Natural gas price doubles in N. America and Asia, some factories closing, supply chain failures, and more coal killing the climate. From the Argus European Gas desk, Natasha Fielding reports on wild gas price spike and fears for a cold winter in Europe this year. Plus: why are floods not increasing with extreme rainfall events? Are we in for a nasty surprise? From Freiburg, Dr. Manuela Brunner with latest science on flood thresholds in the new climate.
In our second half hour, our scientist answer this real-world weather problem: You know extreme rainfall events are hitting all over the world. But aside from headline-grabbing floods in the U.S. Northeast and North Europe this summer, the amount of flooding has not kept up with the very heavy rains falling. Why not? And is there a point where extreme rains will become floods never seen before? From the University of Freiburg, Manuela Brunner solves the riddle.
NATASHA FIELDING – SHIVERS IN THE ENERGY MARKET
“Can Europe Keep the Lights On?” That question is not from a fringe podcaster looking for clicks. The Public Broadcasting network in Germany, Deutsche Welle, is seriously asking if Europe is heading for crisis in the coming months.
In the show I play a clip on storage and wind (the North Sea went quiet) from Deutsche Welle TV September 16, 2021.
Natural Gas helps keep Europeans warm, employed, with the lights on. But now sky-high gas and electric bills are driving protests and politics across Europe. But Asia will pay more. Major energy moves are afoot with geopolitical implications. You will not get much depth about this from TV news. An Ecoshock listener tipped me to a review of the situation published by Argus Media. They specialize in prices for energy and commodities. An insider natural gas roundup was written by the Argus Editor for European Natural Gas, Natasha Fielding.
Natasha Fielding, Argus Editor for European Natural Gas
Recently on Radio Ecoshock, expert forecaster Judah Cohen warned the signs are lining up for a colder, snowier winter this year in the Northern Hemisphere, with Europe a target. Dr. Cohen mentioned that among the many customers for such predictions are gas traders.
Already natural gas shortages have pushed weird shortages in the supply chain and products on the shelves. Meat producers in the UK say they will run out of packaging and CO2 to stun animals within a week, as Britain’s largest fertilizer producer shut down – because of high gas prices.
Power companies and industry are sliding backward into burning coal when Europe is supposed to be slashing emissions. Europe’s largest fertilizer company, which converts natural gas into nitrogen, has shut down. Two large gas sellers in the UK, holding contracts with about a million homeowners, have closed, bankrupt, in just the last week. Gas users in the UK are paying the highest rates in Europe. Can seniors and the poor afford to keep warm this winter?
But it is not just Europe. Natural gas prices have already doubled in both Canada and the United States, with financial analysts at Goldman Sachs saying they could double again, if La Nina and a weak Jet Stream drive Arctic extremes into the Plains and the northeast.
North China is another possible target for extreme cold this winter. The Chinese are out-bidding all other Asian buyers for Liquid Natural Gas shipments, and starting to snatch Atlantic-bound shipments as well. The struggling Asian economies face another hurdle. Some factories in China has cut production or closed down, including fertilizers, cement, chemicals and aluminum. This could affect exports and add to galloping inflation for consumers.
Natural gas prices have doubled in the U.S. and Canada, but that is still cheap compared to price hikes in the UK and Europe generally. Energy traders, business and economists are quietly panicking. Even in a “normal” winter there will be shortage and some people going cold.
PROTESTS AGAINST HIGH ENERGY PRICES
Already there are protests in Europe against rising energy prices, especially for gas and electricity. The high costs are becoming a political issue, likely to come up in French presidential elections next year. Under popular pressure, the Spanish government is taking drastic steps. They will snatch back some profits from energy companies and payback consumer bills. Spain also hopes to help consumers cope with huge bills by selling off almost a billion dollars more carbon emissions permits. This sounds to me like selling Indulgences for more greenhouse gas emissions, and more deadly air pollution.
Then we have Poland. Most of their electricity is generated by burning dirty lignite coal. The Polish government promises to kick the habit and get more renewables. But now Polish homeowners are paying some of the highest electric rates in Europe. According to the International Energy Agency, 80% of Poland’s domestic energy came from coal in 2019, compared to 54% in the Czech Republic and 43% in Germany.
