which is increasingly facing a crisis due to the use of non-renewable, highly polluting energy sources.
Italy will receive over 200 billion euros in European funds to develop its own projects to get out of the economic-pandemic crisis and rightly wants to use them not only to plug the leaks caused by the various ‘lockdowns’ in the national productive fabric, but also to implement a series of strategic projects capable of making not only the productive sectors, but also the public administration and the health and judicial systems more efficient.
In short, the “Recovery and Resilience Plan” that is currently coming to the fore may prove to be a powerful driving force for Italy’s development and modernisation.
The projects submitted by Italy to the EU institutions include an initial allocation of over 200 million euros – out of the 47 billion euros planned for the next decade – to promote research and development in the field of renewable energy and particularly in the hydrogen sector.
Hydrogen is potentially the most abundant source of “clean” energy in the universe. It is versatile, safe and reliable; when obtained from renewable energy sources, it produces no harmful emissions to the environment.
Nevertheless, it is not available in nature in its gaseous form – which is the only one that can be used as an energy source – as it is always bound to other elements, such as oxygen in water and methane as a gas.
The traditional processes used to “separate” hydrogen from oxygen in water and from methane use up large amounts of electricity, which makes the processes not only very expensive, but also highly polluting, with the paradox that, in order to produce a clean energy source, the environment is “polluted” anyway, especially if – as has been the case until recently – the electricity needed is produced with traditional non-renewable energy sources (coal, gas and oil).
The best source of hydrogen in gaseous form is the sea. Electrolysis can easily separate hydrogen from oxygen and store it in gaseous form for use as an energy source.
The electrolytic cells used to develop the process use up large amounts of energy and, fortunately for us, science is finding a way to produce it without polluting, using solar, wind and, above all, sea wave energy.
The use of marine energy creates a sort of “circular economy” for hydrogen production: from the practically inexhaustible primary source of ocean water, hydrogen can be extracted with the energy provided by wave and tidal motion.
Forty per cent of the world’s population live within 100 kilometres from the sea and this shows the potential of sea wave and tidal energy as an engine for sustainable development in economic, climate and environmental terms.
Nowadays modern, non-invasive tools are available to extract electricity from sea waves, such as the “penguin”, a device manufactured in Italy, which – placed 50 metres deep – produces electricity without harming marine flora and fauna.
Another example of Italian scientists’ intelligence and creativity is the Inertial Sea Wave Converter (ISWEC), a device housed inside a 15-metre-long hull which, occupying a marine area of just 150 square metres, is able to produce 250 megawatts of electricity a year, thus enabling to cut emissions into the atmosphere by 68 tonnes of CO2.
With these devices and the other ones that technology will develop over the next few years, it will be possible to power electrolytic cells for the production of hydrogen in gaseous form on an industrial scale, at levels that – over the next 15 years – will lead to the production of at least 100,000 tonnes of “green” hydrogen per year, thus enabling to reduce air pollution significantly, with positive effects on the economy, the environment and the climate.
In the summer of 2020, the European Union launched a project called the “Hydrogen Strategy”, with a funding of 470 billion euros, intended for research and production projects capable of equipping EU countries with electrolysis tools to produce at least one million tonnes of “green” hydrogen by the end of 2024.
The fight against CO2 emissions continues unabated: in the United States which, after Trump’s Presidency, has reaffirmed its commitment to reducing emissions; in China which, in its latest five-year plan, has forecast a 65% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere by the end 2030; in Europe, which has always been at the forefront in the creation of devices for producing wave and tidal energy and exports its technologies to the United States, Australia and China.
According to the Hydrogen Council, an association of over 100 companies from around the world that share a common long-term vision for a transition to hydrogen, in the future Europe and China will compete and cooperate in the production of sea wave and tidal energy and in the related production of “green hydrogen”.
With its 14th five-year plan, China, in particular – after having been for decades, during its whirling economic development, one of the main sources of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and of global pollution – has undertaken the commitment “to develop and promote the harmonious coexistence between man and nature, through the improvement of efficiency in the use of resources and a proper balance between protection and development”, as clearly stated by its Minister of Natural Resources Lu Hao.
It might sound like the sweet-talk and set phrases of a politician at a conference.
In the case of China and its Minister of Natural Resources, however, words have been turned into deeds.
As part of the Roadmap 2.0 for Energy Saving Technology and New Energy Vehicles, China has set a target of one million fuel cell vehicles and two million tonnes of hydrogen production per year by the end of 2035.
The China Hydrogen Energy Industry Development Report 2020 forecasts that, by the end of 2050, hydrogen energy will meet 10 per cent of energy requirements, while the number of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will rise to 30 million and hydrogen production will be equal to 60 million tonnes.
