Canadian warning for Oz energy future

CANADA'S status as an energy superpower is under threat as the global dominance of fossil fuels could wane faster than previously believed, according to a draft report from a Canadian government think tank – conclusions which could hold true for Australia, a chilling sentiment as the good and the great of the oil patch head into APPEA 2016 in Brisbane next week.
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Haydn Black

Reporter

The 32-page document, produced by Policy Horizons Canada in March, found "it is increasingly plausible to foresee a future in which cheap renewable electricity becomes the world's primary power source and fossil fuels are relegated to a minority status".

The PHC provides medium-term policy advice to the federal bureaucracy, and intends to anticipate potential changes in the world, and explore ways the Canadian government can react to then.

The document, obtained via a freedom of information request by CBC News, was described as being in line with the increasing consensus in the wake of the COP21 conference in Paris.

University of Calgary's School of Public Policy Michal Moore described the 10-20 year forecasts as "realistic" while the CEO of Evok Innovations — a Vancouver-based cleantech fund created through a $C100 million partnership with oil sands firms Cenovus Energy and Suncor Energy, Marty Reed described the conclusions as "not even controversial, it's very well accepted".

Unlike Australia, Ottawa has some significant policy decisions, such as the approval of the massive LNG projects at either end of the country, and pipeline expansions, such as a $US5.4 billion expansion to its 60-year-old Trans Mountain pipeline, that would allow expansion of the oil sands flows from 300,000bopd to 890,000bopd, whereas Canberra's plate is considerably emptier.

Australia's government seems keen to see the controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland go ahead, and recently approved Gorgon Train 4 out to 2070, while Canada is taking its time on approving big ticket items, but enthusiasm for both of those develops appears to have waned.

The PHC document urges caution when it comes to governments backing long-term investments in pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure saying they "could be at high risk of becoming economically unviable as prices in renewable electricity further decline".

It suggests that if projects are to be approved, at a minimum the financial risks should be borne by private interests rather than taxpayers.

The risk is that there is a growing number of indicators suggesting that growth in the world's demand for electricity will outpace other energy types, while the costs of its production and storage fall faster than previously believed, and demand is likely to be filled by renewables.

Wind and solar systems have the advantage of being "highly scalable and distributable", the report found, making them appealing for communities of virtually any size, with or without an existing electrical grid, the report found.

As a result, emerging economies in Latin America and Africa may follow a different development path than the West and "leap-frog" directly to renewables as a primary energy source in a relatively short timeframe.

"Although any individual country may lack the optimal conditions for every type of renewable electricity, all countries are likely to have at least one or more options to produce electricity from renewables that will be cost comparative or cheaper than generation by fossil fuels," the report said.

There are already signs of that with Saudi Arabia and Mexico awarding major solar contracts for less than five cents per kilowatt hour, although it remains to be seen if that pricing is sustainable over time, particularly if, not when, subsidies are removed.

The report found that battery storage, although it would require more lithium and vanadium, is advancing rapidly, and that Tesla Motors, which is about to open its giant factory in Nevada, is now producing lithium-ion batteries for both cars and homes at a cost of roughly $US300 per kilowatt hour - a price point the International Energy Agency previously predicted wouldn't be possible until the year 2020.

"Battery manufacturers in Asia are building battery factories at similar scales to Tesla's Gigafactory that will triple battery production by 2020," the report said, warning that economies of scale that could see the cost of batteries halve by 2020, making electric vehicles competitive with those powered by internal combustion engines.

Moore told CBC one area he was concerned with was the glossing over the scaling up of challenges that still exist with renewable energy, because renewables do not substitute fossil technologies one-to-one.

But Reed told the broadcaster that while cars need energy-dense batteries, the grid merely needs low-cost energy storage systems, such as the Advanced Rail Energy Storage project under development in Nevada or pumped hydro storage.

Either way, PHC said oil demand could peak sooner than expected, and that oil, coal and natural gas could lose their commodity status, although oil will retain a role with a significant component of the global mix, at least in the near future, particularly for non-transportation uses such as plastics and specialty agriculture chemicals.

And, where goes Canada, so follows Australia.

But, while the PHC report found Canada was missing in the metals that could become more valuable than oil, such as rare metals and lithium, Australia is in good a good place to profit from the lithium book.

In the medium term, a further downturn in demand for fossil fuels would have a significant impact on the local economy.

Australia's Office of the Chief Economist calculated that in 2014, selected resource and energy exports comprising iron ore, metallurgical coal, LNG, thermal coal and gold totalled $135 billion as the high volume of investment over the past decade has begun to translate into new production capacity.

And while the inevitable over-supply has tempered prices, value of resource and energy exports remain at or near all-time highs.

Oil, gas and energy resources concerns employed around 111,000 direct jobs and added $A54.9 billion to the economy between 2014-2015, and it is hard to see how the Australian economy could transform to the PHC environment out without near-term pain.

While iron ore is by far the nation's biggest money spinner, $72 billion per annum, LNG has hit $42 billion pa, coal brings in $33 billion (metallurgical and thermal) and oil a mere $1 billion, as the nation produces less than half of domestic demand.

Metals today (gold, copper, nickel, Zinc and uranium) bring in about $28 billion.

Australia's chief economist expects Australia's LNG exports will triple by 2021, driven by strong demand in Asia, but there will be fierce competition in an increasingly fragmented and less predictable marketplace.

Prospects for new supply other than projects already committed will remain limited, despite approvals for expansions to projects such as Gorgon and Ichthys.

In terms of oil, Australia produced 340,000 barrels of crude oil and condensate a day in the December quarter, down 5.5% on a year-on-year basis largely the result of lower production from the Gippsland Basin Joint Venture, which was affected by industrial action related to a new enterprise agreement.

Of that, exports fell 11% to 270,000bopd, although a small uptick is expected out to 2019 as condensate associated with LNG production increases output, plus Woodside Petroleum has a number of big oil developments on the North West Shelf it is considering developing.

But, beyond the Browse floating LNG project, and developments such as Crux, many of the nation's liquids projects have been developed already, and there is little exploration to generate the next wave of developments.

The chief economist believes oil production will fall to below the December 2015 level in 2020-21.

Likewise, the outlook for growth in Australia's thermal coal exports is moderate because of lower or slowing import demand in major importing countries such as China, Japan and India, and slowing domestic production.

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