In my last post, I recounted some of the indications that have surfaced over the last decade that US coal reserves might not be as large as we think. The work done by the USGS assessing our reserves, and more recently comments from the coal industry themselves cast doubt on the common refrain that the US is “the Saudi Arabia of coal” and the idea that we have a couple of centuries worth of the fuel just laying around, waiting to be burned. As it turns out, the US isn’t alone in having potentially unreliable reserve numbers. Over the decades, many other major coal producing nations have also dramatically revised their reserve estimates.
Internationally the main reserve compilations are done by the UN’s World Energy Council (WEC) and to some degree also the German equivalent of the USGS, known as the BGR. Virtually all global (publicly viewable) statistics on fossil fuel reserves are traceable back to one of those two agencies. For instance, the coal reserve numbers in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) 2011 World Energy Outlook came from the BGR; the numbers in BP’s most recent Statistical Review of Energy came from the WEC.
Of course, both the WEC and the BGR are largely dependent on numbers reported by national agencies (like the USGS, the EIA and the SEC in the case of the US), who compile data directly from state and regional geologic survey and mining agencies, fossil fuel consumers, producers, and the markets that they make up.
Looking back through the years at internationally reported coal reserve numbers, it’s surprisingly common to see big discontinuous revisions. Below are a few examples from the WEC Resource Surveys going back to 1950, including some of the world’s largest supposed coal reserve holders. In all cases, the magnitude of the large reserve revisions is much greater than annual coal production can explain.
A good short profile of the city of Freiburg, Germany, and their many sustainability initiatives. Freiburg is a little more than double Boulder’s size — both in population and area, so it has a similar average population density. It’s also a university town with a strong tech sector locally. The whole city was re-built post WWII, but they chose to build it along the same lines as the old city, with a dense core, and well defined boundaries. Today about half of daily trips are done by foot or on bike, with another 20% on public transit. They have a local energy efficiency finance program, on top of the national one administered by KfW, and higher building efficiency standards than Germany as a whole. Half their electricity comes from combined heat and power facilities that also provide district heating and hot water. It seems like they’d be a good model city to compare Boulder to, and learn from.
Passive Passion is a good 20 minute long film introduction to the German Passivhaus energy efficiency standard, which reduces building energy use by 80-95% (depending on what existing code you compare it to). It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a few examples from the tens of thousands of Passivhaus certified buildings in Europe, including single family homes, row houses, apartment buildings, public low income housing, and office buildings. They talk about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation. The film also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize the cost effective implementation of these methods. It’s clearly possible. The examples are out there today. We just have to decide to do it! If we’re going to get to carbon zero, someday our buildings will all have to function something like this.
A presentation from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, exploring Why Rooftop PV is so much cheaper in Germany than the US. Their feed-in tariff started out quite generous, and has declined predictably over the last several years, which has resulted in the rooftop PV market growing enormously, while installers have been forced to dramatically reduce costs. To the point where today, it’s about half the cost per-watt-installed to get PV in Germany that it is in the US. The physical hardware is the same price, but the process is much easier, and the businesses involved in it much leaner. Good old fashioned German engineering at work, but in the policy realm.
In Berlin, Pirates have won 9% of the vote, and now have 15 seats in the city-state’s legislature. This kind of gradual integration of supposedly “fringe” issues into mainstream politics is valuable, and also impossible in an electoral system like the US has.
A scathing review of an official German government trojan by the Chaos Computer Club. They decompiled the binaries and reverse-engineered the software, and found that not only did it fail to comply with the German constitutional court’s mandate to limit its capabilities, but was so poorly designed and secured as to enable “even attackers of mediocre skill” to completely compromise any machine on which it had been installed. Clearly not the best of German engineering!
A short video from German home fabricator Hanse House. They do both stock and custom homes, but both are fabricated off-site. The video shows their production facility, and some of the techniques for putting together a building in pieces. It’s pretty awesome. Half robotic assembly line, and half humans, building to what’s essentially a CAD specification, with pipes and wires already laid in place within the structural elements before it gets loaded on the truck that takes it off to the building — or rather assembly — site, where the foundation awaits:
And here’s a time-lapse of one of their Passive Houses being assembled on-site:
I wonder if they do multi-family buildings too. What it would take to get a facility like this operating in Boulder County? Other than a rebound in the housing industry of course.