Although all eyes were focused on the “Three Amigos” summit t in Washington, in fact the big news of the day was the rapid developments in the global market for liquid natural gas (LNG). To date the conventional wisdom has been that while oil can move fairly easily across the oceans in tankers, natural gas was a much tougher slog. The gas must be liquefied, which means huge conversion terminals at both ends. It seemed like a monumental task that might take decades. Yet in a huge burst of activity, projects are being proposed around the globe and a market is taking shape right before our eyes. The Philippines announced it will open an LNG terminal at Quezon by next year. The Ukraine proudly proclaimed that a new terminal in Kiev will free it from the “monopoly” of its Russian gas pipeline. The West Coast of Canada is becoming a hotbed of gas exports and Dallas’s Energy Transfer Equity will begin the long, arduous process of applying for a US permit to build a terminal at Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Just to emphasize how fast this market is growing, Petronas, the government-owned Malaysian giant that has built the world’s tallest buildings (above), has announced it is prepared to spend $5 billion to acquire gas fields in western Canada. Petronas already has a $1 billion deal to buy a 50 percent interest in Progress Energy’s British Columbian properties and rumors are that the $5 billion could go to taking over the whole company. Progress denied any such deal was in the works but its stock jumped anyway. Petronas CEO Shamsul Abhar Abbas said the Asian petrochemical giant was seeking sure supplies in a stable country after being spooked by the international effort to isolate Iran. Isn’t that interesting? It used to be Western countries that were seeking raw materials in Asia. Now it’s the other way around.
Meanwhile, back at that Three Amigos summit, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made no bones that his country is no longer interested in being the “captive” of a country that may believe oil is a “fuel of the past.” He told US reporters that Canadian tar sands oil is going to Asia regardless of whether the US eventually accepts the Keystone Pipeline or not. The subject didn’t come up at the summit but the three chiefs of state did talk about building a “continental grid” that would tie the three countries’ electric circuit together.
Almost completely unnoticed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4-to-1 last Friday to issue a construction license to South Carolina Gas & Electric’s two new reactors at the Virgil C. Summer site. The reactors, believe it or not, will be built without federal loan guarantees. They represent the third and fourth reactors approved by the NRC in the last six weeks. Chairman Gregory Jaczko, originally appointed at the insistence of Senator Harry Reid in order to block the Yucca Mountain project, is emerging as the Commission’s oppositional voice in permitting new construction. For the second time, Jaczko voted against the license approval. Jaczko also warned he might fight even harder against issuing a license to Progress Energy’s two St. Lucie reactors, which are next on the agenda at the NRC. Meanwhile, both Russia and China indicated they might be interesting in filling the role two German utilities have just abandoned in building new reactors in the United Kingdom.
Finally, Apple has announced it will give fuel cells a big boost by powering its new North Carolina data center with the technology. Apple will reportedly buy 4.8 megawatts of fuel cells from Bloom Energy and power them with methane extracted from landfills. Apple has already built a 20-MW solar installation at the Maiden, NC plant but is reportedly finding that solar electricity isn’t ideal for powering data centers. The biogas cells will still keep the “green” label since the proposition is that methane from landfills would escape into the atmosphere anyway. In the fuel cell, the methane will be split into carbon and hydrogen, with water and captured carbon dioxide as the only by-product. Meanwhile, chemists at Cornell University say they have employed nanotechnology to develop porous metals with up to 1,000 times the electrical conductivity, which may open the door to huge improvements in fuel cells and other applications.