THE EARTH-SHAKING CASE OF THE NETHERLANDS
The Dutch should be able to produce lots of extra gas for this winter. After all they sit on the Groningen field, the largest natural gas field in Europe, tenth largest in the world. But that is out of the picture, and soon to close. Why? Earthquakes that have damaged thousands of buildings in northern Netherlands are known to be caused by gas extraction in the Groningen field. They were not using fracking, which shows even conventional gas production can still lead to earthquakes.
Prices for future natural gas delivery in the Netherlands have broken past key barriers that were pricing coal out of the market. The prices became “uncompetitive even with an older, 36pc-efficient coal-fired plant, of which few are still operational.” Even 33 percent efficient coal plants, antiques in the modern energy landscape, could run cheaper than gas in this price range.
A HIDDEN EMISSIONS DISASTER IN GERMANY…
In his September 7 article for Argus, “Record carbon prices fail to stifle German coal margins”, Jake Horslen writes:
“German gas-fired generation fell by 5.9GW in August from a year earlier to 2.4GW, while coal-fired generation climbed by 690MW to 3.3GW. Coal-fired generation has averaged 7.2GW so far in September.”
So Germany is now burning more coal than natural gas!
NOBODY PLANNED FOR ENERGY MARKET FEED-BACKS DURING CLIMATE CHANGE
1. The European Union has set a price on carbon [emissions] that should push utility companies to switch from coal to gas. This cost is added to the price of buying coal.
2. But if natural gas prices get too high in Europe, partly because there is not enough to fill market needs, that means more coal will be burned in Europe this winter, leading to even more greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
3. Conditions leading to more snow and severe cold events are developing, partly due to climate change, but also the appearance of the cooling Pacific currents called La Nina.
The climate component adds another feedback, where the impacts of climate change lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, bringing more climate change – a feedback loop.
The mechanism developed by the European Union countries is designed to force a phase-out of coal for generating electricity. They do it with an added price per ton of carbon. That favors somewhat cleaner gas over coal. But again, the unexpected feedback of more severe winter storms is derailing the carbon price objective, by helping force up natural gas demand and advance prices.
This is just one example of a socioeconomic feedback with climate change. Scientific models have not been able to capture the complex relationships between climate change and the human economic-energy system. We have not planned for market feed-backs.
IS HELP COMING FOR EUROPE?
What about Norway? Can they fill the gas gap if Europe get a punishing winter? Norway has just added new facilities to it’s largest offshore platform, the Troll complex. However this just makes up for the decline in production seen across the North Sea. They are past the peak.
The operators of that giant Troll complex announce they are reducing emissions during production by grabbing electricity from hydro-power on land. They are “greening” as they pump huge clouds of methane to European consumers which will help wreck the climate. So Green. How many minutes of Norwegian gas production did their production changes save the atmosphere?
BIG ENERGY CHALLENGES FOR CHINA THIS WINTER
Why are the giant gas producers in the Persian Gulf not stepping in to provide Europe with gas for this winter? Because they have mostly pre-sold any extra to China and other Asian economies, at premium prices. Chinese demand went up after the initial industry shock of the COVID pandemic. Beyond climate pledges to cut emissions, China has another big drive to substitute gas for coal: deadly air pollution there. Air pollution is unpopular enough to generate protest and even opposition.
About seventy percent of China’s electricity comes from thermal power plants, and 90% of those are coal powered. Private companies signed deals in early 2020 with municipal and other authorities to sell power at a fixed rate. But since then the price of coal has doubled, threatening to drive major electricity producers into bankruptcy.
China imports about a third of all seaborne coal. Australian coal is higher quality than coal from Indonesia or Russia, and so preferred by Chinese power producers. Coal mined in China is low quality, high price and there is not enough of it. In mid December 2020, the Communist Party banned imports of coal from Australia. Most cities try to balance the risk of preventing deadly air pollution, while keeping buildings warms and industry running.
There have already been significant power blackouts, and government ordered closure of factories for 2 or more days a week, in the Southeast provinces of China – and even in major cities like Beijing. Much more is predicted for this winter, especially if the Polar Vortex arrives there.
Unlike India, where an estimated half billion people are not served by an electric grid, China is connected. The blackouts this winter may be inconvenient, cause a few deaths, and hurt the economy – but power shortages will not shut down China this year, or anything like it.