With a view to giving substance to these prospects, China has established the “National Ocean Technology Centre” in Shenzhen and developed – with the Italian “International World Group” – the “China-Europe cooperation project for energy generation and hydrogen production from sea waves and from other renewable energy sources”.
These are concrete projects in which – thanks to Italian creativity and Chinese rationality and pragmatism – we must continue to invest and work, not least to give the third industrial revolution a cleaner face than the coal-stained one of the second industrial revolution.
These projects appear to be in line with those envisaged both at European and Italian levels by the ‘Recovery and Resilience Plan’, which should guide us out of the economic doldrums of the pandemic. They deserve to be financed and supported as they can not only contribute to the recovery and revival of the economy, but also to the reconstruction of a cleaner and more liveable world (thus showing that good can always come out of evil).
The ‘energy crisis’ and its global implications
A particular news caught my attention this morning regarding energy crises. Before going into the depth of the news, I would like to introduce you to the concept of energy crisis and its global implications. As introduced by Garrett Hardin in 1968; the tragedy of commons that the resources of world are limited, if the resources are used excessively soon there will come a time when they will become scarce. These resources can only be sufficient through cooperation of people among each other; there’s no other solution. The tragedy of commons is the best way to explain the concept the energy crises.
Now, the population world is growing at an exponential rate and with the growing population there is a need to provide a better lifestyle to the upcoming generations. In a struggle for raising that standard of living, more and more resources of developed world are being utilized. The McKinsey Global Institute forecasted that by 2020 developing countries will demand 80 percent more energy which proved to be true as is evident in recurrent fuel shortages and price hike globally. A MIT study also forecasted that worldwide energy demand could triple by 2050.
Besides petrol, there is also a rise in demand for natural gas with only few reliable reserves all over the world. The natural gas reserves are mostly unreliable because they are usually found in deep oceans and mere accessibility can cost a lot of expense. Henceforth, the supply is limited, the price has fluctuated greatly and recent technological development has reduced dependence upon natural gas by providing alternatives such as fuel efficient or electric cars. Similarly, electricity supply systems are also not very reliable because there have been power blackouts in the United States, Europe and Russia. There have also been chronic shortages of electric power in India, China, and other developing countries.
If we specifically observe the Iraqi oil crises to understand the whole energy crises shebang, then according to today’s news in TRT World, in Iraq alone, $150bn of stolen oil cash smuggled out since 2003. Iraqi oil exports are even 30-40% below prewar levels. The acting president of Iraq is furious because insane amount of corruption is being carried out in Iraq where substantial quantity of oil is being smuggled. President Barham Saleh presented a legislation to parliament, where, under law any transaction over $500,000 would be scrutinized. This step, if materialized, can be very crucial in preservation of oil reserves in Iraq after the Saddam Hussein regime.
In United States, presidents have constantly been avoiding energy problems because they are very controversial. The recent Texas electricity outrage was a one that had been warned about. Before the Arab Oil Embargo Nixon in 1970’s was reluctant about energy and said ‘as long as the air conditioners are working normally, there is no energy crisis’ but after this incident Nixon began to change his tone and said on television that “energy is number one issue”. Then came Carter, who got a number of legislations passed on the issue of energy even when his own party was against it. In the 1970’s the prevalent thought for United States was that the world would run out of energy resources very soon so they started investing more in nuclear armament as an alternative. In 1990’s the combined cycle plants that used natural gas to create electricity were really efficient and economical that even gas at a high price could be competitive, also ethno-industry was crated at that time.
Then, the threat of climate change is also one of great relevance in the context of energy crises. The nonrenewable energy resources such as oil, water and coal must be used carefully and lack of which can be hazardous. It can cause drought, famine, disease, mass migration that will eventually lead to a conflict such as explained in the tragedy of commons theory. The now developed nations exploited natural resources to build its wealth. The resources such as wood, coal, oil and gas where on one hand are very economical, on the other hand they can be the originators of carbon emissions. Climate change also led to loss of biodiversity as well as environmental hazards.
Even though the developed world i.e. north provides a significant amount of assistance to the global North i.e developing countries, they cannot be a replacement for the shortage of resources. Also, they also face extreme price hike in the energy resources even though the developing nations are the ones owning the resources such Iraq for oil. Besides expensive resources, these developed nations also give rise to domestic and political tensions in the third world countries. Organizations like Al-Qaeda have openly declared their intent to attack oil facilities to hurt the interests of US and its close allies.
All in all, the pertaining threat of energy crisis has global implications. One person’s’gain is another person’s loss but this can be made inevitable if cooperation takes places. Sharing is caring and in this context sharing can prevent from future wars and hurricanes, floods and droughts and famines. The extent of seriousness of the problem must be taken into consideration not only be academicians but by policy makers as well.
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