See more on the China electricity blackouts in this (possibly biased) YouTube video.
Also see this from South China Morning Post, September 29, 2021 (paywall)
State media now says 20 out of 31 provincial jurisdictions have implemented electricity-rationing measures since mid-September
Total coal inventory at China’s major power-generation groups is just 11.31 million tonnes – enough to meet demand for only about two weeks”
We can rattle around the world finding stories of personal financial pain and industries rethinking the switch to gas. When people put so much into energy, they may not buy other things. That might dampen the economy even as prices rise across the board.
RUSSIAN CLIMATE ROULETTE
Why doesn’t Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom rush in to add more power to Europe? That is complicated. The Russian consortium has finished building the new Nordstrom 2 gas pipeline going to Europe. It will bypass the Ukraine. But that pipeline still needs the last EU environmental approvals and other permits. The Russians actually shipped less gas this year than previously. They may be holding out to ensure the new pipeline gets approved. Actuary and energy pundit Gail Tverberg doesn’t think Russia has more gas to export anyway.
Europe has large gas storage facilities, with Germany being the biggest. But this year they are heading into winter with very low levels on hand.
American financial analysts say one factor driving higher gas prices was the unnatural heat wave in North America last summer. Demand for air-conditioning was so high that gas plants were not shut down this summer. In addition to gas heat and power for buildings in winter, blistering new heat waves added a whole new season for gas plants meeting peak demands: summer air-conditioning season. That was true in Europe during the abnormally hot summer.
THE UNITED STATES
In the United States, natural gas prices are almost double their low price a year ago. Natural gas prices are almost double in Canada too. CNBC reports quote:“ if there is an especially cold winter, Goldman Sachs analysts see the potential for another doubling of price.”
I thought with the miracle of fracking, the U.S. became a gas giant with potential for global exports. Now there are “supply concerns”. CNBC reports “Natural gas prices are rising and could be the most expensive in 13 years this winter“.
The American industry trade group Industrial Energy Consumers of America see natural gas markets so tight this winter they just called on the U.S. Department of Energy to prohibit natural gas exports.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration also says, quote “As a result of the higher expected natural gas prices, the forecast share of electricity generation from coal rises from 20% in 2020 to about 24% in both 2021 and 2022”. So once again, as Natasha’s article tells us, higher natural gas prices could lead to an increase of coal burning and more greenhouse gases. Are current high gas prices a temporary variation in the market? Or is this the start of a new period of difficulties reaching even the most basic emissions targets?
As Natasha says in her Argus article: “gas prices will need to soar enough to force deeper demand-side responses this winter.” It almost sounds like no pain, no climate gains, at least during transition years. Somehow we need to balance current dependence on fossil fuels and our dire need to stop burning them.
This is a mess. Price signals are driving us in the wrong direction, more emissions rather than less, at least for now. Apparently without pain, to both ordinary people, inflation, and industrial markets, – humans appear ready to stick with a fossil-powered civilization even while climate-driven disasters strike, and extreme heat kills. That is the deadly vision of a market economy driven by prices.
NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER’S WINTER ANYMORE
The world natural gas shortage, and sky-rocketing prices, shine a light on the difficult path toward a survivable climate. On the one hand, no one wants to see people go cold or hungry during a tough winter. But we have to stop burning fossil fuels to survive in the future. Europeans have adapted to their winters before, as wars or depression brought very hard times. People wore extra sweaters or even coats indoors. But now we have a new factor, as outlined by Judah Cohen and others, including Jennifer Francis of Rutgers.
In the past, a strong barrier of upper atmosphere wind, the Polar Vortex, kept severe Arctic cold contained within polar regions. That winds results from the difference between heat in the tropics and cold at the Poles. But in recent decades, the Arctic has warmed so much, there is less difference in temperatures. So the wind guard rail breaks, letting super cold sweep down into the Northern U.S., Northern Europe, and parts of Siberia and North China. That may not happen every winter. It may not happen this winter. But so far, signs in Siberian snow, low Arctic sea ice, and the arrival of the Pacific cold water pattern La Nina – all point toward excursions of the Polar Vortex southward. And these frigid cold zones can get stuck or “blocked” over land for longer periods. This may not be your grandfather’s winter anymore.
WHEN WILL REAL EXTREME FLOODS COME?
Extreme rains are flooding the Earth. Actually, only part of that is true. Recently with UCLA guest Jesse Norris, scientists confidently confirm extreme precipitation events ARE increasing in recent decades. The trouble is: despite vivid media footage of cars floating down streets, the actual numbers do not show a corresponding increase in floods. Why not? To plan the future, and understand possible disasters, we have new science with an explanation and a warning.
Our guide is the lead author of the new study. Dr. Manuela Brunner got her Masters in Climate Sciences at the University of Bern Switzerland, and then a Doctorate in Geography at University of Zürich. Now she is a Lecturer at University of Freiburg, Germany – focusing on hydrological extremes and water resources.
Dr. Manuela Brunner, University of Freiburg
We focus on this Open Access paper published in Nature Communications Earth & Environment, August 26, 2021: “An extremeness threshold determines the regional response of floods to changes in rainfall extremes”.
One of the co-authors of this new study is Daniel Swain who runs the well-known Weather_West Twitter feed. Daniel Tweeted this useful summary of your new paper, quote:
“This result is striking, since it suggests that while smaller floods may *decrease*, the largest and most destructive #floods will likely *increase*–meaning the sign of flood hydrologic response to #ClimateChange likely depends on event intensity!”
1/New work aimed at resolving the "extreme precipitation-#flood paradox" in warming #climate, led by @ManuelaIBrunner (@UniFreiburg) & including co-authors @Weather_West (@UCLAIoES), @Climate_Done (@C3WE_NCAR), is now out in @CommsEarth (open access!). https://t.co/n6NR4FEfPd
— Daniel Swain (@Weather_West) August 26, 2021
LEAD AUTHOR TWITTER THREAD ON THE PAPER
Our new study on the varying #flood response to increases in precipitation #extremes in a warming #climate co-authored by @Weather_West, @Climate_Done, and collaborators at @LMU_Muenchen is now out in @CommsEarth and available open access: https://t.co/pFgR0Dd4nz
— Manuela I. Brunner (@ManuelaIBrunner) August 26, 2021
This suggests so much. We imagine a government planner who sees more extreme rains, but not anything unusual in floods. So why would the government spend millions on flood protection, when so far, not much new has happened? But those floods will come more and more often – as the threshold for what land can absorb is crossed.
In the middle of July 2021, strange and deadly floods tore through towns in Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Poland. Remember too the widespread 2013 floods along the Danube River. But given the increasing extreme rainfall events, we might have expected even worse.
In November 2020, Manuela delivered a webinar on “Regional Floods in the US“. She worked as a PostDoc researcher at NCAR, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. I asked her how much of their results in Germany would apply to the United States. While more study is needed, the authors are confident this process of rain/flood thresholds will work all over the world, of course with variations according to geography.
OTHER PAPERS OF INTEREST WITH BRUNNER:
Brunner, M. I., E. Gilleland, and A. W. Wood (2021).
“Space-time dependence of compound hot-dry events in the United States: assessment using a multi-site multi-variable weather generator. “ Earth System Dynamics, 12, 621–634, doi:10.5194/esd-12-621-2021
This is a highly technical paper. It stretches science to investigate relatively rare but high impact compound weather events where both heat and drought connect in one place. People in the American West and South certainly experience these harsh times. It hit the U.S. Southeast a few years ago, and most of the West in 2021. But such events have been impossible to include in climate models and forecasts, something this paper tries to address.
AND THIS PAPER, ALSO LED BY BRUNNER 2021
Brunner, M. I., L. Slater, L. M. Tallaksen, and M. Clark (2021). “Challenges in modeling and predicting floods and droughts: A review.”
In these papers we see not only the difficulties of forecasting both drought and floods, but how little we know about them. Large scale climate models work on long-term trends and are almost blind to the spectacular events that actually shape our lives more. Brunner and her colleagues are working to illuminate those processes, so we can begin to plan adaptation, and at least have some warning to save people or crops…?
Thank you for reading/listening again this week. Each show takes many hours of research and preparation. If you can help pay the costs, and some of my bills, while producing Radio Ecoshock, your help would be appreciated. Find out more here.